Sunday, July 24, 2016
I watched parts of the Republican National Convention this week. I endured all 75 minutes of Donald Trump’s dark and disconcerting acceptance speech Thursday evening. For a while I was almost certain I had been transported in time and space to Germany, circa 1933.
It wasn’t just the ultranationalism. It wasn’t just the painting of the American canvas in such gloomy tones that our only hope of a less dismal future lay in an authoritarian egomaniac with delusions of omnipotence. It wasn’t just the veiled threats against those he blames for our awful predicament. It wasn’t just the pure propaganda that is so internally inconsistent as to be absurd when viewed dispassionately. It wasn’t just the bald-faced lies presented as truth. It wasn’t just the open belligerence and the promise of yet another war to conquer foreign enemies. It wasn’t just the vacuous promises of law and order and safety that he cannot deliver on without stealing the freedoms he claims to want to preserve. It wasn’t even the fact that moral high ground was being claimed by a spectacularly immoral man. It was the reaction of the mindless crowd. Cheering. Chanting un-American, unconstitutional, and embarrassingly evil threats.
“Lock her up!” was a favorite, referring of course to Hillary Clinton, who has been thoroughly investigated and found careless but not criminal. What is shocking, though, is to hear this sort of chant from a crowd that supports a man who “has been sued at least 60 times by individuals and businesses who accuse him of failing to pay for work done at his various properties,”1 who is currently being sued for defrauding students at Trump University, and who has been accused twice of rape and sued once for multiple acts of attempted rape. One rape accusation was made by Trump’s first wife, Ivana (and included a violent physical assault over a botched scalp reduction job by a cosmetic surgeon recommended by Mrs. Trump); the billionaire’s former wife changed her tune after a divorce settlement that likely required such a retraction. The attempted rape accusation was made by the wife of a business associate who dropped her lawsuit (but not her accusation) after Trump settled a separate suit brought by the victim’s husband. Most troubling, though, is the current lawsuit brought by a woman who accuses Trump and his buddy, Jeffrey Epstein, now a level 3 registered sex offender, of raping her multiple times in 1994 when she was thirteen.2 But even if Trump is convicted in a court of law of being both a crook and a criminal, that is not what makes him particularly perilous to our great American experiment.
As NBC’s Nicolle Wallace put it after Trump’s speech, “Listening to this, I was struck by two things I always believed during my two decades in Republican politics. One, the voters always get it right, and two, the Republican Party that I worked for for two decades died in this room tonight.”3 If you were listening carefully, more than that died. We’ve entered new and dangerous territory as an American people. And no, the danger isn’t any of the things Trump railed against. The danger is Trump himself.
As former world chess champion and dissident Russian politician Gary Kasparov put it, “I’ve heard this sort of speech a lot in the last 15 years and trust me, it doesn’t sound any better in Russian.”4
I’ve seen the question asked recently, How exactly does fascism infect and then conquer a society? Well, we witnessed a textbook case during the entire Republican National Convention. Fortunately, we still have time to reject it if enough of us can come to our senses before November. Yes, a large majority of Americans find Trump repugnant. But if enough of us stay away from the polls or vote for some third-party candidate in protest, we may just be inviting a future none of us want. You think I’m overreacting? Let me quote Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker:
“As I have written before, to call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
“What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true. But the first job of those who do understand is to state what those consequences invariably are. Those who think that the underlying institutions of American government are immunized against it fail to understand history. In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind comes to power, normal safeguards collapse. Ours are older and therefore stronger? Watching the rapid collapse of the Republican Party is not an encouraging rehearsal. Donald Trump has a chance to seize power.”5
Thank goodness I am not a Republican. I have no moral dilemma about whether to support Trump or not. But I have a moral obligation to warn others about what he represents. Yes, Hillary Clinton is a flawed and mistrusted candidate. Yes, she has been careless and overly protective of her privacy. Frankly, I don’t blame her for that, considering what she has endured. And yes, many of you have been taught over the years to hate her. But she is a benign and mostly harmless cyst compared to the malignant tumor that is Donald Trump. A Clinton presidency would be predictable and quite possibly beneficial to the American people. A Trump presidency would also be predictable, but in a terrifying way. Beneficial? Not a chance.
Everyone already knows The Donald has shamelessly lied and bullied and insulted his way to the top of one of our two powerful political parties. Everyone knows that he has divided the party. Nevertheless, most members of the Republican establishment have caved in and reluctantly supported him. They are spineless and have now surrendered even any pretense to the high moral standing they once claimed. And even though they may secretly hope that Trump will be defeated and the GOP will return to its normally dysfunctional and directionless self after the election, they are playing with fire. As much as I detest Ted Cruz and nearly everything he stands for, I admit that I grudgingly admired his public refusal to support Trump, even though I understand well enough that Cruz is not doing this on principle alone. Mitt Romney and John Kasich and others have likewise turned away from endorsing him. Still others, like Mia Love, have merely hidden from him, hoping to escape the dark shadow he might cast over their own electoral hopes. But this is not enough. To defeat him, all of these dissenters need to swallow the bitter pill and throw their support behind Hillary, because sitting this one out just isn’t an option.
* * *
So, let’s look at what actually went down Thursday evening during those dreadful 75 minutes. Trump did exactly what he had to do to convince frightened and angry American voters to give him the most powerful position in the world. He inflated troubles into crises. He played on the fears and angers and, yes, the racist tendencies of his followers and told them he was the only answer to all these horrible failures of democracy. Yes, of democracy. Because what Trump is proposing is not democracy. Please understand this.
He promised first and foremost to make America safe again. Safe from terrorists, at home and abroad. Safe from mass shootings. Safe from illegal aliens, even from those who only accidentally kill people in automobile accidents (look it up). Safe from police shootings and from those who shoot police. So, how is he going to do this? Well, he didn’t say. He never gives specifics, either because he doesn’t really have any or because he knows his listeners would reject them out of hand. But let’s be honest. In order to stop the violence in American society (which, by the way, is at historic lows right now, except in a few large cities), he really has only two possible solutions, which during implementation usually morph into one: (1) create a police state or (2) take your guns away. The only truly safe societies are those like the former Soviet Union (ever wonder why Trump is so high on Putin?). And did I mention that Adolf Hitler promised to restore law and order as part of his rise to power? Trump is likewise trying to situate himself as the law-and-order candidate. It’s a very appealing promise to those who don’t understand what it entails.
And here you conservatives have been all paranoid about Obama coming to “get your guns.” President Obama would never do this. He respects the Constitution, but he understands that it can be (and until recently has been) interpreted in ways that permit reasonable limits on certain freedoms (like banning military-style weapons and requiring more stringent background checks, two ideas that a huge portion of American voters, even Republicans, favor, but that can’t get past the NRA-cowed Congress). Trump declared his allegiance to the Second Amendment Thursday evening, but if he intends to make America safe again (and on the day he takes the oath of office, according to his own inflated rhetoric), he really has no choice. Tough talk isn’t going to deter either the home-grown radicals or the deranged and broken souls who feel compelled to create carnage for whatever reason.
What Trump is promising is a federal takeover of what has always been a state and local responsibility: police protection. This is, needless to say, not Republican. And neither was virtually everything else he offered in his dark diatribe. He’s going after ISIS, certainly with boots on the ground. Another Middle East war that we can neither afford nor stomach nor win in the long run, as Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us. He’s going to expand our already oversized military. Even though we spend more than the next ten countries combined.6 He is also going to provide more and better educational opportunities and take better care of our veterans. He’s going to fix our crumbling infrastructure. And of course, he’s going to build that yuge and ineffective wall that Mexico surely will not pay for. All of this and more should warn conservatives that Trump is not a small-government Republican. And he’s going to do all this with a massive decrease in tax revenue. This may be the one element of his plan that is vintage GOP. He’s offering modest tax cuts to the middle class (less to the lower class, because they don’t pay much income tax anyway). But what he doesn’t say is that the wealthy will once again make off like bandits, with tax savings for the top 1 percent estimated at nearly 100 times what the middle 20 percent will see. This is why experts have projected that his economic proposals will cost us $12 trillion over the next decade.7
But here’s the catch. You can’t really believe anything Trump that comes out of Trump’s mouth. Everything he says is calculated only to mow down everyone and everything in his path to ultimate power. What he actually might do once in office is anybody’s guess. My own guess is that he will continue to act exactly as he has acted in his personal life, in his career, and in his campaign. Which is a frightening thought.
* * *
Many Republicans are asking themselves how on earth their party came to this particular end. The answer is simple. The GOP has been heading toward Trump for some time now. He just came sooner than they were expecting. With all the right-wing bluster about American exceptionalism, the step from patriotism to nationalism was very small.
Next, all the antigovernment rhetoric coming from Republicans over the past decade or so has made a large portion of the GOP angry and resentful of any government “insiders,” a group that just happens to include all the Republican Party elite. Couple this with the fact that Republicans have created a dysfunctional Congress by refusing to work with their colleagues across the aisle and by making “compromise” a derogatory term, and that left the door wide open for a true outsider, a self-promoter with no government experience who claims to be able to “fix” government.
A third key that opened the door to the Orange One was the Republican Party’s determination from day one to oppose virtually everything President Obama sought to accomplish, even a health-care plan that came straight from conservative think tanks and practical applications (Romneycare). In reality, President Obama has been an unusually careful and thoughtful president, who has often outmaneuvered his obstructionist opponents and along the way has somehow accomplished a great deal of good for the country. History will likely be very kind to him and his legacy. He entered office with the economy in freefall and the financial sector in a deep freeze. He took calculated risks and (unlike Europe) promoted sound economic policy, and the results have been positive, if not spectacular. The results would have been better if he had had some cooperation from the GOP, but they put partisanship ahead of the good of the American people and opposed sensible proposals at crucial times, even shutting down the government once in a tantrum over Obamacare. In spite of Republican shenanigans, though, the economy has been performing well for a good long time now, and unemployment is low, although if Obama had had his way there would be less inequality. But he has had to deal with a particularly pernicious economic zombie, supply-side economics, which has acted as a ball and chain on the economy’s collective ankle. Still, things are so much better now than when Obama took office that it places the Republicans in a bind. In order to convince voters that they should be put in charge of the economy, they have to engage in apocalyptic scare tactics, painting things as bleakly as they possibly can. And this sort of negativism plays directly into the hands of someone like Donald Trump. In reality, most of the problems we’re facing in the economy are the result of such factors as low tax rates on the wealthy, corporate greed, a minimum wage stuck in the 1950s, and forced austerity measures in a time of low interest rates. These are all Republican issues (except greed, which tends to be universal). But the Repubs have painted themselves into a corner, and so their only option is to double down on dysfunctional economic ideas like even more tax cuts for billionaires and a blanket refusal to even connect the minimum wage to inflation indexes.
There are other factors that have led to the rise of Trumpism, such as a lingering undercurrent of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that runs through a particular segment of conservative America. Trump read this undercurrent perfectly and has played it to his advantage. Not surprisingly, Sunday’s Deseret News printed an article reporting that white supremacists were thrilled with Trump’s convention speech.8
So here we are. The Republican Party, as we have known it, is no more. As party insiders admitted in 2013, the GOP needed to change. But not in this way. It did not need to become the Grand Old National Socialist Party. We can only hope this new party is as inept as it is frightening and will lose this presidential election in a grand old landslide.
1. Fox News, “Dozens of Lawsuits Accuse Trump of Not Paying His Bills, Reports Claim,” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/06/10/dozens-lawsuits-accuse-trump-not-paying-his-bills-reports-claim.html. First time I think I’ve ever quoted Fox News!
2. The details on the current rape accusation are especially troubling, because apparently the alleged victim has a witness who worked for Epstein, finding adolescent girls for his parties, and witnessed several of the assaults. Trump had this to say about Epstein: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” See Lisa Bloom, “Why the New Rape Case Filed against Donald Trump Should Not Be Ignored,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/why-the-new-child-rape-ca_b_10619944.html.
3. See, among many other sources, Scott Whitlock, “Networks on Trump: A ‘Dark Speech’ from a ‘Vengeful’ ‘Demagogue,” http://newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/scott-whitlock/2016/07/22/networks-trump-dark-speech-vengeful-demagogue.
4. James Griffiths, “World Reacts to Donald Trump’s Acceptance Speech,” http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/22/politics/donald-trump-rnc-speech-world-reacts/.
5. Adam Gopnik, “Being Honest about Trump,” New Yorker, June 14, 2016.
6. See International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Top 15 Defence Budgets, 2015,” https://www.iiss.org/-/media//images/publications/the%20military%20balance/milbal2016/mb%202016%20top%2015%20defence%20budgets%202015.jpg?la=en. A different estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows the U.S. budget being larger than the next eight countries, but two (Russia and Saudi Arabia) of the countries include expenditure for public order and safety and may be overstated.
7. Citizens for Tax Justice, “Donald Trump’s Tax Plan Will Cost $12 Trillion,” http://ctj.org/ctjreports/2016/03/donald_trumps_tax_plan_would_cost_12_trillion.php#.V5QPMqKleVo.
8. Steve Peoples, “Energized White Supremacists Cheer Trump’s Convention Message,” Deseret News, July 24, 2016, A14.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Well, the circus has started. I’ve been listening to the Republican National Convention in the background tonight while bottling apricots (how domestic of me). Of course, you can’t really take anything seriously that you hear in a political convention, but so far, this one has been like an out-of-body experience. There’s a total disconnect between the things the speakers have said about The Donald and the things he has said during his campaign. It’s very much as if they are speaking about someone else.
The convention, I understand, started out with one last-gasp effort by many of the delegates (including Utah’s Mike Lee) to dethrone Donald before he gets any closer to the crown. The news networks referred to it as a “civil war” within the Republican Party. And the metaphor is quite apropos. Donald Trump has divided the GOP in at least two significant ways.
First, he has actually done the Republican Party a favor in exposing a split that they apparently weren’t even aware of. While the party elite were carrying on about the “conservative” agenda, an ideology that all Republican politicians must swallow whole, and were assuming that half the country was on board, Trump ignored this agenda and showed the party ideologues that at least half of Republican voters don’t really care about their precious conservative agenda. They don’t care about supply-side economics. They don’t care about destroying Obamacare. They don’t care about deregulating Wall Street. They don’t care about easing restrictions on pollution. They don’t care about privatizing Social Security. They don’t care about a whole lot of things the party elite are devoted to. Frankly, they are rather uneducated and unsophisticated. They are merely angry, because they have been taught to be angry. Much of it is unfocused anger, but Trump has harnessed that anger and focused it toward a few peripheral issues, like illegal immigration, and made that the central thrust of his campaign.
In a sense, Trump has hijacked the Republican Party and left the former party elite on the outside. He isn’t interested in a lot of the issues that drive Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. And his followers aren’t either. This creates a real dilemma for those who are now outsiders. What happens if Trump wins? If so, then their agenda is pretty much dead. Not that much of it made any sense in the first place. Supply-side economics and tax cuts for the wealthy have produced disastrous results. Scientific evidence supporting human-caused global warming is becoming so overwhelming that the GOP looks foolish denying it. Their devotion to the NRA vision of gun control is opposed by a vast majority of their own constituents. Paul Ryan finally came out with the long-promised Republican health-care alternative to Obamacare, but the experts who have looked at it claim that, once again, Ryan left out too many details, but those details he did include indicate that it would be an unmitigated disaster. Increasing an already bloated military and greedy military-industrial complex makes little sense. And on down the list. So, the conservative agenda is revealing itself to be fairly vacuous, and Trump is helping to nail its coffin shut.
And if Trump loses, the party elite, who will once again return to center stage, have to figure out a new agenda that actually appeals not just to the ideologically pure tea-party types, but also to the mass of undereducated, disenfranchised people Trump has attracted. It may be that if he loses, they may just say “to hell with it” and totally lose interest in empty GOP promises. If their authoritarian savior is rejected by the American people, they may simply drop out of the picture and never vote again. What good would it do? If Trump can’t win, then nobody who will “fix” everything could be elected.
This is the first split Trump has helped create (or has exposed). The second wedge he has driven into the GOP base is his opposition to free trade and his threats of trade wars, which places him, oddly, closer to Bernie Sanders than to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And his rhetoric here has scared the pants off the traditionally Republican corporate sector. Many large corporations are refusing to financially support the GOP convention, and many voices in the business world are in opposition to Trump. But Trump’s angry supporters are once again following his lead, which creates yet another split in the Republican Party.
The question is, can the GOP survive Trump’s candidacy, whether he wins or loses? Trump is creating so many dilemmas for the Republican Party he has hijacked. He is so unpopular among the party elite that many of them are simply staying away from the convention. Many, like Utah’s Mia Love, are staying away because being connected in any way to Trump might sink her chances for reelection. Others, like Mitt Romney, are staying away on principle. Still others are holding their noses and supporting him because he is the new face of the party, and party loyalty trumps everything (sorry for the pun). But will their support of Trump damage their credibility and electability in the future? If I were a Republican, I would certainly think twice about voting for someone who caved in and supported Trump.
After the resounding defeat of Romney in 2012, the Republican Party commissioned an autopsy to figure out what went wrong and what they needed to do to win the presidency in 2016. The recommendations were pretty obvious. High on the list was to cease being the party of the rich, the white, and the elderly. Demographics in the United States are shifting steadily away from older white men toward a multiethnic mix. The GOP needed to appeal to more women and more ethnic minorities. Trump has pretty much singlehandedly dragged the Republican Party in the opposite direction and in the process has revealed an ugly racist, xenophobic, misogynist underbelly in the Republican base. In 2020, it will be that much harder for the GOP to change directions, partly because it is now common knowledge that a rather sizable majority of Republican voters share the bigotry Trump has brazenly advertised. How do you appeal to those people and at the same time appeal to the people they despise? This is a seemingly impossible task.
Personally, I used to be a Republican. I hate to admit that I voted for George W. Bush in 2000. But after a couple of years of his presidency, I could see where the party was headed, and I bailed. I was unaffiliated for quite a few years, but last year I registered as a Democrat because I was voting almost exclusively for Democratic candidates. I have not regretted this decision for one minute. As a Mormon, I have far fewer ethical dilemmas as a Democrat. Their view of government as a tool to help individuals and society rather than as a problem to oppose and be angry about simply feels more reasonable. Their stands on such topics as global warming and gun control are more rational and realistic. And my belief that the real danger to our freedom comes from the corporate economy and not from government is totally incompatible with Republican rhetoric.
So, as a former Republican, it is somewhat disconcerting to watch the disintegration of the GOP. It has become extremist on one hand and angry and irrational on the other. It may split in any of several ways, but I don’t relate to any of the factions. And this troubles me. I believe that a strong two-party system, with differences but with the ability to compromise and work together, is the ideal form of government. But the GOP has gone off the deep end in so many ways, and it refuses to compromise on so many issues, that it appears GOP now stands for Grand Obstructionist Party. For the past eight years, it has defined itself as simply the party that opposes everything President Obama proposes. And now it is being led by an egomaniac who doesn’t really have a coherent agenda for governing. He is shallow and vindictive and frighteningly impulsive. Whether the Republican Party can survive Donald Trump and its own recent history is a question only time can answer.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
You might think this topic has very little to do with my last post, but in my mind they are quite closely connected. Perhaps that will become more clear toward the end of this post. Let me begin by saying that for several years now I have not been a big fan of apologetics. I am also not a big fan of what I will here call antiapologetics. Most people probably refer to it is criticism, but criticism can have a lot of other applications that I find positive and useful, so I will stick with antiapologetics. What I’m talking about are those who defend Mormonism and those who attack it. I’ll try to explain why I don’t particularly care for either approach. Let me start with apologetics.
I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on apologetics. But I do see a fair sampling of it at work, and I read a bit more in various other venues. Especially since FARMS faded away and the Maxwell Institute has shifted gears into what some are calling the “new” apologetics, BYU Studies seems to be getting more submissions that could be classified as traditional apologetics. Some we reject. Some we accept, and it is then often my task to edit them. Which means I have to dig into the nitty-gritty and ask tough questions, and that’s probably where my opinions and preferences have been shaped.
The main problem I see in the apologetics enterprise is that it begins with some preset assumptions and then goes about trying to prove or at least support those assumptions. In a way, then, apologetics may be considered a classic example of begging the question.
I’m not going to give many specific examples in this post. I have friends and acquaintances who either are apologists or are devoted to those who are. I have also worked with authors who have a definite apologetic bent. I appreciate what these good folks are trying to do, but my experience has caused me to be wary of apologetics. To avoid getting personal, I want to keep things pretty theoretical here. But let me start by quoting Daniel Peterson, who described the general approach and limitations quite well. Referring to the Book of Mormon, one of the two targets Mormon apologists most frequently try to defend, he wrote:
Having argued for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon for decades and knowing many, if not most, of those who’ve been engaged in the same project over that period, I can say that I know of no serious writers on the subject who believe themselves able to “prove” it, let alone capable of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of everyone.
Rather, we understand ourselves to be patiently engaged in amassing a cumulative case that will show the Book of Mormon is congruent with what mainstream scholarship is disclosing about the ancient Near Eastern environment from which the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites are said to have emerged and about the pre-Columbian American environment in which they lived out their histories. . . .
So, do believers see ancient evidence for the Book of Mormon only because they’re already committed to its antiquity on other grounds? In a sense, yes. Does that prove them guilty of pseudo-scholarship motivated solely by irrational (or, at least, nonrational) faith? No, it doesn’t.
It’s true that advocates of the Book of Mormon typically have spiritual convictions regarding it. I know none who don’t. But they also have nonarchaeological evidence for taking seriously its claim to antiquity.1
Generally, this is how Mormon apologetics works. First, the scholar has a spiritual conviction regarding the truth of a particular proposition. He or she then goes about “amassing” a body of evidence to support that conviction. I’m not saying this is bad, and I’m not saying it necessarily leads to inaccurate conclusions. Actually, it doesn’t lead to any conclusions at all, because the conclusion is where the scholar starts, not where he or she winds up. And that can cause problems, four in particular.
First, when a person begins with a conclusion, he or she tends to cherry-pick evidence, focusing on only that data that supports the conclusion. This often creates one-sided scholarship that is, in many ways, blind to data that may not support the conclusion. I see this in my work as an editor. When you ignore contrary evidence, you tend to develop a certain blindness to questions that would naturally arise from a more complete data set.
Second, and I see this all too often, a person trying to support a particular conclusion tends to make leaps of logic and to stretch evidence beyond where it will comfortably go. Sometimes this leads to producing an abstruse or arduous explanation while discarding the obvious or straightforward one. Most often this comes across as simply trying too hard. Rather than going with the most simple reading of the evidence, the scholar will employ some rather impressive mental or verbal gymnastics to make the evidence fit the already established conclusion, or to at least make it appear that the evidence suggests the conclusion. Proponents of pretty much every Book of Mormon geography model are guilty of this, to give a general example. I could tell some pretty good stories here, but I’ll refrain for the reasons given above.
Third, apologists sometimes read meaning into texts that simply aren’t there. This is called eisegesis. It is the opposite of exegesis. Let me quote from that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia: “While exegesis is the process of drawing out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discoverable meaning of its author, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective.” Let me use an example I wrote about in the long series on authority I posted last year. As Mormons, we tend to read our modern definition of “priesthood” into both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. We claim, for instance, that Alma received the priesthood by ordination (from someone) before he baptized his followers in the waters of Mormon. We read this into the account because, according to our modern understanding of priesthood, this is how is simply had to happen. But our modern definition of priesthood is entirely absent from the Book of Mormon. Priesthood in ancient scripture, including the Book of Mormon, signifies merely the condition of being a priest. It is not a form of authority you can give or receive or hold. So any notion of Alma “receiving the priesthood” is being read into the text. Apologetics tends to fall into this pattern because of the need to make a text conform to a preconceived idea.
Finally, the project of apologetics is to defend a proposition or a person. But what if defending a proposition or a person prevents you from finding and then defending the truth. Sometimes life is not so black and white as the apologist wishes it to be. In fact, both real life and real people are incredibly complex. Prophets are especially complicated. They are notoriously inconsistent and error-prone and sometimes don’t have perfectly pure motives. And that fact opens a can of worms. A major flaw I see in most Mormon apologetics is that it begins with the assumption that Joseph Smith was infallible. Now, of course, no apologist is going to admit that if you phrase it that way. We all believe that our prophets are fallible mortals. That is our unwritten fourteenth article of faith. But when it comes to Joseph Smith, the apologetics enterprise is devoted to amassing evidence that everything he did or said makes sense if you look at it through a particular lens. Seriously, have you ever seen an apologist take all the evidence available and come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was simply way off base on a particular doctrine or claim? Of course not. They can’t allow that. Why? Because that may require us to make space for human frailty and inconsistency in any number of other areas. And that is a slippery slope they simply cannot start down. So they end up defending a person or a proposition in toto, even though the truth may at times be a casualty in that effort.
I don’t know exactly when I made this transition, but sometime during the past fifteen years, I found that my loyalty gradually shifted from Joseph Smith and the church he founded to the truth. I determined at some point that it wasn’t my job to defend Joseph or the Book of Mormon or the Church. It was my job to find the truth and defend that, let the chips fall where they may. That shift in thinking opened up some avenues that were previously closed. At that point, many more possibilities were available to my mind than before. It enabled me to start considering evidence I had previously closed my mind to. Quite often the evidence creates inner turmoil for me. But I am able to look at things more objectively (even though I realize that total objectivity is a myth). And it has reversed the process for me. Instead of beginning with a conclusion and amassing evidence to support it, I am looking at the evidence, even information that may be uncomfortable, and asking what conclusions the sum of that evidence points to. Sometimes the evidence merely points to incredible complexity and no easy answer. Such is life.
Now, let me briefly tackle antiapologetics. Obviously, those who are trying to prove Mormonism or Joseph Smith wrong are going to fall into some of the same traps that those who defend it are susceptible to. They tend to have predetermined conclusions and to focus only on evidence that supports these conclusions. They are especially resistant to considering any evidence that might be considered subjective, such as spiritual experiences or confirmations. It’s probably unheard of for an antiapologist to claim to have received a spiritual witness that Mormonism isn’t true. From my perspective, they don’t tend to stretch evidence and engage in verbal gymnastics to prove their point, but they are sometimes so myopically focused on proving Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon wrong that they ignore the complexity of people and motives, and sometimes the truth gets shortchanged. They are just as lopsided in their approach as the apologists, which likely blinds them to possibilities that would become apparent if they were able to fairly consider all the evidence.
So, how does my take on apologetics and its opposite intersect with my last post, about the difficulty of deciphering spiritual communication? Well, since a spiritual confirmation of an otherwise unprovable proposition, such as the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, is quite subjective and, I would suggest, not always easy to interpret, the question arises about how much we should trust a spiritual feeling about something and how much we should trust the observable evidence.
I mentioned in my last post my essay that Dialogue published several years ago. It detailed a very powerful spiritual experience regarding Joseph Smith that I had as a missionary. At the time it occurred and at the time I wrote the essay many years later, I interpreted the experience very broadly. But in the past few years I’ve become acquainted with a truckload of evidence that makes a broad interpretation highly unlikely, if not impossible. The inevitable conclusion after looking at all the evidence I have so far accumulated, including the spiritual feeling I had all those years ago, is that the truth is a lot more complicated than either an acceptance of everything (meaning Joseph was infallible) or a rejection of everything (meaning Joseph was a fraud) will permit. But such a complex and uncertain conclusion is unacceptable in the world of subjective certainty that drives most traditional apologetics. It is also unacceptable to the antiapologists, who are certain that Joseph was deluded, or worse.
And this brings me to my actual dilemma: the Book of Mormon. Now, I don’t claim to be a Book of Mormon scholar. I have published a bit about certain textual elements in the Book of Mormon and what they might mean. And as part of my job I also proofread the entire 1,281 pages of Royal Skousen’s recently published analysis of grammatical variation in the Book of Mormon. Royal claimed that made me one of three people in the world to have accomplished that feat. I am currently reading the Book of Mormon for the umpteenth time, but with a much more careful eye than in the past. I’m finding some interesting and unexpected things. I’ve also read a few books by others who have tried to figure out what’s going on with both the contents of the book and the translation. I agree with some of their conclusions and disagree with others. So far, I can only say that the Book of Mormon is a very complicated book, probably more complicated than either the apologists or the antiapologists are willing to admit.
My own relationship with the Book of Mormon is somewhat unusual and, as you might expect, complicated. I’ve always liked the book, although parts of it have raised questions in my mind, but despite Moroni’s famous promise, I have never received a spiritual witness of its truthfulness. This is certainly not for lack of effort. I have been praying about the Book of Mormon for over forty years. Not constantly, mind you, but repeatedly. And what has been the result? Nothing. Not even a warm feeling, which I wouldn’t give much credence to anyway at this point. So in the past couple of years, I have changed my prayers. I no longer ask if the book is true. I don’t even ask “if these things are not true” (Moro. 10:4). True is such a loaded word. It can mean all sorts of things. I’ve read fiction that is definitely “true.” So I have made my petitions much more specific. I now ask if the Book of Mormon is an accurate record of real people. Still no answer. Complete and perfect silence. No heavenly manifestation. No spiritual feeling of confirmation.
I don’t have the convenience of “knowing” by a feeling in my heart that the book is “true,” so I am left with other forms of evidence. In the coming months, I will be talking about some of that evidence. And I am open to looking at both sides of every question. Let me just say at this point that I have no reason to doubt either the firsthand historical accounts by Joseph Smith and his associates who claim to have received or viewed gold plates or the secondhand accounts of those who observed the translation process. But I also have no reason to doubt that there are things in the Book of Mormon that, frankly, have no business being in the book if it is what it claims to be. That has led me to describe the Book of Mormon as a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we don’t seem to have very many of the pieces in the right place yet. And that’s part of the fun—unless you’re either so convinced that it’s a hoax that you can’t entertain any evidence that supports it or you’re so persuaded it is an ancient record that you have to spend your time trying to explain away fairly obvious trouble spots rather than seeking to understand what those inconsistencies may be telling us. Personally, I hope to remain open to all the evidence and then draw conclusions. Just as I see no reason to discard the accounts of Joseph Smith and his early associates, I also see no reason to simply dismiss valid points raised by Book of Mormon critics, or to explain them away with convoluted arguments.
The question I’m trying to answer is, What is this book? There is so much evidence to look at—and so much that seems contradictory—that I am certain I won’t be able to answer this question anytime soon. But that won’t stop me from presenting some of the evidence and trying to deal with it fairly. More to come.
__________________1. Daniel Peterson, “Book of Mormon Apologetics and Scholarship,” Deseret News, June 16, 2015, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865632671/Book-of-Mormon-apologetics-and-scholarship.html?pg=all.