What Does It Mean to Be ‘Friend’

Yesterday morning, readers of the New York Times opened their Sunday papers to find John Turner’s op-ed, “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” Turner, an assistant professor at George Mason University and the author of the soon to be released, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, provides a careful and concise history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) often troubling relationship with people of African descent. Turner also argues why the contemporary church (and its membership—especially those running for high elected office) could benefit from more frank talk from the “brethren” about why the LDS Church abandoned its race-based exclusionary policies, and how Mormons should understand this past.

Turner’s piece came just days after another hot-button revelation from the always expanding “Mormon beat.” Last Thursday, The Huffington Post’s Andrea Stone reported a new Helen Radkey discovery, unearthed in the electronic archives of the LDS Church’s Family Search database: the names of some deceased family members of the newly selected GOP vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan—whom Mitt Romney himself pointed out is a “faithful Catholic”—appear on a list for future posthumous baptisms. And some of Ryan’s kin, including Ryan’s beloved father, might have already been baptized by proxy.

There are some superficial parallels between these two stories. Both touch on two of the most sensitive topics in Mormonism (namely, race and proxy baptisms for the dead). And for that reason, both stories worked some Mormons—and perhaps even more Mormon detractors—into a lather.

But I want to explain it is vital to describe the differences in method and motivation between these two stories. This is vital because—and I’m mostly addressing Latter-day Saint readers—in these differences what emerges is an answer to the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘friend,’” and specifically, “What does it mean for a scholar of Mormonism to be a ‘friend’ to the Latter-day Saints?”

My totally unscientific survey of responses to these two stories comes from reading my Facebook friends’ (or more often, friends of friends’) comments, which appeared after these two stories were posted and shared over the weekend. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me that a Peculiar People post on ‘friends’ is largely inspired by the social network that has, in many ways, redefined what the word ‘friend’ means).

Let me summarize (and sanitize) many of the hundreds of comments these two stories received. From a certain segment of Mormon readers, the response was more or less this: “How dare those ‘Antis’ lecture us about who we are and what we do!” (To be sure, there is some justification for such response, due to the long history of Mormon persecution). And from those “Antis,” (real “Antis” I mean) a noxious chorus, “Look at those Mormons being cultish and racist!” erupted.

Yet, at least for me, this is where the similarities end.

First, there is the question of method.

In his article, Turner makes the point that the “priesthood ban” (the shorthand for the racial exclusion of black Mormons, though the restrictions also affected African American women too) did not begin at the founding of the church. Instead, the ban has a human history: It was an evolving practice, then policy, then doctrinal fixture, articulated and defended by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith well into the twentieth century.

Turner then contextualizes the ban, placing it in the history of American religion. “Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions,” Turner writes. “Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.” It is perhaps only the priesthood ban’s “duration,” Turner argues, that is unusual, and perhaps, yes, shameful.

What Turner does—contextualize and historicize—Radkey does not. She digs and then dumps, leaving the analysis to others (however, it should be acknowledged that with the church watching her so carefully—after all, Radkey is responsible for many of the muckraking discoveries of proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, Gandhi and a myriad of celebrities—this is quite a feat in itself).

Second, motivations. I don’t claim to know what motivates Radkey (I’ve never met her). My understanding is that she considers herself a whistleblower, who, at best, works to hold the LDS Church accountable to its own policies about who is eligible to submit certain names for temple work, and what names should never be submitted for such rituals (e.g. Holocaust victims). [1]

I believe whistleblowing is often a brave and important act. Uncovering misdeeds in governments, industries, and churches can serve to protect the public, the consumer, and the believer from abuse, which is often protected, or covered up by bureaucracies.

But what if your goal is to critique the institution itself, not to tear it down, but to better it, so it can more effectively serve its own constituencies?

This is, I believe, what Prof. Turner, and many other non-Mormon scholars, myself included, intend to do, especially when we write about Mormonism for the popular media.

I would guess that for most readers of Peculiar People, Turner provides little new historical insight into the troubling history of race and Mormonism. But breaking new ground isn’t what the op-ed page of The New York Times is for. Instead, Turner offers a cautious challenge to the LDS leadership (and its membership) to more seriously grapple with the moral as well as historical reasons why the ban was ever instituted in the first place, and why it came to be removed.

I believe that Prof. Turner—and a growing number of non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism like him—have earned the right to make such challenges. After all, such scholars have dedicated, hours, days, even careers to the careful study of Mormon history.

What we find in these lifetimes spent in the archives is sometimes troubling, sometimes heartwarming, but most often mundane. Yet what we always find is human. And it’s our duty as scholars to capture this comprehensive humanity.

What also happens in the archives (at the Church History Library, in particular) or in more virtual communities like this one, is that non-Mormons become friends with Mormons. We grow to respect Mormons as thinkers, scholars, and believers (and hopefully this is reciprocated).

Friends stand up for their friends against bullies (non-Mormon scholars are more often called Mormon apologists by Mormon haters, than anti-Mormons). But friends are more than sycophants, too. As Mormon Studies continues to grow past its sectarian origins, this hopefully will become more apparent, and also more recognized.

[1]. I too have investigated troubling findings in the Family Search databases. I leave it to the readers of my article at Slate to determine what, if anything, separates my work from that of Radkey’s.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    If I have understood Ardis correctly, she does not feel that it is the place of non-Mormon scholars to critique LDS leaders or members in the public square.

    You have *not* understood me correctly, Jana. A critique (a description, an evaluation, either praise or condemnation) is one thing; schooling us by telling us that we must change our ordinances in such-and-such a way or that our leaders must read from a script prepared by that scholar is something very different. The public forum is not the problem, either, although when the scholar assumes the superior position of the parent/supervisor/teacher/governor/other role in which a superior corrects an inferior, and does it in a public form, it’s evidence to me that he isn’t offering friendly advice to one who needs it, but is posturing before a larger audience. (If your daughter needs to bathe more often, do you put your arm around her shoulder and talk to her privately? Or do you write an op-ed piece for her junior high school newspaper, telling her she stinks so badly that even her own mother can’t stand to be around her?)

    The permissible role of an outsider to any group is description, not prescription.

    • BryanJensen

      A very attuned and generally well-defended nuance, Ardis, but I would counter that a well-informed outsider certainly can extend beyond description to pre/proscription insofar as the outsider, as an invested member of the larger community, is participating. That realm is the public square. It is not just a place of nuanced and scholarly reflection; it is also a place of passionate human advocacy. Jana’s point about Hasidic Jews and Catholic treatment of its nuns can be just as appropriate as merely describing the condition and reasons for the friction. (Of course probability for direct effectiveness for change is unlikely, but indirect usefulness on the other hand…)

      Therefore, I found Max’s Slate article on posthumous baptism one at which the history is presented along some fair and sympathetic argument for the intent from the LDS community, even using a non-believer with name cachet to drive the point, while also letting us see that it is a practice with which many non-believers, like me (and especially so as a former Mormon, perhaps) think it is worthwhile to air just how much of a identity theft it feels to know a Mormon loved one, and indeed my LDS family are loved by me, will nevertheless be hardly likely at all not to do temple work for me, my wife and children. Many non-Mormons will have this done to them not even by loved ones but by people who are just unrelated spiritual bureaucrats even if well-intentioned ones.

      From my perspective I could not write the piece on that subject the way that Max did. Nevertheless I applaud his effort at balance while also appreciating public discourse that represents my rubber-meets-the-road opinion: kindness and sympathy are great _but still do not induct my identity posthumously!_ I do not need to have died in the holocaust for LDS members, whether loved by me or whether unknown to me, to intentionally honor and make allowance for me to decide own my own affiliation identity, even extending after death. The institution, in my opinion, needs that controversy aired in public, over and over, even if shared with carefulness, precision and sympathy. The institution and collective community’s actions deserve public vetting even as it could perhaps be more likely to change individual hearts were non-Mormons who know Mormons in their lives to share their feelings on the subject in personal discussions. If history is a predictor, public discourse will lead to better coexistent policy(ies) with others not of the same faith.

  • Nate Oman

    Matt: At the end of John’s op-ed doesn’t he offer specifically theological advice and commentary when he seeks to resolve Mormon concerns about prophetic fallibility by appealing to prophetic examples in the scriptures? I think that he is correct on this, but that is — in my mind — clearly a theological judgment about a theological claim. It seems to me that what is going on in a piece like this is more than simply social or political criticism. It is also theological. In effect, isn’t John saying that Mormons who might disagree with his op-ed based on claims to the authority of past prophets are theologically mistaken? I think he’s theologically correct. On the other hand, I don’t think that he is engaging in some kind of clean historical or political analysis here, untainted by theological claims.

    I should also add that I don’t think that there is anything wrong with his doing this. In part this is because I think that one can speak meaningfully about theological claims being true or false, and accordingly I think that those claims can be subject to tests for coherence and consistency. I do think that there are some tricky ethical questions involved in arguing from religious premises that one does no accept, but I honestly don’t know what I think about this in the end. It is something I have actually thought about quite a bit not in the context of Mormonism, but in the context of a lot of the commentary I have read on Islamic law by non-Muslims that is aimed at promoting interpretations that are more friendly to liberal democracy. I don’t think that such commentators are engaged in some kind of non-religious discussion that sits in a place that is cleanly and comfortably defined by purely scholarly norms or by norms of political and social criticism. They are also claiming that Salafists are mistaken about the religious content of Islam. I think they are right to say this to Salafists but it is an odd sort of opinion for a non-Muslim to hold.

  • DavidH

    I think John Turner was acting as a true friend. And I think Max and most other “outsiders” are acting as true friends when speaking publicly (but in noncharged prose) and critically.

    I consider myself a friend to Catholicism. I consider the Church’s response to child abuse by clergy to be inexcusable (though perhaps understandable at the time), absolutely shameful and clearly inadequate. I do not mince words about it. True, I have not published an op ed on the subject, probably because I do not have the scholarly credentials that anyone would want to publish what I say. I also have devout Catholic friends who feel the same way that I do about the Vatican’s reaction, and some of them have made more public statements about it. If I were a respectable scholar of Catholicism would I be wrong to join with devout Catholic friends in such statements?

    I have opinions, positive and sometimes negative, of Israelis and Palestinians. Is it wrong to express them because I am an outsider to both? I have opinions on Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Must I be silent? Must expressing those opinions necessarily eviscerate my friendship with people on both sides of the divides?

    I do know that in some cases expressing critical opinions, as an outsider or an insider, does end friendships, which requires either silence to retain the friendship or ending the friendship in order to be free to express opinions.

    There are devout Mormons who agree with Turner. Is Turner wrong, as a person who is not a devout Mormon, to state his opinion? The op ed does not state his religion.

    Would it have been better, as Ardis suggest, for Turner to have sent his suggestions to the First Presidency rather than publishing them? Perhaps. Would the First Presidency have read the suggestions? Would they have paid any more attention to them than to similar recommendations in the past made by general authorities on the subject?

    For a Mormon to “go public” with criticism can be seen by other Mormons as apostasy, and in some case can risk ecclesiastical consequences. Max and John and Amanda may offer unvarnished opinions without fearing ecclesiastical censure. Frankly, they can say things that some devout Mormons might want to say but are afraid.

    Finally, I do not consider John or Max or Amanda to be outsiders. I consider them to be insiders, a valuable part of the greater Mormon community. And I say welcome and I am glad you are part of Mormonism’s extended family.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    I don’t want to comment here any further, but I also don’t like the way words have been put into my mouth. DavidH, I did NOT suggest that John Turner send his recommendations to the First Presidency. You have manufactured that suggestion as a strawman to knock down in your next sentence.

    I own my thoughts and words, but I disown all false representations of my words.

  • Rachael

    I’m not sure why this misunderstanding is persisting. I do not think that anyone has said anything about suppressing or condemning public scrutiny, discussion, critique, analysis, or even scathing opinions and criticisms. I think it’s clear we all agree that free, open, honest dialogue is healthy, productive and warranted. Nor, Max, is anyone rejecting your contributions “to the fuller understanding of the ‘comprehensive humanity’ of the LDS historical experience”; I think we all welcome that. The crucial line-crossing is when that opinion or critique becomes, as I think Craig, Nate and Ardis have argued, not an attempt to shed more light on the LDS experience, but a direct advisory opinion. Blurring the boundaries between “advising”/”instructing” and “enlightening”/”opining” is crossing over that fine line between misplaced paternalism and social criticism/history. Again, this has nothing to do with whether the advice is good or not– it’s whether it’s appropriate or professional. So keep on uncovering whatever you find in the archives. Put it out there. Give it your analysis. Sure, air your opinions about what you think is the best way to contextualize it, fit it, or deal with it. Different intellectual tools and perspectives are helpful, enlightening. But the direct imperative voice should not and need not, I think, be a part of that discussion, nor should academic authority transpose into the religious realm, and vice versa. In any case, this has been a very helpful discussion to me- thanks.

  • http://www.religionandpolitics.org Max Mueller


    Thanks for this clarity. That’s what I hope this discussion can do: locate “that fine line between misplaced paternalism and social criticism/history.”
    Here’s another way of framing this discussion (or, better yet, a self-critical question we should all ask ourselves) especially during these last few years when Mormonism has been so much in the news: Does what we write help inform the broader public about the LDS Church and Latter-day Saints?

    I’ve taken from this discussion a renewed dedication to make sure the work we do can always respond to this question in the affirmative.

  • Don Harryman

    I believe the real consternation here is much simpler than anyone describes. Mormons simply cannot accept criticism, can never admit wrongdoing, have many times been completely dishonest about their history, and expect that they should always be afforded deference simply because of who they are. The only treatments of Mormon history or society that are ever acceptable are those cranked out by the PR team at Mormon Church HQ.

    • Bruce Dale

      I think you are being unfair. Mormons can and do accept criticism and critical historical analysis that is not “cranked out by the PR team”. Both Prof. Richard Bushman’s book on Joseph Smith (“Rough Stone Rolling”) and Prof. Teryl Given’s book (“By the Hand of Nephi”) are scholarly, objective and sometimes unflattering to Mormons and Mormonism. Both books have been well-received by Mormons. And no one was ever more scathing in his criticism of Mormons and our failure to live up to our principles than Prof. Hugh Nibley. But Nibley wrote as a competely faithful and devoted Mormon. His words had (and have) tremendous impact on church members because he was trying to help us, not destroy us. Much (most) criticism of Mormons and the Mormon Church (and I have read a lot of it) is aimed at destroying the church and humiliating its members. How do you think human beings respond to such treatment? Do you think they will take it well? I don’t know you. But if you have honest criticisms of Mormons and Mormonism that are aimed at helping us live up to our principles, then full speed ahead. I welcome the comments of fair-minded people, Mormons and non-Mormons, who are trying to help me and the Church improve. I think some of the non-Mormons contributing to this thread fall in that category; they seem to be honest, fair and genuinely well-meaning. I am sincerely grateful to them and look forward to reading their comments. But mostly what Mormons get when we are “analyzed” by “scholars” or by the media is slanted, lazy, and inaccurate (to be charitable). Adam Gopnik’s recent screed in the New Yorker (“The Meanings of Mormonism”) is one such piece of ill-informed and biased analysis. (Gopnik thinks the Book of Mormon is a story of the lost tribes of Israel. NOT!) Mormons do not expect “deference” (having never received it), but fairness and accuracy would be nice. If you can study us as a non-Mormon with fairness and accuracy, I think you will be surprised at how well your work will be received.

      • Don Harryman

        There can be no doubt that much of what is said about Mormons or Mormonism is, as you said, sloppy, inaccurate, or unfair especially in this political season with Mitt Romney in the spotlight. Let me suggest two other such examples about unfair, untrue and defamatory things which are said about other groups or individuals.

        Mitt Romney has said things about Barack Obama, like the John McCain quote of President Obama which Romney attributed to the President which are demonstrably false. During the Prop 8 campaign in CA, the Mormon Church and Mormon members funneled 21 million dollars into a campaign which relied on hysterical fear mongering and outright lies. The lies, such as the ’6 Consequences’ authored by Mormon Gary Lawrence, paid a 6 figure salary by Protectmarriage have been soundly debunked as misleading or false by Mormon Morris Thurston. I suggest that if Mormons want to be treated fairly, perhaps you could start by doing the same to others–ya know, ‘doing unto others….’ I think you get what pretty much what you give out.

        In the meantime, I don’t think my statement is unfair at all. If Mormons are somehow forced by virtue of overwhelming historical evidence to finally acknowledge Mountain Meadows (but never apologize for it) that isn’t the same as being truthful in the first place.

        • Bruce Dale

          Again, you seem to want to apply a different standard to Mormons than to others. Lots of lies are flying around this political season, both from the left and the right. I don’t see you condemning the lies told about Romney, or the outrageous ad that connects him with an unfortunate woman’s death from cancer. To be clear, I am against all lies and I am for fairness, for treating individuals and institutions by the same standards.
          Mountain Meadows was perpetrated by individual Mormons who paid for that crime with their lives. I am not sure why you think the Church should apologize; the Church as an institution did not perpetrate Mountain Meadows. As for acknowledging Mountain Meadows or being “truthful” about it, I am not sure what more you expect. As a convert to the Church I learned about Mountain Meadows very early. The Church couldn’t very well cover it up…it was standard fare in every anti-Mormon book or pamphlet I saw. On the other hand, the burnings, massacres, murders, beatings and rapes perpetrated against Mormons in Ohio, Missouri (including the extermination order given by then-Governor Boggs: “the Mormons must be exterminated or driven from the state”) and later in Illinois where church leaders were murdered while under the protection of the state and finally forced to flee from the United States entirely, do not seem to factor into your thinking. I will believe you are serious about fairness when you apply the same standard to the outrages perpetrated against Mormons as the ones, you think, are perpetrated by Mormons.

          • Don Harryman

            Perhaps you should read ‘Mountain Meadows Massacre’ Brooks, and ‘Massacre at Mountain Meadows’ Turley, both faithful Mormon authors. Both conclude that there was cover up–only one person was ever brought to justice out of 60 or so perpetrators, and the Mormon Church consistently blamed the Paiutes. The massacre was carried out by Mormon leaders and members only– no one else. Both books also conclude that Brigham Young ordered the grave (the US military buried the dead after they were left unburied and naked) desecrated. The crimes committed against Mormons have nothing to do with Mountain Meadows–are you suggesting that MMM was ‘getting even’ , or that evening the score was right? When you claim that you alone speak for God and that you alone are the only True Church, don’t whine when people notice that you don’t live up to the standards you demand from others. You might be for ‘fairness’ but your Church has no problem funding lies and fear mongering against homosexuals, so no, you are not for ‘fairness’. Just the opposite is true–you think Mormons deserve deference and to live by different standards than you demand from others.