How many of you were taught in your American history class about a period where the CIA supported Latin America coups and even some of the right-wing dictators who took over? Or maybe you heard about tens of thousands of poor, mentally ill, and racial minority folks forcibly sterilized in the last century on U.S. soil for being considered “unfit to procreate”?
If not, is that because your American history teacher was simply “lying to you”?
Of course not. We all know it’s more complicated than that.
Okay, so how many of you grew up hearing long, detailed stories from your grandfather about the full scope of brutality and trauma from his experience serving in the war?
Me neither. Does that make our grandfathers liars too?
Nope. Neither of those answers makes much sense. Yet that’s precisely how many have been persuaded to see the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Evolving ways of doing history. Up until recently, most people took for granted that it was a good thing that stories of the past—from American history to Church history—were shared with an emphasis on encouraging and inspiring elements. That’s just how many approached the historical craft in previous generations. Anthropologists have a word for unfairly imposing your own historical and cultural biases on other people. They call it “ethnocentrism.”
Anthropologists have a word for unfairly imposing your own historical and cultural biases on other people. They call it “ethnocentrism.”
So … was it wrong for these historians to emphasize the goodness and miraculous events of the past?
Not at all. Stories are always and inevitably told for some reason and in hopes of conveying certain messages. The compiler of the Book of Mormon acknowledges, for instance, his own desire to “show” unto descendants in his own record “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers.”
So, you see—telling American or Church history in a way that reaffirms higher truths or a sense of appreciation for God’s goodness is not wrong.
Yet, there are ways this approach has sometimes been too limited. In a real sense, an overly positive narrative of (any) history is inaccurate in a way that “cannot be sustained.”
Here’s the really important question: Does this more positive approach to history necessarily reflect behind-the-scenes deception and “lies” on the part of teachers, historians, and sweet-sounding grandparents everywhere?
Even the most ardent social justice activists and the most cynical observers will find it difficult to argue this with a straight face.
There’s no question that the United States government, and the Church—like organizations everywhere—have privileged certain information in their message to the world, while sometimes keeping other aspects more private. All institutions do that—and often for very good reasons aimed at fulfilling their positive mission in the world.
To insist that any such editorial decisions arise categorically from greed, power-hungriness, or a desire to deceive is hardly fair. Yet that’s precisely the incendiary claim many continue to make—showing little openness to even the possibility of benevolent leadership with earnest desires to do good—and paying virtually no attention to these kinds of clear and obvious generational differences in how tough questions have been addressed differently by historians of different eras.
Is that really so hard to appreciate and acknowledge?
Modern ethnocentrism. Anthropologists have a word for unfairly imposing your own historical and cultural biases on other people.
They call it “ethnocentrism.”
The classic case, of course, was African societies centuries ago condemned as wholly inferior and deficient by white colonizers in reference to their own European standards. When we evaluate accounts from previous generations with nothing but suspicion and disdain—devoid of any appreciation for the profound differences in cultural and historical contexts—we perpetuate similar kinds of breathtaking ignorance and arrogance.
Remember, this was the same generation who came home from the war and didn’t talk about it.
This was the generation that heard whispers of abuse or mental illness happening in their extended families and (mostly) didn’t talk about it.
We should be grateful these patterns changed significantly. Abuse and trauma need to be talked about directly and openly. So do difficult historical matters.
But can we really blame those who believed that talking less about some of the more difficult stuff was the best way to help those they loved to find purpose and move forward in life? Let’s relish history as a precious blessing that can unite us all—rather than a weapon to turn us against each other.
Let’s relish history as a precious blessing that can unite us all—rather than a weapon to turn us against each other.
And we come away feeling … what?
So enlightened. And so virtuous and woke. And smart—oh so smart.
But can’t we see what’s really happening—with some of these commentators declaring “the truth”—the “Real Truth” about the Church of Jesus Christ?
Rita Skeeter, alive and well. In the Harry Potter series, a journalist named Rita Skeeter has remarkable skill in “ferreting around” looking for more mess-ups from the powers that be—and working up everyday events into “something sinister.”
In an article about loveable Hagrid, for instance, she laments this teacher’s abusive “campaign of intimidation” towards his students and declares to her readers scandalously that she has “unearthed evidence that Hagrid is not—as he has always pretended—a pure-blood wizard.”
When Harry Potter confronts her attacks, she responds, “Our readers have a right to the truth, Harry.”
Of course, it does. We have Rita Skeeters of our own—all around us. With columnist gigs, premiere podcasts—even billboard campaigns….
So. Much. Scandal!!
A thought experiment. Laying aside Hogwarts now, think about what I’m saying more seriously and personally. Imagine if someone approached your own life in an attempt to give the most cynical and jaded account possible—something truly Tabloid worthy. They really did their homework—going about visiting with ex-lovers, gathering statements from anyone who’s ever held a grudge toward you, and one person you hurt years ago in a thoughtless moment … and a real juicy story from someone in whom you once confided your greatest regret.
This journalist hack then writes it all up, prioritizing all its juiciest, goriest details—and then publishes it to all the world as the “real truth” about you … for everyone to appreciate.
Here’s, of course, the most important question: Is the most cynical telling of anyone’s story actually true?
Cartoonishly evil caricatures. We’re certainly used to hearing and seeing these kinds of exposes all the time—about Trump, about Biden, about Fauci, Zuckerburg, and pretty much anyone of importance.
Someone approached me the other day and said “did you know Biden is actually a child predator?”
“Come on, man,” as our President would say. Real human beings are multi-dimensional—with moral dilemmas just like our favorite characters in classic literature.
And even though we’ll never have the full story on some things, more in-depth scholarship like the Joseph Smith Papers have revealed more and more powerful details every year, like an archeological dig. And like a math class, the deeper you go, the messier and more beautiful it gets. Yet too often, people end up spinning their wheels haggling over historical minutia showing up in someone’s Kirtland journal—parsing details that are unknowable, unresolvable, and unverifiable.
It’s time to stop the arrogant, ethnocentric analyses of history. And to stop feeling smart and pretending we’re somehow on a higher moral plane when accusing previous generations of outright lying, now that we’re in possession of additional details.
And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop giving so much attention to those who generate outrage based on all the above.
A plea from the dust. Imagine, instead, being grateful that we have so much rich detail to learn from in our histories today—yes, the good, the bad, and the ugly … so we can take important lessons for our lives today.
From the dust comes the stirring plea, “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”
What if we actually honored that ancient plea—with a little bit more humility and a lot less snark.
Relishing history as a precious blessing that can unite us all—rather than a weapon to turn us against each other.
That’s my prayer. Thanks for listening.
Grateful you’d hear me out! Check out “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are” to go deeper.