Too Much Truth?

February 9, 2009 | 22 comments
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Blogger and journalist Rod Dreher posted an op-ed piece at USA Today, “How much ‘truth’ is too much?” It reviews in passing the author’s personal journey from faithful Catholic journalist reporting on the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to Orthodox Christian who prefers to avoid repeating that experience a second time in his new church.

The experience of reporting on the Catholic scandal tried his faith. As he relates:

My mistake was to assume that I was strong enough emotionally to put analytical distance between myself and my subject. After I left Rome, I made a deliberate decision not to investigate scandal in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), my new communion. My family and I needed a church more than I needed to crusade against ecclesial iniquity.

That’s a gutsy call for a journalist to make, first to make that commitment, but also to write about it. I’m impressed — it’s a rare thing to see a journalist admit that his or her reporting has consequences (both public and personal). I have no doubt some LDS journalists and academics have faced similar difficulties when investigating historical or contemporary stories about the LDS Church.

Here is Dreher’s conclusion on what is surely a gut-wrenching decision for anyone who must confront it.

Societies cannot survive without authoritative institutions. But which authoritative persons or institutions can withstand constant critical scrutiny? In our culture, we are predisposed to see damage done from failing to question authority. We are far less capable of grasping the destruction that can come from delegitimizing authority with corrosive suspicion. How much reality must we choose to ignore for the greater good of our own souls, and society?

Dreher is the author of popular book Crunchy Cons, which I posted about here. Taking religion seriously is one of the defining characteristics of those he terms crunchy conservatives. I suspect only a religious conservative could take the position Dreher does in the USA Today piece. A liberal (religious or not) would likely be unwilling to balance full disclosure of truth as they see it, however destructive, against any competing value or values. A secular conservative, while valuing some social institutions, would be unlikely to give much weight to the legitimacy of religious institutions.

22 Responses to Too Much Truth?

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 9, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Lead us not into temptation. Dreher’s dilemma is one I’d rather not face.

  2. Julie M. Smith on February 9, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    “But which authoritative persons or institutions can withstand constant critical scrutiny?”

    If they can’t, they shouldn’t be authoritative.

    Dreher has stuck his fingers in his ears and I think that is a cop-out. Further, if sympathetic people don’t investigate potential scandals, you can bet non-sympathetic people will. It is always better to tell your own story.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    I remember that the late Richard John Neuhaus was very critical of both Catholic priests who had abused minors and of bishops who failed to discipline them. Yet he was very devoted to the Catholic Church, having converted to it from his native Lutheran pastorate. I don’t think writing critical stories about an institution you belong to necessarily entails losing faith in the institution as a whole. It requires making a distinction between the institution and some of the people who serve in it and even lead in it.

    Neuhaus in fact saw the sexual abuse scandal as symptomatic of an even more fundamental problem within the Catholic priesthood, one of turning a blind eye to homosexual activity by many priests. He noted that the majority of the abused minors were male teens, and that homosexual abusers accounted for far more than their proportionate share of the instances of abuse. He saw these as serious problems, needing serious reform, but again still distinct from the authority and authenticity of the Catholic church itself.

    So Neuhaus would be all in favor of full revelation of sexual abuse and of the inadequate response by some bishops, out of a love for his church and a desire to punish those who had harmed it, namely the abusers and their enablers.

    Having served in various leadership positions in the LDS church, I know my own fallability, and certainly would not think less of the church based on my personal shortcomings. I can therefore recognize the difference between imperfect leaders in the church and imperfection in the church itself.

    When it comes to some of the more heinous criminal actions among the members, the average bishop or even stake president would not have had a lot of experience dealing with felony level miscreants in a church context. It is only if they have gained that experience in their professional work (as a prosecutor like me or a law enforcement officer or social worker) that they are likely to fully appreciate the danger that people like that pose to the members. The one thing that the church can do is train bishops and stake presidencies and Boy Scout leaders to understand these threats and the depravity and deceitfulness of some people, who are willing to use the access their membership gives them to find new victims.

  4. Hunter on February 9, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Another rah-rah in favor of institutions in general, is David Brooks recent op-ed:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/opinion/27brooks.html.

    I think institutions are important, yes. But too many institutions left unchecked produce individual autocrats who behave badly. In turn, the institution suffers. I’m with Julie M. Smith. A healthy institution, to stay healthy, needs to be constantly closely scrutinized.

  5. Ray on February 9, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    The fine line, imo, is between “open examination” and “expository investigation”. I am all for the former, in all aspects of organizational inquiry; I am opposed adamantly to the latter except in cases where the former discovers egregious abuse.

    The former allows the examiner to sift through all available evidence and reach a personal conclusion, which might or might not concur with another’s personal conclusion; the latter focuses the investigator into a narrow role, often emphasizing supportive evidence and downplaying or even discarding contradictory evidence. Too much of religious criticism falls into the latter category, both in what is said about us and in what we say about others.

  6. Ray on February 9, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Just to clarify, I have no problem with expository investigation as a follow-up to open examination. It’s when the initial, open investigation never occurs that I believe the problems arise.

  7. Dan on February 9, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Thank God that Jesus Christ was perfect. I can look to Him as my example, wholly and without question. I can’t do that of Thomas S. Monson as good of a man as he is. Certainly not the Pope, or the Orthodox Church’s various leaders (Greek, Russian, etc).

  8. NOYDMB on February 9, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    “If they can’t, they shouldn’t be authoritative.”
    Interesting viewpoint Julie, but what do you base that on?

  9. Matt Evans on February 9, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I take it that Dreher meant his question “which institutions can withstand constant critical scrutiny” rhetorically; that he believes no institution can withstand the kind of scrutiny he’s suggesting.

    My sense is that the vast majority of active Mormons would read Dreher’s column and think that the LDS church is an institution that can withstand even constant critical scrutiny, yet those same people would refuse to to read, ponder or believe any serious criticisms of the church, its history or leadership, because they have adopted the same approach as Dreher, thinking that too much scrutiny will destroy their belief.

  10. Julie M. Smith on February 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    “Interesting viewpoint Julie, but what do you base that on?”

    A person or institution who/that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny is not one that I would view as authoritative.

  11. Matt Evans on February 9, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    “often emphasizing supportive evidence and downplaying or even discarding contradictory evidence.”

    Religious criticism?! This is the tack of religious teachers! If God answers a prayer it’s a sign that God loves you, if God doesn’t answer a prayer it’s a sign that God loves you and he wants you to learn something. If church growth is fast it’s a sign that the church is true because God’s truth will fill every clime; if church growth is slow it’s a sign that the church is true because the wicked will reject God’s truth in the last days.

    In 19 out of 20 testimonies shared in church the speaker emphasizes supporting evidence and dismisses or ignores contradictory evidence. Selection bias is everywhere at church, and is official church policy: we excommunicate apostates to limit their exposure, don’t welcome “untestimonies” from the pulpit, and don’t ask students in Sunday School to share examples of priesthood blessings that didn’t come to pass.

    So complain about selection bias — just don’t do it selectively!

  12. Adam Greenwood on February 10, 2009 at 6:25 am

    If they can’t, they shouldn’t be authoritative.

    Which is why, in our age of constant scrutiny and criticism, most institutions are very healthy. The LDS Church, on the other hand, with its penchant for keeping its business to itself, is a moribund institution with little authority among its own members. Oh, wait . . .

    I myself have tried to strengthen my marriage and my wife with constant critical scrutiny and its been a rousing success.

  13. Adam Greenwood on February 10, 2009 at 6:35 am

    Implicit disputes that are behind some of the arguments in the comments:

    What is the source of institutional authority? Is it because institutions are ‘better’ than we are or is it something else?

    What constitutes ‘critical scrutiny’? Dreher defines it as ‘corrosive suspicion.’

    Does the authority of the institution of ‘criticial scrutiny’ stand up to critical scrutiny? In other words, in examining institutional biases and faults, are we disinterested truth seekers or do we have biases and faults and status interests that pervert the examination?

  14. Eric Nielson on February 10, 2009 at 8:43 am

    I think there should be a healthy distance placed between the institutions themselves, and the people who are involved in them. Particularly religious institutions.

  15. Mark Brown on February 10, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Something which is missing from the conversation so far is the observation that Dreher comes from a tradition where the authority of The Church as embodied in the Pope is infallible. So it was probably a lot more difficult for him to come to terms with what happen to Roman Catholicism than it would be for a latter-day saint who finds out that one of his old seminary teachers or bishops ran off with a cocktail waitress.

    Also, I think this is where our tradition of lay leadership serves us well. We are all very aware of our own faults, and we know many of the faults of the people around us in the ward. And just as I can’t expect that my faults magically disappear if I become EQP, neither do I expect my neighbor’s faults to go away when he becomes EQP. In addition, we have an informal vetting process that takes place over the years in the form of temple recommend and worthiness interviews.

    The two most likely areas of corruption are embezzlement of money and sexual contact with a minor. The church has taken steps to eliminate opportunites for either temptation. Consider that even the bishop cannot open a tithing envelope without a counselor or clerk present. All checks must be countersigned, and two men go together to the bank every Sunday to make the deposit. We are also used to the idea of having at least two adults present when youth activities are going on.

    These procedures aren’t foolproof, but they do give a measure of trust, and they are common enough among us now that anyone who tried to circumvent them would draw suspicion.

  16. Mark Brown on February 10, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Eric said it better in two sentences than I did in 4 paragraphs. Our tradition of lay leadership helps us to separate the person from the office. The next-door neighbor might be a schmoe, but if he gets the calling of bishop, he is now bishop Schmoe, and the office he holds deserves our respect. When he gets released, he is now a regular schmoe again, and I might be called to take his place. So the ward still has a bishop Schmoe.

  17. Frank McIntyre on February 10, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    “I myself have tried to strengthen my marriage and my wife with constant critical scrutiny and its been a rousing success.”

    That’s a winner.

  18. DavidH on February 10, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    “My sense is that the vast majority of active Mormons would read Dreher’s column and think that the LDS church is an institution that can withstand even constant critical scrutiny, yet those same people would refuse to to read, ponder or believe any serious criticisms of the church, its history or leadership, because they have adopted the same approach as Dreher, thinking that too much scrutiny will destroy their belief.”

    I agree. I do think that, at least institutionally, the Church is moving away from supporting only purely hagiographic history–e.g., publication of Joseph Smith papers, supporting publication of Mountain Meadows book without editorial supervision, and the like. The correlated publications of the Church are a different story–I think the feeling remains that too much ambiguity is not a good thing during the three hour block.

  19. aloysiusmiller on February 10, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    It seems we all need some kind of authority we’re protective of. Witness the MSM’s cowlike adoration of Obama at his prime time news conference on 2/9/09. For that matter their cowlike attitude for an entire campaign. True believers all of them.

  20. Adam Greenwood on February 10, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    If you want people to respect your drive-by, inflammatory political trolling, Mr. Miller, don’t say “cowlike.” Say “bovine.” Its more intellectual.

  21. Bookslinger on February 12, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Dave Banack wrote: A liberal (religious or not) would likely be unwilling to balance full disclosure of truth as they see it, however destructive, against any competing value or values.

    I dispute that. Liberals have balanced full disclosure against competing values when it comes to exposing things done by other liberals/Democrats. Aloysius mentioned the liberal mainstream media and Obama. I say look back to the liberal mainstream media and Clinton.

  22. liberty on February 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Bookslinger,

    Your repetitious use of the phrase “liberal maintream media” makes you sound soooo like Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin.

WELCOME

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