In an excellent tome, which has been criticized far too much for an inaccurate quotation of Irenaeus, LDS scholar Stephen E. Robinson wrote:
It is not my purpose in these pages to prove, or even to argue, that the LDS church is true or that its doctrines are correct, even though I believe both of those propositions. Rather, I will attempt to show why the arguments used to exclude Latter-day Saints from the “Christian” world are flawed. The operating principle behind most of my arguments will not be rectitude but equity—what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. That is, if Augustine or Luther or John Paul II can express opinions or insist on beliefs that differ from the Christian mainstream and yet still be considered Christians, then Joseph Smith and Brigham Young cannot be disqualified from bearing that title when they express the same or similar opinions. If theological or ecclesiastical diversity can be tolerated among mainstream Christian churches without charges of their being “non-Christian,” then diversity of a similar kind, or to a similar degree, ought to be tolerated in the Latter-day Saints. This is simply an issue of playing on a level field. (Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1991), p. viii.)
In my conversations with those critical of LDS beliefs I have come to the realization that Professor Robinson’s approach is really the Achilles heel of most detractors. Philosophically it is quite sound, for it is logically fallacious to accept an idea or criticism when applied to an opponent’s argument but reject it when applied to one’s own argument. Yet more to the point the clear demonstration of a double-standard demonstrates a fundamental weakness within arguments meant to undermine the faith of the Saints.
In an article which was part of a festschrift in honor of C.S. Lewis, Austin Farrer wrote of the need for rational argument:
It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot. The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. (Austin Farrer, “The Christians Apologist,” in Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C.S. Lewis [New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976], p. 26.)
Many will recognize this quotation as it has been quoted with approval by such individuals as the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell. However, fewer will be familiar with the following from the same article:
The strictly apologetic technique is that of controversial argument; and it is no doubt essential to the apologist’s success that he should enter the controversial lists with credit, and make a brave show in the exchange of buffets. Orthodoxy must be made out as argumentatively sound as any other position; but it may seldom be argument that casts the decisive weight. It may more commonly be a direct presentation, allowing the vitality of orthodox ideas to be felt.” (Ibid., p. 25.)
Here, Farrer asserts that “Orthodoxy must be made out as argumentatively sound as any other position.” In other words, it must measure up to the same standards as “any other position.” But interestingly, “it may seldom be argument that casts the decisive weight. It may more commonly be a direct presentation, allowing the vitality of orthodox ideas to be felt.”
It has been my experience that “direct presentation” is indeed far more vital than “rational argument.” It is in direct presentation that the “vitality of’ any idea is “felt” including the tenants of the restored Gospel. We do not in our missionary lessons argue investigators into acceptance of the restored Gospel but rather through “direct presentation” allow “the vitality of… ideas to be felt.” And “felt” is a key word. I may be placing more emphasis upon the concept and the implications of that particular term than Farrer might have but the impressions of the Spirit to the heart and mind are indeed “felt.”
Why is all of this material to the concept of equity? The critic fails to provide a viable alternative when their approach is merely to impugn, without due consideration for how they may be undermining the vitality of their own position, the beliefs of others. They fail to consider that for the Latter-day Saints what is indeed “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” If a particular criticism aimed at the Book of Mormon can be equitably applied to the Bible with similar result, what is left? This of course provides no challenge for the atheist but since the majority of LDS critics who would deny us to designation “Christian” do indeed accept the Bible, usually as sufficient and inerrant, it does tend to result in rather the opposite of what they may intend.
It is not enough to demonstrate with this or that argument that the Book of Mormon is false if such an argument can be equitably applied to the Bible to the same effect. If one dismisses both one is left with neither. Yet when the special pleading of our critics is rejected and the standards they espouse applied equitably they cry foul and accuse us of attacking the Bible. But for the Latter-day Saints it is just as impious to impugn the Book of Mormon as it is to impugn the Bible; we consider both “scripture” (Article of Faith 1:8).
Attempting to poison the well or to arguing to personal interest these critics seek to preclude further discussion of these equitably applied objections as they are either unprepared to discuss them or unwilling to accept the consequences resulting from their application. But, to place a more common face on these fallacies, tying up ones opponent through vilifying them in the eyes of others and/or preaching to the choir only results in maintaining the status quo, in retention or boundary management, not in convincing anyone not already predisposed to accept your position.
Thus equity becomes the Achilles heel of most critics, leading them to either abandon logic and resort to fallacies of irrelevance, to admitting that they do indeed have similar if not identical skeletons in their own closet, or to arguing that the concept cannot indeed be equitably applied. At least the latter leaves room for discussion and demonstrates an open mind.
All of this is not to say that there are no rational answers for criticisms leveled against the restored Gospel but rather to state that equity is a useful tool in answering such criticisms. If FAIR is a testament to anything, it is that LDS Christianity can indeed “be made out as argumentatively sound as any other position.”