The 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began on the 25th of February in 1986. This was the first under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and so his new expected policies were eagerly anticipated. Rhetorically, the leadership was in lockstep behind economic modernization and doing things in a new, more innovative fashion. However, in a number of areas, it was clear that differing perspectives at the top and bureaucratic foot-dragging below still limit[ed] the pace of change.’ [fn1]
A greater policy of ‘openness,’ termed ‘glasnost’ began. This policy was severely tested two months later in the aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant accident. ‘No one believed the first newspaper reports, which patently understated the scale of the catastrophe and often contradicted one another.’ [fn2] The government only confirmed a problem after Sweden found evidence of the radiation. It took Mikhail Gorbachev eighteen days to officially acknowledge the fact of the nuclear disaster.[fn3]
Confidence was only re-established after the press was allowed access without previous censorship restrictions. “Journalists suddenly were given access to nuclear officials and doctors treating radiation diseases,” said Viktor Loshak, the editor of Ogonyok weekly magazine who was one of a team of Soviet journalists who wrote on the aftermath of the disaster. “That was a powerful push toward greater openness.”[fn4]
After Chernobyl, glasnost began to change from an official slogan into an everyday practice. More and more articles were written about drug abuse, crime, corruption and the mistakes of leaders. Many were horrified to find out about the numerous calamities of which they had previously had no idea.’ [fn2] These public discoveries about the past brought up the ideas of political accountability and responsibility, criteria that the Communist Party did not meet. Unfortunately, in the absence of a strong enough alternative to both ideology and fear as a means to exert influence upon society, nationalist movements filled the vacuum. [fn2]
While the disaster of Chernobyl happened decades ago, I lived for years hours away from the area. While the concrete sarcophagus had been completed many years before, the public radiation monitors were still a reminder of the invisible and lasting power of radiation. Other lasting and often invisible effects come from organizational reactions to problems. (see Ideology of Chernobyl, Chernobyl and the Burden of Responsibility) Many parallels exist between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Soviet Union.[fn5] Since many of the initial reactions of the United States to Three Mile Island and Japan to Fukushima were similar to the Soviet Union and Chernobyl, most of these issues are endemic to large organizations. I feel the similarities between the USSR and the Church have only amplified these problems.
The Power of Ideology
Both include an ideology of truth and rightness.
“[Prophets] may not always tell people what they want to hear. Prophets are rarely popular. But we will always teach the truth!”[fn6]
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” [fn8]
“It takes faith to believe that He knows the people He calls perfectly, both their capacities and their potential, and so makes no mistakes in His calls.”[fn9]
“I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them.We sometimes look back on issues and say, ‘Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve,’ but we look forward and not backward.” The church doesn’t “seek apologies…and we don’t give them” [fn10] The word “apology” doesn’t appear in LDS scriptures.[fn11]
Every human organization and every system has flaws. These problematically are amplified with a desire to maintain an ideology of unchanging truth and rightness. The Church’s majority approach to addressing previous incorrect doctrine and messy history and events has been to remain quiet to let the issue fade. This is assumedly in an attempt to both protect the good name of the leader teaching erroneous doctrine as well as to protect the good name of the church. An inherent problem with ‘not looking backward’ is that corrective information is not always disseminated appropriately. While the existence of topical essays and the Joseph Smith Papers have helped, usage is still not widespread, and the essays and similar resources are still often ignored if not outright rejected by the general membership.
Although these problems in leadership to a degree are endemic (but hopefully improving), additional recent divisions have developed from membership. As nationalist movements developed in the Soviet Union with a decrease in ideology and fear, so have nationalist/pseudo-nationalist groups thrived in a partially less dogmatic church. As the gays[fn12], intellectuals, [fn13] and feminists [fn14] have “made inroads” into the church, groups like DezNat, an ‘alt-Mormon’ hashtag with unintentional and intentional overlap with alt-right and nationalist groups and individuals have become increasingly visible online. [fn15] These groups have rejected any liberalization of BYU and the Church, share both inspirational and militaristic messages online, and often reject nuanced views.
Oversimplification, Binary Thinking, and Rejection of Nuance
“[Joseph Smith] was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground.”[fn16]
Humans have an inherent desire for simplicity. “Ambiguity is ever-present in our world, but all too often we choose to ignore it. We assert the simple in lieu of the complex; the direct in lieu of the nuanced or the subtle; the label or category in lieu of recognizing the portfolio of choices that label/category represents.” [fn17] More simplification only works up to a point and then becomes problematic. Details, context, and nuance are important in science, medicine, and most definitely in religion and religious history. “We must be careful…not to canonize [our role] models as we have some pioneers and past Church leaders.” [fn18]
Recent discussions in the public sphere have included Pres. Brigham Young’s actions during his life. Brigham Young was a complex individual, often proclaiming opposing views on topics depending on the day. He was particularly full of contradictions in his public statements on slavery. Brigham Young actively supported the act legalizing slavery in Utah, and Elder Orson Pratt (apostle and territorial legislator) actively opposed it – calling the legalization of slavery in a place where it didn’t already exist “enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.” E Pratt argued in favor of black male voting rights as well, which Pres Young strongly rejected ““[We] just [as well] make [a] bill here for mules to vote as Negroes [or] Indians.” The Utah Act had specific clauses which improved the treatment of slaves, required some schooling, and prevented ownership of the children of the slave. (While the slavery portion was repealed, the anti-miscegenation parts remained until 1963.) On the day after the bill passed, Pres Young stated “I am as much opposed to the principle of slavery as any man in the present acceptation or usage of the term. It is abused. I am opposed to abusing that which God decreed, to take a blessing and make a curse of it. It is a great blessing to the seed of Adam to have the seed of Cain as servants, but those they serve should use them with all the heart and feeling, as they would use their own children and their compassion should reach over them and round about them, and treat them as kindly, and with that human feeling necessary to be shown to mortal beings of the human species. Under these circumstances their blessings in life are greater in portion than those that have to provide the bread and dinner for them.” [fn19]
When people talk about this, they often say that the leaders were “a product of their time” and reject any condemnation of Pres Young’s choices as “presentism.” This approach rejects the nuances of history, as many in Congress (Whigs and then Republicans) and E. Orson Pratt himself were also “products of the [same] time.” They repeatedly defined slavery as evil and they fought for its rejection. Pres. Brigham Young and the Utah Territorial Legislature had choices, and they ultimately decided to legalize slavery in Utah. It is a rejection of nuance and an example of binary thinking to say that Brigham Young did nothing wrong as much it is to say that he did nothing right.
While striving for simplicity is not inherently bad, rejecting nuanced details in order to embrace beliefs that confirm a desired worldview led to problems like Chernobyl, where the nuances of a complex system and details of less than one minute made a significant difference. [fn20]
Obedience and Reliance on Leaders
“Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” [fn21]
“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.” Pres. George Albert Smith responded to a letter from Unitarian minister J Raymond Cope in regards to this part of the church publication: “The Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.”[fn22]
There are plenty of examples where leaders reiterate that no leader makes claims of infallibility, and that members are implored to study things out on their own. [fn23-27] However, messages encouraging “reason and good judgment” are often followed with a caveat or a little wink. In a conversation with Pres Elaine Cannon after her presentation at a conference during the intense national debate on the ERA, Pres Kimball asked what she had said. “President Kimball, what I said is that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” His next comment took me by surprise. “I don’t think the people like to hear that.” I replied, “But it’s true, isn’t it?” He paused for a moment and answered, “Yes, it’s true, but I don’t think they like to hear it quite that way.” [fn28]
In a talk at BYU in 2017, E Bednar reiterated five challenges from Pres Oaks, including the challenge to “BYU faculty and other employees to offer public, unassigned support of Church policies that are challenged on secular grounds.”[fn29] This desire for BYU to always support Church policies in the secular fields is in line with a recent online petition officially asking BYU to return to “Christ-centered education” and (unofficially) intended to “expos[e]..Cultural Marxism infiltrating BYU.” [fn30] While striving for Christ-centered principles is always good, many of the concerns echo more the complaints of students in BYU science classes learning evolution, genetics, or bioethics for the first time, or myopic MBA students encountering case studies involving issues of gender, race, or sexuality.
Transparency and the Desire for Information Control
Elder Steven Snow stated that “I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information.” [fn31]
“Are documents ever acquired by the Church and then closed to the public? Of course. This is true of most large archives. The Church Historical Department restricts access to certain materials. The contents are private. The laws and ethics of privacy forbid custodians from revealing information that may invade the privacy of living individuals. In addition, our belief in life after death causes us to extend this principle to respect the privacy of persons who have left mortality but live beyond the veil. Descendants who expect future reunions with deceased ancestors have a continuing interest in their ancestors’ privacy and good name.”[fn32]
Kevin Barney at BCC noted examples where the church followed instincts “to restrict access to sources and to control information and thought that doesn’t match its preferred self-perception.” [fn33] While controlling one’s own narrative is a goal of any organization, it is problematic when the desire for control is outpaced by increasing access to information from the outside. This is strengthened by E Ballard’s statement that they are as transparent as they know how to be in telling the truth. “Just trust us…as two apostles that have covered the world and know the history of the Church and know the integrity of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the beginning of time–there has been no attempt on the part, in any way, of the Church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody.”[fn34] [fn35] Just like Sweden’s outside discovery of information forced clarity from the USSR, it has taken a Washington Post Interview, [fn36] [fn37] a presidential campaign, [fn38] and a terribly messy policy rollout [fn39] [fn40] in order for increased clarity or corrective information in certain instances. E Ballard’s exuberant and earnest statement contrasts at the very least the foundational years of the church during the initial time of polygamy. There are likely multiple approaches to transparency within the FP/Q12, however, I strongly suspect that senior leaders are more traditional in their approach.
“My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts.” -Elder Oaks [fn41][fn42] This approach has historically led to the preservation of the institutional and leadership reputation above most other things.
These issues combined have decreased the trust many members have in the leaders. This lack of trust in “tell[ing] the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues” is particularly important for Millennials according to research by Jana Riess.[fn43]
“My real dilemma comes when the church holds tightly to its need to be correct, its need to be consistent and its need to claim ‘unchangeable doctrine’ despite mistakes, inconsistencies, and doctrines that change. The church has rolled out essays containing statements that will be surprising to members. They did so without any acknowledgment that this information is new and/or contradicts past curriculum. They put forth essays containing information that in the past would only have been available in the anti-Mormon literature they told members NOT to read and expect members to accept it as if it had been available all along and as if it is consistent with previous teachings. The subtle message to members is this: “Information we previously told you was anti-Mormon, we are now telling you is true. We are not going to explain why we misled you in the past. We are not going to apologize for our error. Even, though you now realize that you lied to others because you trusted us, we take no responsibility. Still, we expect you to trust us now and in the future.”Gone are the days… [fn44]
I feel that many of the current leadership approaches to history, transparency, ideology, and nuance are unsustainable. [fn45] Now to be clear, I don’t believe that the active hiding of information is comparable between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Soviet Union. (I also believe the comparison between the two easily breaks down – the Church is not an autocratic state regime.) The vast majority of leaders within the church were and are earnest. They spoke (and still speak) in ignorance (rather than with malice or intention to deceive) on the sticky historical issues, and regularly preached (and sometimes still teach) spiritual Twinkies, spiritual folklore, and erroneous historical narratives of their own. The church is still a large bureaucratic organization that cannot easily make course corrections. Member beliefs are also alive in a sense- the bad ones like resistant bacteria, requiring vigilance (and taking the full course of antibiotics) to eradicate.
However, when General Authorities speak in ignorance (no matter how earnest), people believe them.[fn46] When they use rhetorical overstatement, people believe them.[fn6] When they reject nuance, people agree with them.[fn47] When they act like a defense lawyer, only providing information supportive to their claims, people then tend not to trust them. [fn41][fn42] Among leadership, ideology is still strong, being “church broke” is still a virtue, [fn48] and the desire for such strength is absorbed and amplified in the ‘alt-Mormon’ groups online, either within or without the Church. The Church, like most organizations, has a harder time getting in front of issues and providing corrective information. Leadership expresses statements of transparency and yet displays a desire for information control and oversimplification incongruous with reality. [fn49]
No system or organization is perfect, not even the Church. Just like Soylent Green, the Church is made up of people. The Church, like the USSR in 1986 has initiated certain reforms, attempting to engage a constantly changing world from within a very established large system. Time will tell if these adjustments will hold, if more are coming, or if persistent policies will lead to our own Chernobyl, requiring significant change.
[fn1] The 27th CPSU Congress: Gorbachev’s Unfinished Business.15 April, 1986.CIA. The 27th CPSU Congress: Gorbachev’s Unfinished Business accessed August, 2020
[fn2] Kagarlitsky 1989, pp. 333–334
[fn3]Role of Chernobyl in the Breakdown of the USSR
[fn4]NBC News Chernobyl Coverup Catalyst Glasnost
[fn5]A Witness and a Warning Ezra Taft Benson
[fn6]Read President Nelson’s full BYU devotional on the love and laws of God
[fn8] Wilford Woodruff Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p2
[fn9] The Lord Leads His Church
[fn10] No apology? Really? Mormons question leader Dallin H. Oaks’ stance
[fn11] Trib Talk: LDS leaders Oaks, Christofferson
[fn12] Same-Sex Attraction – Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[fn13]BYU students start petition to bring university back to ‘Christ-centered education’
[fn14] LDS Church changes temple ceremony; faithful feminists will see revisions and additions
[fn15] DezNat and the Latter-day Saint Vigilante Tradition
[fn16] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, Pages 188-189
[fn17] Don’t Be Addicted: The Oft-Overlooked Dangers of Simplification
[fn18] Neal A. Maxwell A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell
[fn19] Young, Brigham (1987), Collier, Fred C. (ed.), The Teachings of President Brigham Young: Vol. 3 1852–1854
[fn20]The Ideology of Chernobyl or: The Power of One Minute
[fn21] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith pp. 255-256
[fn22] Improvement Era, June 1945, Ward Teacher’s Message, George A. Smith Papers (Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A), Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
[fn24] BYU Devotional: Elder Ballard’s “questions and answers”
[fn25] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 365-66.
[fn26]The Doctrine of Christ
[fn27]Come, Join with Us
[fn28]“Spencer W. Kimball: A Tribute,” This People, Dec 1985/Jan 1986, vol. 6, no. 8, p. 24, contained in the Elaine A. Cannon Collection, Box 4, Folder 20
[fn29] “Walk in the Meekness of My Spirit” – David A. Bednar – BYU Speeches August 28, 2017
[fn30] BYU Petition: Time for Another Witch Hunt? – Wheat & Tares
[fn31]Truth in Church History: Excerpts from the Religious Educator’s Q&A with Elder Snow
[fn32]Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents
[fn35] Elder Ballard Talks Church History, and the MormonLeaks Team Responds
[fn36] The Genesis of a church’s stand on race
[fn37] Washington Post article on black priesthood ban spurs concern, outrage
[fn38] Reactions to the “Mormon Moment” | Pew Research Center
[fn39] LDS church to exclude children of same-sex couples from membership
[fn40] Elder Christofferson Says Handbook Changes Regarding Same-Sex Marriages Help Protect Children – Church News and Events
[fn41] Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon, Introduction p. xliii, Footnote 28
[fn42] Church as a Defense Lawyer
[fn43] Mormon leaders have trust issues
[fn44] 264: Gone Are The Days…
[fn46] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 5:112-117, ‘Organic Evolution and the Age of Man’
[fn47] In Focus: Mormonism in Modern America | Pew Research Center
[fn49] Mormon Church to exclude children of same-sex couples