I’ve touched on this subject before, but it’s on my mind again. I was just over on Eric D. Snider’s site, browsing and chuckling, and I read something that touched on a recurring theme. Eric wrote a column about boring sacrament meetings, and a reader (you’ve heard of her) wrote in to say, inter alia:
For some non-members and less actives, your voice may be the only one they hear describing our Sacrament meeting, and if it is, they will have a very different impression than I have from attending.
That statement sums up the sentiments I’ve heard often echoed by church members — that any statement which could be interpreted in a way potentially critical or embarrassing to the church is a violation of the member’s Duty to Present the Church in a Favorable Light at All Times, Just in Case a Non-Member Happens to be Listening. This rule, oft-invoked, seems preposterous to me, for several reasons.
First, it seems like a sneaky, backhanded way to foreclose any critical discussion. Any hint of critique can be quickly met with “shhh — you never know who might be listening!” (If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, will it affect a non-member’s potential future testimony?) And who can argue against that — who wants to be personally responsible for someone else going to hell? (Kind of a reverse D & C 18 — “And if it so be that ye should mess up anyone’s future potential testimony by any of your remarks . . .”).
This critique effectively stifles any sort of criticism, including constructive criticism or useful discussion. While many church topics are divinely established, others are simply bureaucratic procedures. Yet even discussion of procedural protocol is suspect. Is a three-hour block meeting the best idea, or were there advantages to the prior layout? “Shh — you might dissuade a non-member from coming to church!” This removes constructive criticism and informed debate from the discourse, which is a problem because there may actually be better ways to do things procedurally, which are never addressed.
And thus members become an echo chamber. “Let me tell you how much I love Sacrament Meeting! And by the way, I really love Sunday School too! Did I mention that I love to do my home teaching?” Or they just say nothing, and maybe wonder if they’re the only one who thinks that home teaching is hard, and Sunday School is boring, and wonder if they have anything in common with the Duty-to-Present-Things-Favorably police. (As I’ve written elsewhere, “We as members will lose the ability to communicate fully, and properly discuss some of these issues, if we’re looking over our shoulders and afraid to say anything that could be misinterpreted by a non-member. “)
Second, this idea is incredibly condescending towards non-members (as well as members). The underlying message: Non-members are dumb. They are dumber than a bag of hammers. And you members (who are not dumb, of course) had better not let those dumb non-members see so much as a jot or tittle of negativity, because they certainly do not know a hawk from a handsaw. And those dumb non-members are particularly susceptible to negative statements of any kind.
Look how tragically it all plays out: Charlie, the (former) golden contact, glances up from his morning paper, having just read Eric’s column, and says, “Well, Louise, I don’t think I’ll be joining the Mormon church any time soon. They have boring sacrament meetings! It says so right here! Now let’s go down the road to the Lutheran services, their meetings are never boring.” And later that day, when the missionaries knock on (former) golden contact Charlie’s door, he laughs maniacally, and says “You’ll never get me to your boring meetings, Mormons!” And then he sics his dog Bruiser on them.
And I dislike and resent that message. I don’t think non-members are dumb. Many non-members are a whole lot smarter than I am. Many are much better people, and probably living much more righteous lives, than I am. I don’t think that they’ll hear someone discussing some aspect of the church and run away screaming.
In fact, I think that, because non-members aren’t dumb, they will be more receptive to the church if they see that some church members do have complaints, that life does not magically become perfect when you’re a Mormon. (And those who do think that life magically becomes perfect when you’re a Mormon, they have issues of their own – see discussion further below). And I suspect that non-members may view as hypocritical a place where they see members who unanimously intone, in Manchurian Candidate pre-programmed style (remember, the eerie “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”), that the church is true and perfect, and that they’ve never had any questions or concerns that weren’t immediately and definitively answered. Were I a visiting non-member, I really wonder if the ubiquitous favorable light approach isn’t something I would find really disconcerting.
My final complaint is that showing things in a favorable light only tells part of the story. And so, any non-member who does decide to join the church, based on the unanimously glowing reports of all the members they meet (such as the hypothetical non-member mentioned above who thinks the church will solve all of her problems), will be greatly disappointed when the church turns out not to solve all of her problems after all. She will transition from a new investigator, who is showered with positive attention and support (“Good morning, sister? How are you? How are your kids?”) to a new member, who quickly learns that home teaching is at 15%, and the primary president hates the Bishop, and can-you-teach-the-lesson-today,-here’s-the-manual.
I once read an Ann Landers, where a person wrote in that her (sister? friend? I don’t recall) was dating, and was using a vast number of hidden appearance-enhancing devices: a push-up bra, a thinning girdle, something-or-other for hips or thighs, and several other devices — I don’t recall all of the details, but you get the idea. And Ann Landers simply replied that some fellow was in for quite a surprise should the relationship become serious.
Are we doing the same when we insist on a Duty to Present the Church in a Favorable Light at All Times, Just in Case a Non-Member Happens to be Listening? It seems that way to me — and that is another reason, perhaps the most important of all, why members should not think they have a duty to present the church favorably at all times.