Why are we Mormons so damn intrigued by J. Golden Kimball? We love to tell stories about our famous “swearing apostle” (who was actually a Seventy, not an apostle). Publishers have printed volumes of stories and vignettes about the man, and some fraction of the stories are probably even true. Elder Kimball is credited with lines like:
-“Some people say a person receives a position in this church through revelation, and others say they get it through inspiration, but I say they get it through relation. If I hadn’t been related to Heber C. Kimball I wouldn’t have been a damn thing in this church”;
-[after asking bretheren in a stake conference to stand up if they had never tried alcohol or tobacco] “Well, brethren, you don’t know what the hell you’ve missed.”;
-[at a funeral] “Bishop, just who the hell is dead here anyway?”;
-“I love all of the brethren, but I love some a hell of a lot more than I do others.”;
-“I understand you brethren can’t go on missions because you swear too much. You can overcome it. Hell, I did.”;
-and, of course, “They can’t excommunicate me; I repent too damned fast”;
So what is the allure of J. Golden Kimball? I’m not entirely sure myself, but here are a few thoughts.
First, J. Golden Kimball seems genuine. Members sometimes learn of church leaders with hidden sins — bishops or stake presidents who are busted for child abuse or pornography, for example. It is easy to suspect the worst about church members and leaders, imagining that their closets are full of skeletons, while they show up regularly and smile at sacrament meeting. In contrast, Golden’s public persona was one of transparency. His comments convey a sense of salt-of-the-earth genuineness — “I won’t lie to you or B.S. you; I’ll say things like they are, and I won’t hide my own faults.”
Second, an imperfect church leader allows members to be more comfortable with our own imperfections. Nephi is an awfully hard ideal to try to match; Golden is an easier standard. It is reassuring to note that even church leaders have their faults.
Third, Golden was funny. If he were simply profane, no one would bother to remember him. But he used profanity to be funny, and everyone remembers a funny line.
There are doubtless other reasons for Golden’s resonance with Mormon everymen and -women as well. Which of these reasons, if any, for Golden’s popularity — or which other potential reasons that I’ve missed — might be applicable today? Are we happy to leave Golden in the colorful past, as we tune in to very profanity-free general conference sessions? Would we be better or worse if current leaders let out a few damns every now and then?
Personally, I think I prefer things the way they are now. But then again, what the hell do I know anyway?