My letters were provoked by concerns I have regarding the Church's contacts with, and slavish appeasement of, the officials in Communist China's government responsible for the persecution of "underground" Christians in that country, as well as the hideous crimes that are being committed against the beautiful, peaceful people in Tibet. To see Elders Nelson, Oaks, Faust, and Maxwell emerge from meetings with Chinese leaders spouting the praises of those butchers and reciting propaganda about the "tolerant" policies of that regime was simply too much to bear.
Furthermore, I recently finished reading the book Dossier: The Secret Life of Armand Hammer by Edward Jay Epstein. Hammer was atrocious -- a lickspittle to generations of Soviet thugs; a Soviet agent in this country; a user and abuser of women; a cheap crook, petty tyrant, philanderer, grafter, and wretch. Yet in 1990 he was presented with a bronze bust of himself by Elder Nelson and Utah industrialist Jon M. Huntsman. This took place at LDS Church Headquarters, where Hammer met with all of the General Authorities (except for the incapacitated President Benson, of course). When Hammer died and went to hell a few months later, the Church issued a formal statement of condolences.
I let Salt Lake know what I thought of these matters, and cleaned my file of a few other concerns as well -- the Church's dealings with arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi; the use of tithing funds to buy off document-forger Mark Hofmann, etc
Another recent letter took President Hinckley to task for his recent remarks to the Los Angeles Times about religious freedom. The reporter asked Hinckley to comment about the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy and about the Mormon Church's evolution from "fringe" sect to respectability. President Hinckley -- a practiced, high-viscosity media hand -- made some noises about religious freedom but carefully emphasized that the Church has nothing to do with "fringe" groups and that the "law" can deal with them": "We just plow our own furrow and go forward," concluded Hinckley.
Curious, isn't it, how Hinckley -- who as a court historian for the LDS Hierarchy expended a lot of indignation over the supposed indifference to the Mormons' plight displayed by 19th century leaders -- now considers such indifference to be a virtue -- at least, when it's some other "fringe group" that's on the receiving end of federal persecution.
Like many others, Hinckley compared Waco to Jonestown. But an apter comparison is to Nauvoo: A young, charismatic, sexually omnivorous "prophet" organizes an insular, theocratic community with its own militia. However, while we can document Joseph Smith's extracurricular sexual exploits, less is known about the reliability of the accusations against David Koresh. (Joseph's "revelation" is in the LDS Standard Works, after all.) Furthermore, Koresh -- whatever else might be said about him -- displayed no such grandiose ambitions as those animating the organizer of the Council of Fifty, the commander-in-chief of the "war department" of the Church, the Masonically-connected independent Presidential candidate, and self-crowned "Prophet, Priest and King over Israel on Earth" -- that is, Joseph Smith.
(Apropos of that last item -- I've always thought that Napoleon's megalomania became obvious when he crowned himself emperor; when I found out that Joseph Smith had done the same thing, the conclusions I had to draw became quite obvious.)
In any event, my interview with the Stake President was cordial, friendly, and relaxed. He seemed genuinely concerned about me, at least within his familiar frame of reference. But he invited me to "find a little box where you can keep all of these concerns" while I got on with the business of being a typical Mormon; I told him that I couldn't do that any longer, and that such an effort was undermining my peace of mind and making me physically ill.
We went the usual rounds of off-putting, temporizing tactics -- the recital of lines like "someday we'll understand when all the facts are in," that "we must have faith like a little child," ad nauseum. I explained to my President that 1) my faith is based in Christ as I have come to know him personally; 2) that faith can serve as a shortcut to truth, but it cannot justify persistence in error; faith can help us learn the truth, but it cannot alter tangible facts.
We left things hanging, but not before my Stake President counseled me against "poisoning the faith of other members"; although the implied insult was noted, I didn't react to it, as I have no intention to take my case to the other Mormons I have come to know and love in this area.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and -- as I anticipated -- our "worship" service was remarkably untainted by genuine Christian content. We had a number of Christ-centered musical numbers, and the Bishop (a genuinely decent and good man, I must observe) did read excerpts of the Church News Easter message, but the main talks had nothing to do with the glorious event being celebrated across the Christian world.
During the third hour of our meeting block, we had a joint Priesthood-Relief Society meeting dealing with missionary work (about which more anon) -- but still nothing about Easter. However, the Gospel Doctrine class I taught dealt with nothing but Christ's triumph over sin and death; I dispensed with the lesson outline (Doctrine and Covenants 37-41, featuring the riveting tale of Edward Partridge's appointment as "the first Bishop of this dispensation" -- big deal) and taught from the Gospels. I parried a couple of remarks from the class about Christ being "our Elder Brother" (man, how my soul revolts at that pretentious, blasphemous phrase!) and emphasized how Christ has purchased the redeemed with his blood, and how the empty tomb symbolizes his perfect and completed work on our behalf.
As mentioned above, the third hour was devoted to a new missionary program -- one based not upon inspiration, but rather on (I'm not making this us) market research and Nielsen ratings. Specifically, it is a new "homefront" -- a television commerical being used to generate missionary contacts. We were shown a videotape of five clips. The first two dealt with the Book of Mormon; the next two with Family Home Evening. The last one -- the newest entry -- was entitled "Truths Never Change" and focused on three biblical principles: Forgiveness, love, and peace. The announcer then explained that a "free copy of the King James Version of the Bible can be received by calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."
The Stake Mission Leader explained that this new program had been put in place by a media consultant (he didn't use that term, but it fits) from Church Headquarters. Our area is one of five in which this new pilot program is being used, and the response has been tremendous: The new spot has generated more contacts than the other four combined. Furthermore, it was revealed that over 80% of those who respond to the Bible ad take the "first discussion"; 60% have the first two discussions.
During the comment session (our class was clearly being used as a "focus group") several members commented that they "felt the Spirit much more strongly during the new spot" than they had during the others. Nobody commented upon one implication of that observation -- namely, that there was something more substantive and spiritually nourishing about a Bible-based message than can be found in the purely LDS spots.
Still, I think this incident encapsulates many of my misgivings about the Church I was brought up in. The missionaries who deliver the Bibles (using addresses faxed to them from Salt Lake City within minutes of the toll-free call) aren't Gideons; they are using the Bible as a pretext to get "in the door" and begin their market-tested sales pitch. I suppose there is nothing about this approach that is inherently more cynical than the tactics used by Amway (how I abhor that pestilential cult!) or even other religious denominations. But the point is, Christ doesn't work through market research, Nielsen surveys, or slick multi-level marketing schemes; he touches the heart, he purges the sin-clotted soul, he cures us of self-regard and directs our gaze at one upward toward him and outward toward those who suffer.
There are Mormons who understand this; I have the good fortune to enjoy fellowship with some of them. I also know that there are more than a few in the Church's hierarchy who understand this. But the apparatchiks who ascend to the top of the LDS Corporate pyramid are so suffused with self-importance and so serenely confident of their own transcendent righteousness that they apparently can't recognize these simple, saving truths.
One last reflection upon my recent "interview" with the Stake President. There is, in the Church Office Building, an Orwellian organ of image maintenance called the "Strengthening the Members Committee." Staffed by two members of the Quorum of the Twelve, this committee keeps clip files on critics of the church, as well as members of the church who express public criticism of the church in either printed or spoken form. Files on members are made available to local leaders (Bishops, Branch Presidents, and Stake Presidents), who then may "counsel" or discipline the members as they see fit -- although, in some recent cases (i.e., that of historian Michael Quinn), members of the Quorum of the Twelve have taken personal interest in a particular disciplinary outcome.
It was made plain to me in the course of my interview that the Church has kept a file on me for at least three years, long before I had sent any letters to Salt Lake City (my first was sent in the fall of 1994). Apparently, the "Brethren" became concerned about an article I had written about the Church's endorsement of the UN's International Year of the Family, and its involvement in that observance's closing conference, which was held in Salt Lake City. (The last session, incidentally, was held in the Tabernacle, and President Thomas S. Monson spoke at that session.)
After my article, various Church spokesmen -- Bruce Olsen and Don LeFevre, to name two -- insisted that the Church hadn't "endorsed" the UN's IYF program, despite the fact that a First Presidency Statement issued in December 1993 contained an explicit endorsement, as did a letter from then-president Howard W. Hunter of the Twelve. The concern was that Mormons who object to the UN on moral and patriotic grounds (and there are plentiful reasons for such objections) might have their complacency shaken by news of such an endorsement. So Church spokesmen simply lied, in the teeth of the tangible record.
They lied about the First Presidency endorsement; they lied about being interviewed by me; they had already lied to me, and eventually they would lie about me. During 1994, I was contacted by numerous readers who wanted me to document my report. I sent them syllabus materials from the UN, copies of the First Presidency Statement, and documents signed by Don LeFevre corroborating my account. In at least one account, a reader was told by an LDS propaganda flack that I had "forged the documentation" that I had sent to him.
While it would be a welcome development if LDS officials learned how to detect forgeries (some innocent people would be alive now had that "gift of discernment" been exercised before fall 1985), I was astonished at the lengths to which LDS officials would go, and the depths to which they would descend, in order to deal with a minor public relations problem. This is the "one true church"?
In any case, my Stake President told me that he had received a phone call from then-Elder Faust in early 1994, right after my IYF article appeared, and before it became a matter of controversy. As my Stake President recounts the conversation, President Faust repeatedly insisted, "This brother simply has to realize that we've got the keys; we've got the keys; we've got the keys." In what way had my article challenged the uniquely privileged status of "The Brethren" as keepers of the keys?
I don't know how my situation will resolve itself. I simply know that
the LDS Church as an institution has a pathological inability to deal
with the unadorned truth. I also know it is neither honest nor healthy
to stuff my concerns into a "little box" in my psyche and pretend as if
I'm blessedly ignorant regarding many important things -- such as:
*The unprincipled collusion of Church leaders with the likes of Hammer, Khashoggi, and bloody-handed Chinese commissars;
*The Church's addiction to Madison Avenue p.r. devices, and sensitivity training-style manipulation of its membership;
*Its "Strengthening the Members Committee," that functions quite a bit like the old KGB's Fifth Chief Directorate;
*The retrofitted "revelations" in the Doctrine and Covenants;
*The penetrable fraud that is the "Book of Abraham";
*The masonically-derived mummery called a temple "endowment," that apparently grew out of the oath-bound political and sexual underworld of Nauvoo, and made my soul revolt when I was initiated in June 1982. [A brief digression. I will never forget the frigid revulsion that clutched at my heart when I saw a room full of people, including my blessed mother and father, pantomime their willingness to suffer a hideous death as punishment for divulging a scrap of occult esoterica. I went to the Temple twelve times during my time at the MTC, and twice after returning from the MTC in 1984. I've not been back since, and have no intention of returning.]
But the most urgent problem I have -- and it has been building for about five years -- is the sense of spiritual malnutrition I feel nearly every week, particularly on "Fast and Testimony Sunday." It is nearly impossible to talk about, learn about, or rejoice in Christ in an LDS meeting -- there's too much time devoted to clerical concerns and the sundry legalisms, formalisms, and bureaucratic quiddities that compose the whole quasi-Levitical business of "eternal progression." Yesterday's nearly Christ-free Easter service was a perfect illustration of this.
And if perchance some rogue element of Christian worship slips through the correlation machinery into a Sacrament or Sunday School meeting, leaders and members alike are usually conditioned to nullify it by demeaning our Lord, God, and Savior as a peer ("our Elder Brother") or as a relatively harmless adornment to the majestic edifice called the Restored Gospel. Some LDS even seem to think that this Jesus fellow must be O.K. -- after all, Joseph Smith sometimes spoke kindly of him.