Since its publication in 2013, the “Letter to a CES Director” has gained lots of attention. I know people for whom it has been a contributing factor in their disaffection with the Church. In what follows, I will explore a few of my own thoughts as to how it works, and why it ought to be less successful, in creating disaffection.
Writing history is a process of selecting, organizing, and explaining various facts. A trustworthy historian surveys as many facts as possible about his or her subject, and selects relevant facts—organizing and explaining them in reasonable ways. Bad histories occur when historians neglect relevant facts or organize and explain them in unreasonable ways. When a historian unintentionally does this, we might say that the historian is unskilled. When a historian intentionally neglects relevant facts, we might say that the historian is unprincipled. An unskilled or an unprincipled historian is not trustworthy; however, only the unprincipled historian is dishonest. (Of course not being trustworthy and being dishonest can vary by degree.)
A brief illustration: If you contracted me to build you a house, and the house ended up being of poor quality, you would reasonably conclude that I’m not a trustworthy contractor. Further, you might feel frustrated and even upset to discover that I’m not very good at what I do. I really tried, but in the end, building the house was something beyond my ability. On the other hand, if you discover that I actually could have built a quality house, but in the effort to keep as much of your money as possible I cut corners, you would then understandably feel angry and betrayed. You would feel even more angry and betrayed if I was also your long-time friend in addition to being your contractor.
The purpose of the CES Letter is not to do history. Rather, its primary purpose is to show that the Church produces unprincipled histories. Said more plainly, the CES Letter aims to undermine trust in the Church by showing that the Church purposefully neglects significant facts. It serves to stir and legitimize feelings of betrayal such that there is no hope in reestablishing trust with the Church.
For example, in discussing how Joseph Smith used a seerstone placed in a hat to translate the BoM, Runnells asks, “Why is the Church not being honest and transparent to its members about how Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon? How am I supposed to be okay with this deception?”
The language of dishonesty is repeated throughout the letter. (There’s even a section entitled, “Church’s Dishonesty and Whitewashing Over Its History.”)
This is most apparent in the conclusion where Runnells asks, “How am I supposed to feel about learning about these disturbing facts at 31-years-old? After making critical life decisions based on trust and faith that the Church was telling me the complete truth about its origins and history?” He continues, “So, putting aside the absolute shock and feeling of betrayal in learning about all of this information that has been kept concealed and hidden from me by the Church my entire life, I am now expected to go back to the drawing board. Somehow, I’m supposed to rebuild my testimony on newly discovered information that is not only bizarre and alien to the Chapel Mormonism I had a testimony of; it’s almost comical.”
For Runnells, the Church is dishonest and deceitful. He recognizes that people might be able to “rebuild their testimonies” in light of the information he’s encountered, but such a Mormonism would be so different than the kind of Mormonism the Church teaches, it would be ridiculous. In other words, the Church is not worth trusting because it intentionally deceives people, and even if one could account for all relevant facts and maintain one’s faith in Mormonism, it would be a Mormonism so different from the whitewashed Mormonism the Church teaches, one would still recognize the dishonesty of the Church’s narrative and not want to affiliate with it anymore.
Let me pose an alternative view: I have a friend whose father is a (now retired) professor in BYU’s school of Religious Education. She grew up, went to BYU, and only in her mid-twenties learned the extent of Joseph Smith’s polygamy and several other things. Upon discovering this information she asked her father whether he was aware of it, and whether he taught any of his students about it. He replied that he was, and went on to say (I’m paraphrasing), “There’s so much good to be found; and so little time to discuss it, why discuss the negative or the morally grey?” I believe his response is representative of the mentality of much of the Church’s leadership (perhaps even a charitable reading of Elder Packer’s well-known remark that “some things that are true are not very useful.”). His response is partially pragmatic, and he positions himself (and implicitly the Church) in a position of selecting relevant facts based on the pragmatic constraints of the situation—in a world where we spend so little time learning about the Gospel, we ought to spend time focusing on those things that are most important or “uplifting.”
In a pre-internet world, it was difficult to scrutinize this process of selection. The situation is further exacerbated by having folks trained in fields outside of religious studies and history engaged in the selection of facts. The result is the kind of history produced by the Church over the last 50 years. In some ways, the CES Letter is a natural response to this approach when done in an information age.
This isn’t to say that the Church’s approach is without its merits, or that the history it produced was bad by the standards of the 60’s (although it very well may be); rather, my point is that the neglect of significant facts was not done with the intent to suppress significant facts; instead it was done out of a misunderstanding of which facts were relevant. In short, the Church is an unskilled historian.
The significance of distinguishing between unskilled histories and unprincipled histories is in noting the impact these two approaches ought to have on our trust in the Church. Trust is much harder to repair after betrayal; and a bankruptcy of trust (which seems to be a primary goal of the Letter) can lead to a situation where we no longer believe the Church can do any good. The process of rebuilding trust after unintentional harm is still complex; and many of the projects over the last 10-15 years including the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Turley’s history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the Gospel Topic Essays, ought to be seen (at least partially) as a move toward building (or rebuilding) trust.
This isn’t to excuse unskilled histories. The process of rebuilding trust in this situation would be facilitated if the Church did more (such as acknowledging and admitting its failures). Yet, at least in my opinion, the possibility of rebuilding trust in this situation ought not be a forgone conclusion.
In the end, there are good reasons to be frustrated with the Church, and I sympathize with those who feel betrayed (including Runnells). I think there’s a lot more the Church could do to mitigate feelings of betrayal. I also think the CES Letter raises issues that require significant theological adjustments if one wants to maintain one’s faith. I don’t find the Letter, however, an accurate lens with which to view the Church; and without this lens, the Letter loses much of its force.