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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.

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When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.

Olivercowdery-sm

Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery

 

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So the LDS Church Finally Admitted What the Rest of Us Knew All Along…

You’ve probably heard the news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has for the first time officially acknowledged that church founder and prophet Joseph Smith was a polygamist with over 40 wives.  You may also be wondering why this seemingly common knowledge is news to anybody except the most willfully ignorant latter-day saints.  Certainly, this could be comparable to the Catholic Church finally admitting that the Earth revolves around the sun in 1992, almost 400 years after condemning Galileo.  Some may say better late than never, but I would say it still doesn’t go far enough.

For starters, this particular essay, while on the official website, isn’t linked to the church’s homepage.  The clear intent here is that people specifically Googling about Joseph Smith’s polygamy will now be able to weigh the church’s official response alongside content created by critics and secular historians, however the church still doesn’t want seekers inquiring about Mormonism in general to be able to easily find this information.  This is nothing more than the cultic control that the Mormon church is known for, that it took so long for them to publicly admit it is more an acknowledgment that they’ve lost their ability to control their own narrative in the internet age.

Second, while the church is still trying to protect the reputation of their prophet, they admit to several details which hint at how much worse Joseph Smith was than is even commonly known about him.  Most strikingly, it repeats the story Joseph Smith would tell his future wives, that an angel with a drawn sword threatened him with destruction unless he instituted plural marriages.  Now to any moron, this sounds like it could likely be a case of a man in a position of power taking advantage of a devout woman’s religious beliefs for self-serving sexual gain.  Given Joseph Smith’s track record of lying and fraud, and the absence of any corroboration of this angelic appearance by anyone else, the simplest explanation is that he lied to girls to coerce them into having sex.  And if this was the reason why women on record for being hesitant (and sometimes already married) ultimately consented to marry him, then sex under these false pretenses is in fact rape.  No amount of faith or wishful thinking can change or cover up this uncomfortable truth.   Like every other defense of Mormonism, it can only be excused away if one already believes in Mormonism, which is only acceptable in the real world if Mormons completely abandon their missionary activity.  The burden of proof is entirely on every Mormon to provide empirical evidence that Joseph Smith’s angelic encounters did actually occur, as there is no shortage of ministers exploiting their positions and their follower’s beliefs for sex, but none of them would ever be defended by millions of blind sheep.  Of course, assuming the Mormon’s heavenly father really did send an angel to threaten Joseph Smith to marry other people’s wives might sort of excuse their prophet, but it still makes their god look pretty immoral.  Also consider that the God of the Bible sends an angel to both Joseph and Mary to ease their uncertainty about the virgin birth, but all of Joseph Smith’s 40 wives just had to take his word.  One wonders how anybody could confuse the two for the same God or the same religion.

Frankly, now that the church has publicly admitted this unwholesome detail, latter-day saints can no longer feign ignorance as a defense; every single one of them who still follows the teachings of Joseph Smith from this point on is an immoral reprobate.  They have to acknowledge this fact, whereas before even if they were aware of it, they could have at least argued that it may have happened in the past, but it wasn’t the church’s proudest moment and it didn’t really affect the lives of LDS today.  Instead, their official position has suddenly become not only that it happened, but that it was commanded by God and necessary for the church.  The LDS church had tried to identify themselves with “family values” when their credibility, history, and archeology proved bankrupt, but now they don’t even have that.  While some Mormons may still remain faithful despite knowing the real story of the 116 lost pages, the Salamander Letter, or the so-called “Book of Abraham”, there’s not really anything immoral per se about willfully believing things that are patently untrue.  However, if you’re a Mormon who even remotely suspects that Joseph Smith might have been a rapist and you choose to overlook that fact, then you no longer just have stupid beliefs, you’re also an evil person.

Next, this article perpetuates some of the LDS church’s damnable lies about polygamy.  The missionary’s go-to defense of polygamy is usually that it was necessary when the faith was young to increase the population.  This argument is just plain silly, because even if a woman had multiple husbands, she can still only birth so many children in a 9-month period.  But since Joseph Smith had over 40 wives, he would have to have slept with several of them a day just to make the rounds with all of them in a month, and even then the odds would be against him that it would coincide with their fertility.  On top of that, it’s been alleged by reliable sources that Smith’s friend Dr. John Cook Bennet performed forced abortions on the girls who were already married so their other husbands wouldn’t find out.  That might be too difficult for some Mormons today to accept (or reconcile with the church’s current pro-life stance), but then they would still have to explain why Joseph Smith didn’t have dozens if not hundreds of more children through so many wives, if that really were the reason.  It’s a far-fetched defense, nevertheless, the essay does try to make this claim:

“Plural marriage did result in an increased number of children born to believing parents.”

What facts do the church historians cite to support this?  The footnote here appears to be a deliberate attempt to bury the truth, as it directs the reader to click to another article and reference another footnote (which the reader inconveniently has to find themselves, the church couldn’t be bothered to link directly to that footnote even though an anchor clearly already exists for it):

On the question of children, see note 6 of “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”

However, the first line of that footnote actually says the exact opposite of what the church claims:

“Studies have shown that monogamous women bore more children per wife than did polygamous wives except the first.”

If anybody was giving the modern LDS church the benefit of the doubt until this point, I hope they can see now that the church is still just as sinister and deceptive as it was when it was led by serial rapist Joseph Smith.

Lastly, the essay makes it clear that members today no longer practice polygamy.  I find it ironic that they admit to this doctrinal flip-flopping in an article which is itself a flip-flop.  For over a hundred years, church members could have been disciplined and even excommunicated for writing the same content that this essay now makes official.  Will the church welcome any of those former members back?  What does this say about any of the reasons for which members today can still be excommunicated?  As much as Mormons hate being labeled a cult, what else can you call an organization that seems to value no position except what the current leadership teaches, even if that contracts what they taught the day before?

Frankly, if they were going to go this long refusing to acknowledge things which are common knowledge outside the church, then it probably would have been better for them to simply go on ignoring it.  But now that they’ve given at least the facade of open inquiry, I hope their members start evaluating what kind of leaders they revere, and what kind of organization they belong to.

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The One about Gay Marriage

imagesWhen the Supreme Court heard the cases for Prop 8 and DOMA last month, my criticism of the religious right brought me into immediate conflict with my Christian friends and family.  My not being against gay marriage came as a shock to a lot of people who don’t seem to have read my blog. For over a week I was bombarded by concerned Christians trying to either understand my dissent from the apparent mainstream or make me see the error of my ways.  Many of them were hit-and-run “just checking in” comments, while others mainly seemed to follow along a scripted dialogue.  I probably should have just blogged a general response at that time, but emotions were running high and I wanted to be sure that my statement would be thoughtful, rational, and not hurtful.  Now that I’ve collected my thoughts, here are the top things I think that conservative Christians need to know about the gay marriage debate:

1.  Legalizing same-sex marriage has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.

Without fail, the conversation always starts uncomfortably with the other person first asking me if I’m still a Christian, or if I still believe the Bible, or think homosexuality is a sin, etc.  To me, questioning an opponent’s faith is a frustrating starting point to any debate not just because it seems like a subtle personal attack, but because it really has no bearing on the discussion itself.  It should go without saying that the Bible or any other religion are not and cannot be the basis for US law.  After all, the defense for Prop 8 and DOMA never once mentioned “God” or the “Bible” in their arguments before the Supreme Court.  That seems to be a disconnect from what the conservative protesters outside were arguing.  To me, it seemed rather two-faced to say one thing in public and then present a different case entirely to the Justices, simply because their lawyers knew their real reasons would never stand up in a court of law.  Contrast this with the opposing arguments, that were completely in line with what their supporters on the street actually believe.   I personally think that if Christians want to ban same-sex marriage because they believe it’s what the Bible commands, then they ought to go to court proudly and unashamed with that statement.  Otherwise, it sounds suspiciously like someone trying to uphold a ban on interracial marriage but not wanting to admit that their real reasons for doing so are just because they don’t like people of other races.

The claim for the Biblical basis to oppose gay marriage is not just a lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, but of the Bible itself.  Critics of these conservative arguments are justified in pointing out the selective nature of certain passages from the Levitical purity code while ignoring others, or even the entire New Covenant.  Modern Christians tend to view Biblical Law like Islamic Sharia Law: an immutable code that reflects God’s ideal plan for mankind that will result in blessings if followed correctly by a society.  Talmudic tradition and and also the interpretive methods of Jesus Christ, however, show that this was never historically the case.  Like the Constitution, the Mosaic Law was a conceptual foundation for jurisprudence, but it was never intended to establish the ideal society.  In fact, as Jesus himself attests to God’s grudgingly permitting divorce, it sometimes regulated rather than outright banned distasteful practices, such as slavery or conquest marriages, which were artifacts of its culture and time.  Christianity’s worldwide success can actually be attributed to its supra-cultural appeal that transcended the bronze age social mores of its Jewish predecessors.  The reality is if Christians today really had to live under Mosaic Law, most of them probably wouldn’t be Christians.

The argument that homosexuality is a sin is even more irrelevant, because U.S. law permits many acts that are sinful according to the Bible–including homosexuality!  It baffles me why libertarian-leaning conservatives have fabricated a controversy solely around the issue of marriage, as if we deny rights to other groups of sinners, or as if we couldn’t further limit people’s rights on that basis.  We take rights like voting away from convicted felons because they’ve committed a crime, we take driver’s licenses away from drunk drivers, we take child custody away from abusive parents, yet we even allow gays to pay the fee and get married in several states but don’t give them the full rights as other legally married couples in their same state.  Gay marriage opponents will, with no support, argue that gays are unfit parents solely on the basis of the sexuality, yet preventing gay couples from marrying doesn’t stop them from having children, it just makes it harder to raise them.  If conservatives really believed that (and really, there’s no reason to), they ought to be trying to take children, either biological or adopted, from their gay parents; otherwise, it’s immoral to let somebody raise children but not permit that child to enjoy the same benefits and security as any other two parent household.   Conservatives need to stop trying to use the law punitively against behavior that’s not actually a crime.

2.  The state does not bless marriages.

With all the talk about the “sanctity” of marriage from the conservative side, I often wonder how they can honestly look at legal marriage in this country and still consider it sacred.  For starters, half of all marriages in this country end in divorce.  Fidelity or procreation are completely untied from the marital contract, we let adulterers, swingers, porn stars, and serial killer death row inmates marry.  Simply put, the state does not make a moral judgment when it grants a marriage license.  On top of that, the desirable benefits legally tied to marriage–inheritance, child custody, joint tax filing, hospital visitation rights, end of life decisions, etc.–have no Biblical basis whatsoever.  If they honestly evaluated it, anybody who would argue gay marriage is an abomination would have to admit that marriage itself is an abomination if we rely on the government to bless it instead of God.  Insisting that gay marriage should be illegal because it will confuse people’s sense of morality is futile, we already have to discern that about a 5-minute Las Vegas marriage and annulment.  We are left to make our own moral judgments about the married and re-married adulterers, swingers, and porn stars, we don’t need to take away their state recognition to do that.  Not everybody will agree with our morality, of course: the Catholic Church won’t marry divorcees even though the state will; not all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin and some already perform gay unions even if the state won’t.

Conservatives mistakenly sees this wedge issue as a moral battle for a holy institution, when marriages could be holy and God-honoring even if they weren’t recognized by the state.  The problem is that making heterosexual marriage the line of demarcation creates far more moral ambiguity than same-sex marriage does, because it creates the false impression that all heterosexual unions are virtuous when in fact the majority are not.  Many of the prominent leaders of the movement–Ted Haggard, Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, and so on–fall disgracefully short of the Biblical ideal, very often in scandals that most gays wouldn’t be caught in.  I think gay marriage is such a popular fight among conservatives simply because it’s so effortless for them.  Most Americans are Biblically illiterate but they claim to be expert Christians just because they can quote a verse from Leviticus.  Nobody questions whether a protester outside the courthouse is a faithful husband or wife, it’s far easier to demonize a tiny 3% of the population than it is to address how the other 97% is actually destroying the institution of marriage.

It’s fashionable at this point for libertarians to throw up their hands and say that government should be completely removed from marriage, but that’s practically impossible.  Marriage is about more than filing taxes jointly, society really can’t function without some rules governing child custody, shared property, and other life decisions.  One country couldn’t easily convert to a system of civil unions since that would negate everyone’s marital standing once they leave that country.

3.  Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or anything else.

The next step of the conservative script always seem to jump to the conclusion that gay marriage will open the door to a slippery slope of other practices.  If two consenting adults of the same sex can marry, then what’s to stop 3 or 4, or brothers from marrying each other, or a child, a goat, a toaster, etc.  There are many problems with this illogical assumption, the first being that same-sex relationships are not illegal in this country.  It shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that minors, animals, or inanimate objects cannot give legal consent to marriage or any other contract, and while I don’t think conservatives actually believe this, they still use it as if it were a serious argument.  Honestly, I think this argument is so silly it shouldn’t even need to be addressed, yet follow any news story on gay marriage and you’ll see  one conservative after another comment about this repeatedly as if they’ve never before heard it refuted.

Bigamy, on the other hand, is universally prohibited, and while groups of three or more are free to co-habitate if they choose, the barriers to legalizing polygamy are not as simple as merely expanding it to include the same gender; it would require complex re-writes of every law governing child custody, inheritance, benefits, etc.  Furthermore, polyamorous relationships are not discriminated from marriage benefits like gays are, because two members of the party can still be married and receive the full state and federal benefits.  I will admit, though, that polygamy is the one and only item on this list that might even be a real possibility, but that would be true even if there were no gays.   Polygamy is still currently practiced by millions of people worldwide, mostly Muslims and some fundamentalist Mormons, two of the most anti-gay religions known to man.  Pretty much anything that you claim that gay marriage would lead to would not only be a possible slippery slope arising from heterosexual marriage as well, but would actually be more likely.

But even if polygamists did rally after DOMA and Prop 8 are struck down, it’s still not acceptable to try to ban one thing by banning another.  The way to block polygamy is to pass more aggressive laws addressing polygamy.  Slippery slope arguments are never an acceptable reason to ban anything, because just about anything could be prohibited on that basis.  The Constitution exists not to limit the rights of citizens, but rather to limit the powers of government.  While it’s unacceptable to use a slippery slope in favor of limiting rights (“if we allow citizens to own guns, eventually they’ll want to get nukes, ergo we must ban guns”), it is acceptable to ask that when limiting state powers (“if we ban assault rifles, what’s to stop the state from banning all guns?”).  Therefore, the only place this line of reasoning has in the discussion is questioning if the government could also limit gay people’s rights in any other way or prevent any other groups from marrying.

4.  Gay marriage isn’t about you.

While gay marriage proponents were all changing their facebook profile pictures to the red equality sign, I noticed their friends lists were almost uniformly red.  Looking at the profiles of some of the friends who were staunchly against gay marriage, however, I noticed they had almost no–if any–friends in visible support.  This is not just a reflection of the increasingly polarized political climate, it also shows that the ones most opposed to gay marriage would ironically be the least affected by it.  From my experience, many conservatives seem to erroneously think that gay marriage would be a license for a nationwide moral decline.  The reality, however, is that gay marriage won’t cause anybody to be gay who isn’t already, nor will banning it prevent same-sex couples from living together.  Basically, it will affect no more than a tiny fraction of the 3% of the population who are gay and already in a relationship.  To put this into perspective, when California judges ruled that nothing in the state’s laws prevented two people of the same sex from being married, only a little more than 150,000 couples were wed before Prop 8 was passed to change the constitution, and even this represents the accumulation of couples who were denied the ability to marry for decades.  Unless you have a large circle of gay friends, it’s unlikely that gay marriage will affect you in any way.  But even though conservatives have never been able to explain how gay marriage negatively affects their own marriage, banning it or denying legally married same-sex couples the same benefits as their heterosexual peers has very real detriment to those who are in same-sex relationships as well as their children.

5.  Laws should protect everyone equally, not just promote and benefit the ideal.

The arguments defending Prop 8 centered heavily on promoting heterosexual marriage, even those beyond child-rearing age, as the ideal relationship that government has an interest in promoting because it produces offspring.  The first problem with that reasoning is that marriage doesn’t exist just to benefit the government.  While society as a whole does benefit from stable marriages, the institution actually exists for the protection and security of those involved in the relationship.  Marriage is a contract between those two people, not a contract between them and the government.

The next problem is that government does not exist to protect the ideal, laws should protect everyone equally even if they fall outside that standard.  This principle can also be found in the Mosaic Law by permitting divorce, which not even Jesus would agree was an ideal.  Single parenthood has been shown to have detrimental effects on children (incidentally, these studies are often mis-cited by Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage to support banning gay marriage), yet even though it’s not ideal we don’t attempt to limit people’s rights who remain single parents either by choice or no fault of their own.  The problem with DOMA is that gays are already legally married in 9 jurisdictions, so most of the general conservative arguments are 10 years out of date anyway.  There are 40,000 children living in gay households in California alone, there is no moral justification for withholding them necessary protections just because some squeamish politician in another state might somehow lose sleep with the knowledge that their parents are two men or two women.

Lastly, the gay community and society in general does actually benefit from gay marriage.  Any group historically barred from marriage inherits a self-perpetuating promiscuous stereotype (see the attitudes towards interracial couples before the 60’s).  Marriage in general reduces promiscuity, and gay marriage has been proven to reduce HIV infections in the states where it’s legal.  Ironically, the same people that would condemn the gay community for the stigma of AIDS would also deny them a proven and effective means to avert the epidemic.  In a similar way, conservatives opposed integrating open homosexuals into the military often because of an assumed effeminate stereotype; as long as, in their mind, no gays were in the military, then all gays could fit this self-perpetuating image.  Ultimately when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, there were no noticeable problems in the ranks, gays didn’t start dressing in pink uniforms or hitting on their straight coworkers any more than they do in the civilian world.  Perhaps the Religious Right’s biggest fear about allowing gay marriage nationwide is that it wouldn’t usher in the Apocalypse that they claim it would.

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The Transition

Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni.  For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes.  Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process:  First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books.  2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.  An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible.  The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point.  Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.

With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative.  Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son.  I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah.  This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.

The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book.  This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded.  He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage.  Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.

Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon.  As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages.  In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom.  These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed.  My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .

Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether.  Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation.  The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah.  Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether.  What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.

First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin.  In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6).  The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II.  While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process.  The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni.  Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death.  I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely.  Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story.  The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.

Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates.  Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal.  For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end.  Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.

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Who Is the Book of Mormon’s Target Audience?

The focus on the Book of Mormon usually centers around Joseph Smith, which can sometimes present more questions than it answers.  Though many have tried, Smith is admittedly a difficult person to analyze, and many Mormons unable to thoroughly determine his motivations for deceiving so many people tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The authors of holy books are, however, usually complicated personalities, many with questions that may never be fully resolved.  Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and countless others display dual traits of seeming to believe their own claims or theology to a certain extent, while simultaneously demonstrating awareness of the deception.  Clearly, we cannot just give them all the benefit of the doubt.  Personally, I don’t think I have to be able to explain the motivations for why any holy book was written, I actually think more can be learned from looking at its target audience instead.

For starters, the Book of Mormon’s own descriptions of itself hardly sound like conventional scripture.  As the story goes, the gold plates were the only copy in existence, guarded more as a private journal or a secret book than one for the spiritual benefit of an entire civilization.  The fictitious Nephites didn’t make and distribute copies of their scripture as the real Jews did the Law and the prophets, nor did they create liturgical structure like the Jewish parashot,  or commentaries.  The Nephites seem to be the most unique sect in history for being so incapable of spreading their own holy books, that even believers would have to admit that the Book of Mormon didn’t become scripture in the traditional sense until Joseph Smith started to publish it.  It was only then that he and his followers actually started to treat it as such, carrying it to church, preaching from it, and creating study materials.  It’s ironic that Mormons today are so aggressive in printing and scattering their word around the world, when there seems to be no explanation why their supposed predecessors couldn’t do the same.

Next, the contents of the Book of Mormon aren’t very applicable to its supposed audience.  So-called prophecies about Columbus, the Revolutionary War, or even the book’s own discovery would be meaningless to a civilization that would perish centuries before any of these events occurred.  And since  its remarkably specific prophecies end abruptly at the early 19th century, it seems obvious that was its target audience, which logically points to Smith and/or his companions as the author.  Furthermore, the Book of Mormon anachronistically quotes or paraphrases many New Testament scriptures that would have been unavailable to an audience in the Americas, totally defeating the purpose of quoting, as only a later audience could have appreciated the connection.

Finally, the theology of the Book of Mormon and the LDS church bears an undeniable resemblance to American folk beliefs of the period.  While New Testament authors took it for granted that future generations might not preserve the exact method of baptism practiced by John and later followers, the Book of Mormon is practically written as an instruction manual.  Similarly, disputes over infant baptism, works vs. grace, and even polygamy were all-too-conveniently resolved by the Book of Mormon in one pretty package with ribbons, even though this same book seems to have been useless to preserve the religion of the ones claimed to have written it.

If Mormons treated the Book of Mormon as the Nephites supposedly did, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to plant a copy of it in every house and hotel room.  It would be a more secretive book like the embarrassing Book of Abraham, which they withhold from prospective converts until they’re ready to swallow its absurdity.  The reason they don’t act like the Nephites, though, is because the Book of Mormon wasn’t written for the Nephites, it was written in the 19th century for Joseph Smith’s 19th century contemporaries.

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