I just read this article. Upshot — a former Latter-Day Saint bishop, Simon Southerton, was excommunicated by Australian church leaders for adultery. He also happens to be the seventh author from SLC-based Signature Books to be excommunicated. He published a book which posits that DNA evidence disproves key claims outlined in The Book of Mormon, especially the claim that a tribe of seafaring Israelites settled in Central America around 600 B.C.
This is hardly world or even national news, and is likely of little interest to any of you. Utah Valley will be buzzing with it for days, however, and the comments page under that article will be so full of anti-Mormon vitriol you’ll wonder what we did to make people so angry.
I have some thoughts on the matter, and they are wide-ranging. Note, however, that I do not speak for the church in any sort of official capacity, nor do I have any first-hand experience with Mr. Southerton or his work.
1) First and foremost, there seems to be a “free speech” concern anytime someone prominent is excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This is a little bit silly. We aren’t the Catholic Church of 600 years ago — excommunication silences nobody. Critics of the church have every bit as much ability to write, publish, and speak as ex-members as they would if they remained members.
2) As a bishop, Mr. Southerton was also a High Priest. When a High Priest commits adultery, he is excommunicated. This is not because the Church is angry with him. This is because, as part of the necessary repentance process for breaking the law of chastity, as received under covenant in the Temple, the adulterer must be rebaptized. A close friend of mine went through this — he cheated on his wife, confessed, was excommunicated, divorced, remarried, and just seven months ago was re-baptized. The process has made him stronger in the faith than I could have imagined.
3) A word further on excommunication. Latter-Day Saints believe that where more is given, more is required. By excommunicating someone who has turned his or her back on temple covenants, the Church is essentially saying “you are no longer being held accountable for certain sins.” For example, it would be sinful for me to drink liquor and smoke tobacco. If I were excommunicated, that law would no longer apply to me in that way. This is one reason I’m so comfortable hanging around Schlockers who drink — I know that behavior is not accounted to them as “sin,” and while I do disapprove of drunkenness you won’t find me pointing the finger at you and shouting “SINNER!” In this regard, excommunicating someone is an act of mercy.
(Note: I can’t get excommunicated for drinking and/or smoking, but I also won’t be able to get a recommend to serve and worship in the Temple until I’ve cleared the matter up.)
4) Southerton claims that he was being excommunicated for his DNA research. His adulterous affair took place years ago, he has since been reconciled to his wife, and only NOW the Church “goes after him?” Well, okay, fine. Regardless of what Church officials in his Ward and Stake in Australia were thinking at the time, if he comitted adultery and voluntarily left the church because he didn’t believe certain things anymore, excommunication is appropriate. If anything, his local leaders should be grilled a bit for not taking care of this sooner.
5) The central claims he makes in his books are largely irrelevant to me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m of the considered opinion that religious experiences “prove” things to individuals that science cannot “disprove.” I’m happy to see scientists research evolutionary biology, astronomy, tectonic plate movement, and any number of other things that appear to “disprove” claims made in the scriptures I read. Why? Because these studies advance our knowledge of the world around us, and enable us to live longer, healthier, safer lives. And none of what they say in any way undermines the religious experiences I have, in the which I KNOW that God created the Earth, Jesus Christ died for my sins, and prophets and apostles have worked and continue to work miracles.
God requires individuals to prove to themselves that he exists. Science is a method whereby we can trust the proofs offered by others without doing any work on our own. Science is great for helping us live longer. Religion is great for helping us live more happily.
6) That said, here are a couple of chewy bits for my Latter-Day Saint friends — we often look at The Book of Mormon as a record of what was going on ALL OVER the American continents between 600 BC and 300 AD. This mindset is disproved by The Book of Mormon itself — a careful look at place names and timeframes (especially with regards to military marches) shows that it describes events taking place in an area no larger than that occupied by modern-day Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. There’s PLENTY of room for other human gene-pools to have set up shop in the American continents, and they’ve had nearly two millennia to mingle those genes since. And then there’s the matter of the curse placed upon Laman and Lemuel — if it really changed their physical appearance, who are we to say that it did not ALSO alter their DNA. After all, it was passed on to their children…
My foremost thought through all of this, however, is that nowhere in The Book of Mormon are readers invited to let other people prove or disprove the book for them, regardless of their intent or their means. To the contrary, the final writer in the book, Moroni, told us that if we want to know if the book is true, and truly contains the word of God, we should read it and then ask Him in prayer and in faith if it is true. (Moroni 10: 3-5)
I can’t write Science Fiction and not love science. I can’t be a Latter-Day Saint and not love religion. I can’t be an American and not love free speech. Others might have trouble embracing all three of these simultaneously, but I don’t see the conflict.