Hannah Arendt and the Mormon Experience

Although it may be more troubling than soothing but as a German, I can relate to Mormons who have to confront the dark aspects of their family history. My sympathies to J. Stapley.

Growing up in Germany, I enjoyed the dubious pleasure of meeting Nazis and Bolshevics. Pretty much every elderly person that I encountered as a child had been implicated with National Socialism. Although I lived in West Germany, two of my teachers were card carrying Communists. One of our neighbors was an East German spy and so was one of my father’s commanders.

Perhaps a childhood anecdote will best illuminate what that meant.

I must have been around seven or eight years old when I observed that my grandfather kept his party insignia next to his bed. I was perturbed and confused to see the swastika pin. I knew quite well that the symbol was illegal. And although I was only a child, I knew all about Auschwitz for I had seen the horrible pictures in my father’s library. Although my mother had forbidden me to look at The Illustrated History of the Third Reich, I had memorized the images well before I could read.

So I sought out my grandfather immediately and enquired about the swastika over his bed. “You know, one is not supposed to have swastikas, grandpa.” He replied quietly: “Not everything was bad. Not everything was bad.”

That was all he said about the subject to me.

Mind you, that was the same grandfather whose wife did not dare to send him the family portrait lest the censors might notice the lack of “Aryan” features. He was also the man who was upset when an SS guard had complained to him that none of the women, children and elderly who passed his checkpoint ever returned. And in 1934, he had been rounded up with his relatives and buddies expecting imminent execution in the local park. All reasoning and all pleading by my uncle were in vain. It was impossible to break my grandfather’s bond to the evil cause.

I have to say though that he was a nice man. He was difficult because he was entirely uncivilized. But my grandfather was hard working, funny, usually too funny, and generous. He was generous not only to his grandchildren but also to strangers. All it took was a smile and a handshake and he would give the shirt off his back to somebody he had never seen before. Too often, people took advantage of his good nature. He just did not understand capitalism or bureaucracies.

One day, my grandfather noticed how a Turkish father and son commuted to work on one bicycle. The father would ride the first half, leave the bike at the fence for the boy and walk the last half of the commute. That impressed my grandfather so much that he knocked on their door and invited the Turkish family to his home for dinner, which is an odd thing to do for a Nazi.

My point is not that Mormonism is as bad as National Socialism. For all its problems, Mormonism is too inconsequential to be in the same league as National Socialism. However, the case does demonstrate that it is nonsense to invoke a person’s goodness to excuse a commitment to evil.

When John Dehlin interviewed Richard Bushman in March, the professor explained his commitment to Mormonism in terms of his biography. Apparently, his instructors at Harvard University must have challenged Bushman’s religion. Bushman pointed out that he knew that Mormons were neither evil nor crazy. He knew his parents and they were good people.

If that logic were sound then I would have to conclude that National Socialism was a good thing because I knew a lot of Nazis who were good people by one measure or another. That would be bizarre.

I was not at Harvard University with Richard Bushman but I imagine that his professors confronted him over the same issues that the Boston Globe disclosure (PDF) brought to the forefront once more: the racism and sexism created by a creed that does not permit the criticism of official inhumanity. In that context, it is irrelevant whether Richard Bushman’s parents were nice people.

There are nice parents everywhere. Even the most evil systems will be able to produce someone who is a nice parent, a good buddy, and occassionally even a selfless leader.

It also does not help much that Mormon leaders were sincere and had the best intentions. The greatest crimes of the twentieth century were committed with the best intentions. That does not mean that Mormonism is akin to the ideologies that spawned political mass murder but it does mean that good intentions and sincerity are poor excuses.

When Hannah Arendt reported about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the logistical organizer of the Holocaust, the subtitle of her most famous book was A Report about the Banality of Evil.

Banality of evil refers to the fact that although Adolf Eichmann had committed monstrous acts, he turned out to be a rather ordinary man. In fact, the Israeli agents who seized Eichmann in Argentina reported that he was an exemplary father who doted on his son.

Interestingly, Richard Turley invokes Arendt’s view in his Ensign article about the Mountain Meadow Massacre, where he reports that:

[T]he large majority of perpetrators led decent, nonviolent lives before and after the massacre.

That is probably the most important fact about the massacre. Ordinary people, not monsters, did it.

I have to admit that it causes me great pain when otherwise reasonable people feel compelled to relativize evil with references to the perpetrator’s unrelated virtues. To be sure, the defenders do acknowledge the evil but they also minimize it by linking it to some irrelevant virtue.

Unfortunately, such remarks never spare a single word for the victims. Imagine how they must feel when even the most liberal Mormons rally around their leaders, in some cases accompanied by assertions that the perpetrators are nonetheless men of divine authority.

At this time, I will not take issue with the utility of priesthood leaders that can be so wrong. Aaron Brown did it a lot better than I can. The question is rather if the nature of our leaders is such that they mistakenly sanctify inhumanity, what are the implications for the followers?

Mormons with various agendas might disagree about the answer. We should all commit, however, to confront the evil within us and our community unflinchingly. Unless we reserve our apologies for the victims, we will never be able to build a Mormon identity on an ethically sound foundation.

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27 Responses

  1. RJ says:

    I think you’re right that in this case, Delbert Stapley’s status as a “nice guy” is irrelevant.

  2. Tum2 says:

    Beautifully written, Hellmut.

    Out of the scores of LDS books I threw away when I cast off my belief, Stewart’s
    Mormonism and the Negro was not among them.

    I wanted to keep the sickening reminder that Mormonism thrives on the delusion and unkindness of its people who unfailingly support its leaders for good or evil. Had the “revelation” never come, Mormons would still today relish in their notions of racial superiority.

    Growing up Black in the church was no walk in the park. It was a system I inherited, but one that haunts and hurts me to this day.

    There were many “nice guys” in the Church back then who would smile, and smile, and be villains, to quote a bard. This doesn’t excuse their bigotry and insensitivity to civil rights and common decency.

  3. Hellmut says:

    Thanks for the compliment, RJ and Tum2. I have to admit that I am a little insecure about this article. It’s a touchy subject and it is personally revealing to boot. You can’t know how happy I am that someone likes it.

    Tum2, I would love to learn more about your experience. One of the first Mormons that my mother met in Germany, was an African American soldier in 1964.

    I know what you are saying about smiling. Legacy Mormons have got to be the world champions of smiling, especially the ones who are well connected and a little wealthier. I have to admit that I have trouble trusting Mitt Romney since he masters the Mormon smile. He’s running a great campaign though.

  4. Hellmut, this post is very well-written. I would have been fascinated to talk to your grandfather and ask him about his life. Highly interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  5. JV says:

    That is really good stuff, Hellmut. You have a way or articulating sentiments that are hard to express, and that, as a result, aren’t discussed often enough. Your ability to draw big-picture principles out of individual stories is very impressive to me–it is a key to communicating with entrenched, believing Mormons because it facilitates critical thought about subjects that are often too close-to-home to permit real introspection. This article is an example of that. Thanks.


  6. Liz says:

    This article is fantastic. Your writing goes to heart of the conundrum of leaving the church, where “good and evil” co-exist. It provides a clear argument why people’s personal virtues do not compensate for the ravaging effects of the organization.

    Thanks for becoming personal to clearly illustrate what I have felt but can’t put into words. I would love to have more of your writing on this site.

  7. chanson says:

    This is an excellent post. Your personal experience illustrates the danger in the natural human tendency to simplistically categorize people as good guys and bad guys.

    In the movies (and practically any formula narrative) the evil villain is someone who delights in cruelty and is always doing evil things just because he’s pure evil. But the real world doesn’t generally work that way. Thinking that evil can only be done by the black-hat villain leads to wrong and dangerous ideas: that you can trust people who seem normal and nice, and worse — that you don’t need to be vigilant about your own actions and your own people.

    The Nazi example is particularly apt. Most of them were ordinary, everyday people — and yet they committed (or were complicit in) horrible atrocities. The wrong take-away message is to think “that could never happen here because we’re nice — we’re the good guys.” They thought they were the good guys too. I think the thing to learn is to observe how that happened there and use that information to be extra vigilant that we and our own people don’t head down that path.

  8. john f. says:

    Your argument is both sound and valid and the invocation of Arendt’s Banality of Evil is apropos. On the Holocaust theme, the other extreme would be Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Unfortunately, although your reasoning starts out in the Arendt vein, you start tending more and more toward Goldhagen by the end of it, particularly with relation to Latter-day Saints. An argument exists that the evil of an individual does not impugn a movement. Thus, as irrelevant as Stapley’s niceness is to his racism, Stapley’s racism is — or can be seen as — irrelevant to ultimate truth claims of the Church. The difficulty lies in the fact that the accummulated evil of individuals, such as in the Nazi regime, can indeed invalidate an institution if the evil is a fundamental characteristic of the institution itself, as was the Nazi experience, i.e. an institution that incorporated and perpetuated real evil as part of its innate character. Functionalist arguments about the Holocaust itself do not speak to institutionalized evil within the Nazi mechanism.

    Misguided folk beliefs that were eventually abandoned about race and racial origins, although also at issue in the Nazi experience, do not rise to the same or even a marginally similar level of evil, as genocide, torture, forced migration, world war, and the other litany of abuses resulting institutionalized in the fundamental nature of the organs of Nazi power.

  9. Hellmut says:

    Thanks for joining us on Main Street Plaza, John, and for your thoughtful reply.

    I like your analogy about individual virtue being irrelevant to a movement’s quality. That’s a clever move.

    For clarification, I didn’t mean to imply that Mormonism is untrue because Delbert Stapley could not figure out racial justice. On the contrary, it seems to me that one can reconcile a commitment to the truthfulness of Mormonism with the recognition of leadership failure.

    From the believer’s perspective the challenge of the Stapley affair is that for all their fallibility Mormon leaders are supposed to possess divine attributes, particularly divine authority and divine inspiration.

    While Delbert Stapley is careful to indicate the absence of authority, I agree with Aaron Brown that the apostle seems to be unable to tell the difference between his misguided opinions and divine inspiration.

    That does not invalidate faithful Mormonism but it raises some questions about the nature of our ecclesiastical leadership as well as the concept of personal inspiration.

    More importantly, whether Mormonism will be a force for good or evil may well depend on how we define the relationship between leaders and members.

    In light of the manifest ambiguity of inspiration, one thing is for certain. Elder Oaks’s approach that it is unacceptable to ever criticize LDS leaders even if the criticism is correct, is not ethically sustainable. It seems to me that the lesson of the Stapley affair is that members best rely on a well developed conscience rather than trusting leaders uncritically.

  10. john f. says:

    the apostle seems to be unable to tell the difference between his misguided opinions and divine inspiration

    This is certainly reason for grave concern and an inherent risk of any endeavor that includes an aspect of the supernatural. Corrections have certainly been necessary throughout the course of the Church and every other institution. Belief and faith, for many Latter-day Saints, exist outside of whether past or present Church leaders hold repugnant personal views.

  11. John Dehlin says:


    Great essay! Just a quick response….

    I’m struggling to understand your accusation that some of us have “invoke[d] a person’s goodness to excuse a commitment to evil” or that we “feel compelled to relativize evil with references to the perpetrator’s unrelated virtues”.

    I’ve tried really hard to be outspoken about condemning evil wherever I’ve found it. In no way have I tried to excuse racism or anything else. I’ve tried to call a spade a spade in terms of behavior.

    I do think it’s important for us to keep perspective that good men can do evil things…but in no way do I ever intend to excuse the evil.

    Anyway….if I’ve given the wrong impression, please forgive.

    Evil is evil…whether done by me, you, or a church leader.

  12. Michael says:

    Well said, Hellmut. Each of us are capable of acts of amazing kindness and beauty… and also of repellant inhumanity. We don’t like to admit it, but this immense contradiction is what people are. From the perspective of my comfortable middle-class US life, it is easy to forget about this contradiction, and to believe that people are either evil or good. But we are both, and deeply subject to the situations we find ourselves in.

    It is comforting to believe that we and those we admire aren’t susceptible to situational forces, but that’s a naive view that preserves self-image at the expense of reality. Part of adulthood is coming to some sort of terms with this fact, but many people never grow to this stage of adulthood. It is easier instead to ignore the dissonance than to confront it, or to downplay it than to address it constructively.

    On a larger level, institutions and governments are the same way. To the extent it can, the church ignores the MMM and racism, just as other churches have ignored their dark secrets and the governments of the world ignore their respective atrocities. The institution that really comes to terms with its secrets, admits its wrongs and tries to make up for them, is rare. It is far easier for the church to applaud efforts to address Gov. Ford’s errors than to address its own.

  13. CV Rick says:

    You bring a perspective to this topic that few Americans could . . . and you did it so eloquently. I applaud your openness with respect to your Grandfather and the scars that still heal in your own country. For you to bring that experience as a light and shine it on the Mountain Meadows Massacre is such that I hadn’t thought of the parallels before and I thank you for it.

    I’ll remember this analogy and use it in my own conversations on the subject.

  14. Hellmut says:

    As you know, I am an admirer of you and your work, John. I probably did not listen to Mormon Matters with enough charity. My apologies.

    I could not quite distinguish the participants’ voices but there were at least two male speakers who appeared to be eager to point out that Delbert Stapley was a good person. It was not clear to me that the purpose of such statements was to explain that good people may have a horrible agenda.

    I am also not sure what it is supposed to mean when we refer to someone, who demands discrimination, as a “good” person. “Well intentioned” might be more precise.

    While I do appreciate that there is more to Delbert Stapley than racism, my suspicion is that “good” is unreflective shorthand for Mormon leader. In that case, the person would not be good at all but simply important to me, as in the unrepentant Nazi is my grandfather.

    Delbert Stapley is important to Mormons because our community perceives him to possess divine properties, authority and inspiration, a conviction that requires that the apostle be a good person.

    In the absence of evidence for goodness, such references neither establish balance nor establish a mature approach to Mormon studies.

    They are not balanced because irrelevant material cannot tip the scales. Rather than mature they are self-serving in the sense of sheltering the communal aspects of our identity and taking a proverbial bow acknowledging the abusers’ power.

  15. aerin says:

    These are really difficult issues, and something to keep in mind. We all have the capacity for evil and for good. It’s a little terrifying when you think about it.

  16. This was a really eye-opening article a friend had me read: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/11/18/minkowitz/print.html

    It touches on how we each harbor within us the capacity to do evil things, as well as good things. Many people don’t recognize this about themselves, which is a mistake, I think. We need to know ourselves better than that, in order to avoid making moral mistakes.

  17. TMD says:

    Why must the things of God be “ethically sustainable”? Ethics is by nature a work of man–ethical systems are at most and at best philosophical systems, tailored to particular values. Why must one judge God through the works of man? Moreover, which ethical system? After all, many western socialists (and others) in the ’30’s-60’s (until after the Secret Speech was revealed) were happy to sustain the purges, famines, and executions of the Stalinist regime in terms of ‘socialist ethics’ and the establishment of a greater good (one might include some existentialists like Sarte in this group, beyond people like the Webbs).

  18. Hellmut says:

    I don’t know about God but Jesus said that we can tell the true from the false prophets by their fruits.

    That implies first that mortals may observe prophetic fruits and second that they can tell the difference between good and bad fruits. Third, it means that the prophets have need to explain themselves to the children of God.

    According to the gospel of Matthew, the evaluation of mortals who claim to propclaim God’s truth is an empirical exercise. Therefore ethical considerations are relevant. I don’t think it is asked to much that the word of God be logically coherent.

  19. TMD says:

    But how does one know that you are using the correct set of lenses? Because, given the range of ethical systems, is it not the case that the same act can be seen as ethically good and bad at the same time, depending on the values at hand? And who is to say that the logical system in which we would like things to make sense in is the logical system at work in divinity? It seems much to be asking a lot of God to say that all must be consistent within the system ‘I’ want it to be consistent in. And if that is too much for one, it is certaily too much for all. It seems you want a God who is at all time fully revealed and who has no mysteries at all. It seems to me that is not the way he works, now or ever. The idea that there is need for prophets and continuing relevation is precisely on point with this.

  20. Hellmut says:

    Notice, TMD, that I am discussing a limited question. Is the goodness of believers an indication of the goodness of their faith?

    The answer to that question does not require any knowledge of God beyond the content of the gospels. We can do without the bigger part of them.

  21. TMD says:

    The problem is no different. If compliance with God is not compliance with your (as observer) ethical system, is it good? After all, even though the gospels are short, sanitized summarizations of Jesus’ life and teachings, even they point to things that can sometimes seem inconsistent–like his using force to cleanse the temple or the severity with which he treated his own (obviously imperfect) apostles and disciples.

  22. TMD says:

    Does the fact that Peter denied him, or that the apostles often tried to turn away those who Christ sought mean that he was a false prophet? By your ‘fruits’ interpretation, it would seem to be the case.

  23. Hellmut says:

    It only requires two assumptions to render the article intelligible:
    1. National Socialism is evil.
    2. Racism is evil.

  24. Hellmut says:

    Clearly not, TMD, for Peter repented of the denial.

  25. TMD says:

    It’s odd then, isn’t it, that many of those who taught the world (1) were ok with (2) (Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, etc.). Sometimes it takes Christ’s followers–even those called to lead–a while to understand him. And often the body moves at the speed of the slower ones. This was just as true in ancient days as today. And don’t forget that while Peter sinned in public, he repented in private.

  26. Hellmut says:

    I do not understand your reference to World War II politicians, TMD.

    According to the Gospels Peter repented in the presence of Christ and other disciples. He also died in public taking the name of Christ upon himself.

  1. January 15, 2011

    […] I also agree that we are all capable of evil. In her famous observations about the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt refers to it as the banality of evil. […]

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