Sunday, December 7, 2008

Satan – A Man with a Plan

I found myself in downtown Salt Lake yesterday with a few minutes to kill so I dropped into the genealogical library to do a quick bit of research.  Sitting across from me was a couple doing the same.  They bantered back and forth as they worked.  The man told his partner that there were several very large families in his lineage.  One family, he noted, had 18 children.  The man opined that Satan’s Plan must be working because we do not have large families like that anymore.

In the recent Prop 8 debate, I heard the phrase Satan’s Plan used extensively by LDS members trying to explain the push for same sex marriage.  Not so much from the top of the Church, the Brethren I think are careful about that type of speech in a setting that involves non-Mormons, but I heard it a lot from the rank and file members.  Although to be fair, Mormons provide a slew of reasons why the family is under siege and how the attack is part of Satan’s Plan. 

Today in Elder’s Quorum we had a very timely and helpful presentation from a ward member who is a banker.  He made a brief presentation about the state of the economy and the causes of our current recession.  He then provided a number of measures we can take to be prudent in our financial dealings and enhance our financial well being.  He talked about staying out of deal, measuring risk when investing, the need for collaboration between spouses and children when managing a household budget, and being charitable with money.  It was one of the most on point lessons I have experienced in a very long time.  But of course this was church meeting, not a Suze Orman lecture, and the context was very much a religious one.  He equated debt free living as being in tune with God’s plan and being debt ridden as being beholden to Satan’s Plan. So, family planning, same sex marriage and debt --- part of Satan’s Plan?  Depending on the type of Mormon you are, you might see Satan’s Plan in any or all of these examples.  Or perhaps you don’t think everything you happen to view negatively is the devil’s doing. 

I personally don't think family planning is inspired by the devil and I don’t believe that Same Sex Marriage is in the devil’s play book.   But debt – that’s tricky – I am pretty down on debt having spent of good portion of my professional career representing bankruptcy filers in court.  Ok – I am willing to say that debt is part of Satan’s Plan --- whatever that means.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Credit where Credit is Due

Mormons continue to get credit for passing Prop 8.  In Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage the New York Times joins the chorus of thought leaders giving the LDS church the distinction of being the main reason Prop 8 passed.  There are some interesting quotes from Michael R. Otterson, the managing director of public affairs for the Church.  Otterson gives a tiny glimpse of  the Church's thinking on Prop 8.  Because the Brethren don’t elaborate much when discussing deliberations concerning their actions, you  find your context where you can.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Money Talks, Gay Marriage Walks

Yesterday, the LDS Church issued the following statement

It is disturbing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being singled out for speaking up as part of its democratic right in a free election.

Members of the Church in California and millions of others from every faith, ethnicity and political affiliation who voted for Proposition 8 exercised the most sacrosanct and individual rights in the United States — that of free expression and voting.

While those who disagree with our position on Proposition 8 have the right to make their feelings known, it is wrong to target the Church and its sacred places of worship for being part of the democratic process.

Once again, we call on those involved in the debate over same-sex marriage to act in a spirit of mutual respect and civility towards each other. No one on either side of the question should be vilified, harassed or subject to erroneous information.

Is it wrong for the Church to be singled out? Perhaps, but it's hardly a surprise. Many parties acted together to defeat Prop 8 but the player getting the most credit is the LDS Church. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Church has been recognized as the entity that bankrolled the campaign. Although contributions were  made by individual members, they were made in response to a plea from the Church. As such I don’t think it is unreasonable to characterize those donations as coming from the Church. That money allowed for an active media campaign that helped get the measure passed. Is it a leap therefore to credit the Church with its passage? Whether you think so or not, the Church has been given the credit and will have to deal with the fallout.

Last night there was a protest march in downtown Salt Lake by those who oppose the Church’s position on Gay marriage. Although it was planned at the last minute, two or three thousand people showed up. The march was big news here and all the TV stations covered as well as the Tribune and the Deseret News. It’s hard to say if the losing side is just blowing off steam or if this is the start of concerted efforts to target the Church but I don't think its a one time occurance.

While the march was going on, I attended a Church event. I discussed the protest with a few people and saw others talking about it. Attending the event was an apostle. As I saw him from a distance, I wondered if the protest was on his mind. Apparently it was because as he walked past me, I couldn’t help but hear him mention the protest to a colleague.

This makes me wonder what impact such events have on the Brethren who make decisions at the very highest levels of the Church. Did the protest cause them to re-evaluate their position?  Of course I don’t know the answer to that but it seems unlikely. These men have the conviction that God is behind them 100% and that those who disagree are best misguided and at worst under evil influence. As far as influencing publice opinion, perhaps public protests help the gay rights, but as a way to influence LDS authorities, it probably isn't going to work.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

Election Day is just 9 days away and it looks like California’s Proposition 8 limiting marriage to a man and a woman will pass.  On Intrade the odds are approaching 3 to 2.  I give a lot of weight to Intrade because participants bet on outcomes with real money rather than hyperbole.  The LA Times is also out with a new poll provided by the Public Policy Institute of California.  The poll is not tied into either side of the debate and is considered reliable.  It shows Prop 8 favored 52% to 44%. 

Of course the LDS church has been deeply involved in efforts to get the measure passed.  The church’s efforts have been organized, well funded and effective.  These actions have not gone unnoticed.  In fact, the church seems to be emerging as the most visible party in the fight and the entity that will be given the most credit for its passage.  The Wall Street Journal last week credited the LDS church with drumming up nearly 40% of all money raised to support the proposition  – more than any other group.  Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic Monthly credits the Church contributions with “bankrolling” the pro 8 advertising campaign.

I know it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, but for the sake of argument, let’s say these numbers hold and Prop 8 passes. What does this get the Church?  Will the Church become the poster child (justified or not) for stifling gay rights?  Sure, the Church has the right and apparently the power to fight gay marriage, but it seems to me that it runs a high risk of being singled out for special recognition by gay rights groups as being intolerant and homophobic.  Mind you, I am not commenting on the propriety of such labeling, I just think it is a likely outcome. 

Now there may be some people who think that Church’s success here will play to its strengths.  That the kind of people who will look down upon the Church for this are the kind of people the Church will never win over anyway.  And that there will be many people who are pro-family (in the Mormon sense) who will respond favorably to the Church’s reputation as the entity that beat back gay rights in favor of traditional marriage.  Perhaps they are right.  But is it worth the backlash?

My personal hunch on this is that the Church is in for some stormy weather.  I think gay rights are the new civil rights and it is only a matter of time before gays are afforded the same rights as everyone else.   And much like it was during the civil rights movement, the Church is way behind the curve.  The gay rights train has left the station and the LDS Church cannot turn it back, although it clearly has to ability to hinder its progress.

Do you think this will help or hurt the Church – or both?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sarah Palin – A Sister’s Sister

Sarah Palin, if elected, could change the landscape for Mormon women more than any politician has for a very long time. From what I can tell, she is a huge hit with the LDS ladies. Mitt Romney of course resonated big time with Mormons, but he was just another man who happened to be a Mormon and longed to be the big dog in Washington. Had he won, Mormons undoubtedly would have had more exposure, but the victory wouldn’t have changed the status quo between Mormon men and women.

Sarah Palin is different. She is a Christian conservative mother. And guess what? She’s a woman. You can argue with her politics but not with her gender. In Palin, Mormon women have a sister who is similar to them who could ascend to the highest office any woman can hold. Of course, I don’t mean the Presidency of the Relief Society; I mean the Presidency of the United States.

There has been so much focus on Palin’s conservative credentials that her potential impact upon the average Mormon woman has been overlooked. Sure, Palin, isn’t going to appeal to the NRA-hating, pro-choice leaning, meat-distaining segment of Mormon women (how many can there be?), but she seems to strongly resonate with the other 99 percent of active Mormon women. Hillary Clinton sure as Hades isn’t going to be a role model for the majority of Mormon women any time soon. Mormon women mostly despise her and think of her as a kind of She Devil. Mormon women will experience Hillary-driven change only as passive or antagonistic beneficiaries.

But Sarah Palin, she’s a different story. She is almost one of them. If you can get past her evangelical strain of Christianity, she could be a member in the ward who happens to be successful in politics. Mormon women see that Palin is not that different from them. They relate to her. They can even get over the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter because we all know someone with a kid who’s made a mistake. Mormon women can embrace Palin and join her in her ride to the top. Mormon women can fancy themselves her partner in the journey. Mormon women can cheer her on her quest to reign supreme over a male-dominated society.

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin represent the ends of a range within which the bulk of American women fall, politically and socially. Hillary Clinton anchors the liberal end and Sarah Palin the conservative. If a person gets much in front of Clinton they become politically marginalized. If you are more conservative than Palin, you are marginalized as well. But the range itself has shifted left. Palin may be a conservative, but she is not saying that women need to stay home with their babies. She’s saying they can run the country. Palin’s conservative end of the spectrum is to the left of most Mormons and I believe that Mormon women will find themselves shifting to the center in order to keep up with Palin.

Change comes not only from those who lead the pack, but also those who follow. If Hillary Clinton shows how far ahead of the pack a women can tread, Sarah Palin shows the limit of how far behind a woman can fall. But either way, the range has been moved dramatically forward. And for Mormon women, the more important marker just may be Palin, because she is a figure that most can identify with.

Here is what Palin shows a woman can do.

1 – She can work full time

2 – She can be a mother and work full time

3 – She can be a mother of five and work full time

4 – She can be a mother of five, including a Down syndrome child, and work full time

5 – Not only can she do these things, she can be a chief executive and preside over men.

6 – She can be a conservative Christian and do all of the above

This is not small potatoes for Mormons. I think it is not yet well accepted in the Church that a mother can work full time. Yes, it happens more and more, but I think generally it is still frowned upon in action if not in word. A woman cannot hold a position in the Church where she has authority over men. Palin does that as a Governor now, and if she were to become the President, she would be the ultimate authority over both men and women. Mormon women would have a role model who, in Mormon speak, would preside rather than just give counsel. I think if Mormon women got used to having female civil leaders that they relate to, they not be able to stop themselves from wondering why their religion does not allow women the same opportunities as their country.

So, am I voting for Palin? Not by a long shot, because I disagree with her on too many issues. But that doesn’t mean I am blind to the change she represents and the benefits that could come from her rise to power. In a Mormon context, Sarah Palin has the potential to be very empowering to the sisters.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tipping Point or Tripping Point

I feel like I have just spent a week in liberal Mormon heaven. Last Saturday I attended Sunstone. It was full of interesting people with interesting ideas. Sunday my Gospel Principals class had a very engaging discussion about how to serve others. Sunday night I heard Richard Bushman speak at a fireside, and yesterday I attended a book signing and address by the authors of the just-released Massacre at Mountain Meadows. For a Mormonism junkie dweeb it doesn’t get much better.

Meeting and listening to Richard Bushman was probably the highlight of the lot. I have read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) and a few other Bushman books, and think highly of his work. I am aware of his credentials and talent, but I was taken aback by how good he is from the pulpit. It was not so much his presentation – he is no fire-eating orator. It’s more his understanding of his audience, where they are now, and where he can take them.

I think he knows very well going into these types of events whom he is addressing and what he hopes to achieve. I have been reading On the Road with Joseph Smith, Bushman’s account of the rollout of RSR, in which he details his feelings and approach to addressing many such forums. As such, I was very keen to see how he would “work” the crowd.

The setting was my sister’s stake in Sandy, Utah. Not exactly a hotbed of liberal Mormon thought. One of the first things Bushman did was announce that after making his prepared remarks, he would take questions and that nothing was off limits. Anybody could ask anything they liked. To some that may not seems like a big deal, but when was the last time you heard someone say that to a Mormon congregation from the pulpit?

Bushman was super smooth in how he introduced the congregation to tricky historical problems without seeming to do so. He was very respectful and deferential. He even used an Elder Packer quote about Emma Smith. He seems a master of working change from within. He matter of factly discusses topics that are traditionally more fit for Sunstone than a meeting house. Maybe I am reading more into this than is warranted but I think he cleverly builds credibility with the congregation by saying the right things and quoting the right people before he casually mentions something like Joseph marrying a 14-year-old.

His remarks focused on the humanness of Joseph Smith, the esteem in which he holds Emma Smith, and the practice of polygamy. When he was done the audience took him at his word and peppered him with the type of question that doesn’t usually get asked in Sunday School. Someone wanted to know why Joseph married women who were already betrothed. Bushman said it was Joseph’s way of linking his eternal family to others. Another wanted to know his feelings about the FLDS church in light of the Joseph polygamous experience. Bushman said that while he in no way condoned any type of abuse or pedophilia, he felt we should be very sympathetic to the FLDS. He said that their troubles gave us a glimpse of the troubles early Mormons faced. I asked him why Emma let her boys believe that their father had not practiced polygamy? Hadn’t she done a great disservice in allowing them to proclaim wrongly in public that their father never practiced polygamy? He said that Emma was ashamed of the practice of polygamy and that if you read her words carefully, you’ll notice they are carefully worded to leave herself some wiggle room.

When he was done taking questions, the meeting ended and several people lined up to shake his hand and have books signed. When my turn came, I asked him if he thought that RSR had gotten too far out in front of where Mormons are willing to see their prophet. He said that he had written that book according to how he saw things and that although some members did not want this information, many did. He said that he thought the Church was at a tipping point in term of a candid appraisal and discussion of its history. I was struck by this. A tipping point to me suggests that we may soon experience a much more open approach to church history. Not just a gradual change but a wide and thorough change that will become the rule rather than the exception.

The presentation by the authors of Massacre at Mountain Meadows was very interesting. I sat about 4 feet from the authors (a small room at Benchmark Books with a lot of people). They seemed to have very different personalities and they emphasized very different things in their presentations (they each spoke about 10 minutes). Richard Turley talked a lot about the research process and methodology. Ron Walker focused more on the narrative and Glen Leonard zeroed in on how the event might have been avoided had a few individuals stood their ground when their priesthood and militia leaders pushed for their acquiescence. When they were done speaking, Curt Bench, the bookstore proprietor, talked about how extraordinary and unprecedented the book was and the openness with which the church facilitated the project. He strongly expressed his feeling that we are entering a new phase of openness and candor. He said he had never seen anything like this before. Curt has been dealing books and Mormon document since before Mark Hoffman and has spent his career following Church goings-on. I don’t think he is one given to hyperbole.

Perhaps I am reading too much into these experiences, or maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear. But it seems that two very keen observers of Mormonism see a shift to and perhaps a widening of candor and openness in the Church. Are they up in the night? I hope not.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Quibbling about the Holy Ghost and Walking on the Moon

On the way home from Church last Sunday my ten year old daughter and I had the following exchange:

Me: What happened in Sunday school today?

Ruby: We had a lesson about the Holy Ghost.

Me: Do you believe in the Holy Ghost?

Ruby: Yes.

Me: So how do you know the Holy Ghost is real?

Ruby: Well, kind of like how I know that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I haven’t met him but I know he was a real person who walked on the moon. Or it’s like how I know Mars exists, I can’t see it but I know it’s there.

Me: I don’t think a person knows those things in the same way they know about the Holy Ghost. Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon and the existence of Mars are scientifically provable, but when you know there is a Holy Ghost, you know it in a different way – in a way that is not provable.

Ruby: Daddy, this isn’t very interesting, can you turn on the radio?

Upon reflection, I wonder if I handled this in the right way. I wonder about the following:

Is it a mistake to question how a child comes to know a spiritual truth? Is the assertion of spiritual knowledge good enough in and of itself, especially in a ten year old?

Did I do the right thing in attempting to help her understand the difference between spiritual and scientific knowledge as I see it?

Is it even accurate of me to say that spiritual and scientific knowledge are different? Are they close enough that is not worth quibbling over? Am I just splitting hairs?

Am I doing her a favor by preparing her for a later time when, I assume, she will compare empirical knowledge with spiritual knowledge? And as a result of my conditioning she will be less likely to be disillusioned and reject spiritual beliefs? Or am I simply prepping my daughter to become a secular humanist?

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Guess What, Brigham Didn't Do It

The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune (via the Associated Press) carried stories this weekend about a presentation made by Richard Turley to the Mormon History Association. For those of you who don’t know, the MHA is made up of professional and amateur historians interested in exploring a variety of Mormon topics at conferences and in publications. It includes members of the LDS Church, Community of Christ (RLDS) and other denominations that trace their roots to Joseph Smith.

Richard Turley, who is the LDS Assistant Church Historian, along with retired BYU history professor Ronald Walker and Glen Leonard, former Director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, are the authors of the upcoming book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows. They were hired by the LDS Church to write the book, and it appears they are laying groundwork in advance of its release. While the book purports to be an objective synthesis of their findings and conclusions, it seems as though it is seen by non-Mormons as a conduit for the LDS Church’s side of the story. How fair that perception is, I don’t know.

The big news Turley announced at this year’s MHA conference is that Brigham didn’t order the massacre. Deseret News religion editor Carrie Moore reported Turley as saying:

“There is insufficient evidence to say former LDS Church President Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre and ample evidence that says he did not.”

Turley’s announcement was no surprise. After all, the book was commissioned and paid for by the Church. But that doesn’t mean Turley is wrong -- just that he concluded what was expected. Of course, the book will be expected to produce compelling analysis and argument, if not concrete evidence, to back up his assertion.

I have tried to educated myself about this horrible incident, first by reading Juanita Brooke’s Mountain Meadows Massacre, then Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets and lastly, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Along the way I have seen a lot of debate and commentary about who is the most biased, who is the best historian, and who has the biggest chip on his or her shoulder. What appears to be consistent is that there is no reliable smoking gun showing Brigham Young ordered the deed. There is a lot of discussion about culpability before -- and cover up after -- the event, but nothing that concretely shows Young saying, “DO IT.”

Massacre at Mountain Meadows is set for release this summer or fall. My hunch is that it will not settle the debate as to what really happened. And I suspect that given the Church’s sponsorship, it probably won’t be seen as a reliable and unbiased account of the event by those outside the Church. Even I have a hard time believing the authors would produce a volume that was seriously damaging to the Church. Turley said that he would go where the evidence led him, but I find it hard to believe that the authors can produce a book and not be mindful of who is paying the bills. Turley's response to this, Carrie Moore reports:

"Some might wonder whether I would have had my hand slapped if I learned Brigham Young ordered the massacre." As an employee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Turley said he made senior church leaders "aware of my intent to follow the evidence to its conclusion. They supported it and, to a man, were willing to accept it and follow the truth."

Well, in spite of my skepticism, I will read the book and see if it feels believable and fair. Two of the other three books I read certainly didn’t seem evenhanded to me. I found the Bagley book unpersuasive because I felt he had an agenda and stacked his evidence and conclusions in such a manner as to back up his thesis irrespective of the support. I suppose that’s what an author is supposed to do when making an argument, but I didn’t trust his judgment. And the Krakauer book seems even more sensationalistic and agenda-driven. I felt Krakauer completely missed the boat when he left the impression that the LDS and fundamentalist Mormons are essentially the same. That certainly has not been my experience and I thought he muddily lumped us together. So that leaves me with Juanita Brooks, and I am OK with that. I found her book compelling and plenty damning of the Church, if that’s what one seeks. It certainly didn’t whitewash anything. I thought she placed plenty of blame without going beyond what she could reasonably conclude about the event.

And while I note my default position of skepticism about the upcoming book’s impartiality, I hope to be open-minded enough not to dismiss it if it is compelling. And the book has one very good thing going for it – Ronald Walker. I admire him as a historian and have been impressed with his career and ability to produce quality and, I believe, trustworthy work. And it doesn't hurt that he was the Bishop that saw me off on my mission.

So my question is this, is there anything that could come out in this book that could change your mind about the event? Do people’s feelings about the culpability of Brigham Young and the LDS Church hierarchy rest upon whether they believe in the Church or not? And does a person simply pick the historical exposition that best fits what they already think, or can people be convinced to think otherwise despite preconceived notions?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I Think This Went Well But Who Knows

Well, I gave my talk today. I felt pretty good about how it went. People were polite and complementary but how do really know what people think. The comment which brought the biggest smile to my face was when my neighbor, a new convert, said "that was freaking fantastic." I told him that was one the best things anyone had every said to me. I owe a lot to my wife on this one -- she is a much better writer and message crafter than me. Of course, that's what she does for a living. She edited this for content and clarity several times for me. She may not be a Mormon but she gets us. So, here's a shout out to you helpmeet.



I have to admit I am jealous Elder O’Toole is spending the next two years in Ireland sharing the gospel full time. I fondly recall my time in the London South Mission. So much of my life and world view was shaped by my mission. It was an incredible time of clarity and focus, and I hope Elder O'Toole is blessed with as wonderful an experience as I had.

I get to talk today about member missionary work. But before I start, let me congratulate everyone here. We have been phenomenally successful missionaries. By almost any measure, Church growth is remarkable. From its humble beginnings as an upstart church one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has a presence in over 160 countries. It has more than 52,000 full-time missionaries and exceeds 13 million members. Membership has quadrupled in the last 40 years.

But I don’t have to tell you that our Church is not one to be content with doing well -- we perpetually seek to do better. We push ever onward and upward in our quest to spread the gospel. And a big part of that undertaking rests with people like you and me – the regular members of the church. If you haven’t repeatedly heard the call for member missionary work, then you have been napping in Church and watching something other than General Conference.

There are a lot of ways to be active member missionaries. For some, it is an easy matter to approach strangers and strike up a discussion about the Church. Some people comfortably and successfully distribute multiple copies of the Book of Mormon. These gifted advocates thrive on the challenges and rewards of overt proselytizing. But for many of us, the thought of spreading the word in such a bold and extroverted manner is frightening. Instead, we prefer to cautiously make friends, hoping that they will make it easy for us to share our faith. And then there are those of us who are so uncomfortable with the thought of discussing our beliefs that we simply do nothing, the result being that we perpetually feel bad about ourselves and question our commitment to the gospel.

Whatever your comfort level, there are some things, I believe, that all of us can do that will enhance our missionary efforts and will increase the receptiveness of potential converts. Simply put, we can live our lives in a positive way that draws the attention of others. With our example we can influence their feelings about the Church, and possibly lead some to enquire after our message and accept the gospel. We can be open to and pursue religious discussions, not in a preachy way, but in a manner where we share our beliefs and views while learning of those of others. This may sound like a comparatively passive way to spread the gospel, but I think it is actually an extremely effective method for promoting interest in and conversation about our beliefs.

Many, if not most of us, are lifelong members of the Church. Not having lived outside the Church, it is hard for us to understand that many people have wildly inaccurate and ill conceived ideas of who and what we are. It may be easy to dismiss their perceptions, but that doesn’t change what they think. You know the saying, perception is reality. And it’s hard to be an effective missionary if those who don’t know us believe us to be a dangerous and crazy cult. Whether we like it or not, we have a lot of work to do to let others know that we are not to be feared or mistrusted. We need to let others see who and what we are. But in order to enable others to see the real us, we need to understand how they see us now.

Dealing with the perceptions of the Church has been on the minds of several General Authorities lately. Last year, while serving as the head of the Church Missionary Committee, Elder Quentin L. Cook told a group of BYU students that some Latter-day Saints are frustrated because they see this as a difficult time to spread the gospel message. After all, Elder Cook said, according to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans view Mormons unfavorably, 11 percent don’t know we are, and 18 percent think of polygamy when our name is mentioned.

Let me repeat that, 46 percent of Americans view us unfavorably. And only 42% view us favorably. That means there are more people that see us negatively than positively. I realize that we as a people are not running for office, but if we were, we probably couldn’t win with those numbers. I don’t know about you but I am quite surprised to find that level of discomfort with us. I know we have a long history of strained relations with the public at large, but I thought we had largely put those troubles behind us. After all, Church members have risen to tops of their fields in many areas of business, sports and public life. But in spite of this, people still hold a lot in incorrect ideas about us.

Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a media junkie. I am fascinated by politics, religion and pop culture and how they intersect. And when it comes to Mormons and the media, this last year has been a veritable Chuck-O-Rama of plenty and indulgence.

There were our American Idol contestants, David Archuleta and Brooke White. When Brooke announced to Simon, Randy and Paula that she didn’t see R rated movies, I turned to my wife and proclaimed the obvious: “she’s a Mormon.” There was Mitt Romney’s run for President. It was fascinating, revealing and troubling to see how his religion impacted his undertaking. Then there was the storm of coverage that accompanied the raids on the FLDS community in Texas, and our Church’s rigorous efforts to ensure we were we not lumped in with the FLDS in the eyes of the world.

For better or worse, this last year could rightly be dubbed the year of the Mormons in the media because so much attention has been directed at the Church and its members.

This attention has been commented upon several times recently by Elder Russell M. Ballard, who serves on the Church Public Affairs Committee. Two months ago, when speaking to the BYU Management Society in Washington, D.C., he noted that the level of media attention toward the Church was higher in the last year than in the last century, largely because Mitt Romney sought the presidency. While stressing the political neutrality of the Church, he noted all the debate and discussion in news columns, on TV and talk shows, and on Internet blogs. But what really grabbed his attention was what the coverage and demonstrated about how others view’s of the Church.

He said

what is really interesting to me and our Public Affairs team was whether all of this had any affect on the way people perceive The Church

He further said,

I personally think interest in the Church over the past year and a half was a plus. I’d much rather have people talking about us than ignoring us. The biggest problem we face is apathy. Still, we have learned a lot. One thing we have concluded is that even after one hundred seventy eight years, there is more misinformation out there than we had imagined.

Elder Ballard indentified two main sources for this misinformation and ill will: One on the right and the other on the left.

If you have been following this as well, it will should no surprise that one of our main detractors are conservative Christians who don’t like our doctrine and translate that into public opposition. We have read, over and over again, Elder Ballard said, of accusations that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult and does not follow the tenets of mainstream Christianity.

The second source of opposition he identified comes from some on the left who target the Church over moral issues like abortion and same gender marriage.

While recognizing a wide spectrum of opinion, Elder Ballard said he was most interested in the perspective of those who fell between the two extremes, the great mass in the middle. Elder Ballard told his audience

What is of greatest interest to me is the perceptions of the great mass of American people who are in the middle of these two extremes

Many of these people are simply puzzled. If they know a Latter-day Saint, they may have a positive impression and consider Mormons model citizens. Still, they hear assertions or descriptions of our Christian doctrines that seem unfamiliar. They hear harsh — sometimes mean-spirited — criticisms or accusations. Many want answers, and the places they are most likely to seek those answers are either on the Internet or from their Mormon acquaintances.

Lately, there’s been one more factor influencing those caught between the two ideological extremes: the FLDS raid in Texas and the avalanche of news coverage and commentary that accompanied it. This single event drew international attention on our Church – and that attention for the most part wasn’t positive. And much of it has been downright wrong. To combat the misinformation, Church leaders and public relations officials have worked vigorously to provide accurate information.

Elder Ballard weighed in on this in his April address as well. He said

in the past two weeks we have seen a flood of publicity coming out of Texas where state authorities have removed women and children from the FLDS polygamous community. This religious group, of course, has nothing to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of the news media have attempted to make that clear. But a few—especially some in other countries—have confused their readers or viewers by suggesting that this group in Texas is somehow connected to us, and, of course, you know that they are not. This is currently a very difficult Public Affairs challenge.

Difficult indeed as many of you likely know. I imagine a lot of you have had conversations on an airplane or with a non-member about how the LDS and FLDS Church differ. It can be a challenge to articulate the differences in a manner that is meaningful and easily understood. But it is important that those discussions occur. And remember, we may know the differences, but many others don’t.

So the question for me is this – what can be about this inaccurate information. Elder Ballard asked the same question of his audience. He put it this way

let me pose a question. What are you prepared to do about it? If you are a member of the Church, what is your responsibility during this period of unusual attention and debate? Interest has continued at a high level and probably will for some time. If a national conversation is going on about the Church, are you going to be an active participant or a silent observer?

While noting the responsibility of Church leaders to engage the media, he said that they can’t do it all, especially at the grass-roots, community level. He then called on us to take up the cause. And while acknowledging that our leaders speak authoritatively for the Church, they look to faithful members to engage personally with blogs, to write thoughtful, online letters to news organizations, and to act in other ways to correct the record with their own opinions.

Of course Elder Ballard doesn’t expect us to try and book a slot on Larry King Live or take out full page newspaper ads to get our message out. And we don’t have to militant about it. His call for action is much milder. He advised that our communications could take the form of a simple conversation. He said

I am talking about taking part in everyday conversations in an unforced way, where your values and your religious beliefs will arise naturally. No one likes to have religion thrust down their throats. Instead, allow people to see how your beliefs lift and shape your life for the better.

What I take from this is that we can and need to be part of the discussion our society is having about Mormonism. And if we do not participate, the discussion will take place without us. We need to explain and define ourselves. There is a notion in our society that it’s not polite to discuss religion. I don’t agree with that. Talking openly about religion in a spirit of exploration and understanding can bring together people with vastly different beliefs and approaches to life.

But we have to be prepared to have a discussion with people who have their own ideas and beliefs. And this can be challenging. I have a good friend who I have spent many a lively evening with jostling over the differences and culture of Mormons and Unitarians. She has not become a Mormon and I have not joined the Unitarians. But we both have learned of each other’s faith and the reasons for our association which our respective churches. It has been rewarding and thought provoking to discuss our religious differences and similarities.

But she tells me that I am one of the few Mormons that will discuss religions with her. She knows and works with scores of active members and loves to discuss religion, but she says she finds few takers. I wonder why this is. I have know her a long time, so maybe it’s a comfort thing, but I think many people are reluctant to have a real conversation with her. She won’t tolerate platitudes, she wants real ideas and real beliefs, but she loves to discuss the religious matters. Do we perhaps shy away from a discussion that requires us to move beyond a simple declaration of belief? I think a discussion requires that give more than just statements of belief. It requires an exchange of ideas and thoughts.

I personally find that deep down many people want to discuss their religious views. As we get to know each other, that quickly discover that I like discussing current events and politics and religion. I think they find it amusing and a little disconcerting but are also intrigued. I can usually get them to discuss these things with me but they want a discussion, not a sermon. They want to hear what I think and they also want to share their beliefs. So I make a strong effort to learn their views and idea while I share mine. In doing so we get to know each other.

Now many of those I talk to may find me unconventional and quirky. But they also know that I am a seeker of personal and religious understanding. And that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the foundation from which I conduct my exploration. And I believe that in my own little way I am sharing the gospel and getting information out there.

So Brothers and Sisters, I will ask the same question Elder Ballard asked – what are you prepared to do about it. I hope you will take up his challenge and join the discussion.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

This Could Be Interesting

So I’ve got this little problem. I was asked today to speak in sacrament meeting next Sunday. Because the other speaker is a young man who is leaving on a mission, I have been asked to focus my comments on member missionary work. I guess it’s pretty clear that you don’t get assigned a sacrament talk based on qualifications. I am certainly not much of a missionary, unless discussing the similarities between the FLDS practice of polygamy and that of my great grandparents constitutes sharing the gospel. In fact, most of my sharing time is spent trying to understand my connection to the church rather than trying to connect others.

I have given a talk in sacrament meeting about 2 times in the last 15 years, but I have some strong notions about what makes a talk good. But I am having a tough time figuring out how to make this topic fit into my idea of a good talk.

I hope the talk to be

Interesting

Honest

Thoughtful

Thought provoking

Helpful to those listening

Because the topic of member missionary work is one that the average member has heard about 10 million times, I am trying hard to think of something that won’t put my listeners to sleep. Any ideas?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Delusions of Candor

“Truth” is a core concept in Mormonism. Just think how often you hear one of these statements. 1) “I know the Church is true” 2) “I testify to the truthfulness of the gospel” 3) “I know the Book of Mormon is the truest book on earth” 4) “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet” and 6) “I know President Monson is a true and living prophet.”

Before I mislead you, this post is not about whether Mormonism is true or not. It’s about what, if anything, Mormon use of the words true/truth/truthfulness have to do with truth’s synonym – candor.

For purposes of this discussion, I use the following definitions.

Truth (as understood by Mormons)

The LDS conception of truth does not fit any of the categories in which it has been discussed in the Western philosophical tradition…In the Western philosophical tradition…some have said [truth] is the correspondence with reality that true statements possess…[F]or Latter-day Saints, as their scriptures and everyday discourse reveal, truth is not primarily a matter of the correctness of ideas or statements...Though they do speak of the truth of statements, they most often use the word "truth" to signify an entire way of life—specifically, the way of life exemplified, prescribed, and guided by Jesus Christ.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism Volume 4, title, TRUTH.

Truth (as understood generally)

A universal, unchanging, provable fact that is applicable to all persons and all things at all times.

Candor

A frank, open speech or expression

For me, truth and candor are hard to separate. When I ask a question, I consider the response to see if it rings true. I assess not only veracity, but openness and frankness. An assertion may be technically correct, but if it’s not forthright, it may also lack truth. If I sense that I am only getting part of the story, I can’t help but question the truthfulness of the speaker. Consider: Once in an institute class at the University of Utah, we studied the violence committed against Mormons in Missouri in the late 1830s. I asked my instructor why Mormons had been so poorly treated. He responded that it was because of their beliefs. I asked if there was more to it than that. He repeated it was because of their beliefs. Feeling that was not the whole story, I asserted that there must have been more going on. He repeated yet again, somewhat testily, that it was persecution based on their beliefs. His tone let me know the discussion was over. While his answer may have not have been false, it was far from true. His refusal to give a candid and thorough answer was a type of falsehood.

For a church that relies so heavily on truth, I often find candor in short supply. Sometimes individual members will discuss their ideas and feelings about the Church openly and honestly, but I think most are pretty guarded with their thoughts. And institutionally, official presentation and communication focus more on indoctrination than discourse. Questioning is frowned upon and exploration of sensitive topics is discouraged.

The challenge for me is that my concept of truth is much closer to that used outside the Church. In the Church, truth is a path or a way of life as opposed to a matter of correctness of ideas. When I suspend my conventional idea of truth and consider the Church approach, Mormon truth claims make a lot more sense. But when I view Mormonism with the general definition of truth, church rhetoric and curriculum seem selectively propagated.

This leads me to the central question of this post: Are the Mormon Church and its members candid in the pronouncement and discussion of their beliefs, history and practices? I think the answer is no but reasonable minds can differ and I am open to differing conclusions.

If I view the truth as provable fact, the answer is no, the Church is not candid. The Church presents a glossy image of itself. For the most part, it discloses only facts that cast it in a favorable light. It rarely acknowledges flaws or mistakes. If Church leaders themselves have doubts, you don’t know it because they don’t voice such reservations. The Church makes a case the way a lawyer would – it presents information that is favorable and downplays the rest. The movie Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration is an example of this. It presents an idealized picture of Joseph Smith with nary a mention of his problematic actions like polygamy, treasure hunting and secrecy.

The Church’s lack of candor is particularly notable when discussing its history. I am not accusing the Church of falsifying the truth; I’m saying that its statements, curriculum, and communications generally lack openness, frankness and balance. You won’t hear much in Sunday School or in general conference about polygamy, blood atonement, the Adam God theory, or the priesthood ban.

However, if you consider the issue of candor in the context of the Church’s definition of truth, then the Church fares much better. If truth signifies a way of life – one prescribed and guided by Jesus Christ -- then Church pronouncements and curriculum are arguably pretty straightforward. The Church advocates its version of how to discover truth through living a Christ-like life and downplays or omits information that it thinks will detract from its mission. With this framework in mind, one might argue that if the Church were more candid, it might actually cause people to hear less of its Christ-centered message and instead focus on matters which the Church deems superfluous to living a Christ-like life.

That’s quite a stretch for me. If the Church disregards the conventional notion of truth and candor, it subjects itself to a great deal of misunderstanding and runs the very real risk of being seen as deceitful. Acculturated Mormons might get by with a definition of truth that is at odds with its generally accepted meaning, but even members fully versed in Mormon jargon can suffer conviction whiplash when they discover information at odds with what they have been taught in official discourse. And as for outsiders looking in at the church, it’s not hard to see how they can see the Church as disingenuous and even deceitful when the Church opts to use only facts it finds helpful while ignoring the rest.

So I guess what I am saying is that I can understand why the Church and most of its members feel that they seek, share, and possess the truth. But I also see why many outside the Church view the Church’s claim to truth with pronounced skepticism. I hope that we can bear in mind that the Church’s idea of truth can be hard for some insiders and most outsiders to comprehend. And with that realization, we can opt for a more conventionally candid discussion of our history and beliefs.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

FLDS on the Catwalk

In the opinion section of the New York Times, editorialist Timothy Egan had this to say a couple of days ago about the appearance of the FLDS women

You see these 1870 Stepford wives with the braided buns and long dresses, these men with their low monotones and pious, seeming disregard for the law on child sex — and wonder: who opened the time capsule?

Is Egan for real? Is he now the fashion editor for the paper? A better forum for his comments is the Discovery Channel's What Not To Wear. I mean come on, how pathetic is it that he is dissing this whole community because they favor modesty.

And how about the LDS that slam the FLDS for the same fashionable reasons. LDS members are bombarded with calls for modesty. But their sense of modesty seems to adjust rather nicely to changing fashions in the country at large. LDS dress modestly alright, but it’s relative. What is modest for many in an LDS ward today would likely be deemed immodest 30 years ago.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying it is time to go back to wearing swimming costumes and I hate it that LDS church attire has practically become a uniform, but don't be so petty as to criticize people for actually dressing in accordance with their beliefs, even if they dress like their grandparents did.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Polygamy as an Alternative Lifestyle

Not surprisingly, the FLDS roundup is generating a lot of traffic in the blogosphere. But the range of sentiment is far from uniform. I have been struck at how different my views are from some fellow Mormons. In an attempt to understand these differences, I have tried to consider the reasons for my views and those of those who think differently.

My Views

Generally speaking, I believe polygamists, the FLDS included, should be left alone. America is a big diverse place (or it should be) and there is plenty of room for people to do their own thing. I say live and let live. In this sense, I see polygamy as an alternative lifestyle. People engage of lots of behaviors I don’t but that doesn’t mean laws should be made to make them illegal. This is especially true when it comes to religion. Americans should be tolerant of religious behavior that deviates from the norm.

Of course child abuse should not be allowed, but polygamy itself, is something people should be allowed to practice. And I premise my statements here on the notion that what is really going on in Texas is the suppression of the FLDS church and its polygamous practices and not child abuse per se.

Given that polygamy is illegal, prosecution of it should be engaged in only in the rarest of circumstances and when other things are going on like statutory rape or welfare fraud. Polygamist should not be singled out. Government authorities have a great deal of latitude in what they choose to go after and polygamy should not even be on their list. There are other legitimate ills they should focus on.

Ok, so why do I think the way I do? In trying to understand my outlook, I disclose the following:

1) Family -- I have a historical connection with Polygamy. My grandmother and grandfather were raised in polygamist households. I see from my own family history that the practice of polygamy doesn’t make you a bad person or one unworthy of rearing children.

2) Church -- I belong to a church which originally practiced polygamy. It reveres a man (Joseph Smith) who had numerous wives, some of them in their teens. My Church still practices a type of polygamy (a man may be married to more than one woman in the afterlife although he is limited to one at a time in this life. I would consider myself a hypocrite if I came down on the FLDS for their polygamous practices given the practices of the Church I belong to.


3) Society – I live in a society where people can engage in all types of previously unacceptable forms of behavior. We allow for all types of alternative lifestyles and arrangements but we cannot allow this one?

4) Politics -- I consider myself a moderate democrat but I have a strong Libertarian streak. I believe the State should sparingly regulate personal behavior.

5) Law -- I am a strong believer in personal and parental rights. I believe the Texas authorities have violated the FLDS members’ civil rights and have reached well beyond what is reasonable and justifiable in how they have handled this matter.

Given my perspective, I have been quite surprised by the number of fellow Mormons who think the opposite. Many Mormon bloggers support what the Texas authorities have done. And even more support the suppression of polygamy but have qualms about the way Texas has gone about it. Here is my brief break down of their thinking:

1) Some bloggers think polygamy is just plain wrong. They don’t like it that the Mormon Church practiced it in the past and they don’t like it in any other church that practices it now. They think that there is good reason that it is against the law and it should not be tolerated. They think Texas has done what Utah and Arizona should have done long ago.

2) Some bloggers think that FLDS style polygamy is wrong. They think it has little in common with the former practice of the Mormon Church. They think that polygamy under the FLDS is abusive and insular. They think that FLDS men are pedophiles and control freaks and cowards.

3) Some bloggers think that the FLDS have no heavenly authorization to practice polygamy. They believe that the Mormon Church had God’s permission to engage in polygamy but that that permission was rescinded. As such, the FLDS practice is inherently wrong and a violation of God’s laws.

I don’t find these positions compelling. Perhaps I am blinded by my history and biases. Perhaps I have simplified or misstated the position of those that don’t share my views. I still think we should leave them alone.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stopping Gay Marriage One Polygamist at a Time

Just after the raid on the FLDS compound in Texas, the Tribune carried an article comparing the views on polygamy of Congressman Joe Cannon and Republican rivals vying for his seat. Cannon reportedly said that the government should not prosecute polygamists solely because of plural marriage. Conversely, David Leavitt (Michael Leavitt’s younger brother), was quoted saying that “polygamists should be prosecuted, or it will pave the road to same-sex marriage.” He further said if “we allow two consenting women and a consenting man to redefine what our society says is marriage, then we have opened the door for the redefinition of marriage for same-gender marriage. This is a broader scope than just polygamy."

Leavitt is not just blowing political smoke. As Iron County Attorney he prosecuted and got a conviction against Tom Green for bigamy. Green did six years behind bars. To his credit, I suppose, Leavitt is forthright about wanting to lock up polygamist. He says prosecute them plain and simple. You don’t need the pretense of saving children from deluded evil parents; just prosecute the parents outright for polygamy. And how about his rationale -- he wants to jail consenting polygamists because if we don’t, same-gender marriage may gain acceptance. I don’t know about you but I find that reasoning chilling.

Leavitt’s comments make me wonder if the Texas authorities don’t share his views on polygamy and have decided to go after the FLDS as harshly as they can. Perhaps the authorities saw the abuse charge as a gift -- a gift that allowed them to take battle to the entire FLDS community. In retrospect, they may have over played their hand, but time will tell. So is it just me or does it seem that what Texas is really trying to do is stomp the FLDS church out of existence?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

President Monson, MVP

It was conference this weekend. I watched more of it on Saturday and Sunday then I have in many years. The kids are getting old enough that I can largely ignore them and actually watch. Because this was President Monson’s first conference at the head of the Church, I was especially interested to listen to him. He did not disappoint. He was funny, poignant, measured, and personal.

It seems that much of what you hear from conference speakers could be read be another person and it would make no difference. It’s just a bunch of words. But President Monson’s closing remarks seemed directly attached to him. It’s funny, but in the Church we (or at least me) are so starved for real connection with our leaders that we latch onto anything that seems unscripted. While I assume President Monson wrote out his comments in advance, his delivery seemed authentic and unrehearsed. I always got that vibe from President Hinckley. He was a professional, meaning he excelled at the craft of delivering conference talks. I used to note the contrast in how he had the audience eating out of his hand and how other speakers didn’t. Well, President Monson owned the pulpit today. I was impressed.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Got Polygamy?

I just finished listening to Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama’s book about his search to discover and understand his roots. Obama wrote it just after finishing law school. It was especially personal because Obama reads it himself. I heard him tell the story. It felt like Obama shared a very private part of his life. One full of details most people don’t want to get out.

Much of the book revolves around Obama’s efforts to figure out how his absentee father informs who he is. His father was physically present in his life for only the first two years and then for a short time when he was ten. Obama reveals that on his father’s side it was common for men to have more than one wife. Obama’s father was a either a bigamist or polygamist depending on how you slice it. He had children by 4 women. The marriages over lapped each other with little regard for when one started and another stopped.

When Obama’s father left his birth place in Kenya to attend college in Hawaii, he left behind a pregnant wife and a child. In Hawaii, he met and married Obama’s mother. They had Barack and his sister. He parted with Barack’s mother two years later when he left for Boston to attend Harvard. While there, he entered into a relationship with a woman who would follow him to Kenya and bear him two children. His original Kenyan wife would later bear him two additional children. Going back a generation; Obama’s grandfather was a true polygamist. He had three wives at the same time.

What fascinated me was how Obama deals with all of this. His technique is simple -- he just lets it out. He plainly tells the story. His family’s polygamous practices are just part of how he came to be who he is. He doesn’t extol the practice, he doesn’t denigrate it, he just tells about it. He takes pride in and draws strength from his ancestors. He is not embarrassed or appalled by what they did, he doesn’t, as did Mitt Romney, sweep it away by saying it was “bizarre” or “awful.” He just tells you about it and how it has shaped him.

So my question to myself and others is this -- if you have polygamist ancestors, how does it inform your sense of self? Are you ashamed? Are you proud? Was it a mistake? Was it awful and bizarre? Are we just lucky that it’s a relic of the past? What is your take?

I for one am not the least bit ashamed. My mother’s mother and father grew up in large polygamous families. I am fascinated by their lives. Their religious practices are big part of who I am why I am where I am today. I am the product of a grand religious experiment. My great grandparents were so committed to their vision of the truth that engaged in a practice that made them criminals. They put their religion and their God before their country. I am in awe of their conviction. I feel that the Mormonism I am asked to live is a watered down version of theirs. And no, I don’t want to be a polygamist. I couldn’t do what they did not would I want to. But they were more committed to religious convictions that I am. I have it easy.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Daddy, I hate church

Henry, my seven year old, is getting increasingly vocal in his opposition to attending church. I have ignored this for the most part but am growing weary of the battle. Over the past few months I have let him stay home 3 or 4 times as a bit of an experiment. Last week, he strongly agitated to stay home but because my wife was not going to be home (she has not attended church regularly since she was a teen) I made him go. He was pretty upset and when we got there he chose not to get out the car. So I let him stay there while the girls and I went in. I thought he would calm down and join us in a few minutes. After about a half an hour I figured he wasn’t coming so I went out and got him. He still didn’t want to come in but I told him he had to and he reluctantly followed me in.

The funny thing is I think he sort of enjoys church even though he says he doesn’t. He is generally in a good mood after he attends. It’s just the getting there part that is a nightmare.

So I am not sure what to do. As I said, I have allowed him to stay home a few times lately so as not cause him to resent me for forcing him to go. But the result seems to be that he is just getting used to staying home. I want him to feel like going to church is his choice but perhaps he is too young to make that decision. Ideas?

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bloggernacle and Institutional Change


Fifthgen emailed me this question. I thought the group might like to toss it around.

I sense in the bloggernacle some guarded optimism that we are entering an era of comparative openness with respect to Church History. The talk is about the new Church Historian, the Joseph Smith papers, etc. Am I misperceiving things? Is there a basis for the optimism? And if so, is it because the Church's hand is being forced by the internet/bloggernacle? In other words, all sorts of information is all going to be out there, so we (the Church and its members) might as well get in the fray. And, does Pres. Monson change anything?


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Are Temples Secret?

Richard Bushman spoke at Weber University last Wednesday. Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the well-received biography of Joseph Smith. He is an active Mormon who, because of his testimony and scholarly credentials, is able to be fairly candid about the Church without running afoul of the powers that be.

I haven’t seen the text of his speech but it was covered in the Deseret News’ just-rolled-out online portal – The Mormon Times. Reporter Holly Farmer writes:

While some members will claim that Mormon temples are ‘sacred not secret,’ Bushman said that ‘temples are secret, plain and simple,’ noting that even members ‘don't speak to each other about it.' "

I was surprised to see Bushman put the smackdown on the widely held belief, but I applaud his pluck and common sense. I have heard it said many times that what goes on in the temple is not secret, it’s sacred. While I don’t agree with that statement, my sense is that most Mormons do. Bushman’s assertion was not well received by some Deseret News readers. One person, called Utah Valley Resident, said

Just a comment on Dr Bushman's purported speech item, where he says, that what goes on in LDS temples is secret, is simply untrue, and he knows it. What goes on in LDS temples is sacred and the specifics of what transpires in them is not to be openly discussed by the qualified members who are admitted to these holy edifices outside of these precincts. They can be spoken of freely inside of these buildings in appropriate conversations. If what he meant by his comments that these matters cannot be spoken of freely outside of the temple, then he is correct. Any member who is unqualified to be granted admittance, or members of other faiths, who are also unqualified to enter dedicated temples are not privy to the ceremonies that occur inside of these sacred edifices. What occurs there in the sacred ceremonies inside temples are pure and simply sacred and are not to be discussed any other place in specific terms? (sic)”


I have two questions 1) is Bushman right – are temples secret and 2) why do many or perhaps most Mormons blanch when temples are described as secret?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Fast and testimony meeting

Today was fast and testimony meeting. The first few testimonies were about our new prophet, Thomas S. Monson. Then in succession, two girls around the age of 6 got up to bear their testimonies. The first testified that she knew that Gordon B. Hinckley was a true and living prophet of God. The second young girl testified that she knew that Heavenly Father had died on the cross for us. I don't quite know what to think about this. The girls were sincere and spoke to the best of their knowledge, but both the statements were incorrect. I wonder if bearing testimony is more about what we think rather than what actually is. I don't know.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Matters or Tatters?

The Salt Lake Tribune broke a story Saturday (2/23/08) about the Danzigs, a married couple who resigned from the Church over what they termed matters of conscience. I suggest you read the Tribune article and the official Church response. As both a participant and an observer of Mormonism, the story has grabbed my intense interest. Here are some thoughts about the participants.

The Reporter. Peggy Fletcher Stack is a casual friend of mine, a former employer (for about a month 23 years ago), and my wife has worked with her off and on for about 15 years at the Tribune. She is a lifelong active Mormon with a son on a mission. She is probably a better Mormon than I will ever be. She has a tricky job. She has to cover the Church in a manner that satisfies her employer, her readers and herself. She has to report objectively (as she sees it) but not push the envelope too far. I think she does a good job and I read her stories as much as if not more than anything else in the paper. The Church response to her article is strongly worded and is pointed directly at her. That must put her in a very uncomfortable spot.

The Church. I have been a member all my life and attend my ward regularly. I am deeply interested in how the Church operates as an institution. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to understand what is really happening within the Church because it has such a cohesive, unified appearance. I am a small little piece of the Mormon Church. I read about how the Church is run and watch the wheels roll, but I have almost no part in how and what it does as an institution. This is not that strange given the size of the Church and its hierarchical nature. An average Mormon can have a great deal of impact on in their local congregation in terms of service and community. But greater matters of policy and action are made at much higher levels. For a lay person like me, the article was a glimpse (albeit an incomplete one) into what goes on behind the scenes when someone runs afoul of the institution.

Although the Church is a top down institution, I believe the Church can benefit from the pleas of dissenting members. For example, take the extension of the Priesthood to every worth male. I believe that dissenting voices caused the hierarchy of the Church to think very hard about its denial of the priesthood to blacks. Those at the top of the Church then inquired of the Lord about the rightfulness of the position. The Lord eventually said told them that the ban could be lifted and the terrible policy was done away with. Without pressure from the bottom, the top may not have been prompted to seek guidance and the policy may have remained in place much longer.

The Danzigs. The Danzigs were returned missionaries, temple recommend holders, and active participants in their ward. They appear to have been (and may still be) sincere believers. They volunteered their time and efforts to play in the Orchestra on Temple Square. Mr. Danzig felt strongly that his position was one he could not in good conscience abandon. The situation snowballed until he and his wife felt that they had to resign from the Church or be excommunicated. Mr. Danzig followed the courage of his convictions.

Should Mr. Danzig have kept his concerns to himself? I don’t know. I admire his courage. I certainly don’t have his guts. Was he wrong to accuse the Church of engaging in “intellectual tyranny”? Yes. Those words were unnecessarily inflammatory. Had he used gentler language, he may have been able to make his point without picking a fight he was unlikely to win. Was standing by his conscience worth losing his membership? You tell me.