Last night some of my neighbors held the first bonfire of the year, and several people gathered around it and ignored the big patch of snow right next to us, and I stayed up late and I'm suffering for it today but friendship is important. I was actually about to leave when they started talking about LDS stuff in a way that piqued my interest. Usually I zone out when LDS people talk about LDS stuff, but this started with two guys joking that they marry each other to save money on housing, and they said they were sure the church would be cool with it. Then this girl Mia that I apparently had an institute class with but didn't remember said the church used to do "adoption" sealings of random non-related people to each other, and stopped around the same time it stopped polygamy. The guys said that was cool. She said the church used to do a lot of cool stuff, like for example, it used to let women give blessings as midwives until Brigham Young said they should stop.
I didn't think it was the time or place to get on my feminist soapbox, but integrity demanded that I go on the record as dissenting from any real or perceived implication that this or any of the church's restrictions on women's autonomy might have even possibly had anything to do with God, so I said, in a voice that I hoped was loud enough for her and nobody else to hear, "What a dick."
She responded in a much louder voice, "You ain't wrong, though!"
One of the most liberating parts of leaving the LDS Church is being able to acknowledge that Brigham Young was an asshole instead of having to try to rationalize that he was just a "complicated person." He did have his redeeming qualities, but he was an asshole. I was surprised and elated to hear this response from a member, though now that I think of it, I don't know for a fact that she's still a member. She did mention that she hasn't taken an institute class in a long time. Hmm.
Then someone probably said something else, and she said that Brigham Young was racist. And someone else gave the ubiquitous and only possible apologetic defense: "Everyone was racist back then." Because it's not fair to hold people who claim to speak for God to a higher standard than anyone else because reasons.
I would have said something, but Mia beat me to it. "He was exceptionally racist," she said. And that's an objectively true statement. Many of his contemporaries opposed slavery while he preached that it was ordained of God and pushed Utah to be the only Western US state or territory that legalized it, and very few of them taught, as he did, that God wanted mixed-race couples and their children put to death. God had no shortage of less racist men (or women) to choose from. Now the LDS Church wants to excuse all of his and other past prophets' faults with the "men of their time" card while simultaneously presenting the current prophet as such a paragon of virtue that we should emulate everything he does, such as the way he recycles plastic bottles. Make it make sense.
Someone else asked if Brigham Young is the thing that stops people from joining the church, and someone else said pretty much. I would actually hazard a guess that Joseph Smith stops even more people from joining the church. He's the one that missionaries teach people about, and then all those people have to do is Google him and find all the stuff that the missionaries didn't tell them and probably don't even know and be like, "Nope."
Then Mia or someone else mentioned Brigham's teaching of blood atonement, and this one guy who had either converted or returned to activity as an adult asked what that was, and someone explained it to him, that it's the idea that some sins aren't covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ so some people need to be killed to be forgiven. And the convert guy was disturbed by that and he asked, "Then how could he be a prophet?" I don't know if he was on the cusp of a sudden faith crisis or just wondering. He was, of course, on the cusp of the obvious answer, which is "He wasn't." Not because prophets need to be perfect, but because they need to be good and they need to not say a bunch of stupid crap in God's name that will force their church to run damage control for centuries to come.
But of course someone responded by saying in a Batman voice, "He's not the prophet we deserved, but the prophet we needed." So they sidestepped the issue with humor and moved on to other things. Ah well. It was a fascinating couple minutes nonetheless. It's hard to say with any given Latter-day Saint if they're perfectly familiar with the church's controversial issues or if they'll go to pieces on hearing about them for the first time. With this little group, it seems like the church's innoculation efforts are working. They know what Brigham Young was really like and they manage to work it into their worldview even though it makes no sense.
Of course, I've also noticed that in the little over a decade since I've moved to Utah, mainstream Latter-day Saints in their twenties have become less uptight about multiple piercings, "immodest" clothing, shopping on Sundays, R-rated movies, and swearing. Almost every person in this group swore at some point during the evening and only one, the military guy who swore the worst and the most often, felt compelled to apologize. I swore thrice, twice while paraphrasing someone else who just swore and once while quoting Jeff Dunham's puppet Walter. I don't like how often I swear in general, but I have no intention of quitting entirely because they're just words. The whole concept of having words that no one should ever say is stupid beyond belief. Anyway, my point is that people who haven't left the church and haven't doubled down into QAnon-level stupidity are becoming more and more nuanced, and I'm not sure if that's a victory for the church or not. Its independent scholars and apologists go on about the importance of nuance, but its leaders, as anyone can see from the most recent conference, are going in the opposite direction. They don't want nuanced members. They want members who believe and obey them without question even when they contradict each other or simply make no sense. But they're in no position to be picky these days.
And honestly, the leaders are right in the sense that the LDS Church's truth claims are fundamentally incompatible with nuance. The Book of Mormon itself doubles down on the literal historicity of biblical myths that didn't happen (the Garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the tower of Babel). The prophets are supposed to be the mouthpieces of God that we're supposed to trust and follow at all times, not violent, racist lunatics who can't tell the difference between God's truth and their own delusions. As soon as you adopt a nuanced approach to just about anything in the LDS Church, you're believing in a different religion than the one it teaches. And that's fair enough. I believe in people's right to believe whatever they want, and in most religions, picking and choosing what to believe is the norm. But the LDS Church explicitly tells you not to do that. I wonder how many of the people there last night have begun the process of, like me, nuancing their testimonies out of existence.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.