I finally picked up and read a copy of Simon Southerton’s Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Signature, 2004) a couple of weeks ago. Yet I still attended church last week and have not drafted a resignation letter. Inoculation works.
There’s nothing particularly new in the book — it summarizes mainstream academic views about the origins of the native inhabitants of the Americas, reviews more recent DNA evidence that confirms the mainstream view, then critiques mainstream LDS beliefs about the Book of Mormon and the peopling of the Americas. It is not a book that should have stirred up much controversy. That it did suggests we LDS have a problem, but it’s not a DNA problem. Our problem can be described in two words: Correlation and inoculation.
Problems With Correlation
What is Correlation? It is an organizational unit within the LDS bureaucracy with a staff and a budget. What does it do? It reviews most or all material published by the LDS Church for compliance with whatever guidelines they are (hopefully) given by senior LDS leaders. Lesson 42 of the D&C and Church History manual lists six things that Correlation does:
- Maintaining purity of doctrine.
- Emphasizing the importance of the family and the home.
- Placing all the work of the Church under priesthood direction.
- Establishing proper relationships among the organizations of the Church.
- Achieving unity and order in the Church.
- Ensuring simplicity of Church programs and materials.
One problem with LDS Correlation is that it isn’t working. The doctrinal impurities Correlation is supposed to protect against would likely include unfounded speculation, personal opinion, and various folk doctrines that circulate among the membership or the leadership of the Church. Yet the Introduction to the most recent (1981) LDS edition of the Book of Mormon informs the reader that “the Lamanites … are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” It’s not just scientists who would disagree with this claim — LDS apologists uniformly tell us this principal ancestors statement is not warranted by the actual text of the Book of Mormon and that critics like Southerton are incorrect in taking that statement to represent the official LDS view. But if that statement is not the official LDS view and is not warranted by the text of the Book of Mormon, what is it doing in the Introduction? Isn’t this exactly the sort of statement Correlation is supposed to detect and edit out before it is published? If Correlation can’t catch a whopper like that, what’s the point?
A second problem with Correlation is that it has unintentionally elevated the status of curriculum manuals. Now, it seems, all such materials are assumed to carry the Correlation seal of approval, which some members seem to think is equivalent to a claim of prophetic inerrancy for every statement in the manual. The natural consequence of this heightened expectation is a good deal of defensive editing by the Correlators. Given that the best way to avoid saying something incorrect is to avoid saying anything at all, it is not surprising that manuals entirely avoid most controversial topics. Somehow, this elevated expectation needs to be recalibrated so manuals aren’t taken to be “statements of the Brethren.” Only then will some editorial space be opened up for badly needed substantive discussions of potentially troubling issues. Wouldn’t we rather have the membership encounter these issues on friendly turf (Sunday School class) than from unfriendly sources in some other forum or book?
Problems With Inoculation
Inoculation refers to any proposal to systematically provide helpful and accurate information about troubling LDS doctrinal and historical issues to members of the Church so they aren’t taken by surprise when presented with such information from unfriendly sources. Obviously, this is no silver bullet. Done poorly, inoculation solution could be worse than the present state of affairs. Even done well, it’s not clear there is much net benefit to be had. What keeps inoculation on the menu is the conviction that, with negative information so widely available via the Internet, something must be done. But what?
Obviously, curriculum materials are the best option for presenting helpful material to the general membership of the Church. Perhaps personal accounts showing how real people encountered controversial issues, then dealt with or resolved that issue, is the mildest way to proceed. “When reading my daughter’s high school textbook, I was troubled to learn that most scientists think all Native Americans came from Asia rather than the Middle East …” To really put some meat in the manual, let qualified onymous authors write chapters or entire manuals rather than the present practice of anonymous authors (or, even worse, committees of anonymous authors). By naming authors, the inference that senior LDS leaders are approving and adopting every published word will be gently refuted and editorial space will be created to carefully address troubling issues. This is not a radical suggestion — once upon a time, LDS manuals were written by single authors who were identified by name.
However, it’s not necessarily the case that inoculation needs to be directed at all members of the Church. Material discussing troubling issues could be included only in English-language materials, for example. This would avoid the tricky problem of explaining to Saints in South and Central America that they are not really Lamanites (although better they hear it in church than when reading a translated copy of Losing a Lost Tribe). Of course, any attempt to segregate the curriculum market and deliver additional material to some segments but not others would need to sidestep the Correlation push toward a simplified and uniform one-size-fits-all curriculum (see items 5 and 6 in the Correlation organizational goals listed above).
Perhaps a more promising approach would be to integrate material discussing troubling issues with the Institute curriculum, as the young and restless college-age cohort is most likely to benefit from the material. Some might think that CES is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, but I have been impressed with the Institute teachers I have met. They almost certainly deal on a regular basis with students who have troubling questions or who have been confronted with material critical of LDS doctrines or beliefs. I think they would likely welcome and appreciate material in the curriculum directed at tough doctrinal or historical issues.
Please add your own ideas for how inoculation might work. Do you agree that something must be done? If so, what?
PS: LDS responses to Losing a Lost Tribe are available at FAIR (the DNA and the Book of Mormon page lists many helpful links), FARMS (a review of and response to Losing a Lost Tribe), and Jeff Lindsay’s site (Does DNA evidence refute the Book of Mormon?). The LDS Newsroom even has a DNA and the Book of Mormon page. Southerton has posted a response to the review published by FARMS.