Continuing my comments on Mormon Matters Episode 12: Inoculating the Saints, I will now address some of the arguments made by the panelists at the Sunstone Symposium. Thanks to those who commented on my earlier remarks both here and at the New Order Mormon discussion board and the Further Light and Knowledge discussion board.
After downplaying the vexatiousness of the problems the LDS Church faces, the panelist talked about tolerance for different religious ideas and expressed his opinion that everyone has ideas that are likened to diseases and we are all constantly trying to infect each other with our idea-diseases. This echoes a notion expressed by Boyd Packer in a speech he gave in the early 1980s in which he warned church educators against catching and spreading disease germs. In Packer's opinion, historical facts that might threaten a basic Mormon testimony are considered disease germs to be avoided. In a later talk, Packer reiterated his call to avoid teaching truths that were not useful in favor of those that were "faith-promoting." Though the panelist did not invoke Packer, I couldn't help thinking that Packer would approve of this germ-based view of ideas and human interactions. It wasn't clear to me, though, exactly what the point was. If the speaker was saying that the "inoculation" under discussion was an inoculation against the disease germs of false ideas and anti-Mormon lies, he misses the point.
The inoculation is designed to protect not against opposing ideologies but rather against the effects of a church member discovering information about the church that was previously unknown and then feeling a sense of betrayal at the hands of the church that neglected to share the information.
After some irrelevant comments about loyalty and the dangers of being too tolerant of others' ideas, the panelist (I believe it was Michael Ash) spoke to the question of whether the church has always been forthcoming in its presentation of its own history. Ash used the "people used to write romantic histories that made heroes out of people" excuse for the church's idealized accounts. He also (arguing in the alternative, I suppose) used the "church is not hiding anything" argument that Blake Ostler later enthusiastically picked up and expanded upon, and cited a list of perhaps a dozen or so mentions in church magazines, talks, or manuals of controversial issues. The implication is that the church keeps trying to tell the members about all these difficult issues but the members are willfully ignorant as they continue to believe that Joseph Smith was a monogamist who never drank alcohol even when he was in great pain and who translated the gold plates as they sat on the table in full view of him and Oliver Cowdery.
I guess I should not be too critical of this approach. After all, there really are only two basic possibilities here. The first possibility is that the LDS church has not been forthright and fully open and honest in the way it presents its message to the members, in which case those who encounter the difficult issues are justified in feeling a sense of betrayal. The second possibility is that the LDS church has been completely honest and forthright in the presentation of its message, and those who encounter difficult issues from sources other than the church have only themselves to blame for their own prior ignorance about the thorny issues. Ash and Ostler argue the latter and in doing so apologize for the church's handling of these issues. If they are correct, and any 10th grader could find out all he or she needed about the Adam-God theory, the problems with the Book of Abraham translation, the changes to the temple ceremonies, the multiple First Vision accounts, and so forth, then there really is no need for any inoculation. Simply blame the members who feel betrayed for their own slothfulness and lack of faith and let the great church caravan move onward. (I guess there could be some middle-way between these two points, as I am sure my NOM readers would quickly point out. Yes, it's possible that both the church and its members bear some proportionate responsibility. For a number of reasons, I think the church bears the much greater proportion of responsibility for the members not knowing about the thorny issues).
I think it will surprise none of my readers if I say that I respectfully disagree with both Ash and Ostler on this point. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the LDS church has systematically tried to cover up its less-than-faith-promoting historical and doctrinal issues over the last several decades. Ash's list of references in official church publications, in comparison to the great bulk of instructional and informational material published and broadcast by the church over the last 35 years or so, is embarrassingly sparse. I'd be interested in seeing a comparison of the number of references made in church materials over the same period to some other non-central church topics. Take tithing, for example. It's not a core gospel doctrine and it is not related to any of the foundational faith claims of the LDS church. But I think it so obvious that it needs no elaborate proof to say that there are more references to tithing in church materials than to, say, the varying First Vision accounts or to Joseph's plural wives (and one could argue, plausibly, that Joseph's practice of plural marriage is much more central to the restored gospel than tithing). When the church wants the saints to understand a concept, it finds ways to effectively instruct them on it. And when it wants to correct what it thinks are errors in thinking, it finds a way to correct them. If the majority of the saints operate under the mistaken impression that Joseph Smith was not a polygamist and that polygamy was instituted to take care of the widows who lost their husbands in the Missouri wars of persecution or crossing the plains, surely the church could correct the misimpression.
The panelist then offered some dubious statistics about the level of ignorance in the general population of the United States as a whole. The problem, though, is not that the Latter-day Saints are entirely ignorant and unwilling or unable to learn. That idea truly is an insult to all those who have, like John Dehlin as a seminary teacher, gone looking for more information, only to find much more than expected. The problem is not that the saints don't know anything about their religion; it's that what they know just isn't so. And the source of the misinformation is not "anti-Mormon lies": it is, sadly, the church the members trust to be "honest in all its dealings" with the members. It is the betrayal of that trust that is the real issue.
It's kind of like a man who cheats on his wife and keeps the secret hidden and expends tremendous energy trying to keep it hidden.The best thing for him to do--the honest thing, the morally right thing--is to apologize for the cheating and promise not to do it again. The more he cheats and the longer he keeps it secret, the greater the betrayal. Having cheated, there is no way he can "inoculate" his wife against her feeling of having been betrayed once she finds out. But it would still be better for her to find out from him than from some other source. Likewise, there is no way for the church to avoid the damage that comes to those who feel betrayed, because the betrayal itself is real and has already occurred and there is nothing the church can do now to turn back the clock and undo the things it has done that constitute the betrayal. It can't unburn the primary documents relating to the Mountain Meadows Massacre that it disposed of; it can't change the fact that it purchased numerous historical documents (some authentic, some forged) not to preserve them for study by scholars but to hide them in a vault reserved for the eyes of the First Presidency alone; it can't change the fact that it excommunicated reputable historians and scholars not for teaching falsehoods but for publishing truth; it can't even change the fact that 3 members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called Blake Ostler in to interrogate him about a philosophical article he had published in an independent journal of Mormon thought. If the church had told the truth all along; if it had been open about its history all along; if it had listened to B.H. Roberts and adjusted the presentation of its message to comport with the facts as they were uncovered, there'd be no more need for inoculation than there is for a man who remained ever faithful to his wife. But since the church, like the cheating spouse, has already done the foul deed, it would be better to come clean, take the punishment, repent of its former wrongs, and start afresh with a new commitment. Just as some spouses will forgive their husbands and work to heal a wounded marriage, so too would many saints forgive the church and work to renew their faith and trust in the organization. Others, despite the church's humble apologies for past transgressions, would walk away. A man who betrays his wife faces the dilemma: hide it and expend energy maintaining the lie and worry about the damage that will be done if his wife finds out or come clean, take his lumps, eat some humble pie and try his best to mitigate the damage and then repair the breach in the relationship. The church faces the same crisis now.
Disaffected Mormons are like the jilted wife who finds out about the affair not from the cheating spouse but from her own investigation. And so far, the church has responded like the cheating husband who turns everything back on his faithful wife and accuses her of infidelity and breaking up the marriage by exposing the truth. The church has betrayed its members by suppressing its true history and manufacturing a Mormonism that is a mere replica of the real thing. The church can only rectify the situation that it created by coming clean, repenting, and asking for forgiveness from the members who have been wronged. But like a prideful adulterer, the church instead shifts the blame and continues to obfuscate, deflect, rationalize, and deceive. And that's the real problem--not that the members are too lazy or slothful or ignorant to know the truth.
More tomorrow. . .