Richard Bushman on New Mormonism
Bill Reel recently published a podcast interview with Richard Bushman. I believe this is the most important hour of discussion any Mormon in the church today can listen to. Richard Bushman is the #1 scholar in the church when it comes to respectability in both the academic world and within the church as a believer and faithful member. He is a former Columbia University professor, stake president, stake patriarch, historian on LDS topics (author of Rough Stone Rolling) and commentator on LDS issues. He has audience with the brethren and is fully accepted and respected by them yet holds a nuanced view that many in the church would be surprised to believe is “OK”.
We have some very important discussion in the Mormon world right now on how we will view LGBT issues. There are other important topics, such as female equality and racism, and even political issues like how to view immigration. But, within Mormonism, larger than all these and something that touches all of these, is how we view the church, the authority of scripture, and the brethren in general.
I highly recommend everyone go immediately to Bill Reel’s site www.mormondiscussionpodcast.org and listen to the podcast. Every sentence Richard Bushman speaks in this interview is power packed full of wisdom. I feel like I could shut down my entire site and simply encourage people to listen to that podcast.
Here are some snippets from that interview. Here, I’ll paraphrase Bill and his questions but try my best to transcribe Dr. Bushman’s words precisely.
BR: We say “the church is true” a lot and it rubs some people the wrong way. What does it mean in the context of understanding the messiness of church history that call into question absolute truth claims, etc? Is it an exclusive thing? What does it mean to you to say the “church is true?”
RB: I think the most fundamental meaning is that God is in this work. And he’s helping us when we try to serve in the church and try to bless our brothers and sisters. That he’s helping the leaders of the church guide the church along and in general we’re on the side of our Heavenly Father when we’re part of the church and what I think it doesn’t mean or I’m sure it doesn’t mean is that no one else in the world can come to God without the church. I mean we’re really only a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, and I can’t imagine a God who wouldn’t have any interest in other people or that they would be living vain lives until they run into Mormonism. I have evangelical friends who are probably stronger followers of Christ than I am and I would think when they went to heaven God would certainly welcome them and that people all over the world can be uplifted spiritually that God is working with them and answering their prayers, so it isn’t really a matter of salvation, I don’t think. It’s ostensibly that we have God with us in our work. I would add one other thing. When I hear the statement that the church is true we normally put the emphasis on the word true but I would put the emphasis on the word church because I think what we do have is we have particular missions that we can do as a church that may be distinctive or that we may be particularly good at and ours is producing people of good will. People that grow up as Mormons learn to be generous with their time. They learn to sacrifice, they learn to get along with other people, to respect other people’s feelings, to avoid competition in striving to get ahead and I think those are wonderful gifts that come to us through our church experience, and I do think we have a mission to carry out that goodwill into every area of our lives. Into board rooms and playing fields and stages and classrooms wherever we go. We should be the people of good will.
On topic of Book of Mormon appears to have 19th century content in it:
RB: Some years ago if someone told me the Book of Mormon wasn’t historically accurate, that it was some kind of modern creation, I would have thought they were heretical. I wouldn’t say that anymore. I think there are faithful Mormons who are unwilling to take a stand on the historicity. I disagree with them, I think it is a historical book, but I recognize that a person can be committed to the gospel in every way and still have questions about the Book of Mormon.
BR: You would make room for people in the church who don’t believe the Book of Mormon is a historical text but somehow Joseph is giving us scripture from a modern perspective?
RB: Yes I would. I know people of that kind. And they are very good people.
On inspiration and revelation:
RB: I don’t think they’re given detailed instructions on how to do everything. I like Elder Oaks’ description of it: they are doing the same thing that every bishop and stake president and relief society president and really even every father wants that to do they are having the Lord’s inspiration in every decision, it’s not like a fax machine where the instructions come and you just carry them out, but the Spirit of the Lord infuses their mind so the instincts are right and the right thoughts come to them and their judgement is good, they sense where goodness is to be accomplished, and I think they’re very good at that.
We always want to respect their inspiration. And I believe they receive it. You can lead a very good life, just by following what you’re told to do by the general authorities of the church
BR: If it’s this concept that sometimes it’s hit and miss. They say something is revealed from God, then they later disavow it, and they acknowledge that a prophet makes mistakes. What do we do as members when we disagree with something the brethren do and feel a need to dissent?
RB: I don’t think you can ever abandon your conscience. Ultimately you have to be responsible for your own lives, you have to decide for yourself what is right. President Uchtdorf has told us the brethren make mistakes, so we can’t expect perfect, unmitigated, exact truths of every kind come from the brethren. It’s coming from their minds, we have to decide how it applies to us, there’s no escaping that responsibility. But what I’m pleading for is respect for those opinions. Recognize that they come from very strong, good, very experienced men. And take what they say very, very seriously. In the end you may come down slightly different, but if your spirit is right and you really are trying to do what’s right, you’ll be ok. They’re not going to condemn you for disagreeing with something like that if you do it in the right spirit.
If we take as our model American politics, where you advocate, you fight for things, you try to remove people from office, and try to protest and arouse public opinion. Democracy is not our model. Our model is brotherhood and sisterhood, where we try to work together we try to reach understanding, we have to maintain that spirit of brotherly and sisterly cooperation and within that spirit you can say all sorts of things and be just fine.
BR: In the scriptures, you have God doing awful things like genocide, etc. Is it OK to take a position, like these people are trying to explain things the best they can, but who knows if God is really the author of the harm to people that is attributed to him through scripture.
RB: Yeah, I would take a position very much like that, but I would also say we have to try to understand why people would write that scripture that way, what is it, what kind of life situation leads you to feel that God is helping you to destroy your enemy and appreciate there are some people’s lives so desperate, so harried, so pressured, so hopeless that they can only find satisfaction with a God who is going to avenge themselves from their enemies. You think of the ways the Jews were treated in Germany, and you use see people wiped out that way you get in an apocalyptic frame of mind and you want God to step in and punish these people, and one of the ways that religion services people is to relieve the anxiety and the anger they have by displacing it onto God, so it’s not that they’re wrong or evil but they’re using religion to help them in their life situation. I want to be very empathetic to people who talk that way.
BR: Section 132 is hard for a lot of people to deal with. Is it OK to just set it aside and ignore it?
RB: I think it is going to be a subject of much discussion because it seems so contrary not to just ordinary standards of morality, but the teachings of the church namely that we should have one husband and one wife and we should be married and true to each other forever and then to interrupt that and say well you can have another wife it seems like a contradiction in spirit at least of what we’re teaching ourselves, so yes I think there will be a long discussion. I think it’s always a mistake to try to bury cultural statements because they’re uncomfortable at a given point in time, try to obscure something, because at other times in history what is once buried has to be dug up again because we need it. It is of some use to us. I’m not making predictions of when we’ll need section 132 again, but I don’t like discrediting any part of our cultural history, because it can’t be useful right now. Of course, it’s very uncomfortable, no one’s quite happy with the idea of Joseph having many wives. I don’t think the business about 14 year old girls or even marrying other men’s wives is the real heart of the problem. The real heart of the problem is that he had one wife that he loved and he married other women and that is a very difficult thing. The one train of thought that holds out some hope for us is by looking at Joseph’s commitment or compulsion for bonding people. He wanted to create an entire human family. He wanted everyone to be connected to everyone else. And marriage was one way he saw of doing that. He didn’t want just wives, he wanted children, and brothers and sisters, he wanted to be immersed in family bonds. So rather than cast aside section 132, we need to keep contemplating. The fact that it’s uncomfortable is not grounds for casting it aside. It’s dealing with uncomfortable ideas that leads to new insight to new thought. I would say to be a little patient in talking about it and see where it leads us.
BR: Back to what you said earlier about the Book Mormon, you said you are still making shifts. I think that’s interesting after all this time, you’re still making shifts and maybe people going through faith crisis that are making these constant and dramatic shifts of perspective, that knowing you did that also would make it more comfortable for others to make those changes.
RB: Yes, it’s sort of the line upon line principle that when new things come along on the matter of church history, we have to go where the documents lead us, and right now we’re doing a pretty good job of that, and the shifts are occurring at church headquarters as much as anywhere.