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.


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.


Twins: A Case Study in Apostasy

March 6, 2014

In my last post, I made the rather unremarkable suggestion that it is investment in a religion and the costs of leaving that make it more likely for groups of former believers to arise in support of each other. Thus, we see support groups for former Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, FLDS, Church of Christ, and other highly demanding religions with high costs of leaving. In response, I have been told I’m just bitter and resentful and have an unhealthy obsession with my former religion. My favorite comment is this rather mean-spirited gem:

Runtu is in the position of someone who has a gay child, but then goes out and condemns homosexuality, creates a blog about how terrible homosexuality is, and does not stop.

And, I’m told, it’s rarely painful for people to leave Mormonism.

A good friend (I’ll call him Steve) called me earlier this evening to talk about my post and the responses to it. He’s an identical twin, and an ex-Mormon. He and his twin brother (whom I’ll call Dave) were raised in the same LDS family, with a father in the military, so they traveled around a lot and never lived in the “Mormon Corridor” of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada. He and his brother were baptized the same day, were ordained to the priesthood the same day, and entered the MTC the same day before serving in adjacent South American missions. On returning from their missions, Steve attended BYU, married in the temple, and got a professional postgraduate degree and is a successful businessman in the Midwest. Dave followed in his father’s path and joined the US Army, married in the temple, and has made a successful career as an officer, recently doing tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Around the same time I left the church, Steve was serving in a bishopric and as a veil coordinator at his local LDS temple. He too discovered that the LDS church wasn’t exactly what he had believed it to be, and he had a major crisis of faith. His marriage nearly broke up, and at one point his own mother urged his wife to divorce him simply because he had lost his faith. Fortunately for him, his wife decided to do her own homework and reached the same conclusions he had. Even so, he suffered through an agonizing period of about 3 years when his whole life seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster. He was asked to leave his all-LDS firm because the partners “did not feel comfortable” having an apostate working for them, so in mid-career he essentially started over and began his own business. His LDS friends and neighbors spread terrible rumors about him, such as saying that he had started a polygamous cult, was engaging in drunken orgies, and was trying to destroy the church. And all the while Steve had done nothing but quietly leave the church without telling anyone but his bishop why he was leaving.

Steve mentioned to me that his brother, Dave, had a much different experience leaving the church. Dave simply walked away and never talks about Mormonism. When people bring it up, he gets very defensive and stressed and doesn’t want to talk about it. He has put Mormonism behind him and doesn’t feel like revisiting it, ever.

Steve sought out support from ex-Mormon support groups, whereas Dave never had any interest. Steve struggled for a few years to get over the feelings of betrayal and hurt, but Dave never gave it a second thought.

I asked Steve what the difference was, and he was quick to say it was the level of commitment. The difference between him and his brother is that Steve was devout and committed; he was what we might call a true believer. Dave, on the other hand, never took the church very seriously, so when he walked away, it wasn’t that big of a deal but was just another change in his life.

I bring this up because these two men are good examples of what I have been talking about: Leaving is easy when you haven’t invested much in your religion; it’s excruciating if you have.


Waking Up to the Gay Agenda

February 19, 2014

The blogosphere is abuzz with discussion of A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman’s unmasking of the gay agenda behind Disney’s hit film, “Frozen.” I say it’s about time people woke up to the shameless propaganda that has been cunningly spoon-fed to an unwitting public for a very long time. “Frozen” is just the latest in a long line of subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to promote the pernicious ideology of tolerance for sexual deviants.

The drum beat promoting perversion has a long and storied history, such that most normal people haven’t even noticed it. Sure, we all understood the thinly veiled gay undertones in “Will and Grace” and the more overt propagandizing of the Teletubbies, but now the Hollywood elites are so confident that they have brainwashed the public that we are being treated to Johnny Weir coordinating his admittedly stunning wardrobe with clueless (hopefully) Tara Lipinski during the Olympics. Just shut up and offer color commentary, Johnny! Better yet, NBC, find a real man, such as Brian Boitano, to explain the difference between a triple lutz and a triple salchow. Enough with the fabulousness.

How did we get to this deplorable state of acceptance and tolerance? The answer, sadly, is that we’ve been there for a long time. Before Will and Grace there were George and Jerry (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) pretending that their show was about nothing. Oh, it was about something, all right: destroying the family as we know it. Lulled into passivity, we refused to see the obvious sexual relationship between “Home Improvement’s” Tim Taylor and creepy neighbor Wilson, the fence between them a clear allusion to anonymous public restroom sex and “glory holes.”

In the 1980s, things were a little less blatant, though the daddy-boy relationship between Coach and Sam on “Cheers” was unmistakable; all that was missing was a dog collar and a leash. And even Bill Cosby, supposed guardian of family values, subverted traditional values by wearing flamboyant sweaters, perhaps presaging Johnny Weir’s ensembles. It has been suggested that Cosby’s sweaters were used to exchange coded pro-gay messages with Ted Knight, whose “Too Close for Comfort” character would respond by wearing college sweatshirts. I believe this demands further research, which I will report at a later date.

From the earliest days of television and film, gay couples have been featured in a very positive light: Cagney and Lacey, Bo and Luke Duke, Mork and Mindy (Come on, does anyone believe Mork had male genitalia? I wasn’t fooled!), Starsky and Hutch, Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, and so many others. A particularly brazen effort to normalize homosexuality came in the form of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison of “The Odd Couple,” who were the very personification of gay archetypes: Oscar the hyper-masculine “bear,” and Felix the effeminate proto-twink. And let’s not forget Bert and Ernie (shudder) or the homo-erotic tension that pervaded the Brady household.

We might attribute this eruption of pro-gay sentiment to the sexual revolution, which is what “polite” (cowardly) people called the collapse of family values in favor of unbridled hedonism and sexual abandon, but unfortunately, it’s been in our culture from the beginning.

I like to remember the 1950s as a more peaceful, ordered, chaste time in our nation’s history, when the few homosexuals there were stayed in their dark corners and black people knew the order of things. But the gay agenda coursed along like an underground stream filtering into our cultural consciousness. Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Amos and Andy blazed glittering trails of in-your-face gayness, the latter pushing a Communist-inspired movement to erase racial boundaries and create a nation of mongrels. And don’t get me started on that sick, twisted foursome of Ricky, Fred, Ethel, and Lucy.

I could go on and on, from Laurel and Hardy to Dorothy and Glinda (I know I’m not alone in seeing that one!) to Lincoln and Douglas to our founding fathers. The perverted even infected our nation’s Constitution with their sickness, insisting that a president was not enough but that we needed a “vice” president to serve “together” with the president. (Perhaps it’s time to amend article II of the Constitution to avoid such unseemly promotion of same-sex couples).

In the face of this onslaught of deviance, normal people must be vigilant and proactive, or we may find our most cherished institutions promoting sexual deviance. We expect our priests and vicars to be chaste and heterosexual, as they always have been. And we will never allow missionaries to serve in same-gender couples.


Pornography as Addiction and the LDS 12-Step Program

February 18, 2014

This is a little embarrassing to talk about, but reading recently about how research shows that pornography is not an addiction reminded me of my experience with the LDS church’s addiction and recovery program. I suspect that some people are going to use this point as another angle to go after my character and so on, but I really don’t care. I am who I am, weaknesses and all, and I’m OK with myself.

A few years ago things weren’t going very well for me at home, and I started seeing a therapist in Provo. He was a great guy, a biker and former gang member with lots of tattoos who was also a high priest in the LDS church. Like most men, I have looked at pornography on occasion, and that subject came up because, obviously, it was a sensitive issue in my marriage. My wife had decided that I should attend the church’s 12-step addiction-recovery meetings, though I thought that was overkill. But I didn’t dismiss it because I wanted to respect my wife’s concerns.

I discussed this with my therapist, and he not only told me I wasn’t an addict and didn’t need the program, but he advised me against going to the meetings because, he said, the program tended to cause people to obsess about what was only a real problem for a very small number of people. He also said that there was a major lack of training for the people running the programs, who were not professionals but just people assigned to do it, which should be a red flag to anyone. But I figured that attending the meetings was something I could do to show I was making an effort in my marriage (things did get much better with time), so I went.

The meetings were held on Wednesday evenings at the massive student stake center adjacent to Utah Valley University. There were at least 4 rooms dedicated to men dealing with pornography issues, 1 room for women dealing with any kind of addiction, and 2 more rooms for “spouse support” meetings. Most weeks the 4 men’s meetings were filled to overflowing, with most of the participants young, college-age kids.

The meetings were presided over, more or less, by a missionary specifically called to run the meetings, always an older man whose wife was assigned to one of the women’s meetings. The real leader was the “facilitator,” someone who had been through the program and done well enough that the church assigned. The one I remember most distinctly was a white-collar professional who had been abused as a child and definitely had engaged in compulsive sexual behavior.

Meetings opened with participants reciting a pledge not to judge or interrupt or share information about what others had said outside the meeting, followed by an opening prayer. We then took turns reading each of the 12 steps. Each week focused on one of the steps, so each person would then read a paragraph from the chapter of the book covering that step. Then it was time for reporting how our week went.

The program continued just as you would imagine: each person would state his name and say “I am an addict” or something like that and then talk about how things were going. From my perspective, very few of the people there had a real problem with compulsive sexual behavior. Most of these young guys would say, “My name is Steve, and I am addicted to pornography,” or “My name is David, and I’m addicted to masturbation.” The ones that really got to me were the ones who said they were addicted to “lustful thoughts.” Then they would report how many days or weeks or months they had been “clean.”

It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so deadly serious. One guy kept berating himself because, a few years earlier, he had worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool and had experienced lustful thoughts about the girls in their bikinis. Kids would literally weep as they talked about how they had been more than a year without masturbating but then slipped and had to start all over again. It was as if they wouldn’t consider themselves “clean” until they had banished all sexual thoughts from their lives–and you can guess how that would work out.

With the older men, it was always the same: their wives had caught them looking at porn. Pornography is definitely a problem for some people, but these were normal men who occasionally looked at porn on the internet, not guys spending all day obsessing over it. But the reaction was always the same: the wife was ready to throw in the towel on 10, 20, 30 years of marriage. I can understand the hurt and betrayal spouses might feel, but getting a divorce over it? That just seems crazy to me.

As I said, a few people I met in the months that I attended actually did have a problem with compulsive sexual behavior. They stood out, and I would always think that they really needed to be in therapy, not in this meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the facilitator spoke for several minutes about his experience and the process, and then the missionary spoke, followed by a closing prayer.

The program seemed structured less to control addiction than it was to guide people through the familiar repentance process. Milestones were such things as taking the sacrament again, getting a temple recommend, or putting in mission papers.

My therapist had been right, of course: the main effect was an unhealthy obsession with sexual expression, which ironically is what the program was supposed to help people recover from. There was so much shame in that room, and it was painful to watch. The worst was when these kids talked about admitting their addiction to their loved ones. Most normal adults would think that admitting that you’re addicted to masturbation is ridiculous, but these kids shamed themselves in front of parents and loved ones. I remember some of these boys talking about how they were dating someone and knew they had to tell them about their addiction. Still makes my heart hurt to think of all that pain they were putting themselves through.

Despite all of this, I took the steps seriously because I knew that in those small ways I could reassure my wife that I could and would change my behavior to repair some of what I had damaged in our relationship in other ways, not through any “addiction.” I was glad, however, that I never felt that overwhelming and, it seemed, debilitating shame that many of these guys felt. For me, the meetings were just a reminder to stay focused on my marriage, and I did commit to staying away from porn, which was a good thing.

I did, however, stop attending when I realized that the program was, in the end, a projection of the facilitator’s experiences and feelings. He saw all of us as being the same as he was: a seriously damaged and abused person who struggled with terrible emotional problems and compulsive behavior. The last straw for me was when he started talking about his son, who was serving a mission at the time. He had convinced his son that his occasional masturbation was evidence of a serious addiction, so his son had started attending the meetings at around age 16. When the son went on his mission, he apparently grilled every companion about his masturbatory habits until he became convinced that everyone in the mission was a sex addict. So, he went to the mission president and arranged for each mission zone meeting to have time set aside for all missionaries to go through the 12 steps.

As I recall, the meetings are supposed to help because they are voluntary; you can’t force people to attend meetings for an addiction they don’t have, but that’s what this kid was doing, and his father could not have been prouder.

In the end, that shark-jumping moment convinced me that, just as this man was projecting his life experience and problems on the rest of us, the church had built this program based on how it assumed that members live their lives. One look at pornography was an addiction. Even occasional masturbation was likewise an addiction. But behind the talk of addiction was the old cycle of guilt and shame, and I saw way too much of that.

As I said, I don’t minimize the effects of compulsive sexual behavior, but when you put all sexual expression within that definition, you can potentially destroy lives in ways that pornography and masturbation can’t.


Unabashedly Positive

February 11, 2014

I’ve been reflecting on something a critic of mine said in the comments here. He wondered when the last time was that I posted something “unabashedly positive” about the LDS church. I don’t keep score, and I don’t feel like I need to say something positive just for the sake of being positive. But he got me thinking about the positive things I took from Mormonism (and no, I don’t discount the costs of these positive things). Here are some thoughts.

The church of my youth seemed more like a community, in some ways like a large, supportive family than it did for most of my adult life. The things I remember aren’t sacrament meetings but how people came together to create things that, if not “great,” strove for greatness. Our chapel in my hometown was built with a lot of hard work from local members. The paintings in the foyers on either side of the chapel were done by ward members, both talented artists; to this day, when I read the accounts of Lehi’s dream, I picture the painting in the north foyer. Behind the choir seats was a large abstract mosaic stretching from the ceiling meant to represent the light of truth descending from the heavens. My mother tells me that ward members wept when the church was renovated and the art and mosaic removed.

We came together for such things as road shows, a one-act play competition (my first attempt at acting), and a huge dance festival held at the Rose Bowl. But we did things together that were completely unrelated to religion. Each summer 15 or 20 families from the ward reserved campsites together at a state park in Malibu, and we spent the entire week surfing, playing, and enjoying each other’s company. Our Scoutmaster took us on 50- and 100-mile backpacking trips through the Sierras each summer. And we came together for unhappy times, too, such as the terrible mudslides that destroyed several homes in our ward boundaries and took the life of a ward member, one of my mother’s closest friends.

It was the church that helped me overcome my shyness and fear of public speaking. By the time I served my mission, I was comfortable speaking, even at a moment’s notice, and that led me to excel in speech and debate in high school. There were two of us Mormon boys on the debate team, both of us doing Lincoln-Douglas debate, and once our teacher/coach noticed we were both wearing BYU shirts. She asked if we were Mormons, and we said we were. “That explains a lot,” she said. She said that we were both polite, well-intentioned young men who were always helping our team-mates.

During my senior year in high school, our Young Men leader and I worked together to plan a “super activity” trip to Hawaii. We organized the young men and worked hard for a year to earn enough money to do what we had planned and a little more. That accomplishment gave me a lot of self-confidence that I hadn’t previously had.

My mission taught me that I was capable of doing and enduring more than I had thought possible. Living in Bolivia put what I took for granted into perspective, and every time I feel myself getting too interested in material wealth, I remember Bolivia and check myself. And of course, I met my wonderful wife during those two years.

I used to say that Mormonism didn’t mean you no longer had problems, but it provided a framework for dealing with them. That part of it was a mixed bag for me, but I believe my faith got me through a lot of heartache and upheaval in my life. For a time, my wife and I drove 70 miles each way to the Houston Temple once a week. The temple wasn’t that memorable, but the time we spent together talking strengthened our love and friendship at a time when it would have been easy to get so caught up with kids and work and church callings that we forgot to make time for each other.

I know, none of these things are exclusive to Mormonism, but then, I was a Mormon, so they were benefits to me. But I’m glad someone reminded me of these things. Thanks.


Conflict of Interest

February 5, 2014

Just noticed this little blurb about the Monson summons on the MormonThink web site: “Note: The MormonThink website is not involved in this private lawsuit. We merely report the news.”

Fair enough. But let’s look at the court document itself, which begins, “Information has been laid by Thomas Phillips of Kemp House, 152-160 City Road, London EC14 2 NX, UK.”

Who is this Thomas Phillips? you might ask. MormonThink reported on November 29, 2012, “Tom Phillips has agreed to act as the managing editor of MormonThink.”

Oh, that Thomas Phillips.

The frustrating thing to me is that I like the MormonThink web site. It’s as fair and balanced as anything out there, and yet they will forever be associated with Tom Phillips, who is anything but objective about the LDS church. Fairly or not, Mormons will now dismiss MormonThink as the site run by the guy who wanted to put Monson in jail. And that’s a damned shame.

Update: From David Twede’s (former managing editor of MormonThink) blog: “However, what Tom (primarily) and the MormonThink team (supportive) have done is truly amazing.”

Mormon apologists must be celebrating today, as Twede et al. have just given them a huge gift.


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