“Why do you hang out with those guys?” Jack asked, taking another sip of his diet Coke. “You don’t even believe in the church anymore.”
Craig had been wondering the same thing for quite some time. He stared absently into the carefully manicured gardens at the Lion House, where he and Jack sat at a wrought-iron table finishing their lunch. It was a convenient place to meet, being on the same block as the Church Office Building, where Jack worked, and only two blocks from Craig’s firm. The roses along the stone wall surrounding the garden were in full bloom, their blossoms almost the same shade of pink as the rhubarb pie they were both enjoying.
“I feel like someone needs to be the voice of reason, and maybe that has to be me.” He savored a bite of pie and said softly, to no one in particular, “Not that they listen to me anymore.”
They used to listen, Craig thought to himself, unconsciously rolling between his fingers the expensive cufflinks his firm had given him last year. Not long ago he’d been sort of a star among the “defenders of the faith,” as they liked to call themselves. A relatively young partner in a major accounting firm in Salt Lake City, he had just enough credentials for the apologetic group and had made a name for himself as a sort of expert in discussing Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. But it hadn’t started out that way.
Ten years ago–had it been that long?–he had been struggling with some church issues, though he couldn’t remember specifically what they had been. Not finding answers in “official” church publications, he had gone to the Internet to find answers, anything really to reassure him that his worries were unfounded and he could return to a comfortable belief in the faith of his fathers. For a brief moment, he had allowed himself to imagine what it would be like if there were no answers and the church wasn’t true, after all. The thought had terrified him and spurred him to look harder for answers. The dim fog of despair had finally lifted when he had found the Association for Mormon-Interfaith Scripture Studies and its message board, Mormon Interfaith Conversations. Here were the experts, the guys who had the training and dedication to look into the issues and find scholarly answers, no matter how hard it was to squeeze positive evidence out of the historical and archaeological record. They’d done the heavy lifting, and he could relax. He was going to be OK. Feeling obligated to help others as MIC/AMISS had helped him, he had begun to participate on the board as much as possible, and eventually he’d been asked to submit a paper on the JST.
“I’d walk away from that shit if I were you,” Jack said, earning a dirty look from a blue-haired missionary sitting at the next table. “I told you about that meeting I was in,” he continued, more quietly but urgently. “The Brethren are watching over everything, and you don’t want to be associated with any of that,” he said, jabbing a forkful of the pink, gooey pie in Craig’s direction before shoveling it into his mouth.
A few weeks before, Jack had casually mentioned a special meeting he’d been invited to at the Church Office Building regarding the huge number of Mormon-related web sites, both pro- and anti-Mormon, that seemed to be springing up everywhere. After an introduction by J. Kendrick Balsam of the Seventy, Jack’s boss, Brother Gladden, had stood there in his charcoal suit, methodically going through a long series of PowerPoint slides, each discussing a particular web site or message board. After each slide, the assembled managers and leaders would pass judgment. Those sites deemed to be “of interest’ would be monitored by the Strengthening the Church Membership Committee, which would issue regular reports to be discussed at follow-up meetings.
The usual suspects showed up on the screen. The men rolled their eyes and chuckled at the ironically named “Recovery from Mormonism” site, one man with a greasy comb-over saying bitterly, “That’s like saying you need to recover from a steak dinner. What a bunch of losers.”
A Christian web site run by a widowed former Mormon brought howls of derision. “What a b-word!” a man in a fraying pastel suit to Jack’s left had said. “We should be grateful her husband’s dead because now her stuff is only half-assed.” Elder Balsam reminded the man to watch his language but said he agreed with the sentiment, noting that the woman’s husband had died of Alzheimer’s disease. “That’s what happens when you kick against the pricks. The Lord takes His vengeance as He will. I almost feel sorry for the poor devil.”
The meeting had dragged on, covering everything from “after Mormonism” sites to feminist blogs to a strange site about same-sex attraction that had something or other to do with locks and keys. To Jack it was a mass of confusion, but Brother Gladden had soldiered on through even the worst and most hateful opposition the Internet had to offer. At one point, he had paused, wiped his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief, and sighed, “I almost feel like I’ll need a shower after this.”
The parade of hate had become almost numbing when Jack was surprised to see the MIC/AMISS logo on the large screen. Brother Gladden mentioned that some of the brethren had expressed concern that the board might be a front for nonbelievers who were trying to suck in the credulous and sow the seeds of doubt and apostasy. Given the confusion over the purpose and direction of the association, Brother Gladden had felt it best to bring it up with the assembled group.
“I don’t see what the fuss is about,” said the representative of CES, a stocky man in his forties whose hair was prematurely white. “They do top-notch work, and since we aren’t allowed to teach such things in seminary, they’re the next best thing.”
“I tried out their message board once,” a small, redheaded man with a pencil mustache said hesitantly. “I lasted two days. They were kind of mean, and I didn’t get the impression they were out to help me or anyone else. They seemed to enjoy making fun of people more than defending the church.”
“Maybe that’s who President Packer had in mind when he warned us of the so-called intellectuals,” a fat man in suspenders offered from the corner of the room.
Elder Balsam stood up suddenly, his eyes flashing and his long, thin face red against the white wisps of his hair. “I know the brethren who run that association,” he said, barely controlling his temper, “and they are fine, upstanding members of the church and scholars of impeccable reputation. They founded that organization as a resource to help the struggling and shore up the faith of those who want more than the correlated gospel. The idea that they knowingly would work against us is preposterous!”
“What if they’re doing it without knowing?” Jack had asked aloud, without intending to.
“Young man,” Elder Balsam had glared at him, waving his bony hand in dismissal. “This isn’t your concern. Leave it alone.”
“Yes, sir, uh, elder, sir,” Jack had said, feeling more than a little intimidated. Still, later that day, his boss had told him that several others in the meeting had been expressing the same concerns about MIC for a number of weeks. Brother Gladden had spoken with his former mission president, who was now in the Presidency of the Seventy. He had been assured that some of the brethren were more than a little dismayed at the direction the association had taken.
“Don’t worry about it, Jack,” Brother Gladden had said. “The committee is keeping an eye on those guys, whether or not Elder Balsam approves. I know some of those guys over there, too, and they probably do think they’re doing the church a service. I’m not so sure. In any event, I’m staying away from that place, and I would advise you to do the same.”
That had been nearly a year ago, and yet Craig still found himself knee-deep in the “association.” Some months before, Craig had quietly gone through what he told himself was a “faith transition.” He had realized that his participation in apologetics had amounted to pasting layer after layer of wallpaper over the crumbling wall of belief behind it. Eventually, there was nothing left but the paper, which had folded and blown away like a tattered three-dollar note from the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society. He had told only Jack, as his fumbling attempts to open up to his wife and his parents had met with steely resistance. Jack had understood, being an unbeliever himself, but he pressed Craig again about his relationship with the apologists.
“At least get off that stupid email list,” Jack said between bites of pie, which Craig noticed had dripped onto his white shirt and tie. “I mean, Jesus, how can you justify that cloak-and-dagger shit? Someone is going to get hurt, and it might just be you.”
“Like I said,” Craig sighed, “someone has to be the voice of reason. Maybe if I stop things while they’re still on the list, before they get out in public, I can limit the damage.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Jack said dismissively. “But you don’t really believe that.”
No, I don’t, Craig thought, but he didn’t feel safe telling Jack the real reason he was still there. At carefully chosen intervals, he had been leaking the group’s plans and activities to less-than-friendly sources. He’d been careful to cover his tracks and couch what he called his “revelations” in terms that would obscure their source, and in so doing he had managed to insert the tiniest wedge of paranoia into the leadership at the association. They had even started a restricted email group “for security reasons,” never realizing that they had invited a mole in as one of its founding members.
He hadn’t sent anything out in a while, but it was time.