✱ 'Pure' Criticism.
Critiquing the Criticism
Defending the art of criticism is a perilous position in any situation. Defending criticism when it comes to Mormonism and negative associations about anti-Mormonism further cloud people’s judgment. But, in the wake of the LDS ex-communication controversy; defend it we must.
Criticism is an staple of American life. We pay people to critique our movies, our food, our video-games, our political systems, our apps, and even our everyday purchases. I’ve never been shy about my love affair with hyper-criticism. Everything should be analyzed, dissected, and re-built to be better than before.
But criticism never happens in a vacuum. This is especially true when it’s coming from within an organization. People usually respond to criticism by becoming defensive, so when groups of like-minded people get criticism, the effect tends to be compounded. Organizations have to engrain their cultures with a healthy respect for internal criticism or they will reject any divergence from the party line.
I decided to write about critics in the LDS church because I believe it’s a representative example of a larger life truth: Critique can be invaluable to organizations that embrace it and it can be destructive to those that do not.
Mormon Context: A History.
Accepting criticism is not something the LDS church has done particularly well, because criticism in the church is a paradox. The organization is engrained with a belief in on-going revelation and the acceptance of all truth, regardless of source. At the same time, it regularly asserts its authority and correlates its efforts fanatically. Aligning these two values concurrently has littered the the history of the church with tension and drama.
Consider this: Investigators of the church are often asked two questions when it comes to joining the church. “What it comes down to,” the missionaries will say, “is whether you think the Book of Mormon is the Word of God and was Joseph Smith a prophet?”
The implication of this challenge is that if the answer to both questions is yes, you should join the LDS church. This is an over-simplification. There are factions of the Latter-Day Saint movement that would argue that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that you should not join the LDS church. (In fact, Denver Snuffer has basically said as much.)
The early church faced loud and serious criticism that represented a existential threat to the future of the restored gospel. Brigham Young’s detractors weren’t kidding around. His reactions, while questionable, were in defense of a new religion that needed defending.
After polygamy ended, the church ex-communicated members who continued to practice it. To this day we are still struggling to communicate to the world the difference between us and those who have deviated from our core belief and practices. But even before Brigham and polygamy, the church had a ‘who is really in charge here’ problem. The early church had to excommunicate *witnesses of the Book of Mormon* as open apostates and a member of the first presidency for recruiting members into their own factions of the church.
Ex-communication was imprinted on the church in it’s infancy. Is it any wonder, then, that the modern church is quick to distance itself from those it believes are actively seeking to wrestle power away from the twelve? It certainly might help explain Waterman's and Snuffer’s fate. But what about Kate Kelly’s?
Modern Mormon Moderation.
You needn't look too far in the past to see modern examples of the ‘protect-the-brand’ mentality in the LDS church. The September Six, for example, shows the brutality the church’s system could impose on dissenters.
The church has been subtlety and carefully modernizing it’s image, apologizing for it’s policy mistakes, and even clarifying existing policies in the past year. In the Mormon Moment, you’d think church critics would ease off, but you’d be dead wrong. Church critics sense blood in the water.
The modern problem with ex-communication is that members get mixed messages about the line between acceptable behavior and those actions that can cause church discipline.
Consider the things published about Joseph Smith by Fawn Brodie as compared to the work of Richard Bushman. Their eventual place in Mormonism aside, their works are more close than most members would care to admit. The rules are different for different people, because context matters in the real world. The difference between an apostate and an LDS scholar, is one of approach.
A Living Church, Indeed.
It seems many of the church’s detractors want immediate recognition and approval of their criticism. But an organization’s consistency and vision matter— especially in the LDS church. If you reverse course in the midst of immediate controversy, you risk looking weak, lacking vision, and being void of conviction.
For a non-church example, look at Microsoft and its recent release it’s console, the Xbox One. The reversals of bold features that became controversial resulted in complete reversals. This made Microsoft look unsure of themselves and diluted the message for the Xbox One. If an organization must reverse prior action, it should be done on the terms of the organization, not on the terms of it’s detractors. The most obvious modern example in the church is the reaction to the policy on blacks and the priesthood.
Instead of reversing course when the issue became a hot topic, the brethren considered the issue for years, opting only to change the policy once they received revelation. Years of societal unrest and a church hardline on the policy convinced members and critics alike to believe the church’s position was entrenched. An apostle defended the policy in general conference. NAACP leaders even gave up formally meeting with the church. Then one day, boom, complete reversal. The church had changed for the better on it’s own terms. More importantly, it did so while it controlled the conversation.
You may see narrative building in the church as damning, but I think of it as a remarkable example of religion with an “open cannon and the capacity for change.”
Stand A Little Taller, Geeze.
So here is my take: the critics getting ex-communicated probably deserve their punishment on a technical level, but I don't love that I’m complicit in their punishment. It’s kind of like the death penalty or torturing terrorists. I might understand and resign myself to the reality of the punishment, but I’m unsure of it’s morality. Myopic members want the church to refute these critics' claims directly. I wish the church would completely ignore them. It’s beneath them to engage with bloggers. It lends credibility to people who don’t really deserve it.
I'm disappointed with the state of LDS criticism. Surely, there is a conversation to be had about women’s roles in the LDS church and culture. But with a title like ‘Ordain Women’ this movement is only hurting it’s cause. The church can’t turn a blind eye to open apostasy and mutiny.
That being said, the church doesn’t have to defend it’s existence anymore. The religion is the real deal and a handful of angry bloggers don’t pose a real threat to the the worldwide church. But I kind of suspect the church doesn’t know how else to react. I wish we would reserve ex-communication to those convicted of sex abuse or war crimes, and simply disfellowship those in open ‘intellectual apostasy’. (And even then, situations like the Nazi Germany ex-communication make me queasy. All the more reason to err on less extreme punishment.)
So yeah, the church probably needs to reconsider the way it treats those who have legitimate concerns and doubts. (And, word is that there is a massive internal push to do so.)
Whoa, Whoa, Whoa is Me.
That being said, the progressive Mormon scene needs to take a long look in the mirror and decide what it wants to be when it grows up. I get the feeling these bloggers think of the organization of the church like they do government, and this controversy represents a clear violation of their free speech. This isn’t a democracy, it’s a church. There is no first amendment of Mormonism.
Either these bloggers are too arrogant to see that their actions will lead to ex-communication or they understand it perfectly and bet the church won’t call their bluff. In either case I’m disinterested in defending their membership. These bloggers need to appreciate the difference between negotiable policies and core doctrines. The church policy on caffeine evolves with societal pressure while doctrine of the priesthood seems less malleable. You have to know the scope of the change the are asking of the organization and it’s probability.
In the end, the whole issue seems to be a Rorschach Test for members. Either you see the church as in the wrong and the bloggers as heroes, or you see the church as immutable and the bloggers as heretics. The fact that I’ve not heard much of a measured reaction from the church’s defenders or it’s critics is perhaps the most disillusioning aspect of the entire issue.
I’ll just close with a quote of Anton Ego, the restaurant critic in Ratatouille:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*.”
Here’s to hoping we learn something new.
[Update: The church seemed to say all the right things here, but the Deseret News ran a story with Kate Kelly's letter in it. Can't say you won't discuss specifics and then let your own publication print all the details.]
[Update: Clay Christensen has a wonderful correction that reflects my take on this. 'When society is telling me something new, even when it has assembled powerful reasons and powerful people on its side, I do not ask society whether it is correct. I ask God.']
[Update: John Dehlin, of Mormon Stories podcast, was communicated. This is concerning, if simply for the fact that Dehlin was bridging the gap between doubters and hard-liners in the church. Again, notice how a church disciplinary counsel shows up on the wire from the church's own newsroom? What happened to not discussing specifics? Plus, when I hear "Disputed the nature of our Heavenly Father and the divinity Jesus Christ," I think first of Joseph Smith, not John Dehlin. What kind of precedent do you set by engaging the Mormon fringe if not legimaitimzing it? All that being said, look at Dehlin's site. The guy asks for donations on the homepage. He says his plans are to study disorders for "religion-related anxiety (e.g. Scrupulosity)". Doesn't that strike anyone else as assumption looking for evidence? Not to mention, any research he does on it will have conformation bias written all over it. Freud would call this "projection",]