Several years ago I found myself at a restuarant in Berkeley, California with some of my elders. They were bright, friendly, and very kind to me. I enjoyed the evening, and I am glad that I was invited. During the course of the conversation one of the interlocutors, a disillusioned returned-missionary from someplace in the former Soviet Union, began talking about the Church. She had decided that she wanted to write a story about a Russian convert to Mormonism. The convert would be a former KGB agent, who upon joining the Church would feel immediately at home in the culture of control, monitoring, and intimidation. Everyone at the table thought that this was a great joke, and I have to admit that it was a very clever way of making a point. I didn’t say anything. I smiled politely, ate my meal, and enjoyed the rest of the flow of the conversation.
I have wondered, however, what I would have said if someone had turned to me and asked, “What do you think?” This was hardly a forum in which earnest protestations of faith or love for the Church would have been appropriate, welcome, or even useful. It’s a big world, people disagree strongly about things, and dealing pleasantly with that is part of life. On the other hand, I felt as though I had some experience with the Church. I had been a member all of my life. I was a returned missionary. I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher at the time. I had worked at BYU Studies in the early 1990s and followed the pyrotechnics in Mormon intellectual circles at that time. There were things that disturbed me about the Church, but frankly I thought that comparison to the KGB was glib, offensive, and unfair. I didn’t experience my own life as that of a small cog in the secret police organization of a brutal totalitarian state.
I have to admit that there is a part of my soul that wants to respond to these sorts of statements by very sweetly saying, “I personally think that you are full of sh_t.” On the other hand, I realize that this is an unfair overreaction. I generally do a good job of controlling myself, and hopefully my nasty side doesn’t bubble up too often. On the other hand, there is something deeply phony and a morally hollow in saying, “Ha! Ha! Yeh, Elder Packard really is just like Yuri Andropov, isn’t he?” So I am left with the problem of expressing sympathy, disagreement, and some coherent articulation of my own beliefs that others will find compelling or at least reasonable.
It is probably just as well that no one asked me my opinion…