Jul 16, 2012
Recently there has been a bit of a kerfuffle regarding the abrupt dismissal of Daniel Peterson as editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly FARMS Review). This event, and some of the responses I’ve heard since, have gotten under my skin. Its an itch I haven’t been able to scratch, so I decided to write this blog post. Normally I keep my distance from apologetic discussion boards and the bloggernacle, preferring to do things to improve my life for real, rather than debate someone on the internet. But like I said, the majority of the responses to Daniel Peterson’s dismissal have been unsatisfying to me.
One of the responses I’ve heard can be summed up with this handy visual:
A lot of us apostates, when we first stumbled on apostasy, really tried to reconcile the church’s truth claims with reality. We went to mormon apologetic boards and found them filled with ad hominem responses to honest inquiry and it was very abusive, unsatisfying, and distasteful. A lot of the ad hominem came from Daniel Peterson, and I understand this response. I don’t agree with it. Daniel Peterson was doing his job as a defender of the faith. It isn’t his fault that everything doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I was as disappointed as anyone to discover that mormon apologetics could be as nasty as it is, but I just can’t muster up any happiness to see Daniel Peterson lose his job.
The other response I’ve heard, and this has been the overwhelming response is: ”I’m glad to see this. Its a step in the right direction.”
A step in the right direction?
No. I do not understand this response.
It is not a step in the right direction. It is nothing like a step in the right direction. It is the same crap the church has been dishing out for nearly two hundred years. Once you are no longer useful to the corporation you are cast aside and marginalized. Daniel Peterson joins the ranks of many others whose lives have been spent building up an organization that doesn’t reciprocate their loyalty.
Let’s be clear here what was happening when FARMS, and later the Maxwell Institute was publishing all these journals for all these years. Daniel Peterson was getting paid to do what he was doing. All those ad hominem attacks in all those articles? He was getting paid to be a defender of the faith. He bought groceries, trips to the holy land, and hopefully some well chosen mutual funds with that money.
Now Daniel Peterson is a scapegoat. His usefulness to the corporation has run its course. Now he has been discarded in hopes that everyone will say “I think this is the right move.” Multiple times when talking to faithful Mormons about my concerns that the church has systematically suppressed damaging information to hide it from the membership I’ve heard the following response. ”Look at the trajectory of what is happening. Things are opening up. The church is reforming itself, but its a process.”
Here are some ideas on how to change direction and reform the organization without throwing loyal employees under the bus.
- A phone call. Lets say some general authority reads through an article written by an apologist, and disagrees with the direction he is taking the topic. Maybe this general authority feels that there are too many logical fallacies in the article. He could call the apologist on the phone and talk it over. ”I noticed that instead of arguing the topic on its merits you insinuated that the author of the book you are reviewing drinks coffee, then implied that no good latter-day saint would listen to anything this person had to say. I think that your strategy is mean spirited, and that you can do better.”
- A personal letter. A general authority who disagrees with an apologist could write the apologist a letter, asking the apologist to tone it down.
- An online discussion forum. A general authority could jump in to one of the many online discussion forums that discuss the thorny topics apologists often grapple with. This general authority could model the kind of discourse expected of the apologists in online discourse. This would provide an added bonus to clear up thorny doctrinal issues better than the apologist probably could.
- Sit down with the apologist over brunch, or a cup of postum. Talk it over with him or her. Talk about how we all share a brotherhood/sisterhood and how to reach out to the lost sheep with love instead of ad hominem attacks.
- Give a talk in a public forum, on the record. Address the thorny question appropriately. Talk about the change of direction that you would like to see, citing specific examples.
- Replace ‘general authority’ in the bullet points above with ‘BYU administrator’, or any other person who has influence over the apologists’ job and you’ll have the same bullet points before you get to things like performance appraisals, written employee correction documentation, or finally termination of employment. That is what a change of direction looks like.
In the years before FARMS was formally folded into BYU, LDS apostles applauded the work Daniel Peterson and friends were doing. They weren’t rogue apologists. Their work was considered good enough to bring closer into the church’s formal corporate structure by creating the Maxwell Institute. As a missionary in Phoenix (96-98) I eagerly searched through FARMS publications to find answers to some of the tough questions I would come across.
A similar thing happened earlier this year when Randy Bott was thrown under the bus when a racist blog post of his hit the national press. Randy Bott taught Sharing the Gospel when I took it in 1996. He was saying the exact same racist things then as he had on his blog. (Of course I didn’t identify those things as racist at the time.) Randy Bott had to take his blog down and was portrayed by the church as some kind of rogue professor spouting off his own ideas and theories. He wasn’t a rogue professor when I took his class, and he wasn’t a rogue professor 16 years later when the Washington Post ran a story on him. Randy Bott is a reasonable distillation of the values outlined by the Church Education System. You don’t stick around teaching popular religion classes at BYU for years on end if you aren’t in line with the goals of the organization. BYU doesn’t work that way. If you don’t fit in with the culture you get marginalized or run out of the university.
If I were an employee of the CES, these developments would send a chill down my spine. Every CES employee should feel like they’ve been put on notice. A very different course is being charted now than the one they’ve been following for the past 74 years.
I no longer believe that the church is what it claims to be. This has been the case for quite a while now. But I still love the people in the church. I won’t turn my back on them as friends. I care about them independent of the veracity of Mormonism. And it just makes me sad to see people being used up and discarded. I don’t see a positive change of direction happening. The church, with all its limitations, can do better than this.