Thursday, March 23, 2017

Responses to Responses to Common Questions

MormonLeaks, that lovable band of truth-seeking rapscallions, have some fresh releases this week, including a document outlining the talking points church representatives can use to respond to "common questions."  This one has some precious little nuggets of slime hidden throughout.

Here's my first example:
  • Do you believe you can become gods?  Latter-day Saints believe that we are all sons and daughters of God, and that all of us have the potential to grow both during and after this life to become more like him.  As the Bible teaches, this is God's work—to help us grow to what he calls exaltation, a state in which the faithful will be heirs to everything God has promised his Son, Jesus Christ.  This is one of the most profoundly significant doctrines of the Church—we live together as families and continue to learn and progress after we die.
This sets the precedent for most of the next 30-some pages—any journalist worth his salt will, of course, notice that this hypothetical church representative did not answer the question.  Do you believe you can become gods?  We believe that we can continue to progress after we die!  Apparently, we also believe in answering yes-or-no questions with neither a yes nor a no.

(And, also, yes, we're supposed to believe we can become gods, but we realize how weird that sounds to everybody else so we try to keep that to ourselves.)

Moving on to the section on abuse...
The Church has a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse or cruelty of any kind to children and spouses.
If only that were true.  Obviously, I only have anecdotal evidence to draw upon here, but saying you have a zero-tolerance policy and actually having a zero-tolerance policy are not the same thing.  Especially in the case of something as serious as abuse, when you're kind of expected to declare that you have a zero-tolerance policy.   The church is not about to publicly proclaim that there have been some isolated cases in which the reputation of a perpetrator or the good name of the church itself was used as a justification to make exceptions and keep disturbing events quiet.  They're not that stupid.  But the important thing here is that the church is not nearly so good at deterring abuse, detecting abuse, or disciplining abusers as it tries to pretend.

Again, anecdotally.  But still—to the people in those anecdotes, this matters a great deal.
  • No other church takes the steps we do to prevent or address abuse.  Local leaders are frequently instructed on how to recognize and prevent abuse.  The Church's "Handbook of Instructions" for lay leaders provides clear direction for helping victims and handling those suspected of abuse.  The Church maintains a 24-hour help line of counselors and legal specialists for leaders who have questions about reporting or responding to abuse.
 Come on.  No other church takes the steps we do to prevent abuse?
If the church were really so concerned about providing leaders with the resources to combat abuse, maybe they'd give them some kind of formal training instead of relying on handbooks and contingency hotlines.  This is one of those areas in which lay leadership really can't measure up.  A trained clergyman with decades of experience to draw upon would be immensely better equipped to recognize the signs of abuse and take the necessary actions to help those involved than a lay bishop who's received no formal training and only has eighteen months of experience.

To be fair, what the church does is far better than doing nothing.  But that doesn't give it the right to pat itself on the back and parade itself around as better than other religions.
  • Abusers are subject to internal Church discipline as well as criminal prosecution.  Depending on the nature of the offense, they may lose their Church membership altogether.
 ...just don't forget, that, according to the policies from church handbooks released in November 2015, that abuse falls under the category of when a disciplinary council may be necessary.  If you're in a same-gender marriage, however, a disciplinary council is required.  A marriage is, ideally, a union based on love.  Abuse is based on violence, depraved psychological urges, and disrespect for another person's humanity.  Even if you think homosexuality is wrong, I think it's fair to make the argument that being in a gay marriage is still more Christlike than abusing your family members.  This church's priorities are all mixed up.

Which is an excellent segue into the section on excommunication.
  • Withdrawal of membership has several purposes, including protection of the innocent (as in the case of abuse of other Church members) and protecting the integrity of the Church.
I'm sorry, but someone really needs to explain to me how excommunicating the abuser protects the person he abused.  Isn't that what the police are for?  Or Child Protective Services?  Or whatever other government organization may be involved?  How does stripping this guy of his imaginary ordinances protect anyone?  I mean, he can't get into the Celestial Kingdom that way, so I guess people would be safe from him in the afterlife, but....

And protecting the integrity of the church is another silly notion.  For a church that proclaims "visitors welcome" on its meetinghouses and frequently reminds its members that the leadership offices, not the men who temporarily fill them, are what should be revered, you'd expect them to have a sense that the ideals the church stands for are independent from the actions of individual members.  The Constitution of the United States is not weakened by the fact that Ted Bundy was an American citizen.  Unless by "integrity" this document means "structural resilience."   But if that's the case, then surely stripping the abuser of his calling and removing him from the leadership structure of the church would suffice.

I don't believe the church is true, of course, but I do believe that the doctrinal significance of excommunication is inhumane.  I'd like to see the church abolish the practice.  But while it still insists on handing out spiritual death penalties, I'd like to see its reasoning make a little bit of sense.  Unfortunately, the policies in this particular arena seem erratic and irrational.

Sample question:
Why won't the Church publicly share its financial reports and information?
Primary message:
The great majority of the Church's income is derived from the voluntary contributions of its members.  Through the principle of tithing, faithful members contribute a tenth of their income to the work of the Church.  The Church's finances are regularly and independently audited.
Wonderful, only that doesn't actually answer the question.  In fact, none of the information provided in the "Church Finances" section even pretends to address the question.

Also, I don't think it's entirely accurate to call tithing voluntary.  Strictly speaking, it may satisfy the definition of the word, but tithing is very subtly coerced.  You can't go to the Celestial Kingdom without attending the temple.  You can't attend the temple without paying a full tithe.  So while members do have the choice to pay or not to pay their tithing, it's roughly akin to the choice you have to take off your watch or not to take off your watch when a mugger has his knife to your throat.  The stakes are unimaginably high when a Mormon makes a decision not to pay his tithing.
  • Those who willingly embrace the biblical accounts of the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ—accounts which we also embrace—should have no problem with Latter-day Saint acceptance of revelation in the 1800's.
That one gave me a little chuckle.   The kinds of questions this statement is supposed to respond to are about "far-fetched" accounts of miraculous events in early church history.  This final bullet point basically boils it down to:  "Well, you Christians believe in stuff that doesn't make much sense, so all that stuff with the gold plates and the angels isn't all that different, really."

Speaking of stuff that doesn't make much sense, here's the response designed for questions about postmortal polygamy:
  • We can speak authoritatively about polygamy in this life.  However, concerning those who have legally married more than one spouse, including those whose partners have died and remarried, we can be sure that a loving Heavenly Father knows how to bless everyone's life and that our individual choices will be respected. much for that important new and everlasting covenant, huh?  Way to dance around that issue and pass the ball to God to let him sort it out later.  Because I guess if you tell people the truth about how postmortal polygamy is basically hard doctrine, people are gonna think those Mormon folks are pretty damn weird.

And then we get to the even juicier stuff about racism:
  • The origins of the practice [of denying the priesthood to blacks] are obscure, but prophets taught that at some point the priesthood would be given to all worthy males in the Church.
"We claim to be the only direct source of God's truth on the face of the earth, but we can't explain exactly why we did the thing that maybe we shouldn't have done for so long."  What a useless answer.  I mean, sure, it's possible that the origination of that racist policy has been lost in history and we'll never know exactly who started it or for what exact purpose.  But even if we never know, it won't stop being a big deal.

And it's not really that helpful that prophets apparently taught that equality was an eventuality.  Because prophets and apostles also taught things like black people were not equal to other races, that they would be servants in Heaven, that people should marry within their own racial groups, and that the church would not change its policies about blacks and the priesthood.  So I doubt very much that, if I'd been a black member of the church in the early seventies, I'd have been holding my breath and looking toward the future with an abundance of hope.
  •  Fined for campaign donations by the Fair Political Practices Commission:  Claims that the Church misrepresented contributions to the ProtectMarriage Coalition are false. There was a token fine for a technicality, which is fully explained on our website.  The Church did not donate money to Proposition 8.
What the hell??  ProtectMarriage was the group that sponsored Proposition 8 and gathered the signatures required to place it on the ballot.  So while the church may not have, like, written any checks made out to anything called "Proposition 8," it most certainly donated funds to groups advocating the passage of the measure.  I don't understand what the church thinks it's even proving or accomplishing here by saying it didn't donate money to Proposition 8.

It's especially strange that they do this in basically the same breath as their admission to the fine (which they explained fully on their website).  So essentially, what they're saying is that they received a fine for a minor administrative error in the reporting of their cash contributions to the impetus behind Proposition 8, but they didn't donate any cash to Proposition 8.

That sounds a lot to me like, "I didn't kill my wife, it was the baseball bat I was swinging at her that killed my wife, which is how I can explain the blood on my shirt."

This response is utterly baffling to me.
Sample question:
What are you doing to respond to the high number of suicides among the gay youth of your Church?
Primary messages:
  • As far as we are aware, there is no higher rate of suicide among the youth of our Church than among society in general.
This is just sad.  And I don't mean that in a the-church-is-pathetically-out-of-touch-look-how-sad-they-are kind of way.  I mean that it makes me sad.

First of all, the question was about gay youth suicides and this answer only mentions youth suicides.  While there may not be a higher rate of suicide among young Mormons than among young people in general, that's not the issue here.  Gay people are a minority, so it's possible that a significantly higher suicide rate among young gay Mormons could be a real thing without drastically spiking the suicide rate among all young Mormons.

Secondly, the "as far as we are aware" thing is kind of sickening.  This is a document designed to predict questions from journalists and provide ready answers for the church representatives to offer them.  Which means that the church has heard this question before.  And instead of looking into the issue and trying to collect data and see if it's something that needs to be addressed on a large scale—you know, to stop people from hurting or killing themselves—the church has opted to maintain plausible deniability by going to the press with "as far as we are aware, this isn't happening."

It doesn't matter if you're aware of it.  If it's happening to your people, you need to do something.  And if it's happening to your people because of your doctrines or your culture, you need to do something publicly and powerfully so that your other members know how to help and know that it's their responsibility to help.

If I were an apostle of the Lord and people kept asking me why a certain subset of my religion was unusually prone to suicide, you can bet your ass I would want to be as aware of it as possible.  Not these apostles, apparently.
  •  We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different.  Such acts simply have no place in our society. 
I mean, that's nice and all, but I think that completely misses the point.  I'd be very surprised if bullying was a leading cause of suicide for young gay Mormons.  I'm sure bullying doesn't help, of course.  And I've never been a young gay Mormon, so maybe I'm off base here...

But I would imagine that suicide seems like a good option in these cases most often because of the feeling that your identity is fundamentally at odds with what you've been taught is right and good.  That something you have no control over keeps driving you further and further away from what you think your Father in Heaven wants you to be.  That every desire and every emotion you feel can throw your whole life off track and make your eternal destiny terrifyingly uncertain.  Cruelty is bad, of course.  But I don't think that's what accounts for most of these suicides.  I think it's a church brainwashing gay people into thinking that their very existence is wrong.  And I think that, after trying to change, after growing up in an already confusing world and going through an already tumultuous teenage existence, and having all that extra homophobic Mormon drama heaped on you, it's not hard to imagine why, for some people, it might be too much.

Yes, we should all be kinder to each other.  But no, that's not going to do much to stem the tide of gay Mormon deaths.  The church needs to change its doctrines.  But since it won't do that, it at least needs to step in and find some way to make its youth feel more accepted for exactly who they are.
Sample question:
Why did the Church support the barbaric practice of aversion therapy, by which gays were subjected to physical pain in clinics to divert their sexual attractions to the same sex.
Primary message:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not, and does not now, recommend or sponsor such therapy.
Um, yes, you damn well did.  By your own admission, three bullet points down, you sponsored the therapy, at best indirectly, because it was performed at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church.   You paid for it, which means you sponsored it.  Don't act like your hands are clean.
Sample question:
Why do women in the Church have a subordinate role to men? 
Primary message:
God makes no distinction between men and women as to the worth of a human soul, and neither does the Church.  The Book of Mormon teaches that "male and female" are "all alike unto God."
Sure, okay,, not really.   Let's take a careful look at the Book of Mormon passage being referenced here (2 Nephi 26:33):
For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
So the best scripture these guys could come up with to illustrate that men and women are equal in the sight of God is a scripture that also insists that black people and white people are equal in the sight of God.  Except, according to the Mormon church, that second bit was not the case until 1978.  So if a hundred years of church policy contradicts the black-and-white part of this scripture, how should the verse have any credibility whatsoever for the male-and-female part?

And it's also interesting the way this question is deflected.  This "primary message" does nothing to refute the premise—that women in the church have a subordinate role to men.  Rather than engage on the concept of subordination, the answer pivots to the concept of value.  Which is great, except that value is intangible.  Subordinate relationships are more visible, more quantifiable, and it speaks to value with a lot more honesty than the words of church representatives ever could.  It's easy to say men and women are equal.  It's much more difficult to demonstrate it.  And the church is not doing a stellar job of demonstrating it.

It's a source of constant amazement to me how the church's public relations efforts can be both cunning and utterly inept.


  1. This is an awesome post. Way to go! They are afraid to be completely honest and truthful. They purposefully mislead.

    The main reason why my wife no longer attends church and hasn't in years is because of the poor treatment of women and the bad handling of sexual abuse by the church and its leaders. My belief is that the church hotline is to protect the church from lawsuits, period. Our bishop called the hotline for a situation with my young daughter, and the only questions asked were has it been reported to authorities (Yes by the parents) and did the abuse happen on church property (No), followed by a deal with it yourself. I know of multiple situations involving close acquaintances and family members where high priest sex abusers received no action from the church. In fact, one was later made a bishop, one was put on the high council, and another went on a mission with his wife. The high council man had been exed for the abuse, moved, and the new stake president had no idea the man was an abuser. I personally know a girl that was abused by a priest aged boy in her ward, and he was still allowed to bless the sacrament.

    I also find it curious that they chose 2 Nephi 26:33, but something else popped out to me.

    "For none of these iniquities come of the Lord..."

    Sounds like an admission that there are problems, but they aren't the fault of the Lord. I guess that means the prophets made them, and as you said, the answer doesn't refute the question.

  2. If that's how that abuse hotline works, then it really does sound like it's designed to protect the church instead of those involved in the abuse. Of course it's disgusting to permit that kind of behavior and it's disgusting to condone it by not punishing the perpetrators, but it's even more disgusting to do all that and then tell the world how great you are at dealing with abuse.

    When I'm an asshole, I generally try to admit that my behavior was wrong. It would be great if the church could make similar admissions, especially since their behavior is far more inexcusable and far more black-and-white than my worst offenses.

    And good catch at the beginning of 2 Nephi 26:33! It kind of sounds like the Book of Mormon version of "the church is perfect, but the members aren't."