I finally got around to watching the BBC This World segment, “The Mormon Candidate.” I’m always fascinated by outsiders’ take on Mormonism, so I thought I’d give my perspective on this piece.
The notion that the Republican Party has become the party of Evangelical Christians is spot on, as is the statement that the LDS church “craves respectability.” But slick ad campaigns and political alliances in such matters as same-sex marriage do not change the deep distrust and hostility of many Evangelical conservatives towards Mormonism as a religion and Mormons as individuals. Ironically, then, Mormons are trying to gain the respect of the people who are least likely to respect them.
I am always a little annoyed at the focus on polygamy, but then that is what set Mormonism apart for its first sixty years. But I thought it was interesting that the presenter, John Sweeney, described polygamists as “people the church seems to be afraid of,” which is a fair statement. Later in the program, Apostle Jeffrey Holland describes the Strengthening the Church Members Committee as being designed to “protect” the church from polygamists (more on that later). Seeing the polygamists just reminds me of the legacy of one man’s need for power, sex, and money.
Saratoga Springs mayor Mia Love comes across as a nice person and the perfect choice for the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, and most of the ex-Mormons, such as my friend Jeff Ricks, seem like genuine, decent people. Unfortunately, the official church, in the form of PR flack Michael Purdy and Apostle Jeffrey Holland, does not fare so well. Sweeney explains the obvious mistranslation of the Kirtland Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham, and Holland immediately becomes defensive, stammering about how all that matters is that what was translated was divine. When Sweeney mentions Joseph Smith’s 1826 trial for being a “juggler” (a term meaning “con man” in the early nineteenth century), Holland says “that’s an incidental matter to the character and integrity of the man.” Seriously?
Presenter Sweeney brings up the penalties that were part of the temple endowment until 1990 and says Mitt Romney presumably would have sworn that oath at the penalty of slitting his throat. The exchange is as fascinating as it is disappointing:
Sweeney: As a Mormon, in the temple, I’ve been told, [Mitt Romney] would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple, lest he slit his throat. Is that true?
Holland: That’s not true. That’s not true. We do not have penalties in the temple.
Sweeney: You used to.
Holland: We used to.
Sweeney: Therefore, he swore an oath saying, I will not tell anyone about the secrets here, lest I slit my throat.
Holland: Well, the-the-the vow that was made was regarding the ordinance–the ordinance of the temple.
Sweeney: It sounds Masonic, Sir. It sounds Masonic.
Holland: Well, it’s compara–it’s similar to a Masonic, uh, relationship.
Sweeney: The most powerful–potentially the most powerful man in the world has sworn an oath, which he meant at the time, whatever it is now, that he must not tell anyone about what he’s seen, lest he slit his throat.
Holland: That he would not tell anyone about his personal pledge to the Lord. I’m assuming that any religious candidate, an Evangelical, a Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, uh, Osama–I mean, uh, President Obama–uh, I’m assuming that anybody who has a relationship to God has made a pledge of some kind to God. There’s–there’d be some kind of loyalty to God, or what kind of God is that?
I’m still shaking my head over this. I’ll let readers decide whether Holland’s statements are accurate. Here is the relevant portion of the pre-1990 endowment:
We will now give unto you the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty. Before doing this, however, we desire to impress upon your minds the sacred character of the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty, as well as that of all the other tokens of the Holy Priesthood, with their names, signs, and penalties, which you will receive in the temple this day. They are most sacred, and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy to the effect that under no condition, even at the peril of your life, will you ever divulge them, except at a certain place that will be shown you hereafter. The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken. …
The execution of the Penalty is represented by placing the thumb under the left ear, the palm of the hand down, and by drawing the thumb quickly across the throat to the right ear, and dropping the hand to the side.
I will now explain the covenant and obligation of secrecy which are associated with this token, its name, sign and penalty, and which you will be required to take upon yourselves. If I were receiving my own Endowment today, and had been given the name of “John” as my New Name, I would repeat in my mind these words, after making the sign at the same time representing the execution of the penalty:
“I, John, covenant that I will never reveal the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty. Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.”
Does that sound like a simple pledge of loyalty to God? Does anyone believe that, say, Santorum, Gingrich, and Obama have made any comparable promises?
Holland–and Purdy–really stumble when they are asked about the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. For those who aren’t familiar with this group, it is an organization within the Church Office Building that monitors apostates, critics, and anyone else unofficial who has something to say about the LDS church. In 1992, church spokesman Don LeFevre said that the committee “receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that ‘conceivably could do harm to the church,'” then the committee will “pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader.” According to LeFevre, however, “the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.” Discipline is “entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders.” In 1992 or 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building, I was introduced to the head of the committee, and if memory serves, his name was Bill Nelson, who was incidentally the author of the Anti-Mormon Publications section of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I was told at the time that the committee was essentially as LeFevre described and was a “clipping service” to take note of any hostile publications or efforts against the church.
The committee was pretty much unknown until the leaking of Bishop Glenn Pace’s 1990 report to the committee on allegations of Satanic ritual abuse within the church. But the committee became well known after the September 1993 church disciplinary action against six church members, who came to be known as the “September Six.” From what I know about this case, clearly local leaders were given information by the central church leadership (Boyd K. Packer is said to have been behind much of this), and presumably the information came from the committee.
So when the BBC presenter asked about the committee, one would have expected Holland and Purdy to acknowledge the existence of the committee and its purpose. But apparently that is too much to ask for. Here’s Purdy’s interview:
Sweeney: What’s the Strengthening the Church Members Committee, and does it still exist?
Purdy: I don’t know, and I’m not–I guess that’s a question not for me. I couldn’t tell you that. I don’t know.
Sweeney: You’re the head of media relations for the church.
Sweeney: And I’ve spoken to people, um, ex-members of the church, who say, um, the Strengthening the Church Members Committee does exist. Does it still exist?
Purdy: I–uh–I–I–I’ve heard that, yeah, there is a Strengthening the Church Members Committtee, but I couldn’t tell you the details of how that works, but we’d be happy to provide someone that can.
Sweeney: Sorry for my confusion. When I originally asked you, you weren’t sure. Now you do know that it exists and you will give me somebody who knows something about it.
Sweeney tells us that Purdy’s answer was not satisfactory, so he would be bring it up with Elder Holland:
Sweeney: What is the Strengthening the Church Members Committee?
Holland: The Strengthening the Church Members Committee was born some years ago to protect predatory practices of polygamists [nice alliteration, btw].
Sweeney: I asked, What is it?
Holland: Oh, that’s what it is.
Sweeney: So, it does still exist.
Holland: It does still exist. It does still exist.
Sweeney: And it looks at, uh–it’s there to defend the church against polygamists.
Holland: Principally. That is still the principal task.
Sweeney: And what is its subsidiary task?
Holland: Uh, I suppose just to be protective generally, just to watch and care for any, uh, any insidious influence. But for all intents and purposes, all that I know about it is primarily to guard against polygamy. That would be the substantial, essential part of their work. I’m not on that committee, so I can’t speak.
It’s amazing to me that the church spokesman in 1992 confirmed the purposes and activities of the committee, but in 2012, neither an apostle or the current spokesman can tell us anything about it. I have known about the committee for almost twenty years. Does anyone believe that I know more about the committee than an apostle or official spokesman?
I was pleased to hear this exchange with Elder Holland:
Sweeney: Does the Mormon church shun people who leave?
Holland: No, no, of course, we don’t. We don’t use that word, and we don’t know that practice. If I had a son, this very day, given the office that I have and the visibility that means–if I had a son or a daughter who left the church, was alienated, or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life.
Of course, many former Mormons have been cut out of family life, lost friends, and even suffered financially or in their careers because they have left the church. But it is nice to hear an apostle say that such things should not happen.
I have nothing against Elder Holland. I met him once many years ago when I was a student at BYU, and he was gracious and kind, and we had a good conversation. And let me also say that I am pretty skeptical of claims that the church follows people or bugs their phones, and such. I will say that I used to get regular hits on my blog from the Church Office Building, and when I mentioned that in a blog post, the hits stopped, but I started getting traffic from the “More Good Foundation,” which is a group of church members dedicated to essentially the same mission as the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. According to their web site, the foundation functions “as a solution to the overwhelming need for increased positive and accurate information about the LDS faith on the Internet.” They have aggressively gone after critics of the church, apparently with the blessing of the church, which often plugs the foundation in its newspaper, The Deseret News. After I mentioned the More Good Foundation, hits from that organization also stopped, leaving me to believe they’re probably still checking in using different IP addresses. So, if you’re reading this, please don’t contact my bishop (just kidding).
In summary, what I liked about the BBC piece was that Sweeney had obviously done his homework. American TV interviewers don’t ask about the SCMC, the Book of Abraham, or temple penalties, and you could see it in the faces of Purdy and Holland that they weren’t expecting to be challenged in that way. I wish they had been more honest and forthcoming, not least because anyone watching that interview can spend five minutes on the Internet and learn the truth. They simply can’t control the message anymore, and there really are only two options: continue dissembling, or act with complete honesty. So far, at least, they are sticking with the former.