A generation ago in a hotly contested election, those seeking to unseat the incumbent president seized upon the effects of a recession as a way to differentiate themselves from their political opponents. A brilliant political strategist coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” as a rallying cry. The phrase had a great deal of power with voters, as it sent a short, pithy message that could not be misunderstood. The incumbent lost, the opposition won, and the era of the Clinton presidency was born.
Some people look at the verbiage used in the phrase—particularly the use of the word stupid—and take offense. They think it is mean. They think it is cruel. They think it is insensitive. They think it is snarky. But, consider two facts: First, the phrase wasn’t directed at the opposition; by some accounts it was directed by James Carville (the political strategist) at the candidate he was advising (Bill Clinton). It was to force focus in his campaign, not to denigrate the opposition’s campaign. Second, the phrase was much more memorable and “focusing” than any alternative. (Could anyone really see “It’s the economy, guys!” or “It really is the economy!” being as successful in forcing focus?)
Fast forward to today, in a different venue only of interest to Mormons on the Internet, and we see a couple of people who are either leaving the Church or threatened with expulsion from the Church because of their participation in and responsibility for the MormonThink website. Only a month or so ago, the founder of MormonThink resigned his membership in the Church after facing the possibility of a disciplinary council for apostasy.
In a recent posting on the MormonThink website, the anonymous founder shared with readers his final e-mail letter to his stake president with regards to his membership. He recounts how his efforts had only the innocuous-sounding goal of “helping Mormon scholars … share their studies with others interested in learning” about the Church’s history. The letter indicates that the founder asked his stake president, “many times, what part of the website is untrue.”
In fact, that seems to be a large focus of what the founder desired—for the stake president to point out factual inaccuracies at MormonThink. That theme is carried on by David Twede, the person to whom MormonThink’s founder handed the reins for the website. In a letter to his stake president Mr. Twede said the following:
I would like to have discussions with you as local church leaders about what at Mormonthink is untruthful and try to work with you to create a website that can present accurate, open, honest and noteworthy information that can aid member and non-member alike in exercising free will about what they believe.
The misunderstanding is clearly evident, at least to me, as I can pretty well guarantee that the stake president is not interested in creating any website to do any such thing that Mr. Twede suggests. Why? Because while facts are important, it isn’t only about the facts. If I was asked about the reason by Twede’s stake president, I’d be tempted to answer with a Carville paraphrase: “It’s the interpretation, stupid!” I doubt I would need to answer that way, however. I suspect that the stake president understands this; it is MormonThink’s founder and Mr. Twede who don’t apparently get it.
Facts could be amassed all year long and it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. In fact, the scholars referenced by MormonThink’s founder and Mr. Twede have spent large parts of their professional lives amassing such facts. Yet, most of them haven’t been disciplined. Why? Because it’s not about facts—it’s about interpretation of the facts.
The founder’s stake president seemingly understands this nuance, as well. The founder stated, in his letter to his stake president:
You said that MT is “anti-Mormon, anti-Joseph Smith and anti-LDS Leadership”. However, you never said it wasn’t true.
Based on this reported statement of the stake president, he knew the issue wasn’t about the facts; the issue was about the interpretation of the facts. Even if the facts on the website are correct, the site could still be “anti-Mormon, anti-Joseph Smith and anti-LDS Leadership” based on the interpretation of those facts.
The founder of MormonThink made a very cogent point in his letter when he asked, “Essentially, isn’t learning about the gospel merely a search for truth?” It is, indeed, a search for truth, but one should not assume that facts are the sum of truth. A simple example: If I point out the fact that a friend of mine is morbidly obese, does that constitute truth? Perhaps, but it is not the whole truth. Such a fact leads to other questions, such as why he is obese. Some may hear the one fact (about the obesity) and conclude that my friend is an overeater and needs to go on a diet and exercise more. One only need to talk to my friend to find out, however, that doctors have attributed the obesity to steroid medications used to treat a chronic illness and have said that diet and exercise won’t help the situation.
In the case of my friend, a collection of some facts doesn’t speak the whole truth, and the premature conclusions drawn by some about his obesity are based on how they choose to interpret the facts they think they know. Their interpretation couldn’t be further from the truth, yet they remain secure in their belief that they understand the situation and possess the truth.
It is, unfortunately, the same way with virtually any set of facts—they are open to interpretation. The problem with MormonThink isn’t with the set of facts they choose to highlight; it is with the interpretations that they draw from those facts. The site’s founder and Mr. Twede repeatedly ask for factual errors to be pointed out, but they stay very far away from a discussion of the interpretations that they and other MormonThink contributors draw and present. This, I suspect, is where the basis of apostasy lies—with the presentation of facts to fit an interpretation that is deeply critical of and inherently hostile to the truth claims of the Church.
(For those interested in some facts that the editors at MormonThink don’t mention, as well as some of the interpretive problems they present, there is always the FAIR wiki. One often hears from MormonThink editors and fans of MormonThink that FAIR can’t muster any good response to what MormonThink presents, but this is false. FAIR has looked at the same facts and issues as MormonThink—for much longer than MormonThink has been in existence—and comes to different conclusions based on those same facts.)
I know there is a popular societal meme that posits that “the facts speak for themselves,” but this is not true. Were it true, then historians, lawyers, and advertisers would all be out of work. Were it true, scientists could stop hypothesizing and “think tanks” could shut their doors. Were it true, people would never have differing opinions about any given set of facts. Were it true, MormonThink would present the same faithful perspective that FAIR does. Were it true, MormonThink’s founder would not have run afoul of his stake president and Mr. Twede would not be running into trouble with his.
Humans can look at the same facts and come, in good conscience, to different conclusions based on different interpretations of those facts. If the founder and editors of MormonThink come to different conclusions than the Church does based on examination of the same sets of facts, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that those in the Church would expel them—especially when they attempt to bolster their credibility by claiming to be active Church members. If those expelled changed their interpretation to be more similar to how the Church interprets the facts, then I have no doubt they would be welcomed back.
Stop focusing on supposed facts alone. It’s the interpretation, guys.