I’ve been reading the predictable backlash against Kate Kelly’s recent op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune:
Most people would agree that it’s OK to leave an organization that doesn’t bring you joy or happiness, but a number of Mormons have responded that Ms. Kelly is “encouraging others to leave the LDS church.” Some representative comments from an LDS message board:
“Here she both A) signals that she is backing off on her previous stance in encouraging others to stay in the Church, and B) slandering the Church is being an entity’that doesn’t value (women) as equals.'”
“People have their agency to do what makes them “happy, but people who are young in the gospel or their testimony of the gospel are like children who might be easily swayed out of a path that could have led them to eternal joy. In my opinion Kate Kelly is like the pied piper leading the children away from their families into the secular world.”
“Ms. Kate has burned up her fifteen minutes of fame and she has long since become a tinkling cymbal in the ‘way back’ of LDS conversation. I see nothing new or surprising in her current position. I agree with jkwilliams; KK has been fooling herself and fooling others from the beginning. I have never appreciated her approach or her position. She always represented the example of an individual that has gained a little bit of learning, inflating her ego, and without any wisdom. She has never understood the value of a wife and mother because she has always demeaned them. Likewise, she has never understood the value of man as father and husband.”
(Note: The jkwilliams referred to above is me. What I said is that I think anyone who believes they can change the LDS church from within is fooling themselves. Change always comes from the top down in the LDS church, at least from that I can see. I did not, however, say she was fooling others.)
As I said, I’m not surprised by the response, and I’m not quoting these folks because I think they’re bad people. Rather, these responses show that many people within the LDS church see Kate Kelly as being in opposition to the church and, by extension, to God. Some even believe she was trying to tear down the church and lead people astray from the beginning. I don’t think so, and I think her recent statements reflect a reassessment of her feelings and opinions after being excommunicated from the church. Being outside the church does change your perspective, and sometimes you see things more clearly. I did, anyway.
But reading the reactions of some Mormons got me thinking that the LDS church has taken a few hits recently. First, the gay-rights movement, and in particular the aftermath of the Proposition 8 campaign in California, has cast the church in a negative light for a lot of people.
Second, Mormon feminists, such as Kate Kelly, have highlighted the church’s patriarchal structure and traditional views of women’s roles. I had coworkers here in Virginia tell me they were following the Ordain Women movement with interest, even though they had previously known almost nothing about Mormonism and had never paid any attention to it.
Last, the explosion of information about church history and doctrines, made widely available through the Internet, has caused a lot of trauma and doubt among Mormons who had never had any reason to question their beliefs. And then it hit me: we are seeing pretty much what Boyd K. Packer told us was coming way back in 1993:
The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals. Our local leaders must deal with all three of them with ever-increasing frequency. In each case, the members who are hurting have the conviction that the Church somehow is doing something wrong to members or that the Church is not doing enough for them.
He went on to say that the only safe path in the face of these dangers is in following the brethren:
We face invasions of the intensity and seriousness that we have not faced before. There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.
It’s clear to me that a lot of people are turning around and “facing the wrong way” these days. But I do not think these three “dangers” are the reason. People follow leaders and institutions they trust. We know who is being honest and truthful with us, and we also know who has our best interests at heart. In my opinion, the reason people are either leaving the church or pushing for change from within is that the church hasn’t always been honest and truthful and hasn’t always looked out for members’ best interests. I’ve written before about the efforts in the 1970s under Church Historian Leonard Arrington to be more open, honest, and realistic about church history, only to be shut down by, among others, Boyd K. Packer (see “Does the LDS Church Hide Its History?“). The leadership of the church made a conscious decision to present a sanitized version of Church history to the membership. Packer explained at the time:
Church history can he so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. … There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. … In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.
Because the goal was to “give preference to and protect” the church rather than to provide the whole truth, members of the LDS church were taught what I call a “Disneyfied” version of church history and doctrinal origins. Such an approach may have been sustainable in 1980, when one needed to seek out historical materials to get a good idea of Mormon origins, but it is untenable today, when information is a Google search away. In short, members haven’t begun “facing the wrong way” because of these three dangerous movements but because they have lost trust in the leadership of the church. An LDS friend recently wrote me:
I think everyone is shell shocked when they realize that what we were told as youth and missionaries about the church wasn’t 100% true (multiple accounts of the First Vision, Book of Abraham, the Urim and Thummim was likely just a rock in a hat, blacks and the priesthood was racism, prophets cannot make mistakes and are always inspired, the church spent billions of dollars on City Creek, the church has whitewashed the negative parts of their history, Joseph Smith fancied young women and married women and wasn’t honest with his wife – or anyone else for that matter about it, etc, etc, etc). I have just come to accept that the church is not what I thought it was, and try to accept how it has helped me and try not to think too much more about it. I am by no means trying to condemn you or even pass judgment. I am simply saying I understand where you are coming from. So please just know I understand where you are coming from, appreciate it, and think its amazing that you have found a middle ground with your family. I just wanted to acknowledge that I know where you are in terms of your beliefs, and I understand it. I have had my trials of faith, and in many ways you have handled it better than I have. I just sit quietly, play nice, and go along to keep peace in my home. I only want to put that out there so you are aware that I know where you are.
I understand that the church is attempting to address this lack of trust through publishing its doctrinal essays, but even those shade the truth far too much, in my view. I wonder if it’s too little, too late, and not honest enough. If otherwise faithful members are just sitting quietly and playing nice, I think it probably is.