Dieter F. Uchtdorf Cannot Save You

At times like this, the elixir of postmodernity is at its strongest: there is no history–only narratives. Hagiography (a narrative that paints its subject in a particularly effusive light, typically in a religious context e.g. George Q. Cannon’s biography of Joseph Smith or the early religious biographies of say, Simon Stylites) is, while sometimes a beautiful thing, also a dangerous thing. The propensity for crafting it is natural–particularly if it’s a powerful person whom we think promotes policies that resonate with our own predispositions (or, at least, we assume their policies will bother us less).

Whether we are depicting the Saints of old or the Saints of today, we run the real risk of putting another complicated human in the service of our ideology. As a large body of work has now shown, the stories that activists tell about themselves, the movement, and the institution that they are agitating can be at least as influential as the deeper, structural forces bounding it.  Any successful movement does not just need adversaries to mobilize people against; they need advocates that exist both in actuality and in the much more usable mythologized form.

That the Uchtdorf mystique exists is not terribly remarkable in its own right: leaders enjoy different reputations at different times, and with respect to him, he sacrificed aspects of global relevance in order to engage in Church service. Mormons–and Western Mormons, in particular–been guilty of crafting an Uchtdorf Cult of Personality. For Latter-day Saints who don’t exactly identify with the Intermountain Magisterium, he, at least, seems different–and in some ways, is different. A  speaker with the capacity to speak to a wide array of audiences, it is no surprise that he has attracted a coalition of devotees. Some love that he admitted church leaders have committed errors. Some appreciate his proactive voice for crafting immigration legislation that isn’t hostile to undocumented immigrants.  He has expressed support for openness in church history, a spirit of inclusivity, and compassion for refugees. And some think he, frankly, looks fantastic on television. He was the Mormon Cult of Personality that few felt eager to condemn, including those given to condemning it.

But he, like any other figure (political or ecclesiastical) is given to making decisions that we may not  like.  He stood alongside the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency  in denying Ordain Women’s appeal (see also here).  Hugh B. Brown (noted for his support for civil rights legislation), for example, opposed the civil disobedience advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King. James E. Faust, perhaps one of the more civil rights minded Latter-day Saints in 1960s Utah (a low bar), felt similarly.  Meanwhile, the same man who wrote The Kolob Theorem (much derided among the Mormon literati for taking Book of Abraham cosmology altogether too seriously) also advocated for a more proactive effort of including Ghanaian Saints in the proselytizing efforts.  We do the figures we claim to revere a disservice when we latch onto them as leaders who, we hope, we save the Saints from other leaders and perhaps, themselves.

Uchtdorf’s position on homosexuality can serve as a case in point. My commentary ought not be construed as condemnatory or dismissive of the genuine pain and anxiety experienced by those who experience same-sex attraction or self-identify as Gay, Lesbian and Mormon; it is entirely compatible with any given position on sexual identity in Mormonism.  Rather, it is an exploration of the myth-making in Mormonism–and how, in spite of what we call our most honorable intentions, we can re-shape a history after an image of our own making–a process with which Mormon folklorists are all too familiar (seagulls, mantles, and broken glass shards come most readily to mind). Whether that image is beautiful, commendable, or politically useful, it represents a history written of expedience–and should be explicitly understood as such.

Uchtdorf and Homosexuality
There have been some narratives floating around that Uchtdorf represented a more moderate voice among a group of retrogrades  It reflects a common trope: an inside reformer working “from within” to mitigate the effects of what see as a harmful system (akin to Arnold Silva, the FEMA head in the first season of House of Cards; Underwood calls him “the only man who could prevent a disaster [from] becoming a catastrophe”). It is an appealing narrative: a telegenic, emotionally compelling, advocate for causes that we find sympathetic? What’s not to like?

First, it is important to acknowledge what we do know. Some of it is rather Basic Level Mormonism–and thus, no surprise–but it is worth restating in order to establish a backdrop. While we do not have access to the particulars of of what was said in the meetings leading up to the decision, we do know something of Uchtdorf’s document trail.

1. In July 2008, Uchtdorf, then a member of the First Presidency,  promised--during the throes of Proposition 8 –that “living prophets are profoundly aware of the different circumstances we members are living in. They are in this world but not of this world. They point the way, and they offer help for our difficulties, not through the wisdom of this world but from an eternal Source.” He assured the Saints that Monson had “inspired answers” to the problems of the day. That same month, he signed a letter asking Mormons to “do all you can support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of [their] means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.” (Letter from First Presidency to General Authorities, Area Seventies, and the following in California: State and Mission Presidents; Bishops and Branch Presidents (June 20, 2008). Uchtdorf’s comments were an adaptation of his October 2002 address; this section reflects a section of his July 2008 address almost verbatim; only the name, Monson, is switched out with Hinckley.

This rhetoric is par for the course, but as with any history of a text or its ideas–whether Biblical, medieval, or contemporary–we cannot separate the rhetoric from the circumstances in which it was given; even ordinary comments can reveal meaning under particularized circumstances; it is one thing for me to call my father an “honorable man,” and it is quite another for Marc Antony to call Brutus “an honorable man.”  At the very least, we can say that Uchtdorf had no problems saying the same thing of Monson during Proposition 8 as he did of Hinckley–both of whom made opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage (as such, rather than civil partnerships) a major aspect of Church political involvement.
2. In 2010, Uchtdorf stated that  “some [questions] related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life.” These comments are, with minimal variation, a mirror image of the 2007 statement: “God loves his children.”  (“Many questions, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life”).  Uchtdorf echoed a fairly well-established Church-consensus.
3. In 2011, Uchtdorf signed For the Strength of Youth, claiming that, along with Presidents Monson and Eyring: “Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin. “
4. In summer 2015 (only a few months before the policy became public), Uchtdorf, along with the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, maintained that heterosexual marriage “is the best setting for God’s plan of happiness to thrive” and that “strong families, guided by a loving mother and father, serve as the fundamental institution for nurturing children, instilling faith, and transmitting to future generations the moral strengths and values that are important to civilization and vital to eternal salvation.” Moreover, it concludes, “sexual relations outside of such a marriage are contrary to the laws of God pertaining to morality.”
5. In November 2015 Uchtdorf signed off in support of the policy prohibiting children of LGBT couples whose “primary domicile” was with their LBGT parent from receiving baptism.

Unanimity: Standard Protocol or Noble Dream?
If Quinn’s conclusion is to be taken seriously, then ” flexible deference, but not slavish devotion, to precedent” sets an “important context for all decisions” (Extensions of Power, Location 385).

In 1989, James E. Faust, one of the more left-leaning members of the Quorum (one who thought that Ernest Wilkinson’s right-wing influence on the First Presidency was nothing less than nefarious), celebrated:  “this requirement of unanimity . . . ensures that God rules through the Spirit, not man through majority or compromise” (interestingly, Oaks would later distance the Church from the name of this speech: “continuous revelation,” claiming that it overstates Church access to revelation: “We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation.”). The following year, Gordon B. Hinckley claimed that “if there is a lack of unity, there is an absence of action. . .[counselors] become a safeguard that is seldom, if ever, in error.” later promising that in 33 years of Church service, “there has never been a major action taken where this procedure was not observed. .  .Only then is implementation made” (emphasis added).

We have no reason to believe that policy changed.  In general, as  Quinn observed in 1994: “Tabling items due to dissent continues to be a pattern in the contemporary Church” (Extensions of Power, Location 483). In 2012, Elder D. Todd Christofferson told the Church in 2012 that “the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God.” A year before the policy was implemented, then-Elder (now President) Russell M. Nelson (who has been the policy’s most public advocate) has highlighted the sheer difficulty in getting “15 men [who] have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things” to agree on a policy; Nelson’s comments 2014 might reveal some level of vigorous exchange over the November 5 policy specifically.  As one former, rather high-ranking employee in the LDS Church humanitarian indicated to me, “they have egos, but they keep them in check.”

Henry B. Eyring–whose named stands alongside Uchtdorf’s on the November 5 policy– has expressed his surprise at how junior apostles might challenge senior leadership:

I had been studying for the ten years I was a professor at Stanford how you make decisions in meetings, in groups, so I got a chance – here’s my chance to see how the Lord’s servants do it of which I now am one – but I looked at it with my Harvard-Stanford eyes.

And I thought, this is the strangest conversation. Here are the prophets of God and they’re disagreeing in an openness that I had never seen in business. In business you’re careful when you’re with the bosses, you know.I watched this process and they were disagreeing, and I thought ‘good heavens,’ I thought revelation would come to them all and they’d all see things the same way in some sort of way. And it was more open than anything I’d ever seen in all the groups I’d ever studied in business. I was just dumbfounded.

But then after awhile the conversation cycled around and they began to agree.. . .

Then, it was President Harold B. Lee who was chairing the meeting .and I thought now he’s going to announce the decision. I’d seen this miracle, and he said, ‘Wait a minute. I think we’ll bring this matter up again some other time. I sense there is someone in the room who is not yet settled.’ And they went on to the next item, and I thought, ‘That is strange.’ And then I watched somebody, one of the brethren, I think one of the Twelve, walk past President Lee, and say, ‘Thank you. There’s something I didn’t have a chance to say.’

So, I want you to know.  We’re in another kind of thing here.

Hinckley has celebrated that he has felt free “to speak on any issue, despite the fact that I was a junior member.” Ezra Taft Benson gained a reputation for paying close regard to even junior members of the Quorum (Extensions of Power, 455)

Is it possible that Uchtdorf simply rubber-stamped all of these statements, bowing to the pressure of the retrogrades? Perhaps. Even the most connected among us will only glean a shadow of the particulars of those discussions. But If Uchtdorf caved, he did so repeatedly. There as been precedent for apostolic deference to presidential decree. Elder M. Russell Ballard, also a participant in the Nov.5  discussion, used a story of the Quorum of the Twelve flipping their decision once the President had declared: “This is what the Lord wants.” While Ballard acknowledged the importance of vigorous advocacy, he emphasized that it is “just as important is the responsibility to support and sustain the final decision of the council leader, even if you do not agree fully.” In 1946, Spencer W. Kimball “swallow[ed his] pride and disappointment” in order to secure unanimity.

N. Eldon Tanner relayed a similar experience:

I remember so well when a matter was being discussed where different members of the Twelve had differing views and expressed them freely. When President McKay summed up the discussion and said, “This is what I think we should do,” I turned to the brother next to me and said

“Isn’t it wonderful to see how he always comes up with the right answer, and we all seem to feel that it is the right answer?”

          My colleague turned to me and said, “You are listening to a prophet of God.” This is how we know that any                        decision that is made becomes the unanimous decision of the group, regardless of the feeling of any member                    prior to the decision.

According to Nelson, this process was followed in making the decision for the November 5 policy; they “wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter” and then, only made a decision “when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.” Nelson called it “their privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.”

If Uchtdorf simply bowed to the will of the presidency (as described by Ballard and Tanner) on homosexuality, he must have done so so consistently. But I find that unlikely. If his 2010 comments are in any way representative, he echoed the consensus of the Church–with no evidence of reservation. In describing episodes where apostles cave, Quinn uses language like sometimesoccasionally, and at times.Just as frequently, there are instances in which a lone hold-out  prompted top leadership to change (e.g. Brigham Young, Jr.’s refusal to vote in support of a non-Mormon professor at BYUA prompted Wilford Woodruff to adopt Brigham Young’s position).  Taking him at his signed statements, even at moments when he emphasized measure and moderation re: homosexuality, Uchtdorf’s rhetoric on the causes homosexuality has largely matched the positions struck by Jeffrey R. Holland, M. Russell Ballard, (see also here, from 2009) and, in 2006, Dallin H. Oaks (“The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions — whether nature or nurture — those are things the Church doesn’t have a position on.” See also here). It is possible that Uchtdorf had certain reservations about some policies and their implementation but ultimately, opted to agree to each position–but this speculation exists strictly within the realm of the possible, not the plausible. As reflected by his 2010 comment, we have exactly no evidence that Uchtdorf held a position on homosexuality’s origins distinctive from most of his fellow apostles; indeed, Packer edited his conference speech to eliminate his comments on the origins of homosexuality–and as I understand it, at his own initiative.  If his signing trend means anything (and I think it should), Uchtdorf believes that:

1. Homosexual marriage is theologically unacceptable, and homosexual family units do not reflect “God’s plan of happiness.”
2. Homosexual activity is considered sinful.
3. Homosexual feelings are not, in themselves, immoral but are to be controlled.
4. Heterosexual marriage is the standard form of marriage in Mormonism and ought to be celebrated as such.
5. And most importantly, that all people–both LGBTQ or straight, should be treated with love, compassion, and respect.

That Uchtdorf would support the November statement, then, should not surprise us.

Allow me to be clear: it is not my purpose to assuage–or incite–concerns about the making of the November 5 policy or to criticize Uchtdorf. In relevant ways, Uchtdorf does represent a departure from past members of the First Presidency. He has publicly celebrated a Mormonism that is not Ameri-centric. Indeed, Uchtdorf’s excellent advocacy on behalf of refugees, undocumented immigrants, and those vexed by doubt resonate beautifully with the feelings of many marginalized on the outskirts of Mormonism.

But we should not use Uchtdorf’s track record for progressive Mormon myth-making either; the theological questions undergirding sexuality are far, far bigger and more vexing than Uchtdorf’s comments–and should not be reduced to Mormon Kremlinology.

Instead, Mormons can use this issue to ask broader questions about the deployment of narratives in the construction of group identity. The process typically followed is common: 
1. We interpret Mormonism’s views on homosexuality in a certain (e.g. most often, negative) way. We want them to change.
2. We hope to identify with Mormonism in some way, in spite of our anxiety.
3. We hope to find a tool to intervene–to effect change.
4. We seek for an individual who might have the capacity/will to change institutional practice/doctrine to align with beliefs (e.g. Uchtdorf).
5. We deploy him/her in an effort to justify our continued affiliation and, perhaps, an internal agitative movement.

Whatever our position happens to be on the theological defensibility/invalidity of homosexual identity–and the ways of engaging this issue are vast–we should restrain ourselves from turning Uchtdorf into an icon in the Mormon Kulturkampf. Like all of us, he has the capacity to be many things at once: forward-thinking and conservative, compassionate and dogmatic, flexible in some regards and less so, in others. Engaging in counterfactuals about What Uchtdorf Would Do might make for intriguing Mormon Parlor Games for Progressive, but it does no service nor respect to the totality of Uchtdorf’s character or influence. Chimamanda Adichie’s warnings against a “single story” reflect not only Africa; they reflect the human experience.

So, as we grapple (and I hope we do grapple rather than kvetch) over the Terrible Questions that Mormon dogma claims to answer–sex, identity, displacement, family, and the afterlife–we can do better than become vexed over the inside baseball politics that Mormon Kremlinology has to offer. As great of a leader as President Uchtdorf is (he’s not dead, folks), we do his service more honor by following his counsel of compassion, love, and, when appropriate, loyalty rather than placing on him a mantle that he has never claimed to bear.

Let me emphasize: it is an honorable to create an environment in which the human needs of marginalized people are met. One could easily argue that a movement would be justified. However, as we craft these movements, we must pay the same kind of care to representing the views of our heroes, (and our villains) correctly.  It’s immensely natural to become cynical: to use any point of entry, any figure in whom we might see potential. But do they see themselves that way?  We rightly ask commentators to engage marginalized peoples on their terms, in their complexity, and in their multidimensionality.  But that is not a virtue merely as a political gesture–as a stroke in the broader struggle in dismantling racial, gendered, or political hegemonies (though it certainly is that); it’s a virtue because representing humans in their complexity is, quite simply, one of many right and fair things to do.

Letter to a Chronic Plagiarizer

Dear Chronic Plagiarizer:

Over the course of this semester, you have taken every opportunity to proactively avoid learning. Rather than dare to know something about the forces that shape our world–whether they be ideas, economics, or social relationships–you have chosen instead to attend sporting events, to copy (bad) papers from online, and to project judgment onto others when called out on it. We gave you an opportunity to pass the course–albeit not by much. Instead, your final exam consisted of a few random thoughts with little coherence. And to finish it off? You (rather condescendingly, but no matter) assured us that the entirety of the class was irrelevant to you–that you had better things to do with your time (e.g. image-building, publicity, etc.). None of this will be remotely relevant to you, you shrug. So what does it matter to copy a paper here and there? Perhaps you consider yourself wealthy enough, connected enough, square-jawed enough, and beloved enough to skate by–no questions asked.  The successful people don’t bother with such frivolities.  They hyper-specialize and block themselves off in their cell.  Otherwise, Google (your word, not mine) will save us all.  And in the meantime, it’s no trouble at all to leave your respsonsibilities behind you to attend a game. Beer and circus, you think, will always trump accuracy and evidence.

On a raw sort of level, I respect your candor. Not everyone has the words, the gumption, or the self-awareness to lay bare their assumptions as forthrightly as you have. 
I cannot put it more eloquently: you are wrong.

I know that you think your approach is new, bold, even cutting-edge–a view only possible in the digital age (and what a wondrous age, it is). But your approach to truth, I’m afraid, is not only not new; it can be found in the dusty old archives of manipulators, con-men, and hucksters who specialize in convincing otherwise promising minds that they need not concern themselves about such yawners as documents, memos, or The Truth.  Seek out your own, they say; and “leave The Truth to us.”  Trusting that Google will save you (and you have explicitly proclaimed that it will) is to trust the minds of strangers, to believe that most narratives as good as the next–that no one would ever dream of using the past to manipulate their future.  You have placed your best asset–your values and your mind–in the hands of people whose interests almost certainly do not resonate with your own.

You have bought the Big Lie, and I’m afraid that many (though not all) secondary school instructors have been complicit in perpetuating it: we have taught you history not as a process of analysis but rather, as a kind of intellectual hazing–the price (and pain) we must pay in order to prove that we’re Smart People (TM).   And once we’ve proven that we are part of the Smart People club, we can throw away that information in the name of the Next Big Thing.  More, some of us promoted an academy in which the plight of accuracy (in all of its layers), evidence, and Truth should be set aside in favor of constructs, narratives, and the destabilization of our linguistic foundations. For most of us, we were trying to do right by you: to highlight complexity, multivariance, and nuance.  But as the world of Big Data pressed itself on you–unremittingly–we found ourselves outgunned. And we gave up.

Seeing the relics of a failed education, your media mentors (or Steve Bannon) might whisper in your ear that with enough infrastructure, funding, and microphones, you can make reality into whatever you want it to be.  They have deceived you. They are doing to you what they make a living doing: creating narratives, values, and worldviews. They want you to believe that you can, in fact, manipulate reality.   They will pay for your loyalty with a price, of course. But what they will get is worth so much more than they will give: a man willing to forsake the realities of the past in the name of a future where  In this world, what does it matter if you rip off a word or two? There is money to be made and loyalties to be won.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Taylor, a spin master of Washington, launches a media blitz  against a beleaguered Senator Jefferson Smith for holding up a bill–using every misdirection and illusion at his disposal. Faced with an army of powerful and influential men committed to deceiving, misdirecting, and twisting Smith at every turn, Smith holds the floor.

I hope you see Smith as the honorable figure here, not James Taylor.

Every billionaire in the business has made a habit not of specialization but of expansion. Bill Gates has committed considerable resources to making high quality historical resources available to students across the country.  The Mellon Foundation commits millions each year for educators in the social sciences. Wenner-Gren commits itself to ensuring that anthropological methodologies are employed across the globe.  There is a reason: because The Best and the Brightest find stimulation not in specialization but in integration.  They recognize that these same structural forces that you shrugged off over the course of the semester have been profound causative agents: land distribution, digitization, trade (both human and commodity), and politics matter.  Contrary to what the entirety of popular media, the political system, and even your friends may suggest, the world you are about to face does not abide ignorance long.

I hope you change your mind about what history means. I hope you no longer see your mind as an agent for corporate manipulation and greed but as a sovereign entity, thirsty for knowledge. Your clients will thank you. Your children will benefit. And your friends will respect your commitment to getting things right.

So, no, I am not upset. I am not insulted. In the most non-passive aggressive manner possible, I feel sorry for you. And hope that someday, you will see a better way for a price less than public embarrassment.

With every good wish,
Russell Stevenson
Your TA

Mythbusters, Official Declaration #2 Edition

Samuel and Amanda Chambers. Booker T. Washington considered Samuel to be a “colored Brigham Young.”

We don’t do an awesome job of discussing Official Declaration #2, even though it serves as the best starting point for us to bracket off what some of us may designate The Global Era of Mormonism. It allowed men of African descent to receive ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and it allowed women to receive their temple endowment (and the fact that those two changes were made in conjunction with each other should highlight for us that women ought not be seen as apart from “the priesthood” after all).  And we are right to celebrate the contributions of black Latter-day Saints; we should do it more, do it frequently, and do it gladly. If we can’t talk about a vexed racial history involving a large percentage of the human population but can talk about the miracle of the quails, the miracle of the Mantle, the Utah war, the Handcart Companies ad infinitum, shouldn’t that strike us as a little…skewed? Continue reading

Podcast #16: The Man Who Plays Elijah-An Interview with Danor Gerald

In this episode, I interview Danor Gerald, an African-American working actor in Utah commissioned to play the role of Elijah Able[s] in new official LDS Church productions. Given Ables’ position as one of a few black priesthood holders prior to the implementation of the priesthood restriction, the moves represents a marked shift towards a reckoning with a past that is anything but clean. I discuss Gerald’s work as a black actor in Utah and the significance of the Church’s move to dramatize Ables for the public eye.  A story both personal and historical, Gerald offers us an intriguing look into how the LDS Church is taking steps to present an important chapter in Mormon history heretofore left neglected in Mormonism’s public discourse.

Letting the Gods Go?: A Review of Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in An Age of Doubt

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”–Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” 1918.

The world of Mormonism has changed, even within the span of my relatively short lifetime. We live in a time where networks of information have become decentralized, enclaved, and destabilized through the sheer quantity of data available. Sociologist Max Weber did not find disenchantment to be a particularly desirable outcome. It would not result in moral perfection disinvested from the superstitions of old theologies. Weber warned that “calculation” would invade the bonds of “traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.”  Frederick Schiller spoke of “Entgötterung”—literally translated to be “letting the Gods go.”

        Yet the new relationship does not lack appeal; postmodern theorist, Jean-Paul Sartre, acknowledged that admitted that “like all dreamers, [he] mistook disenchantment for truth.” Conventional wisdom would suggest that increased access to information would necessarily lead to more exacting and nuanced conclusions about the documentary trail. As a chorus of scholars have shown, increased information does not lead us down a linear path into increased awareness but into a world of fragmented knowledges and ideological tribalism.  A plenitude of documentation destabilizes not only our typical conventions about the historical record but even, our faith in our ability to know.  Access to knowledge has created not a sense of security but a “crisis.”  We have, as Jean-Francois Lyotard has observed, cultivated a profound skepticism toward any kind of grand explanation of the world.  The grand narrative, Lyotard argued, “is losing. . .its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.” One need not be a Mormon history scholar to recognize this; anyone who has roamed the circles of an LDS mid-singles activity can sense what it’s like to feel a dream slipping from your fingertips. While the academy may have left behind the heyday of such immense skepticism, its carbon footprint remains clear on the mind of Western thinkers. To be an institutional religion with a Big Picture narrative is a tough game in the West of the 21st-century.

Patrick Mason’s devotional volume, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, argues that “the most important thing we can do in the face of our current challenges is to make the church a more welcoming place for those who struggle, creating the conditions in which they can feel comfortable . . .in the midst of the body of Christ rather than feeling excluded from it.”  A Mormonism that is “more embracing. . .may thus be the most important factor in helping people more fully embrace Mormonism” (Mason, 8). Whether we are talking about Joseph Smith and the seerstone, polygamy, the race-based priesthood and temple restrictions, or myriad other subjects, the disenchantment born of increased access to information represents no ordinary paradigm shift but often, a profound recalibration of one’s spiritual narrative or more often—whether one should embrace a narrative at all.  As Mason observes, “facts and emotions are never so far apart.” As new information comes, “new feelings have arisen in the questioner’s heart—sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes hitting immediately and like a ton of bricks” (Mason, 15).  Mason hopes to provide tools for believing Latter-day Saints to navigate a Western world increasingly unfriendly to metanarratives, institutions, and belief in foundational, overarching truths.

To some extent, Mason owns the contradictions–or “scandals”–of religious conviction.  “If there was ever written a tell-all history replete with religious scandal,” Mason observes, “the Old Testament is it” (Mason, 53). And while time has been kind to the now “malleable and customizable Jesus of modernity,” the Jesus of scripture ought to “scandalize you and your modern sensibilities” (Mason, 54).  And at day’s end, “on this side of the veil Mormonism does demand a willingness to appear the fool in the face of exclusivist rationalism” (Mason, 57).  Mason’s line of reasoning finds resonance with company of the early Christian epoch; as Tertullian observed, “the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd/And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” One second-century anti-Christian critic, Celsus, railed against the early Christians, declaring that Christianity “thrives in its purer form among the ignorant”; claims like those of Tertullians are “so absurd that [they do] not merit my ridicule but rather my pity and contempt” (Celsus, On The True Doctrine, 77). Yet Mason acknowledges the instability that  Ivory Tower ethos invites. “There is nothing more unstable than basing one’s life and outlook purely on the latest scholarship, let alone one’s casual perusal of it” (Mason, 72). Indeed, “the entire modern academic enterprise is founded upon the notion that scholars will say something novel in their published writings” (Ibid.)  Mason feels that “scholarship makes for a fairly wobbly foundation upon which to build one’s profoundest commitments” and “can’t imagine a more maddening life than to rise each morning to consult the learned journals to see what one’s position du jour is” (Ibid.).

For those seeking in-depth documented answers about myriad topics in LDS history, they would be best served looking at other volumes—volumes to which Mason himself readers in his Suggested Reading list.  Mason makes no claims to offering a definitive doctrinal treatise on any of the issues that plague him.  While he offers a fairly detailed discussion of Joseph Smith and money-digging, his discussions of the origins of the race restriction and polygamy introduce the readers to the bare minimums of the subject.   As he acknowledges, “entire books have already been written” on these subjects, so “it is impossible to say everything in a few thousand words” (Mason, 5)  He is “less concerned. . .with delivering definitive answers than with having a conversation.” This is not about apologia or “scoring points in debates that can probably never be decisively won.”  Mason seeks only “pastoral dialogue” with “a certain amount of vulnerability.”  As an author on one of his topics–race in Mormon history–I found the surface-level discussion a bit frustrating but ultimately, understandable.

These caveats established, Mason takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of the Greatest Hits in the list of Troubling Aspects of Church History. Written in accessible prose for the interested non-specialist, he offers not only devotional pastoral care but also a dash of the historian’s trade to people unfamiliar with mechanics of how one discovers, relays, re-constructs, and contextualizes historical accounts. “History is a construction zone,” Mason observes, and “we have to put on our hard hats when we enter.”  Its limitations notwithstanding, “the only thing more foolish than limiting ourselves to current scholarship is to abandon it altogether” (Mason, 71-72).

He starts by delving into the world of what 21st-century Westerners (and I emphasize—Westerners) find to be odd, even bizarre: seer stones and Joseph Smith’s deployment of folk magic traditions. Early Mormonism grew in a world with different assumptions about the “rational,” about spirituality, and about religion. In an agrarian society that interacted with, while not being defined by, more mainline Christian denominations, those in Joseph Smith’s circles did not feel bound to strictly Biblical teachings for their religion. God could be found not only in the Bible but also in the trees, the earth, and in stones. Mason acknowledges the problems that this poses for Latter-day Saints of modern times.  But he warns the ever family-attuned Saints: “If we are not careful. . .we run the risk of actually silencing our ancestors by turning their rich and textured lives into simple, two-dimensional fables that offer either uplifting morality tales or grist for our own contentions with the church” (Mason, 61). After all, “the past is just as morally complex as the present.” Mason does a particularly good job of emphasizing one of the attributes of the best historians: intellectual humility.  When we step into the world of the past, he enjoins readers, “it is we, not the people whom we encounter, who are out of place.”  Not only is it historically irresponsible; it is also elitist. “By the Smiths’ time,” Mason observes, “magic was questioned and even scorned by the enlightened upper classes, but it remained a part of the life of plain people,” a conclusion that has been borne out in my own rather casual examination of contemporary newspaper articles (Mason, 65).

This is no fault of Mason’s but it is worth observing that the intellectual and religious problem presented by Joseph Smith’s use of magic is one that seems to vex Americans and Europeans far more than, say, Igbo or Yoruba Christians even of the past two generations. African religiosity thrives not rigid denominationalism but on syncretism. Take Rosemary Elendu, a convert to Mormonism who in 1988 observed that she married her husband when she did lest future suitors “will try to be wicked on [her], and use their witchcraft.” (Elendu, 3, E. Dale LeBaron Oral History Collection). For Chinua Achebe, the conflicts between mainline Christianity and indigenous Igbo tradition “created sparks in [his] imagination.”  Achebe followed Christian customs at the hands of his parents and wandered through indigenous religiosity outside the home; this, for Achebe, meant merely enjoying a “rich childhood.” He was “part of a lucky generation,” he observed, “to be planted at a crossroads, a time when the meeting of two cultures produced something of worth.”  But For Westerners, the notion that “a person could embrace Protestantism and magic simultaneously” is an anthropological observation about a foreign time and place; for an Igbo Christian, it is, more often than not, a lived reality.

To me, then, the fact that Joseph Smith engaged in what we Westerners style “magic” is less significant than the meaning we attribute to it, and if Clifford Geertz is right—that the human experience is but a “web of meanings” upon which we are suspended—then what we attach to Joseph Smith’s practices is the main event. When we cringe at Joseph Smith’s dabbling,  then, what makes us so fearful? Because of the oddity of using otherwise ordinary physical objects as channels for revelation? If so, then we must be prepared to continue down the same road even further. We must be prepared to scoff at the Hmong shamans, recoil from the Yoruba Bablawo, or tiptoe away from the Buddhist Priests.  Joseph Smith’s dabbling in religious practices has less to do with their inherent oddity and more to do with their seeming Otherness. Living in an era that valorizes verifiability, measurability, and observability, we must condemn all such religious practices alike or none at all.

In tackling how the institutional LDS church has handled historical matters, Mason addresses the deficiencies with notable candor, particularly given the volume’s Deseret Book imprimatur.  He critiques the Brigham Young manual published by the LDS Church for its concealing of Brigham Young’s polygamist marital status.  “The compilers of the text. . .even changed some of President Young’s original references from ‘wives’ to the singular ‘wife.” While their alterations were “somewhat understandable,” Mason observes, “it was bad history, it was misleading, and it treated some of the church’s most intrepid pioneer women and their faithful sacrifices as if they never existed” (Mason, 77-78). Yet Mason insists that “steer[ing] clear of the more controversial aspects of our past” has not been a “massive conspiratorial cover-up campaign” but “an act of ministry.” He chides those who expect religious services to resemble an academic graduate seminar; after all, they “would surely not expect or appreciate a sermon from their college professor” (those of the scholar-activist ilk might politely disagree) (Mason, 79).

Mason’s injunction is at its most powerful when he encourages us to “plac[e] Christ at the center of our stories” (Mason, 120).  Pushing back against those who would prefer to imagine Jesus after the image of their own god, Mason maintains that Jesus “does not reinforce our values—he demands that we accept his.”  Mason is no relativist; after all, “there are certain inequities, iniquities, and injustices in this world that no amount of historicizing, contextualizing, or theologizing will satisfy” (Mason, 129). But Mason goes further. Mormonism, he submits, suggests that accepting Jesus Christ fully demands membership in an institutional church unit, and at a time “when it is increasingly in vogue to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ (Mason, 139). Mason takes care to moderate the jingoistic strain in Mormon discourse that emphasizes, often ad nauseum, that “the Church is true.”  Mason adeptly moderates the extremities of how Saints valorize the institution of the Church. “The Church is not an end in itself,” he quotes Elder John A. Widtsoe, and “when the church or any part of it does not function for the good of man, it fails to function properly, and corrective measures should be undertaken” (Mason, 140-141, quoting Widtstoe, Programs of the Church, 17).

And Mason is clear too that the Church need not negotiate on its claims to self-identity. “Adaptation, acculturation, and acceptance need not equate with or devolve to relativism. . .the Church does and will make real claims, many of which must be countercultural if it is to fulfill its prophetic function to preach repentance” (Mason, 178).   After all, the “church cannot be so pliable as to have no meaningful form or shape, nor so rigid so as to break (or break people) at the merest application of stress or pressure.” Mormonism works, Mason argues, because it “operates within a culture while simultaneously offering testimony and evidence of a godly alternative” (Ibid.).

Above all, activity in church must be thought about theologically “to help us situate these experiences,” thus “simultaneously reshaping their meaning for us and empowering us to cope” (Mason, 153). C.S. Lewis’s complicated relationship with church service comes to mind, as he observed in the sneering voice of the demon Screwtape: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. . . [not] the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity,” but the “half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate” with the hard pews, oily grocers, and disheveled hymnals “containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad.”   If those in attendance “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes,” Screwtape observes, anyone will “quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 5).  Mason makes no secret about what our expectations should be from involvement in the institutional church life. The institution serves a vital function, Mason maintains, as “our modern culture [grows] unrelentingly oriented toward the self” (Mason, 147).  “Church” for Mason is not an plush office but time in trailer parks and hospital rooms, the homes of “people whose opinions, grooming habits, childrearing techniques, or wall décor are odious to our tastes.” This “unpleasantness,” Mason declares, “is precisely the stuff of discipleship” (Mason, 146).   While Mason calls for increased involved in the LDS religious community, he warns against retrenchment.  In an age of disenchantment, we cannot go back to where we were before.  “We are liberated in and from tradition,” he writes (Mason, 176).  Mason does not suggest that we reach into the sky and call back the gods as weak mortals begging for a crutch.  Mason suggests that we see the godliness here, now—a kind of humanism with a divine flair. We might be compelled to navigate through a disenchanted world, a world stripped from the spirits.   But even if the world is, we need not be.If we are to save faith, then, must we believe that the magic is gone? Must we accept Weber’s assumptions?  Have miracles ceased?

Mason concludes, “there are no magic words or ready-made formulas that will make [doubts] immediately go away,” rendering doubt as perhaps the great theological knot of this, a secular age.  And as we work through it,  we must, as Reinhold Niebuhr, admit that “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope” and that “nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”  Until then, we struggle, hope, stumble, love and embrace, yearning for the day when we will fall upon the necks of our loved ones and “kiss each other”—for “there shall be mind abode, and it shall be Zion” (Moses 7:64).


Was Elijah Able[s] Ordained by Joseph Smith? A Response to W. Paul Reeve

Yesterday, W. Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2014) posted a short piece on By Common Consent about the ordination of Elijah Able[s], the first documented African-American man to hold the priesthood in Mormon history. In the piece, he makes a short simple argument: “Did Joseph Smith, Jr. Ordained Elijah Abel to the Priesthood?”  The “short answer,” Reeve responds, is “No, I do not believe that he did.”  Reeve writes of his research into the ordination of Elijah Able(s): “as I dug into the sources I grew increasingly uneasy with that assertion and the evidence upon which it is based. In the book I don’t walk the reader through my behind the scenes reasoning and only the most careful reader will notice that I only claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. “sanctioned” Able[s]’s priesthood. What I offer below is a glimpse into my reasoning behind the decision to characterize it that way.”

He presents four pieces of evidence that address the origins of Elijah’s ordination: Continue reading

Why We Can Condemn the Priesthood Restriction While Keeping Our Recommends

Today, the always-thoughtful Jana Riess posted a short piece criticizing commentators who continue to defend the priesthood restriction on peoples of African descent.  These critics suppose that by critiquing comments that even ancient Book of Mormon prophets such as Nephi and Jacob critiqued, we must be seeking to undermine the authority of the Church, its standing, its very existence.

That Riess warns against idol worship of prophets is all the more salient. We talk of cars, and money, and glamor, and looks as the pressing idols of the day. We have also grandfathered in social media into the pantheon of false gods. But the greatest idols are those that can present themselves as so ordinary, so matter-of-factual, that we almost feel silly calling them idols at all.  Spencer W. Kimball condemned the military-industrial complex: “We commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance.”

And what was the idol of choice for the Saints of the late-nineteenth-century? They had been seeking it for three generations: not independence, as important as it was. Not industry, even if the railroad had come to town. It was more pervasive than that–the simple quality of whiteness. In 1893, George Q. Cannon heralded from the rooftops that “the purity of the Caucasian race is more likely to be preserved in our Territory than in many other portions of the United States…Our people are not of mongrel breeds.” (George Q. Cannon, An Ex-Editor’s Sunday Talk,” Deseret News, February 25, 1893, 14, as quoted in Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, 2013, 49).

Can we please move beyond this? For generations, the Saints lived as a mountain sect of white folks all trying very hard to be white. Almost from the beginning, the Saints have found themselves in the crosshairs of America’s racial weaponry. In 1834, they were considered to be “black Mormons” by the national press.  In 2012, Mitt Romney seemed just a little too white to be presidential material. So it’s understandable that the Mormon community would have a raw nerve as pertaining to race.

But telling ourselves that “race doesn’t have anything to do with it” doesn’t make it go away.  Telling black people to “get over it” doesn’t eliminate not only 300 years of family history but their daily lived experience. The Mormon community deeply (and rightly) values its heritage, and we memorialize it in every conceivable way. But when we tell people of African descent to forget the lessons of their past–a past in which white folks have often not been the good guys–we reveal that we are not using our history as a gospel lesson but as a method of establishing a cultural hegemony.

Only a couple months ago, I was having a conversation with an older gentleman about the struggles a mutual friend of ours had with racial discrimination a generation ago. His response, as he put his hand on my shoulder: “well, I don’t blame him. They were the scum of the earth in his neighborhood.” In my introduction to Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, I spoke of the Saints’s need to understand our capacity to create an atmosphere of exclusivity, of how it takes a village to exclude a child. And when we indulge in it, we like our exclusivity to come with a smile and a pat on the back, all while we silently draw lines between who We are and who They are.  The fact that only six months ago, an African-American historian could ask me with a straight face: “How could black people join a faith that is so foundationally racist?” tells us that the Saints have an image problem.sustaining-leaders-in-conference

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I find a powerful cosmology–one that binds families, communities, and
souls together. It motivates people to serve, to give, to connect themselves to others in a Westernized world that devalues connectivity, that highlights non-commitment, and convinces us that at day’s end, is is only our own journey that matters.
But that cosmology will not work when we also bind ourselves not to people but to bad ideas, bad doctrines, and bad policies.
Dealing with controversy does not mean undermining LDS President Thomas S. Monson or his apostles. It does not mean that we suddenly want to go running down the aisle at General Conference declaring our opposition. Nor does it mean that we’ve taken up the hobby of speaking ill of those who lead the Church. This is not about scholarship, documents, liberalism,  conservatism, property rights, religious rights, or politics at all.

It just means being honest, being candid, and being kind. It means caring enough about those who have different experiences to learn a little about them. That’s something we all can do, whether we live in the suburbs of Utah county, Chicago’s South Side, or rural North Carolina.

Russell Stevenson is the author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013


Podcast #15: Of One Heart and One Mind Fireside

On March 8, Russell Stevenson, along with Blacks in the Scriptures and Northstar, sponsored a special event devoted to discussing how the LGBT/SSA/transgender and African-American communities have endeavored to uphold their faith in the face of systemic marginalization.  Participants included Nick Gregory, an active transgender Latter-day Saint, Rod Olson, an active gay Mormon living in Los Angeles, and Marvin Perkins, an African-American Latter-day Saint man and producer of Blacks in the Scriptures. You will also hear stunning musical performances from Catherine Papworth, Rashida Jordan, and Cherie Call.


Reviewing Meet the Mormons

tumblr_ncvpg5YAuH1tggrpfo1_1280Meet the Mormons, a documentary/informercial produced by the LDS Church about six remarkable Mormons across the globe, shows Mormonism at its coolest.  Would I see it over Guardians of the Galaxy? Tough sell, that. But I attended, if only out of filial loyalty.

The profiles range from a humanitarian in Nepal to a kickboxer in Costa Rica. Occasionally funny and genuinely touching, I found myself moved and inspired to see my faith community in new, more vibrant ways. But if you’re expecting an intellectually stimulating and innovative discussion of Mormon theology from Mormonism’s leading thinkers, then you’ve really picked the wrong Mormon documentary. Theological/historical types are sure to grumble a bit after watching it. There’s not talk about deification, the afterlife, the premortal life, Kolob, the Nephites, polygamy, Bruce R. McConkie, ecclesiastical structures, prophetic (in)fallibility, the pioneers, Joseph Smith, seerstones, translation, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, blood atonement, Freemasonry, etc.

But is that what they’re going for? When you “meet a Mormon,” is that the topic of conversation you will have?  (If you’re talking to me, it probably will be, as my dissertation is on Mormonism in Nigeria, making the priesthood restriction almost part of my casual dinner conversation. It’s great party fodder).  Perhaps it is. But as numerous public relations studies have shown, people still don’t know what Mormonism is about.  They don’t know what Mormons do, why they do it, or what they care about. And if nothing else, a great documentary is crafted to make you want to care about what makes a person wake up in the morning.   Unless you’re an avid student or a history freak (I strive to the be former and certainly am the latter), theology doesn’t exactly set will with your dinner conversation. They want to know what your values are, what matters to you, and why it should matter to them.  A colleague of mine, also a Latter-day Saint, was considering a graduate program in European history, and when the director of graduate studies learned that she had served a Mormon mission, he asked her not about Kolob but about how she could teach people to have a relationship with God.  Basic stuff.

As an academic resource, it enjoys limited utility. In my own work, I might use a clip or two as an intro-warm up to give a presentation on the history of  Mormon public relations or perhaps to frontline a presentation on the history of Mormon racial identity–but never more than a few minutes of it. It offers no discussion of change over time, origins, or Mormonism’s Big Ideas.  The only historian used in the film was Andrei Cherry, the author of a popular history of the Candy Bombers during the Berlin airlift.  I would never use it as a teaching tool in any academic classroom. But when I was chatting with the director, Blair Treu (as savvy as they come, by the way) about the making of this film, it was clear to me that he was not making a film to appease the Mo-intelligentsia.  The vast majority of the population don’t have Kolob on their minds.  When people still think of Mormons as just screwballs in the Intermountain West (a charge to which I would have pled guilty last year), then the solution isn’t to inundate them with historical scholarship. And Treu knows that as well as anybody.   Those who cry foul at the film’s lack of theology are like people at a fine restaurant complaining about why the cheeseball and crackers aren’t more filling.

The Hollywood Reporter declares that the film’s message is that “Mormons are people, too, and really nice ones at that.” But a caricature such as this in fact ignores such a wealth of backstory of race, class, and gender in the Mormon community.   Every story is intended to tackle stereotypes of various kind. A kickboxing mother? Not exactly what comes to mind when you say “Mormon wife.”   An African-American bishop? While it doesn’t give anything on the history of that (inexplicably, I would add), to go ignore the significance of this story is to be willfully ignorant.  Likewise, while Gail Halverson, the famous “candy bomber” of the Berlin airlift, carves out a fabulous narrative, his Mormonism doesn’t really appear in the story.

Love the production or hate it, everything done reveals how Church wants itself presented to the world. Their triumphs are many and varied: whether they’re showing us how they overcame personal obstacles in their youth or building infrastructure in rural Nepal, these individuals have the street cred to force us to revisit some of the holdover insularity we’ve inherited from nineteenth-century Mormonism. I know countless, remarkable LDS humanitarians, athletes, and mothers whose stories are as compelling as anyone’s on the film. But what if they’re not representative?  Neither were Peter nor Paul, and we have large texts detailing their travels.

Would I attend it if I weren’t part of tribe Mormon? Certainly not.  I wouldn’t lay down ten dollars for documentaries of any kind when I can find them in plentitude on Netflix or elsewhere.  Did I come away proud of what Mormons could be? Certainly.   Richard Bushman has told the Saints that warming people up to Mormonism is a “matter of familiarity.” Will this do the trick? I don’t know that it will, but it will have accomplished its purpose if only by giving some alone time with our collective self to have a heart-to-heart about what it means to be a Mormon in a 21st-century global community.