Some of my dear friends and family members – people I respect and continue to respect – have decided to step away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because these are people I care about and love, I’ve wanted to better understand their experiences leading to this decision.
These conversations have been important to me, and I’m grateful for the trust and vulnerability shown by several people who have shared their experiences. In more than one instance, I’ve heard concerns from these loved ones that the Church had deceived them by withholding information about certain things in the historical record. The shock and pain they spoke of experiencing upon learning some additional details from Mormon history was real and intense.
An accusation of dishonesty is a sobering claim and has given me pause. As a serious contention, it is one that I think deserves equally serious attention and exploration. With one friend in particular, Mark, I’ve appreciated a chance to begin doing just this. He is a thoughtful professional, a father and a husband – and now finds himself hurt and saddened in relation to the same institution he used to love dearly. As we explored some specific historical questions he had about the Church, I asked him one day, “so can you help me better understand what exactly you mean when you say that the Church wasn’t honest with you?”
This question isn’t a semantic one or an attempt to mince words. It’s a legitimate curiosity. We all know that how history is approached has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades – both within the Church and across secular scholarship such as American history. And yet, in all the discussion about dishonesty and deception in relation to certain historical questions, there has been much less attention to what exactly we mean by these hot-button terms being used. Almost always, one primary view seems to be taken for granted:
Deliberate, self-preserving deception. In most cases, the conversations about neglected historical areas seems to take for granted that those involved in producing prior histories were deliberately lying in what was omitted – especially from popular accounts. These leaders and historians do so, from this perspective, to maintain more control and power that they might not otherwise have.
More generally, people thus talk of efforts to “whitewash” or “sanitize” history – making it seem cleaner or simpler (or more liberal or more conservative or more Christian or less Christian) than it was. For example, voices on the political left raise concerns with conservative efforts to portray American history as exceptional. And on the other side, individuals on the political right have raised concerns at another kind of re-visioning that supports the larger progressive story – e.g., the “suppression of any information about racism towards white people” and framing history in a way that makes all white Europeans look bad. Diverging accounts of Columbus are a particular illustration, with ongoing efforts to point out unsettling elements of his story, alongside others that emphasize positive interpretations of what unfolded. Socio-political contests aside, even the history of baseball has been critiqued for its attempt to “sanitize” its history from the indiscretions of athletes like Barry Bonds. Says one author, “A national baseball museum that fails to adequately confront the messy nature of the past…does its sport (and the pursuit of history) a grave disservice.”
Across society, then, it’s not uncommon to hear concerns about skewing or slanting or over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing certain aspects of history in some way. The degree to which others involved in the organization (political, business or religious) are seen as being involved in this perceived deception varies widely. In some cases, a whole network of leading individuals are seen as working together to withhold details that would undermine power, influence or wealth. This is sometimes how large industries such as Pharma are accused of acting – and certainly how some talk about the Church.
Most often, accusations are directed towards a select few involved in the deception. From this perspective, most people in the organization were not party to decisions of what to emphasize (or omit) – and maintained sincerely-held, positive intentions for their work. This is how I personally view Pharma these days – namely, that it operates with less self-consciousness than it needs, with a few (and only a few) appreciating the full extent of the institutional and public deception that is occurring.
Others see the Church this same way – as having consciously and deliberately omitted certain things and emphasized others in order to maintain certain kinds of power, control and authority. To these individuals, the Church’s new efforts to make explicit certain historical questions are inadequate – representing “tortured” attempts to wiggle away from past deceptions.
I disagree. But I write not to deconstruct and disparage this position, but instead, to point out (and flesh out) what seems to me to represent another viable understanding of why the Church has previously not talked as directly about certain aspects of its history.
Unconscious, positive-intentioned framing. From another perspective, not giving attention to certain areas of history was never a deliberate or conscious attempt to misinform or deceive or “cover up” things. Instead, editorial choices were arguably a byproduct of a widely-accepted (almost universal) approach to difficult matters among the previous generation. Whether it was domestic violence in a community or war stories from veterans, we’ve all observed how some difficult things for the older generation were assumed best to not talk about (or to only selectively speak of them). At least for painful issues, this seems to have been taken for granted as the easiest way forward.
That didn’t make that approach right or healthy – and we tend to think differently nowadays. But the point here is, they did not. That’s why my wife’s grandfather never spoke of his war-time experiences, and why family abuse was often simply unacknowledged. The problems of these omissions are obvious, especially in the case of abuse. But when it comes to dealing with painful personal questions generally, we may be too quick to judge.
From the vantage point of our modern therapeutic share-all culture, it’s all just too easy to scold those our senior for not being more ‘open’ like we are! It sometimes escapes us how interesting it might be simply to acknowledge the intense and interesting generational differences at hand – including others: As with classic literature, it used to be common to try and use history to inspire people by teaching lessons, virtues, character, etc. Obviously, this intention is increasingly foreign to modern historiography, in its attempt to paint nuanced (and objective) pictures of morally complex people and situations. With the technological advances of the last decade, we also have an access to historical details that is unprecedented in any previous generation.
To ignore these kinds of cohort differences in the judgments we make of the previous generation would be to foist our own generation’s narrative on their own – reflecting what seems a patent ethnocentrism in its own right (‘judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture’).
This all becomes another way to understand why much historical work of previous generations can tend to over-emphasize the positive, character-building elements – without always giving equal attention to the messy, complex aspects of stories. This is true in depictions of early founding fathers and of Church leaders as well. I’ve noticed how my own 22 year old brother, who passed away a decade ago, has already come to be talked about in our family with a sort of saintly glow (never mind that he was sometimes a little cocky, and rarely called his fouls in basketball!) (:
Should it surprise us that this same selective framing shows up in previous histories of Joseph Smith or Thomas Jefferson? Could it be that some kind of editorial framing is inevitable, depending on the standpoint of the authors? My friend Jay pointed out that narrative studies have even “demonstrated that we all rewrite our history daily. Each new experience causes us to reframe our past experience and therefore see, understand, and describe it a little different.”
Given the rich unfolding of events across each era, shouldn’t we expect significant differences in the histories each generation produces? If so, could it be that not hearing in U.S. history class about America assassinating foreign leaders was a function of something other than being “lied to” by our American history teachers or the U.S. government? Might we at least agree that the standards of acceptable history have changed significantly over time – and appreciate the benefits that brings?
University of Utah historian Paul Reeve argues that “The rising generation craves a more complicated narrative. Their lives are complicated; they are dealing with real struggles and real sins and a whitewashed version of the past with pioneers who only sang as they walked and walked and walked gives them nothing to identify with and sometimes even feels alienating. We can do better. We must do better.”
As quoted in a fascinating article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, Terryl Givens, co-author of “The Crucible of Doubt” and “The God Who Weeps” acknowledges that some Mormons may want to hear and tell stories about “exceptionally godly individuals … to make God real in their lives.” But he added, “Many of us aren’t built that way. Many of us feel more disappointment, perceive more acutely human failings, feel more skeptical about claims to human godliness. … Such stories don’t seem real to those listeners, they seem misleading or made up.”
Melissa Inouye, history professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is likewise quoted as encouraging movement beyond a “heavy oversimplification” that portrayals of individuals as “nearly perfect” (Think Nephi or President Monson!) In contrast to what the columnist calls ‘excessive veneration,’ Inouye points out that “Even in small, episodic doses, ‘messy’ history is so interesting because it involves real people and real problems, with which everyone can identify. What we see when we learn all of our history is, as in the scriptures, a narrative of God’s dealings with real people as they make mistakes and try again.”
Could these historical improvements be something to be celebrated and relished? And at the same time, might we show a little generosity with the editorial decisions of previous generations?
In summary, rather than being malicious, I would argue that certain emphases in previous histories (of the Church and elsewhere), reflect what scholars and leaders understood at the time as historical “best practice” in terms of its legitimate purpose and scope. Rather than power-hungry men trying to white-wash things out of fear, this raises the possibility of white-haired men simply being a product of their age, and doing the best they could to guide the Church forward – this, despite some difficult things in its history.
It’s at this point in an essay that I’m supposed to make it clear how all the rational, faithful and good-hearted people will surely see this question the way things I have!
But, of course, I can’t say this. And I won’t – even if I may have wanted to do so in the past….
The reason for this is simple: It’s because of Mark. And Lisa. And Matt. And Anna. And Scott. Friends who I find deeply sensitive and thoughtful – who have had differently life experiences and have come to see this same question quite differently.
Significant disagreement with reasonable people is now something I’ve come to expect. It doesn’t surprise me anymore.
In relation to these friends, my primary aim is not to have some kind of contest to ‘win.’ Even while still caring a great deal about the truth of the matter (and having my own convictions), I write here with a primary aim of contributing to a more thoughtful discussion about how we talk about these historical questions.
As that happens, both the understanding and intimacy between these groups of beautiful, thoughtful people (Mormons and former Mormons) can, I hope, continue to grow.
And that goes both ways. I would hope my active Mormon friends will pause the next time they have a chance to talk with someone who has stepped away from the Church. Before trying to respond with our own thoughts and feelings, maybe experiment with making lots of space to hear out the other person’s experience on a deeper level.
That’s something I’ve felt from these friends and family members who have stepped away from the Church as well. To them, I would ask: Does this (above) seem like a fair distinction to make? Is it fair to make more space for the acknowledgment that our grandparents’ generation thought about history in a way very different way than our own?
If nothing else, perhaps we can agree that if we’re making serious accusations, we better have a serious conversation about the details of these claims. Unlike the political sphere, where accusations of deceptions fly right and left, perhaps we can be measured and attentive to what precisely we mean by our words. And who knows, we might even start listening to each other in these conversations!
You gotta dream!