On the 2nd November 2007 a press release was issued from the Church, attributed to Pres. Hinckley, which said: “. . . the Church encourages a deeper and broader examination of its theology, history, and culture on an intellectual level . . . [and] open dialogue and conversation between the Latter-day Saints and various scholarly and religious communities . . . [in the belief that] Mormonism has a depth and breadth of substance that can hold up under academic scrutiny”.
To many who are aware of the Church’s difficult past with academia, particularly scholars from within the LDS community, this may seem like a surprising statement. Likewise to those who feel that the Church is not candid or open about its past (or present) this may also be a surprise. I do not intend this to be a rehash of the discussions around whether the Church is open or candid? However, for me at least, this raises a number of questions and issues that may be worth considering.
First, does President Hinckley’s comment contradict the previous denunciation of Symposia. Sunstone and those other forums like it, who the policy seems to have been directed toward, are certainly part of that community who examine the Church’s ‘theology, history and culture on an intellectual level’. Has this newer statement created a grey area about which scholarly communities or activities are acceptable, especially in light of the fact that the new handbook which was released in 2008 has not rescinded the previous statement against symposia?
Second, does this statement reflect a swing, or at leas the beginnings of one, toward greater intellectual freedom in the Church. Armand Mauss, in his book ‘The Angel and the Beehive’, argues that Churches, including this one, struggle with a balance between retrenchment and assimilation. Intellectual freedom is one of those sliding scales upon which the Church has moved in the past and perhaps might be again. Is there any evidence for this, or is there any evidence of a tension between those who want to encourage this freedom and those who do not?
An academic conference entitled The Worlds of Joseph Smith , held at the Library of Congress in the Bicentennial year following Joseph Smith’s death was an example of what President Hinckley seems to have been encouraging. In fact the article specifically mentions it. The conference included many scholars of Mormonism both from within and outside of the Church. However, two things come to mind in using this as an example of increased intellectual freedom and the tension which might be there. First, is the notable absence of some very important scholars of Mormonism, who (perhaps incidentally?) may also be those that are not in good favour with the Church. The second is a comment during the questions period of the final session by Douglas Davies who said, “What are we doing here? What kind of event is this? What kind of a symposium? Is it academic or evangelistic?… I am certainly not here to engage in religious apologetics?” Clearly, if there is a shift toward intellectual liberality then this is not without its pitfalls. Further it seems that such a shift does involve some tension within the Church’s attempts to get that balance. A tension which Professor Davies has clearly noted.
Although we could talk about the publication of Rough Stone Rolling (and its sales through Deseret Book) or the advent of Preach My Gospel as examples of this relaxing of intellectual rigidity, I will use another anecdote to illustrate. Reading Gary James Bergera’s history of the Elbert Peck Sunstone Years something surprisingly was recurrent. Elbert was often called into disciplinary counsels, through the late-90’s, by different Stake Presidents only to be counselled by leaders more senior in the hierarchy that they should cancel the disciplinary session. Is this a sign that the Church leaders have recoiled from the events of the early 90’s? Being from England my finger is certainly not on the pulse of the battles between the academy and the Church, but in doing some brief research it seems that there has not been the same number of Church disciplinary councils for Apostasy among LDS academics that there were. It should be noted that there are exceptions of which I am aware, but is this true as a general rule? Further it seems unlikely that, the Church being the institution that it is, it will ever move away from apostasy type excommunications as a whole. So it seems unrealistic to expect that. Perhaps the most someone could realistically hope for is an increased acceptance of diverging views.
So, is the Church more accepting of Symposia, or is this only because Sunstone, for example, has become more moderate (see Bergera article)?
Is the Church moving toward more tolerance of its academics and is there any evidence for this or is it just less willing to punish, for fear of bad PR?
Has this statement been followed through, since President Hinckley died shortly thereafter? What evidence is there to suggest that it has or it has not?