Well, I had in mind to write this post, but then decided it might come across as arrogant. But when this article by Carrie Sheffield showed up in the Washington Post today, and is currently the most emailed article from the opinion section, I decided I would write this up anyways. Because the article gets almost everything so terribly terribly wrong about Mormonism. Or at least what Mormonism is supposed to be.
I want to make it clear up front that I understand that many people have experiences in the LDS church that mirror the ones from the post. But part of me gets very angry at those situations, because it’s not supposed to be that way. One of the major reasons, I suspect, that I’ve never had a crisis of faith in the church is that my family has always been amazing. We are able to discuss things openly. We are encouraged to read. We occasionally make fun of speakers in church, or teachers, or seminary instructors. (Just when they deserve to be made fun of, which to be fair happens to all of us at some point.) Dad once said that “no hallowed hand will stop the work from progressing” either. Recently we had a very good friend decide to leave the church, and while of course we were all dismayed, this friend is still in the rotation for Christmas presents, and will always be welcome at our house. My father sent him a half-joking email that basically said “Well, you’re still an Apple fan, right?” Haha.
Also, I married Susan. Turns out her family is absolutely amazing too.
As exhibits A-C, I give you what happened this Christmas vacation with her family.
Exhibit A. The two oldest grandsons got microscopes for Christmas. Science and thinking are encouraged in our family. The oldest son of Susan’s oldest sister is an astoundingly intelligent second-grader who plays games like “particle accelerator” for fun (he runs into a small hut with 2 balls-a helium atom, and comes out with, say, 8-an oxygen atom!). For Halloween he was a scientist, and couldn’t understand why everybody asked if he was a mad scientist. Just a regular old scientist, thank you very much.
Exhibit B. Two days after Christmas we went to the Museum of Natural History down in the Smithsonian Mall in downtown DC. The grandkids wanted to go to the exhibit on human evolution, and we took them. There was nary a discussion about how the science was false, or that the Bible/Book of Moses/Book of Abraham/Temple Ceremony disproved the exhibit, or that there was no death before Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden because they ate an apple after being beguiled by a talking snake. I’m sure someday the children will have good discussions with their parents about science and scripture, but it wasn’t December 26, 2011. That day was all science.
Exhibit C. For Family Home Evening we played a variation on the hot/cold game. Basically we’d sing a song, whether a church song or Frosty the Snowman or whatever, and the grandchildren would take turns trying to find the object. When they got close, we sang louder. When they got farther away, we sang softer. I kid you not, the object they were chasing after was a small, stuffed black sheep. My brother-in-law introduced the game saying “some families shun their black sheep, but in this family we go seeking after them.” He was not kidding. There was no joking smile on his face. He was serious. I was flabbergasted. I mean, I had just assumed that it was understood that we would not shun our own, that through example that lesson would be taught. But here was an actual object lesson on seeking after the black sheep! Oh that I had recorded it on my phone for you all to see!
So when Carrie Sheffield writes in the above linked article “but the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church,” that’s not true for many families. (At least she said “often,” and I accept that as true.)
When she writes, “the church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking,” that doesn’t resemble the church I was raised in. Obedience is important, sure. God’s house is a house of order. But the phrase “obedience is the first law of heaven” never occurs in the scriptures. In fact, I think Jesus rather pointedly disagrees in Matthew 22:35-40.
When she writes “Salt Lake City’s male gerontocracy told me to avoid books and marry” that doesn’t seem to jive with some of the things said by our leaders quoted here, in the Daily Universe, no less! Though my brother Stephen concludes (rather obviously, I think) “something within the LDS community disincentivizes female educational ambition” here. The times, though, they are a-changin’, as evidenced by this post by a good friend of mine who comes from a fairly conservative mother, but her mother still encouraged her to at least get a Master’s. (At least, ha!)
When Sheffield writes, “I met with a high-ranking Mormon leader who told me to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were ‘worse than pornography.’” That doesn’t sound at all like the servant of a God who commanded us to learn about EVERYTHING and to read all the best books (D&C 88:79, 118). (I’m not doubting that there was some high-ranking leader that said that, just that he was wrong.) I have a much stronger testimony (from the Spirit, I think) of Hugh B. Brown’s statement “Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” This was quoted to me the first week of my bioethics class at BYU, and you can find the entire talk linked here at the BYU President’s Page.
I’m more sympathetic to the Dean of Religious Education not answering Sheffield’s growing list of questions. I don’t think it’s his job to answer every growing list of questions from every undergrad at BYU. But I’m sorry she didn’t take classes from the wonderful professors at BYU that I took from. Because, and this may surprise people, there are religion professors at BYU that aren’t simply seminary teachers on steroids. I took my first Book of Mormon class and had such a negative experience that a decade later I can still meet up with people from that freshman academy section and laugh at it (this happened to me 2 weeks ago). So when I signed up for religion classes after that, I did my homework and made sure I was taking from professors that would more suit my personal educational and spiritual needs. And, with the exception of that first Book of Mormon class, all of my religion classes at BYU were exceptional, mind-blowing, challenging, and factual (I now know Oliver Cowdery was likely a dowser, thanks to Spencer Fluhman)!
When she writes “my parents shut me out of their home for nearly five years because of religion, and some former friends shunned me,” I don’t know anywhere where any general authority said to leave the lost sheep out in the cold and let it die. Jesus certainly didn’t. Basic Christian Fail here. Far too many Mormons do this. But I dare you to find a general authority that would agree with the proposition “I should shun, kick out, never speak to, and have no contact with any children of mine that leave the church.”
When she writes, “Perhaps someday the church will not excommunicate, fire and demote people who want honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine,” I really think that time has passed. Go look at the Mountain Meadows Massacre Book from Oxford University Press, or the Joseph Smith Papers project, or the fact that you can buy Rough Stone Rolling at Deseret Book. I was 12 when the September 6 events happened. And now I hate going to Sunstone Salt Lake City because any event with the September 6 turns into “who can get the biggest hit in on President Packer.” The other Sunstone meetings are much more productive, in my opinion. And BYU doesn’t kick professors like Charles Harrell out for writing a book like this one.
Professor Harrell also teaches seminary and institute. (There should still probably be more seminary and institute teachers like him, and less like the one I had in high school that accused me, a nerd that wargamed once a month or so, of cheating because I wiped the floor with the rest of my class in . . . you guessed it, a wargame, and that thought the movie Contact was great because Ellie Arroway ends up in heaven at the end…. Not even going there.)
I think that for far too many in the church have set up a false church. They think that their church says science is satanic, that it tells all of its women to only stay home and produce babies, that the prophets and apostles are infallible, never have disagreed, don’t currently disagree, never will disagree, and meet with the Savior weekly in the temple meeting Thursday morning, that all of church history is puppies and rainbows and roses except for when other bad evil nasty people attack the completely innocent and saintly Mormons and maybe the 116 pages incident, that polygamy was introduced and ended without a hitch, that anybody who is questioning the church in any way, shape, or form must be secretly a dirty sinning apostate because why would you ask questions unless you had been completely abandoned by the Spirit?!?, that the Book of Mormon civilizations were every Native American from the top of Alaska to the bottom of South America, that every prophet from Adam to Thomas S. Monson knew exactly everything that every other prophet knew, and that it all corresponds to the current correlated manuals, and that everybody outside the church is not going to end up in the Celestial Kingdom so we should shun them, even members of our own families, too bad for them.
I call this the LDS Cult of False Expectations.
The solution is to leave it.
Now, there are two ways to leave it. You can either (1) take off from the LDS church itself, or (2) you can get Mormonism right.
My family largely gets it right. We are largely what Mormons are supposed to be. When I was graduating from my MA program at the Yale Divinity School we had a barbecue at one of the other LDS student’s house with my family and the other families who were there. The host came up to me afterward and said “Carl, your parents are the kind of people Mormonism is supposed to produce.”
I’m so terribly sorry for all of those who grew up or are currently in environments, whether a ward, a seminary or institue class, or a family, or whatever, that adheres to and teaches the principles of the LDS Cult of False Expectations. I'm sorry that many Mormons aren't what they are supposed to be. In many ways, Sheffield’s article should be a wake-up call to Mormons in general. Nay, a call to repentance! We’re not getting our own religion right. It’s not supposed to be that way. I was blessed enough to be born into, and later to marry into, a family that largely, I think, does get it right. But we have work to do ourselves. Everybody does. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And no, I'm not engaging in a No True Scotsman fallacy.
So please leave the LDS Cult of False Expectations.
Not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.