“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
— Groucho Marx
Pope Francis, LDS President Russell M. Nelson and convicted felon Brian David Mitchell all claim to speak for God. How do we know which, if any of them, is right?
The best we can do is look at what happens as a result of what they and other claimants say and do, and work backward.
Mitchell, the self-styled prophet who used to wander the streets of Salt Lake City, kidnapped a young girl out of her bedroom and spent months abusing, assaulting and otherwise terrorizing her. This is not the kind of behavior that most folks envision when they think of the almighty. Thus Mitchell’s claim of being a holy man is not just universally dismissed. It is metaphorically held at arm’s length like a dead rat being carried to the trash.
The only person who seems to think Mitchell is a man of God is his just-sprung-from-prison wife, Wanda Barzee. To this day, we are told, she carries with her Mitchell’s book of revelations — the book that foretold that Mitchell would kidnap not only Elizabeth Smart, but six other young women as well.
Barzee’s apparent attachment to that tome, reasonably, led Smart last week to protest that Barzee was still dangerous and should not have been released at the completion of her sentence. People who are sure they know what God wants are not to be trusted.
Meanwhile, other people who claim to have a pipeline to the almighty are in danger of losing the benefit of the doubt they have been given over the years, or the centuries, because events here on Earth don’t support their claims.
The pope is up to his neck in controversy because of the never-ending reports of the abuse of children by priests and, worse, the lengths that bishops, cardinals and the Holy See itself have reportedly gone to to cover it all up. Few see anything holy about that.
And the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to lose the support of people who say they haven’t lost their faith in God or in the tenets of the faith. Just in the humans at the top.
A recent example is that the church tossed out a former bishop by the name of Sam Young because he wouldn’t stop going on about his perfectly valid concern that some of the questions other church leaders were asking young church members in their “worthiness interviews” were far too personal, too sexual, in nature. That they sounded like stuff a child molester would say to lower the defenses of a potential mark.
The church’s need to crack down on dissent in its ranks, as it also did to the leaders of Ordain Women and others, all sounds like the old joke that Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, was said to have told on himself.
A man was running through the halls of the Kremlin shouting, “Khrushchev is a fool! Khrushchev is a fool!” He was sent to prison for 23 years — three for insulting the general secretary and 20 for revealing a state secret.
The secret that some religious leaders, and followers, may not want revealed is that every person, of any religion or of none, makes up her or his own mind about what to do every day. They may be guided or informed by some religious tradition or teaching. Or by their parents. By many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. By Harry Potter or Humphrey Bogart. But no one who is not, at any particular moment, being physically held captive can blame — or credit — their choices on anyone else.
This is what we see as increasing numbers of people, especially the young, abandon organized religion without becoming atheists. They have a belief system of their own because they realize, as previous generations did not, that everyone has a belief system of their own. Their choice. Their responsibility.
Smart herself has held tight to the LDS Church as a spiritual bulwark. But, for her own survival, she openly abandoned some of its teachings. Specifically the unofficial interpretation of some church “purity lessons” about how young women who have been sexually violated are spoiled and unwanted, “like chewed gum.”
Nobody has moved to excommunicate her because she took on that question, and answered it, herself.
They wouldn’t dare.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, sometimes asks himself, in times of moral dilemma, “What would Groucho do?” firstname.lastname@example.org