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.