What follows is a copy of a lightly edited letter I sent earlier today to a respected, liberal Mormon academic.
I have appreciated much of your work, and have not listened to your interview on *. I do, however, have a few things to add to what ** said to you.
Mormon leadership has from near the beginning has ridden two horses at a minimum in terms of authority. On the one hand, they claim absolute divine authority and obedience as ** noted. Countless statements from Mormon authorities can be mustered in support of this claim as well as the temple ceremony itself. And on the other hand, they claim the right to make mistakes and that such do not dilute their authority. In fact, the major defence Mormon leaders make of Joseph Smith and his error prone successors is that we cannot expect perfection from humans and that Smith was both God’s prophet and human, so we should not hold him to an impossible standard. Fair enough. However, when you combine the claim for divine authority and obedience whenever you can’t be proven wrong with an “out” that does not dilute your authority whenever you are proven wrong, you have something that resembles the “Texas sharpshooter’s fallacy” in logic. That is, if you want to look like a great shot (or a prophet), you fire a bullet at the wall first, and then before anyone sees the hole you draw the target around it to show the hole in the middle of the bull’s-eye. In similar fashion, Mormon leaders have invented and Mormon followers have accepted a system that can’t be falsified. If you are right or can’t be proven wrong, you are a prophet. If you are proven wrong, you made a non-prophetic error that does not affect your authority and hence the members’ obligation to obey you. Followers are prevented by their belief system from using the usual connection between past error, prediction of future error, and decision as to whether to follow the advice/order of the error prone leader. Hell-of-a-deal for the leaders as long as they can can get it, and an interesting evolution of the inerrancy doctrine that was used by religious leaders in times when they were questioned less than religious leaders tend to be now.
And what about the Mormon leadership attitude with regard to questioning their authority? I love it when Mormon leaders trot out quotes from Brigham Young, Joseph Smith and others that show how Mormons are expected to think for themselves. And of course, they must also obey regardless of what they think. So why are we surprised that most Mormons don’t think critically about their beliefs? What is the point if you can’t act as a result of your thinking, not to mention the common Mormon advice in recent years that says, “Don’t think, or read, or talk about anything that might cause you to question”. And, obedience is what is covenanted in the temple. And members must not “speak evil of the Lord’s anointed” which means in effect not questioning Mormon leaders in public or private so that legitimate concerns circulate and answers are demanded instead of quietly dying in a divided and conquered populace. This is a system similar to that which despots from time immemorial have created, and to which Mormons have simply agreed. This, in my view, is evidence of the kind of mythological evolution people like Joseph Campbell talk about. Mormonism has come up with a mythology related to its leadership authority that makes superficial sense in a scientific thinking world. We are small herd animals by evolution and instinctively cling to our dominant social group. Hence, it does not take more than superficial sense to keep us there most of the time.
That having been said, my concern with the Mormon leaders demand for unconditional obedience differs from **’s. It is the case, as he indicates, that Mormon leaders could make unethical demands and members would obey. It is also the case (and much more likely) that Mormons who are conditioned to obey the people they perceive to hold divine authority may at some point change their allegiance in that regard to a smaller, more radical group or start to become their own authority (like the Laffertys). The idea that God communicates his will to Mormons (or anyone) through feelings is a dangerous idea that can’t be proven and is so easily susceptible to abusive manipulation that it should be rejected as a matter of priniple.
But my greatest concern with regard to the requirement of absolute obedience is that it causes Mormons to follow bad advice. What about gay Mormons who I understand to be even more depressed than the average Mormon and who commit suicide more often than the average gay person? What about Mormon women who are depressed in astounding numbers? What about Mormon women who are particularly inclined, or suited, to make professional endeavours their primary focus in life? What about Mormon intellectuals who are told in effect to stop thinking, talking and writing about what appeals to them in many cases? What about all those Mormon kids who get married so young, then start having kids, then get into Mormon leadership positions, then don’t look up until they are in their 40s (like me)?
There are countless ways in which Mormon leaders provide advice to their followers that is profoundly to the advantage of the institution and profoundly against the interest of the average member.
And what does the emphasis on absolute obedience do to the moral fibre of the average Mormon? The temple covenants with regard to obedience are never met in my experience, and you are hearing from a guy who from the time he returned from his mission to being called as Bishop about ten years later did not miss a single home teaching appointment. I was ultra obedient, and in my view, no one fully lives up to the obedience requirement. Most Mormons fall so far below it that it is pathetic. They are put in the position of either carrying terrible guilt, or rationalizing the meaning of their covenant to obey and do all they are called upon to do within their reasonable power. Hence, most rationalize, and this slops over into all other aspects of their lives. Mormons, hence, in my experience are less honest on average in their dealings with their fellow man than most similarly situated individuals. Statistics drawn from Utah (with which I suspect you are more familiar than am I) support this in terms of tax evasion, software piracy, personal bankruptcies and other matters. This may also be a carryover from the time between the First and Second Manifestos during which Mormon leadership perfidy was so common and blatant, and some Mormon leaders wrung their hands over how this may have warped the moral timbre of their society.
And finally, what of the issue of reliability? Joseph Smith was not reliable. He deceived people constantly and when caught either used the “opps” out noted above, or in grievous cases used the “God told me to do it” out. In either event, he misled people while proclaiming his divine ability to see both the present and future with prophetic clarity. He lied about polygamy. He used the most disgusting, ridiculous seduction lines I have ever heard with many women, blatantly exercising his presumed divine authority to get their sexual favor. Those of his translations that have been checked have been proven to not be translations in the sense his hearers thought them to be. He used his prophetic mantle to attract investment capital to ill-conceived and sometimes illegal schemes. He regarded himself as in general above the law. He used secret quorums of various types to manipulate what was thought at the time to be relatively democratic church and a supposedly democratic city governance structure. The Book of Mormon has been shown to have an extremely high probability of not being what he said it was. And this is just the start of a list that I presume you know better than I do.
Whether Smith was a sincere believer in his own abilities, a pious fraud or just a fraud doesn’t matter in a sense – what he said was not reliable. And his tendency to say whatever was required to get his people to continue to follow him and believe what he said was passed on to those who claim their authority from him. Hence, much of what they say is not reliable either. That was particularly the case during certain periods of time, but even now when we compare Mormon history as taught in missionary discussions, adult Sunday school classes and even for credit university courses at Institutes of Religion and elsewhere, the charge of deception is irresistible. Were Mormonism a security, many of Mormonism’s highest leaders would be in jail for fraud.
When you combine leaders who consistently do not provide advice to followers that is based on the best available understanding of reality, with followers who are carefully conditioned to obey without questioning or discussing their concerns with anyone, you have a social disaster in the making. This disaster is no likely to manifest itself in a visible collapse, but rather in terms of blighted, impoverished lives. This was my experience, and the stats re anti-depressant consumption and a variety of other behaviors in Utah make me believe that this is a reasonable way to read the tea leaves in front of us.
I am glad there are people like you around who try to tease apart the threads of Mormon experience. However, in my view you do not go anywhere near far enough in your critique, and end up apologizing for an organization that would be best seen in history’s dust bin. I don’t expect it to find its way there because of Mormonism’s proven ability to do what it must to survive. However, just as I now look back on the events that caused revelations to be received to do away with polygamy (after the fits and starts with which you are well acquainted), I wish that those with voices like yours would put as much pressure as possible on the Mormon hierarchy. They will change when forced to do so by declining membership rolls and revenues. I do not believe they will do so until a loss of personal and institutional power seems the lesser of evils from where they sit. The organization has been down that road at least three times before.
ps My further thoughts regarding Mormonism can be found atÂ http://mccue.cc/bob/spirituality.htm