By Eric Johnson
In Islamic thinking, the term “taqiyya” refers to someone who deceives another in order to avoid persecution. In modern times, the term has loosely come to mean deception for the betterment of the religion. While Mormonism certainly cannot be equaled to Islam when it comes to taqiyya, many church leaders and followers employ tactics that are less than honest. For example, it is common for some Mormons to tell Christians how their views of Mormonism are incorrect, even when support is offered from official church sources such as the Standard Works, church magazines and manuals, and general conference talks. However, the phrase “that’s not what we teach” has become a mantra to somehow insist that nobody except Latter-day Saints can fully grasp the truth claims of Mormonism.
This attitude comes to the forefront when unique and even strange historical or doctrinal issues arise; denial of the events or teachings is nothing less than intentional acts of subterfuge. When it is convenient, even lying seems to be justified. It began with Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion. For example, Smith cleverly deceived his wife Emma when it came to his many plural marriages. Because Emma opposed the teaching, her husband kept her in the dark about his relationship with the other women until 1843. In their excellent book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, historians Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery explain:
“Convinced that it was necessary for her salvation and essential to their continued relationship, she may have decided to compromise with Joseph. In May 1843 she finally agreed to give Joseph other wives if she could choose them. Any of Joseph’s other wives, who by now numbered at least sixteen, would have been more comfortable if they had had Emma’s approval. Emma chose the two sets of sisters then living in her home, Emily and Eliza Partridge, and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph had finally converted Emma to plural marriage, but not so fully that he dared tell her he had married the Partridge sisters two months earlier. Emily said that ‘to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. . . . [Emma] had her feelings, and so we thought there was no use saying anything about it so long as she had chosen us herself.” (p. 143)
Two years after Smith was killed in a gun battle at the Carthage Jail in Illinois, Brigham Young moved the Mormons west to Utah. On November 9, 1856, he bragged to a Tabernacle crowd:
“I have many a time, in this stand, dared the world to produce as mean devils as we can; we can beat them at anything. We have the greatest and smoothest liars in the world, the cunningest and most adroit thieves, and any other shade of character that you can mention. We can pick out Elders in Israel right here who can beat the world at gambling, who can handle the cards, cut and shuffle them with the smartest rogue on the face of God’s footstool. I can produce Elders here who can shave their smartest shavers, and take their money from them. We can beat the world at any game” (Journal of Discourses 4:77).
“Greatest and smoothest liars”? Perhaps this was just hyperbole. However, the context shows that Young appeared to be serious. Protecting themselves and the gospel of Mormonism is an attitude that recent leaders have certainly held, including Apostle Boyd Packer, who once said that “some things that are true are not very useful.” In a BYU fireside talk given at BYU on September 12, 1993 (“Gospel Teachings About Lying”), he explained:
“The difficult question is whether we are morally responsible to tell the whole truth. When we have a duty to disclose, we are morally responsible to do so. Where there is no duty to disclose, we have two alternatives. We may be free to disclose if we choose to do so, but there will be circumstances where commandments, covenants, or professional obligations require us to remain silent. In short, my brothers and sisters, the subject of lying is clear-cut in a majority of instances. But there are a lot of situations where people are sometimes charged with lying where the charge is not well founded.“
Fifteenth LDS President Gordon Hinckley, whose grandfatherly mannerisms helped turn him into the most beloved 20th century LDS prophet, was asked by a newspaper reporter if he believed that God was once a man. Hinckley responded, “I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’ Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about” (San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997, p. 3/Z1). Snow’s famous couplet—quoted numerous times by church leaders—has historically summarized Mormonism’s view of God. Even a church manual studied by the membership in 2013 (chapter 5 in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow) trots out the couplet to explain God’s origination.
A few months later, Hinckley again publicly downplayed the doctrine, saying, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it and I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it'” (Time, August 4, 1997, p. 56). His apparent naiveté about the teaching seems strange, especially since he is supposed to be God’s prophet. Could anyone ever imagine the prophet Isaiah saying that he was confused about God’s nature?
In addition, the church manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young was released that same year, clearly explaining the principle about how God was once human. A study question at the end of chapter 4 asked:
“The doctrine that God was once a man and has progressed to become a God is unique to this Church. How do you feel, knowing that God through His own experience, ‘knows all that we know regarding the toils [and] sufferings’ of mortality?” (p. 34)
Why, then, did President Hinckley play the naïve game with secular reporters? Just a few months before he died, Hinckley provided insight into the rationale for his answers. Referring to the couplet, he said,
“I would be careful bringing [up] this matter with any nonmembers.” Answering the question about how a Mormon could address this issue with nonmembers, he explained, “My advice: don’t. This is difficult doctrine. Remember, milk before meat” (“13th Article, Simple Yet Powerful,” Church News, September 22, 2007, p. 3).
If the teaching that God was once a man could prevent potential converts from joining, Hinckley felt it was better to muddle the issue, which is certainly what he did with these reporters and the general public.
When the integrity of the church is called into question—including certain historical issues or doctrines that are considered “weird” by outsiders—deception appears to be advocated. When Linda King Newell, the coauthor of Mormon Enigma (quoted above), complained about being censured by the church, Apostle Dallin Oaks responded:
“My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors” (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon, p. xliii, footnote 28, referenced in Newell’s 1992 talk “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith,” 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium, audiotape J976).
It seems that the truth is not as vital as the church’s image, which becomes the altar upon which Mormons are called to worship. Missionaries are even instructed to limit how much they say to prospective converts. In the section describing the fall of man found on page 50 of their instructional manual Preach My Gospel, the missionaries are taught, “When first teaching this doctrine, do not teach everything you know about it.”
It should be pointed out how Mormonism turns original sin into something positive, as the Book of Mormon says in 2 Nephi 2:27 that “Adam fell that men might be.” Hence, it appears that giving fewer details about this difficult teaching is better since too much information could become a potential stumbling block with potential Christian converts.
This strategy of couching words certainly plays a role with the church’s apologists, including BYU professor Robert Millet who often defers tough questions in public presentations. Speaking to a BYU club in March 2004, he explained his reasoning:
“… if a person out of the blue that I don’t know from Adam walks up to me and says, ‘So you’re a Latter-day Saint. Tell me, you folks believe that man can become like god?’ See, how do I respond? This is a total stranger. I don’t know what he knows about the church. It may not be the smartest thing in the world to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, let me quote the Lorenzo Snow couplet for you and then I’m going to get the teachings of the prophet, and I’m going to read to you the King Follett Discourse. Now that may not be our best approach. It might be a much wiser approach to say, ‘Well that’s an interesting question. It is asked frequently. But, you know, let me begin this way. In the spring of 1820, there was a young man named Joseph Smith Jr. who was concerned about the subject of religion and wanted to know which church to join.’ What did I just do? I just answered the question he should have asked. …. We never use meat when milk will do.”
An article written by former BYU professor Robert J. Matthews warns against such thinking (Ensign, “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness,” October 1994). He believed that it was possible for a person to bear
“false witness and (be) lying if we say nothing, particularly if we allow another to reach a wrong conclusion while we hold back information that would have led to a more accurate perception. In this case it is as though an actual lie were uttered…. Lying and misrepresentation in all of their forms are wrong, no matter how they may be rationalized, and those who silently let these evils pass unchallenged are also doing wrong…. There are many ways in which language is twisted, warped, or packaged to convey misleading thoughts” (pp. 54-55).
According to Matthews, deception in any form, even if it conveniently protects a revered image, is nothing less than lying. We would agree. Jesus told His disciples to follow his teachings (John 8:31-32), saying “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Instead of playing games with the language, shouldn’t the truth be the end goal for both Christians and Latter-day Saint even if it means destroying false presuppositions?