BY COMMON CONSENT
VOLUME 7, NO. 1 January 2001
HOT TOPIC FOR A COLD JANUARY
THE MESSAGE AND THE MEDIUM
Blessed with a vigorous, personable, media-skilled Church president, Mormonism has garnered public acceptance and attention on an unprecedented level. If the statement made to Joseph Smith that his name would be had "for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues" can be applied to the Church he organized, then this is the time when Mormonism's name is being known "for good."
Yet what, exactly, is President Gordon B. Hinckley saying, and how is he saying it? Becky Johns, an instructor in the Communications Department at Weber State University, will make a presentation and conduct a discussion on some of the public statements Gordon B. Hinckley has made in the last decade at a public meeting sponsored by the Mormon Alliance, Wednesday, 10 January 2001 in the second-floor meeting room of the main library, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
A specialist in organizational communication, Becky wrote her dissertation on rhetorical criticism, a field that specializes in the analysis of rhetorical strategies and methods of discourse. She has delivered Sunstone presentations on, among other topics, conflict resolution, and the Jim Harmston schism in Manti, Utah.
She comments, "I mentioned to one of my friends that I would be writing a paper about President Gordon B. Hinckley, and she told me to `lay off' him as he was the first LDS president and prophet she has truly liked in a long while. This attitude seems almost universal. President Hinckley is personable, funny, and clearly not what most people imagine a ninety plus-year-old prophet, seer, and revelator for a major world religion would be like. And I like him, too. My purpose is not to demean, degrade, or embarrass anyone. I am looking for understanding, truth and most importantly, dialogue. Yet I find some of the things he has said to the media and to members of the Mormon Church to be troubling."
Becky has two goals in her presentation. The first is to produce an accurate interpretation of President Hinckley's words in a rhetorical study sense. "In other words," she explains, "I assume that a reasonable, ordinary person with some knowledge can apply a certain amount of common sense to Gordon B. Hinckley's messages and understand both the virtues which abound there as well as the problems.
"My second goal is to ask the question(s): Is the depiction of facts, ideas, and LDS doctrine presented in the various interviews, appearances, speeches, addresses, etc., of GBH accurate, consistent, and/or objective? Or, does his role as point man for the public relations machinery of an eleven-million member organization influence his spin on these facts, ideas, and doctrine?"
A hand-out providing quotations will focus the discussion for those without highlighted back issues of the Ensign, and, as always, comments, questions, and discussion are welcome.
For several years, I have grown increasingly uneasy about the tendency of my fellow Mormons, in their Gospel Doctrine classes (or wherever "scriptures" are discussed) to somehow divorce what they are reading from their sense of everyday morality.
These class members are decent, kindly, honorable people. They are good citizens, good neighbors, and good family members. Yet confronted with events that would cause strong emotional reactions if they were occurring in the parking lot of the local grocery store, they somehow seem able to shrug off those implications by saying it was "God's will."
When Moses killed an Egyptian who was "smiting" a Hebrew, "he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian; and hid him in the sand" (Exod. 2:11-12). This was a premeditated murder, committed when he thought he could get away with it. I was expecting at least a spark of indignation or moral repugnance. My fellow class members shrugged it off as somehow justified because Moses was destined to be such a great prophet. Their thinking seemed to be: Since God obviously wanted him to be a prophet, then somehow God also allowed him to be a murderer.
During the series of plagues that befell Egypt, the Lord killed "all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast" (Exod. 11;45; 12:12). When Pharaoh finally released the Israelites, they lined their pockets on the way out, following instructions to "let every man borrow of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people" (Exod. 11:2-3). Moses thus used his prominence to help rob ("spoil," despoil, plunder) the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35-36). They were basically pillaging the possessions of a grief-stricken and terrified people.
If such events happened today, we would call them atrocities; but the members of my class were surprised that I had this reaction. "Oh, the Egyptians deserved it," they explained to me. "The Israelites had suffered 400 years of bondage."
Aside from the fact that one crime does not justify another, the excuse is nonsense. Joseph's family were settled "in the best of the land" on the finest grazing lands in Egypt--in Goshen, where the Pharaoh’s own cattle were pastured (Gen. 47:6, 11). Here they enjoyed peace and prosperity, at least until after Joseph died at 110 and was embalmed and coffined--that is, after the manner of royalty and high officials.
Eventually, there came a Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph" (Exod. 1:8) and conscripted some of them into the royal labor force (they used POWs and other non-Egyptian-speaking peoples). This monarch may have been Ramses II, who built two "treasure" (store) cities, Pithom and Ramses, in the Nile delta (Exod. 1:11).
In my opinion, the figure of 600,000 as the Israelite population is probably greatly inflated; a more realistic figure would be closer to 6,000. The Israelites could not have been very numerous if only two midwives, Sheprah and Puah, could provide all the obstetrical services (Exod. 1:15, 18). The use of "four hundred years" is less numerically accurate than a way of indicating "a long time" by these illiterate people. How could half a million people and their livestock subsist in a single group in the desert? Where was the forage? the water? I recall one scholarly source pointing out that only the personal names of Levites in Canaan show Egyptian roots, thus suggesting that they may have been the only tribe involved in the exodus, the rest later adopting it as their cultural heritage.
Why are the actions of ancient prophets immune to appraisal by the critical light of reason and common sense? Do my fellow Mormons really have such low standards of personal morality that they have no trouble spending judgement on such behavior? That would mean they actually have two standards of morality--one for themselves and one for "prophets." What happens to a people who engage in bifurcated thinking with its double standard? How thin is the veneer of civilization? Could Mountain Meadows happen again?
I can understand these reprehensible activities as part of humankind's slowly evolving social progress, but they certainly don't deserve or get my approbation.
TATTOOS AND WHITE HANDKERCHIEFS
Conference-watchers at the October conference critique attempted to read backward from the addresses into the motives of the speakers to deduce why a particular topic had merited the treatment it had.
Why, for instance, had rave parties, rock concerts, tattoos, and body piercings occupied so much of President Hinckley's attention during his addresses at the Relief Society meeting and priesthood meeting? One possible answer was that all four topics had received extensive feature coverage in Salt Lake City newspapers quite recently. Another possibility was that the leaders, rather than suddenly becoming aware of "a plague of tattooing," were taking preemptive steps to position the Church on the conservative side. And a third possibility is that it was a newest boundary issue in a society where avoiding alcohol and tobacco has become socially acceptable and even trendy.
Similarly, President Packer's hard-line stand against homosexuality, his denial that it was anything but a choice, and his characterization of it as originating in teenage "experimentation" that became an "addiction" and then led to permanent "perversion" may have been motivated by three events the week before general conference: the Salt Lake School board had finally given up its attempts to ban gay-straight alliances from city schools, three sets of parents had held a press conference calling for the withdrawal and reinterpretation of four pamphlets on homosexuality, and a "coming-out" day was held in the city.
The most over-used metaphor of the conference (Hinckley, Packer, and Nadauld) was the equation of tattooing with graffiti on the temple, but it prompted a light-hearted lyric to the tune of "Who's on the Lord's Side, Who?" that the gathering sang with gusto:
While everyone applauded the encouragement to take parenting seriously, nearly everyone agreed that most talks crossed the line between encouragement and guilt. However, parents who were present strongly agreed that the permanence of tattooing was one reason why such "experiments" were not an area where teenagers had enough experience or judgment to make sound decisions.
"These rules work," argued one observer who is the main adult caregiver for his fourteen-year-old nephew. "He tries to get me involved in an argument about whether he should go to Church when he doesn't believe in Joseph Smith. The answer is: `I don't care what you believe. You're going to church.' When he comes downstairs with his hair spiked and moussed, he goes back upstairs and combs it out. It's not a theological issue. It's a behavioral issue. And he doesn't even bring up tattooing or piercing because we already settled that issue at the spiked-hair stage. I didn't like it when he hung bird bodies on the back fence and laughed when we went by the scene of a wreck, so I monitor his movies, he can't play violent video games, and his TV is rationed. And his behavior has improved a lot."
"But are you saying that this is an appropriate way for Church leaders to treat the adults in a Church of 11 million?" queried another. Others were troubled by the emphasis on appearance, particularly in Margaret Nadauld's assertion that it was possible to tell what "a grateful daughter of God" was like on the "inside" by her clothes and lack of tattoos.
Other themes noted in the conference were the prevalence of military and apocalyptic metaphors—or the intense polarization created between the ill-defined but frightening and dangerous "world" and the righteous within the Church. "It leads to extreme and extremist thinking," observed one. "The world has never been more wicked, the Saints have never been more righteous—except that it's exactly what has been said about each generation. This all-or-nothing rhetoric rolls off the people who have already decided not to take it seriously and just heaps guilt on those are dedicated."
Favorite talks were Alexander B. Morrison's warmly and passionately affirming testimony of the Savior, President Faust's comments about how he gained his own testimony, the general focus in the Saturday sessions on building spirituality, Henry B. Eyring's address on the importance of prayer, President Monson's definition of "family" which allowed it to consist of a single individual, and Elder Hales's personal references at the beginning of his talk to the development of his faith and his reference to "visitations by heavenly hosts."
However, someone who contributed to this list of "good" talks also pointed out with some irritation that it seems counterproductive to be an "especial witness of the Lord Jesus Christ" while refusing to actually witness to personal experience. "They say these experiences are too sacred. Well, part of that message is that `we're special and you're not,' but if you're called to be a witness, then isn't that your job?"
The unchallenged low point of the conference was Elder Packer's denunciation of homosexuality, which one participant characterized as "the triumph of ideology over reality." In deep distress, one participant with a gay brother talked about his efforts to "educate" his highly orthodox family about homosexuality over the past several years. "I thought I was making some progress, but that talk stopped the dialogue," he said. "What credibility does the happily married father of ten have in talking about homosexuality?" demanded a straight father of three. "That's like a man talking about pregnancy or abortion." Particularly mystifying seemed to be President Packer's use of the term "gender confusion," since it seemed absurd to claim that male homosexuals thought they were actually women or vice versa. Speaking with some passion, one gay man commented, "What he doesn't understand is the terrible struggle, especially for young people. We hate ourselves. We hate who we are. We'd rather be dead—and some of us end up that way. We go on missions. We get married in the temple. And nothing works. Nothing ever works."
There was general agreement that the high point was the dedication service of the Conference Center, including the openness of performing the Hosanna Shout in public and on television for the first time ever. At the thrilling Hosanna Anthem, though instructed to be seated, the congregation spontaneously arose. President Hinckley's encouragement for individuals in private to reverently repeat the sacred "salutation" was something new—authorization to incorporate in private worship "one of the few part of Mormon worship that is pure praise," as one pointed out. A woman who had been in the overflow audience in the Tabernacle talked about her deep emotion as those present spontaneously stood during the singing; and turning to the stranger next to her, she saw tears in the woman's eyes "just like those I had in my eyes."
Holding One's Own Against Institutional Corruption
James G. Clark
One of the real tests of a human being is whether or not one has the wisdom to avoid being corrupted unduly by the institution in which he or she holds office. So few seem able to do so. You have a close friend who believes deeply in intellectual integrity. Then he receives a high church calling and you see a complete change take place—for the worse. Standing alone in the dock frequently requires a courageous individual striving against the group corruptions that beset him or her. Once you begin to lose your personal identity, your individuality, and your independent courage, to do the bidding of the group, dignity begins to wane.
Why is it that religious and governmental institutions become sufficient cause for good people to do evil? to betray their own sense of decency, integrity, and dignity?
All through history we have seen otherwise decent individuals join a religious organization and then be willing to deceive, lie, betray trust, and lose all sense of who they are. They see the Church as some perfect ideal for which they will do evil to support and to uphold. Some religious souls will even do evil for the Church like collect secret files on others "less faithful" than they, then hide behind these woeful deeds in anonymous seclusion, requiring the innocent below them in the chain of command to do their dirty work, holding steadfast to the illusionary belief they are doing God's work rather than the devil's.
Why, in the contest between truth and Church public relations, should truth so often lose?
Perhaps it was the late American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who best warned us of this blighting propensity in so many of us. One of his book titles carried the grand declaration: Moral Man and Immoral Society.
Alone we are wretched, but fairly decent, most of the time. Lost in the pious ways of the group we are wretched, but often not decent at all. Any bishop who is not able to stand up against the presidency of the stake when these corrupting natures are manifest is to be pitied. Any president of a stake who cannot stand up to an apostle when truth and dignity require it is one of these lamentable souls of whom I speak. And what of a newly called General Authority who shrinks in silence before the position propounded by one above him, when he knows that the position is unfair, unjust, and untrue?
Do we really think that for full unity of the group God requires our corruption in the name of His honor? Do we really think ourselves heroic before God when we drop our eyes and cast an inane vote of unity to placate power and prejudice at the expense of integrity and human dignity?
There will always be a new policy fighting to be heard over the staid rhetoric in defense of the old, the worn, and the outdated. On this, the advancement of both the Church and a civilization depend.
The Mormon Alliance was incorporated on July 4, 1992. Its purposes are to identify and document ecclesiastical/spiritual abuse, to promote healing and closure for its survivors, to build more sensitive leadership, to empower LDS members to participate with more authenticity in Mormonism, and to foster a healthier religious community.
By Common Consent is the quarterly newsletter of the Mormon Alliance. Comments, articles, and items for inclusion are welcome, if they are submitted thirty days before the mailing deadlines, which are the last weeks of December, March, July, and September. Please send all correspondence about articles and subscriptions to Mormon Alliance, 1519 Roberta Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84115.
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