Over the weekend I had a conversation with a friend who has served on several committees for the LDS church putting together instructional manuals for priesthood and auxiliary manuals. We talked about how the Joseph Smith presented by the church has always been like George Washington, Superman, and Jesus rolled into one. He agreed with me that the portrayals of Joseph Smith have been far too slanted and unrealistic.
We discussed how a lot of people are shocked when they discover that the real Joseph Smith bears little resemblance to the correlated Joseph, and a number of people end up leaving the church because of the disconnect. He said that he’d worked with “probably more than a hundred people” who had come to him for help, but he gave them the same answer he gave me: Joseph Smith was who he was, but the church he founded is good and benefits the world.
I suppose that’s the only answer an honest person can give because Joseph Smith wasn’t a particularly truthful or moral man. When I said I thought the church should at least acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and make him less of a figure to be spoken of in awe, my friend said he had tried many times in his committee assignments to make that same point and get the church to open up a little about who Joseph Smith was. But he said that he got absolutely nowhere with the church or the committees.
So, for the time being, the church appears to be taking the Boyd Packer approach: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” In my view, this is a mistake, but then I don’t imagine the church cares what I think. At some point, more than a few Mormons will be confronted with their church’s real history, and a lot will be shaken in their faith, perhaps enough to leave the church.
To me, this circling of the wagons suggests that church leaders do not yet understand just how completely they have lost control of their message. Several leaders mentioned “exaggerated or invented” information on the Internet, presumably as a warning to members not to believe what they read (this is the Chico Marx defense: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”). Of course, the problem is that a great deal of information is neither exaggerated nor invented; worse yet, I can imagine that more than a few people who heard those talks will be thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder what he’s talking about,” and venture out into the demonic recesses of the Internet.
In the long run, the LDS church has no choice but to open up if it wants to survive as a belief system and not just an institution. For the time being, however, it seems to have chosen to circle the wagons and pretend that the official, squeaky-clean version of itself is the correct one.