Is Honesty Important?
One of my biggest concerns when I started studying the history of the LDS church, which I was raised in, was the lack of honesty shown by leaders at times. This comes into particular focus with the events surrounding polygamy. Quite simply, leaders who were sustained as prophets practiced polygamy in secret and lied about it from the pulpit, particularly around the times of the start end end of LDS polygamy (see my earlier blog post for more information and D. Michael Quinn's paper). For me, that has some really disturbing implications. Once the precedent that a prophet can lie about church doctrine has been established, trust is gone. How can anyone assure me that Thomas S. Monson or Dallin H. Oaks aren't today going around secretly marrying teen girls? I don't think they are, but it would not be outside of established precedent for them to be doing something like that today and lying about it in public. How could I possibly trust prophets who have demonstrated their willingness to lie when it is convenient for them (or for God, if you want to push the responsibility to God)?
Some have told me that I shouldn't be bothered by this, but I am only bothered by it because of the strong emphasis placed on honesty in my upbringing, which was reinforced by very clear teachings of this same church. For example, here are some excerpts from the Gospel Principles manual (a lesson book of "the basics" of the religion) lesson on honesty:
Complete honesty is necessary for our salvation. President Brigham Young said, "If we accept salvation on the terms it is offered to us, we have got to be honest in every thought, in our reflections, in our meditations, in our private circles, in our deals, in our declarations, and in every act of our lives" (Irony alert! Brigham Young was one of the polygamy insiders in the early church who was aware of and participated in the deception.)
God is honest and just in all things (see Alma 7:20). We too must be honest in all things to become like Him.
Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. The Lord gave this commandment to the children of Israel: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour" (Exodus 20:16). Jesus also taught this when He was on earth (see Matthew 19:18). There are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.
The Lord is not pleased with such dishonesty, and we will have to account for our lies. Satan would have us believe it is all right to lie. He says, "Yea, lie a little; . there is no harm in this" (2 Nephi 28:8). Satan encourages us to justify our lies to ourselves. Honest people will recognize Satan's temptations and will speak the whole truth, even if it seems to be to their disadvantage.
People use many excuses for being dishonest. People lie to protect themselves and to have others think well of them. Some excuse themselves for stealing, thinking they deserve what they took, intend to return it, or need it more than the owner. Some cheat to get better grades in school or because "everyone else does it" or to get even.
These excuses and many more are given as reasons for dishonesty. To the Lord, there are no acceptable reasons. When we excuse ourselves, we cheat ourselves and the Spirit of God ceases to be with us. We become more and more unrighteous.
These are pretty clear stances on honesty, right? Not a lot of room for loopholes or exceptions. Here is some more from a talk given by Apostle Marvin J. Ashton:
Not often do students remember for 24 hours very many words taught by their teachers. Yet 50 years later some former students recall with lasting appreciation the words one teacher had her class repeat at the beginning of each day. Every school morning this rather unpretentious, plain, wise lady implanted the meaning of honesty into our minds by having us recite "A lie is any communication given to another with the intent to deceive."
When I compare this definition with that found in the dictionary, which states, "A lie is an untrue statement made with the intent of deceiving," I greatly appreciate her definition. A lie can be effectively communicated without words ever being spoken. Sometimes a nod of the head or silence can deceive. Recommending a questionable business investment, making a false entry in a ledger, devious use of flattery, or failure to divulge all pertinent facts are a few other ways to communicate the lie.
After having us go through this daily ritual, this wonderful lady, who never married but who had such a motherly influence over many of us, would teach with few words the importance of communicating truth under all circumstances. Often she simply said, "Don't tell lies. Don't share lies. Don't participate in lies."
How serious is lying? We have a clue when we read all through the scriptures that Satan is the father of lies. His method of teaching this evil practice is illustrated in the tenth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: "Yea, he [Satan] saith unto them: Deceive and lie . ; behold, this is no harm. And thus he . telleth them that it is no sin to lie. . And thus he . causeth them to catch themselves in their own snare." (D&C 10:25-26.)
Again, this is pretty clear teaching. Don't lie. Ever. It is always wrong. So what am I supposed to make of lies uttered by self-proclaimed prophets about church doctrine (such as polygamy) from the pulpit? Where did these men get the idea that is was okay to lie about church doctrines?
Milk Before Meat or Bait and Switch?
Joseph Smith himself sometimes used the "Milk Before Meat" justification when dealing with polygamy-related deception. Basically, the rationale is that we don't talk about something that someone isn't ready to hear. It is okay to practice selective disclosure and void someone's right to informed consent if that person isn't "ready" for the information yet. The use of this rationale is a tacit acknowledgement that the person using it knows that the information in question would be disturbing in some way to the person receiving it and that it should therefore be hidden. Where does this justification come from and can it be reconciled with the definitions of honesty above?
"Milk Before Meat" comes from Jesus himself in Doctrine and Covenants Section 19 (A revelation to Joseph Smith from Jesus). The main purpose of this revelation is to tell Martin Harris to pay to get the Book of Mormon published, but there is a very interesting little tangent that Jesus goes off on about the true meanings of the terms "endless torment" and "eternal damnation." This starts in verses 6-12:
6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name's glory.
8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore-
11 Eternal punishment is God's punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God's punishment.
Basically, Jesus is letting Martin and Joseph in on the secret that the words "Endless" and "Eternal" don't mean what everybody thinks they mean, but this is okay "that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name's glory." In other words, it is okay that everyone has a false impression of what these words mean, because it will end up having a desirable result. The ends justify the means. It seems that Jesus is advocating that complete honesty can be sacrificed if the results are desirable. Later in the section, Jesus commands them not to teach what they have learned:
21 And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me.
22 For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.
And there is the genesis of "milk before meat." Jesus is okay with this type of deception, after all these are Jesus's own words.
Is Lying Okay?
Now I don't believe any of this. I'm jumping into a world that I consider fictional just for the sake of argument. I believe that Joseph made all of this up so that he could get Martin Harris to bankroll the printing of a book. There are lots of reasons that I came to this conclusion but the biggest is that I can't turn myself into the huge moral pretzel that I would have to be to make this all work out. There are too many moral contradictions here. Does God expect perfect honesty or not? It really shouldn't be hard to come up with a simple answer on that.
My own views on honesty have changed a bit since I started taking more responsibility for my own moral reasoning. I used to view life through the lens of rules-based moral reasoning. In rules-based moral reasoning, you have a list of rules and you try to live your life without breaking any of them. Sometimes, this proves impossible as sometimes a situation arises where you can't keep all of the rules at once. Now the rule has been broken and if you are like me and you want to keep all the rules, you feel bad because you screwed up (even if it wasn't possible to keep all the rules at once).
I finally read a children's book by an evil atheist named Dan Barker where he explained principles-based moral reasoning. You decide what your moral principles are and how important they are relative to one another. Then each time a situation is before you that demands a moral choice, you can evaluate the possible choices against your moral principles (taking into account the relative importance of each of your principles). The example he gave in the book was of a sick and suffering pet dog that has no chance of recovery. One might have a moral principle that says not to kill animals, but also have a competing moral principle to prevent suffering whenever possible. A person might reasonably conclude that the right action in this case is to have the dog put to sleep even though that is against one of their moral principles.
I think many faithful Mormons would argue that Mormonism advocates principles-based moral reasoning. I would both agree and disagree. I don't think that LDS leaders think it all the way through a lot of the time and speak out of both sides of their mouth. You can probably find ample support for either position. Many church lessons on honesty should be much less absolute. They should include discussion of when it might be appropriate to lie (like to save Anne Frank from the gas chamber or something), but they frequently don't do that. They just say: "Never lie." The lesson cited at the beginning of this post reads like it is advocating for rules-based moral reasoning, and this is the lesson manual that is meant to teach the basics of the faith. If there is a time to get moral reasoning clear and correct, it is in that manual.
Now it is possible that Joseph and others lied about polygamy from the pulpit because they felt they had some higher moral principle in mind when they lied. Unfortunately the only obvious candidates to me are to gain more converts (dishonestly by fraud, basically) or to save their own collective asses from the consequences of their actions, neither of which strikes me as a particularly noble moral principle to be prioritizing above honesty.
As I contemplate all of this, the words of Thomas Paine come to mind. Paine had difficulty believing in the Old Testament due to what he viewed as moral inconsistencies in the behavior of God. He stated:
Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.I feel very similarly with Mormonism. The logical inconsistencies are hard to swallow but the moral inconsistencies are impossible, and that alone is sufficient to determine my choice. I don't even have to go as far as to be bothered by lack of Book of Mormon archaeology or Native American DNA studies or any of that. If God or Jesus can't bother to tell me the truth then why should I bother with God or Jesus?