Accurate information is like sunlight – it stops most kinds of rot while encouraging growth.
With the FLDS (fundamentalist mormons) continuously in the news this month, the LDS attempts to distance themselves from these “splinter groups” and the doctrine of polygamy. President Hinckley, in an interview with Larry King attacked polygamy 10 years ago on television. He said:
I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal.
[Current polygamists in Utah] have no connection with us whatsoever. They don’t belong to the church There are actually no Mormon fundamentalists.
we have nothing to do with it. We’re totally distanced from it.
Michael Nielsen, writing for the Salt Lake Tribune, tries to remind the church and its members of their ties to the doctrine and practice (albeit in the afterlife) of polygamy. (See http://www.sltrib.com/Opinion/ci_8923…)
Michael Nielsen is always worth listening to – carefully – in my view and I am glad that he has chosen to publicly weigh in on the connection between Mormonism and FLDS polygamy. His analysis sets FLDS polygamy in its Mormon context and gently (that is one of his many strengths) reminds the Mormon faithful of their polygamous roots, polygamous afterlife, and the way in which both influence contemporary Mormon reality in many respects. I think his public relations advice is excellent, and will be surprised if something like that does not already hold sway within the Mormon leadership cadre. Those folks receive some of the best corporate communications advice on the planet, and much of that is drawn from Dr. Nielsen’s area of speciality – social psychology.
To cut to the chase in that regard, suppressing and ignoring the evidence is only an effective public relations strategy until a lot of people find the evidence and start talking about it. Then, coming clean, and apologizing, is by far the most effective strategy for most purposes. If this is not done, the public’s trust is lost. Once lost, trust is hard to regain. This applies to a wide range of Mormon issues.
Our perspective largely controls the conclusions we reach. The perspective implicit in Dr. Nielsen’s analysis is that of a social psychologist who is accustomed to thinking in terms of social groups (like the Mormon Church) as organisms that evolve in order to adapt to their environments. Interestingly, most of us have an easy time seeing how these forces shape other groups, but cannot do so when it comes to our own. I suggest that this is the case with many posters who are critical of Dr. Nielsen’s article. Their belief in the reality of a particular type of God, His communication to J. Smith and other Mormon leaders, and a particular kind of life after death (involving polygamy) cause them to miss Dr. Nielsen’s point.
Dr. Nielsen pointed out some rough edges on the evolving Mormon organism. Does it make sense for Mormons to have completely rejected polygamy as a lifestyle while still clinging to it as an eternal belief, and at the same time attempting to become a mainstream, evangelical Christian sect? He says “no”, and I agree. This is a prime candidate for Mormon prophetic revelation, but is more likely to be dealt with as was the Adam-God doctrine, the importance of blood oaths in the temple ceremony, the idea that man can become like God (G. Hinckley assured us that that Mormon leaders don’t teach that, to the great surprise of the few faithful Mormons who have heard about his statement in this regard) and countless other Mormon beliefs that fell out of step with the times. That is, Mormon leaders will stop talking about polygamy. It will be excised from teachers’ manuals. It will be put into the “mysteries” category, and hence discussion of it in all circumstances will be discouraged. Therefore, polygamy’s influence within Mormonism will decline. This is, of course, precisely what has already happened, while polygamy as a doctrine remains on the books and hence occasionally makes life difficult for those increasingly few Mormons who take their religion seriously enough to learn its theology and attempt to live by it. The fact that Mormons are discouraged from using anything other than scripture and the lesson manual to prepare lessons, and limited resources to prepare talks, makes it less likely that future Mormons will be troubled by these old ideas. Nonetheless, in this and many other ways, the most diligent Mormons are often those who suffer most.
Anyone who suggests that Mormon beliefs in general don’t change, and that this one can’t, are unfamiliar with both Mormon doctrine and history. The “line upon line”, continuing revelation concept was designed to allow Mormonism to evolve (and J. Smith to get off the hook when his frequent and often extemporaneous revelations proved wrong), though the human desire for certainty makes it tricky for Mormon leaders to use this part of Mormon theology. Hence, the pattern tends to be that current Mormon prophets cannot be questioned, and they (and only they) occasionally confirm that something that was once believed to be a prophetic statement was in error after it appears incontrovertibly inaccurate, and has in any event been long dead as a practical matter as a result of having been suppressed and ignored in the manner described above. But of course, the fact that a prophet has been proven wrong does not mean that anything else the prophet said should be questioned. That is, prophets are prophets unless proven wrong, and only in that specific instance will it be accepted that they were not speaking as prophets. Everything else they said that is believed to be prophetic still is. As long as that belief is accepted, there is no way to question Mormon prophetic authority no matter how often they are shown to have been speaking in error. Heads I win; tails you lose. Mormons, of course, would roll their eyes at the idea that the founding prophets of the JWs, Seventh Day Adventists or Muslims could be considered prophets on this obviously non-prophetic basis.
One of the many examples from Mormon history that can be used to illustrate the ephemeral nature of eternal Mormon truth is this: What are the chances that a faithful Mormon in 1880 would have believed that the Mormon Church would abandon polygamy? At that time, polygamy was Mormonism’s defining characteristic. The prophets continually trumpeted its eternal, immutable nature both before and after the First Manifesto in 1890. This mainstream Mormon prophetic position is what gave rise to the FLDS and other Mormon fundamentalist groups, and the disregard for man’s law in favour of God’s law is what has the FLDS in trouble now. Contrary to what one poster indicated, it is not reasonable to say that the trouble in Texas is a child molestation issue instead of a polygamy issue. It is a child molestation issue that is caused by religious belief – that polygamy is sanctioned by God, including polygamy with girls deemed underage by US law.
The difference between mainstream Mormonism and the FLDS is one of degree, not kind. Again, contrary to other posters, mainstream Mormonism bows to man’s law and hence God’s eternal truth is not the dictator of belief or behavior (unless perhaps you believe that God caused the US government to contradict God so that Mormonism would change …). When US law required that polygamy be abandoned or the Mormons leave the US, the Mormons abandoned polygamy, including polygamy with underage girls. The FLDS refused to do so. And now in Canada (and probably the US), it is probable that polygamy between consenting adults is legal as a result of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Man’s law, after all, does change. If polygamy is an eternal law, why is it not practised wherever legally permitted, at a minimum? Or was the US law-propelled Mormon abandonment of polygamy a bizarre developmental step – part of God’s deeply mysterious way of bringing mainstream Mormonism to its current position? What does God have to say about all that, President Monson?
Which brings us to another interesting question – what would mainstream Mormonism be today had the Mormon prophets not had polygamy wrested from their tenacious grasp? This tells us something important about the nature of Mormon prophesy, and how seriously any of it should be taken.
If mainstream Mormonism were still polygamous, it is extremely probable that it would be a shadow of its current self, and a lot like the FLDS – a cloistered group proud of its unwillingness to play ball with secular society and its resulting backwardness. Were not the early Christians a rag tag lot until embraced by the powerful of their day, after apostasy?
Contemporary Mormonism was created by the US government forcing the Mormon prophets to finally abandon polygamy after decades of actively resisting this; promising that it would never happen; lying about what they doing in that regard under oath and in countless public forums; etc. This chapter of Mormon history on its own makes crystal clear the need for the Mormon belief that God works in mysterious ways.
I’m not as polite or nice as Michael Nielsen. My call to the Mormon leadership is that they come clean about polygamy and a whole lot else, including their penchant for deception from J. Smith forward. I am grateful that the Internet and other communications media are calling Mormonism to account, along with many other authoritarian organizations that prospered largely as a result of their ability to avoid accountability.
Accurate information is like sunlight – it stops most kinds of rot while encouraging growth.
For more articles on the psychology of belief and Mormonism by Bob McCue, see: http://mccue.cc/bob/spirituality.htm and http://www.mormoncurtain.com/topic_bobmccue_section1.html