The true problem with the New Church Essays

I’ve seen a lot of posts on the blogsphere, on twitter, on facebook and even op-eds in newspapers about the essays the church published, particularly the polygamy essays, but none of them, I think really come right out and state the problem.

The problem is, that the essays are driving the church to be more cult-like.  Now I can already hear a few of you pulling your keyboards closer to start the flame-war /hate comment that these essays are meant to open up the church and its history.  And that is a good thing.  I’m not going to disagree.

The problem is the spin that surrounds it.  Let me illustrate:

Greg Trimble’s article (which I talk about how it is inaccurate in another post) tells the faithful that not knowing these things were the member’s fault.

As they come across your Facebook or Twitter feed in the morning, you’re hit with a title that makes it seem as if no one had ever known about polygamy prior to this week.

Got that?  That’s blaming the victim, or the person sharing the information.  “They presented the information wrong” or “Why didn’t you already know about this, what is wrong with YOU?”

And that is a cult-aspect as defined by the various agencies, non-profits and international groups that try to help people survive the experience of leaving a cult

Now this is what I DID NOT JUST SAY.  I didn’t say the church is a cult.  I didn’t say that Greg Trimble is building a cult.  What I said was that the behavior that Greg illustrates is defined internationally as “Cultish”.

What I’m seeing in the spin around these essays, in an attempt to defend the prophet or preserve faith is a LOT of cult rhetoric.  The kind that can turn a church inward and make it more and more fringe and self-harming and less and less about open dialogue, which is what the essays were supposed to do, right?

This post on Mormon women stand splits those who talk about polygamy into an “Us vs. Them” mentality with lines like:

Books have been written and papers published that have accused, inferred, or suggested that Joseph Smith committed adultery multiple times.

Yes, yes they were, because Emma and Oliver both accused Joseph of adultery.  And according to the law of Illinois, it WAS adultery.  But the spin on how they say it, it makes it divisive as though anyone reading should distrust the majority who read anything about Joseph.

This post that praises Joseph even with 40 wives sounds like it could have been written by a member of the FLDS or a closet Allred Group member.  In addition to stating:

In fact, being a student of Joseph Smith and history, I learned of these 14-year-old “brides” (another baggage-laden word) and 30-40 wives in my early twenties as a student at Brigham Young University

He spins anyone who doesn’t see the world from his point of view as somehow being a failure another cult trait.

[update: The church’s Ensign article on the subject of “Only one question matters” falls right in line with these thought-stopping cult tactics as well.  You could, in fact, rename the article to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and lose nothing in the transition.]

In fact, let me list the cultish traits that are generally agreed upon by these groups

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • ‪ Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • ‪ Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • ‪ The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • ‪ The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • ‪ The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • ‪ The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • ‪ The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • ‪ The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • ‪ Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
  • ‪ The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • ‪ The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • ‪ Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • ‪ Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • ‪ The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Now read through those articles again and identify lines that match up to this list.  Again, I’m not saying the LDS church is a cult, I’m saying that if members allow the vocal of the groups to speak out using cult rhetoric, it can become more and more cult-like.  If you must defend the charismatic leader who founded the organization at all costs, the cost is going to be your organization’s integrity and allowance for free will and thinking.

Another aspect that is truly disturbing about these Essays is that it appears that Brian Hales was tasked at writing the Essay on Polygamy after reading his reply defending the essay  (In addition, he restructured his website to match the essays around when they were published).  Which means that a church that has the following

  • A prophet who claims direct access to God
  • A church historian paid for that purpose
  • A Church education system
  • Two universities with history departments filled with accredited PHD’s in history

Turned to an anesthesiologist for the answers on Polygamy.  Not that there isn’t a place for amateur history research, and I understand that Mr. Hales paid for a researcher, but was there no one better qualified to tackle polygamy, or just no one willing?

It smacks of favoritism, and “giving the question to the man who says he can answer it, whether he is right or not”, which also match up to cultish and North Korean-like practices.

How much stronger would it have been if the church had hired independent PHD historians to write the definitive story of Joseph Smith, and published those Essays.  It would have spoken to openness, and historical accuracy.  You can bet that individuals like myself would have reviewed our own notes and books if the independent sources had come to a new conclusion.

You can bet that the essays published then would have cut through the half-truths Elder Neil L. Andersen was so worried about last conference and made scholars take note.  A new gold standard would be set.

But instead, we see spin, we see victim-blaming, we see protecting the charismatic leader at all costs and criticism equated with being part of “them”.

And what worries me is that it could turn the LDS church to be more like the FLDS.  Charismatic leaders pushing vocal members to defend their faith through cultish tactics is exactly what turns a modern-open, friendly religion into a dangerous, abusive, tight-group.

What you need is transparency, and openness to discussion and criticism which means that people need to shout down those who would blame members for not knowing about polygamy.  You need to have classes that open up discussion about hard topics.  You need to encourage critical thinking and criticism of bad policies.  And what better policy to strike down than something that encourages pedophilia and abuse in the church?

As my closing thought, I leave you with an active member of the church, who believes, and envisions a more open discussion.  Imagine if these thoughts were implemented instead of “Defend the image of the church” rhetoric in the essays and the bloggers around them, how much less “like a cult” the church would be.  A younger me would have agreed with him, the current me, however, sees him as optimistic, because I’m afraid, the incentives all lie down the cult path… unless the members change the incentives.



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Last edited by Mithryn on November 24, 2014 at 9:30 pm

3 Responses to The true problem with the New Church Essays

  1. Ahuizotl says:

    This was a very good read. I liked the video even more.

    Have you read about the Atonement Statute that Joseph and other’s participated in?

    Here’s a link to it if you haven’t…

  2. Watcher says:

    Very much enjoyed the post.

    The list of cultish traits is difficult to argue with.

    The young man in the video brought up some valid points as well.

    Although he puts on a good game face at the beginning when speaking about how much he appreciates the CES, and appears to still have his faith intact, he gets pretty passionate about the urgent need for transparency and a “safe” place for difficult issues to be discussed in a group setting.

    As he itemizes several of the difficult historical issues, it is apparent that he wants and needs a forum to ask difficult questions and one has to wonder how intense his level of cognitive dissonance really is at the time his remarks were recorded.

    Indeed, he briefly mentions that he has spoken to some people at HQ which would indicate that he has attempted to get some faith promoting answers to his questions. No doubt without much success.

    Perhaps the church should hire you as a consultant on how to avoid looking like a cult. The problem they face is that if they become completely transparent and don’t try to provide apologetic responses to the cold hard facts, it probably doesn’t end well for the corporate church as an institution.

    One last thought.

    You said:

    “What I’m seeing in the spin around these essays, in an attempt to defend the prophet or preserve faith is a LOT of cult rhetoric. The kind that can turn a church inward and make it more and more fringe and self-harming and less and less about open dialogue, which is what the essays were supposed to do, right?”

    I am not sure where you got the notion that the leadership that approved the essays truly wanted more “open dialogue”.

    What they wanted was damage control without open dialogue.

    In my opinion, the leaders of the church that approved the essays with great fear and trembling, were motivated by the ever increasing public criticism they were getting for teaching a church history curriculum that had been sanitized, and for not being transparent.

    I suspect they felt, probably based on the results of focus groups by their PR consultants, that these public criticisms from both inside and outside the church, were increasing exponentially and finally needed to be addressed.

    The goal was to publish historical essays on difficult issues and hide them on the Church website where, in theory, only those members that are in a faith crisis could be directed to them. The website would also provide proof for future generations that the institution did make a good faith effort to publicly acknowledge these difficult issues. .

    The goal was never to publicize them and encourage the membership at large to engage in open dialogue regarding these difficult questions that don’t have faith promoting answers.

  3. Pingback: Mormonism in Context Lesson 2: Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon

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