There has been a lot of talk lately around the LDS blogs of “inoculating the Saints”. This protracted discussion was precipitated by a 2007 Sunstone Symposium presentation relating to inoculation (Blake Ostler, Kevin Barney, and Mike Ash) that was later distributed as a podcast by John Dehlin.

Continued discussion ensued as Mormon Matters followed up with a couple more podcasts discussing the issue over the next couple of weeks, including extensive discussion in comments at the Mormon Matters blog.

My brother Jordan made a cogent remark, with which I agree, in response to the issue:

I think “innoculation” is really the wrong word. There is no innoculation in truth. And innoculation against what, exactly? I suppose it could be innoculation against negative inferences, but people can draw negative inferences and conclusions from various facts no matter how well they are “innoculated.”

The facts are what they are. Perhaps instead of discussing “innoculation,” the topic should be how to help LDS church members to draw positive, faithful inferences from the facts of history rather than negative ones.

Jordan is right that “inoculation” is the wrong word; rather, it is the wrong metaphor entirely if by inoculation is meant that the Church needs to find a way to protect Latter-day Saints from the Truth of the history of the Church. Truth is not a disease and therefore this metaphor is inappropriate if this is its focus.

If inoculation is to be used as a metaphor, then it is more properly expressed as the Church inoculating its members with the Truth against error or at least against negative inferences and speculation. In other words, Truth itself is the vaccine, not the disease.

One commenter who views the Church negatively gave a handy explanation of the process of inoculation in some of the discussion that followed John Dehlin’s podcast:

The theory in a vaccination (inoculation) program is that by giving a person or other animal a weak version of a real infectious agent, a person’s immune system identifies the invader and is able to develop a defense mechanism against it. This will enable the person or animal to fight off a significant major attack because the immune system capabilities have been developed. . . .

I do not think inoculation [as discussed by historian Quinn] is the process of telling everything. I think inoculation is the process of telling weakened versions of everything. This would keep most people from digging further. I suspect I would not have dug any further if I had been thus inoculated. To that end, I have to question the morality or the ethics associated with this inoculation. If this line of thinking is employed, it is merely a diversionary tactic. It’s akin to saying, “I don’t want you to find out the whole truth, so I’ll give you just enough to significantly increase the probability that you won’t be ‘tempted’ to want to find out the whole truth.” This seems truly immoral to me. (emphasis added)

The Church should not be inoculating the members against Truth with a weaker version of the Truth. Rather, if the Church is seeking to inoculate members to keep them from falling away, then the Church can and should use the Truth itself as the vaccine. This Truth should include both religious truth and historical truth together. It can be used to combat cynical, negative, or intentionally disparaging conclusions about the Church based on isolated historical or doctrinal issues. The idea is that religious truth as a whole, as restored and revealed throughout the existence of the Church (and as will yet be revealed), should place difficult historical issues into a broader context and remind members of the bigger picture, despite oddities in the Church’s history or development.

This approach would refocus people on the reason behind the existence of the Church — the restored and revealed truths of the Gospel — rather than on a belief in the “perfection” of the Church itself as an institution or an incorrect view of Church leaders, including Joseph Smith, as infallible. (Humble presentation of historical facts, some of which seem just as alienating to us today as they did to key Church members who chose to leave the Church at the time, would make it impossible to base a testimony on the virtues of a fallible human being or on the supposed perfection of an institution that, although truly the vehicle of God’s restored Gospel, has nevertheless been constructed organically by those who have been called to lead it, despite their individual weaknesses, such as in having bad judgment on certain issues, having unethical or prejudiced views as to some things, not treating everyone exactly right all the time, not understanding some things entirely, not being great administrators or leaders, etc.) These religious truths associated with the Restored Gospel, when taken as a whole and together with the grand picture of Church history, transcend messy aspects of the organic development of the Church as an institution or of certain doctrines that were poorly understood when they were first restored or revealed and that the Church began to understand and implement with greater utility and sophistication.