When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recently announced that its founder, Joseph Smith, had “up to” 40 wives, a key word was used in most news accounts that I believe proved to be quite profound. The word commonly used was “admits.”
They admitted a fact that was known to anyone who wished to study Mormonism and picked up a book; or could research public records, journals and read testimonies of those who came before. They admitted what they had not necessarily denied all of these years—but, more appropriately obfuscated and bandied about from one generation to another.
Polygamy. The execration of Mormonism. The punchline to nearly every redundant joke about Utah and Mormons. Even I have been asked how many plural wives I “own” from tactless morons. The fallback criticism to those who wish to denigrate Mormonism (and Mormons) without having to put much work into impartially studying what the religion and its adherents practice.
It is that independent study by theologians, scholarly or otherwise, that I believe has caused the LDS Church to undertake its recent habit of releasing manifestoes regarding its history and its doctrinal theology. I find what the Church has done regarding their spiritual dogma to be slightly perplexing. No one asked. They just started churning out these (now) canonical statements in the same manner Willy Wonka announced that their would be five golden tickets.
I tend to be cynical when it comes to powerful people or organizations voluntarily making themselves look bad, especially politicians and organized religions. My antenna is up and my eyebrow is raised with this last confession regarding the reputation and veracity of the man upon whom the entire structure of the LDS Church is built upon.
If Joseph Smith was a liar, a pedophile, a sex addict or just plain crazy, the entire history and credibility of the LDS Church implodes on itself. It’s that simple.
Why do it? Again, there was no wave of pressure to do this. It was not really news. Most who have read unbiased historical accounts of Smith’s life would have to conclude he married many women. They knew he married at least one teenager; as well as women who were married to other men. They know polygamy was practiced in the early Mormon church. Those who are Mormon have accepted this fact…and they do not care. This was a non-issue. At least in public and to the public. And that might be where the answer lies.
Few businesses have run a marketing and/or propaganda machine with the level of success in modern times like the LDS Church. Since the mid-1980’s, they have gone from a dogmatically rigid regional church into a social movement. They have moved passed what they teach and butter their bread on what they espouse.
Doctrinal truth is now secondary to lifestyle. Isolation, in the form of pride at being the “one true church” has yielded to a public relations barrage that wants to convince the world that Mormons are just like everyone else. The Mormon church once abhorred being called a Christian church. Not anymore. My Mormon friends can (and have) denied this all they want, but Mormonism in 2014 is a social experiment, not a religious revival.
And that is their genius.
With the proliferation of the Internet and the interconnectivity that is now ingrained in the human DNA, every new generation sheds its need for an omnipotent deity. The fear of the unknown is unknown to many born after Cyberspace became an entitlement to everyone born after the election of Bill Clinton as president. Everyone has a gay friend. Everyone watches a TV show from a foreign country. Every American can watch their favorite soccer team from Europe play on television with nearly the same regularity as their local home teams. And everyone in the world can find out what Mormons believe and practice.
The Mormon Church can’t deny their history. They no longer appear able to refute it. So they do what any group that wishes to maintain itself must do. They control the message.
How do they do that? The answer is why I stand in awe of the LDS Church.
When accused of a crime, you admit to a lesser crime and hope people accept your story. The LDS Church puts out manifestoes occasionally on sticky points of both their theology and their history. Their carefully, meticulously fortified construct isn’t airtight, but it is thorough. Sure, they avoid the questions that their proclamations bring to the fore. But those questions need not be answered. The Mormon Church came clean. They have an Official Story. And that ends that.
It does not matter if some critics believe Joseph Smith “sealed” himself to women as a means to cajole (RE: bully) them to have sex with him. The essay released by the Church specifically states that Joseph was commanded by God to do so. Read this quote from the Official Story:
<em>“When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”</em>
Essentially, God was going to curbstomp Smith if he did not obey His command. Many may find that scandalous and obscene. Want to rip Mormons for believing Smith was a prophet? Think Smith with a slimy pervert? Take it up with God.
That is brilliance. Disgustingly fortunate and disgraceful in its lack of culpability, but still brilliant.
The old, white guys who run the Mormon Church are pretty smart fellas. They know that every era is going to produce an abundance of jaded, skeptical youth who will not be scared into a belief system that requires work and sacrifice. They know if they are to sustain themselves and the church to which they are dedicated gatekeepers, they need to find ways to be appealing. When a person or a family find the Mormon “lifestyle” to be a perfect fit, then the complexities of Mormon dogma, the checkered past of the Church and the sordid philandering of its leaders–most notably, Joseph Smith–can be delicately discussed with those members. Once people buy into a way of life, they are more readily available to accept how that life came to be.
I do not know the long-term viability of Mormonism. Like most churches and religious ideologies, they will suffer due to the acceptance of social mores that are secular. It would not surprise me in the least if one of the next three U.S. Presidents flat out admitted that s/he does not go to church and has serious doubts about the existence of any gods.
That is the bad news. For the LDS Church, the good news is that they are very good at selling a product that many people in the world still yearn to possess. Most Mormons are good at being good people. They take care of their own. They offer to take care of their neighbors. So long as the Mormon hierarchy preaches to its adherents the need to be the very best people they can be to those in their sphere of influence, it will only be intellectuals and academics who harp on the awkward concupiscent history of Joseph Smith.
It is long past. The Mormons admitted it happened and they want to move on. Absolutely brilliant!