Having read more than my fair share of criticisms of the LDS Church, I’ve found that the nastiest ones tend to follow a fairly consistent set of rules. A recent example appears in the Huffington Post (which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t enjoy a sterling reputation for impartial commentary about anything), in a post from Sharon Toomer, the publisher of BlackandBrownNews.com. (A link to her article appears at the bottom of this post.) The article, bearing the cumbersome title, “Probe Mitt Romney’s Affiliation with the Mormon Church–It’s Not Too Late and It’s Required) is an attack piece focused on issues of race. But it follows the same tired rules as most articles of the same ilk.
The rules are fairly simple to follow:
1. Make an obvious mistake that destroys your credibility.
Anti-Mormon writers tend to fall into two camps. The first are former Mormons with some sort of beef against the Church. The second are non-Mormons who know virtually nothing about the Church and base their criticism on second- or third-hand sources. Ms. Toomer falls into the second camp, and she wastes no time demonstrating her complete ignorance about the Church. She says that Mitt Romney “is a faithful, longstanding Mormon, who rose to Bishop–the highest Priesthood office.” Anyone who has bothered to poke their nose into a Mormon congregation should know that in Mormonism, a bishop is merely the leader of a local congregation. Above him are a host of offices, including Stake President (she should have screamed about Romney holding that position, since he did), and Area and General Authorities of the Church. It in no way compares to, say, the position of a Catholic Bishop (they have way better hats), nor is it a permanent or paid position. At best, it is the equivalent of a local lay minister. When an author does not understand even the basic organizational facts about the Church, you have to suspect that the rest of her analysis will be lacking.
2. Quote an obscure statement that nobody has ever heard of and label it a “core” doctrine of the Church.
I’ll be the first to admit that if you dig through the Journal of Discourses, which is a collection of early talks by LDS Church leaders, you’ll occasionally stumble over something unusual. That’s the result of several factors, including unreliable recording of the discourses and–not afraid to say it–non-doctrinal opinions about things that don’t reflect the actual teachings of the Church. Ms. Toomer hasn’t bothered to do the hard work of wading through the Journal of Discourses herself, but passes on a quote reported in the New York Times in which Brigham Young says something about interracial sexual relations that we certainly would find offensive today.
The problem with this is that 90% or more Mormons have never heard such a quote. Why? Because it is inconsistent with the established doctrines and teachings of the Church. If you want to know what the Church teaches, it is ridiculously easy to find out. Every lesson for every class in the Church is publicly available on the Church’s official website, lds.org. So is every General Conference talk and every article from official Church magazines. Nothing is hidden. Obscure comments, on the other hand, are just that: Obscure.
On top of that, the game of “look what I found” as it relates to 19th century talks can be played by both sides. I can point to a statement by Brigham Young in which he condemned whites’ treatment of blacks and declared that “For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.” (Which apparently you can find in Nancy F. Cott, Public Viows: A history of Marriage and the Nation,” (Harvard University Press, 2000), although I admit I don’t have the original book myself). The problem is that in many respects the Journal of Discourses is about as reliable as an old Yugo. Many of the talks were recorded longhand, and I know that if you asked me to write out a talk longhand I wouldn’t be able to offer up much more than Woody Allen’s summary after speed-reading the Bible: “It dealt with God.”
3. Make broad accusations with no support.
Ms. Toomer flatly states: “Mormons still carry on the belief that blacks are not equal.” Her support for this? Well, eventually she points to some black athletes at BYU who claim that they aren’t punished as severely for honor code violations as white athletes. We’ll get to that nonsense in a minute. But even if that allegation were true, that’s a far cry from demonstrating that racism is part of Mormon doctrine, a notion that I find offensive, given that the Church is well on its way to having a non-white majority. And we just keep going out and inviting non-whites to join the Church. We hate them so much we just can’t wait to be surrounded by them.
4. Quote a Mormon who has no authority but who has said something stupid.
Ms. Toomer then quotes a remarkably stupid recent comment from a BYU professor in which he tried to justify the past exclusion of blacks from the priesthood. How do I know his comments were idiotic? Because every Mormon I have talked to about it has said the same thing: “What an idiot!” But keep in mind that BYU professors aren’t General Authorities of the Church, and even when General Authorities publish their own writings, they caution that their opinions are their own and not the official position of the Church. BYU professors are more than just a step down from General Authorities, and their writings do not constitute Church doctrine.
5. Pass along rumors or quote someone with an ax to grind.
Ms. Toomer then goes on to describe how black athletes are held more accountable for honor code violations than are white athletes. She cites a statistic showing that blacks are disproportionately represented among honor code violations (falling back on the fallacy that any statistical difference between blacks and whites is, by definition, the result of racism). She also quotes, not surprisingly, black athletes complaining that somebody else got away with what they did. Quoting a Slate.com article that in turn is quoting the Washington Post, she tells us that “Several former BYU football players told us that their white teammates routinely broke the honor code and got away with it, either because they didn’t get caught or because their violations were covered up.” Well, THAT certainly closes the inquiry. We should all be outraged that students who didn’t get caught weren’t punished. This is gossip, not analysis, as evidenced by her inclusion of a story from an unnamed football player claiming that he went to an “orgy” on a recruiting trip to the Y.
By all means, if you haven’t got facts, say the word “orgy.”
What Ms. Toomer does not tell us is whether the quoted players were disciplined for honor code violations. If they were, as I think the article suggests, then they certainly have an ax to grind against the university. Moreover, they are people who break their written agreements as to their own behavior. It doesn’t take a lawyer to see that there is a credibility gap here.
The internet is full of articles and complete websites that follow these same rules of engagement. Unfortunately, most readers know so little about the Church that it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction. Writers like Ms. Toomer feast on that lack of information, because it allows them to turn accusations into convictions, without them ever having to prove their case.
If you care, Ms. Toomer’s article can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/blackandbrownnews/prob-mitt-romney-affiliation_b_2025327.html