Friday, July 12, 2019

Survey Says...Bad Idea

The LDS church has just made some more waves by sending out a questionnaire that appears to be testing the waters for shifting the starting age for periodic bishop interviews from 12 to 8.  This is a baffling step that I'd like to approach from a few different angles.


The Official Church Explanation is Problematic
Here's what the church had to say in response:
On an on-going basis, the Church sends surveys to leaders and members to seek their opinion and experience regarding activities, perceptions, and participation in Church programs. The Church also looks for ways to assist parents in the spiritual growth and development of their children. Periodic interviews with a parent or trusted adult present is one of many considerations to help children remember the baptismal covenants they have made and follow Jesus Christ. This survey is designed to simply gain information and is not an announcement of any change in practice.
Okay, first of all, LDS Spokesman Daniel Woodruff, "ongoing" is a real word, so you don't need to throw a hyphen in there.  But more importantly, this statement is a little misleading.


The way it stresses that the surveys seek opinions about church programs and later reiterates that this particular survey was designed merely to gain information seems like an attempt to imply that the church only wants to take the membership's temperature and does not use these kinds of methods to steer its policies.  This, of course, kind of flies in the face of what Quentin Cook said last year about the implementation of the Come, Follow Me curriculum:
In pilot test stakes across the world, there was a highly favorable response to the new Come, Follow Me home resource. Many reported that they progressed from reading scriptures to actually studying the scriptures. It was also commonly felt the experience was faith promoting and had a wonderful impact on the ward.
Why would you do pilot programs and mass surveys if they don't affect your decisions?  Why would you tout the responses to your testing if it wasn't a factor in the rollout of the new policy?  The church absolutely uses these methods as a way to gain information about changes they're planning to implement.  While Daniel Woodruff is obviously right that this is not an announcement of a change, I think the statement's wording is trying to downplay how seriously the church is considering this change.

It's also muddying the church's institutional role in the spiritual development of young members.  Let's review Nelson's announcement of the new "home-centered, church-supported" gospel curriculum last year:
This morning we will announce a new balance and connection between gospel instruction in the home and in the Church. We are each responsible for our individual spiritual growth. And scriptures make it clear that parents have the primary responsibility to teach the doctrine to their children. It is the responsibility of the Church to assist each member in the divinely defined goal of increasing his or her gospel knowledge.
It seems kind of disingenuous to talk about how the church looks to assist parents in their children's spiritual development when there's been a recent major policy that shifts responsibility for that development away from the church and toward the parents.  The church is trying to assist less and  trying to relinquish some of its responsibility when it comes to teaching the gospel.  But when it comes to bringing children in to meet with authority figures to discuss personal testimonies and personal worthiness, the church is apparently happy to step up and look for ways to "assist."

Also it's a little weird that the argument is that periodic bishop interviews will help the children remember their baptismal covenants.  We're taught in primary classes that we renew our baptismal covenants with the sacrament.  The prayers over the bread and water make reference to those covenants.  Why is an interview with the bishop every few months going to make children remember something that they're reminded of every Sunday?



From a Public Relations Approach, This is Problematic
I think Sam Young has demonstrated he's not interested in stopping in his pursuit of his cause to protect children from the relatively rare but individually devastating risks that a policy like this would increase.  It seems like the wisest route for the church in the interest of avoiding bad press is to leave Sam Young's arena alone for a while.  They clearly have no interest in complying with his demands, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to move in the opposite direction.  Tons of church critics are going to jump on it, Sam is going to organize more events, and the church is going to have more fun New York Times headlines that vault its more embarrassing controversies into the national press.

And even though Mormonism hasn't been hit as hard with abuse scandal as the Catholic church has, Catholicism has struggled with the issue so much that the international profile for ecclesiastical abuse has become huge.  For a religion so obsessed with its public image, you'd think it would make more sense for the church to err on the side of caution and institute preventative policies lest it produces the next big national scandal of clerical sexual misconduct.  Not only are they leaving children vulnerable and considering amplifying that vulnerability, but they're leaving their public image vulnerable and considering amplifying that vulnerability.


Implications Regarding Revelation are Problematic
Revelation implies divine communication.  And within the context of Mormonism, it's not an implication—it's the direct definition of the word.  It means that God is introducing information that is beyond human ability to learn or to generate.  The will of God doesn't require surveys or pilot programs—when God said to study it out in your mind, he didn't mean to ask for popular opinion.  I don't recall hearing any scriptural story or any church history anecdote in which a prophet or a member was required to acquire a large sample of opinions in order to receive revelation.  If you need to send out mass emails to collect responses and analyze them in bulk before determining your course of action, you're not receiving supernatural assistance for your policy decisions.

Furthermore, the clinical, corporate way this data collection was conducted doesn't seem indicative of an organization with a direct line to Heaven:
This survey is being conducted by the Correlation Research Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church is considering having Primary children ages 8 to 11 receive periodic individual interviews, similar to the current practice of interviewing young men and young women. 
Your honest feedback will provide valuable information on this proposed change. Your individual answers will be kept confidential. Your participation in this survey is important but voluntary. Your responses will be combined with those received from other participants, and they will be used only to identify broad statistical trends and not any individual information.
Revelation now runs on broad statistical trends culled by the Correlation Research Division from feedback provided on proposed changes.  That's not very inspired or inspiring.


From a Practical Standpoint, This is...You Guessed it...Problematic
What kind of organization doesn't take the risk of sexual abuse seriously—especially when it applies to children?  Sam Young has been persistent enough and confrontational enough and public enough that the church leadership cannot claim plausible deniability.  They have been made aware of the risk their policies present.  So why would a policy that can increase that risk even be proposed?

Disregarding any doctrine, any moral or legal questions, and stripping the issue down to just humans making a decision that affects other humans, this makes absolutely zero sense to me.  Different sections of society disregard the needs of others all the time.  Some people want bad things for certain genders, orientations, ethnic groups, nationalities, political parties, corporations, or socioeconomic groups.  But one thing that just about everyone agrees on is that we need to protect children from sexual abuse.  Children are, perhaps, the most universally protected class of people.  So why, when someone publicly provides evidence that ecclesiastical interviews are normalizing sexual discussions with non-relative authority figures and making children susceptible to grooming, is a policy that begins those same interviews even earlier in a child's life even under consideration?  And let's be honest—if they're sending out an official survey on it, it's under serious consideration.  It still may not happen, but it's gotten far enough through the vetting process for someone in the Church Office Building to request statistical data on it.

It should never have gotten this far.  It should have been brought up in one meeting by one moron and then been immediately shouted down by the wiser people in the room.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Polygamy Boondogglery

I recently rediscovered the church's essay about the end of polygamy  I don't remember what specific issue I was digging into, but Official Declaration 1 was involved in my curiosity, and that led me back to this shining example of apologetic logical chaos.  It was a lot more troublesome than I remembered. And, of course, I'm going to discuss why I thought so.  To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, I will begin at the beginning, go on until I come to the end, and then stop.
For much of the 19th century, a significant number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage—the marriage of one man to more than one woman.
Phrasing the issue as "the marriage of one man to more than one woman" makes it sound like we're not going to be talking about polyandry.  There's no mention of the marriage of one woman to more than one man.  I wonder why that is.

My guess?  Because that would point to some of the slimier aspects of an already slimy practice.  Modern Mormons are often able to make peace with polygamy since it was such a long time ago, but this is usually possible because the more unpalatable details are shrouded.  The church was relatively honest in the other polygamy essay by mentioning that Joseph wed Helen Mar Kimball "several months before her 15th birthday."  But if more members knew that some of these wives were young women living in the Smith household, or that Joseph married women who already had husbands, or that he married women after sending their husbands or fathers on missions, they may find it more difficult to leave polygamy on the shelf.

However, it's definitely not a good sign that this essay kicks things off with such a significant lie of omission in the very first sentence.  Continuing:
Like the beginning of plural marriage in the Church, the end of the practice was a process rather than a single event. Revelation came “line upon line, precept upon precept.”
Remember this comment for later.  This essay is going to do a pretty good job of showing that the decisions made by church leaders in regards to polygamy align pretty closely with what you'd expect from humans with no divine foreknowledge.  It wasn't line upon line.  It was concession upon concession.
For half a century, beginning in the early 1840s, Church members viewed plural marriage as a commandment from God, an imperative that helped “raise up” a righteous posterity unto the Lord.
That is some interesting wording.  Notice that it doesn't say the church taught that this was its stance on polygamy or that this was the doctrinal truth of polygamy during that time period—it's just how church members viewed it.  They're throwing the members under the bus and trying to keep the prophets above culpability.  Which is kind of shitty.  I mean, why do you think the church members viewed plural marriage this way?  Was it some kind of spontaneously generated mass delusion or was it because their leaders told them that's how plural marriage works?
Also, if polygamy was an imperative to raise up a righteous posterity, why would Joseph Smith need to marry women who already had righteous husbands?  Why is it so hard to determine if Joseph Smith had any children by his wives?  And what's so inferior about monogamous marriages that prevent them from adequately raising up a righteous posterity?  This explanation sounds fine when you don't think about it, but if you're willing to analyze some of the underlying details, it has serious logical flaws and serious unanswered questions.
Many Latter-day Saints embarked on a course of civil disobedience during the 1880s by continuing to live in plural marriage and to enter into new plural marriages. The federal government responded by enacting ever more punishing legislation.
Does civil disobedience qualify as "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law"?  I understand the argument that God's commandments take precedence over secular law, but if that's going to be the approach, we shouldn't get to whine about persecution and we shouldn't pretend like the twelfth article of faith is actually a meaningful aspect of our faith.  Believing in being subject to the law when you have no conflict with the law is fair-weather civic responsibility.  It's like saying you strongly support a woman's right to choose but only when she chooses not to have an abortion.  Imagine trying to fit in with the pro-choice crowd with that attitude.

I'm also not crazy about the nobility of the phrase "civil disobedience."  I hope we're not pretending early Mormon polygamists are as heroic as Ghandi or Dr. King.
This government opposition strengthened the Saints’ resolve to resist what they deemed to be unjust laws. Polygamous men went into hiding, sometimes for years at a time, moving from house to house and staying with friends and relatives.  Others assumed aliases and moved to out-of-the-way places in southern Utah, Arizona, Canada, and Mexico.
...This antipolygamy campaign created great disruption in Mormon communities. The departure of husbands left wives and children to tend farms and businesses, causing incomes to drop and economic recession to set in.
Why are we blaming economic recession on leaving the work to the women?  Apparently the women of Deseret during the late nineteenth century weren't made of the same stock as the women of America during World War II.

It's also kind of weird that the men left their families.  Sure, they were fleeing prosecution, but wouldn't it make more sense to move their entire family to these out-of-the-way places?  I'm sure that would be a huge undertaking, but wouldn't it beat an indefinite separation?  Or they could merely stop cohabiting with more than one wife, which is exactly what this essay will later say men did after the first manifesto:  "other husbands stopped cohabiting with all but one of their wives but continued to provide financial and emotional support to all dependents."  
The campaign also strained families. New plural wives had to live apart from their husbands, their confidential marriages known only to a few. Pregnant women often chose to go into hiding, at times in remote locales, rather than risk being subpoenaed to testify in court against their husbands. Children lived in fear that their families would be broken up or that they would be forced to testify against their parents. Some children went into hiding and lived under assumed names.
That sucks and all, but I don't like the way this is presented in the spirit of victimhood.  The parents did something that they knew was against the law.  Regardless of whether that law is justified, these polygamists knew the risks they were taking. They're not quite as passively victimized as they're made out to be.

None of this should diminish the legitimate struggles church members must have had, however.  Even if you thought the right course of action was to live polygamy and to abide by the law of the land, moving your huge family down to Mexico surely would not have been a simple or painless operation.  But considering how much the early saints are glorified for suffering in the name of their religion as they were driven from place to place (or for suffering incarceration, as in the quote immediately below), it's surprising that more people weren't willing to pack up and move to where they could legally practice their beliefs.
Incarceration for “conscience’ sake” proved edifying for many. George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, emerged from his five months in the Utah penitentiary rejuvenated. “My cell has seemed a heavenly place, and I feel that angels have been there,” he wrote.
A self-important sense of martyrdom doesn't make you right.  

Encountering strong resistance to your beliefs can often reinforce them in your mind.  This happens to Mormons, ex-Mormons, Democrats, Republicans, Anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and people who think Greedo shot first. These early Mormon polygamists' willingness to endure punishment for the glory of their convictions may be indicative of the intensity of those convictions, but it is not indicative of truth—which means this paragraph doesn't really accomplish anything other than stoking Mormonism's seemingly endless appetite for virtuous martyrdom and noble persecution.
Church leaders prayerfully sought guidance from the Lord and struggled to understand what they should do. Both President John Taylor and President Wilford Woodruff felt the Lord directing them to stay the course and not renounce plural marriage. 
This inspiration came when paths for legal redress were still open.
If the inspiration to stay the course came while paths to legal redress were still open, what indicates to us that it was actually inspiration?  Still trying while there's hope and then giving up once hope is gone is what a human without the benefit of divine prophecy would do.  It would have been impressive if the leaders had received inspiration to stay the course and were later able to achieve legal redress, thus validating the intervening struggle.  But inspiration that mirrors mortal decision-making doesn't seem useful.  And it sure doesn't make it sound like God was being very helpful.

God inspired me to brush my teeth this morning.  That's what I was going to do anyway, sure, but I swear I received revelation on the subject.
"The Lord showed me by vision and revelation," he later said, "exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice," referring to plural marriage.  "All the temples [would] go out of our hands."  God "has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it."
Did God tell you or did you just read the Tucker Edmonds Act and see which way the wind was blowing?  Again, this is a decision-making dynamic that is attributed to God but demonstrates no superhuman foresight or foreknowledge and sounds like exactly what a normal human-made decision would have been under the circumstances.
Despite countless difficulties, many Latter-day Saints were convinced that the antipolygamy campaign was useful in accomplishing God’s purposes. They testified that God was humbling and purifying His covenant people as He had done in ages past.
Ah, so that's the explanation for why the prophets were inspired to stay the course.  Because God was humbling his people through persecution.  I guess it's tough to refute that, other than to say that God truly works in mysterious ways because it seems like the only way to tell the difference between punishment and humblement is the membership status of the victims.
The essay lays things out pretty clearly and in pretty mundane, everyday, humany detail, so it sounds like God was phoning it in and merely confirming common sense.  It's also interesting that God commanded the prophet to abrogate a practice that Brigham Young previously indicated was essential for exaltation And when God finally did instruct his servants to cave, it was simply because a man-made government was attaching legal penalties to the policy in question--not for a doctrinal reason or for any kind of revelatory paradigm shift.
The Manifesto was carefully worded to address the immediate conflict with the U.S. government. “We are not teaching polygamy, or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice,” President Woodruff said. “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise."
The quote here from Woodruff is a bit misleading. These two thoughts are in separate paragraphs in the Manifesto with a lengthy sentence between them. But more importantly, even though the Manifesto does directly address US law, it does not mention any territory or government when it declares that polygamy is neither taught nor permitted.

The Manifesto may have been carefully worded, but not carefully enough to provide coverage for modern apologists.  Since this essay admits the church was approving marriages outside the United States (and in Utah as well) into the early years of the 20th century, that means that Woodruff was being dishonest and the church leadership was behaving contrary to the Manifesto's assertions.  
And yes, I know that the usual refutation for an accusation like this is that it's silly to believe that prophets are perfect, since it's widely taught that God must choose imperfect men to lead his church.  But there's a difference between imperfect and actively immoral.  And when a pattern emerges challenging the moral credibility of prophet after prophet, it begins to look like either God is a poor judge of character, God doesn't actually care who he puts in charge, or that maybe God has nothing to do with which asshole is in power.
The Manifesto was formally presented to the Church at the semiannual general conference held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1890. On Monday, October 6, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, stood at the pulpit and read the Articles of Faith, which included the line that Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” These articles were sustained by uplifted hand. Whitney then read the Manifesto, and Lorenzo Snow, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, moved that the document be accepted as “authoritative and binding.”
The voting at General Conference sure has changed in the last 100 years, huh?  I don't remember voting on the Proclamation on the Family.  But Dallin H. Oaks has decided that it represents authoritative and binding doctrine:
In contrast, Latter-day Saints affirm that the family proclamation defines the kind of family relationships where the most important part of our eternal development can occur.
Converted Latter-day Saints believe that the family proclamation, issued nearly a quarter century ago and now translated into scores of languages, is the Lord’s reemphasis of the gospel truths we need to sustain us through current challenges to the family.
I testify that the proclamation on the family is a statement of eternal truth, the will of the Lord for His children who seek eternal life. It has been the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future. Consider it as such, teach it, live by it, and you will be blessed as you press forward toward eternal life.
But we've heard enough from Oaks.  Let's get back to the celebrated ghostwriters of this gospel topics essay: 
The Manifesto was formally presented to the Church at the semiannual general conference held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1890. On Monday, October 6, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, stood at the pulpit and read the Articles of Faith, which included the line that Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” These articles were sustained by uplifted hand.
Okay, so this is kind of difficult to prove, but I can't help but wonder if this paragraph is designed to nurture a misconception that the Articles of Faith, including the belief in obeying the law, were not officially adopted by the church until the October 1890 general conference.  The Pearl of Great Price and the Articles of Faith therein were voted as the fourth standard work by the church in 1880.

Again, this is hardly my strongest criticism, but I don't see why the reading and sustaining of the Articles of Faith is a necessary detail to include here, since this paragraph is about the vote to adopt the Manifesto as binding.  Bringing up a different document—without mentioning that it had been binding for ten years by this point—and then talking about how the assembly raised their hands to affirm it is a weird way to go about narrating the Manifesto's introduction to the church membership.  I imagine that Whitney was essentially reminding the congregation of their belief in submitting to secular law before reading a Manifesto that could have been unpopular with a certain segment of the population.  But that's not how it's presented here.

Certainly, the above quote is not a lie.  And certainly, I can't demonstrate that it was written with the intent to deceive.  But I do think the construction is peculiar enough to support a theory that this was worded in such a way as to realistically generate members' honest misunderstandings of the conflict between the twelfth Article of Faith and plural marriage.
The assembly was then asked to vote on this motion. The Deseret News reported that the vote was “unanimous”; most voted in favor, though some abstained from voting.
"Unanimous" does not mean some people abstained.  The Latin roots that make up that word mean "one" and "mind."  If some people are not of a mind to visibly approve of a measure, I don't see how everyone is of one mind.  Some of them are merely condoning rather than affirming.  Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but at the very least I think that wording counts as abiding by the letter of the definition instead of the spirit of the definition.  It satisfies the denotation but not the connotation.  The essay uses the word "unanimous" to put the best possible not-technically-dishonest spin on the 19th century Saints' reception of the Manifesto.
Having lived, taught, and suffered for plural marriage for so long, it was difficult to imagine a world without it.
If you substitute the phrase "the church" in for "plural marriage" here, it nails why so many people stay in the church.  Interesting that the institution of the church can muster up empathy for members who struggled with the end of polygamy more easily than it can muster up empathy for members who have moved away from correlated orthodox Mormonism.
The Manifesto declared President Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States. It said nothing about the laws of other nations.
This may be the shittiest, weaselliest line in this entire essay. Yes, it did declare the intent to obey the laws of the United States. Yes, it said nothing about the laws of other nations. Both these statements are true, but they are used in service of a lie. This paragraph goes on to discuss polygamous marriages in Canada and Mexico with the implication that these were performed without contradicting the Manifesto. That is plainly inaccurate. Let's revisit a crucial section of the Manifesto that, importantly, says nothing about the laws of any nation:
We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.
Sure, it mentions the Utah Territory. But the part of the sentence that basically says polygamy is over does not provide any geographic restraints. It goes so far as to insist that the church was not permitting any person to enter into polygamy.  Regardless of what country or territory the church was allowing plural marriages in after 1890, it was in direct conflict with the Manifesto. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
If they meant for people to know they planned to continue teaching and practicing polygamy in other locations besides the United States, this was the perfect place to say so—which makes it very significant that they declined to.
The ledger of “marriages and sealings performed outside the temple,” which is not comprehensive, lists 315 marriages performed between October 17, 1890, and September 8, 1903. Of the 315 marriages recorded in the ledger, research indicates that 25 (7.9%) were plural marriages and 290 were monogamous marriages (92.1%). Almost all the monogamous marriages recorded were performed in Arizona or Mexico. Of the 25 plural marriages, 18 took place in Mexico, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Utah, and 1 each in Colorado and on a boat on the Pacific Ocean. Overall, the record shows that plural marriage was a declining practice and that Church leaders were acting in good conscience to abide by the terms of the Manifesto as they understood them.
How? How does the record showing that the church leaders permitted polygamous marriages up to 13 years after they declared it was no longer practiced demonstrate that they were acting in good conscience?

Even based on this essay's insistence that the Manifesto only applied to US territories, this still shows that the church allowed 6 plural marriages in the US after they'd stated their intent not to do so. How is that acting in good conscience? The Manifesto did not say that the church would allow the practice to decline—the Manifesto was a statement that, as of 1890, the church was already not teaching polygamy and planned to submit to the United States' anti-polygamy laws. Clearly, that was not true.
Apostle Heber J. Grant, for example, reported that while visiting Mormon settlements in Mexico in 1900, he received 10 applications in a single day requesting plural marriages. He declined them all. “I confess,” he told a friend, “that it has always gone against my grain to have any violations of documents [i.e. the Manifesto] of this kind.”
Okay, so that means that Heber J. Grant thought that permitting polygamous marriages—even in Mexico—constituted a violation of the Manifesto. Again, based on an apostle's words, how was the church acting in good conscience to abide by the terms of the Manifesto as they understood them if Grant understood them the same way I do?
Church President Lorenzo Snow issued a statement clarifying that new plural marriages had ceased in the Church and that the Manifesto extended to all parts of the world, counsel he repeated in private.
Why did the second Manifesto need to clarify that polygamy was discontinued in all countries if the first one didn't specify any country in which it should still have been taught or allowed?
Even so, a small number of new plural marriages continued to be performed, probably without President Snow’s knowledge or approval. After Joseph F. Smith became Church President in 1901, a small number of new plural marriages were also performed during the early years of his administration.
Notice how there's no citation after the assertion that plural marriages were probably performed without Snow's knowledge.  It seems like they're saying, in effect, "we have no evidentiary basis for this either way, but we choose to assume the best, because that's how we roll when it comes to historical scholarship."  It's also notable that there's no disclaimer that the illicit marriages performed during Joseph F. Smith's tenure were probably done without his permission or knowledge.  Based on the utter lack of credibility and intellectual scruples demonstrated in this essay, I have to wonder if that isn't an under-the-radar admission that Joseph F. Smith knew about or authorized some polygamous unions. 
When questioned about new plural marriages performed since 1890, President Smith carefully distinguished between actions sanctioned by the Church and ratified in Church councils and conferences, and the actions undertaken by individual members of the Church. “There never has been a plural marriage by the consent or sanction or knowledge or approval of the church since the manifesto,” he testified.
The citation on this particular quote references the published transcript of the Reed Smoot hearings, available here (the above quote is on page 130).  This is the same hearing in which Joseph F. Smith testified that new apostles are chosen by the Quorum of the Twelve and not by revelation (page 92), and proclaimed "I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations" (page 99).  This is not a faith-promoting document.  It makes President Smith look evasive, uncooperative, and sometimes snarky (although I suppose it's tough to blame him, considering he was being dragged before the United States Senate to defend his religion while politicians debated whether his colleague was fit for public office).  I suppose it may serve to humanize the prophet, but it also shows that his understanding of his calling is drastically different from how the church regards Russell M. Nelson today.

Also, according to this very essay, the denial in the paragraph I quoted above is false. Remember how we were just discussing that there were at least 25 plural marriages performed after the manifesto (although FAIR Mormon estimates that it's "fewer than two hundred"). These marriages required apostolic approval, but they still happened. Is this essay saying that the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perjured himself before the United States Senate? 
Is this essay also trying to pretend like all of that is no big deal?  Yes. Except they're also pretending perjury isn't perjury. Observe:
In this legal setting, President Smith sought to protect the Church while stating the truth. His testimony conveyed a distinction Church leaders had long understood: the Manifesto removed the divine command for the Church collectively to sustain and defend plural marriage; it had not, up to this time, prohibited individuals from continuing to practice or perform plural marriage as a matter of religious conscience.
The prophet, apparently, was claiming there was some kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy in regards to polygamy. Which is clearly refuted, yet again, by this essay, because plural marriages after the Manifesto required apostolic approval.  President Smith did not state the truth.  

But let's go back to his congressional testimony.  Shortly after sections of the 1890 Manifesto had been quoted on pages 105 and 106 of the transcript, we have this exchange:
Mr. Smith:  Let me hear your question.
Mr. Tayler:  That the suspension of the law commanding polygamy operated everywhere upon the Mormon people, whether within the United States or without?
Mr. Smith:  That is our understanding, that it did. 
Then, on page 108, when the prophet was being questioned about why polygamy was still canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants despite the Manifesto effectively repealing that law:
Mr. Tayler:  And it remains now without expurgation or note or anything to show that it is not now a valid law?
Mr. Smith:  In the book?
Mr. Tayler:  In the book; exactly.
Mr. Smith:  Yes, sir.
Mr. Tayler:  And in connection with the publication of the revelation itself.
Mr. Smith:  But the fact is publicly and universally known by the people.
It sounds to me like the prophet was saying that the withdrawal of polygamy as a divine commandment following the first Manifesto was so widely known and understood among the Mormon membership that there wasn't even a need to put an asterisk in the Doctrine and Covenants to alert readers that the practice had been suspended.

Earlier in his testimony, Joseph F. Smith had clarified the four doctrinal books of Mormonism—including the Pearl of Great Price (added to the standard works more than twenty years prior), which contained the Articles of Faith and thus the creed that "we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

Everybody knew polygamy was no longer commanded.  Everybody knew the secular law was to be obeyed.  So...how, exactly, then, was Smith conveying a distinction between the church's removal of the divine command and individuals taking it upon themselves to continue the practice as a matter of religious conscience?  A Mormon's religious conscience after 1890 should have compelled them not to take additional wives.
In fact, to take it a step further, if we use the apologetic approach to the condemnation of polygamy in Jacob 2—which is that polygamy is only okay when God commands it—then why the hell would any Mormon's religious conscience compel them to marry an extra wife after a prophet's Manifesto putting an end to the commandment had been adopted as binding on God's church by the law of common consent?
Beginning in the 1890s, as Church leaders urged members to remain in their native lands and "build Zion" in those places rather than migrate to Utah as in previous years, it became more important for them to abide the laws mandating monogamy.
So doctrine is dictated by social convenience and local legality, okay.  And remember that the Articles of Faith were canonized in 1880, so I don't understand why abiding the laws weren't already a priority.


Let me conclude this grueling slog through the swamp of sophistry, the morass of mendacity, and the bog of bullshit with one final point:
"All that we can do," Cannon said, speaking of the First Presidency, "is to seek the mind and will of God, and when that comes to us, though it may come in contact with every feeling that we have previously entertained, we have no option but to take the step that God points out, and to trust to Him."
Okay, sure, yeah, let's talk about the wisdom God exhibited when he instituted polygamy.  It caused strife and multiple schisms in early church history, it brought the death of the founding prophet before any method of succession could be revealed, it delayed Mormon assimilation into society by giving fodder to anti-Mormons and delaying statehood for Utah, it was used as cause for the United States government to seize church assets, and in the modern era it often paints the beloved prophet in a lascivious and predatory light and continues to be mined for ammunition against the church's credibility, honesty, and truth claims.

Good call, God.

Friday, May 10, 2019

There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

Sheri Dew recently conducted a "Sister to Sister Event" at BYU with some current female church leaders (Primary General President Joy D. Jones, Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham, and Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon).  It was presented in a very familiar question-and-answer structure in which the leaders got to field inquiries from women around the world.  I'm guessing none of these women spent any time playing baseball in their younger years, because they bobbled a lot of easy grounders.

The very first question Sheri Dew presented to them kicked things off on a really depressing note.  The question read, in part:
How do we deal with the overwhelming concern that we are never enough?  Everywhere I look, there are voices telling me to do more, be more, fit more in, spend more, more, more, more.
...None of this, by the way, comes from my husband or anybody important, but I feel it.
The woman who wrote this described her hectic family responsibilities, her plentiful demands from the church, and her struggle for personal improvement in a cluttered life.  Apostles have already answered this question, more or less, as Bednar advised us in April 2014's conference to increase our load to get ourselves unstuck from the snows of life and Eyring indicated in the April 2017 priesthood session that if we feel overwhelmed, we should "take that as a good sign."  Weird that members are still struggling with this, right?

What I think is most telling about the question itself is that this woman sounds so incredibly alone.  She feels so deeply that her responsibilities loom before her with Sisyphean certainty, but she also feels the need to admit to this as a personal assessment, and not one that stems from her "husband or anybody important."  What she needs is for someone to tell her that it doesn't matter if it comes from her husband and that her own emotional journey doesn't need to be validated by any priesthood leader—if it's important to her, then it's coming from somebody important.

But what to her fellow sisters in the gospel advise?
I know when we begin to feel overwhelmed and we put too much expectation on ourselves, it's easy to get discouraged and then we lose the spirit and we can't afford to do that because we need the spirit with us.
Joy D. Jones 
Okay, clearly this woman is already discouraged.  You're telling her that this means she's losing the spirit, which is making her even more poorly equipped to handle the surfeit of critical responsibilities the church is hurling at her.  That helps her...how?  That tells her what she can do to "deal with" her discouragement...how?  Way to answer the question.
With the Lord we won't stumble.
—Bonnie H. Cordon 
I'm not really sure what the definition of "stumble" is here, because if it means to drop one of the three hundred eight-four balls we're juggling at any one time, you're either lying or you're telling this woman that she didn't have the Lord with her.  But surely that's not what you mean by "stumble," because that would mean this is more useless advice that doesn't actually help this woman cope with her emotional exhaustion.  In fact, you may be doing more damage to her by implying that she wouldn't be stumbling the way she feels she already has if she had the Lord with her.

What's also troubling is that, after Jean B. Bingham provides a similarly obtuse platitude by referencing Mosiah 4:27 ("it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength") and all three of them have concluded their answers to this woman, not only has no one given any direct strategies that can actually help her cope, but not a single one of them has applauded, acknowledged, or alluded to her stated desire to have a career in which she can help make the world a better place.  They all focus on the church stuff and the family stuff.

Of course it's very honorable to be a mother and a wife, and everyone is entitled to pursue his or her own beliefs and priorities, but I think that when anyone expresses a strong desire to get out into the world, roll up her sleeves, and try to improve the human experience, we need to point that out.  We need to encourage that.  We need to nurture that.  What we shouldn't do is ignore it and pretend like it's less important.  We shouldn't pretend like that kind of desire isn't exactly the kind of thing we need to see in more people from all faiths and all cultures and all identities.

But on to Question 2:
I hear talks about how important women are in the church, but honestly, that has not been my experience.  What suggestions do you have about working more effectively and in greater unity with priesthood leaders especially when, from time to time, some leaders can seem a little dismissive?
Okay, excellent question!  How should Mormon women combat their belief system's built-in sexism and its de jure superiority of priesthood holders?

Bingham tells a story about a man she worked with in a previous ward who made her angry with his dismissive attitude toward her ideas.  She described them as "purse-slamming meetings."  But here's what she learned:

Over time, I learned to work with this brother.  I learned that it was a style, a personality thing—it wasn't necessarily me.  And I learned that if I prayed for him, if I worked to understand him, and better ways to express myself or approach him, that we worked much better together.  And by the time I was released, I was actually sad.
 —Jean B. Bingham
Okay, kudos to you for learning to coexist with an asshole.   But I hope you realize that you're basically telling women worldwide that when they have a disagreement with a man, they should learn how to understand the man better and how to approach the man better.

Hey.  Guess what.  Sometimes, the man is wrong, though.  Especially in a religion that gives upwards of ninety percent of the power to men and teaches that men are the only ones who have the authority to act in God's name, men can be prone to undervaluing and disregarding the opinions of women.  This...really shouldn't come as a shock to anyone.  So the advice to learn to better understand the guy who's being an asshole and the repainting of sexism as "a personality thing" isn't really helpful.

But then she gets to the part that, as far as I've seen, has induced more online ire than anything else from this event:
We, as women, tend to be, sometimes...can we be shrill or demanding or stubborn?  We think it's...[laughter from all three]...we have the best idea ever and if they don't see it our way, well...then CLEARLY there's a problem here.  [more laughter] So all I want to say is, sisters, when we ask that question that the apostles asked of the Savior—"is it I?"—that's a really good place to start.
—Jean B. Bingham
This is like a female television writer creating a strong female character and then dressing her in revealing skintight leather outfits and having her sacrifice everything for the love of a good man and then killing her off as a plot device to push the male character to his dramatic crisis.

Just because it's coming from a woman doesn't mean it's good for women.  I mean, it's better for Bingham to say this than a man, I guess (same thing goes for Dew's earlier comment about how all three women are "adorable" and "well-put-together") but it's still not great.  The "shrill" and "demanding" parts in particular play into stereotypes about silly emotional women who're always being hysterical.  And then, of course, concluding with "is it I?" implies that women should first assume that they are the problem in any unpleasant interaction with a man.

In another context, the "is it I?" comment might not be so bad.  Human beings, generally, should stop assuming the genesis of a conflict and stop placing the blame on their enemies by default.  But when a female church leader recieves a question that cuts to the core of their sexist ecclesiastical environment and she responds by telling women they should ask themselves if they're the cause of any disagreement they may have with a man...that's...not...great.

Jones and Cordon largely echo Bingham's comments, reiterating that you need to make sure you're right with God when you're arguing with a man.  And then...one of them drops this gem:
But I think if we realize that as we're sitting in councils and we're working with people, especially in the church, we have a wonderful opportunity to do something that I think is remarkable, and that's sustain.  You know, where else, not in any other community but in the Lord's church, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Lord gives us an opportunity to say, "will you sustain these imperfect people?" 
—Bonnie H. Cordon
There's a lot to parse out of this one.

First of all, how ridiculous is her claim that God doesn't give us the opportunity to sustain leaders in any other organization?  Because...this is, purportedly, God's only organization.  In case you were bummed that Elohim doesn't afford you the right to sustain your leaders at the Rotary Club, don't get your hopes up...it's never gonna happen.  You know, where else, not in any other community but in Girl Scouts, in the Girl Scout organization, we're given the opportunity to sell Girl Scout cookies!  I mean, sure, because that's how it works and Girl Scouts are the ones who sell Girl Scout cookies because they get them from the Girl Scouts to raise money for the Girl Scouts, but isn't it amazing how no other organization offers that?!

But more important that the silliness of that assertion is the pointlessness of the act of sustaining.  She pretends like it's some kind of preternatural power that we're endowed with as church members, but it's an empty ritual, especially in this context.  So there's a misogynistic power-tripping asshole in the ward council meeting...how is sustaining going to help with the situation?  How does that get him to listen to the opinion of the uppity broad with delusions of equality?  How does that help women to actually be seen as important in the church?

It doesn't.

And it's also worth pointing out that sustaining often just makes you complicit in your own oppression.  Even outside of a discussion of sexism, if you have any problem with a church leader, you can sustain him—and basically give a vote of confidence to someone who will continue to treat you the same way—or you can vote not to sustain him, which is about as good as abstaining from the proceedings.  The church likes to pretend that sustaining is a proper democratic vote, but it's not.  Because you can't even suggest someone else to replace the leader whom you believe is performing poorly.

Vladimir Putin is better at this than the church is.  Sure, Putin will throw the guy you're trying to vote for in jail and then fudge the ballot receipts, but at least, theoretically, you have an alternative to voting for him and to just staying home on election day.

But I digress.  Because the point here really is that all three of these women completely failed to address the premise of the question—that it was not this person's experience that women are important in the church.  If anything, these leaders just lent more credibility to the claim that women really aren't valued in Mormonism.

Good job, ladies.

Oh, and before I move onto the next question, I need to include this:
One of the things that I love about my mother and my father...they taught us that if we're having a challenge with a leader in the church, we do not criticize.  EVER, ever, ever.  I never heard my parents say one negative thing.  Because it doesn't help, and when you approach with love, as Bonnie said, that's how you find the charity to work forward.  
Jean B. Bingham
Jesus Christ, that's toxic.

Okay, so let's say, for example, we're talking about one of the many cases in which a Mormon leader has sexually abused a young member.  If you think parents should not say anything negative about their leaders then, I'm struggling to see how you have any kind of conscience.  That kind of behavior needs to be exposed and rooted out and prosecuted, and that's going to involve some unpleasant accusations and some negative words.  I understand the desire for respecting the chain of command, but there are plenty of things that should supersede that desire.

If criticism "doesn't help," how are members who have been severely wronged by their church leaders supposed to resolve these situations?  I'm all for approaching wrongdoers with understanding and with charity, but sometimes you need to approach them with criticism and harsh words so that their deeds can come to light and so people can be protected from them.

In my experience, I have found that people who don't tolerate criticism are generally those who feel especially vulnerable to it because their self-esteem is in the gutter or because they feel that their grasp on their authority is frail.  People who accept criticism gracefully tend to be those who are confident in who they are and have less of a need to enforce their authority with an iron fist.  Just sayin'.
How does someone who is childless or who doesn't have a picture-perfect marriage or who isn't married or whose family is fractured or who identifies as LGBTQ and doesn't feel that there is a place for them feel at home in a family-centric church?
Another good question!  How do we make space for people who don't fit inside the boundaries of the weird little Mormon cookie cutter?  Let's see what sublime wisdom our panel chooses to impart upon us:
In this church, we need to help one other understand that every single one of us belongs to the family of God, belongs to the Relief Society family, belongs to our ward family, that NO ONE is left out.
Jean B. Bingham
Did...did you just restate the question in the form of a statement?  The question was "how do we do a thing" and your answer is essentially, "we need to make sure we do a thing."  Wow.  Great, but the question was how.  Bingham may be gearing up for a run for public office, because that was a pretty slick diplomatic sound bite that glistened just enough to obscure the fact that it was completely devoid of an actual answer.

Heavenly Father put us in families for a reason and we all have a family and they all look different.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
No!  Were you fucking listening to the goddamn question?!  These are people who feel like they don't have families!  Until the church stops telling women their primary role is to bear and nurture children, until the church stops telling LGBTQ members that their identity puts them at odds with the eternal family structure of the Celestial Kingdom, and until the church stops dividing split-faith families along dogmatic lines, this is not a sufficient answer!

Imagine if someone shoots you in the gut.  While you're bleeding out on the sidewalk, you ask the person who shot you, "Hey, can you do something about this bullet wound?"  And then she smiles down at you and assures you that your body is merely shaped a little differently than everyone else's and that's okay and then she gives you a hug.  Thanks, but I'm still in agonizing pain and serious medical danger because of you, so maybe could you actually do something about the bloody hole you ripped through my small intestine?

That was a little parable.  See what I did?

When we follow through on that scripture, then everyone feels included, regardless of what their particular situation is.  Married, non-; children, non-; challenged in many, many ways...
—Jean B. Bingham
Okay, so nobody has actually mentioned the dreaded lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, and intersex people in their answers so far.  And I'm concerned that this was actually Bingham's nod to that cross-section of Mormonism.  It sounds to me like being married, being unmarried, having children, and not having children address every group mentioned in the original question except for the LGBTQ crowd and the not-picture-perfect-marriage crowd.  I can't decide if it's worse if Bingham is putting LGBTQ people in the "challenged in many, many ways" category or if she's just ignoring them altogether.

She does, eventually, find her way to an umbrella statement that "everyone belongs," but...I think by then the damage is already done and it's not like the church is gonna put its money where her mouth is.

The event continues with a few more questions with a few more fluffy answers, but there's one last thing I want to comment on:
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, never hides from us.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
I hate to disagree, Bonnie (okay, that's obviously a lie), but hiding is exactly what Jesus has done for the last two millennia except for a few notable and uncorroborated exceptions.  I would love it if she could provide me a complete list of living persons who have actually seen Jesus face-to-face.  Even the prophet is intentionally ambiguous on the subject.

Sure, I realize she's being metaphorical, but it's misleading nonetheless.  If Jesus wanted to show himself, he could.  The fact that we're reduced to identifying his presence as a series of nonspecific, spiritual, and unauthenticated impressions, feelings, and coincidences means that either Jesus doesn't exist or he's meting out his manifestations in painstakingly paltry morsels—or, in other words, hiding.

As a general comment, I can't help but wonder about the rationales behind the arrangement of this event and the selection of the questions.  My theory is that this broadcast is one of many recent moves to pretend like the church is addressing the tough questions.  Because some of these were tough questions.  And this meeting can be pointed to as evidence that the church doesn't shy away from them and even welcomes them (considering the strongly suggested, rarely used, and obviously carefully moderated option for viewers to send in live questions).  This may work as evidence for a lot of people that the church is being transparent and forthright, but I would beg anyone who will be satisfied by this evidence to review how much of these leaders' responses consist of pleasant platitudes and how little of these leaders' responses consist of serviceable solutions. 

I realize that, because of the all-female cast and the woman-centric material of this broadcast, it's possible that my criticism can be interpreted as its own form of the sexism I'm trying to denounce.  That would be a fair claim, and one that's difficult to definitively refute.  But I hope my criticism is focused on the content of the speakers' words instead of on the identities of the speakers.  From my perspective, Mormonism has a habit of oppressing groups of people and convincing many of them that they are not oppressed.  Women comprise one of the most notable groups for which this is the case.  I don't think these women possess the levels of dishonesty and unscrupulousness and hypocrisy that I ascribe to Nelson and Oaks and Holland.  Unlike some of the apostles, these women seem mostly genuine to me.  They are trying to accomplish what they think is right within the confines of an organization that has forced them to internalize its imposed limitations on their gender.  And after decades in the church, like so many other members to varying degrees across demographic lines, they don't realize how much better they could be without the organization.

And that, sadly, causes them to—with good intentions—become complicit in perpetuating the systemic marginalization of certain groups within of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It causes them to contribute to the sexism.  It causes them to shore up the authoritarianism.  It causes them to stoke some of the more toxic behaviors of the membership.  And I'd be willing to bet that whatever higher priesthood authority gave the green light for this event hoped that's exactly what would happen. 

Also, in case anyone recognized the reference in the title—I've had a certain song from a certain Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby film stuck in my head the entire time I've been writing this.  The trigger for that, of course, was the "Sister to Sister" caption on the video.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

Russell M. Nelson is a runaway train.

Of course, I'm pleased to hear that the church is making moves to try to limit family separation during important life events.  I still have one sister who isn't married, so maybe I'll actually be able to attend a Mormon family wedding someday.

But...

I'm also amused at our current Godless Leader's strategy.  Almost every one of his policy changes is a potential shelf-breaker—and when he makes so many of them in such a short period of time, it's the equivalent of slamming a bowling ball down on an already creaking shelf.  The problem is that when these changes are implicity and often explicitly depicted as revelation and the will of God, people who benefit from the changes can start to wonder why God couldn't have easily provided this gospel golconda sooner.

Imagine you're a recently returned sister missionary.  The last few months of your mission, you were able to wear pants and it was awesome.  It was little change, perhaps, but it made a discernible difference in your quality of life in the often grueling mission field.  And then you learn that the little girl your brother and his husband are raising won't be automatically excluded from baptism prior to adulthood...but you wonder why there was a three-year period in which your adopted niece was treated so differently because of her parents' choices.  And now you learn that your whole family—including your gay brother and your apostate sister—can be present at your future wedding ceremony!

That's great, but at a certain point, you may begin to wonder why you should be celebrating when the church "fixes" its own policy.  Who decided women shouldn't wear pants in the first place?  Who thought it was a good idea to exclude children of gay couples?  Who originally instituted the practice of having legal wedding ceremonies inside the temple instead of just the spiritual sealing?  You may begin to associate changes in policy with the cessation of injustices.  And you may begin to wonder how and why God's true church could have been the source of these easily avoidable injustices.

If Nelson were the dynasty-building mastermind he thinks he is, he would play things more slowly.  Mormonism has had time to adjust to the fact that early leaders were racist, because that was "fixed" 41 years ago.  We've had time to sit with the implications of polygamy because that was "fixed" 129 years ago.  And while most of these recent changes are far less momentous than those more famous shifts, they affect a lot of people and they're affecting them in rapid succession.

When you're shady occasionally, it takes a long time for people to add everything up.  When your shadiness manifests itself in a flurry of activity, that sets the alarms whooping and the klaxons blaring.  This is exactly why the guys who just pulled off the perfect crime agree to lay low for a while.  Because people, whether they're law enforcement officers or cult novitiates, eventually forget or move on or focus on more pressing matters, and the moment when the tide of complacency rises again is the sweet spot for resuming shady activity.  Has Nelson never seen a heist movie?  Maybe too many of the good ones are rated R.

So while I applaud the apostles for their occasional awkward toddler steps toward transparency and inclusiveness and non-abusiveness, I also cackle with delight at the knowledge that they're unwittingly working against themselves.