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The Exclusion by Misrepresentation
by Stephen E. Robinson
Simply put, the exclusion by misrepresentation is the attempt to condemn Latter-day Saints for things they don't believe. One of the fundamental liberties guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States is that people can believe and worship as they choose. No group or individual has the right to force their doctrine on anyone else. As a corollary to this, most would agree that it is also the right of any church or religion to define and interpret its own doctrines for its own use. The Methodists decide what Methodists believe, and the Baptists decide what Baptists believe; thus the doctrines of Methodism will be what Methodists determine they are and not what someone else says they are or must be.
Anti-Mormon Mind Readers
Yet time and again the Latter-day Saints are denied this basic privilege of defining and interpreting their own doctrines. Quite frequently a Latter-day Saint attempting to explain the tenets of his or her faith to non-Mormons will be interrupted by some self-styled expert who says, "No, that's not what you believe; this is what you believe!" There generally follows a recital of some hocus-pocus that is certainly not taught by the LDS church. Ponder the absurdity of it--"You don't know what you believe, but I know what you believe; I know your thoughts better than you do!"
Many times in my professional career I have had occasion to say, "Im sorry, but I don't believe that," only to be assured most forcefully by some antagonist that really, privately, secretly, I did too believe it. "Take my word for it," I have responded, "I am the world's authority on what I believe --and I have never believed what you say I do!" Usually such a declaration on my part is to no avail, for these individuals have already decided in their own minds what my personal beliefs and the beliefs of the LDS church are, and they will not generally accept any testimony to the contrary. Thus I am denied the right to define my own beliefs.
Such individuals usually insist that Mormon doctrine is better understood and more authoritatively interpreted by non-Mormons than by Mormons. With a reasonably knowledgeable Latter-day Saint right in front of them saying, "That is not and never has been my belief or the doctrine of my church," they prefer to believe some anti-Mormon pamphlet or cleric. In fact it has frequently become an article of their faith to insist that Latter-day Saints believe absurd and silly things that no Latter-day Saint in the world has ever heard taught as doctrine. Shall Mormon doctrine be what the Mormons say it is or what their opponents say it is?
When non-Mormons attempt to impose doctrines on the Latter-day Saints or interpret them for us, the resulting fictions generally fall into one of three categories: outright fabrications, distortions of genuine LDS doctrines into unrecognizable forms, or the representation of anomalies within the LDS tradition as mainline or official LDS teaching.
A little background on the issue of outright fabrication is provided by an experience of the Procter and Gamble Company. Somewhere on the extreme fringes of the religious right the rumor was started in the early 1980s that Procter and Gamble, the soap company, was owned by satanists and that all of P&G's profits went to the Church of Satan. Apparently some "Christian" had noticed the venerable P&G trademark, which shows the man in the moon and thirteen stars honoring the thirteen colonies, and in the total absence of any evidence decided that this was a satanic symbol. Soon photocopied sheets detailing the sins of P&G were circulating in every part of the country, and as the story spread, it grew. Ultimately it was claimed that P&G was wholly owned by the satanic church and that its officials had appeared on the Donahue show discussing their links to satanism.
Finding themselves attacked by religious fanatics, Procter and Gamble fought back. Expecting that any story so absurd and so easily disproved could be quickly stopped, the company established a toll-flee public information number and hired private detectives to find out who was spreading the lies. In many states lawsuits were filed against those circulating literature containing the false stories. Sent to all ministers in affected areas were public relations packets with statements from Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Draper of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Joseph Bernardin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati, all certifying that the story was a lie. Statements from the Donahue people denied that anyone from P&G had ever even been on that program, or that Donahue had ever even done a show on a related topic.
All to no avail--the religious extremists whom P&G was up against believed and printed whatever they wanted to, regardless of the quality or quantity of the contradictory evidence. Having the truth was nowhere near as important to them as having a target. After trying for years with all the legal, financial, and public relations resources of one of America's largest companies, an incredulous P&G finally had to throw in the towel and get rid of its trademark. They simply could not stop the willful and intentional fabrications of religious extremists.
The point is this: If an entity as innocuous as a soap company can become the target of religious irrationality and be totally unable to stop the subsequent campaign of lies, what chance do the Latter-day Saints have? For it is basically the same element that ambushed Procter and Gamble that produces and circulates the most outrageous fabrications about the Latter-day Saints and their beliefs. But the Latter-day Saints don't hire lawyers and private detectives; there are no mass mailings or public relations campaigns to counter the fabrications. The Latter-day Saints just continue to teach their beliefs, their real beliefs, to those who will listen. Unfortunately, even people who are too knowledgeable to have fallen for the Procter and Gamble stuff are sometimes taken in by the same kind of outrageous literature if it is written against the Latter-day Saints.
One day in 1983, when our family was living in Pennsylvania, our daughter Sarah, then ten years old, came home from school visibly upset. The subject of the Mormon pioneers had come up in class, and the teacher had asked if anyone knew anything about the Mormons. Before Sarah could respond,, of her classmates said, "My daddy says Mormons are people who live in Utah and worship idols." Sarah quickly answered. back, "Well, I'm a Mormon, and we don't worship idols." But the teacher would not back her up, and many of her classmates never did believe her, largely because they had already been taught in their Sunday schools that Mormons do worship idols or Joseph Smith. Once again the first-person testimony of a live Latter-day Saint was rejected in favor of a popular anti-Mormon fabrication.
This state of affairs reminds one of the popular Christian: notions of Jewish belief that circulated during the Middle Ages (and later). No matter what Jews said to the contrary, no matter what the evidence indicated, many Christians insisted that Jews secretly practiced the ritual mutilation and murder of Christian children. Over the centuries thousands of Jews have been killed as a result of this and other Christian fabrications. This Christ view of what Jews believed and practiced had become part of popular Christian faith, even though it had nothing to do with the actual beliefs and practices of Judaism.1
A close relative of the exclusion by fabrication is the exclusion by distortion. The only difference is that distortions are not entirely groundless, like fabrications, but are related to doctrines that the Latter-day Saints actually do believe. Yet the same objections hold for the exclusion by distortion as for the exclusion by fabrication. Latter-day Saints can't reasonably or logically be declared non-Christian for beliefs they do not hold, even if the distortion is similar to actual LDS beliefs.
Let Them Speak for Themselves
When I was just out of graduate school, I was assigned teach a class outside my usual area of expertise called Roman Catholic Thought. My colleagues stated at the time that nothing could be more ecumenical than a Mormon teaching Roman Catholic thought at a Methodist college, and indeed it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. After many years of hearing mostly non-Catholics explain Catholicism to me, I actually read Catholic theologians explaining their own beliefs. I learned that Catholicism was not the religion I had been led to believe it was. For the class I assigned and used only books that were marked "nihil obstat" and "imprimatur," that is, officially approved by the Catholic church. Day after day I learned along with my students and gave up distortions and misrepresentations that I had once ignorantly accepted as a part of Catholicism. The experience strengthened my already firm conviction that any religion must be allowed to speak for itself and interpret its own doctrines, and it must allow the same privilege to all others.2
It would seem only fair that any criticism of the Latter-day Saints must address doctrines that are actually held by them rather than doctrines merely attributed to them or interpreted for them by hostile critics. If Latter-day Saints believed that Jesus was not the Son of God but just an ordinary man, or if they worshipped someone else instead, they would be considered non-Christians--but first it would have to be established that Mormons really held such beliefs, and not merely that such beliefs were attributed to them by their enemies. Surely any reasonable investigator must grant that Latter-day Saints cannot rationally or logically be declared non-Christians on the basis of doctrines they do not believe.
What Is Official Doctrine?
So what constitutes genuine Mormon doctrine? What is the LDS equivalent of "nihil obstat" and "imprimatur"? What do the Latter-day Saints believe? Can something be said to be "Mormon" doctrine if any Latter-day Saint anywhere believes it? If my LDS grandmother believed that frogs cause warts, or that the earth is flat, does that make those ideas LDS doctrine? If some LDS missionary somewhere believes that the earth is hollow and that the lost ten tribes are hiding inside, is his or her belief therefore LDS doctrine? Of course not.
Virtually every religion has procedures for distinguishing the individual beliefs of its members from the official doctrines of the church, and so do the Latter-day Saints. In fact among the Mormons the procedure is remarkably similar to that of many Protestant denominations. An example of the procedure can be taken from the records of the Fiftieth Semiannual General Conference of the LDS church, 10 October 1880, when President George Q. Cannon addressed the conference:
I hold in my hand the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and also the book, The Pearl of Great Price, which books contain revelations of God. In Kirtland, the Doctrine and Covenants in its original form, as first printed, was submitted to the officers of the Church and the members of the Church to vote upon. As there have been additions made to it by the publishing of revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the conference, to see whether the conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church. 3
Subsequent changes of content in the standard works of the Church have been presented similarly to the membership in general conference to receive a sustaining vote. It is that sustaining vote, by the individual members or by their representatives, that makes the changes officially binding upon the membership as the doctrine of the Church. (See The Seer and Journal of Discources)
When Wilford Woodruff, as President of the Church, committed the Latter-day Saints to discontinue the practice of plural marriage, his official declaration was submitted to the Sixtieth Semiannual General Conference of the Church on 6 October 1890, which by unanimous vote accepted it "as authoritative and binding." It was that vote which made the document official (it is now printed as Official Declaration- 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants). Similarly, when President Spencer W. Kimball declared in 1978, by revelation from the Lord, that the priesthood was henceforward to be given to all worthy male members, this pronouncement became Official Declaration--2 by the sustaining vote of a general conference on 30 September 1978.
B. H. Roberts, a General Authority of the LDS church, summarized the issue perhaps as well as anyone has:
The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine. 4
Of course it is true that many Latter-day Saints, from the Presidents of the Church and members of the Quorum of the Twelve down to individual members who may write books or articles, have expressed their own opinions on doctrinal matters. Nevertheless, until such opinions are presented to the Church in general conference and sustained by vote of the conference, they are neither binding nor the official doctrine of the Church. The critics of LDS doctrine seldom recognize this vital distinction. Rather, if any Latter-day Saint, especially one of the leading Brethren, ever said a thing, these critics take it to represent "Mormonism," regardless of the context of the particular statement and regardless of whether any other Latter-day Saint ever said it or believed it. Often the Latter-day Saints themselves are guilty of this same error and search through the Journal of Discourses as if it were some sort of Mormon Talmud, looking for "new" doctrines not found in the standard works and not taught in the Church today.
Usually the critics insist that the Latter-day Saints must defend as doctrine everything that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or any other General Authority ever said. (See Are Brigham Young's Sermon's Scripture) But the LDS concept of doctrine simply cannot be stretched this far. The Latter-day Saints allow that sometimes the living prophet speaks in his role as prophet and sometimes he simply states his own opinions. This distinction is no different than that made in some other Christian denominations. For example, even though Roman Catholics believe in "papal infallibility," they insist that the pope is infallible only in certain clearly defined circumstances --when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Cannot the Latter-day Saints be allowed a similar distinction? The LDS view was expressed succinctly by Joseph Smith himself: "I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such."5
Non-Mormon critics, on the other hand, often insist that the Brethren must speak and write prophetically at all times. This absolutist expectation usually flows out of an extreme inerrantist view of prophecy and of scripture that is held by the critics, but not by the Latter-day Saints. The critics' belief in the Bible as absolutely perfect, without error and inspired in every word, leads them to make the same demands of anyone claiming to be a prophet. They would impose their inerrantist view on the Latter-day Saints and their prophets (see chapter 5 herein). But the Latter-day Saints have no such inerrantist views, neither of the scriptures nor of the prophets. The scriptures are the word of God, but only as far as they are translated correctly;6 and prophets sometimes speak for the Lord, and sometimes they express their own opinions. Certainly, if the Latter-day Saints were radical inerrantists, such a view as the foregoing would be a contradiction and a scandal, but since we are not inerrantists, the view scandalizes only our inerrantist critics. B. H. Roberts expressed it in this way: (See Are Prophets Infallible?)
It is not sufficient to quote sayings purported to come from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young upon matters of doctrine. Our own people also need instruction and correction in respect of this. It is common to hear some of our older brethren say, "But I heard Brother Joseph myself say so," or "Brother Brigham preached it; I heard him." But that is not the question. The question is has God said it? Was the prophet speaking officially? . . .
As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is--What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine.7
In their encounters with anti-Mormon critics, quite often the Saints seem to feel constrained to defend too much. For example, the fact that Orson Pratt may have said such and such on this or that occasion does not make it a proposition that needs defending. Elder Pratt was very outspoken in his opinions, which sometimes disagreed with the opinions of other General Authorities. He was frequently instructed to make clear to his hearers or readers that his views were his own and not the doctrine of the Church; and on at least one occasion he was instructed by the President of the Church to recant publicly opinions he had represented as doctrine.8
Yet time and again the private opinions or even the half-serious speculations of Orson Pratt and others are presented in the literature of the anti-Mormons as mainstream LDS doctrine. The problem is compounded by some enthusiastic Latter-day Saints who themselves will not observe this distinction and insist on teaching the personal opinions and speculations of past leaders as though they were the official doctrines of the Church.
Now, none of this should be taken to mean that in matters of administration within the LDS church the General Authorities are not inspired or that they must submit every policy decision to the members for a sustaining vote. The revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, already accepted as binding by the Church, along with the ordination to their callings give the Brethren the keys and authority to administer the affairs of the Church as the Lord may direct without their needing a sustaining vote for each individual decision.9 Thus the Church in conference sustains only the individuals who hold the keys, but does not need to sustain separately every detail of their administration. Consequently the policies and procedures of the Church are "official" and "inspired" whenever those holding the keys of that ministry unitedly declare them to be so. Similarly the revelations already accepted by the Church give to the General Authorities and to many others the right to "preach, teach, expound, exhort,"--that is, to interpret and apply existing doctrines within the context of their individual stewardships. The Brethren need no further license or sustaining vote to interpret, define, and apply the doctrines of the Church, or to administer the affairs of the Church and dictate its policies and procedures, than to be sustained in conference as prophets, seers, and revelators and as duly ordained members of their respective quorums.
Latter-day Saints believe that the General Authorities receive inspiration and revelation from God constantly in the administration of the affairs of the Church. They also believe that individuals within the Church may receive personal revelation, even on doctrinal matters, for their private benefit. When doctrinal revelation is given to such individuals, however, the Lord commands them to keep it to themselves (see Alma 12:9). Such revelation is not for the Church generally, but for that individual alone. No new doctrine is binding as the official doctrine of the Church unless it has been received by the President of the Church and until it has been sustained by the Church in general conference.
Finally, from an LDS point of view some things may be correct without being official Church doctrine. For example, it is probably true that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse, but the Pythagorean theorem has never been sustained in a general conference of the Church. Similarly the doctrinal opinions of individual Latter-day Saints could very well turn out to be correct--and some such opinions are believed by many of the Saints --but that does not make them the official doctrine of the Church. This category of things that may be true and that are believed by some in the Church is confusing to members and nonmembers alike. Hence the Brethren have insisted again and again that the members avoid such speculative matters and teach only from the standard works, for only they contain the official doctrines of the Church.
For all of these reasons the only valid judgments of whether or not LDS doctrine is Christian must be based on the official doctrines of the Church, interpreted as the Latter-day Saints interpret them.
Yet another way in which anti-Mormon critics often misrepresent LDS doctrine is in the presentation of anomalies as though they were the doctrine of the Church. Anomalies occur in every field of human endeavor, even in science. An anomaly is something unexpected that cannot be explained by the existing laws or theories, but which does not constitute evidence for changing the laws and theories. An anomaly is a glitch.
For example, if a chemist combines two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen a hundred times in a row, and ninety-nine times she gets water but on the hundredth time she gets alcohol, this does not mean that one percent of the time the laws of chemistry are different. It simply means that something was wrong with the hundredth experiment, even though the experimenter may not know what it was. Beakers may have been mislabelled; grad students may have been playing a practical joke; instruments might have given incorrect readings; secretaries might have typed the wrong information. If the anomaly could be reproduced experimentally, then it would be significant and would demand a change in the theories. But if it can't be reproduced, it is simply ignored--as an anomaly. It is assumed that some unknown factor was different in the case of the anomalous results, and the experiment yielding those results is therefore invalid. Moreover, to ignore such anomalies is not considered dishonesty, but represents sound scientific method.
Just as there are anomalies in the world of science, there are anomalies in the realm of history. By historical anomalies in the LDS tradition I do not mean doctrines that are little known or seldom taught. Mormonism has both, but these are not anomalies. By LDS anomalies I mean reported statements of leaders of the Church that cannot be understood even by the Church, and that cannot be reconciled to the official doctrines of the Church. These reported statements may disagree with the belief and practice of the Church (then and now), with subsequent scientific findings, with the statements of other prophets, or even with the stated view of the same prophet on other occasions. With anomalies the question is not whether to believe the prophet; the question is, What proposition is being presented here for our belief?
For many Christian churches the text of 1 Corinthians 15:29 presents such an anomaly: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" For most churches it's not a question of whether to believe Paul on the subject of baptism for the dead; it's a question of knowing exactly what Paul meant by this cryptic reference. Since the Bible gives no further information on the subject, many conclude that they just don't know enough about what Paul meant to formulate a doctrine, and so they set the passage aside as an anomaly. "Whatever Paul intended was undoubtedly correct," they say. "We just aren't sure we know what he intended."
The Adam-God Theory
A classic example of an anomaly in the LDS tradition is the so-called "Adam-God theory." During the latter half of the nineteenth century Brigham Young made some remarks about the relationship between Adam and God that the Latter-day Saints have never been able to understand. The reported statements conflict with LDS teachings before and after Brigham Young, as well as with statements of President Young himself during the same period of time. So how do Latter-day Saints deal with the phenomenon? We don't; we simply set it aside. It is an anomaly. On occasion my colleagues and I at Brigham Young University have tried to figure out what Brigham Young might have actually said and what it might have meant, but the attempts have always failed. The reported statements simply do not compute --we cannot make sense out of them. This is not a matter of believing it or disbelieving it; we simply don't know what "it" is. If Brigham Young were here we could ask him what he actually said and what he meant by it, but he is not here, and even expert students of his thought are left to wonder whether he was misquoted, whether he meant to say one thing and actually said another, whether he was somehow joking with or testing the Saints, or whether some vital element that would make sense out of the reports has been omitted.
For the Latter-day Saints, however, the point is moot, since whatever Brigham Young said, true or false, was never presented to the Church for a sustaining vote. It was not then and is not now a doctrine of the Church, and--like the chemist who can neither explain nor reproduce her results--the Church has merely set the phenomenon aside as an anomaly.
Nevertheless anti-Mormon critics have not only interpreted Brigham Young's remarks; they have also elevated their own interpretation, the "Adam-God theory," to the status of official LDS doctrine. Once again our theology is being dictated to us by our critics. According to them Brigham Young taught that Adam, the husband of Eve and father of Cain, is identical to that Elohim who is God, the Father of spirits and the Father of Jesus Christ. But for Latter-day Saints this interpretation has always been simply impossible. It contradicts the LDS scriptures; it contradicts the teachings of Joseph Smith; it contradicts other statements by Brigham Young made during the same period of time; it contradicts the teachings of all the prophets since Brigham Young; and it contradicts the sacred ordinances of the LDS temples, with which Brigham Young was intimately familiar.
The point is that while anti-Mormons can believe whatever they want, the Latter-day Saints have never believed that Brigham Young taught the "Adam-God theory" as explained in anti-Mormon literature, and that whether Brigham Young believed it or not, the "Adam-God theory" as proposed and interpreted by non-Mormons simply cannot be found in the theology of the Latter-day Saints. I do not believe it; my parents do not believe it; and neither did their parents before them. Yet there are few anti-Mormon publications that do not present this "Adam-God theory," the doctrinal creation of our opponents, as one of the most characteristic doctrines of the Latter-day Saints. This is certainly misrepresentation; I believe it is also dishonest; and when used to justify a charge that Latter-day Saints aren't Christians, it is another example of condemning the Latter-day Saints for things they do not believe or teach. (See Adam-God's Last Stand home page)
In summary, the Latter-day Saints cannot be judged to be non-Christian for things they do not believe, whether these things are fabrications, distortions, or anomalies. The doctrine of the Latter-day Saints is clearly defined and readily accessible to all. Doctrines are official if they are found in the standard works of the Church (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) or if they are sustained by the Church in general conference. Policies and procedures are official when those who hold the keys of that ministry and who have been sustained by the Church declare them to be the official policies and procedures of the Church. Other denominations claim the right to define and interpret their own doctrines and policies. Surely the Latter-day Saints must be accorded the same privilege.
(Are Mormons Christians? home page)
1. See, for example, N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 76-80 and illus. 4.
2. This is surely one sense in which the Latter-day Saints' eleventh article of faith should be understood- "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." (See Articles of Faith)
3. As reported in Millennial Star 42 (15 November 1880): 724; emphasis added.
4. B. H. Roberts, sermon of 10 July 1921, delivered in Salt Lake Tabernacle, printed in Deseret News, 23 July 1921, sec. 4, p. 7; emphasis added.
5. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51), 5:265.
6. This is the theme of the Latter-day Saints' eighth article of faith -- "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God."
7. Roberrs, in Deseret News, 23 July 1921, sec. 4, p. 7.
8. See Deseret News, 25 July 1860, pp. 162-63; reprinted in Desera News, 23 August 1865, pp. 372-73.
9. See, for example, D&C 13:1; 27:12-13; 65:2; 81:2; etc., but particularly 107:30-32.
Are Mormons Christians?, Chapter 2
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