Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormonism and the dangers of empire

Jana Riess in Turkey, 2014, sitting on a pillar of a lost civilization. Yeah, that's a metaphor.

A few years ago I got to go on a pilgrimage to Turkey with a busload of Episcopalians, and it was one of the best travel experiences of my life. (If you’ve never been on a pilgrimage, it’s something like a vacation, only with daily church and lots of Deep Thoughts about the various places you are visiting, in between bouts of scouting out the best hummus.)

On that trip I had reason again and again to think about what happens when religion is too comfortably enmeshed in empire.

Jana Riess in Turkey, 2014, sitting on a pillar of a lost civilization. Yeah, that’s a metaphor.

 

Ephesus. Laodicea. Pergamum. We visited one ruin site after another, learning about the successive waves of civilization that took root in those places. Of these, the one I remember most vividly is Laodicea, because it was uncrowded and still being excavated. We got to watch while a capstone was restored to the top of an ancient column. I wondered what the column had looked like in its heyday, and what was the final insult that broke it into pieces: a war? A hurricane? Simple neglect over the course of centuries?

Whatever happened, Laodicea was once a thriving and wealthy city, filled with people who thought it would always remain that way. We never plan for our empires to fail. However, history teaches us that they usually do.

Those have been my thoughts recently as I have followed the news about Mormonism, which has often been unflattering to the institution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s not because journalists have been unfair to the Church; it’s been because the Church has too often chosen the comfort of empire over the cause of justice.

For example, yesterday, a MormonLeaks document was released to the public that has been discomfiting to say the least. It was apparently an internal memorandum from the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie detailing several cases of alleged or admitted sexual misconduct on the part of various LDS church leaders and missionaries.

I’m bothered as much the banal bureaucracy of the cover-up as the abuse itself. This two-page document seems to chronicle only about two months in 2012, which of course begs the question: how many more such memos are out there, detailing the Church’s attempts to hide, obfuscate, delay or otherwise deny justice to victims? So filing reports like this is a kind of quarterly thing, just business as usual?

In one entry the Church’s attorneys seem to be ready to offer $10,000 to a man who claimed he was physically and sexually abused while he was a student in the Indian Placement Program. In another, the Church reveals knowledge of an elder who sexted with one girl before his mission and also inappropriately touched another girl while serving on his mission. And while the attorneys are recommending that the elder be sent home, the missionary department seems to be resisting because “he may face prosecution for a felony” because “his conduct is clearly unlawful.”

Imagine that: the attorneys are recommending he be disciplined by the Church, and the Church wants instead to allow him to continue on his mission because if he goes home, he might actually have to face up to what he has done. Neither the attorneys nor the Church seem very concerned about the victims, except insofar as they be kept quiet–more than once the anxiety surfaces that a particular case may receive media attention.

And of course this is coming to light in the same week that my Religion News Service feed is filled with headlines about a Catholic cardinal who may be resigning because he tried to cover up sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, the spiritual fallout from the Willow Creek pastoral abuse scandal, and a handy guide for how to keep your own spiritual crap together when your religious leaders are found to have feet of the most malleable clay.

And all that is just from the last few days, people.

I’d love to believe what I have heard from one particularly (and endearingly) optimistic apologist for the LDS Church, which is that the leaked document is from 2012, and the fact that we haven’t heard more stories of abuse since then shows that the Church is handling the problem or the problem itself does not exist.

But no, unfortunately, the absence of public news on this score more likely means that the Church has for the most part successfully kept such stories hidden from view in order to protect its reputation.

And that is a reputation that is built on social respectability, on the idea that abuse doesn’t happen here, thank you very much. Our people are squeaky clean. We make excellent and successful capitalists. And our church is prophesied to last forever.

Tell that to Laodicea. To Perga, to Pergamum, to Ephesus, and to every other once thriving community that didn’t see that its own pride was going to be one part of its demise. For that matter, try reading the Book of Mormon. I hear there’s a bit of a theme about pride and empire in there too.

 

 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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