Andrew Ainsworth on his Facebook page had a link to something called “An open letter to President Thomas S. Monson: Prophet of the Mormon Church.” Andrew adds, “Hoping this will lead to positive results.”
If what Andrew is hoping for is further dialogue on the subjects the letter brings up, then I’m about to give him some (small) positive results. However, I’m going to make the case that this letter is more destructive then constructive and that Andrew is wrong to support it.
I am not going to link to the letter because, frankly, I don’t want to raise its Google ranking. But it’s easy enough to find if you’re curious. I am going to analyze this letter and ask some question and encourage comments. I am going to make the case that this letter is being specifically written from (and can only be read as) a non-believing view point and that it is primarily a stunt at anti-Mormon publicity rather than a serious attempt to resolve the problems it outlines. I will do this by outlinging the specific claims the letter makes and making brief comments. Possible extended future points for discussion will be mentioned.
Who Is Writing this Letter?
The letter claims it represents “We are a part of a community of thousands of current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Right away I find myself asking if this letter is going to be written from a believing or non-believing point of view. Are the people on the letter people that – whether they have left the Church or not – no longer believe in the defining truth claims of the Church?
Certainly the letter won’t be taking a purely believing view point given that it claims to represent former members. So that leaves us with two options. The letter is either being written specifically from a non-believing view point or it is going to make the claim that it’s simply taking a ‘neutral’ viewpoint in some way.
Based on my life experience I happen to believe that ‘neutral viewpoints’ rarely, if ever, exist on emotionally charged topics – Indeed I am doubtful that human beings are really capable of neutral viewpoints except on mundane issue because of the way our minds happen to be biologically formed. More typically a single viewpoint is being taken one way or the other. I think we all know that this is true even while we try to claim we are the exception.
I also know from my life experience that a claim of neutrality will always be made for all biased viewpoints no matter how biased.
The Letter’s Purpose
We then get to the purpose statement of the letter: “Recent events surrounding the Church, including the court case in the UK, have prompted us to add our voices to the conversation about the desire for transparency.”
The recent events mentioned is a UK lawsuit by anti-Mormon Tom Phillips suing the church for ‘fraud.’ Phillips claims that the Church’s teachings are false and therefore any tithes they collect are legally fraud. The USA Today article describes this lawsuit and does a good job of explaining that it is not a valid lawsuit because secular courts in Britain (and probably almost everywhere in the western world) are barred from legally trying the truth claims of a religion. And for the Evangelicals out there that are getting a kick out of this, Phillips also filed a law suit claiming all religions that believe in a real Adam and Eve are fraudulent too.
The Letter is Specifically Non-Believing Viewpoint
We are a mere two lines into the letter and we already have our answer as to whether or not this letter is taking a non-believing viewpoint.
At issue here is the nature of the original event that the letter uses as a jumping off point. Let me just make a few quotes from the USA Today article to give you a flavor for how legal experts view this frivolous lawsuit:
I’m sitting here with an open mouth,” said Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on religious freedom. “I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I’m frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it.”
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, referred to the summons as “bizarre,” adding, “I can’t imagine how it got through the court process. It would be set aside within 10 seconds, in my opinion.”
Legal scholars in England expressed bewilderment at the summonses, saying British law precludes challenges to theological beliefs in secular courts.
So we are clearly talking about an anti-Mormon legal circus here. There is no doubt about that. And this is the event that has caused the people on this letter to “add our voices to the conversation about the desire for transparency”?
What makes this even more difficult is the fact that the law suit in question was specifically about the Church’s truth claims being “fraululent.” The letter in question does nothing whatsoever to distance itself from this media circus and even jumps on the bandwagon. There is no mention of “of course we disagree with Tom Phillip’s frivilous attention getting law suit.” Nor is there any mention of “while we agree with Phillip’s desire for greater transparency, we disagree with him that this will prove the Church fraudulent.” In other words, the letter intentionally jumps off from a story abou the Church being fraudulent and therefore at least seems to agree with that point of view.
Now, by the letter’s own admission, we know for sure that at least some of the people on the letter are non-believers because the letter specifically tells us it represents former members who have “made the difficult choice to leave.”
John Dehlin’s “Third Path”
What about the supposed “current members” on the letter? Now we know that John Dehlin and others have long popularized the idea that you can entirely disbelieve all the defining truth claims of the Church while still being an active in the Church as, in part, a way of changing the Church from within. John has even written this article about how to creatively re-imagine the temple recommend interview questions such that no matter what you believe, even if you are an outright atheist, you can still get a temple recommend.
Further, you are still technically a member even if you entirely disbelieve all of the doctrines so long as you haven’t gone through the formal process of having your name removed. So the mere fact that some people on the letter are still members means pretty much nothing by itself.
The letter writers seem to realize this so they go on to address this concern by claiming claim that they represents “current… bishops, Relief Society presidents, Elders Quorum presidents, Primary presidents, Young Women and Young Men leaders, missionaries…”
Now I’m going to be frank here, I find this a little hard to believe. Are there really current bishops signing this letter? Or are the authors of this letter merely adding that to falsely add credibility?
Perhaps what they actually mean is not that current Bishops have signed the letter but merely they’ve heard of current Bishops having these sorts of issues. Therefore they are claiming to represent these non-signatories as well.
Now I know the Bloggernacle well enough to know that someone is going to try to claim “well, maybe there are believing Mormons signing this letter and they just want to emphasize the importance of transparency and agree with the overall message but not with the media circus that is the basis for the letter.” To be frank, the Bloggernacle says the darndest things. But since people on the Bloggernacle do say things like this, let me make this point:
Yes, I have no way of knowing for sure if everyone on this letter is a non-believer. Heck, maybe it’s even true that there is some current Bishop signing this letter. But if there is, this current Bishop (as well as all the believing members signing this letter) have made a grave mistake by associating their names with a letter that is specifically supporting an anti-Mormon media circus. I am just not sure how else to say this. If they wanted to be taken seriously as a believing Member that is pushing for transparency, this was definitively the worst possible way they could have gone about it.
Now personally, I happen to be a believing member myself and I am pushing for the Church to seek greater transparency. So I am not claiming there aren’t believing members that would like to see the Church increase knowledge about what John Dehlin calls ‘the tough stuff’ or ‘issues.’ But a believing member tends to have very different reasons for why they want the Church to be more transparent about its history than from why the John Dehlin-sphere or ex-Mormon community wants them to. I would never sign a letter like this that was promoting an anti-Mormon media circus about the Church being fraudulent and clearly trying to add to it, and I doubt the vast majority of believing members would either.
So I’m going to make some tentative conclusions about this letter’s intent:
- We know it’s intentionally attempting to further an anti-Mormon media circus
- We know its claims such as “we represent current Bishops” is currently unsupported. (If someone that signs the letter wants to tell me they are a current Bishop, I would love to talk to them and hear them out. I’ll even interview them on Millennial Star here. Yes, expect hard questions about whether or not this was a wise move on your part.)
- We know the mere existence of current members on the letter tells us nothing about their status as believers.
- We know that if some believing member did sign this letter, that they really chose a poor way to make their point that will frankly undermine their goals.
All of the above are facts that really do not lend itself well to any reading of this letter other than as intentionally taking a non-believing viewpoint.
The Letter’s Specific Claims
Okay, let’s now go on to summarize the specific claims this letter makes:
- People signing the letter claim they have carefully examined unanswered questions and were “shocked” (their word, not mine) at what they found.
- They found critical details that “had never been shared with us” and go on to say “After attending, serving, and participating fully in the Church, we felt these were issues we should have known about.”
This seems to be specifically a claim that the Church had a moral responsibility to make all such details aware to all members of the Church. I can’t think of any other way of reading these lines. I will discuss this more a bit later.
The Church’s Most Difficult Issues
- It lists the following at the main issues they found that “shocked” them:
- Multiple accounts of the First Vision
- Controversy around the source and translation of The Book of Abraham
- Changing views regarding Native American lineage
- Issues surrounding polygamy and polyandry
- Priesthood roles in the early church 
- The source of the Book of Mormon text
We (have or) will cover every single one of these topics on Millennial Star in a very open manner. In fact, this is now my list for future posts as far as I’m concerned. Having a specific list of issues certainly narrows the discussion from a generic ‘there are problems.’
One item on this list in particular is polygamy. I would highly recommend Meg Stout’s excellent articles on Joseph Smith’s polygamy as a very interesting alternative view that also delves deeply into these issues quite openly.
Emotional Anguish over Loss of Faith
- It claims that not knowing about these issues resulted in emotional anguish when they were found out and that if the Church had made these issues known in church that emotional anguish would have been avoided.
It is difficult for me to make sense of this claim because, of course, it does not explain why hearing it in Church would have avoided the emotional anguish.
My own feeling, as a believer, is that the Church should bring these up as non-issues in church because then when these facts are later exploited as arguments against the Church’s defining truth claims they will not seem like disproofs at all, but merely exploitation of facts. I will give examples of what I mean in future posts.
But this letter is clearly not suggesting this approach at all. They are merely saying that the Church should go over the evidence against their own truth claims. It is very difficult for me to understand how the Church doing this would in any way reduce the emotional anguish these people experienced. Wouldn’t it just cause it sooner? But perhaps that is where they are going with this: that they would have stopped believing and/or left the Church sooner had they known and have given less to what they now see as a false organization.
None of the above probably seems all that out of the ordinary to most of our readers. This is pretty standard ex-Mormon stuff to be sure. But this next claim does represent a difference that I find very encouraging in the ex-Mormon community.
At Last! The Post-Belief-Mormon Community Can No Longer Claim The Church is Hiding
- “We are pleased to see that the leadership of the Church has recognized this need to grant wider access to accurate information by publishing a series of essays on LDS.org addressing some of these controversial issues.”
And there we have it! The ex-Mormon community has always claimed that the Church is hiding these facts because they are embarrassing and are trying to bury them. And they literally can’t make that claim anymore thanks to all the awesome articles the Church has now published on their own website!
Now, of course, the only thing that has changed here is that the Church is now publishing such articles on their own. Ever since the Maxwell Instituted decided to emphasize regular religious scholarship (not Mormon-centric) rather than defending the Churches truth claims through scholarship – nothing wrong with this by the way, there is need for both – we have had a bit of a dearth of good scholarship trying to address the Church’s truth claims.
FAIR has their wiki, of course, which has addressed every single one of the above facts that “shocked” those on the letter. And FAIR does so in a very comprehensive manner. So the idea that these items have not been addressed at all just isn’t true. But since FAIR didn’t represent the Church officially, the ex-Mormon community has long ignored them and concentrated on what they see as a moral responsibility of the Church itself to address such issues. But now that the Church has addressed such issues on its own website – surprise! – the ex-Mormon community is not at all happy with it. Which leads us to the letter’s next point.
Post-Belief-Mormons Won’t Be Happy Until the Church Admits It’s False
- They complain that the articles the Church is putting out addressing the very issues they list are a) too hard to find, b) not labeled as official doctrine. They claim that not being labeled as official doctrine causes members to be “wary” of the church’s own attempts to address their listed issues. Therefore they feel the Church is not doing enough. Instead they want to see this material “Inclu[ded]… in the correlated material used in church meetings, seminary, MTC courses, and with investigators.”
So this letter is simply making a demand that has been around in the ex-Mormon community forever, namely that the Church needs to take their Sunday School lessons and openly discusses the evidence against their own truth claims in Sunday School and in the Missionary Discussions. The idea I’ve seen expressed over and over by the ex-Mormon community is that the Church has a moral duty to make all arguments for and against its truth claims known upfront so that people can make an informed decision.
Now personally, I’ve always felt the ex-Mormon community was being rather unfair here. It is very difficult for me to imagine any religion that would be well served by taking their Sunday School lessons and turning them into a scholarly look at the best evidence against their own truth claims. Can someone please point to me any religion that does this? It seems to me to be a wildly unrealistic demand of religions.
In fact, can someone please show me any organization at all that can fulfill this supposed moral demand about itself? Is there any public or private business that does this? Is there any political party? Oh, does this letter tells us everything about the true motives of its authors? Does it truthfully tell us who is really behind it? (i.e. current Bishops?) Just how transparent is this letter? Does it present the strongest evidences against it’s own truth claims?
Still, the basic underlying idea that the Church should do more to bring up these ‘issues’ in advance is wise advice, though of course I would never want the Church to do so in the way the ex-Mormon community and this letter are unfairly demanding. How might we find a happier medium? But this will have to be a topic for a future post, I’m afraid. But in principle, I can at least agree ‘more should be done.’
- They claim that when they bring up such issues to believing family members the fact that the essays are hard to find and not marked as doctrine makes it difficult for the believing family members to “trust family members [i.e. those on this letter] who may share it with them.”
This is a toughie for me to believe at all. Here’s an idea, go get the official essay off the website, point out that it’s on the official website, and have the family member read it. This just doesn’t sound that difficult to me. I do it all the time.
Excitement Over Sharing Anguish?
- The letter claims that when “we [the letter authors and signers] learn something new that we are excited to share with our families…”
It seems on the surface that we have a contradiction here. A moment ago the letter was claiming that finding such material was shocking and brought them anguish. Now they are claiming that when they found such material they were ‘excited’ to share it with their families. Are they excited because they are hoping their family members will be in as much anguish as they were?
But this is not a contradiction, is it? We see this very scenario play out in real life all the time, don’t we? It just we’re talking about two very different timeframes and therefore two mindsets.
We have now encountered the definitive example of where this letter can only be read coherently if we assume it’s taking a wholly non-believing point of view.
So here is the scenario they seem to be actually talking about. The letter authors and signers are at one point faithful members and believers. They find material that causes them to lose their faith and stop believing. This, of course, is very painful because losing one’s faith is extremely painful. This is the point at which they are ‘shocked’ and filled with anguish.
But then after that they become non-believers start to encourage their family members to disbelieve or leave the Church. So they go and find various articles attacking LDS beliefs and go show it to family members. They are ‘excited’ because they are hoping this will cause their family members to lose their faith as well and leave the Church. And what happens with they do this?
- The letter claims that when they attempt to share information about the mentioned issues that “we are often met with suspicion and distrust, leading to discord, contention, and unhappiness in our relationships.”
Now honestly, this makes me sad. I hate to see any family relationships turn to discord, contention, and unhappiness. And I have no doubt that if these letter authors and signers are running to their family members trying to share information to disprove their family member’s cherished religious beliefs that this will result in exactly what they say happens.
But I do have to wonder at the letter writer’s biased view here. Why is this solely a problem for the believing family member to fix the problem? I honesty do not understand this. It seems to me that excitedly running to your believing family members and sharing material that you once found ‘shocking’ and created great ‘anguish’ for you probably isn’t the best way to avoid suspicion, distrust, contention, discord, and unhappiness in your family relationships. And I think maybe this is more than a little obvious.
Now maybe this isn’t the experience of every single author or signatory on this letter, but it is telling that the letter included this very scenario as one of it’s main complaints but tries to paper over it by collapsing the timeframes — thereby leaving a seeming contradiction between excitement and anguish. Yet the letter does nothing whatsoever to try to suggest more productive ways to fix family relationships through encouraging change within their own community. The sole emphasis is on how the believing Mormon community needs to change.
I hope to make my own productive suggestions in a future post. But for now let’s just say that this is a two way street and the letter writers are rather unfairly not taking any responsibility for themselves.
- The letter writers continue to explain the damage they feel is caused by the Church not being upfront with the issues that they get into arguments with their family members over. They cite that they are often labeled as “angry, offended, and sinful.” They feel the Church makes people that leave the church – which they see as entirely legitimate given the known issues – as “greedy, evil, haughty, scheming, careless, fallen.” They feel this ruins relationships, ends marriages, or causes loss of employment.
Again, my heart is rent over this. I do not doubt that all of the above does result from one side of the family become anti-Mormons and the other side being believers. I’ve seen this happen myself. It’s an awful thing.
But again, the letter writers are placing the full responsibility for this on the believing members of the family and the Church itself. This is so completely unfair that it is, itself, heart wrenching because it means this letter is adding to the problem rather than addressing it. Again, this is a topic too big for this post and I’ll address it in a future post in more detail.
The Post-Belief-Mormon Community’s Demands on the LDS Church
The letter writers now make a series of specific demands of the Church:
- The Church needs to advertise their essays on the issues more
- The essays need to be translated to other languages so the whole international Mormon community is aware of their issues
- The Church needs to specify what is or isn’t officially the position of the church
- As already quoted, the issues need to be addressed in correlated materials so that they are discussed in Sunday School lessons, missionary lessons, etc.
- The Church needs to include lessons specifically on how to deal with mixed faith situations better.
- The Church needs to not vilify people that in their view legitimately leave the Church.
- The Church needs to be equally transparent with it finances.
- The Church needs to allow both civil marriage ceremonies and temple ceremonies so that non-believing family members can attend marriages.
Wow! That’s quite the list. Much of it is just a summary of what was already previously stated throughout the letter. But we have a few new ones that appear, the demand for financial transparency for example.
Transparency in Church Finances
I think this one is a sticky issue. I can see why the Church feels it can’t make its finances transparent and it’s precisely the same reason why the ex-Mormon community is demanding they do.
What are the odds that a diverse group such as the Church isn’t going to offend a whole lot of people no matter what they do with the tithes?
When I was on my mission in Detroit there was a man that wanted his tithes back because he saw the missionaries driving Japanese cars. The Church then made a policy to not use Japanese cars in an area like Detroit to avoid offending people.
Now this is an unrealistic demand of this man, to be sure. But people are full of such unrealism. (As this letter itself proves.) But it should be clear that if finances are too ‘transparent’ that someone is going to be offended either way. This man in Detroit will want all American made cars and someone equivalent in Japan will want all Japanese made cars. The Church simply can’t win.
The letter takes the stance that other non-profits have no problem with being transparent with their finances (I have no reason to believe or disbelieve this claim). But then I doubt there are many other sprawling but centralized non-profit religious organizations out there at all comparable to the LDS Church. So there probably aren’t many non-profits that would face these sorts of issues. If the American Lung Association releases their finances, there is basically no chance that someone is going to get mad about how the finances were spent. But if the LDS church does there is basically no chance that people won’t get mad no matter how it was spent.
The ex-Mormon community knows this. That is why they call for financial transparency. Now think about this for a moment. Why else would they be calling for it other than to try to win their war against the Church? They don’t pay tithing anymore! It’s not their money! So of course the reason they keep calling for financial transparency is solely to try to cause contention within the Church over a literally insolvable problem. The ex-Mormon community has no grounds at all for making this demand.
Now I will grant that there are others in the Church that do pay tithing that are also demanding financial transparency. And here I’m at least a bit more understanding given that they are paying tithing. But I guess I would ask the those demanding financial transparency to at least acknowledge the difficult thorny issues that the Church faces here. If they are believers – and many are – can’t they at least acknowledge the problem? Can’t they at least admit that they are demanding something of the church that is really popular amongst ex-Mormons precisely because it’s unsolvable problem? Can they maybe even offer some better and more realistic alternatives rather than simply making impossible demands?
Why You Should Offer Solutions Rather than Merely Murmuring
This last question is particularly important. I am always an advocate of people offering counter solutions for criticism. It is all too easy to just complain about a problem. It’s always much harder to find a solution everyone will feel comfortable with. Offering up a solution forces a person to come to grips with the true difficulties being faced by the LDS Church. So I am a strong advocate for the liberal and libertarian tithe paying Mormons that have recently pushed this issue to first offer up counter solutions for criticism.
Perhaps an even thornier issues is that of temple marriages. It is truly offensive to many non-members to have their family members choose a temple marriage because then the non-member family members don’t get to see the wedding. Let’s be honest with ourselves on this issue. Imagine some mother that has spent her life looking forward to her daughter’s wedding and the daughter converts and chooses a temple marriage. It is not a pretty picture, so I acknowledge the legitimacy of the problem here.
But again, the letter writers are being more than a bit unfair. The Dehlin-sphere has long claimed that the only thing that the Church needs to do to fix this is allow for the marriage ceremony to be civil one day and the next you go and solemnize it in the temple. Problem sovled, right?
But John Dehlin rarely does his homework on issues like this. The fact is the Church historically did do it that way. And the end result was that fewer people took temple marriages seriously. It was common – including notables like Spencer W. Kimball – to simply get married outside the temple and then, when convenient, solemnized it later. So this practice really didn’t emphasize the true importance the LDS Church places on Temple Marriages.
I am not, in this post, going to try to address this sticky issue. I am merely pointing out that the letter writers and the John Dehlin-sphere are ignoring facts when they make these demands.
Further, as non-believers, I would hardly expect them to be sympathetic to the need to have a doctrinal emphasis on Temple Marriages. How many ex-Mormons really are open minded enough about the importance of religion in general to say “oh, you’re right, I can see why this might be an important practice for the church to get its doctrinal message across.”
In short, we have a conflict of interests here when the non-believing letter writers make this demand. If the Church implements their suggestion and it waters down the doctrines of the Church, they end up with a double win! So of course they are going to be in favor of the Church making this change.
I have, throughout this post, taken the open letter to President Monson and done my best to briefly explain why it has to be seen as specifically coming from a non-believing point of view. I have offered some brief counter criticisms of the basic charges and criticism it makes, though I also agreed with many of their points.
I do not deny the difficulties that they are present, I simply believe they are being wholly unfair in how they are choosing to lay the full blame and all demands for change on behalf of the LDS Church and take no responsibility for change within their own community of ex-Mormons and practicing-but-not-believing Mormons.
I feel more dialogue is needed here. Their community has certainly been effective at getting their message out. The original Tom Phillips incident hit national news despite being universally panned as an inappropriate law suit. There is no lack of pulpit for the ex-Mormon community to shout from. But has it ever occurred to them that this might come across as more than just a little threatening to the believing Mormon community? Has it ever occurred to them that it might therefore exacerbate the very problems they claim they want to solve? Letters like this are not really an attempt to address these issues, they are an attempt to win a war of minds and hearts and the believing members of the Church know this.
I feel there needs to be more demands being placed back on the ex-Mormon and practicing-but-not-believing Mormon communities. I know that the vast majority of believing members of the Church do want good relationships with their non-believing family members. But I also know that both sides want the other side to covert to what they see as the correct moral worldview.
I believe this letter largely represents a one-sided and non-believing view that attempts to advance its goals against the health of the Church on a mistaken belief that added ‘transparency’ equates to offering Sunday School lessons where the Church aggressively makes all difficulties and potential difficulties in of its beliefs available so that people can ‘make an informed decision.’ And I also know that this is an utterly unfair demand that no organization in existence will ever be able to comply with.
I call upon the ex-Mormon and practicing-but-not-believing Mormon communities to denounce these sorts of tactics. I call upon those that truly care about the relationships of families to admit that considerably more needs to be done in their own community first before they are ready to start demanding changes within the believing Mormon community. I do believe we can fix these problems, but I do not believe this letter seriously attempts to do so.
 Priesthood roles in the early church. I particularly enjoyed this one because I suspect its a reference to the false claim that the early Church gave women the priesthood. Unfortunately scholarship has undermined this claim. We have now exhausted this particular issue.