What is a KGB Sympathizer to Say?

September 27, 2004 | 25 comments
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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…

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25 Responses to What is a KGB Sympathizer to Say?

  1. Mathew on September 27, 2004 at 10:39 am

    Nate,

    This is a fun anecdote and I can even make a reasonable guess as to the identity of the speaker in your story, but I’m wondering if it is really that hard to express sympathy, disagreement and articulate your own beliefs. Would it have alienated the table to say that you find the comparison unfair and point out that there is no gulag in the church? If someone rejoined with an observation about the spiritual gulag you might have been able to have a real conversation about why you think this is a false comparison. I guess I don’t think it would be to difficult to engage a group of people who consider themselves educated and intellectual on the merits of a statement over dinner. This may stem less from being educated and intellectual and more from a perception of oneself as open to disagreement and discussion–but that is beside the point. Of course I wasn’t present at this particular dinner so I don’t really know, but those are my impressions.

    On Mormons at Berkeley in general–one of my sisters, a very orthodox and conservative person, received her masters at Berkeley and has universally good things to say about both university and the church there. If memory serves me–Elder Kimball had harsher things to say about at least one “self-proclaimed intellectual” there in the 60s.

  2. Nate Oman on September 27, 2004 at 11:05 am

    Mathew: You may be right. On the other hand, I didn’t know any of these people and they all knew each other quite well. Furthermore, from their conversation it seemed to me that they viewed those that disagreed with them in fairly stereotyped terms. I was caught between the hope of disappointing those stereotypes while at the same time being frightened that they would be used to simply dismiss anything I might say. Also, these people were old and smart (some were in their thirties!) and I was young and dumb.

  3. john fowles on September 27, 2004 at 11:18 am

    Nate, if part of your response would have included testimony, then I am reluctant to be as magnanimous towards your fellow dinner guests as Mathew is willing to be. It would have simply been a conversation stopper and earned you a reputation as a non-critical thinker (after all, how could anyone who is a critical thinker actually be happy with the Church and with its heirarchical structure).

  4. Geoff B on September 27, 2004 at 11:18 am

    Nate, I am a former liberal who grew up near Berkeley. I understand all of the arguments that Berkeley types (yes, there is a type) make about thought control, intimidation and monitoring in the Church. Since my conversion to the Church, I’ve had a few debates with Berkeley types about this issue. Bottom line: they simply don’t understand the difference between self-imposed self control and authoritarian self control until you spend some time explaining it to them. In terms of the amount of personal freedom I have now compared to my days in a liberal Berkeley-type community, I don’t see much of a difference. In many ways, I feel more freedom now because I have, on my own, decided to limit my actions because those negative actions made me feel bad. This is a liberating phenomenon, rather than a restrictive one. Berkeley types will eventually cede this point (because they also believe that meditation and other types of activity can be liberating, and at the end of the day they eventually agree that self control is a good thing), but they always come back with: “well, what about the poor schmucks who are kicked out of the Church for not agreeing with the orthodoxy? Isn’t your Church really about censorship?” I always try to explain the actual process of asking people to repent. The number of people excommunicated and disfellowshipped is relatively low, and people usually have no problem with the process because they see it as a means of cleansing themselves more than anything else (of course, there are exceptions). I tell them about all of the people who turned against Joseph Smith who were promptly forgiven by him. And I insist that at the end of the day the Church must stand for something or it in effect stands for nothing. I ask them: “what about if some right-wing militia nut is up in the hills with ten wives and is killing people and calling himself Mormon? Shouldn’t the Church have the right to expel people who don’t follow its values from the Church?” If you put it this way, the Berkeley types will eventually back down. You might even open up a few eyes.

  5. Mathew on September 27, 2004 at 11:54 am

    John,

    I agree that testimony, at least in the format that we associate w/ sacrament meetings, would have been inappropriate. What isn’t inappropriate is to challenge a statement w/ a statement of your own backed up by appropriate facts. I might have stayed silent as well (ha, fat chance), because I didn’t know the group. On the other hand, it seems to me that dinner conversations among friends and acquaintances are among the best places to freely disagree–free exchange of opinions is the norm rather than the exception. It just sounds like Nate was understandably a little intimidated because he was younger than those present and an outsider.

    On the other hand, had he spoken up and engaged the group, they might have welcomed them as one of their own–a “thinking Mormon”, albeit an orthodox one. I think this response is problematic–because Nate wouldn’t have disproved any stereotypes–just placed himself outside the stereotype and welcomed into a coterie of elites. I guess engaging in witty dinner conversation is easier than changing a person’s bias.

    Nate–is reporting incidents such as these part of a larger project to turn simplistic stereotypes back on those who employ them? I think its a pretty effective tool even if not entirely intentional.

  6. ronin on September 27, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    I agree with Geoff, living as I do in the Berkeley wanna-be university town of ANn Arbor. When confronted by leftist/feminist types who say the same sort of things, I usually respond the way Geoff does, and they usually back off. However, there are others, who are so set in their beliefs about our Church being some kind of an oppressive institution, that no amount of talking or reasoning works – those folks, I just walk away from, unfortunately, they are just a waste of time.

  7. Nathan Tolman on September 27, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    Nate,

    Perhaps you could of questioned the speaker instead of confronting him/her head on. I find some question often leads to some softened views, while pointing out the problems with another’s thought.

  8. Kingsley on September 27, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Does anyone else feel that “blind obedience” is somehow terribly beautiful, like Newman falling on his knees before the little sodden priest, “a kind of military loyalty [different from] criticism and approval” (Chesterton)? It’s the old idea of laying one’s sword at the feet of one’s king. The Sunstoney response is a thrillingly fervent, “Yes, but my king is Christ–not some white antediluvian male in Salt Lake City!” Very well, but how, really, do you coherently separate them as far as the structure of the kingdom itself goes?

    If the Church is actually the Church, the Kingdom of God on earth, a logical, purposeful organization making itself ready for the return of an actual, physical king, who, in his absence, has appointed deputies to act on his behalf, how is it coherent to create these divisions?

    I guess one answer to Nate’s question is, “If Christ wants a KGB, He wants a KGB. Pass the salt.”

  9. Adam Greenwood on September 27, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Kingsley,
    You’re not doing a very good job at convincing people that you and I aren’t the same person.

    See this link–http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=1024–where I rhapsodize about the joys of obedience.

  10. Kingsley on September 27, 2004 at 3:23 pm

    I remember it well. The idea is, I am married to Christ, and, by logical extension, to His Church–forevermore, lock the door, throw away the key. I wonder sometimes if we intellectuals are not simply masochists who, if not in an agony of ambiguity, can never be satisfied.

  11. danithew on September 27, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    I’m glad Kingsley provided one possible answer to Nate’s question. But it’s missing that one word that I recall Soviet communists are always using when they address each other in the movies …

    So if I dare add on to what Kingsely wrote, I’d simply say:

    “Comrade ___(insert last name)___ , if Christ wants a KGB, then He wants a KGB. Pass the salt.”

  12. Kingsley on September 27, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Beautiful.

  13. Nathan on September 27, 2004 at 3:39 pm

    Sometimes, though, one’s first impulse really is the correct one. Just remember: WWJGKD?

  14. danithew on September 27, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    I’m trying to think of how Mormon-speak would turn into KGB/Soviet-speak.

    Quorum -> Politburo
    Church Courts -> Summary Excommunications
    P-Day -> Glasnost Monday
    Veil -> Curtain

    Ok, I’m not doing all that well but I didn’t serve my mission in eastern Europe. What can I say?

  15. Jonathan Green on September 27, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Nate,
    I agree that the KGB-Mormonism comparison is fatuous. It’s a stereotype whose source I can’t mentally reconstruct from my experience.

    But apart from the question of how to react to a wrong and misleading comparison, what if the budding writer wasn’t thinking of her whole experience as a member, but only of her time as a missionary? An ex-KGB officer as bishop with an iron fist is risible, but what about an ex-KGB officer as the new president of a suddenly flourishing mission? There might be real comic potential there.

  16. diogenes on September 27, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    Does it trouble anyone else that most of the responses here to the glib and condescending KGB comparison are just as glib and condescending in dismissing it?

    It may be that Nate’s acquaintances at Berkeley don’t get very far outside the assumptions of their own little intellectual comfort zones. But they are not unique in that fault; there is plenty of self-congratulation to go around here at T&S as well.

  17. William Morris on September 27, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Speaking of Soviet speak…

    Some Romanians were rather uncomfortable with the practice of bearing testimony because it seemed too much like what went on at party meetings.

    However, most members didn’t have a problem with it because they didn’t feel the same pressure to get up and ‘testify’ — plus most (all?) of them actually believed what they were testifying about.

  18. Jonathan Green on September 27, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Actually, diogenes, glib doesn’t trouble me at all. Nate’s post caught me in a glib mood, hence the response. If you have something serious to say, then by all means, say it. But you can’t complain about other people not writing the things you you wish they would write. If you want to see a substantive response, it’s up to you. I’m interested in what you might have to say. I’m just waiting for you to say it.

  19. Kingsley on September 27, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    Diogenes: No, it isn’t troubling (for me) to dismiss glibness glibly. To not do so would give the glibber weight he doesn’t deserve.

  20. Nate Oman on September 27, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    While I thought the KGB comment was an unfair joke, I think that most of the folks at the dinner were fairly thoughtful and well-informed people. I honestly don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I don’t recall that it consistent of specious attack on straw man after specious attack on straw man. The KGB story any my reaction to it is simply what sticks in my memory.

  21. Ethesis (Stephen M) on September 27, 2004 at 7:53 pm

    Ok, visited the links in response to comments like this. I liked this one:

    1. Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black do not speak for Mormon women.

    I have been active in LDS congregations in Utah, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and England. I would be shocked if more than one in fifty Mormon women would be sympathetic to the views or methods of Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black (i.e., demanding female priesthood and publicly attacking church leadership). I had a casual acquaintance with Ms. Black while her husband was a student at Harvard Law School. I have no personal criticism of Ms. Black, but she did not represent women who form the backbone of the LDS Church. As Ms. Hanks has been excommunicated, neither does she represent a convincing spokeswoman for committed LDS women.

    I, too, am a feminist. I graduated summa cum laude from Wellesley College, where I was named the Malone Scholar as the outstanding graduate in 1992. I am a Truman Scholar and have been involved at various times with our nation’s political system. As a Marshall Scholar, I earned an M.Phil. in political theory from the University of Cambridge. I graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School and currently practice law as an associate with a prominent Boston firm. I sit on Governor Cellucci’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues and am active with the Boston Chapter of the Federalist Society. I have a supportive husband and two beautiful children. I do not make a practice of publishing my resume, but I believe it lends credence to the following statement: I am the type of committed, Mormon woman for whom Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black do not speak.

    Well.

  22. Bob Caswell on September 27, 2004 at 11:37 pm

    “But apart from the question of how to react to a wrong and misleading comparison, what if the budding writer wasn’t thinking of her whole experience as a member, but only of her time as a missionary?”

    If this were true, I’d be more interested in the comparison. Such a comparison still probably wouldn’t work very well, but I must confess that I’d still be interested in it. Mostly it’s just that I want to meet Nate one day and be ready with material forcing him to express sympathy, disagreement, and some coherent articulation of his own beliefs. :-)

  23. Larry on September 28, 2004 at 7:58 am

    KGB. A good view of liberal tolerance for discussion and free thought would be NOW.

  24. Chris Kimball on September 28, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    Now more than 20 years ago, a recruiter from the IRS told me that the most interesting feature of my resume was “LDS mission.” He said that Mormons tended to do well in a hierarchical structure where there were a lot of rules and constraints. Personally that was a major turn-off (although I never had a serious interest in the IRS anyway). However, as an empirical statement, isn’t it likely to have some truth? As an hypothesis, I would suggest that the class of people who select out as active Mormons have a higher tolerance for hierarchical structure, orders, rules and constraints, than the population generally. In other words, on a scale of tolerating hierarchy, the distribution of active Mormons (including all variety of active Mormons) would be skewed well to the right of the distribution of the general population.
    If that’s true, isn’t there some substance to the KGB point? Is your reaction colored by the immediate pejorative connotation of “KGB.” Would it be the same if the speaker used “IRS” or “FBI” (I’ve heard both)?

  25. Geoff Matthews on September 30, 2004 at 2:12 am

    The problem that I have with the KGB comparison is that its like calling someone a Nazi. The differences between the two are greater than the similarities. The KGB had control over one’s economic well being, not to mention one’s level of freedom (whatever amount Soviets may have had). Yes, being in the intellectual minority can be tough IF you want people to agree with you, and the impression I get with some Mormons of a more liberal bent is that they want more Mormons to agree with them. For some, when this agreement doesn’t come, they take it personally.
    Sadly, I give little thought to the popularity of my beliefs. Whatever the downsides, it has kept me secure in them and tolerant of those who disagree with me.