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Moving Forward on a Lie, or The Mormon Moment

I learned yesterday in this excellent piece from Slate that The Book of Mormon exists in first edition form. That is stupefying. Imagine a first edition Tanakh or New Testament. Imagine how many questions could be answered about textual accuracy and canonicity. In the Mormon piece, the subject, a Mormon historian named Quinn, found six substantial changes in the text of The Book of Mormon between the first edition and the current edition. There were many more changes, but he believed six were critical in terms of Mormon theology. This is what makes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints such a rare opportunity in the study of religion. They are a modern faith. Their origin, history, and documents are all available to us. Imagine if Jesus had lived a mere 150 years ago. Imagine the possibility that John, James, Peter, and Paul built the Church at the turn of the 20th century. That's what we're dealing with when we look at the history of Mormonism.

Quinn realized that the "revelation" Smith allegedly received was not as infallible as he had been led to believe. The text had been emended, and not with slight emendations. This is no surprise to someone outside the faith of Mormonism. Smith's laughably anachronistic references to the cultures of Meso-America and North America are well documented. What Quinn discovered in his quest for the truth, though, was that Mormon leadership didn't care if the origin of their sacred text didn't square with the official story. One member of the leadership even muses aloud that "truth is not always helpful." I agree with that sentiment in the narrow sense. If someone is fat, I don't need to point it out. The truth in that sense is not helpful. I think of it as the emphasis Buddhists put on right speech. All truth-telling is not right speech, so the Mormon leadership and I agree, sort of. 

Truth is very helpful, however, if I'm trying to decided whether a set of religious teachings and practices is based on truth or falsehood. The election in two days has brought about an amazing Mormon moment in the country. Evangelicals are rushing to embrace Romney, and because they cannot embrace a member of a "cult" as POTUS, they are quick to call Mormonism a legitimate faith. (In all honesty, some are being far more consistent and calling it a cult, including Franklin "I Make Shit Up and Sign My Dad's Name To It" Graham.) Exactly what constitutes a legitimate faith is a cipher. Of the world's many religions, the five we know the most about are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The first is practiced by relatively few believers, especially when compared to the other four, all of which have adherents in the billions. What we know about these five faiths is a matter of history, conjecture, mythology, half truths, legends, obfuscation, sanitized narratives, and occasionally, truly true stories. We don't have access to the records as we do with the history of Mormonism.

This is a crucial difference because it allows the veneer of legitimacy to adhere to ancient faiths, but faiths that are constructed in the modern age will be revealed to be the false belief systems they are. Except that Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world. We know Joseph Smith's life story: con man, criminal, philanderer, etc. We know the sacred text has been changed. We know the convenience with which "new revelations" have allowed Mormonism to adapt to the changing American culture. Want to be a state? Well, all you need is God to reveal that polygamy isn't okay anymore. How do you feel about the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent impact on America's racial topography? Oh, really, your Church says what?! Um, never mind. New revelation in. We're now cool with black folks. Whew. We know the sacred text is riddled with so many errors that only the willfully deceived can believe it reports anything that could be called sacred history. We know nearly every falsehood associated with the growth of this faith, and yet no one who practices it seems to mind. Now people are prepared to vote for a man who believes in an utter falsehood  because they can't stand his opponent. I get it. Lesser of two evils and all that, but this goes to the heart of how we construct our lives around some kind of tangible truth.

Why shouldn't people be free to practice whatever faith they choose even if the faith seems silly, so long as it's not harmful? Agree. Agree. Agree. However, two points. Why the hell would someone want to align his life with a false system, by which I mean a system known to be false? The older faith systems may be false; I'm almost sure they are, but they are removed from our current context so much that proving their falseness is a virtual impossibility. They are widely thought to be reasonable articulations of metaphysical questions and answers. I think they're nonsense, but they have the benefit of being too old to fully deconstruct. However, with Mormonism, we have a fully deconstructed set of claims. They're not true. They don't add up. The history says Joseph Smith made it all up. In our lucid moments, we know this to be the case, but we're so polite about religion that we dare not say it for fear of offending someone. People are allowed to have their own faith. It's their right. Agreed, again. However, it's one thing to respond in faith to things that can't be known. Responding in faith to things known to be false is not faith; it's lunacy. 

Secondly, within the Christian tradition there is a notion that because the church grew and thrived following the death of Jesus, "something" must have happened. By "something" they mean resurrection, but they pretend to be objective by not mentioning the actual word. It's a semantic way of throwing up the hands and saying, "We're not calling it resurrection, but something happened." The notion has been popularized by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell, among others. N.T. Wright tried to give it a more scholarly treatment, but it still boiled down to Lewis's idea that the church could not have grown based on a lie. Paraphrasing, Lewis said that men will die for a lie if they don't know it's a lie, but no one will die for a lie they know to be a lie.

The history of Mormonism shows that not to be the case. Smith's followers knew who he was. They knew what he was. They witnessed it. Historians have shown us the falsity of his claims and his book, but early Mormons accepted martyrdom, believed the lie, and grew their church. They continue to grow the church, even in the face of "unhelpful truths." As we've learned with Mormonism, belief is way more complicated than just showing someone a truth or a lie. People believe what they want based on very complicated reasons, not just epistemological courage. In fact, it's more rare to find people who disbelieve things simply because those things aren't true. In fact, the more committed someone is to a system of belief, the more unlikely he believes contrary evidence, even if the evidence is irrefutable. 

What is distressing to me about this Mormon moment is that Americans are acting as if the truth doesn't matter. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. We can't always know the truth, but when we do, it might be a good idea to shape our lives around it, not around what we prefer to be true.