Lately, I've been noticing that a number of rebuttals to criticisms of the church seem to revolve around presentism—the idea that it's neither fair nor honest to examine yesterday's events through the lens of modern biases. FAIR seems to like to point this out, and it was an LDS blog post about why people leave the church that made me start to think a little bit more about it. And it's important to mention, before I dive too far into this, that presentism is also used as an excuse in official church settings, such as Elder Cook's devotional last year, in which church historian Matt Grow said:
It is really easy to play gotcha with the past. To pull an incident or a quotation out of its context and make it look alarming. As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist—and I love this—he said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." And to me, that means that when we visit the past, we don't want to be an ugly tourist.
Presentism, of course, is a real thing. Imposing our 21st-century values on the historical record can lead to a twisting or misinterpretation of the historical narrative. This is why we shouldn't hold it against MLK for calling people Negroes—it wasn't offensive then, but it can be very offensive today.
Presentism isn't a magic eraser of personal or cultural culpability, however. It doesn't mean that anything in the past is on untouchable moral ground. Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee nation on the Trail of Tears during the same decade that saw the rise of Mormonism, but you don't see a public backlash against people who condemn his actions. Sure, a lot of people in the 19th century "didn't know any better" when it came to the treatment of Native Americans. Sure, there were probably people who would have been even more brutal if they'd been in Jackson's position. But there were also people who knew better and who raised their voices in protest. The fact that it happened two centuries ago doesn't absolve its perpetrators of moral responsibility—what it does mean, however, is that we should be willing to admit from our modern perspective that, had we been part of that culture and that environment, we may not have made the right decisions either.
This is why I think that, in a discussion of presentism, a distinction needs to be made between custom and morality. Let's apply that couplet our church historians love to quote: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." If you visit a foreign country and the people there find a gesture to be offensive even though it's innocuous in your culture, that's fine. If you visit a foreign country and they execute children for disobeying their parents, that's not fine.
Similarly, if we apply a presentist approach to the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor (as I have in the past), we may miss the fact that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Bill of Rights was generally applied to federal law only. This meant that the legality of the Nauvoo City Council's actions was more dependent on Illinois state law than on the First Amendment. Though today's Americans tend to see the Bill of Rights as something so sacrosanct that state governments are explicitly bound to uphold it, this wasn't legally codified until 20th-century Supreme Courts began ruling on what is now the widely accepted interpretation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. All of this means that presentism can exaggerate the egregiousness of the Nauvoo Expositor incident by overplaying its illegality. In contrast, a presentist approach to the priesthood ban doesn't change whether it was wrong. It may merely confirm that racist prophets were in step with the bigoted zeitgeists of their time. Oh, wait, except the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, so everything's cool, right?
What we should learn from being aware of our presentism is not that things were different then and therefore the church is still true—it's that because things were so different then, we shouldn't necessarily kid ourselves into thinking we would have stood against problematic policies if we'd been 19th-century Mormons. The wrong things that past church leaders did are still wrong. But we probably shouldn't be so quick to get on our high horses and decide we would have done better.
Society has evolved and some of our moral sensibilities have improved, so it's a lot easier for us to make better decisions on certain issues because we were born into a culture that already believes that black people aren't property and that women aren't property and that using divining rods to find hidden treasure is an absolute absurdity. We should also hope that our grandchildren will grant us similar latitude when the things that our society handles poorly are examined through a lens of possible future biases.
And regardless of all that noise, there's a certain cross-section of Mormonism that should, theoretically, be insusceptible to presentist attacks: divinely revealed doctrine. It's one thing to say Joseph Smith did bad things but doesn't deserve judgment from modern standards, but it's a completely different thing to give God a free pass. Why did God do or permit so many things that don't line up with modern standards—including standards that the church has raised in order to catch up with the broader culture? You can say a church leader's actions were reflective of the culture he inhabited, but that doesn't explain why would God allow his chosen mouthpiece to preach what is clearly reprehensible. Prophets can, arguably, be vulnerable to presentist criticism, but God should be immune. The God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever should behave in a way that would be impervious to presentist accusations. You can't character assassinate someone who by definition has no character flaws, right?
But instead, we have a God who permits prophet after prophet to be products of their times. We have a God who allows their awful sayings to be canonized in official church materials and promulgated as official church doctrine. This should be, from both a historical and a presentist perspective, a grievous sin of omission. He could have made sure that the horrible things Brigham Young said about black people were only in his personal interactions, not spoken in general conference or parroted by future apostles or distributed in the church's publications. But he didn't—even though, as God, he should have known better. We can write off Brigham Young's mistakes as human failings in a deeply racist historical culture. God doesn't get that excuse because he isn't human, he's not supposed to have failings, and he wasn't a product of that culture.
Is presentism a real problem for us when we analyze church history? Of course. Does it absolve the church from every ugly thing in its past?
Not even close.