Oldies but Goodies: Testimony of a Dissident

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A while back another blogger asked me to submit an essay about my Mormon experience. Probably, for good reasons he changed his mind and never published it. Since it is already written and might shed some light on my argument at Times and Seasons, I might as well publish it myself. It might help some people to understand where I am coming from.

Testimony of a Dissident
When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, Church was a liberating experience. My mother converted when I was six. My father never joined the LDS Church and refused permission for me to get baptized until I was fourteen. Since the prohibition was never sufficiently justified, it only stimulated my aspirations.

I was an enthusiastic Mormon, walking five miles to get to Church when I couldnt afford public transportation. Except for my younger brother, I was the only Mormon in my school. Everyone knew about me because I was a Mormon for a reason. Probably the best indicator of my commitment to the Mormon cause was my role as a joint teacher in the conversion of over thirty Germans, which contributed to the creation of another ward.

Freedom made Church a great experience. Our young mens leader saw to it that we did not come to harm. Beyond that we explored the gospel together. That was fortuitous because German Mormons can either be intellectually self-reliant or they can be sociopaths. We cherished each other and went to great lengths to spend time with each other. Two of us would have to bike 35 kilometers one way to meet the rest of us. Neither distance nor dogma would separate us from the gospel and each other. We did what it would take and our parents and leaders would let us.

Freedom built our testimony. Six of us served missions. That would not be spectacular in the Mormon corridor but it was spectacular in Germany. None of the German leaders I knew had served missions, except for a couple who worked for the Church Education System. Of our group, only one remains active enthusiastically. One participates selectively. Four of us have distanced ourselves from Mormonism. I dont think that any one of us had a good experience on our missions, though I am in doubt about two.

I left a very enthusiastic missionary and even though the experience was rather disappointing, in terms of trivializing sacred gospel principles with profane management techniques, I held on to my testimony. But I would never be comfortable at Church again. In 2003 I stumbled across the excommunication of the September Six. Finally, I had to acknowledge that LDS leaders are constrained by self-interest rather than god.

Excommunicating scholars for their work creates a theological paradox. At face value, membership in the LDS Church is a condition for salvation. Excommunicated researchers cannot be redeemed until they restore their membership privileges. However, that would require them to deny their research, which represents not objective truth but the results of their best efforts to know the truth. Hence researchers denial constitutes a lie and lying is a sin, which makes their salvation impossible. If these individuals wanted to repent their lies then they would fail once more to qualify for membership. Regardless of what the scholars do, according to Mormon theology, they will lose salvation when disciplined for their research. Thats abusive and heretical. Its abusive because there is no way out for the scholars. Its heretical because it creates a situation where the atonement does not apply.

Though it appeals to my sense of justice that those who excommunicate scholars entangle themselves in heresy, I am more concerned about abuse. Since the excommunication of scholars has been continuing for twelve years, Gordon Hinckley and the fifteen are responsible. The excommunications could not have been sustained without support from the top. It was my obligation to terminate allegiance to the abusers. Otherwise I would have become an accomplice. Though I am living a Mormon lifestyle, I can no longer accept callings, contribute money, or perform any other act that would support abuse.

Making Sense of Mormon Knowledge Claims
To many Mormons, my decision is problematic because Mormons approach religion in terms of knowledge. If knowledge claims imply power claims, what does it mean that Mormon theology claims knowledge rather than faith?

Claiming to know the improvable, Mormons tend to regard those who disagree with suspicion, contempt, and hostility. The Mormon vocabulary refers to people as members, non-members, inactives, and apostates. Only conformists are complete human beings. Everyone else is defective. Non-members would better be members. Inactivity is the manifestation of weakness. Anyone who disagrees must be lacking in faith, virtue, or good will.

This aggressive language is necessary to sustain the belief that Mormons know what no one else knows. The only way, Mormon culture can maintain the notion of knowledge, which 98% of humanity does not share and the majority of their co-religionists refuse to apply, is to claim superior virtue. For in Mormon epistemology, it is the heart, not the brain that determines what is right (D&C 9:8, Moroni 10:3). And virtue, not reason, is the vehicle of knowledge. Those who do not obtain such insight must have been lacking in sincerity and effort (Moroni 10:4). Mormon theology reserves the ultimate judgment for those who reassess their experience.

Alma 36:6 describes reassessment in terms of murder:

For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.

In spite of the adverb unpardonable, the sentence concludes, it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness. Not easy means hard but not impossible. It is in the context of polygamy that Joseph Smith would claim a revelation (D&C 132:27) that is less forgiving:

The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.

Those who change their mind about Mormon knowledge claims are murderers of Jesus Christ and shall not be forgiven ever. It is fascinating that Smith threatens eternal damnation when he can no longer hide his sex life from his supporters.

Elevating faith to knowledge, the Mormon leadership can extract extraordinary devotion from its followers. That ability comes at a price. Where other religions shelter theology within the confines of faith, Mormonism has abandoned that refuge when it claimed knowledge. Defenders of Mormonism can respond to reasonable criticism only by attacking the messenger rather than engaging the argument.

In 1976 apostle Ezra Taft Benson disparaged realist history as slander and defamation. By the time the September Six get excommunicated in 1993 for their historical and theological research, Mormon apostles and members of the First Presidency have pointed out that
only faithful history is accurate (Packer),
historians are demeaning and belittling the Saints (Packer),
criticism of officers of the Church is unjustified even if true (Oaks),
publishing historical facts about Church officers amounts to blackmail (Oaks),
When the prophet speaks the debate is over (Tanner),
Whether one’s a bricklayer or an intellectual, the process of coming unto Christ is the same: ultimately it demands complete surrender. It’s not a matter of negotiation (Maxwell),
members should not listen to alternate voices (Oaks),
no Christian could possibly debate religion for discord is not of the Lord (Nelson),
LDS Church leaders must be alert to small signs of apostasy (Hinckley),
symposia are threatening the LDS Church (joint statement by the fifteen),
participation at symposia is dangerous (Packer),
There is no place in the Kingdom for unanchored brilliance (Maxwell).
The campaign culminated in the 1993 excommunications, a practice continuing today. In the eyes of LDS leaders, independent scholarship is a sin and loyalty is more important than truth.

Since doubt is taboo, social relations between corridor Mormons are rarely intimate. People are friendly but do not become friends. They meet at LDS activities but do not invite each other to their homes. We read the scriptures but would rather cite Seven Habits. We become missionaries but are uncomfortable meeting strangers. Though some Mormons can, Mormon society cannot tolerate a difference of opinion over religion. Mormonism cannot bear the threat to the illusion of knowledge.

The lack of intimacy in our neighborhoods and congregations extends to our families. As biographies of Mormon dissenters emerge on the net, a recurring theme is the inhibition of spouses to discuss their thoughts and feelings about their religious affiliation. Family members have become the most effective enforcers of discipline of Mormonism. The doctrine of eternal families means that doubts of my children, my parents, and my spouse risk not only the salvation of a loved one but that they are compromising mine. Reassessment of Mormon knowledge claims often estranges parents and children, and believing spouses frequently respond to questions with threats of divorce.

Most fascinating, however, is the silence within individuals. In my case, the mission emaciated me emotionally. The minority experience has benefited me intellectually but one thing that I did not learn was how to manipulate relationships. The mission experience is about gaming the system, playing the numbers, creating impressions, and conforming to expectations. Though I knew what pained me, I could not make sense of that experience because of the illusion of knowledge called the testimony. The fact that I would have advised any young men to serve, fully aware that my experience had been devastating, is a measure of the self-betrayals extent. It would take me some seventeen years to work things out because I believed that I knew that the Church was true. Only when I realized that LDS leaders are as self-interested as anyone else, was I able to rees-tablish common sense and put the pain behind me.

I remember my youth in the LDS Church fondly. I have benefited from the generosity of Mormons in many different ways. Though I could have done without the sacrilege pervading the missionary program, I could have dealt with that. But no matter how true the Church may be, it is wrong to bully our members to lie. The pressure to lie does not end at the confines of the ivory tower. Our priesthood leaders are the abusers. And the lies reach into our communities and families where fear of honesty undermines communication. Policies that discipline scholars in terms of orthodoxy corrupt everything that is good about Mormonism. It didnt used to be that way. It doesnt have to be that way. Mormonism can be better than that.

7 thoughts on “Oldies but Goodies: Testimony of a Dissident

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I’d gleaned some of this from your various posts over the years, but it’s interesting to see how your whole experience unfolded.

  2. WOW. Fabulously cogent analysis. I especially appreciated this paragraph:

    Since doubt is taboo, social relations between corridor Mormons are rarely intimate. People are friendly but do not become friends. They meet at LDS activities but do not invite each other to their homes…. We become missionaries but are uncomfortable meeting strangers.

    I have been thinking about the peculiar coldness of LDS relationships and interactions lately a lot myself, and you state the situation very well.

    Thanks very much for sharing this.

  3. Nice piece, Hellmut! Very insightful. I particularly loved the contradiction faced by ex’d scholars. Nailed that!

  4. You left the infirm off your list. I think he was speaking to Joseph Smith personally and not to members. I grew up believing that Joseph Smith said that all Sons of Perdition
    could be counted on one hand. That came either from Sam Weiler, or was generally believed in Southern Utah.

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