Saturday, April 30, 2016

BYU's Honor Code and Sexual Assault

      My undergraduate alma mater, Brigham Young University, is getting a lot of bad press right now over how it treats victims of sexual assault. There is a serious problem there that I'd like to discuss, but I think the controversy has missed the bigger picture.

Quick Background: BYU and the Honor Code
      This article from the New York Times is representative of dozens. Here's the basic situation: BYU is owned, operated, and heavily subsidized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and everyone who attends must sign the Honor Code, agreeing to abide by Mormon standards of living. Probably for that reason, 99% of students are Mormons. In addition to standard academic prohibitions on cheating and lawbreaking, the Honor Code also bans alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, coffee, tea, extramarital sex, pornography, revealing clothing, foul language, anything else opposed to church teachings, and even some things which are not (like facial hair).
      When the BYU Honor Code Office hears that someone has broken one of the rules, they investigate, and academic consequences can follow, including expulsion. The problem comes when a student is sexually assaulted while engaged in some Honor Code violation—drinking, for instance, or consensual sexual behavior that turns nonconsensual. In order to report the attack, the victim must expose herself or himself to an investigation, and potentially jeopardize her or his education. Several victims have come forward saying they experienced exactly that.
      Rape and sexual assault are some of the most traumatizing things that can happen to a person, and it's absolutely essential that victims be able to report these crimes without fear of repercussion. The Honor Code says victims should report sexual assaults even if they were themselves involved in Honor Code violations at the time—but offers them no promise of safety from consequences when they do. That is, obviously, inadequate, and I hope that the attention being given to the issue results in change. Not only does such a policy discourage victims from reporting and provide offenders leverage to continue their predatory behavior, but it also fosters the wrongheaded attitude that victims bear some of the guilt for what happened to them. The university appears to be reconsidering its policies.

The Whole Perspective
      But all the recent news reports are missing the rest of the story. It needs to be acknowledged that the Honor Code probably prevents far, far more rapes and sexual assaults than it provides cover for. Statistics on these things are notoriously difficult to come by, but this NIH article says that alcohol is involved in about 50% of sexual assaults. Most sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim, and often the assault is preceded by consensual kissing or other intimate activity.
      At nearly all American colleges and universities, from party schools to the Ivy League, alcohol use is so prevalent, it's considered an epidemic. Drinking is present in every social situation, for the faculty as well as for the students. The legal drinking age is winked at; there is virtually no effort to prevent underage drinking. The pressure to drink is enormous, as is the pressure to be sexually active. This creates ideal conditions for sexual predators to exploit.
      Now imagine what happens when a university outlaws alcohol entirely. Imagine what happens when a university bans extramarital sex, as well as the mere presence of a member of the opposite sex in the bedroom. Imagine what happens when a university has no fraternities or sororities. All the conditions in which predators thrive are gone, and sexual assault becomes far, far less prevalent. At BYU, no one feels pressure to drink or be sexually active in order to fit in. In fact, all the cultural pressure is against those things. I'm sure those behaviors go on—after all, it's a university with more than 30,000 students. But if you want to drink at BYU or be sexually active while single, you have to seek it out, and you have to do it under the radar.
      If BYU's Honor Code so effectively reduces sexual assaults (as well as unplanned pregnancies, STDs, drug overdoses, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, etc.), why doesn't every university in the country adopt a similar code? Obviously, because people like to drink, and wouldn't be willing to commit to BYU-style restrictions, even if it would drastically reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Let's keep that in mind as voices from mainstream American culture criticize the Honor Code.

      This article from By Common Consent makes an excellent point about how some of the most problematic aspects of religion can be the very same things that are its greatest benefits. So how do we address the problems caused by the Honor Code without sacrificing its benefits? Lots of people suggest an amnesty clause: if you report a sexual assault, you won't be investigated or punished for any Honor Code violations you were committing at the time of the assault. The only problem with such a policy is that it creates an incentive to falsify claims of sexual assault. Very few reported sexual assaults are fabricated, but at BYU, where drinking tea can jeopardize your academic standing, there might be more occasions in which the free pass would be tempting. I still doubt it—very few people are sadistic enough to ruin an innocent person's life, especially out of mere concern that they might get caught. Presumably, amnesty would not apply to violations discovered before the assault was reported. On the other hand, as a prosecutor, I know the policy would have complications in the courtroom. The attorneys defending an accused sexual assailant would highlight the victim's supposed incentive to falsify her story. Even if such an argument were baseless, it would make it more difficult to convince a jury that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In summary
BYU's unique Honor Code, and the campus culture it fosters, has resulted in a far lower incidence of sexual assault than at most American universities. But if a BYU student violates the Honor Code (e.g., by drinking or engaging in consensual extramarital relations) and is sexually assaulted, reporting the assault could get the victim punished for her own violations. This discourages victims from reporting, and is a problematic policy that needs to be changed.
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lightning Round: Evolution, Book of Mormon Translation, Women and the Priesthood, Polygamy, Archaeology, and More!

      Someone posted an anonymous comment on my last post suggesting some very good ideas for blog posts. I'm going to answer all those questions very quickly in one post (leaving open the possibility that I might expound on some of these later). First up: evolution.

Viewpoints on evolution
      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official doctrine on evolution. We believe that God works through "natural means" to accomplish his work. We also believe that he created the world and the life in it, and we believe the Genesis account. But do we believe it literally or figuratively? No clear doctrine on that. Some church leaders have expressed their feelings that evolution is a false notion; others believe in it but not that human beings evolved; others believe in it all. I personally believe that we have no reason to doubt anything that science has discovered; science cannot say whether or not God was behind it all. How does it fit with Genesis? There are lots of possibilities. I'm not the first to think that "days" probably indicates periods of time of unspecified length, possibly billions of years, or to point out that the order in which life appears in Genesis generally tracks with what biologists claim. What about humans? Perhaps God directed the evolution of human bodies and then at some point started sending his spirit children, human spirits, to inhabit the bodies created in that way. Boyd K. Packer, one of the current Twelve Apostles, disagrees with that view, but bottom line: The LDS Church has no official doctrine on this; opinions differ.

Viewpoints on Noah and the Ark (how literally should we take this story?)
      Short answer: No official doctrine, although we believe that after Noah died he became known as Gabriel, and is the same person as the angel Gabriel that plays a prominent role in some later Biblical stories. So Noah was a real person. Beyond that, I'm not sure we have any binding doctrines that authoritatively establish how literal it is. A very conventional view would be that it happened as described in Genesis, but was regional in extent, not literally covering the whole earth. Compare Luke 2:1, which says that Caesar Augustus decreed that "all the world" should be taxed (actually, it was a census). Not even the staunchest Bible literalist would claim that Caesar intended the census to include China and South America. It was "all the world" from a Roman perspective, and likewise, the flood may have been "all the world" from the perspective of people living in Noah's area.
      One further complication is Joseph Smith's claim that the Garden of Eden was located in present-day Missouri and that the Genesis account up until the time of Noah takes place in North America. Noah's ark must have therefore traveled across the ocean and landed in the Middle East during the flood. The traditional Mormon view would be to take this literally. Another view would be to regard the specific geographical placement of the Garden of Eden in Missouri as an assumption on Joseph Smith's part; probably an extrapolation from D&C 116. Are there two Adam-Ondi-Ahmans, similar to the theory that there are two Hills Cumorah? Was Joseph just enthusiastic to attach religious significance to the places around him? Was it literally true, and perhaps we can account for evidence of far more ancient human civilizations in other parts of the world by regarding Adam as the first man in a spiritual sense? At any rate, the church today doesn't spend much time speculating about this sort of thing, leaving it, again, open to a range of individual interpretations.

The facsimiles in the Book of Abraham (discrepancy between the given explanations versus the actual translations)
      My thoughts on this are basically that Joseph Smith's translation of the papyri should really be regarded as a revelation rather than a translation, since he didn't read Egyptian hieroglyphs before or after (although he tried to study them and figure out an alphabet). He was wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit to reveal the Book of Abraham to him, and the papyri really just served as a point of inspiration. The same point could be raised about the Book of Mormon: Why was it necessary to have a binder-like set of metal plates if Joseph relied on God to reveal the translation to him? Answer: Because physical, visible objects make more sense to us humans, and serve as focal points for our spiritual efforts.
      After discussing that idea with my brother, however, he sent me a link to this article published by the BYU Religious Studies Center highlighting some very compelling aspects of the papyri and the facsimiles that make it hard to regard them as merely some random hypocephalus and other standard funerary texts. They date from far after the time of Abraham, but then, no one ever said they were an original copy. Perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to write off the idea that the contents of the Book of Abraham are directly related to the contents of the papyri.

What is the second anointing?
      In his 1912 book "The House of the Lord," apostle James E. Talmage noted that a room in the temple known as the Holy of Holies is the modern equivalent of the Most Holy Place in the ancient temple at Jerusalem, and is reserved for the "higher ordinances in the Priesthood," without going into more detail (page 194). I assume that the second anointing is what he's talking about. I would guess that it's related to the washing of feet--that's one ordinance that the Savior instituted among his original apostles that we otherwise don't account for. But whatever it is, it's regarded as supremely sacred, and those who have participated in it don't discuss it.

Is the earth really 6000 years old? (explanation of D&C 77)
      D&C 77 says that the seven seals in the Book of Revelation correspond to seven thousand-year periods. The section heading goes further, stating that "This earth has a temporal existence of 7,000 years," but the canonized text itself doesn't actually say that the 7,000 years in question comprise the whole of earth's history. It's also possible, of course, that "a thousand years" is a figurative way to say "a really long time." There is Biblical precedent for that kind of numerological, non-literal description of time.

What's the story with polygamy during Joseph Smith's time?
      One of my earlier posts, "Polygamy," addresses this.

How was the Book of Mormon translated? (something about a rock in a hat?)
      According to the title page, "by the gift of God." It's a little murky exactly what method Joseph Smith used to receive the text, but it seems like he used several methods, including a seer stone, a pair of seer stones called the Urim and Thummim, later translating straight off the plates without the assistance of any device, and sometimes translating without the plates even being present. See my earlier point about these physical objects mainly serving as focal points for fallible humans to use when trying to focus their spiritual efforts. That is to say, all of the above seems to have served to train Joseph Smith to receive revelation from God, and once he got better at it, he didn't need the spiritual crutches so much. The use of seer stones and the Urim and Thummim sometimes scandalize other Christians who regard them as occult, but the Bible describes revelation from God being received through the Urim and Thummim*, the casting of lots, and other methods that seem strange to modern sensibilities. The "Gospel Topics" section on has recently expanded the articles on select topics and made them much more thorough, and "Book of Mormon Translation" is one of them and worth the read. From the text of the Book of Mormon, it seems to me that some of it may have been word-for-word revealed to Joseph Smith, and some of it may have been left up to him to express in his own words.

Why does the Book of Mormon have nearly exact wording with the KJV Bible in some places?
      Picking up from my last sentence, Joseph Smith was probably expressing some impressions of the Spirit in his own words, and the wording he and his readers were most familiar with was the phrasing from the King James Version.

What's up with women and the priesthood?
      Here's one I definitely can't answer adequately in a few sentences. There is no systematic, exhaustive theology in Mormonism the way there is in Catholicism. If we were to define every point of doctrine in detail, that would eliminate the opportunity for personal spiritual growth as a person ponders and studies and prays to discover truth. Further, it would encourage too much attention toward the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-type questions, instead of things we should really be focusing on, like repentance, obtaining forgiveness through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, learning to love and serve our fellow humans, and developing a personal relationship with God.
      However, this creates a situation in which some things are not spelled out in authoritative, canonized doctrinal declarations, and leaves some space for disagreement. The question of whether to ordain women to the priesthood is one of these. An organization called Ordain Women has recently drawn a lot of media attention to the issue, but the vast majority of Mormon women are not interested in priesthood ordination. It's one of those things that seemed so clearly established that until recently, very few would have even thought it open to question. However, from the 1850s until 1978, blacks were not ordained to the priesthood, and church leaders taught that the racial ban on ordination was a God-given doctrine. Yet that was rescinded by revelation in 1978, and careful historical inquiry showed that 1) we have no record of any revelation given to Joseph Smith or any other prophet declaring such a race-based policy, and 2) Joseph Smith actually did ordain a few black men to the priesthood. Members of the Ordain Women movement feel like their cause is analogous. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn't. Scriptural arguments go both ways: the scriptures don't provide any examples of women holding the priesthood (although some think there are insinuations of it), but on the other hand, the scriptures also don't clearly forbid such a thing (although they do say that women should not establish a new dispensation of the gospel, and that they should not usurp authority nor speak in church)(but then, no one should usurp authority, and we regard Paul's statement about women not speaking in church as just his own opinion, given in a different cultural context and not as a binding doctrinal statement). So back and forth it goes. For now, the LDS Church has made clear that it does not regard the ordination of women as a possibility (see Elder Dallin H. Oaks's talk from the priesthood session of the April 2014 General Conference)...but has not cited any explicit revelations in support of that claim. Personally, I think I can see some good reasons for things to be as they currently are. So there will probably continue to be difference of opinion about this until the Church clears it up in a more authoritative manner than those other statements (such as on blacks being banned from the priesthood) that were later shown to be mistaken opinions and flawed interpretations of doctrine. And maybe some continued difference of opinion isn't a bad thing.

What is the law of consecration?
      This is the law that says that you must be willing to put God first, above all material and earthly connections. See Matthew 19:21; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:26. In the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there was an effort to implement this very literally. Church members gave all their material possessions to the church, which then redistributed and returned property according to individual needs. It was a radical way to eliminate poverty, and something also practiced in the New Testament church. See Acts 2:44-45; Acts 5:1-11 and D&C 42:30-36. It is often compared to communism, but there are major differences, such as the voluntary nature of the arrangement and the fact that after redistribution, people continue to own personal property. Today, the church does not ask us to give up all our possessions. Instead, we pay a tithing, and we must continue to be willing to give up anything for the sake of the kingdom of God.

What distinctions do play-goers need to know between The Book of Mormon play and actual church teachings?
      Way too much to list here. First of all, the musical hardly even mentions anything in the Book of Mormon. There's a song called "I Believe" that was apparently created by sifting through Mormonism in search of weird, obscure doctrines, exaggerating them to make them funnier, and then presenting them as if they were the central focus of the whole religion. In my post "Do Mormons believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob?" I discuss some of the distortions, and link a few articles that talk more about it. Here is a very concise article clearing up some questions about the musical's accuracy.

What distinctions do viewers of South Park need to know between Mormonism as put forth by their episode, "All about the Mormons," and actual church teachings?
      Lots of distinctions. The episode seems to take the same basic approach as the "I Believe" song, namely, don't worry too much about accuracy; the point is to paint Mormonism as ridiculous. It's made by the same guys, who have a strange obsession with Mormonism, so it's not too surprising. One example: the South Park episode claims that nobody besides Joseph Smith ever saw the metal plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated--implying, of course, that there never were any such plates. Actually, at least 11 other people saw them, and signed sworn statements to that effect. Many of them later had fallings-out with Smith and disavowed the religion, but not one ever retracted his affirmation that he had seen and held the plates. Now if they were all making it up, and were in a conspiracy, then once one of them left the faith and held a deep grudge against Smith, wouldn't you expect him to go public with a statement to the effect of, "It was all a hoax; we meant it as a prank but then it got out of hand"? Yet even the people who found themselves in that situation vehemently defended their testimonies.

What is the church view of other Christian and world religions? Do they have anything to do with the great and abominable church as mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
      Our attitude toward other faiths is that they all contain varying degrees of truth, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains the most complete conception of religious truth, and is the only church that God has authorized with priesthood authority. The more we learn about other religions, the more we find we have in common--and the more we can learn from things other religions do better than us. People who aren't Mormons can be saved in the afterlife, so long as they accept Jesus Christ and the correct version of his gospel. Mormonism is unique in declaring that people who didn't have a fair chance to understand the gospel in this life will have the chance to convert in the hereafter.
      Several passages of scripture bluntly condemn preachers whose true motivation is money and power as practicing "priestcraft," while other scriptures speak admiringly of members of other religions, recognizing their virtues despite having points of difference. In the first edition of "Mormon Doctrine," an unofficial encylopedia written by the late Bruce R. McConkie, who was an apostle at the time, McConkie identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the "great and abominable church," the "whore of all the earth," etc. The prophet demanded that he remove the statement and release a new edition without it, which he did. Church teaching is not that the Catholic or any other church is the "great and abominable church," but rather that said church consists of anyone who follows the temptations of Satan, regardless of religious affiliation. That means that Mormons may also belong to the great and abominable church, if they are failing to follow Christ and reject evil.

What is the Mormon view of the Fall? Is there such a thing as original sin?
      From the Book of Mormon: "And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall." (2 Nephi 2:22-26)
      Our second Article of Faith states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression." In other words, the Fall of Adam caused Adam and Eve to become mortal and subject to temptation. Inevitably, it means we all will sin due to our mortal human nature. But we are only responsible for sins we commit of our own volition; we are not held responsible for "original sin." Babies and little children are therefore innocent.

What do we know regarding the location of Book of Mormon events, and what insights do DNA tests reveal about the nature of the Book of Mormon peoples in the Americas?
      Lehi's family traveled south from Jerusalem through the Arabian peninsula before building a boat and setting sail for the Americas. The text correlates very closely with identifiable locations in Arabia. 1 Nephi 16:34 describes a place called Nahom, located at the point where the group turned east and headed into the desert. Based on ancient trade routes, LDS scholars hypothesized a certain location in Yemen. Sure enough, in the mid-1990s a series of altars were discovered at the exact spot, inscribed with characters that read "NHM," and would be pronounced "Nahom."
      Archaeology becomes more difficult in the New World. Mesoamerican civilizations tended to build right on top of the civilizations they conquered. Vast areas are still unexcavated. The major ruins date from civilizations much later than the Book of Mormon era, such as the Aztec and Maya. And the Spanish conquistadors destroyed everything they could of the civilizations they conquered. Yet LDS scholars have found parallels to the Book of Mormon, in culture, language, geography, and so on. The most common hypothesis is that the events in the Book of Mormon occurred in a relatively small geographical area, probably centered either around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico or perhaps slightly further south in Central America. Others propose alternate locations, such as in the Great Lakes region near where Joseph Smith discovered the plates (I find this much less plausible).
      DNA studies show that the DNA of most Native American populations is predominantly Asian in origin. The significance of such studies shouldn't be overstated; DNA can only tell us about the genetics of current Indian populations, which are genetically much different from Indian populations in 1491, much less 600 B.C. But there does seem to be good evidence to indicate the predominantly Asian ancestry of Native Americans, which has led the church to rephrase part of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon (which is an editorial comment and not part of the text): "they [Book of Mormon peoples] are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" now reads, "they are among the ancestors of the American Indians." A close textual reading actually supports quite nicely the theory that Lehi, Mulek, and other immigrant groups from Jerusalem arrived at an already-populated American continent, and intermixed with the local populations. And scientific understanding of Indian origins is a rapidly evolving field. Note, for instance, this article from National Geographic reporting that Native American DNA reveals West Eurasian origins!

      See, even when I try to be brief it ends up being too long! I thought I would answer in sentence fragments; one or two lines per question. Now you know why it takes me so long to get around to updating this blog.

In summary
No summary for this one. The whole thing is a summary.

*The NIV Study Bible says this in its footnote to 1 Sam 2:28: "The Urim and Thummim were a divinely ordained means of obtaining guidance from God, placed in the custody of the high priest."
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Monday, September 23, 2013

Agreeing with the Critics

      The last time I posted, I berated what I called a "horrible piece of journalism" from the New York Times. This time, the criticism comes from Slate. But in contrast to the Times piece, my answer to the Slate critic is "Good point."
      As I've noted before, criticism has its place. That's true both on this blog and of an institution like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It should be respectful and aim to help the target of the criticism improve. Most criticism in public discourse, by contrast, aims only to denigrate and insult the subject. That's why my policy on this blog is to only allow sincere questions in the comments, not argument or attacks on Mormonism. And this blog's comments have set me straight a few times.
      This article from Slate is what I would call an example of fair, constructive criticism. It makes some mistakes, which I'll get to. But the basic gist is this:

1) Mormon weddings that take place in temples ("sealings") are a sacred Mormon tradition. "The point of the sealing today is to establish a covenant for a marriage that survives death."
2) Because sealings are so sacred, they are only open to practicing adult Mormons who live the standards of their religion. No one should demand that the LDS Church change this fact. "That would be analogous to, say, Catholics asking their church to let a non-Catholic administer the Eucharist, or to let anyone who wants to visit every area of a cloistered monastery: It invalidates doctrine and violates not only concepts of holiness but something fundamental about the commitments and blessings inherent in joining a church."
3) But there is a policy that ought to be changed: Mormons who are civilly married in a secular ceremony (so that family and friends can attend) must wait a year before their marriage can be sealed in the temple.
4) The purpose of this policy is to shame couples, since it creates the impression that they didn't marry in the temple because they weren't the prerequisite upholding moral standards. (My thoughts on this claim in a bit.)
5) In countries where the law does not recognize a wedding performed in a temple, however, couples are allowed (in fact, required) to be married civilly first, and do not incur the one-year waiting period. Thus, the policy appears not to be a point of fundamental doctrine or practice, since it only applies in the US, Canada, and South Africa.

Housekeeping: A Few Corrections
      The point of this post is not to criticize the Slate article, but I need to voice a few points of disagreement. First, I have a distaste for appeals to the general public which attempt to change the internal practices of a religion. I understand why people take this approach, but it feels like meddling, and it bears an ironic resemblance to the practice (of leveraging shame in order to manipulate behavior) that the article condemns. Second, the description of the interview to enter the temple is inaccurate. (The interview actually emphasizes faith in basic Mormon beliefs, and far from delving into the lurid details of sexual behavior, simply asks, "Do you live the law of chastity?") Third, a temple sealing is not "absolutely crucial to salvation," as the article says. It's absolutely crucial to exaltation. That distinction may be a fine doctrinal point, but as phrased, it gives the impression that Mormons believe that condemnation awaits all who are not married in a temple, and we do not believe that. Fourth, and most significantly, I think the article misrepresents the reason for the policy. Its goal is not to shame anyone, nor to reward couples for ostracizing friends and family members. The purpose is to encourage couples to place a high priority on their temple marriage. While shaming nonconformists and leaving friends and family members left out may be unfortunate side effects, they are not the goal.

Criticism: You're Doing it Right
      Now that I've gotten those matters out of the way, let me get to the point: This article is making a valid point. It's not attacking Mormon beliefs or doctrine, but it's highlighting a matter of policy which has changed before and which creates some very real difficulties for many families. It even acknowledges the revelatory nature of change in the church and the need to work within that framework. It highlights a problem, suggests a solution, and shows how the solution does not conflict with doctrine or dogma.

The Other Side of the Story
      Why hasn't this policy changed? The article doesn't explore the reason, so I will speculate: If there were no waiting period for couples who marry civilly, the temple ceremony would become an afterthought. Couples might throw a large, traditional wedding, with a perfunctory temple ceremony squeezed in later. The civil ceremony will be the main event, not the sealing. And legally, that was the ceremony in which they were actually married. The sealing would lose its power to symbolically impress upon the couple's minds the importance and priority of the covenant they had just made. Interestingly, the only differences between this scenario and the typical Mormon wedding are that currently, the sealing comes first instead of second, and the sealing is the legally efficacious ceremony. Mormon couples almost always hold a reception, and sometimes save the ring exchange for a ceremony in front of the larger group. But those two details--which one comes first and which one is the ceremony in which they are legally married--are significant. If friends and family feel left out, it's because the current arrangement succeeds at emphasizing that the sealing is the wedding, not an appendage to it or a mere formality. If a policy change succeeds at making families and friends feel included in the wedding, it will succeed by downplaying the sealing's status as the wedding--the sealing that is the most sacred and crowning sacrament in the Mormon religion. That's the hangup.

Room for Disagreement
      I'm not writing this post to advocate one view or the other. If the change came, I would welcome its benefits, but I'm not sure I want this church to be run by petition drives. Some people might think it's wonderful and democratic for a religion's membership to be able to alter the church's positions and policies, but to others it sounds uninspired, non-revelatory, and bureaucratic. Nonetheless, a belief in revelation through living prophets should be tempered by a realization that even prophets are fallible humans who sometimes unintentionally filter divine revelation through their own perspectives. If the church were to change its policy, would it be due to popular pressure, to the individual judgment of senior church leaders, or to inspiration from God? If from inspiration, would that be an indication that the policy was wrong all along, or that what was appropriate for one era was ill-suited for a later chapter in the church's development? There is room for respectful disagreement on these questions, even among believing Mormons. By not giving us all the answers, God invites us to develop our own faith through a personal, prayerful relationship with Him.

In summary
An article from illustrates how to criticize a policy in Mormonism while still being respectful of Mormon beliefs. The article's attempt to influence church policy raises larger questions which emphasize that faith must be based on an individual relationship with God.
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Friday, July 26, 2013

A Horrible Piece of Journalism from the New York Times

      Here's a blatantly biased piece of journalism on Mormonism: "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt," by Laurie Goodstein, published in the New York Times on July 20, 2013. This article has so much wrong with it, I'm going to just copy and paste the whole thing and insert my comments in bold.

LDS publications tend to only cover the basics
      I'll skip right to the chase and share the takeaways before I plod through this. First, I agree that the Church could do a better job of how it presents its history in its standard curriculum. Go back a few decades, and lesson manuals include stuff on the sophistication level of Hugh Nibley's An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Much more recently, the Ensign (official Church magazine) included fairly heady material, including the "I Have a Question" column, answering doctrinal, procedural, apologetical, and historical matters. Today, the emphasis tends much more heavily toward applied life lessons and personal spiritual development. There is the feeling that if one intellectualizes the study of the gospel too much, it's easy to risk depriving it of its spirituality, making it merely an academic exercise rather than a personal relationship with Deity. order to be accessible to all its members.
      But I don't think that's the reason for the shift toward the basics in Church curricula. New members of the LDS Church often find the amount of new knowledge to absorb overwhelming--not only is there plenty of doctrine to learn, but also history, vocabulary, and culture unique to Mormonism. The Church has a moral obligation to be a welcoming organization, so it tries to make itself as accessible to newcomers as possible. The tradeoff is that the standardized Sunday School curriculum is pretty much the basics set on a repeating loop.

Mormons should take responsibility for their own religious education.
      Second, seasoned members of the Church need to realize that it isn't the Church's responsibility to ensure that they are well-versed in the details of their faith. At some point, you have to stop relying on Sunday School, the Ensign, and General Conference for all your information and go read some books. It's not like the Church is covering anything up; in fact, it's striving mightily to be as open as possible with historical data. It's just that the more complicated issues aren't tackled in Sunday School. When you have a lay ministry, there is a good reason for that. But the fact that it's a lay ministry also means that at some point, members of the Church have to stop thinking about "the Church" as a closed inner circle that owes us, "the members," the truth. We have to realize that we ARE "the Church." There are virtually no career clergy in Mormonism; even the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in most cases, were average members holding average positions in their local congregations until their 40s or 50s. It is hypocritical for the former Area Authority Seventy in this article (a position midway between the local and worldwide church leadership hierarchies) to accuse "the Church" of failing to fully inform him of its history.

...and journalists should be unbiased and tell both sides of the story.
      Third, I find the article's attitude that Mormon apologetics needn't be taken seriously or its existence even acknowledged particularly grating. The article all but overtly states that objective fact contradicts Mormonism. What makes this presumption even more egregious is the fact that every one of the doubts and criticisms expressed in the article have been quite thoroughly examined and answered, yet the pro-LDS side gets no coverage. Ironically, Laurie Goldstein is guilty of doing exactly what she accuses the LDS Church of doing: presenting a one-sided version of events, omitting information that contradicts her position.

The article (plus my inserted comments)
      "In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, (Where? Are we to believe that he lived a sheltered life in an all-Mormon community without exposure to other ways of Sweden?) Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.
      "When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet (whose credentials for accuracy apparently require no further elaboration) that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” (note the scare marks, suggesting it is an unfair label for serious research; that it is the Mormon side that is biased and not the other way around. Of course, the reality is that there is bias in both directions, and good journalism should not take sides) the whisperings of Lucifer. (Mormons rarely use the term "Lucifer"; this sounds more like an outsider's characterization of a Mormon perspective than it sounds like something a Mormon would actually say. Perhaps I'm nitpicking.) He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation. (Okay, he was a Seventy and he'd never encountered anti-Mormon claims before? Every 19-year-old missionary encounters and learns to deal with this stuff. And it's nothing new. Anti-Mormons have been recycling the same material for decades. Yet we're to believe that he had never heard of it?) 
       "But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist (The Church's canonized scripture includes the revelations instituting polygamy [D&C 132] and ending it [Official Declaration 1]. Had he never read the Doctrine and Covenants?) and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, (At this point, all semblance of neutrality has been obliterated. You might as well say, "Mormons struggle to reconcile their faith with scientific evidence that disproves their basic beliefs!") Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.
       "Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church. (Nice source citations. A whopping sample size of "dozens" of unnamed Mormons out of a worldwide membership of millions, whom we are asked to believe that the author interviewed despite not producing quotations from any of them, plus an appeal to the [academic?] authority of more unnamed persons who study the faith.)
       “'I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,'” said Mr. Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority. “'Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.'” (We're to believe that this guy, who apparently lacked even the most basic knowledge of Church history and apologetics, is the enlightened one, while the ones who stay in the faith are the brainwashed ones who haven't been able to confront the truth?)
      "Mr. Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection, in a church whose top leaders commonly deliberate in private, is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside. (What, there are skeptics, inside and out? Big news. But this article is trying to say that this is some kind of sweeping crisis. Anti-Mormons have been proclaiming that Mormonism is in the midst of a crisis and on the verge of collapse ever since 1830, and every time they paint it as big news.)
      "Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and businessman in Washington who has held local leadership positions in the church, shares Mr. Mattsson’s doubts. "Consider a Catholic cardinal suddenly going to the media and saying about his own church, ‘I don’t buy a lot of this stuff,’” Mr. Prince said. “That’s the level we’re talking about here.” (Eh...maybe the equivalent of a bishop or archbishop. Mattsson was not a General Authority; he was a member of one of the lower quorums of Seventy. It is indeed noteworthy that someone who had served in such a high-ranking position is waffling, but let's not exaggerate.)
       "He said of Mr. Mattsson, “He is, as far as I know, the highest-ranking church official (I think this is true, but only if we add "since 1915") who has gone public with deep concerns, (let's be clear: the problem isn't so much that he's uncovered deep issues that no one can answer; the problem is his deep ignorance) who has had a faith crisis and come forward to say he’s going to talk about it because maybe that will help us all to resolve it.” (Having a faith crisis is not unique. Failing to have your faith crisis until after you're already a Seventy is unprecedented, at least in recent memory. The real story here is the Church's apparent failure to vet this guy, although I have my doubts that he was really as clueless as he says.)
       "Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.
       “The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.”
       "Mr. Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event. (The Givens are great. Fiona sat on a panel discussion on Mormonism that we hosted last year at the University of Virginia.) 
       “Sometimes they are just this side of leaving, and sometimes they are simply faithful members who are looking for clarity and understanding to add to their faith,” said Mr. Givens, who hosted a similar discussion in July in Provo, Utah, and has others planned in the United States. The church is not sponsoring the sessions, Mr. Givens said, but local bishops give their permission. (They "give their permission"? I presume this means they give their permission for the use of the church building. As written, it makes it sound like Mormons would need permission to attend from their church leaders, as if your bishop exercises control over where you go and what you attend.)
       "Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said that “every church faces this challenge,” adding, “The answer is not to try to silence critics, but to provide as much information and as much support as possible to those who may be affected.” Mr. Hawkins also said the Mormon Church, which counts 14 million members worldwide, added about one million members every three years.
      "But Mr. Mattsson and others (who?) say the disillusionment is infecting the church’s best and brightest. A survey of more than 3,300 Mormon disbelievers, released last year, (what Goldstein doesn't say: this survey was conducted by a group called "Mormons Stories" whose purpose is clearly to foster doubt in Mormonism's core teachings) found that more than half of the men and four in 10 of the women had served in leadership positions in the church. (This may sound very persuasive to anyone unfamiliar with Mormonism, until you learn that Mormonism has a lay clergy, so nearly all active Mormons have served in some sort of leadership role.)
       "Many said they had suffered broken relationships with their parents, spouses and children as a result of their disbelief. (Ask those family members, and you may get a different version of events. Too bad the studious study didn't try to get the other side.) The study was conducted by John Dehlin, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Utah State University and the founder of “Mormon Stories,” a podcast of interviews with scholars and church members, many critical toward the church. (I'll give full disclosure, since the author didn't: "Mormon Stories" is the same group behind the survey she just mentioned. I'm beginning to suspect the "research" for this article consisted of surfing that one website.)
      "Some church leaders are well aware of the doubters in their midst. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who serves in the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the governing body just below the three-member First Presidency), said in April while addressing the church’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City: “Please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood and resolved. They do, and they will.” (Wait, let me see if I follow: 1. This quote shows that Elder Holland is aware of the presence of doubters. 2. He said it during a live broadcast of General Conference, with the entire senior church leadership sitting behind him and millions of people watching him. 3. Yet only "some" church leaders are aware that the church contains doubters; the rest think that it's a doubt-free church.)
      "Mr. Mattsson served as a young missionary in England; (where he never encountered any of these standard anti-Mormon doubts?) his wife, Birgitta, is a convert. They raised their five children in the Mormon Church in Sweden, which dates to the 1850s and has about 9,000 members.
       "He and his twin brother, Leif, both rose through the ranks of leadership, and in 2000, Hans Mattsson became the first Swede ever to be named an area authority. (He served until 2005, when he had heart surgery.) During the week he worked in technology marketing, and on the weekends he traveled widely throughout Europe, preaching and organizing the believers.
       “I was just in a bubble, and we felt so happy,” Mr. Mattsson said. "The first doubts filtered up to him from members who had turned to the Internet to research a Sunday school talk. There are dozens of Web sites other than the Mormons’ own that present critical views of the faith. (Dozens? There are probably thousands.)
      "The questions were things like: (note how the author presents a list of arguments against Mormonism here, with no space given to their rebuttals)
■ Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure? (Probably because artistic depictions tend to idealize and stylize historical events. Scandalous! Also because showing someone with their head covered doesn't make for a very good painting. Given the fact that Joseph Smith used several different methods to translate the Book of Mormon, one of which was reading (or revelating, as the case may be) straight off the plates, which one would you depict if you were the artist? I recommend Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 48-76, for anyone interested in a more thorough look at the translation of the Book of Mormon.)
■ Why were black men excluded from the priesthood from the mid-1800s until 1978? (We're to believe that Mattsson, who was raised in Mormonism from his childhood and looks like he's in his 70s, never encountered this issue before? Where was he in 1978? Has he never read Official Declaration 2? Here's what I said on this blog about the issue.)
■ Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham? (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) has a wealth of information on the origins of the Book of Abraham, including what connection it had to the papyri, and also some very interesting ancient connections.) 
■ Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?
       "About that last question, Mr. Mattsson said, “That was kind of shocking.” (Polygamy is not often discussed in the LDS Church; it's not seen as particularly relevant. But there's no way you can be an active church member for years and not hear about it. And at what point did Mattsson have an obligation to do some reading on his own? He blames the LDS Church for his failure in that regard? Again, I recommend Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 323-27 and 437-46. Briefly: Joseph Smith was a polygamist, and he certainly consummated some of his marriages. But many of these marriages were of a spiritual nature only, entered into in order to establish the plural marriage principle as Smith understood that God had revealed it. Nothing indicates that he consummated any of the "marriages" with married women. It is also no secret that Emma wasn't comfortable with polygamy. She approved some marriages but never learned about others, and it strained their relationship, as well as her relationship with the church. After Joseph Smith's death, she never migrated to Utah, and for the remainder of her life, because she had been serving as president of the Relief Society (the Mormon women's organization), that post remained vacant. These are all familiar facts in Church history.)
      "Mr. Mattsson said he sought the help of the church’s highest authorities. He said a senior apostle came to Sweden at his request and told a meeting of Mormons that he had a manuscript in his briefcase that, once it was published, would prove all the doubters wrong. But Mr. Mattsson said the promised text never appeared, and when he asked the apostle about it, he was told it was impertinent to ask. (Hearsay. And given the implausibility of the other things he's said, I don't find Mattsson particularly credible.)
      "(Mr. Mattsson refused to identify the apostle, but others said it was Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Perry, now 91, confirmed through a church spokesman that he did visit a branch in Sweden with skeptical members, but said he recalled satisfying their questions with a letter written by the church’s history department.) (An attempt to present a controversy and then let the other side speak! If only there were more of this.)       "That encounter is what really set off Mr. Mattsson’s doubts. He began reading everything he could. He listened to the “Mormon Stories” podcasts. And he read “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” a biography by Richard Lyman Bushman, a historian at Columbia University and a prominent Mormon.
       "Mr. Bushman said in a telephone interview: “You would be amazed at the number of Mormons who don’t think Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. It just wasn’t talked about. It was never mentioned in church periodicals. That was policy.” (Put this in context: This does not mean that most Mormons didn't think Smith was a polygamist. What amazes Richard Bushman might be something like 10% or 15% of active Mormons being ignorant. In a Pew Forum survey on religious literacy, Mormons proved better informed about religion that any other Christian group.) 
       "In the last 10 or 15 years, he said, “the church has come to realize that transparency and candor and historical accuracy are really the only way to go.” The church has released seven volumes of the papers of Joseph Smith and published an essay on one of the most shameful events in church history, the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which church leaders plotted the slaughter of people in a wagon train in 1857. (Yes, there were local church leaders involved, but this makes it sound like the leaders of the entire LDS Church plotted the massacre, shifting guilt to the church rather than to the individual Mormons who perpetrated it. True, Brigham Young probably contributed to the tensions that led to the massacre with his militant rhetoric, but then, the U.S. Army was about to invade Utah to crush what they incorrectly believed was a Mormon rebellion. So there's some context here that--surprise!--Goldstein didn't provide.)
      "But the church has not actively disseminated most of these documents, (They're posted on the Internet. You can buy the hardbound volumes. BYUTV has a series on them. Is that not active dissemination? What do you want--the scholarly papers project to become Sunday School curriculum?) so when members come across them on Web sites or in books, Mr. Bushman said, “it’s just excruciating.”
       “Sometimes people are furious because they feel they haven’t been told the truth growing up,” he said. “They feel like they were tricked or betrayed.” (Yes, some people may feel that way, but it's important to note that the Church was not lying to or tricking anyone. It just presented a simplified version of its history in its Sunday School curriculum. Part of that was from a desire to avoid controversy, which tendency admittedly persists. And part of the dumbing-down is because the LDS Church realizes that it has to be accessible to members of all backgrounds and education levels. Spending time on complicated historical matters can alienate those who find it a distraction from the more important pursuits of personal spiritual development.)
       "Mr. Mattsson said that when he started sharing what he had learned with other Mormons in Sweden, the stake president (who oversees a cluster of congregations) told him not to talk about it to any members, even his wife and children. He did not obey: “I said to them, why are you afraid for the truth?” (See, he's the brave warrior for truth, standing up to authority! Do you think this is the version of events you would get if you asked the stake president? There are always two sides to this sort of thing, except in this article, where we only get one.)
       "He organized a discussion group in Sweden, and more than 600 participated, he said. In 2010, the church sent two of its top historians, Elder Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley Jr. to allay the Swedes’ concerns. They had a remarkably frank and sometimes testy exchange, especially about Smith and polygamy. (And this from the church we've been told covers up the truth and tells people to be quiet and stop thinking.)
       "The Mattssons have tried other churches, but they are still attached to their Mormon faith. (So apparently his wife feels the same way. Strange that we didn't hear a word from her--or even about her views or "Mrs. Mattsson declined to be interviewed for this article"--nothing.) A few weeks ago, they moved to Spain for health reasons, they said. They left behind some family members who are unhappy with Mr. Mattsson’s decision to grant interviews to The New York Times and to the “Mormon Stories” podcast. (And now we know why.)
       “I don’t want to hurt the church,” Mr. Mattsson said. “I just want the truth.” (Hint: At least in regards to Mormonism, the New York Times is not where you'll find it.)

In summary
Mormon preaching and Sunday School lessons tend to focus on practical applications of faith and only cover the basics on matters of apologetics and history, in order to be accessible to all its members. Mormons need to avail themselves of the wealth of published information available to them on Church history and doctrine rather than expect to learn everything in Sunday School. As a final lesson, this articles illustrates that when the public has virtually no exposure to an opposing viewpoint, even supposedly respectable publications like the New York Times ignore it altogether.
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Friday, March 9, 2012

Three Useful Resources for Answering Criticisms of Mormonism

The LDS Church's official "Mormon Newsroom" website recently posted this "Mormonism 101" FAQ page. It addresses several of the same questions I've addressed on this blog. I think it's smart for the Church to come out and address some of the more common misconceptions, rather than focus exclusively on the positive and hope that the negative eventually goes away on its own.

While not official sources of information like the Newsroom site, "Mormon Voices," formerly the "Mormon Defense League," is another good resource, and FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) is such an extensive resource that it merits mentioning again. Read More......

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Prophets, Presidents, and Public Policy

Since there are two Mormons in the Republican primary race, questions about Mormonism are coming up in public discourse. The response in the media and by public figures has generally been to condemn any religious-based discrimination as irrelevant to a candidate's eligibility, which is right. But there is also a need for explanations of the specific charges and why they are not problematic.

One such claim is that Mormons believe that there is a living prophet (currently Thomas S. Monson) who speaks for God, and that if a devout Mormon such as Mitt Romney or (less plausibly) Jon Huntsman were president, he would never disobey the prophet. Therefore, if Monson got it into his head to meddle in foreign or domestic policy, the President would be at his bidding, religiously obligated to set aside his own misgivings and have faith that he ought to do whatever the prophet says.

The typical response is to point out that people said the same thing about John F. Kennedy being Catholic and the pope therefore being able to use him as a puppet, and none of those fears materialized. (Nor does it appear that Pope Benedict XVI actively intermeddles in the affairs of any of the dozens of countries, outside the Vatican itself, which officially identify as Catholic.) But let’s try to answer the question from within Mormonism, and not merely by analogy to Catholicism.

The truth is that any Mormon devout enough to feel obligated to obey the prophet, and intelligent enough to be the President, would know that Mormon doctrine specifically prohibits any such intermeddling.

1) We do not claim that the Prophet is infallible. Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 286 or 278 depending on the edition; see also this link.)
2) Mormon scripture states, “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.” (D&C 134:9) Another passage reads, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned[.]” (D&C 121:41)
3) Official Church policy states, “The Church does not: Endorse, promote, or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms … [nor] attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.” On certain rare public issues that have moral and religious implications, however, the Church will adopt an official stance.
4) When the prophets speak, it is not expected that the members of the church unthinkingly obey. Rather, it is incumbent upon each church member to seek his or her own confirmation from God that the prophet was, in fact, speaking in accordance with God’s wishes. See this link.

The fact that people of such different political views as, for instance, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and far right-wing media personality Glenn Beck can both be devout Mormons shows that the LDS Church must not be exercising much control over their politics. Mormons have a long history in politics, and although their religious beliefs influence their views, I am unaware of a single instance of even a mere allegation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had attempted to coerce a Mormon politician in his political decisions. (This article has its inaccuracies, but collaborates this point in the last three paragraphs.)

Let’s pretend that Mitt Romney becomes the President of the United States. Even if the Mormon prophet, President Monson, were to call him up and give him instructions on how to run the country—which he would never do—Romney would be under no obligation to obey. Pr. Monson would be acting contrary to Mormon scripture and longstanding official church policy, and Romney would conclude that he had therefore not been acting as a prophet and consequently ignore it. Something Romney said back in 2007 goes for any Mormon politician in any office and of any political party: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

In summary
Claim: If a Mormon became President of the United States, he would be a puppet of the Mormon prophet, who could dictate decisions to him, claiming that it was the will of God.
Answer: Mormon scripture and official church policy prohibit church leaders from using their ecclesiastical positions to tell public officials how to perform their duties. The Church has never attempted to tell Mormon politicians what to do or how to vote. If the prophet were to do so, he would be deemed to have not been acting as a prophet, and his directions considered mere personal opinion.
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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Do Mormons wear "magic underwear"?

      An increasingly frequent mockery of Mormonism is the claim that Mormons wear “magic underwear.” Like most such rumors, the “magic underwear” claim is a misrepresentation. Yet there is some truth behind it, which ought to be separated from the sensationalism.

The Temple Garment
      Mormon men and women who have worshiped in a temple wear a white garment as their underclothing. (Temple worship is open to all adults who have been active members of the church for a year and keep the basic baptismal commitments.) It is intended to symbolize moral purity and to serve as a reminder of the spiritual and moral standards one promises in the temple to uphold, and is called, simply, the “garment,” or formally, the “garment of the Holy Priesthood.”
      Attaching religious symbolism to clothing is nothing unheard of. Nearly every religion has some kind of special religious clothing. The difference is that in Mormonism, every active member is a part of the ministry and there is no paid clergy, so everyone wears the garment—not just the congregational leaders. The garment is therefore worn as underclothing, not as outer clothing, because:
      1) we live our everyday lives during the week, which may be incompatible with religious vestments worn externally,
      2) but we don’t want to create the impression that we only carry our religious standards with us when we go to church on Sunday, and
      3) the point is to remind the wearer, not the rest of the world, of his or her religious commitments.
Because the garment is underwear, it can be worn underneath our regular clothing during most day-to-day activities. That reminds us that we also "wear" our spiritual obligations all the time—not just when we’re at church.

Similarities to Other Religions
      Actually, it’s not even very unique that our religious clothing is our underwear. Many religions around the world have underwear with special religious significance. For instance, one of the “five Ks” of Sikhism is the wearing of the kachchhera, a special kind of cotton underwear intended to remind Sikhs of their obligation of sexual morality. Orthodox Jews wear a garment called the tallit katan either as underclothing or outside their clothing, also as a reminder of their covenants with God. The complicated traditional vestments of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy also include a certain type of underwear, although I have been unable to determine whether it has any religious significance independent of the other vestments.
      (Additionally, there is a special religious garment in Islam for those who have participated in the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). That garment is worn as outerwear, not underwear, but it is reminiscent of the fact that Mormons wear the garment after they have participated in temple worship.)

Biblical Basis
      The Bible contains plenty of references to clothing with religious and symbolic significance. In Exodus 28 and Exodus 40:13, Moses is commanded to clothe the temple priests in “holy garments,” including a linen tunic or undershirt. Isaiah refers to the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10). In Ezekiel’s vision, he saw that people who came to worship in the temple put on special temple garments (Ezekiel 42:14). Jesus told a parable in which a wedding feast represented heaven, and only those who wore a special garment were admitted (Matt. 22:11-13).

Not "Magic"
      Although the critics like to mock the garment as “magic,” Mormons do not believe that garments themselves have any supernatural qualities. However, we do believe that keeping our spiritual obligations brings blessings from God, and that wearing the garment helps remind us of those spiritual obligations. In that way, the garment provides spiritual protection.

In summary
Argument: Mormons wear magic underwear, and that’s weird.
Response: Garments are not “magic”; Mormons don’t believe they have supernatural qualities. Rather, garments serve to remind Mormons of their obligation to live up to their religious obligations. They are worn as underwear because the purpose is to remind the wearer of his standards, rather than to flaunt our religion to other people.

Further Reading
Boyd K. Packer, "Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple" (2002)
Mormon Voices, "Magic Mormon Underwear" (June 23, 2011)
Evelyn Marshall, "Garments," Encylopedia of Mormonism (1992)
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Monday, August 8, 2011

Do Mormons believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob?

      The Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” is a prominent example of what has become a trendy belief among those who consider themselves benevolent atheists: that religion is full of ridiculous beliefs, but is still possibly a positive thing because it makes people feel good. The musical presents a list of crazy-sounding ideas as if they were core Mormon beliefs and implies that all religion contains similar absurdity.

      The problem is that many people seem to not grasp the fact that the musical is hyperbole and exaggeration and repeat its version of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as accurate. Indeed, some of the humor is funny only if the audience believes that certain misrepresentations are true.

      A CNN blog recently held a Q&A with Dr. Richard Bushman about the accuracy of some of the musical’s portrayals of Mormon beliefs. After noting that the musical is like "a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you," he offered this explanation of the Kolob claim:

"Does God live on a planet called Kolob? Again, pretty close, but not precisely accurate. The astronomical reflections of Abraham in one Mormon scripture do speak of God dwelling close to a planet named Kolob. The place of God’s dwelling registers only as a tiny detail in Mormon thinking, but the idea that He does have a dwelling place is of immense importance.
      "Mormon theology differs radically from conventional Christianity in locating God in time and space. He is not outside creation as traditionally believed. He is part of the physical universe, a being like the God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel who could touch Adam’s finger with his own if He chose."

      I like how Dr. Bushman cuts through the weirdness factor to focus on the actual theological issue: Mormons believe in a physical God who exists inside the universe. To Mormons, the traditional idea that God exists everywhere and nowhere at the same time is nonsense, as is the idea of a God who exists “outside the universe.” I suspect that the belief that God dwells near a place called Kolob mainly sounds weird because the name “Kolob” sounds like something from sci-fi, not because the idea that God actually exists in a particular place is so bizarre. But then, what name did you expect it to have? Any name at all would’ve sounded weird, since most people are accustomed to thinking of heaven as an abstraction, not a literal place.

      Two final notes: Dr. Bushman made a minor mistake when he said that God dwells “close to a planet named Kolob.” Kolob is actually a star, not a planet. The fact that a prominent Mormon scholar like Dr. Bushman would make that mistake just illustrates what an insignificant part of our beliefs this is. I can’t remember the last time I even heard the word “Kolob” in church.

      And finally, it’s worth noting that Kolob is not where Mormons expect to go when they die. Jesus Christ taught, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), and Mormons take that to mean that after the final judgment, “the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (Tenth Article of Faith). So Mormons believe that our heaven will be right here, not near a star called Kolob.

In summary
Claim: Mormons believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
Response: Mormons believe that God lives not on a planet called Kolob, but they do believe that He lives near a star by that name. Kolob is just about the least important thing in Mormon doctrine, and it's hardly ever even mentioned. The more important point is that God lives in an actual place in an actual location--that he's a real being with physical substance.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

How Nonreligious People Misunderstand Faith

I often hear nonreligious people assert that faith means willingly ignoring logic and reality in order to believe something for which there is no evidence, simply because they want to believe it. Such people reveal their ignorance of a matter they do not comprehend.

      Faith is not a willing suspension of disbelief, and it doesn't mean believing something just because you want to. At its most fundamental, faith is trust. It means acting based on a hope about the future. For instance, let's say you arrange to go to lunch with an old friend. When the bill comes, it's on one tab and neither of you has cash, so he puts it on his credit card, and you agree to pay him back. What proof does your friend have that you will do so? What empirical evidence have you shown him that you will pay him as promised? He has no such proof. You might simply refuse to pay, and there would be just about nothing he could do about it. Does that mean that he was being stupid or illogical when he paid? Of course not. Although he had no evidence of how you would act in the future, as your friend he had some familiarity with your actions in the past, and based on that, he trusted that you would honor your promise. In other words, he had faith: he acted based on a hope for future occurrences.
      Because the future has not yet occurred, there can be no evidence or empirical proof at all about it. In the strictest sense, all knowledge about the future is mere assumption that we arrive at by taking our knowledge of how things have been in the past and projecting it forward. All action is based on assumptions about future results, even though strictly speaking, the future is unknowable. Therefore, all action depends upon the exercise of faith. Lectures on Faith* quotes Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is therefore the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It then comments, "From this we learn, that faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen; and the principle of action in all intelligent beings. If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them."
      The only difference between religious faith and the kind of faith that all people exercise in order to continue their daily lives is the subject of the beliefs and the sort of evidence upon which it is based. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues against the notion that when it comes to religion, otherwise rational people discard logic and make irrational decisions. He believes that people are just as rational in their religious decisions and beliefs as in their decisions and beliefs about anything else.
      I agree. There are more kinds of experience than the empirically demonstrable. The things which are the most real are not physical nor measurable nor can be studied in an experiment and published in a peer-reviewed journal. As impressive and authoritative as Science seems, and as useful as it is for learning about those subjects that are within its purview, it is simply not equipped for investigating certain fields: morality, religion, epistemology, and ontology, for instance. Francis Collins, who is often cited as an example of a prominent believing scientist, told Newsweek, "Basically, science is the way to uncover valid, trustworthy information about how nature works, about things about the natural world. But if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions."
      In Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma describes the process of developing religious faith in very empirical terms, even calling it "an experiment upon my words." The difference is that the results are inherently personal. They are observable only by the individual, since they occur within the soul. They are hardly even describable using secular language, and the religious terms are meaningless to people who have not had such an experience, since religious experience has no close analogy in secular experience. But those who have experienced it know that it is real, that it is not the result of wishful thinking or mere emotion, and based on that, they are willing to place trust in religious belief. As they base their actions on their religious beliefs, they observe the results, both observable and personal. They don't demand proof for everything their religion teaches, because their past experience has shown that the religion is trustworthy. Their faith is active, it informs their choices and their lives, and it is practical, requiring sacrifice before the person has any evidence of what benefit will result. Sometimes those results are slow in coming. Sometimes they are of a purely spiritual nature. But ultimately, people of faith continue to exercise faith because doing so has produced positive results in the past.

In summary
Criticism: Faith is synonymous with irrationality; it is the antithesis of reason. It means deciding to believe something illogical because you want to, not because it makes any sense.
Response: Faith is synonymous with trust; it is the antithesis of fear. Religious faith is based on the same basic principle of hope in the unknown on which every action is based, but religious people accept that there are other types of evidence beside those that are outwardly observable and subject to scientific investigation.

*Lectures on Faith is a series of lessons prepared for the School of the Prophets, a theological seminar of sorts that Joseph Smith established in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833. The exact authorship of the lectures is unclear, but it appears that Sidney Rigdon wrote them with input from Joseph Smith. Sections of the Lectures on Faith which conflict with Joseph Smith's later teachings on marriage and on the nature of God were most likely written by Rigdon. For a while the Lectures were included as the "doctrine" part of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the books in the Mormon scriptural canon, but they were removed in 1921, since they had been included in the Doctrine and Covenants without being properly canonized.
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Conspiracy theories about Satanic symbols

      Conspiracy theorists like to say that the use of certain symbols on Mormon temples, particularly the inverted pentagram, is evidence of Satan worship or other elements of the occult in Mormonism. History begs to differ with these notions.

       The inverted pentagram (upside-down five-pointed star) was first used on a Mormon temple in the mid-1840s. Back then, the symbol was not yet associated with Satanism. In fact, it was a Christian symbol. With one point up, it symbolized the five wounds of Christ (nails in the hands and feet; spear wound in the side), and with one point down, it symbolized the Morning Star or Star of Bethlehem, pointing down to where the Christ child lay in the manger. That is the sense in which it is used on the Nauvoo Temple and on other temples since then.

      Other symbols used on temples include circles and squares, which traditionally represent heaven and earth; the sun, moon, and stars, to represent both God's creations in the heavens and the three kingdoms of heaven as understood in Mormonism (see 1 Cor. 15:40-42 and Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76); trumpets, to represent the preaching of the gospel; clasped hands, to represent covenants with God and fellowship with man; and an all-seeing eye, a symbol common in everything from ancient Egyptian religion to Freemasonry to Christianity to the back of the dollar bill, to represent the omniscience of God.

      Claim whatever they might, there is nothing Satanic or occult about Mormonism or Mormon temples. Mormon temple ceremonies focus on Jesus Christ, the Atonement, and the family. But people are often suspicious of things with which they're unfamiliar, and sometimes they invent sensational stories rather than learn the truth.

In summary
Argument: The presence of inverted pentagrams and other symbols on Mormon temples is evidence that Mormonism is actually a satanic cult.
Response: The use of inverted pentagrams on Mormon temples began before that symbol was connected with Satanism. Originally, it was a Christian symbol, and that is how it is used in temple architecture.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010


      Mormon doctrine teaches that all humans are the spirit children of God (Rom. 8:16), and that all races are equal in the sight of God (2 Nephi 26:33). But critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often claim that its teachings are racist—if not today, at least historically. This criticism is not true but deserves a closer look.

      There are two primary reasons to claim that Mormon doctrine teaches (or used to teach) racist ideas. The first is that certain passages in the Book of Mormon seem to indicate that black skin is a curse from God. The second is the fact that from the 1850s until 1978, black members of the Church were not allowed to hold the priesthood or enter the temples.

What Does The Book of Mormon Teach About Race?

      Let us first examine the controversial scriptural passages. 2 Nephi 5:21-22 says that the Lord separated the wicked Lamanites from the more obedient Nephites by causing their skin to be dark: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.” See also 1 Nephi 12:23.

I want to make four points about the interpretation of these passages:

      1) Many LDS commentators interpret 2 Nephi 5 to mean that the curse was separation from the true church and communion with God, and interpret the “skin of blackness” as merely the sign or mark of the curse. This somewhat softens the implication that being dark-skinned is itself a curse. As for the statement that the Lamanites would become “loathsome” to the Nephites’ sensibilities, it might not be the Lamanites’ skin color that was loathsome, but their way of life, which is described as “idle…full of mischief and subtlety…[they] did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.”
      2) At any rate, the Lamanites who were set apart for their skin color can’t be identified with any modern-day race. The two peoples freely intermixed after the time of the Savior’s visit to the Americas, and when they again divided into two nations, the designations “Lamanite” and “Nephite” separated them by their beliefs, not by their skin color. Even if we feel secure in equating modern-day indigenous peoples of the Americas with the Lamanites, the Book of Mormon does not provide any basis for connecting their skin color after the time of Christ with the “skin of blackness” associated with the curse.
      3) But what I find the most interesting suggestion is much more human: Perhaps the Nephite writers interpreted what happened through their own cultural lenses, incorrectly assuming that the change in skin color was a curse from God. Alternatively, the change in both skin color and lifestyle (both of which happened at the same time) could be attributed to intermarriage with other indigenous peoples in the area. This would also help explain why the Lamanite population was twice that of the Nephites upon their next encounter, despite the fact that the Nephites had absorbed another, larger civilization (the people of Mulek). It would also go a long way toward explaining why Middle Eastern DNA does not seem to be a significant part of the DNA of indigenous American peoples. We know from Jacob 3 that the Nephites had a tendency toward racism during that time period. It would have been natural for the Nephites to see that the Lamanites had become darker-skinned and think it was a curse from God. The biggest problem with this interpretation is that it would mean that the Book of Mormon contains at least one instance in which the prophet authors incorrectly ascribed an action to God. This should not undermine the book’s central message and claim to historicity—after all, every other historical document of any length contains human errors, and the title page itself acknowledges that the human role in the book's creation may have resulted in “mistakes of men.”
      4) Most importantly, any attempt to label the Book of Mormon a racist document because of these passages must consider the entire context. It is not clear that the controversial passages are actually racist, but there are other passages that are absolutely unequivocal in condemning racism. In the book of Jacob, Chapter 3, the prophet Jacob sharply rebukes his people for holding racist attitudes against the Lamanites. Some Nephites had assumed that their skin color was indicative that they were purer and more pleasing to God than the Lamanites, but Jacob declares that the Lamanites are the more righteous of the two groups and that God will ultimately preserve and bless them, but allow the Nephites to be destroyed. “[W]herefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?” He then issues a specific commandment against racism—the only such commandment in the scriptures of which I am aware: “Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.” This passage is also significant because it makes it clear that the Lamanites’ “filthiness” was a separate consideration from their race, and must have referred to their diet and lifestyle, not skin color.

      Other passages in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:35; 2 Nephi 26:33; 2 Nephi 29:12; Alma 19:36; Alma 26:37) teach the universality of the Gospel, that God loves people of all nations, and that a person’s righteousness determines his access to God, not his race. Even the title page of the Book of Mormon says that one of the core messages of the book is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (emphasis added).

The Priesthood Ban From 1852 to 1978

      The Prophet Joseph Smith held very liberal views on race by the standards of his day. Even abolitionists usually believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites, if not subhuman. By contrast, Joseph Smith taught that black people were not inherently inferior to whites; that their inferiority was due to their oppressive circumstances. “Change their situation with the white, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 259)(link to specific paragraph here). The Prophet ordained several free blacks to the priesthood.
      Brigham Young’s views on race more closely mirrored the mainstream American thoughts of the day about people of African descent. He subscribed to the view that blacks are descendants of Cain and cannot hold the priesthood because of their lineage. This racial restriction became a church policy sometime around 1852, and although it was not given by revelation, with the passage of time it became entrenched. Most Mormons assumed that it was doctrinal and had come by revelation, and defended it as a tenet of faith. Apologists tried to explain the ban with theories about a curse on the descendants of Cain, or Ham, or Canaan. The church never prevented blacks from becoming baptized members of the church and always taught that they were children of God, but strictly prohibited them from receiving the priesthood or participating in the temple ceremonies.
      Perhaps church leaders of the time saw their situation as analogous to the racial restriction that Jesus Christ imposed on the early Christian church, only allowing the gospel to be preached to the Israelites (Matthew 10:5-6). It was a while after Christ’s death and resurrection before Peter received the revelation allowing the gospel to be preached to other races (Acts 10). Just as the early Christian racial restriction had eventually been revoked, church leaders believed and made statements to the effect that the priesthood ban would someday be done away with. In the 1950s, church president David O. McKay began to be concerned about the race question and pray for revelation on the matter, but the church leaders continued to be too divided on the issue until 1978, when the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles finally sought and received a revelation rescinding the ban. The Church immediately began ordaining black members to the priesthood, issuing recommends so that they could enter the temples, and extending callings for full-time missionary service. Today, the Church is completely racially integrated, and no privilege or position is restricted to anyone based on race.
      Why did it take so long? I can only speculate. It seems that the general church membership was more than ready to accept the change when it came. I wonder whether there was some reticence among church leaders to actively seek for such a revelation during the Civil Rights Era, for fear that it would be seen as motivated by popular trends. No doubt church leaders were also hesitant to take an action they feared might cause deep rifts in the Church. They were aware, for example, of the factions and apostate groups that formed as a result of the 1890 revelation banning polygamy.
      The precise reasons for the ban, particularly the facts concerning its implementation, are not known. But it appears to have had more to do with human attitudes and assumptions than with revelation. Church leaders who had previously defended the ban recanted their old positions, saying that they had spoken from opinions, not doctrine or revelation. For example, Bruce R. McConkie said, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past” ("All Are Alike Unto God," speech given August 18, 1978).
      Addressing the men of the church, the late President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ… Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such” ("The Need for Greater Kindness," Priesthood Session, April 2006 General Conference).

In summary

Question: Does Mormonism include racist teachings in the Book of Mormon or elsewhere? Why weren’t blacks allowed to receive the priesthood until 1978?
Answer: Although some passages from the Book of Mormon have been read as having racist implications, the book actually condemns racism in no uncertain terms and teaches that all races are equal before God. The reasons for the race-based ban on the priesthood are debated, but it originated with racist opinions, not revealed doctrine. The policy was revoked in 1978, and Mormonism today rejects all forms of race-based discrimination

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 269.
Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” address in the Second Annual CES Symposium, Salt Lake City, August 1978.
Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign, May 2006.
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