Grant Palmer: A Personal Review of “A Personal Review”

March 31, 2014

This morning I was drawn to Jonathan Cannon’s review of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins:

An Insider’s View — A Personal Review

I should mention that I didn’t read Palmer’s book until well after I had left the church, so it was not instrumental at all in my exit, though it obviously has affected quite a lot of people. I should also mention that I don’t know Jonathan Cannon and had never heard of him before, so I have no prejudice for or against him.

Let me start with a quote from the review:

Academic authors are generally allowed to make their own interpretations, and it isn’t considered unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to not cite relevant sources, or provide people with resources to find out more about contested topics. As far as I can tell, Palmer cites many useful secondary sources, and can be used effectively as a starting point for a new student of Mormon history.

First of all, I am probably looking at this differently than Cannon is, but I don’t consider Palmer’s book to be an academic or even remotely “objective” review of the issues. Palmer’s intent, clearly stated several times, is to present the problematic issues clearly and succinctly so that a general audience can understand them. As Cannon writes:

First, I hope to alert the reader of An Insider’s View to a fact that Palmer doesn’t hide, but that is easily overlooked because of rhetorical choices made by the author; namely, that the history presented is a popular summary and consciously removes many real ambiguities in the historical record.

It seems a little odd to criticize Palmer for providing a “popular summary” when that’s exactly what Palmer says he is providing. Apparently, however, Palmer’s “rhetorical choices” lead the reader to forget the purpose of the book. I think most readers are smarter than that, but let’s take a look at what Cannon means. We get a glimpse of the problem here, when Cannon is discussing his reaction to some podcasts Palmer recorded:

 And then he presented conclusions with great confidence, as if the evidence compelled him to arrive there.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I think this is what Cannon is talking about when he refers to “rhetorical choices.” Cannon believes–and I agree with him–that the “evidence” (church history and origins in their non-Correlated form) doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief. If it did, there would be no apologists and no “faithful historians.” Palmer, like a lot of former Mormons, likely does feel that “the evidence compelled him to arrive” at unbelief, and I think he’s been pretty clear about this in everything I have read from him. For Cannon, that Palmer is at peace with his conclusions represents an “exaggerated confidence” that affects the contents of the book so much so that it invalidates Palmer’s conclusions. Palmer, he argues, “removes ambiguities” that would undercut his conclusions.

I agree that “ambiguities” and alternative narratives are not presented, but then I wouldn’t expect a non-scholarly summary to provide that at all (it is a short read, after all). What would be “unprofessional” in a peer-reviewed book or article is not so in a book written as a summary for a general audience. Cannon seems to find fault with Palmer for writing a book for a stated purpose while at the same time calling him “unprofessional” for not following the rules that would govern a book written for a different purpose. Cannon finds this quote to be a rhetorical device to shape the reader’s bias:

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school.

It’s difficult for me to find fault with this statement: there is “near-consensus on many of the details,” and the picture these details paint is indeed quite different from what we get in Correlated lesson manuals.

That said, in my view, the evidence is more ambiguous than what Palmer presents but less ambiguous than Cannon suggests. Let’s take one example. Multiple accounts from people who were involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon or in the house at the time indicate a process that was essentially a word-for-word dictation. Of course, no one could possibly know the process except for Joseph Smith. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

I happen to have read a little about this issue, and find Palmer’s removal of ambiguities problematic. This statement appears to imply that all of these individuals each reported all of these facts: that Joseph looked in his hat with a seer stone in it, and that he saw the words to speak word for word in the stones. The quotes that follow do support the stone and face in hat picture. We can be quite confident of this fact. What Joseph saw in the stones turns out to be highly ambiguous, historically. I think ambiguities, like this one at the very beginning, ultimately make Palmer’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith as a translator/revelator much weaker than Palmer’s confident narrative would lead a reader to believe. Instead of glossing over the ambiguities, this brief article examines some ambiguities of translation and the quality of the historical evidence in greater detail, and arrives at a different picture than Palmer. Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

Cannon seems to be arguing that the evidence in support of a word-for-word “dictation” process is ambiguous, but the article he links to doesn’t help him here. Three quotes (two from people involved or in close proximity to the translation process, one secondhand and 70 years removed) are given in the FARMS/MI article, all three of which support Palmer’s “near-consensus” that the process involved the words appearing in the seer stone. The author of the article, Stephen Ricks, tells us why he thinks that method is “problematical from a linguistic point of view,” but he gives no counterevidence except to quote a non-Mormon minister, who was not involved in any aspect of the translation process. And even then, the minister’s statement isn’t at all inconsistent with the “word by word” process, saying only that “the Holy Ghost would reveal to [Joseph] the translation in the English language.” Based on this rather poorly done apologetic article, Cannon damns Palmer as not allowing for a different process, even though there is nothing beyond Stephen Ricks’ linguistic objections to suggest such a different process.

Ultimately, no one knows what Joseph Smith saw or didn’t see, but the issue here is that most members of the church are completely unaware of Joseph’s “seer stone,” its provenance, or its role in the translation process. In short, whether anything came word for word is irrelevant to most people I know. Inventing some sort of ambiguity that you can see only when Stephen Ricks squints at it is hardly damaging to Palmer’s claims. But Cannon seems to think readers have been misled because Palmer promised “near-consensus” (he didn’t) and hid the ambiguous:

Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

I might agree had Cannon presented something here that led to a “variety of interpretations,” but he hasn’t.

Cannon mentions alternative theories for the production of the Book of Mormon. I have to admit I’m always puzzled about the apparent belief that critics must provide a comprehensive theory for the production of the book. Why is this necessary? It’s the text of the Book of Mormon that provides clues to its origins, no matter how it was produced, and as Cannon notes, the text makes perfect sense in a 19th-century context. Insisting that Palmer and other critics provide a production process makes about as much sense as insisting that, unless I know how it happened, I must accept that Gob Bluth really did make a yacht disappear.

I appreciate the compassion with which Cannon approaches people who feel “betrayed.” I don’t believe I fit in with that category, as I was well aware of the issues in church history for some 10 years before my exit, but I completely understand why people feel betrayed by a church that presented only a sanitized, Disney-like version of its history. The contrast with the known history can be quite jarring, to say the least. That Cannon acknowledges that the church has done things that would lead people to feel betrayed is commendable. He goes on:

To those of you who feel betrayed and would like a resolution that leads you back to trust in the LDS church, I would suggest a few kinds of questions I’ve picked up from literary theory, postmodern thought, and economics. A warning, I’m not an expert in any of these and so likely to be misapplying them.

As someone who studied literary theory, including postmodernism in grad school, I always cringe when people bring this into a discussion of Mormonism, so forgive me if I don’t take that seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people misuse postmodernism, from Blake Ostler to Juliann Reynolds and a lot of others, as if it provides a more mature, nuanced approach to Mormonism. It really doesn’t. Postmodernism asserts that “truth” is irrelevant, and even if there were some truth or reality, it would be inaccessible to humans precisely because being human distorts our perception of everything. Because postmodernism is skeptical of science’s ability to approach truth, Mormon apologists have seized on that skepticism to argue that a subjective, spiritual approach to truth is superior. What they aren’t telling us is that postmodernists would say that the spiritual approach is just as worthless as science and reason for arriving at truth. So, I am not sure what to make of his brief allusion to postmodern literary theory.

These questions don’t seem particularly rooted in postmodernism or literary theory, though the notion that there’s always an agenda behind every statement sort of touches on it. (By the way, an excellent discussion of the rhetorical purpose of historical writing is found in Hayden White’s Metahistory.)

That said,  I’ll take a stab at Cannon’s questions:

“What is the purpose of the history being taught (there may be many)?”

The history taught in the church accomplishes two purposes: 1) it presents a cohesive, positive narrative of the foundational claims of the church that makes sense and inspires church members. 2) It almost always presents history to inspire moral choices, which of course are easier to present if there is little or no ambiguity. I suspect the conscious subordination of history to its rhetorical purposes explains why church history reads like something from Walt Disney.

“What are the alternatives to how it is being taught (take the time to think of more than a couple)?”

For me the best alternative wouldn’t require a huge adjustment in the content of what is taught but in how it is presented. Because the history is presented as a sort of inspirational example, it is approached with a sort of reverence and awe that is incompatible with viewing historical figures, such as Joseph Smith, as real human beings. I’m not really sure what it would look like, but I would suggest toning down the hero-worship and showing the history in more human terms. People are forgiving of prophets as humans, but not so much of prophets portrayed as saintly superheroes.

“How would each of these alternatives contribute to or detract from the purposes?”

Showing the human side of the history would be more effective in accomplishing the two goals I mentioned above. If we want to motivate flawed humans to accomplish great things, show them flawed humans who did accomplish great things (assuming of course that Mormonism is a great accomplishment).

“Is it necessary that all of the changes come at the institutional level?”

Yes, I think it is necessary because the institution has created an unrealistic view of its leaders and its history. Individuals can change that attitude, but as long as the church promotes such a hagiographical approach to its leaders and history, those who reject that simplistic approach will be outliers who will probably be criticized by their fellow members.

“How long am I willing to wait for the institution to change?”

I couldn’t care less how long it takes. It’s their church, and they’ll adapt as they have to.

“What signs can I find that the institution is changing?”

I think the recent essays are signs they are changing. At least I hope they are.

“Does my view of Prophets match the present and historical reality?”

I view prophets as human beings with human failings, so yes, my view does reflect the reality.

“Are my unrealistic expectations one piece of my feelings of betrayal?”

This is the reason for such feelings for many people, but remember that it is the church that taught people to have those “unrealistic expectations.” Frankly, the question here seems to do what I’ve seen the church do a lot: passive-aggressively shift the focus to what the member is doing “wrong” instead of acknowledging the church’s actions and intent.

‘Is Mormonism mine, or does it belong to the General Authorities?”

It’s a nice thought to believe that a Mormon can have a Mormonism that is “yours,” but we all understand that “your” Mormonism is still constrained by the acceptable boundaries set by the church and its leaders.

Finally, I’ll comment on one quote that hits the mark:

“I find Palmer’s evidence too incomplete to compel me to more than a guarded agnosticism regarding the foundational claims.”

What Palmer’s book ought to accomplish is to motivate people to learn more about the issues. His book is not the definitive work on early Mormonism any more than a political party’s “voter’s guide” is a complete and exhaustive summary of that party’s agenda. Where I think Cannon has gone wrong is to apply academic standards to a book that is decidedly not academic.

Palmer’s book is invaluable in introducing people to issues they probably have never heard of, but readers should take it as the starting point in their journey of discovery, not the end. Its value lies in summarizing the issues. Having a better and more accurate view of LDS history does not require someone to lose faith or leave the church; it may, however, require an adjustment of attitude and an acknowledgment that life doesn’t fit in a tidy little box, no matter how much we would like it to.


Applause for Another Mormon

March 26, 2014

This one is right in line with my earlier post, “I don’t need to listen. I’m right.”

To the Saints Who Tell Heretics and Apostates to Leave

I have watched the same phenomenon of some Mormons who take great pleasure in telling questioning, or doubting members to leave the church, and it’s always puzzled me. After all, the mission of the church is to invite people to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him” (Moroni 10:32), not to weed out undesirables. Unfortunately, some people have taken it upon themselves to decide who gets to stay and who must leave. I never have understood this drive to divide the body of Christ, but I think the writer gets at some of the reasons behind it:

In a way, I can understand this impulse. Mormons sacrifice a lot for their faith. We live moral standards most people are baffled by. We attend hours of church meetings every week. As young adults, we even give up eighteen months  to two years of our lives, asking people every day to learn more about Christ and come unto Him. When you have done these things for God’s church, to have someone come along and question it feels like a slap in the face–especially when that questioner is not some ignorant outsider but another member who has made these sacrifices too. It is painful and sometimes scary to see people so similar to me find fault with something I love so much.

I would, however, caution against labeling all questioning and doubt as “find[ing] fault” with the church, but I that’s a minor quibble. As I wrote earlier, it’s quite easy to take offense when someone criticizes what we hold dear or sacred, and our natural “fight or flight” response is to become defensive and hostile. That’s just part of being human.

The same is true of those who have left. We feel as strongly about our reasons for leaving as Mormons feel about their reasons for belief. When members react with hostility to us and our beliefs, we can be equally as defensive and angry, and that just leads to more misunderstanding and animosity.

But most of the time what I have seen isn’t Mormons being “mean” but rather well-meaning family and friends being at a loss as to how to deal with loved ones who have rejected what Mormons hold sacred. They may ask themselves, How could someone walk away from something so beautiful and uplifting? How can they not see what I see in the church and its teachings? How can I stop them from making such a terrible mistake?

Because most Mormons have no experience dealing with the “apostasy” of a loved one, they may say or do things that seem hurtful, although they are well-intentioned. We who have left–again, speaking solely of my own experience–are extremely sensitive to criticism of our choices because we understand how painful and gut-wrenching it has been to arrive at them. We start out in a defensive position, and we may react badly, and the cycle continues. Love is the key for us, too.

What we are talking about are deeply held, highly personal beliefs that govern how we live our lives. Even the attempt to convince someone to change the way they look at life is going to be fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt. It should be obvious that starting out with hostility and rejection on either side is the wrong way to have that conversation. Love may not bring the unbeliever back, but it certainly can help relationships survive a major life change.

The thought strikes me that this essay and the earlier one from Chris Henrichsen would not have been written had there not been an increase in core members walking away from the church. There’s no stampede for the doors, but enough people are leaving to allow us to see patterns both in why they leave and how other church members respond. That the response can involve rejection and animosity may have inspired Dieter Uchtdorf’s kind and conciliatory “Come, Join with Us” talk in last October’s general conference.

Maybe President Uchtdorf wasn’t speaking so much to doubting members as he was to their staunch family and friends when he said, “my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here.” If an apostle tells me there’s room for those with questions and doubts, how can I insist they leave? Better to rejoice that they are still here and strive to love, even if their questions sometimes make me uncomfortable. After all, I don’t have to agree with someone to love them. And there are many things I’ve been wrong about in life, but choosing to love others has never failed me.

The reality for today’s LDS church is that more people are making a conscious choice to leave for a variety of reasons, and the church really has two issues to work through: How to prevent the loss of more members, and how to deal with those who do leave. I have no idea how they plan to address these issues, but it does my heart good to see both leaders and lay members promoting kindness and love. The gospel Jesus taught is about love, and love ought to trump all other considerations. John Lennon said that “love is all you need,” but really, love is all we have.


I’ve Just Become a Fan of Chris Henrichsen

March 25, 2014

And this is the first time I’ve ever read anything he’s written.

We Are Already Seeing An Exodus of the Faithful

While I wouldn’t say that there’s an “exodus” of previously faithful Latter-day Saints from the LDS church, it’s obvious that the church is losing what I would call “core” members in numbers they haven’t seen since Kirtland in the 1830s. But that’s not why I love this piece from Brother Henrichsen (I think he fits the definition of a brother, so I’m going with it). It’s the kindness, the acceptance, and the genuine love he shows for those of us who have left the LDS church.

Some highlights:

It is easy within Mormonism to dismiss such people as never actually being faithful. But such assertions are false and this tendency or impulse to characterize them as apostates is hateful and cruel. It is also counter the idea of Zion or a community of disciples.

These friends are my brothers and sisters. Not because I view everyone as brothers and sisters in a Christian sense, but because I have come to view them as my younger and older brothers and sisters because of the meaningful interactions I have had with them. I wept when I discovered that they left Mormonism. Not because I view them as lost or because I think they are now going to hell, but because I view their departure as a great loss to my faith community. They are graduates of LDS universities. They are returned full-time missionaries. These are some of the best, the brightest, and the kindest people I know.

It breaks my heart that they have left. I breaks my heart that they felt the need to leave. But I cannot blame them. I understand where they are coming from.

Speaking solely for myself, I’ve been the recipient of so much hatred and venom from people claiming to be believing Latter-day Saints that I wouldn’t believe it had I not experienced it, and at times I have responded badly and unkindly. And it’s not just affected me. My wonderful LDS wife has received threatening letters from some anonymous coward. These things should not be, but I have tried to remind myself again and again that the Mormons I know are, as Brother Henrichsen puts it, “some of the best, the brightest, and the kindest people I know.” They really are. Passages such as the following reinforce what I already knew:

If you are one that says that the egalitarians or liberals who do not like the status quo should just leave, please stop it. This is not a game. This is about the very future of our faith community and faith tradition. They are leaving. If you are glad to see them leave, you do not see them as Christ sees them.

It’s wrong to rejoice when someone loses their faith. As Brother Henrichsen notes, members of a missionary church like the LDS church should be concerned about every member who walks away. Again, speaking for myself only, I know how painful it is to leave the LDS church, and I would not wish that experience on anyone, not even the people who have been hateful to me. Losing your worldview, your social structure, and too often even your family is excruciating. It is not a game. And it’s not just about the future of the Mormon faith community and tradition. It’s about people just like you and me who deserve love and kindness, especially at a time of devastating upheaval.

I’ve said pretty much the same thing many times, but I suspect it isn’t taken the same way from a former member like me. Calls for kindness and compassion for apostates count a lot more when they come from the faithful, so I very much appreciate this one. Part of me wishes his call weren’t so unusual, but again, I think he represents what a lot of Mormons may be thinking but don’t quite know how to say.


Agitation and Revelation

March 24, 2014

I haven’t weighed in on the Ordain Women issue at all, not because I’m not sympathetic but because it’s been covered elsewhere and in much better ways than I could write about it. But yesterday a reader posed the following question to me, and my response follows:

I have kind of a random question that I was hoping you would know the answer to. For some background, today I read through a debate on Facebook that was sparked by a friend of mine who is still in the church publicizing his support for the Ordain Women movement. Those supporting the movement in the comments pointed frequently to the church’s lifting the ban on blacks holding the priesthood as an example of pressure working on church leaders. That change occurred before I was born, but I have heard many members who were alive at the time saying they were so happy when the change happened (such as Mitt Romney). My question is, do you know of any polls that were conducted before the ban was lifted concerning Mormons’ support for extending the priesthood to blacks? I ask because of the recent Pew poll that showed very little support in the church for extending the priesthood to women. But I wonder, if the brethren announced at the general conference next week that women would receive the priesthood, would most members turn around and express happiness at the decision, as happened after the change before?

Anyway, I did a quick search on Google but couldn’t find anything, and I wondered if you had come across any such polls from the 70s.

I am not aware of any published polling data, though it’s entirely possible a news organization, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, might have done such a poll, which would be in their archives. I haven’t found anything, but according to BlackLDS.org, in 1963, Hugh B. Brown mentioned to the New York Times that the church was “in the midst of a survey looking toward the possibility of admitting Negroes.” Another tidbit from the BlackLDS site:

Sociologist Armand Mauss Surveys LDS Attitudes about Race
Survey shows that “the Mormons, in spite of their peculiar doctrine on the Negroes, were no more likely to give anti-Negro responses than were the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans (whether American or Missouri Synod) or Baptists (whether American or Southern), and furthermore the Mormon respondents were very nearly the same as the Protestant averages.”

The survey also shows, “among those of urban origin, the ‘Orthodox’ or ‘believers’ were consistently less likely to express anti-Negro attitudes than were the ‘doubters’ of key Church doctrines.” (Neither White nor Black, Bush and Mauss, Signature Books, 1984, pg. 20-23)

Neither of those helps answer my reader’s question much, but both suggest that there was an atmosphere of acceptance in the church toward such a change.

When comparing the lifting of the racial restrictions on priesthood and the movement today to ordain women, I think it’s helpful to look at this in two ways:

  1. The actual desire to make a change in the church.
  2. The strong sense among Mormons that it’s wrong not only to demand anything of the brethren but also to even ask that something be considered.

First of all, from what I know, there was a pervasive desire among Mormons in the 1970s to lift the priesthood ban. I can only speak from my own experience as a boy growing up in Southern California, though when I’ve talked to others about their experience, they have confirmed my sense of the times. Given the social changes of the 1960s, many Mormons were bewildered and maybe a little embarrassed that the church was holding onto its racist past in this way. When it was discussed in church, it was always emphasized that we didn’t know why God had imposed the ban but that someday the priesthood would be extended to all men. That Hugh B. Brown tried to get the Quorum of Twelve to lift the ban in 1969 tells me that, even among the brethren, there was a desire to make the change. When the announcement came over the radio (it was the lead story on the national news), I was in a car full of Boy Scouts returning from a 50-mile hike in the Sierra Nevada. Everyone cheered, and the rest of the trip we talked about how exciting it was that President Kimball had received a revelation just like Joseph Smith and how we no longer had to wonder about this issue anymore.

As I said, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this had the same reaction: joy that it had happened, and reassurance that it had been done by revelation. At the time, there were rumors that some members in the southern US and South Africa were upset, but I’ve never heard anything more about that since then.

That said, it’s important to remember that, despite the widespread support for lifting the ban, there was no organized effort to lift it. I know some members wrote anguished letters to the general authorities asking for its repeal or at least seeking an explanation, but there were no protests, not even letter-writing campaigns. To this day, many members of the LDS church I’ve spoken with deny that there was any pressure from any source that led to the 1978 revelation, which suggests that most members believe it is wrong to press leaders to go to the Lord about a specific issue. As Boyd K. Packer said in 1993:

When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed.

The channels of revelation go from the top down, from the brethren to the members, and not from the bottom up, which explains why there is so much resistance to even suggesting that the brethren consider going to the Lord with a particular question.

It seems ironic now, but in 1978, the only issue about which Latter-day Saints were concerned enough to organize was in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution. Much like they did during the Prop. 8 campaign in 2008, the church organized its members and defeated the amendment in some state legislatures. As the New York Times notes:

In the 1970s, the [LDS] church quickly emerged as one of the most organized and devoted forces working against the ratification of the E.R.A., a proposed amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed equality of rights under the law, regardless of sex. Seeing the amendment as an affront to traditional gender roles and a threat to the family, the church organized its members into powerful and effective activists against the E.R.A. “We believe that E.R.A. is a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family,” the church’s First Presidency, its three highest-ranking leaders, declared in an official statement in 1978. Ratifying the E.R.A., they warned, would result in an “encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women.”

Mormons rallied to this message and helped ensure that state legislatures across the country, from Mormon-heavy states like Utah and Nevada to less likely places like Virginia and Florida, defeated the amendment. (Young, Neil J., “Equal Rights, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church,” 13 June 2012.)

Mormons who opposed the church’s stance were denounced and marginalized, with one prominent opponent, Sonia Johnson, being excommunicated for her public and vocal stance.

Although support for the priesthood change was fairly widespread and there was almost no public support for the ERA, the common denominator was the belief that it was up to the brethren—and God, by extension—to make any changes. Calls for change, whether private or public, personal or organized, were seen as wrong.

I think that plays a part in the level of support for ordaining women to the priesthood: it would take a change, by revelation, and most Mormons believe it would be wrong to put any pressure on the brethren to ask for such a revelation. I would say this is the main reason the Ordain Women movement has been so harshly denounced and even demonized. I’ve even heard some women say they would have a very hard time accepting a revelation giving women the priesthood, and from what I gather, they base this on the belief that such a revelation would have been imposed on the brethren by “ark-steadying” agitators.

The other factor is that there’s been a common theme in LDS culture that women shouldn’t want the priesthood, that they should be happy with their God-given roles as wives and mothers. The priesthood, I’ve heard so many times, is a responsibility and in some ways a burden that women would not want. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific official teachings of this attitude, but it is certainly there in the culture. I would guess that, given some time, I could find a few official statements to support that.

That was a long-winded way of answering the question, but in short, given LDS culture, I think most Mormons would be happy with the change. These days, even changes in policy, such as the recent change in missionary age, are greeted as having near-revelatory power, so if such a change were announced as a revelation, I’m sure most people would be happy about it. Some people would be disappointed, especially those I mentioned above who would feel that the church had been pressured into it.

Will such a change happen? Who knows? When I was a boy I never imagined the priesthood ban would be lifted in my lifetime, so anything is possible. I suspect, however, that if such a change were ever to happen, the brethren would not make it in response to direct pressure, as that might suggest that God’s will bends to political or social pressure.

That brings me to the Ordain Women movement. As with anything else, I support those who fight for equality and for positive change, so yes, I support their efforts to effect good as they see it. As I said, I doubt any change will come directly from this effort, but it’s good to know that there are people willing to risk their standing in the church for what they believe in. That has to count for something. And, whether people choose to acknowledge it or not, change in the LDS church has always come in response to a pressing need. The 1978 revelation, for example, came in response to the ban’s impracticality in Brazil, where the church was building a new temple, and to political and social pressures elsewhere. Revelation never occurs in a vacuum, so getting this issue out in public view may eventually make it easier for the church to make a change in response to other pressures.

The church’s response thus far has been to circle the wagons (or, quite literally, the garbage trucks), which may reassure some hardliners but is a very bad public-relations move.

If nothing else, Boyd K. Packer’s warning has come to pass: members are facing “the wrong way.” A few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine an organized movement pressing church leaders for change of any kind, and yet here we are. Many Mormons seem to have lost the reverence and, yes, fear they felt for their leaders. Perhaps the newfound confidence of some members reflects the church’s inability to control its own message in the Internet age. Many Mormons have discovered that the carefully packaged version of the church, its history, and its origins, does not align well with reality, and perhaps that has led even believing members to begin questioning everything from seer stones to restrictions on priesthood.

I do not know what the future holds, but I believe strongly that good things happen when people work together and make them happen. To that end, I wish the Ordain Women movement well.


March Surprise

March 20, 2014

It turns out not to be very surprising.

Judge throws out attempt to accuse Mormon church of fraudulent teachings

Some highlights from the report:

Two summons were issued to Thomas Monson, the president of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, alleging that, by seeking money using “untrue or misleading” statements, he breached the Fraud Act 2006.

But the private prosecution by Tom Phillips was thrown out at Westminster Magistrates’ Court by Senior District Judge Howard Riddle, who said it was an “abuse of the process of the court”.

He added: “I am satisfied that the process of the court is being manipulated to provide a high-profile forum to attack the religious beliefs of others.” …

The summons, signed by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe, ordered Mr Monson to appear at Westminster and threatened arrest if he did not.

However, Judge Riddle said today that the threat of arrest was “wrong” and should not have been made.

He described the attempted prosecution as “tenuous”, with no chance of ever making it to trial even if Mr Monson attended.

He said it was “obvious” that the case was aimed at the beliefs of the church rather than Mr Monson himself.

I’ve made a few unkind statements about Tom Phillips’ motivations, and I’ve apologized personally to Tom. I take him at his word that he really does want justice for people he feels have been victimized by the LDS church. But it’s clearly impossible to show intentional fraud by people who are simply teaching the religious tenets they actually believe.

The argument has been made that Mormon truth claims are different from other religious claims because they are falsifiable. For example, it’s quite easy to show that Joseph Smith’s “explanation” of Facsimile 3 in the Book of Abraham is far from accurate. Other religious claims, such as God creating the universe, are beyond human capacity to confirm or deny.

The problem, of course, is where one draws the line between objective “fact” and religious “faith.” Most people agree that humans cannot die and then suddenly come back to life after three days in the grave. But that’s what Jesus did, so is the resurrection objectively false (and therefore fraudulent), or is it a matter of faith? The evidence is likewise very clear that there was no Proto-Christian civilization of Hebrew settlers in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD, but again, that’s what the Book of Mormon claims. Is believing in Nephites a matter of fact or faith? Ultimately, these are issues that cannot be resolved in a court of law, as the judge made clear:

He added: “To convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon church are untrue or misleading. That proposition is at the heart of the case.

“No judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury. It is non-justiciable.”

I realized a long time ago that I will never get back what the church took from me: my time, my devotion, my efforts, my money, my heart. All I can do is go forward and try to learn from the past rather than look back with regret, hurt feelings, or anger.


Skinny Little Boys

March 18, 2014

Saturday night I was up late doing some work on my laptop, and I noticed someone had tagged me in a few photos on Facebook. It was a friend from my missionary days whom I hadn’t talked to in at least a year, but I looked to see what he had posted. There were two photos of a group of us, maybe 15 missionaries or so, at a birthday party for a welfare missionary, who at the time was my wife’s companion. Before then, my wife and I had discovered only two photos that we had in which we both appeared, but now I have two more. Granted, we’re standing behind the opposite ends of a long sectional couch, but still, there she is, and there I am. The third photo shows a busload of missionaries heading up to the ski resort at Mount Chacaltaya, Bolivia, a few weeks before I arrived in Bolivia. (Global warming has, unfortunately, melted away the glacier, and the ski resort is no more.) On the right side of the photo, toward the front, sits my lovely wife dressed as I have never seen her: she’s wearing a fedora and some black Ray Ban sunglasses (it’s now one of my favorite photos of her).

My friend (I’ll call him “Rob”) was online, so we ended up chatting for quite a while. He’s from Southern California, about 10 miles east of where I grew up, though we didn’t know each other before our missions. I had remembered that he ended up in Bolivia sort of accidentally. He was part of a group of missionaries who had been called to serve in Brazil and had learned Portuguese in the Missionary Training Center. For some reason, they were unable to get visas to Brazil before leaving the MTC, so they were sent to Texas to work temporarily while they waited. After several weeks, it became obvious they weren’t going to get their visas, so for whatever reason, they were sent to Bolivia. Not only were they going to a country they didn’t know anything about, but they also had not been taught the language, so it was a huge shock and adjustment to end up there. Needless to say, Bolivia is much poorer than Brazil.

Rob reminded me that he had converted to the LDS church when he was a teenager, and his family had not been pleased or supportive with his decision. He also mentioned that his mother had cried when she saw how thin (emaciated, really) he was when he came home. When I arrived in Bolivia, I was assigned to Villa Adela, a government housing development on the south side of the El Alto airport. Rob was just finishing his mission, and his area, Rio Seco, was just across the runway on the north side. I liked him instantly, and it was great to have someone from the same place I had grown up to whom I could relate. We had been to the same places, gone to the same dances, and shared a lot that you would expect to share with someone who grew up so close.

By the time Rob went home, I had lost 31 pounds as a result of intestinal parasites. I weighed 114 pounds. My wife always says that I was a “skinny little boy” back when we first met, and she is right. The photo at the birthday party shows me at about my lowest weight, and I look genuinely awful. But Rob looks much worse, almost skeletal, in those photos. I don’t wonder that his mother wept at the sight of him.

Knowing Rob was going home, I asked him to take some things home for me (slides, photo prints, and a few small souvenirs). He said he would drop them by my parents’ house, for which I was truly grateful. He ended up driving to my parents’ house and spending a few hours talking with them, telling them about where I was and what I was doing, showing them photos and slides, and telling them what they could expect from my time in Bolivia. To this day I am extremely grateful that he took the time to do that for me, but that’s the kind of man he is. (I note in my book that he also told my parents I was very ill, even though in my letters I had been telling them I was fine. My father was not pleased that I had lied, to say the least.) I had not spoken to Rob again until we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago.

Some time ago Rob came out as a gay man and joined the ranks of the “less active” in the LDS church, and he is now happily married. He told me that the bishop and the missionaries occasionally come by, and he’s always cordial but is never sure what to say. He said he felt lucky that he hadn’t grown up in the church like I had because he didn’t have family pressure and disapproval when he walked away from Mormonism.

As we were talking about the photos, he said, “I look at those photos and see so much love.” He went on to say that, because we were so far from home, in such difficult living conditions, and among a people who really didn’t want us there, we supported each other and stuck together. We were family, and we loved each other. Like me, Rob has mixed emotions about his mission, but we both recognize that deep love and bond among those of us who served together in Bolivia. The photos on Facebook elicited comments from people I hadn’t heard from or seen in years, and yet the bond was still there, and it was easy to reconnect with those people I have loved since then.

As we chatted, we agreed that neither of us regrets our missions, as much of who we are now came out of that experience. I’ve said before that my mission taught me a great many things, not least of all that I am much stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined. But as Rob and I talked, I realized that much of the strength I discovered in Bolivia I borrowed from people who loved and supported me. Yes, I learned to stand on my own and find inner strength, but I also learned to lean on others when I wasn’t strong enough–which was most of the time.

I am convinced that, whatever we think we have accomplished in this life, it is the human connections, the love, that matters. Most people who meet someone like Rob or me will never know anything about the time we spent together in a windy, cold, and barren plain among the mountains of Bolivia. But I will never forget. And I will always remember the kindness of good people like him.


I don’t need to listen. I’m right.

March 10, 2014

Yesterday I had a Facebook exchange with an old friend about the political situation in Ukraine. I shared my political convictions and values and applied them to the situation as I saw it. My friend was adamantly opposed to my take on things, and I reacted more harshly (and snarkily) than was warranted. From there, the conversation devolved into my friend saying I was self-righteous and ignorant. Needless to say, it was not a positive exchange, and when I realized that my next responses might possibly contain profanity and insults, I stopped responding.

This morning, however, I read the following post from my friend Seth Payne–who coincidentally also completely disagreed with my opinions on Ukraine–and it made me think about yesterday’s exchange and my behavior.

Advice for LDS Missionaries

It was a good reminder for me that, when challenged, even in a very personal way, it’s best to listen to what other people are saying, take time to investigate what they’re saying, and learn from the disagreement, no matter whether you agree with their position or not.

One thing I have learned over the years is that when people express their opinions to you, they are usually sincere. I particularly liked this section of Seth’s essay:

When you hear something unfamiliar or perhaps even something that conflicts with what a seminary or Sunday School teacher may have taught you take the time to ask questions rather than assume what is being stated is incorrect or false. Always remember that as a missionary you have not been trained as a Mormon historian or sociologist. You have been encouraged to be a representative of Christ and part being that representative is displaying humility. Unless you have been accosted by one of those General Conference protesters it is usually best to assume that a person with a different viewpoint or information you may not be familiar with is not out to attack you or your faith. Just as you want people to treat you with respect and give you a fair hearing, so to should you be willing to hear and discuss different ideas without accusing others of unstated motives.

I am often guilty of assigning motivations to others, particularly when I think other people are being unkind or unfair, but I think it’s the lack of humility that is the problem for me. It is pride that drives me often to believe that I am unassailably right and my “opponent” is wrong. When I am directly contradicted, I often tend not to listen but instead react defensively and sometimes with hostility. And, sad to say, I often come across as self-righteous.

Seth reminds me of a better approach:

You are going to be asked difficult and unfamiliar questions. Be prepared to be surprised. Learning and being challenged is one of the great things about being a young LDS missionary. Take full advantage of this unique opportunity.

Yes, a mission is a unique opportunity, but the rest of our lives we are going to be faced with difficult and unfamiliar questions, and life often presents us with surprises, sometimes devastating ones. You would think someone my age would have figured out how to deal with differing ideas, perspectives, and beliefs, but maybe I am still learning.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Jerry Seinfeld once described relationships as being like fish swimming upstream: the moment you stop working at it, you’re left with a dead fish. Learning is like that, too: once you stop learning and growing and changing, you are just waiting to die.

If life involves constant learning and growing, then obviously we have to acknowledge we don’t know everything. I’m not sure why that is such a hard thing for many of us to admit, especially for me. Here’s Seth again:

You shouldn’t expect yourself to know the answer to every doctoral or historical question. When you don’t know something or when something is unfamiliar it is always best to acknowledge your ignorance but promise to follow-up once you have had a chance to look into the question. Talk to other missionaries and your mission president. Ask questions in your letters home. Commit yourself to learn and view each unfamiliar question as an opportunity for growth.

Those around you will respect your humility and honesty.

I am grateful to those who offer to help me learn and grow, though I am sometimes too stubborn to accept their help. It’s much easier to try to find backup and support from others for my point of view than it is to simply acknowledge that I don’t know everything. There are only a few people I know who adamantly disagree with me but whom I know I can trust when I ask questions or want to learn. Generally speaking, these people have shown me their good intentions and kindness, and I know they aren’t trying to attack or hurt me. Of course, it takes much more confidence to be willing to learn from people I don’t trust, and sad to say, I don’t have that kind of confidence most of the time.

Finally, Seth reminds me of what matters:

Christians are not to be judged solely by their words but rather, by the love they show for others (see the entire Book of John ). People will always be more impressed by your example than by your words. Be kind and generous. Always look for opportunities to serve those around you. Allow others to see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has worked for good in your life.

Your mission is an opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth. As you look back on your mission experiences it will be those moments of kindness (both given and received) as well as the service rendered to others that you will remember most. If you are anything like me you will remember the “bible bashing” sessions or arguments but they will all run together as ultimately unimportant. You will, however, remember those whom you served and those who served you in great detail and with fondness.

That is absolutely true. What we remember is love, service, kindness to each other, not disagreements, not fights, not who “won.” The only “Bible Bash” I was ever involved in on my mission occurred about 3 weeks after I arrived in Bolivia, and I remember it only because I learned so much from my companion. The man we were visiting was stubborn, sharp with his words, and completely certain that he was on God’s side and we were in the devil’s employ. I got very defensive and upset, having never been raked across the coals like that about my beliefs. My companion, on the other hand, just smiled, listened, asked a few questions, and then suggested we bear our testimonies and leave. “He was a funny little man,” was all my companion said about it afterward.

I’m not sure why I let that lesson from my mission fade away and picked up the “bashing” club in the last few years. Maybe I needed to be right, to come out on top, because I felt I had been spectacularly, humiliatingly wrong in the past. Or, most likely, it was just pride.

Looking back on my days as an amateur Mormon apologist, what I remember is the friendships I have made. Once, for example, I reached out to someone who was as hostile and disrespectful to Mormonism as anyone I had ever met, and as we came to understand each other, we became fast friends and still are today. At the same time I met my friend Ray, who has called me everything from a Nazi to worse and has been as critical of me as an ex-Mormon as he was when I was a believer. I love Ray like a brother and always will; that’s what I remember, not our disagreements and sometimes hurtful comments to each other. I cherish the friendship, and I’m ashamed of the unkind things I’ve said to him.

Yes, I understand that there are people who genuinely wish me ill, but they come and go. They aren’t important, and it’s not worth my time to argue with them or get defensive. But as Seth reminded me, I can learn from them if I am patient, humble, and kind.

I’m working on it. (And I apologize, Hellmut.)