I recently spent a bit of time reviewing a social networking site that claimed to expose “actual” Mormon teachings. The notion behind the page is that despite how Mormons might behave and what they tell you they believe, what the Church really is teaching is very different and much more sinister. One of the more interesting claims on this page was that even Mormons themselves will be surprised at what their church teaches. The site then publishes obscure statements allegedly made by past leaders of the Church and gleefully proclaims that those statements define the true Mormon doctrine.
One of the most frustrating things about such “exposures” of supposed Mormon doctrine is the persistent assertion that there is a set of offensive, heretical doctrines that are both widely taught within the Church and, at the same time, unknown to virtually all of the members. Aside from the obvious contradiction of the allegation, it makes any discussion of LDS beliefs impossible. It assumes from the outset that everything Mormons tell you about what they believe (or even what they tell each other that they believe), is just a smokescreen for some hidden gospel. Any conversation that goes down this trail ends up with one person screaming “I don’t believe that!” and the other person yelling, “Yes you do!”
The problems with these efforts to redefine Mormon doctrine are legion, but I would like to focus on just a few.
Are Church Leaders Infallible?
The first is that the theory holds LDS Church leaders to a very different standard than the Church itself does. While there may be Christian churches who hold their leaders out as infallible, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn’t one of them. Instead, we believe that the words of the President of the Church are binding upon the Church when he is speaking as moved upon by the Spirit. Admittedly, this “prophet only when speaking as a prophet” can be a frustrating position, because it makes it difficult at times to identify exactly what is binding doctrine. But the procedures of the Church help us out on that. Revelations or statements that are binding on the whole Church are presented to the Church for approval and become included in our canon of scripture. Anything less than that does not have the same level of doctrinal authority.
Have leaders of the Church sometimes said intemperate, illogical, or foolish things? Absolutely. We hold no person as perfect, other than Jesus Christ, and therefore we expect that every leader of the Church is in the process of personal progression. There will be areas in which they are or have been intellectually or spiritually undeveloped. They will have their personal prejudices, quirks and oddities. They will, in short, be human. Particularly with respect to those who lived in the 19th century, some of their personal views may be repugnant to 21st century sensibilities. But the same would be true of virtually every apostle and prophet in the Bible, many of whom were seriously strange birds. I suspect that if we plopped Moses down in the middle of an NAACP meeting, he wouldn’t have a prayer of fitting in. Nor would modern women be patient with Paul’s admonition that they zip it during church meetings. So if someone shows me a statement from Brigham Young that seems particularly wacky, please excuse me for not having a heart attack and dying on the spot.
Are Mormons Secretive?
Second, it assumes that Mormons really are secretive about their doctrine, and the restricted access to Mormon temples is pointed to as Exhibit A to demonstrate that Mormons have something to hide. That simply isn’t true. As a threshold matter, it isn’t that hard to get into the temple. If you are a member of the Church and answer all of the worthiness questions the right way, you can get in. The fact that people who want to mock the temple ordinances are able to make secret recordings in the temple and then publish them on the Internet suggests that even the most dishonorable people can find their way in.
More importantly, there is very little doctrinal instruction in the temple. All of our regular worship services and classes are held outside the temple. There are no sermons taught in the temple. There are no formal question-and-answer sessions. Rather, the temple is a place for the making of sacred covenants, including the marriage covenant. Anything learned in the temple is learned individually, as participants ponder for themselves the symbolic meaning of the ordinances, in the same way that people learn of Christ by participating in the Lord’s Supper and considering the significance and meaning of the sacred symbols of His sacrifice.
Finally, virtually every scrap of approved material for class instruction, as well as every word in our Church magazines and General Conference addresses, are openly available on the Church’s website. Not only are we not trying to hide what we believe, but we will wear you out telling you about our beliefs if you don’t run fast enough. If someone attributes a doctrine to the Mormons that doesn’t appear in the host of Church-approved materials, you can fairly conclude that the Church doesn’t teach it.
Is There a Vast Mormon Conspiracy?
The third problem with the “hidden doctrine” theory is that it requires one of the greatest conspiracies of all time in order for it to be true. You have to assume that the Church spends countless hours and millions of dollars in developing and distributing a sham curriculum. 50,000 full-time missionaries must be dispatched to teach something different from what is in their hearts. Countless thousands of speakers, Sunday School teachers, and Priesthood and Relief Society leaders must be complicit in a con job of the highest order, perpetuated in every meeting, every classroom, and every member’s home.
Unfortunately, there is a segment of our society that will say, “Exactly!” and I don’t have the time or energy to climb to the top of the grassy knoll to talk them out of it. But for those of you who aren’t wearing aluminum foil on your heads to block out alien transmissions, let me offer you this. I’m in my 40th year as a member of the LDS Church. I have been in Bishoprics, have taught classes, and have had the good fortune of spending a fair amount of time in the temple. I’m not sure what position I would have to hold, or how long I need to be a member of the Church, before someone winks and ushers me into the REAL church. The one that hates racial minorities, engages in secret plural marriages, kills apostates in dark alleys, and wears straw hats after Labor Day. So far, I’ve seen no hint of any such conspiracy.
The deadly dull fact is that there is no hidden Mormonism. We are what we claim to be, and we teach only what we claim to teach. There is enough in our actual doctrine to stimulate discussion (or even to invite derision, if that is your preference). But asking Mormons to defend doctrines they’ve never declared guarantees that you will never understand us nor what we hold in our hearts.