Pious fraud is a term applied to describe fraudulent practices used to advance a religious cause. The idea is that the ends justify the means.
Like everything else in life, pious fraud is not a black and white issue, but a complex concept that may be difficult to say is always wrong.
One method of pious fraud found in scripture is to falsely attribute a work to a different author. Scholars know not all the books in the Bible were written by who the book claims. It’s been a common human characteristic throughout history for a writer to attribute his writing to a more famous person, to give the writing more credibility.
Another example of a pious fraud that’s relatively benign is that of a preacher adding dramatic details to a story to make his preaching more entertaining or impactful.
In a way, parents with small children, are colluding in a pious fraud by telling their kids about Santa Claus. When your wife says do I look fat in this dress, is your answer a pious fraud?
Pious fraud is also used to describe the practice in medicine of prescribing a known placebo. What about when the patient is suffering from panic and anxiety, and the only cure is to mentally calm down, and the best way to calm down is to give the patient something they think will cure them?
Fraud is a distasteful word, and the term pious fraud doesn’t sit well with most of us, but we should be able to see that pious fraud is something most of us can accept in one form or another. It may not be the best and most healthy way to teach, but we can see it’s not always and necessarily 100% evil. We can see that something good can be born out of something that was created as a pious fraud.
It’s kind of interesting, most of us probably believe in some sort of pious fraud in how the Bible came together, something relatively innocuous such as an author attributing his work to a more famous figure (such as Isaiah or Matthew) or maybe the person who first started telling the Noah’s flood story as though it were an actual historical event. We’re OK with that. But many get really upset at the idea that Joseph Smith’s actions could be described as a pious fraud. Either angry that Joseph would have done that. Or angry that someone could accuse Joseph of that. But I hope we can reinterpret that with a more nuanced perspective.
I personally don’t believe Joseph translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates that were a record of actual ancient Americans. Was he a pious fraud? I think he must have had an intense spiritual experience, felt called to be a prophet by God, felt he had an important work to teach, and felt there was strong interaction with the divine in bringing forth the Book of Mormon and other teachings of the restoration. He may have felt inadequate in what he viewed as his God inspired work and might have exaggerated things in order to bolster his credibility. He might have misremembered or misinterpreted things as time passed. I think there are ways to interpret him that don’t rely on literal gold plates but also don’t condemn him.
Moving away from pious fraud
I believe it’s fair to say at least some aspects of the Mormon religion have an element of pious fraud involved. Whether it’s in the actual foundation or in the perpetuation of known historical inaccuracies. I see pious fraud as a complex issue with so much under the surface, it’s not proper to make simple judgments. That said, I think ideally we move in the direction to eliminate this. A huge advantage of the sacramental paradigm is that there is no reason for pious fraud. Nothing is pushed under the rug. No scientific or historical fact is difficult to resolve. The church coming out with the essays on Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon translation, Joseph Smith polygamy, etc, is making a big step in this direction. I think we will see this trend continue in the future.