In preparing people to face a skeptical world, we should not confuse inoculation with the administration of poison by degrees. It’s been suggested that the church could lessen the dissonance felt by young adults or new members when they come across controversial aspects of church history or doctrine for the first time by ensuring that these topics are introduced earlier. But the goal of vaccination is not simply to introduce microbes to unexposed subjects, but rather to train their bodies to react in a particular way when they encounter those microbes later. I think the analogy to faith still holds: the goal is not to introduce people to as much potentially troubling information about church history or doctrine as possible, but to model the reactions that are most beneficial.
If you’re serious about inoculation, introducing some potentially difficult topics earlier in the church curriculum is a reasonable place to start, but what is more important than the particular topics is finding productive ways to react. Just trying to come up with a list of all potentially troubling topics is a sucker’s game, as there is no end to learning about history or doctrine, and there is nothing, however innocuous, that cannot be made to seem misguided or depraved. People need models of how to integrate new information about the church with their existing beliefs.
In the context of inoculation, a productive reaction is one that strengthens one’s commitment to the church and its teachings. Wherever you might stand on any particular point of doctrine, inoculation cannot include wholesale rejection of church leaders, teachings, or scripture. You might have your doubts about D&C 132 or the Book of Abraham, but agitating to have them removed from our canon should not be confused with inoculation. Telling people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or some other prophet simply made mistakes when they thought they were receiving revelation is not inoculation. It’s the opposite of inoculation. Perhaps you are able to accept Joseph Smith as the Lord’s prophet and also as someone who fabricated revelations in order to justify libidinous adventures; I can’t, and I’m fairly confident that strategy won’t work for the vast majority of church members. There are numerous workable gradations that stop short of enthusiastic endorsement of everything that all leaders have ever done, but simple condemnation won’t help anyone. It’s quite likely that, beyond narrow limits, inoculation involves a zero-sum tradeoff with agitation: you can either voice your pain, or you can help your teenage children resolve their doubts. Choose one.
Mormon blogs have certainly enabled discussion of a wide range of historical and doctrinal topics, but I don’t know if they have been a net positive in modelling the kind of reactions that a productive inoculation might aim for. It’s a hazard of living in a clickbait economy, and in a time where suffering is the guarantor of authenticity. Many online discussions of church history and doctrine have yielded the podium to those with the greatest outrage, the loudest complaints, the deepest cynicism, and the starkest doubts. For those who are not given to outrage, cynicism, complaining, or doubt, these discussions hold limited appeal, and their educational value in the cause of inoculation is questionable. If my own children were looking for models of how to react to Mormon history, I’m not sure they would be well served by the Mormon blogging world.
There is already a term for inoculation in the sense of inculcating productive responses to religious controversy: apologetics. For helping members of the church understand the history and teachings of the church, we need people whose expertise matches the reach of their publication platform. Many critiques of Mormon history or belief take the form of statements such that facts A, B, and C point unavoidably to conclusion D. We need people who can push back on sources and check footnotes, who are qualified to say: A is fact, B is speculation, and C is a misreading of a raft of historical documents; possible interpretations of A and B range from D through H. To address the most pointed critiques of church history and doctrine, we need contributions from Mormon scholars who are fully engaged in their academic disciplines and fully committed to the church. I don’t need an apologetics that shows me what the potential of the church is; that’s what I look to our prophets for. I do need an apologetics that addresses the real world I live in, where criticisms are directed at the church from academic fields that I am not well equipped to judge.
So for the project of inoculation and for Mormon spiritual welfare in general, the commitment of Mormon academics to the church is not a small concern. It would be perilous if a gap were to open between rank-and-file members and Mormon intellectuals, if the typical lay member were to regard Mormon academics with suspicion while the intellectuals treated their less educated coreligionists with disdain. Mormonism cannot afford an intellectual class that feels no obligation towards its faith community, or that regards acceptance of the church’s truth claims as an embarrassing spiritual malady.