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|Don’t Trust Rosalynde Welch’s Investigation of Mormon Stories|
Jul. 2nd, 2012 at 1:52 pm
Quick disclaimer: I am not a spokesman for Mormon Stories, and I have no official connection to it. I have belonged to its Facebook page for the past few months, but have not otherwise participated or contributed to it. I am a lifelong Mormon and an active participant in my local Mormon congregation.
It was disappointing to read Rosalynde Welch’s recent report from “investigate[ing] John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories project.” Rosalynde is the daughter-in-law of Jack Welch, who was a founding member of the leadership group referred to when she speaks of “the shake-up in leadership at the Maxwell Institute.” As one might expect from someone with her familial connections to the Maxwell Institute, Rosalynde Welch’s report on her investigation adopts a nominally sympathetic tone while asserting that Mormon Stories is “silly,” lacking in “intelligent discourse,” and marked by an “edge of anger.” In the end, she compares it to an LGBT affinity club at a high school. One could easily come away from her report with the impression that Mormon Stories is dominated by inarticulate and weak Mormons who lack spiritual maturity. Unfortunately, Welch’s report lacks maturity and perspective in its own right. She mischaracterizes Mormon Stories at every turn, and her discussion of the issues surrounding Mormon Stories is both confused and confusing.
The need for Mormon Stories arises from the tendency Mormons have to value each other based on how well they echo or amplify the opinions of LDS leaders. Mormons who cease to echo or amplify these opinions often discover that there is little or no bond of personal loyalty or compassion underlying their relationships with loved ones. As a consequence, the Mormon who suffers a crisis of faith frequently faces rejection and ultimatums from family members, including her spouse. She sometimes even finds herself accused of disobedience or immorality. In a sense, the Mormons are a morally handicapped people; their tendency to value members based on their alignment with LDS leadership limits Mormons’ potential for virtue by rendering them less capable of loyalty and compassion.
The tragedy of Welch’s report is that it embodies exactly those Mormon moral handicaps that Mormon Stories seeks to mitigate. Her stance toward the Mormon Stories community is one of rejection and accusation — an artfully conceived repetition of the temper tantrum so common among the broken children of the Mormon restoration, the temper tantrum they throw when they are forced to justify their brook-no-criticism approach to their religion, when they perceive attacks on the church, or when they detect an invasion of mainstream Mormonism by those whose beliefs or practices are not part of their desired norm.
At its core, Welch’s report is based on the tried-and-true Mormon accusation that those who are surprised or troubled by LDS church history have only themselves to blame. Welch classifies troubling historical facts as “some basics of church history.” Troubled members began “from a state of closed nai?vete?” The narrative describing the trajectory of their faith is “predictable.” Welch imputes ignorance and simplicity to Mormons who do not already know the controversial facts of early LDS history. In her view, their newfound knowledge leads them to play out a predictable drama well-suited to the ignorance and simplicity that preceded it. Welch’s description is convenient, but it is also superficial and stunningly mean-spirited; it allows un-selfaware Mormons to exonerate the church for its well-worn habit of non-disclosure in order to blame those who suffer as a result of it. Moreover, it implicitly stigmatizes those who are not acquainted with “some basic church history” as stupid.
Whether such historical facts are “basic” is immaterial. The LDS church generally omits acknowledgement of these facts from its worship and teaching materials. As a direct consequence, few members are aware of them. In fact, few Mormons are even aware that the LDS church has excommunicated scholars who have published on these issues. Sadly, Welch focuses on how the individual treats the organization, while failing to entertain the possibility that the organization is accountable for its treatment of individuals, many of whom have spent their lives serving the LDS church in a volunteer capacity and contributing a tenth of their income to the LDS church. Welch’s propensity to blame the victims of non-disclosure for their feelings of betrayal is strange and cult-like.
Welch feigns sophistication by impugning Mormon Stories as “silly” in light of “numerous Mormon journals—including BYU Studies, Dialogue, Sunstone, Irreantum, and others.” One wonders what Mormon Stories contributors like Terryl Givens, Richard and Claudia Bushman, Greg Prince, Daniel Peterson, Jana Reiss, Joanna Brooks, and Nate Oman would make of Welch’s assessment that Mormon Stories is “silly.” Nevertheless, though Welch seems quite serious when she asserts the silliness of Mormon Stories, it is surely hyperbole. At worst, Mormon Stories is redundant. In reality, Mormon Stories is no more redundant (or silly) by virtue to the other projects than those projects are with respect to each other. Most importantly, Mormon Stories is not redundant to its participants, who have not generally participated in the other venues that Welch mentions. Interestingly, even Welch seems unclear about the value of her assessment, since she quickly admits that Mormon Stories “does not fill any actual intellectual void,” which it was never designed to, as I outline at the outset of this article.
Beneath Welch’s attempt to demean participants in Mormon Stories lies a mess of confused verbiage and some very poor reasoning. Welch’s critique of Mormons Stories begins with the following two statements:
Welch pushes the reader to believe that her description is obvious by inserting the idiomatic adverb “of course.” Tellingly, Welch’s explanation of this supposedly obvious fact requires the longest paragraph in her essay to explain.
Nevertheless, Welch’s explanation fails. Values measured on separate axes are never in direct conflict with one another; that’s why they’re on separate axes. Welch is struggling to express a simple idea: authenticity and community are on two separate ends of a single spectrum. Unfortunately, Welch’s suggestion that an organization must have either authenticity or community falls prey to an elementary error of reasoning, namely, the either/or fallacy. Every organization maintains a tension between authenticity and community. The LDS church, as Welch’s report demonstrates, is heavily biased toward community and conformity. Mormon Stories seeks a balance with more authenticity than can be found in the larger Mormon devotional landscape.
Welch demonstrates a profound ignorance of the landscape of Mormon online communities. For example, she states, “The [Mormon Stories] website contains language assuring the reader that Mormon Stories is not and will not become a religion in itself.” Welch quips, “These assurances are at once grandiose and unnecessary, since the community evidently lacks the moral gravity necessary to anchor a religion.” Were Welch more aware of the breadth and scope of Mormon groups on the internet, she might know that there have been efforts to define a tradition-based mode of liberal Mormon practice and belief that is not attached to a church hierarchy. The statement Welch cites on the Mormon Stories web site merely clarifies that this is not the intention of Mormon Stories. In keeping with the spirit of Welch’s other accusations, Welch’s ignorance fuels her imagination, leading to a vindictive criticism of Mormon Stories based on goals that it does not purport to have.
But why must Welch’s ignorance consistently lead her to vindictive conclusions, when virtue would recommend much less pejorative inferences? Why is she so willing to tear down her fellow Mormons based on such a paucity of information? Again we encounter the Mormon moral handicap: When Mormons do not echo or amplify the views of LDS church, everything that they do or say with regard to religion is likely to be considered by Welch to be suspect.
Welch’s ill-conceived, uninformed, and artful but poorly-written report on Mormon Stories is a salient reminder that it’s more important to understand what other Mormons have to say than to assess its alignment with the status quo, that it’s more important to find out what we can learn from others than accuse them of not knowing as much as they should, that it’s more important to practice our religion with charity than to parse organizational smoke-signals to determine who is and isn’t a legitimate Mormon.