Five Possible Reactions to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

New York Times Front Page Joseph Smith PolygamyThe LDS church has recently taken a big step in respect to the life of Joseph Smith by publicly admitting that Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives, that some of his wives were married to other men, and that some of his wives were as young 14 years old.  The Church’s essays on these things at times strain credulity in offering a faith-promoting narrative and occasionally distort the evidence to favor Smith.  But nonetheless, the Church should be congratulated for taking this first big step in accepting the basic facts.

A friend asked me what this could mean in terms of accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet. I have seen 5 general reactions that I think are possible for the institutional Church to adopt as it moves forward.  They are listed in here in order of trust in Joseph Smith.

1) So What.  If God commanded him to do it, it doesn’t matter what he did. Any action ordained by God is righteous and Joseph was ordered to do all of these things. (This was the Church’s stance toward Smith while Brigham Young was Prophet of the Church and of the polygamous Mormon sects of today.)

2) No Sex. Joseph married these women and it looks creepy but he didn’t have earthly sex with them, his carnal knowledge is in Eternity only. It was Brigham Young who brought sex into polygamy. Implicit in this reaction is that if Smith was having sex with girls 20 years younger than himself or married it other men, it would be a problem. (The Church will try this as long as it can but the historical record doesn’t bear it out. The Church is already in conflict on this by simultaneously saying that the purpose of polygamy was to raise up a righteous seed.)

3) He Was a Fallen Prophet. Joseph eventually fell into sin and abused his position and power as prophet.  We hope he repented before his death but the good things he gave us still stand and are useful for pursuing God. (This is the stance of the Henderickites who own the Temple Lot in Independence, MO. They maintain the Book of Mormon and the general church structure and mode of worship established by Smith.)

4) No Religion Is True, So Stick With What You Know.  This has become popular among the so-called “Pastoral Mormon Apologists” like Adam Miller and Teryl Givens. They don’t outright say it like that but that’s the heart of their argument.  If you’re comfortable remain comfortable and we’ll just slowly reform the things we don’t like. (The Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS, largely took up this and stance #3 in the last 15-20 years. They are now practically indistinguishable from the Mainline Protestant Denominations. Liberal zeitgeist seems to be the greatest source of inspiration and instruction).

5) Repentance. Fully acknowledging the sins of Joseph Smith and the institutional Church’s fault in promoting Joseph Smith and his teachings followed up by a massive and painful reformation. (This was what the stance the non-Mormon Worldwide Church of God took toward their founder in the late ’90s.)

Each of these positions carry risk and most certainly a loss of membership. I think we can look at November 2014 as a watershed moment in the history of Mormonism.

Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.

Can Grace Save Mormonism?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a problem. A historical problem. A problem disclosing the difficult parts of its history to its members. This problem exists because the church’s current outlook on itself and its leaders makes it difficult—and at times, impossible—to craft the entirety of its own history into a faith-promoting narrative. Those parts that cannot be safely included are instead quietly omitted.

Evidence of these omissions is abundant. Ex-Mormon disaffiliation narratives frequently revolve around some point in a person’s journey wherein the member learned something about church history not previously known before, something that became a catalyst for loss of faith. The recently published (2011) Daughters in My Kingdom manual makes no mention of the first Relief Society President’s defection from Brigham Young’s faction of Saints, or 19th century Mormon women regularly performing blessings and anointing with oil, or the fact that the Relief Society was shut down in 1844 because Emma Smith was using it to oppose polygamy, making DiMK but one of many official church manuals to carefully tiptoe around the problematic aspects of the church’s history. More obviously, the Church’s official Joseph Smith Web site says not a word about polygamy. It mentions the existence of some of his polygamous wives, like Eliza R. Snow, but it fails to mention that they were married to Smith. When it comes to potentially troubling details in LDS history, the church’s unspoken policy seems to be something to the effect of, don’t ask, don’t tell.

Unfortunately for the church, its history has a habit of getting loose in very public and embarrassing ways despite its best efforts to sweep it under the rug. Continue reading

Obery Hendricks on Mitt Romney & Mormon Racism

Yesterday Obery Hendricks posted an article on the Huffington Post challenging Mitt Romney on racist sentiments found in the Book of Mormon.  As has been pointed out, Hendricks is guilty of cherry-picking some of those statements.  He also doesn’t have a good enough handle on Mormonism to understand that the Book of Mormon is not making reference to people of African descent, rather it’s speaking of dark-skinned people of Jewish descent living in a yet-to-be-determined location (some might say they are dark-skinned Native Americans, others might say these passages have nothing to do with skin color at all).

Last night Hendricks appeared as a guest of Ed Schultz on MSNBC.  As I predicted, I believe this is just the start of these attacks on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  The challenge Romney faces is answering these charges in the length of a sound-bite.  I don’t think the nuance that Mormons engage the priesthood bad with is going to communicate.  I also don’t think he has the opportunity to engage in exegis of the Book of Mormon. Hendricks does not offer an attack that effectively sways Mormons, but he does offer an attack that sways non-Mormons.

I don’t believe this is going to go away and I’ll be interested to see how Romney resolves it.  I believe he’ll eventually be forced to say, as John Huntsman has stated, that the priesthood ban was wrong.

Mitt Romney’s Mormon Problem Explained

Mitt Romney has a problem. It’s a Mormon problem.  But it’s not the problem you think it is.

When most people think of Mitt’s Mormon problem they think it has something to do with Evangelicals.  It’s true that Evangelicals don’t like Mormonism and it seems apparent that Evangelicals would prefer to not vote for a Mormon.  But Evangelicals are very pragmatic.  When it comes to an election Evangelicals will vote for a Mormon who fits their political values.  Most Evangelicals haven’t been faced with that before, but when push comes to shove they’ll do exactly what Evangelicals in Utah, Idaho and Arizona do, pick the candidate that best fits their political worldview. Continue reading

For Whom the Hell’s Bell Tolls

Popular Evangelical author Rob Bell posted this video over the weekend to promote his upcoming book “Love Wins”

The video is certainly provocative, Bell is a master communicator and this hits every nerve it’s meant to expose. What no one really expected was the controversy that would erupt by Monday morning. A number of other prominent Evangelical authors decided to deliver their early reviews of the book via twitter and kicked over a hornet’s nest.

I thought Tony Jones offered a thoughtful review of the controversy and of Rob Bell’s standing in Evangelicalism. “Christianity Today” took the opportunity to explore the varying views on hell, annihilationism and universalism.

I’ve enjoyed the material I’ve seen from Rob Bell. I understand the anxiety he and this video creates for many Evangelicals but I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve at least actually read the book. For the moment I’m more disappointed with John Piper and Joshua Harris than I am with Rob Bell, but that could change after March 29th.

Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon?

As we begin to approach a new presidential election season I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this controversy. This is not intended in any way to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney or any political candidate. I don’t think Gov. Romney has much hope in becoming the Republican candidate much less win the presidency (because Evangelicals won’t vote for him). But his candidacy offers the opportunity to talk about some larger issues. There are two objections I most often hear expressed against voting for a Mormon.

1. When Salt Lake City Calls

When Salt Lake City Calls” is the name of a book that supports this line of reasoning.  Its premise is that because of the covenants made in LDS Temples a Mormon President would have a higher oath to the Mormon Prophet than to the people of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.

I don’t disagree at all that such oaths are made by Mormons who attend their temples.  Investigating the wording (and penalties formerly associated with the covenants) will reveal that they are serious, literal and binding.  Mormons are indeed asked to place allegiance to their church, its prophet and its message at the highest priority.

The question unanswered is “If a Mormon President holds to this covenant as rigidly as we might imagine, does it pose a threat to the United States?” I don’t think it poses any threat at all.  Knowing that the LDS Church and the President are going to be carefully watched and scrutinized about the nature of their relationship, I don’t think either would be interested in abusing this oath.  The image-savvy Mormon church is already quite sensitive about being accused of being a cult. They don’t show a pattern of wanting to reinforce that stereotype.  If anything, I imagine there would be a distancing in the relationship between Salt Lake City and Washington DC while a Mormon sits in office.

Second, let’s suppose the worst.  Let’s imagine that the LDS Prophet receives a revelation that all religious organizations in the United States should come under his control and he calls on every Mormon to make that vision a reality.  Let’s further suppose that the Mormon President makes such legislation a top priority in his administration.  The chances of him enacting such a law would be infinitely small.  He would be unable to find cooperation from the House of Representatives or the Senate. He’d stand no chance before the Supreme Court and the state houses of 49 states would find their own ways to nullify such a law.  He then would likely be impeached for not upholding the Constitution.  I can’t really imagine the LDS church asking a Mormon President to do anything that might harm the values of the nation, but if it did, the President would have little support from our (very intentionally) separated powers.

The truth is Mormonism is perhaps one of the only religions in the world that recognizes and cherishes the United States Constitution.  When Mormons have been persecuted it has always been their belief that the Constitution (and Heavenly Father) would save them.  Joseph Smith many times would extol the virtues of the Constitution and even predicted that there may come a time when the Mormons are the only people left to preserve it.  The Mormon church used to make American Independence Day celebrations part of its worldwide curriculum because Mormons recognize that they were able to form a new religion precisely because of the religious environment afforded by the US Constitution.  It would be out of character for the Mormon Church or a Mormon President to harm or change it.

Most of these issues were previously discussed in our history during the Reed Smoot Hearings in which it was decided if Mormons could qualify for federal public office.

2. Won’t a Mormon President Legitimatize Mormonism and Make it Mainstream

In truth, I think it will. Evangelicals will need to hold this in tension as they weigh their political choices.  But I would like to question if a mainstreamed Mormonism would be something Evangelicals should fear.

The first concern is that an increased awareness of Mormonism might cause more people to investigate the LDS church and consider becoming members.  History doesn’t really bear this out. George W. Bush and William Howard Taft were by far the most outspoken Presidents about their Evangelical faiths. Neither caused an increase in attendance at Evangelical churches (if anything their presidencies might have set the Evangelical movement back). I don’t believe any evidence exist that John F. Kennedy was able to drive a spike in Catholic conversions in his presidency either.

The second concern is that Mormonism would likely lose it’s image as an “outsider religion”.  Evangelicals might very much like to do what they can to keep the LDS church from gaining that sort of credibility.  I can appreciate the concern for aiding or boosting the heresies taught by Mormonism.  But I think an investigation into Mormon history might convince Evangelicals that a mainstreamed Mormon church might inspire reform within Mormonism.

Culturally there is a large portion of Mormons who want nothing more than to be viewed as normal.  They are aware of some of their church’s previous difficult doctrines and practices but because they don’t have to live with them they are able to pretend they don’t exist.  Many of these Mormons are actually unaware of the origins of some of these practices and assume the folk explanations they’ve heard must be true.  A Mormon President would cause Mormon origins to come to light.  An increased public discussion of these issues is exactly what is needed to cause Mormons to distance themselves from their spiritual ancestors.

When Mormonism interacts with mainstream American culture it has a habit of conforming. Mormonism wants to survive and it has a clear history of doing whatever is necessary to survive.  Polygamy (Reed Smoot Hearings), the black Priesthood ban (NCAA boycotts against BYU) and even temple death oaths (The GodMakers) are all examples of how Mormonism caved to public pressure once broader public awareness was brought to those issues. Even former LDS prophet Gordon Hinckley denied specific Mormon doctrine when asked about it in front of a national audience and claimed he didn’t know if they even taught such doctrines. Mormons will insist that these changes were made as a result of Heavenly Father’s direct intervention and communication. That may indeed be the case, but it’s peculiar that these changes occurred after outside pressure was exerted on the LDS Church.

Currently the LDS church growth rate in the United States is about the same as its birth rate.  The church’s missionary efforts seem to be faltering in countries with widespread internet access.  Free access to information about Mormonism doesn’t help the LDS church’s efforts.  Particularly when that information contradicts the LDS church’s faith-promoting version of the story.  A larger public discussion of Mormonism would only bring that information to further light.

David Clark recently stated on this blog “For now, I’d be satisfied if Mormons would be more open and honest about their history and doctrine at their public church meetings. If that were to happen, I think the LDS church would reform in short order.” I tend to agree.  There are a great many Mormons who have knowledge of and a great love for Mormonism’s many peculiarities. They will never want anything to change.  But I do not believe that is true for the majority of Mormons.  A Mormon presidency coupled with an organization’s desire to survive might be just the thing to cause a Mormon reformation.

As we speak, individuals and organizations opposed to Mormonism are forming materials and strategies to use a Mormon candidacy against the LDS church.  Add to that a candidate’s political opponents who are willing to use anything to hurt him and I think the LDS church has reason to hope there is never a Mormon president.

Compromise is demanded of every person who enters into democratic politics.  This even extends to individual voters.  A perfect candidate who matches every one of a person’s values is not likely to exist.  If it does, that person may not be electable (you might as well write your own name in on the ballot). It’s an Evangelical’s duty not to vote for the candidate that perfectly matches their values, but instead to vote for the candidate from the available and viable choices that most closely represents their values.  I think if a Mormon candidate matches an Evangelical’s political values and they think that candidate has the best possibility of winning they should feel more than comfortable in voting for that candidate.