An Open Letter to the Open Letter

At Millennial Star, Bruce Nielson critiques a recent open letter to the prophet:

Andrew Ainsworth on his Facebook page had a link to something called “An open letter to President Thomas S. Monson: Prophet of the Mormon Church.” Andrew adds, “Hoping this will lead to positive results.”

If what Andrew is hoping for is further dialogue on the subjects the letter brings up, then I’m about to give him some (small) positive results. However, I’m going to make the case that this letter is more destructive then constructive and that Andrew is wrong to support it.

Critique #1? The letter is written from a non-believing viewpoint, despite the following claim:

“We are a part of a community of thousands of current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

His evidence is the letter’s seemingly uncritical acceptance of what several legal commentaries have described as a frivolous:Continue reading

“Recent events surrounding the Church, including the court case in the UK, have prompted us to add our voices to the conversation about the desire for transparency.”

The recent events mentioned is a UK lawsuit by anti-Mormon Tom Phillips suing the church for ‘fraud.’

…Phillips also filed a law suit claiming all religions that believe in a real Adam and Eve are fraudulent too.

In other words, why use this lawsuit as the jumping off point for the open letter if most believe the lawsuit is ridiculous because it wants to try religious truth claims in court?

The letter in question does nothing whatsoever to distance itself [from the case]…There is no mention of “of course we disagree with Tom Phillip’s frivilous attention getting law suit.” Nor is there any mention of “while we agree with Phillip’s desire for greater transparency, we disagree with him that this will prove the Church fraudulent.”

In response to the letter’s claim that some signatories are believers?

The letter writers…claim that they represent “current… bishops, Relief Society presidents, Elders Quorum presidents, Primary presidents, Young Women and Young Men leaders, missionaries…”

Now I’m going to be frank here, I find this a little hard to believe. Are there really current bishops signing this letter? Or are the authors of this letter merely adding that to falsely add credibility?

Bruce acknowledges:

Yes, I have no way of knowing for sure if everyone on this letter is a non-believer.

So, he doesn’t really have evidence to support this critique. I would say that this critique shouldn’t matter so much–what should matter is the content of the letter–but the letter writers make this issue fair game by making the claim that they represent some believing members. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what to make of their claim or Bruce’s criticism of it.

Critique #2? This open letter is an ineffective way for believing members to work for change.

I happen to agree with this critique—-but he doesn’t present much evidence for it either:

Heck, maybe it’s even true that there is some current Bishop signing this letter. But…if they wanted to be taken seriously as a believing Member that is pushing for transparency, this [i.e., supporting an anti-Mormon media circus] was definitively the worst possible way they could have gone about it.

Now personally, I happen to be a believing member myself and I am pushing for the Church to seek greater transparency. So I am not claiming there aren’t believing members that would like to see the Church [be more transparent]…But a believing member tends to have very different reasons [i.e., rather than support an anti-Mormon media circus] for why they want the Church to be more transparent about its history…

Critique #3: The letter writers make a request that doesn’t appear to solve their stated problem, i.e., that the Church has caused emotional anguish by not being more forthright about its history. They want the Church:

…to go over the evidence against their own truth claims. It is very difficult for me to understand how the Church doing this would in any way reduce the emotional anguish these people experienced. Wouldn’t it just cause it sooner?

Critique #4: Despite being pleased that the Church has been addressing controversial issues on lds.org, the letter writers are basically asking the Church to:

…take their Sunday School lessons and openly discusses the evidence against their own truth claims in Sunday School and in the Missionary Discussions. The idea I’ve seen expressed over and over by the ex-Mormon community is that the Church has a moral duty to make all arguments for and against its truth claims known upfront so that people can make an informed decision.

Now personally, I’ve always felt the ex-Mormon community was being rather unfair here. It is very difficult for me to imagine any religion that would be well served by taking their Sunday School lessons and turning them into a scholarly look at the best evidence against their own truth claims. Can someone please point to me any religion that does this? It seems to me to be a wildly unrealistic demand of religions.

Still, the basic underlying idea that the Church should do more to bring up these ‘issues’ in advance is wise advice, though of course I would never want the Church to do so in the way the ex-Mormon community and this letter are unfairly demanding. How might we find a happier medium? But this will have to be a topic for a future post, I’m afraid. But in principle, I can at least agree ‘more should be done.’

Critique #5: The claim that these gospel topics should be highlighted as doctrine (or not) so that believing family members will take them seriously, does not seem convincing to Bruce.

This is a toughie for me to believe at all. Here’s an idea, go get the official essay off the website, point out that it’s on the official website, and have the family member read it. This just doesn’t sound that difficult to me. I do it all the time.

This does get into the thorny area of what is Mormon doctrine. But I agree with Bruce that most believing members (but not all, as I’ve heard tales on Facebook) would consider material on lds.org to represent the official position of the Church, so it is less clear to me why this is a problem. However, the fact that the Church does not sign them, does not read them over the pulpit, does not highlight them on lds.org, suggests that Church leaders do not consider them to be high priorities for the Church to address. For some of these topics I am fine with that consideration, but for other of the topics, such as Race and the Priesthood, I think that they need to be higher priorities, and therefore need to be referenced more prominently.

Critique #6: The letter writers should not place all the responsibility for improving things on the Church, but rather it should be a shared responsibility.

The letter writers continue to explain the damage they feel is caused by the Church not being upfront with the issues that they get into arguments with their family members over. They cite that they are often labeled as “angry, offended, and sinful.” They feel the Church makes people that leave the church – which they see as entirely legitimate given the known issues – as “greedy, evil, haughty, scheming, careless, fallen.” They feel this ruins relationships, ends marriages, or causes loss of employment.

Again, my heart is rent over this. I do not doubt that all of the above does result from one side of the family become anti-Mormons and the other side being believers. I’ve seen this happen myself. It’s an awful thing.

But again, the letter writers are placing the full responsibility for this on the believing members of the family and the Church itself.

Critique #7: The request for more financial transparency is unfair because it is impossible for the Church to avoid offense.

What are the odds that a diverse group such as the Church isn’t going to offend a whole lot of people no matter what they do with the tithes?

…The letter takes the stance that other non-profits have no problem with being transparent with their finances (I have no reason to believe or disbelieve this claim). But then I doubt there are many other sprawling but centralized non-profit religious organizations out there at all comparable to the LDS Church. So there probably aren’t many non-profits that would face these sorts of issues. If the American Lung Association releases their finances, there is basically no chance that someone is going to get mad about how the finances were spent. But if the LDS church does there is basically no chance that people won’t get mad no matter how it was spent.

He seems sympathetic to more financial transparency, but asks for productive suggestions:

Now I will grant that there are others in the Church that do pay tithing that are also demanding financial transparency. And here I’m at least a bit more understanding given that they are paying tithing. But I guess I would ask the those demanding financial transparency to at least acknowledge the difficult thorny issues that the Church faces here. If they are believers – and many are – can’t they at least acknowledge the problem? Can’t they at least admit that they are demanding something of the church that is really popular amongst ex-Mormons precisely because it’s unsolvable problem? Can they maybe even offer some better and more realistic alternatives rather than simply making impossible demands?

I would be interested to know what Bruce suggests. I find this critique less compelling. For one thing, up until the 1950s the Church was more transparent about finances, and currently the Church is required to provide more transparency in certain countries such as England where it is required by law. I am not aware of any evidence that currently or historically such transparency has been a detriment to the Church.

I do not find the comparison with the American Lung Association to be convincing either. There are plenty of examples where non-profits have misspent funds and donors have been incensed. It seems reasonable and ethical to me that donors should know what is being done with their money. Some will not like what is being done. I don’t like that Church funds have gone to the development of City Creek Mall, even if they are not my tithing funds, even if one might make reasonable arguments for the benefits to the Church of City Creek. I still don’t like it. I would rather such funds be spent on humanitarian projects in the developing world. But I am grown up enough to acknowledge that a big organization is not going to do everything I want it to do. But if they are transparent, I can decide whether on balance I think they use funds well and therefore can decide whether to keep paying tithing. In the absence of transparency, it is difficult for me to make that judgment.

Critique #8: If the letter writers are going to criticize the current temple marriage policy in North America, they should propose solutions that acknowledge the complexity of the issue.

It is truly offensive to many non-members to have their family members choose a temple marriage because then the non-member family members don’t get to see the wedding. Let’s be honest with ourselves on this issue. Imagine some mother that has spent her life looking forward to her daughter’s wedding and the daughter converts and chooses a temple marriage. It is not a pretty picture, so I acknowledge the legitimacy of the problem here.

But again, the letter writers are being more than a bit unfair…[Some suggest that what] the Church needs to do to fix this is allow for the marriage ceremony to be civil one day and the next you go and solemnize it in the temple. Problem solved, right?

Not really, Bruce claims:

The fact is the Church historically did do it that way. And the end result was that fewer people took temple marriages seriously. It was common – including notables like Spencer W. Kimball – to simply get married outside the temple and then, when convenient, solemnized it later. So this practice really didn’t emphasize the true importance the LDS Church places on Temple Marriages.

In the comments Mark B. doesn’t find this argument compelling:

I’m not sure that the evidence supports your conclusion that “no one took temple marriages seriously.” And, your statement that Pres. Kimball married outside the temple and then had his marriage solemnized in the temple “when convenient” trivializes the challenges facing the saints in remote areas, such as the Gila River Valley, who desired to marry in the temple.

Getting to the temple was not simply a matter of jumping in the family car and driving a few hours to a nearby temple. Instead, it could be a journey of several days, often by wagon to the nearest railroad, and thence by train to a town with a temple. And an unmarried couple could not have made that journey unaccompanied. So, what could a poor couple do? Get married by the local bishop, and then make the trip to a temple to be sealed. That doesn’t mean that they devalued temple marriages.

My experience in Brazil leads me to agree with Mark B. I did not get the sense that members devalued temple marriage just because they could and were required to also have civil ceremonies at the same time.

Bruce’s conclusion:

I have, throughout this post, taken the open letter to President Monson and done my best to briefly explain why it has to be seen as specifically coming from a non-believing point of view. I have offered some brief counter criticisms of the basic charges and criticism it makes, though I also agreed with many of their points.

I do not deny the difficulties that they are present, I simply believe they are being wholly unfair in how they are choosing to lay the full blame and all demands for change on behalf of the LDS Church and take no responsibility for change within their own community of ex-Mormons and practicing-but-not-believing Mormons.

I feel more dialogue is needed here.

I, for one, appreciate Bruce’s effort to find common ground with the letter writers, even though he takes serious issue with them as well. Although I didn’t find all of his arguments compelling, I think it was a good faith attempt to engage with people he disagrees with, which is something we like to highlight on this blog.

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