Thursday, June 29, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power - But Watch Out For Your Job

I've been stewing about this for awhile, trying to decide whether to write about it or not. I was going to, and then it seemed like it had become old news, so I thought I probably wouldn't do it. But it is still bugging me, so I suppose I'm going to have to go ahead and get it out of my system.

It all started with a June 4, 2006 opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune. It was written by Brigham Young University philosophy instructor Jeffrey Nielsen. Spurred by a direction from the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormons) for members of the church to call their U.S. Senators and urge them to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman and therefore outlaw gay marriage, Nielsen felt constrained to write and submit an essay explaining why he found the amendment, and the call by the church to support it, "troubling", as Nielsen described it. It was a moderate and well-reasoned piece of writing.

Nielsen's piece publicly disagreed with church leaders. Since the LDS church owns BYU, Nielsen soon found himself dismissed from his teaching job there. A university spokesperson said, as quoted in a June 14 story in the Deseret News (also a church-owned concern) that Nielsen was let go because his op-ed piece "publicly contracicted and opposed an official statement by the First Presidency." Nielsen countered, according to a June 14 article on his dismissal in the Salt Lake Tribune, that it was not his intent to attack any religious or theological claims of the church, but simply to comment on a moral issue.

And why is this significant? Employees get let go all the time for saying or doing things their employers don't like. Legally speaking, BYU certainly has its collective butt covered six ways from Sunday on their decision to let Nielsen go. That isn't my concern here, although it puts BYU's claim that it allows its faculty academic freedom. No. My concern here is instead the school's - and the church's - utter disregard for the principle that being able to voice an opinion on a topic about which well-meaning individuals might disagree without fearing job loss is - or should be - a basic human right.

A church is entitled to believe and to teach pretty much whatever they want. That is settled by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And if people wish to live by even the most draconian strictures of one of thsoe religions, well, I suppose that is their right as well, although I seem to recall that it is against the law to bind someone to a contract that deprives them of their constitutional rights. That's what makes those master/slave contracts illegal.

However, there is another part of the First Amendment - the free speech clasue. While there is legal opinion in existence that those guarantees do not bind private institutions, it seems kind of disingenuous to me for a group to insist on its First Amendment right to worship as they wish and then to refuse to allow their adherents the rights conferred in another clause of the same article in the Bill of Rights. That is exactly what the LDS church seems to be doing here by letting Nielsen go for simply stating a dissenting opinion.

It isn't that any of this surprises me much. The Mormons put a huge premium on obedience and do not brook any public dissent. There have been a number of disfellowshipments and excommunications in years past, as well as firings from BYU, after individuals have expressed opinions contrary to that of the First Presidency of the church. These disciplinary actions have not always been explained as reactions to dissent, and they have not been limited to BYU faculty. Former Australian Bishop (congregational leader) Simon Southerton was excommunicated in 2005, ostensibly for adultery. However, he and his wife had not been active in the church for seven years at that time and from what I understand his behavior had long been known. I suspect that it was not simple coincidence that Southerton had published in 2004 and vocally promoted his book, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church (Signature Books) in 2004. This book discusses the fact that DNA evidence does not support Mormon claims about the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Similarly Grant Palmer, a long-time employee of the Church Educational System, was disfellowshiped for writing a book, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, which calls into question the official version of church history.

No. The Mormon hierarchy does not like dissent at all. It wants obedience from its members above all else, and it does not want outsiders interpreting the church and its doctrines and history. That is why it issued such a detailed and emphatic dissent to Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I've written about here before. That is also why the church's historical archives are largely closed to anyone except those known to be sympathetic to the church and its teachings.

What the church wants more than anything else, and this gets to the crux of what is bugging me so much that I needed to get this out of my system, is unquestioning obedience from its members. And it wants everyone to be associated with the church. That's why they send out all those missionaries. This insistence on obedience is illustrated in a talk by one Mormon official and published on the church's official website after appearing in one of its magazines, the Ensign, in July 2005. The talk, by Elder Robert C. Oaks of the Presidency of the Seventy, is titled "Believe All Things". The gist of the talk is that it is important to belive all the things the church teaches because that belief will leed to obedience to the leadership of the church.

Oaks's talk idealizes what he calls "childlike submissiveness", saying "...we are instructed to be like children, who are willing to be taught and then to act without first demanding full knowledge." In other words, Mormons are expected to do whatever their leaders tell them to do without question and without regard to their own well-being. To illustrate this, Oaks holds out the example set in the Bible by Mary, the motehr of Jesus. He says that she accepted the assignment of bearing a child as an unmarried woman without "reservation or restraint" even thought her culture would demand that she be stoned to death for being an unwed mother.

That's nice. What he is saying here seems to be, do whatever the church tells you to do without question even if it means your very life, which you should sacrifice gladly. Even the US military, a noticeably obedience-based institution, expects its members to evaluate and refuse and illegal order. But not Mormons. No, they are supposed to just bow their heads and say yes (which I understand is something that is required in secret temple rituals, but since I've never been to the temple except to do dunkin' for the dead, I wouldn't know firsthand) to whatever they are asked.

This sort of obedience is not an abstract principle in the church, either. Members, especially temple Mormons who have pledged to give everything to the church, are expected to never, ever say no to any request from their superiors in the church. And one of the cute little things that local leaders like to do from time to time is to go into a meeting of, for instance, the Relief Society (the women's organization) and announce that Salt Lake City (where the chruch is headquartered) has instituted the United Order, just to see how many members will go along with the story without question and how many will raise objections. The United Order is a sort of communalism in which everyone's belognings - including homes - are pooled and then redistributed according to need. If that plan were ever actually to be activated, all the members would be expected to go along with it without a word of dissent.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I was raised to Question Authority. No surprise, then, that I never made a very good Mormon. It honestly frightens me that in 2005 anyone could have given a talk, with as straight a face as church leaders always give their talks, instructing the membership of the church that they are supposed practice "childlike submissiveness" whenever the leadership tells them to do something. The thing that is even more frightening is that a certain proportion of the membership will, indeed, bow their heads and say yes, and do anything these people ask them to do. This sort of authoritarianism is just pernicious, and those who promote it, leaders and followers alike, should be ashamed of themselves.