Church of Latter-day Lies on a protestor poster

If you talk to many disaffected, ex-, post or former Mormons, or even just Mormons undergoing faith transition or crisis, you won’t have to go very far before encountering the idea that the church is fraudulent. The church is built on lies, and the leaders of the church (both past and present) are lying to church membership. All that is needed to reach this conclusion is to show a mismatch between the narrative the church presents about itself on some particular topic (especially history) and other facts in evidence.

If you disagree with this conclusion, then you either haven’t admitted to the facts, or you won’t follow the evidence where it leads.

Simple, isn’t it?

…Obviously, not everyone feels this way. There are obviously members of the church who are aware of all the historical complexities in Mormonism, who are aware that the narratives within lesson manuals and conference talks and leader pronunciations often lag behind what has been discovered through evaluation of the historical data…and yet these members would not say that the church leaders are “lying” or that the church is “fraudulent”.

Even as a non-believing, non-practicing dude (who nevertheless has gotten many accusations of being an apologist), I can say that I generally don’t think that the church leaders lie. How is that? It gets to what a lie is.

What is a lie?

I don’t want to recite a dictionary definition (this is just one way that I have graduated from Mormonism, see), but I’d like to bear my testimony that there is definitely some room for discussion if one were to check out a few dictionary definitions here.

All I will say is that the sorts of disaffected/post/ex-Mormon narrative I’ve discussed previously often seem to assume that a lie is an untruth. So, someone might tell the truth or they might tell a lie, and the only thing you need to know is whether the statement was factually accurate or not.

My main issue with this reasoning is that it collapses all sorts of distinction. What if, in a stupor of thought, I confuse the Dickensian Artful Dodger “Jack Dawkins” with biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, and say that Jack wrote The God Delusion? Is that a lie? Am I lying?

I totally concede that is not true. But is there a distinction between a mistake and a lie?

Or, what if, I had read or heard that Jack Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. Now, if I tell you that Jack wrote that book, that is not from confusion. I fully intend (and believe) that it was Jack. Is that a lie? Am I lying?

Still, I concede that is not true. But is there a distinction between misinformation and a lie?

To me, the act of lying implies a certain knowledge or awareness, and it involves an intention. I have to know what is true, know that what I’m stating doesn’t match up with that truth, and be motivated to tell that untruth to persuade you of that untruth.

What does it mean for LDS church leaders to lie?

Based on this evaluation of the differences between lies, mistakes, and misinformation, the claim that the LDS church is based on lies, or that church leaders lie, or that Mormonism is fraudulent, then has an added dimension.

It’s not just saying that there are falsities in the lesson books or in church history manuals, or in the narrative itself.

It’s saying that the church knows the truth, believes the truth, and yet teaches falsity intentionally.

These things are all generally true of claims of fraud as well. Notwithstanding the challenges of applying fraud as a legal concept to religious matters, it’s not just a matter that misinformation caused harm or loss — there still has to be intention. Knowing the minds of victims and perpetrators is integral to the analysis.

Does the LDS Church Lie?

This last question is actually somewhat open. It’s something of a matter of faith — it is a matter of trust.

Even if everyone conceded that there are mismatches between what the church or its leaders teach and what the historical record reveals (which not everyone concedes that, but I think many people can recognize that the church narrative is simplified), there is still a big question on what the church collectively knows and believes, and what the motivations are.

The case in favor of the church…

For example, if someone sincerely believes claims about polygamy to be anti-Mormon lies, and thus continues to promulgate a simplified (but inaccurate) narrative, does that count as lying? They may be aware of certain claims, but they don’t believe those claims are credible. So even if from the outside it looks like they know the truth yet teaches falsity intentionally, really, can we say that they knew or believed?

Or, for another example, what if someone is simply not a historian, and doesn’t have familiarity with the historical record.

Think of all the people who discover the CES Letter late in their lives — a lot of people undergoing faith crisis speak of their bona fides within the church. They weren’t marginal members — they were extremely active, extremely devoted — they just found out competing narratives that they couldn’t square away.

This means that it’s possible for someone to be very active, very engaged in church, and not necessarily be informed on issues until later on. Isn’t it reasonable that the people who move up the ranks of leadership in the church are mostly all in the same condition, with most being unaware of any issues (or not believing the issues to have any merit)?

If these people then are in charge of developing or approving curriculum, are they lying? (Even if they are misinformed and spreading misinformation, are they lying if they didn’t know better?)

What’s Hanlon’s Razor? Never attribute to  malice what may be adequately explained by stupidity?

That’s one side of the story, at least.

The reason this is an open question is because, to quote Terryl Givens, there are “grounds for doubt as well as belief, for only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other,” is my heart truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.”

What are the grounds for  doubt, cynicism, and faithlessness?

The case against the church…

You likely already know them — especially if you’ve been in any disaffected Mormon community. Even though there are reasonable ways to suppose that leaders did not know or did not know about narratives contrary to what they promulgate, there are also reasonable ways to suppose that leaders did (or should have known)…and this especially becomes more likely as you get closer to the source.

Did Joseph Smith really believe he was engaging with angels? Did he really think he was translating?

If we look at historical claims, the picture is complicated. Firstly, we have to worry about projecting our modern thoughts about historical fidelity and other such concepts onto a past era that may have not have had those standards. (What does it mean to lie if you live in an era in which magical thinking is accepted as just part of the facts of the world?)

But what can we say? What we think of nowadays as translating most likely wasn’t what was happening. Our common visual narratives of the Golden Plates and their use…probably wasn’t what was happening.

Different depictions of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon

It’s reasonable to suppose that many generations of modern church leaders didn’t know the complexities of Book of Mormon translation…or that even if they did, they didn’t believe the alternative narratives. It’s reasonable to suppose that artists are definitely not historians, and that the church departments that decide what art goes where are not engaged with historians. It’s reasonable (at least from the particularly cynical place I come from) to think that the church, for all its claims of correlation, is not uniform in historical understanding, and that the parts that may know more may not necessarily be in communication to the parts that aren’t.

(Although, as more information comes out through credible LDS historians and scholars, it will be interesting to see how that will trickle down through the church. Now that we have official published essays through the church, is there some sort of timer we can set, so that we can say that after x years, if the church hasn’t changed paintings or updated lesson manuals or popularized the LDS topical essays or whatever, then we can conclude that there is intentional deception?)

…but is it as reasonable to think that Joseph Smith didn’t know what was happening to him? Or didn’t know what details were important about what events until months or years later?

(Before you answer that question, perhaps read Stephen’s post on Memories, Simplication and Lies. Human psychology has some wrinkles in it.)

Since brain waves and private thoughts are usually not recorded in historical records, determining mindset and intention is always going to be a difficult process…and in some ways, this process is precisely a choice of faith in the Givensian sense. While evidence may be perceived to stack one way or another in terms of what people did or said, what do we do when all of this evidence only indirectly speaks to what people believed or intented?

In the 2015 Sunstone, one quite popular panel discussion featured four historians making their cases: was Joseph Smith a prophet, sincere visionary, pious fraud, or con man. What was most interesting about this discussion was the extent to which many of the facts in question were agreed upon by all the historians — but one thing that shifted the view from one to another was the intentions ascribed or inferred to Joseph Smith.

If you listen to Christopher C. Smith’s presentation from that panel (he argued con man), you might come away with the idea that the case is almost closed and there is no room for disagreement.

It’s easy to read certain historical narratives or listen to Chris and think that Joseph is a man caught red-handed…and while it’s  certainly easy for anyone caught red-handed to say that “it’s not what it looks like,” any observer probably should not be criticized for concluding that things are exactly what they look like…and acting accordingly.

The Choice of Faith

The example of a significant other caught in flagrante delicto in adultery actually offers scripturally rich metaphors for  faith as a choice. We often conflate faith with belief, and belief with mental assent to proposition, but if you read enough on religious thinking and blogging, you may be aware that there are other models for faith — for example, faith as trust or faith as loyalty. In this case, one model for faith might be choosing whatever narrative  one can that allows one to agree that things really aren’t “what it looks like” when it comes to catching a lover “red-handed” as it were.

However, this seems unsustainable. Fragile even.

But another model of faith — however unpalatable it may be — suggests the choice to be loyal even in sober acceptance of a lover’s infidelity. None other the Old Testament itself speaks of the relationship between God and Israel in these terms. Ezekiel 16 is some super fun reading here. but also read up on the story of Hosea. Just a snippet from Hosea:

The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.

To be fair, perhaps this is a misapplication of these metaphors. In these cases, God is perfectly faithful, but Israel — his covenant people — are unfaithful. Can we say we are perfectly faithful and church leaders aren’t, or aren’t we all imperfect in ways?

And at what point is enough enough?

A few questions to consider:

  1. Do you think that the church is based on lies/fraud?
    1. If so,  what are the clearest examples to you?
    2. If so, do you agree that it is intentional?
  2. Do you think it’s reasonable for people to disagree on this? Or is the case certain?