This is my credo, as a Mormon who looks on himself as believing, and as a historian who tries to be honest and balanced:
I believe that all truth is faith-promoting, if we're talking about authentic faith. No authentic truth damages authentic faith. Truth, even difficult truths, will only deepen and give breadth of vision to authentic faith. Only brittle, oversimplified faith will break easily when confronted with difficult truths. When we face difficult truths, we should not sensationalize them, but we should deal with them straightforwardly and honestly, using historical context and sympathetic insight to put them into perspective. Sometimes, when we have had oversimplified faith, we will need to deepen and broaden our faith to include tragedy and contradiction and human limitation, but that is not a matter of giving up our faith -- it is a matter of developing our faith. I realize that this can be a painful process at times, but it is a process that gives our faith more solidity and more breadth. The eye of faith sees greater depth, perspectives, and gradations of color; the heart of faith responds more to the tragedies of our bygone brothers and sisters, who become more real and more sympathetic to us.
I believe that the gospel includes all truth, and all truth is part of the gospel.
I believe that the gospel is afraid of no truth. All truths, both the brightness of love and the shadows of tragedy, contribute to the infinite beauty of the gospel.
The gospel includes heights and depths. It includes shining, dazzling light, and darkest shadow -- and everything in between, all shades of gray. It includes knowledge of God, but it also includes knowledge of Satan. It includes knowledge of great and good men and women, and of deeply flawed men and women. It also includes men and women who have great goodness and serious flaws at the same time -- sometimes, seemingly, on alternate days. It includes aspects of reality that are supposedly "secular" -- science, economics, music, history. (See D&C 93:53.)
It includes such standard “problem” areas in Mormon history as different accounts of the First Vision; folk magic in the Book of Mormon translation,; the textual history of the Doctrine and Covenants ; Joseph Smith's polygamy; the Mountain Meadows Massacre; speculative doctrines taught by Brigham Young that have not survived into the modern church; post-Manifesto polygamy; non-egalitarian attitudes held by some leaders; different interpretations of the Word of Wisdom. The documentation for these issues is all true; these events are all part of the gospel. (Much else is also part of the gospel, including examples of selfless heroism on the part of Mormon pioneers; quiet endurance of many Mormons as they suffered persecutions; Mormon leaders and husbands treating their wives with sensitivity as equal partners; Mormons quietly, harmoniously working together in communitarian societies out of devotion to the highest principles of Christ's gospel; President Kimball's receiving the inspiration giving priesthood status to blacks.) How you make "problem issues" part of the gospel is one question; but the idea that you should just shunt them to the side and ignore them is a stance that betrays a lack of faith in the breadth and strength of the gospel. In addition, such a stance, given our church's high ideals, is simply dishonest. (And, in addition, absurdly impractical. Non- Mormon scholars have begun to study Mormonism seriously; will we hope that they will simply follow a gentleman's agreement to ignore such crucial events as Joseph Smith's first vision, his method of translating the Book of Mormon, his marriages and innovative marriage doctrines, Brigham Young's doctrinal ideas, the Church's transition from polygamous to monogamous organization?)
For extreme conservatives, who believe in a view of the gospel in which all church leaders always make the right decision, and for whom church leaders never disagree among themselves, these issues conflict head-on with a fragile, impractical oversimplified gospel; therefore, their only option is to ignore these issues entirely -- both on an individual level (not researching and thinking about these issues in their own minds, hearts and spirits) and on an organizational level. You preserve an absolute silence, not admitting that any of these problem-issues happened. You discourage others from thinking about and researching these issues. And when they do, even if they are trying to deal with the issues within a context of faith, you try to change the playing field by labeling the historians as the problems, rather than grappling with the problem issues themselves.
However, the gospel is more complex, and more beautiful, and possessing more depth, than extreme conservatives give it credit for. When they create an oversimplified, narrow, sentimentally idealized, shallow view of the gospel, and orient their faith toward that oversimplified view, obviously the primary historical documents, and anyone who reflects those primary documents honestly, will undermine such shallow faith. The fault is not the historian who reflects that complexity of historical reality in line with the documents in the archives and the infinite complexity of true faith. The fault is the extreme conservatives who live by, and demand that others accept, an oversimplified view of the gospel.
Granted, many church members and leaders accept such oversimplified views of the gospel, and strive to make to make such views the "official," untouchable version. But to the extent they do, they are doing the church and their faith a disservice, because they are propounding a version of faith that is unworkable.
To give an example. According to one of his biographers, Joseph Smith was about six feet tall. Let's say that a church member -- who sincerely wants to build people's faith -- decides he will portray Joseph Smith as 6 foot 7 inches in a historical movie. This is incorrect, but the 6 foot 7 idea catches on, becomes current in the church. To some people, Joseph Smith as 6 foot 7 becomes a cherished part of their testimony. However, a historian -- who let's say is also a church member -- comes across Joseph Smith's burial record, that gives his height correctly as about 6 foot. The historian publishes an article showing Joseph Smith's true height. The media picks up the story and the movie writer, believing he has a mission as a defender of the faith, denounces the historian as malevolently diminishing people's faith in Joseph Smith.
Now who is right and who is wrong in that situation? Who is honest and who is dishonest? Who is authentically diminishing faith: the writer of historical movies (who, motivated by sincere loyalty to the church and its missionary effort, orients church members' faith on an untrue datum that will not hold up) or the historian who carefully reflects a document showing a true fact? Certainly, Joseph Smith seemingly has less stature based on the true facts, but only in reference to the inflated view of his height that was incorrect. The seeming experience of diminishment is the result of an incorrect inflation.
Is dishonesty justified if it serves to increase faith? The quick, obvious answer is no. But policies which support an oversimplified, sentimentalized view of faith -- and seek to use methods of official control to minimize true history, including censoring primary historical documents and attacking historians through ad hominem methods -- subscribe to this idea. When part of an organization becomes committed to an incorrect perspective, the smallest attempt to defend dishonesty adds layers of dishonesty to the original problem.
The example given above, using Joseph Smith's height, is expressed in terms of a positive misstatement. But telling untruths through omission is equally as dishonest. If a used car dealer knows his car has a serious, though silent, internal flaw, and sells the car anyway to a kindly old lady, pockets her money, and as a result, the car breaks down in the middle of the Arizona desert, endangering her life, he is as thoroughly dishonest, in an exploitative way, as the person who overtly tells the lady a positive untruth. Concealing a relevant fact that can be perceived as negative is a form of dishonesty.
Juanita Brooks was raised being told that Indians perpetrated the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Indians, in fact, were involved in the massacre. However, leaving out Mormon involvement gave a flagrantly untrue view of the event. Aside from the violence to the ideal of truth found in such a retelling, this crucial omission of a relevant truth made the Native Americans look worse than they were. (In fact, recent evidence indicates that Native Americans played an entirely secondary, even passive, role in the Massacre.) So an "untruth of omission" can be just as destructive and dishonest as a positive misstatement.
So who was destroying faith: the "loyal" Mormons who told the false story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre leaving Mormons out, or Juanita Brooks, who truthfully told the story of the massacre with the Mormons thoroughly involved?
Some church members might find this argument illogical, or paradoxical. How can learning about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which southern Utah church leaders made a decision so disastrously wrong as to cause one of the most horrifying massacres in the history of the West, build faith? How can reading about those excruciating, violent events, which caused such a tragic inheritance of guilt among church members in southern Utah, build faith?
Yet I remember talking about Juanita Brooks's book, Mountain Meadows Massacre, with a stake president once when I was at BYU. He said early in his marriage he read it, his wife read it, they talked about it. They absorbed the lessons from this tragic episode and made these lessons part of their holistic faith perspective.
Who has more faith: someone whose faith can include uncomfortable, painful truths, or someone whose faith cannot include them, so excludes them from his own faithful ponderings and explorations, and seeks to prevent others from developing holistic faith? Is someone who can go on telling the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre without Mormons present really a person of faith? Is the person who totally ignores the Mountain Meadows Massacre a person of faith? Or is that person profoundly lacking in authentic faith?
One argument used by some extreme conservatives is that learning "difficult" truths can be valuable for someone who is seasoned in his or her faith, who has had many years of experience in the church. But such truths, they argue, should not be shared with investigators, or new members, or the youth. (Therefore, such truths should not be published, because nonmembers and teenagers have complete access to books on library shelves.) Yet, if leaving out a significant, if difficult, relevant truth is a form of dishonesty, as I have suggested above, this argument suggests that we should give investigators and new members and the youth a dishonest view of our history. Any thoughtful, truthful person should immediately realize that investigators and new members and our youth especially deserve honesty. Therefore, they deserve to hear about the problem issues -- told in a non-sensational way, and balanced by the positive in church history -- but they deserve to hear them.
So, paradoxically, "sanitized" history -- which typically is favored by institutional churches throughout history -- is actually destructive of authentic faith, and is put forth by people whose faith cannot include the complexity of real events. History that is commonly referred to as "faith- promoting" (sanitized, in which church members and leaders are idealized and sentimentalized) is in reality the most destructive of authentic faith. (And the kinds of policies that censor authentic history are the kinds that most profoundly undermine authentic faith.)
"Sanitized" history makes even the good, heroic aspects of Mormon history (of which there are many) ring false. Telling the "positive" events in Mormon history while censoring out the bad makes the positive events reek of propaganda (which is consistent with the open dishonesty, stupidity, and attempts to control with force used by totalitarian states). Only when overall balance is found do the "good" events ring true. Intelligent, moral people (and I see the great majority of Mormons as intelligent, moral, honest people) see through propaganda quickly. Aside from the issue of its being offensive because of its dishonesty, it is also aesthetically unconvincing -- super-sentimentalized portraits of church leaders without any faults, whom God moves around like puppets as they infallibly make right choice after right choice. The only conflict is between perfect church leaders and perfectly evil Gentile persecutors, or worse, perfectly evil internal traitors who become "apostates." The idea that a church leader might face a moral dilemma and make a wrong choice; the idea that church leaders can disagree on an important issue; the idea that a Gentile or church member might disagree with church leaders and still be a good person-- will not square with this super-sanitized view of Mormon history.
Just a few examples of balanced history. In a fine article by James Kimball, he describes the troubled marriage and family life of J. Golden Kimball. Yet the article allows us to see the folk hero as a real person, facing tragic events just like we do every day, and it also gives us insight into his compassionate nature.
Another example, from a relative of J. Golden, is the 1977 biography of President Spencer W. Kimball by his son and grandson. They wrote that they "tried to be candid, neither omitting weaknesses and problems nor exaggerating strengths." Yet that biography is all the more moving and convincing because in it we see President Kimball as a real person.
Here is an interesting passage from another wonderful book: "President [Heber J.] Grant was a tenacious businessman. In banking, in insurance, in the sugar company, and in other ways, he showed his ability as a businessman, but much of his success resulted from his tenacity to put over a deal which, in many instances, I think could be rather sharp. That was one of his great weaknesses–one that made it difficult for some people to support him. But I learned, and knew from the time I went to preside over the British Mission, that in addition to his financial ability, he was a prophet of God and lived very close to the Lord." Notice how sympathetic, yet how balanced this character sketch is. The author asserts that a church president could have "great weaknesses." Yet he could also have great spiritual power. The author was an apostle and member of the First Presidency for many years–Hugh B. Brown.
One standard "organizational" response to such an event as the Mountain Meadows Massacre would be to ignore it entirely, the stonewalling approach. However, our present Church President, Gordon B. Hinckley, has met with the descendants organization of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and spoke at the dedication of monument at Mountain Meadows on September 15, 1990 and September 11, 1999. He has opened the archives to descendants of the Massacre. President Hinckley's willingness to acknowledge and discuss this tragic event has done much to bring about healing of the wounds of the massacre in modern times.
I accept many principles of the gospel that conservatives do, but I accept them from my perspective, on my own terms, often accompanied by paradox, tragedy, complexity. Extreme conservatives might look at aspects of the gospel differently than I do; but they should not describe me as an atheist, just as I do not accuse them of atheism. Following are a few of the principles in my faith perspective.
First, I include problematic events in my faith perspective not by viewing church leaders as infallible, but by recognizing that they can make serious mistakes. I accept inspiration of many sorts coming to church leaders on occasion. But an oversimplified view of revelation and inspiration is that they come to mindless, will-less puppets, receiving revelation passively, like blank containers for inspiration to be poured in from on high. Instead, I believe God allows church leaders complete free will, which means they have to work through decisions, using all of their resources of thought, doing their homework or not doing their homework, being tested in their moral insight. And because they have free will, sometimes they make wrong choices. They learn through trial and error. Some fail in the major challenges of their lives. (And often these are behind-the-scene, rather than melodramatically obvious, failures.) This does not deny that church leaders often make right choices and receive inspiration. I believe that the decision to deny blacks the priesthood and temple ordinances was always an incorrect moral choice; the decision to give blacks priesthood was both the result of President Kimball and other general authorities having the moral insight to realize that racial prejudice was wrong, and the result of inspiration confirming his realization. I also agree with Apostle James E. Talmage and Eugene England that polygamy is not a central tenet of Mormonism, that it will not be the heavenly, eternal form of marriage. Obviously, if you see polygamy as the central doctrine of the Restoration, as some nineteenth century Mormons did, this will be seen as a complete heresy. If you see polygamy as not so central, Talmage, Eugene England, and I might be considered within the bounds of the church on this issue.
Conservative Mormons are somewhat contradictory on the issue of infallibility of Church leaders. In theory, they are not bound to the idea of Church leaders as infallible, and there are passages in Mormon scripture and history that reject the infallibility idea (such as Joseph Smith's "a prophet is not always a prophet," J. Reuben Clark's talk, "When Are Church Leaders Inspired," Hugh B. Brown's memoirs, and many passages in the scriptures, such as Moses's flaws that prevented him from arriving in the Promised Land, and what Paul said were Peter's hypocritical actions at Antioch). In practice, however, I believe Mormons have accepted a very ironclad idea of church leader infallibility, "priesthood" infallibility. Thus Mormons will say, "Of course we don't believe in infallibility of church president and apostles. That's a Catholic idea." But then mildly disagree with an action of a church leader (which must be done at times, if they make serious mistakes, as they will if they are fallible), and the Mormon who has laughingly denied believing in infallibility will bristle angrily. (Both tendencies can be found in Bachman's response, I believe.)
Yet history is full of mistakes Church leaders have made, along with their wise and far- seeing actions. I believe that accepting that Church leaders can make serious mistakes on occasion is a basic necessity for any serious defence of the church and gospel.