Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Getting What You Pay For

The past few years have been really hard for me, in some ways.  At the end of them, I am left in a rather awkward position.  On the one hand, I feel hopelessly alienated from the Corporation of the President that runs the LDS church.  On the other hand, I recognize that this Corporation is not really that bad, as corporations go.  Let me explain what I am talking about.

Recently, an LDS friend sent me a list of good things that the LDS church does.  That list offers as a good an entry as any into my subject.  Here it is (summarized in bold for brevity's sake: the original was rather long).

(1) The church does humanitarian work.  This is true, as far as it goes.  Since my disaffection, I have actually been more involved than I ever was in this aspect of church service, and I find it generally more satisfying than teaching classes about the imaginary righteousness of Joseph Smith.  Working in the bishop's storehouse has been a learning experience for me.

(2) The church sponsors the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This is true, too, and I am not one of those people who doesn't like the choir.  I appreciate their music, and I think it represents a valuable cultural offering.

(3) The church sponsors pageants (like the Nauvoo Pageant or the Cumorah Pageant).  This is true.  I remember attending the Manti Pageant with my wife before we got married.  It was fun, and I am glad that we did it.

(4) The church sponsors Brigham Young University (BYU), a cheap place to go for a great education.  As a graduate of BYU, I agree with this one too.  I don't regret my alma mater (too much, anyway): without it, I would never have met my wife, or many of the friends who have had a formative, positive impact on my life over the last 10 years.  If I had to go back and be an undergraduate again, I might still choose to attend BYU, even if I went as a non-Mormon.

(5) The church helps people (like homosexuals) find righteous ways of living.  Here is where my cart of apples topples over (or starts to tip, anyway).  My friend references an article about Ty and Danielle Mansfield getting married "the right way" even though Ty is sexually attracted to men rather than women.  I do not disapprove of Ty and Danielle's decision to marry.  But I cannot hear their story without thinking of other stories I have heard over the past few years, stories of men like Ty who were advised to marry women without telling them that their husbands-to-be were sexually attracted to men.  Some of these men ended up stuck in family relationships that were untenable (having been built on a lie: they should have told their wives what they were signing up for).  Other men were given "shock therapy" -- strapped to electric chairs and zapped while watching homosexual pornography.  These things took place at BYU.  

To the Corporation's credit, I understand it has dropped its original, aggressive program for "correcting" homosexuality.  Convincing people like Ty to marry heterosexually of their own volition is an improvement over tying them to a chair, making them watch pornography, and electrocuting them.  But I am not convinced that Ty's solution is the solution for all people: if one of my sons ends up being gay, I would not advise him to take Ty's path without giving some serious thought to alternatives (though I would certainly accept him if he chose it for himself: my one stipulation would be that his wife-to-be understand her position as the spouse of a gay man).  I don't think it is moral to require celibacy of people.  (Historically this doesn't seem to work as a universal prescription, though individuals may do well with it.)  I don't think it is moral to require heterosexuality of them, either.  I don't see why homosexuals cannot have committed relationships with people to whom they are sexually attracted.  I would not want society to force me to marry someone I was not attracted to, and I am unwilling to demand for others what I would not choose for myself.

My real problem with the Corporation is not that it does no good, or that it treats homosexuals differently than I would (though that has the potential to be a real problem).  To get at my personal beef with the Corporation of the President, let's consider a really evil corporation, a corporation that makes the LDS church leaders look like Saints.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Monsanto.

Like the Corporation of the President, Monsanto offers services.  It has happy customers (including me and various nice people I know) who have voluntarily paid for these services and derived (as they thought) some benefit therefrom (less weeds, less bugs eating plant crops, hardier plant crops, etc.).  Like every company, including the Corporation of the President, Monsanto markets itself to the community (with ad campaigns and "missionaries").  The more happy customers it gets, the bigger it grows.  The bigger it grows, the more money (and social power) it has.  At some point, it is so large that some people are involved with it not for the services per se, but for the chance to make a killing when the company gets even bigger.  (It becomes an investment.)  The services are still important, but they become more and more abstract and universal (everyone should buy Monsanto!  Monsanto for all your farming and gardening needs, whether you live here, there, or anywhere).  The power of the individual customer cannot help but shrink in this environment: the bigger Monsanto gets, the less it cares what I think or do.  As long as it has millions of happy customers, why should it care what I think?  It answers to the market, not the customer, and its first business concern is reserved for shareholders rather than customers.  This is to some degree inevitable.

Every corporation comes with a downside.  There is no such thing as profit without loss.  Winning requires losing.  (If I want to be a great athlete, I have to lose time and energy.  Same thing if I want to become a great scholar, or parent, or businessperson.  Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.)  Unfortunately for Monsanto, its downside is enormous.  It is destroying the environment that humanity requires in order to survive: the handy-dandy products it sells to happy customers destroy beneficial insects (especially honey bees) and represent a serious threat to healthy biodiversity worldwide.  Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe the synthetic reality Monsanto sells us to replace the natural one they are destroying will end up being superior.  But I seriously doubt it.  I doubt the Monsanto engineers' ability to play God successfully.  I would feel safer if they went out of business sooner rather than later.

What does this have to do with the LDS Corporation of the President?  Well, first off, it shows that it is never enough to look at the good things an organization does while ignoring the bad things that it does.  The downside is more important than the upside, really: the benefits of Monsanto's products are no good to dead people.  Like Monsanto, the Corporation of the President has a downside, and no one should take part in the Corporation without knowing that downside (or at least having the opportunity to know it).  I have written some about the downside of the Corporation of the President in this blog as it has affected me personally.

In brief, my grievance with the Corporation of the President is that it was not honest with me.  It didn't come to me and demand obeisance because it was a good humanitarian organization, or a good investment if I wanted to attend an excellent school with low tuition.  It demanded obeisance because God appeared to its founder and maintained a special relationship with his successors in its corporate hierarchy.  I was very interested in the history of the founder and the nature of the hierarchy's special relationship with God -- too interested, as it turns out.  Putting aside how others might view my experience (which is not universal), the fact is that I personally feel betrayed by the Corporation.  I believed that it was what it advertised itself to be in my Primary classes, my Sunday School classes, my seminary classes, and even my BYU religion classes (though by then I was starting to see the cracks in the mirror).  I believed that its techniques for improving human morals worked, and I applied these techniques dutifully to myself -- until I realized that I was weakening my morality rather than strengthening it.  I wasn't in the church because I wanted pageants or good school on the cheap or a place to coordinate humanitarian work (which I did not get seriously involved with until my disaffection).  I was in it for an upside that didn't exist: I though it would make a calm, capable, moral, upstanding person; instead, I became a nervous wreck.  While I am still something of a basket-case, I feel better (emotionally, physically, and "spiritually") since ceasing to believe in the supernatural claims of the Corporation and renouncing my efforts to conform to its program for moral improvement.

As a result of my experience, I see the Corporation of the President from a vantage point that will seem strange to believers and non-believers alike whose experience with the LDS church is not like mine.  That is OK.  I do not expect everyone to be just like me.  I do not think that would make the world a better place, really.  Unlike many disaffected Mormons, I am not really very angry at the church.  The worst things it did to me were mostly things I did to myself, and recovering from them (in my case -- I am aware that others are not always so fortunate) did not require that much beyond a personal readjustment.  I lost no family.  I didn't even lose any friends.  The only things I lost were things I was glad to get rid of: misdirected shame and fear, and a moral duty to put the Corporation before my conscience.

Today, I see the Corporation of the President as a relatively harmless company in our society.  If all companies came handicapped the way it is (by its known history and its respect for individual decisions to opt in or not), then we would be pretty safe.  But unfortunately, there are other fish out there, man-eating sharks like Monsanto (which is coming to eat you for breakfast, willy-nilly).  Combating these companies requires a lot of resources: time, talents, and such -- time and talents that I will not have disposable if I am spending hours of every week learning and teaching the gospel of Joseph Smith.  While others' experience is doubtless different, my experience with the church has been that it spends an inordinate amount of time and effort on the parts of the gospel that I now find utterly unconvincing (and often worse than useless).  We LDS aren't working in the bishop's storehouse on Sunday: we're getting together to talk about history that never happened, strategies for moral improvement that don't work (at least not as advertised), and (hopefully! if we're lucky) some music and socialization.  I don't want the history or the strategies (they make me sick), and I can get music and socialization elsewhere (maybe even in a place like the bishop's storehouse).  The situation is even bleaker if I am good and attend to all my LDS duties outside of Sunday worship.  Let's assume I study scriptures daily, work on my genealogy, go home-teaching, receive home-teachers, and attend leadership meetings outside of regular worship services.  I also have a full-time job.  How am I supposed to develop a program for living well?  How am I supposed to have a personal life?  How am I supposed to come up with a viable alternative to the mess that is Monsanto?  It is easier to get things done when I am not loaded down with busywork.  Instead of spending more time sitting around talking about history that isn't really history and strategies for moral improvement that don't really work, I can grow a garden, take up bee-keeping, volunteer at a soup-kitchen, or relax with friends who don't care how I see the church.  Some people can juggle better than I can, no doubt, but that doesn't mean that I should drop things that I find really compelling in exchange for things that have no obvious value for me.

Paradoxically, I find myself agreeing with Dallin Oaks (and, less paradoxically, with Voltaire): "We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better" (or as Voltaire has it, le mieux est l'ennemi du bien).  My circumstances make the upside of being an active LDS relatively small, especially when you consider that I am not really able to do what the LDS church does best (and most often): teach myth as history and current church disciplinary practices as effective psychotherapy.  The man-eating shark in the room here is Monsanto and other companies like it, which profit from the inaction of people like me -- "happy" customers too busy (too distracted by busywork?) to notice that their herbicides and pesticides come at a horrible price.  If we talked about useful stuff at church, like how to grow crops or keep bees, then I might consider going back.

Today, I see the LDS church as family: they are the ornery old uncle, who means well and does some good but has an unfortunate tendency to mouth off at family gatherings (and even get into fist fights).  I don't want the church to die.  I think it could be better than it is, and I encourage it to keep striving for the ideal it aims at in much of its rhetoric.  Monsanto, on the other hand, is evil: they are the psychopathic serial killer who has no compunction about destroying anyone or anything to get what they want.  I would be very happy if their business died.  The hatred and disdain I feel for them is much less conflicted than my feelings for the LDS church.  (Paradoxically, it is much harder for me to disentangle myself from Monsanto than from the LDS.  The really dangerous bastards are the ones you cannot get rid of simply by smiling and closing the door.)

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