I have watched with some amusement as a well-known Mormon apologist has tried fruitlessly to claim that polygamy is not a doctrine of the LDS church, even though the doctrine is clearly spelled out in Doctrine and Covenants section 132. She prefers to take a throwaway comment from late Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley as a clear repudiation of scripture.
As strange as this seems to me, it makes sense to me in light of most Mormons I know. When you have such a broad and rich set of scriptures and doctrines and prophetic statements, you can find support for just about any belief you wish to have. Thus, Brigham Young’s vehemence in proclaiming that Adam is God our Father can be denounced by Bruce McConkie a century later as a damnable heresy. Past statements from prophets regarding race, such as Spencer Kimball’s palpable joy at the whitening of certain Native Americans, can likewise be dismissed as personal opinion.
The correlation program, which began in the early 1970s, attempted to rein in the more fantastic interpretations, but there is still a lot of leeway in what people believe. I have met, for example, people who believe that the lost tribes of Israel live in a giant cave-world beneath arctic ice, and one woman I know believes that God has a body, but it’s huge, else how could he speak of the earth as his “footstool.” She really believes that his feet are big enough to rest on the earth.
Most of this is pretty harmless, but sometimes I’m surprised at what people can and do profess as “doctrine.” Take, for instance, the “tent-city” folks I’ve talked about before. These people are publicly preaching prophecies that, according to church doctrine, they have no right to receive. Similarly, the Bo Gritz/John Birch Society crowd has loudly proclaimed that the international communist conspiracy is taught in the Book of Mormon.
These people can and do preach their off-kilter beliefs, but others can’t. Women who believe that they should have the priesthood have been silenced and disciplined. Those who advocate tolerance for gays have been ridiculed and demonized from the pulpit.
So, where does one draw the line on acceptable belief? If you think of the variety of Mormon beliefs as a large circle, there seems to be an outer ring, which when one passes it, is out of bounds. The obvious no-no is publicly speaking out against the church leadership, even if it is meant helpfully and charitably. Dallin Oaks famously said that it was wrong to criticize the leadership, even if the criticism is right. Lavina Anderson found this out when she tried to act as a sort of unofficial ombudsman to document cases of ecclesiastical malfeasance in order to nudge the church toward better and more responsive leadership. She was excommunicated.
Despite Boyd Packer’s call for people all to be facing the same direction, most people in the church mold the church into a working paradigm, and that paradigm is different for every church member. I suspect that Joseph Fielding Smith and Lowell Bennion would not have seen the same church, though both were officially members of the LDS church. Bennion would have seen an inclusive and liberal church, whereas Smith would have seen a rigid and conservative church. Both were welcome, at least somewhat (Bennion was blacklisted from being mentioned in church publications).
The correlation program appears to be an attempt to reduce the amount of material one can choose, but Mormonism will probably never be the doctrinal monolith that it has attempted to create.