Wayne C. Booth on Mormonism

Wayne C. Booth on Mormonism

Having come to terms with a pluralistic universe, I confront the reality of war.

What I find most revealing about this missionary record is the way in which all of that inner turmoil slowly begins, as the two years draw to a close, to resolve itself into more aggressive attempts at conscious “rhetorology.” One could say that without quite knowing it, the young man was discovering the pluralist religion that sparks my life now: the passion for furthering multiple, always partial understandings of a world, a cosmos, a God, that/who somehow deserves to be understood and commands that we both try to understand “It” and live according to Its standards–even while It remains beyond any one formula. The journal entries are still predominantly about other matters–mainly Booth’s own spiritual struggles. But there are many clues about his growing passion for effective dialogue–for the struggle to pursue the “overstanding” that can sometimes be found under various stands:

October 2, 1943
I neglected to mention, I believe, the speech I gave at the Northshore Ward last week. I was in my old stride, at my best: perfectly at ease and composed, I yet had them intensely interested all the way–one can tell such things–and I think that I really made them think. My subject was, “Some of the faults which prevent Mormons from making what they could of themselves.” (It was never thus expressed, but that’s what it was). I gave it to them straight, and I believe there was only one member who did not like it; and even he seemed interested. I am a little disappointed with myself for not having given more such good accounts of myself while on my mission. . . .

I hardly ever mention my mission and my opinion of it here [in the journal]. That is, I suppose, partly because I am generally quite discouraged about the little I have accomplished. I enjoy myself around my Mormon associates more now than ever before. I think the Mormon people are good people, and I think that I am what I am, including the few good parts, largely as a result of the Mormon environment. Yet I have been discouraged by the difficulties in the way of intellectual improvement among my people. The Mormon ideology is so firmly rooted in superstition that it seems impossible ever to separate the two: despite all my apologetics, one is simply not a Mormon unless one believes in the literal divinity of the Book of Mormon, any more than one is a Christian unless one believes in the literal Christ Jesus. . . .

In general I would say that I am glad I came on the mission, though it has been far different from anything I expected. . . . [But then] the last year or so of any active life always seem very valuable in retrospect.

I still have in mind doing a book about and for Mormons, analyzing our faults, proposing future attitudes, clearing away dead beliefs. . . .

My big problem now is: shall I continue with my people as a hypocrite, shall I openly express my doubts and take my chances with my group, or shall I completely break away . . . ? As I see it now, the last named is completely impossible: I love too many Mormons . . .

November 12, 1943
Went down to a kind of miserable defeat tonight in trying to give an “original” Thanksgiving talk to the mia of Logan Square Ward [I tried to get them to think about real thanksgiving]. . . . I’m sure it fell completely flat, partly because of poor treatment [I hadn’t thought it through hard enough], partly because of the people’s sentimental desire to stay within the set form of Thanksgiving thought.

With the mission that everyone else considered highly successful drawing to a close, he goes on attending concerts and visiting art galleries. Soon he begins taking courses part-time at the University of Chicago (completely counter to mission rules, but that liberal president, Leo J. Muir, has no objections). And he goes on reading and reading and reading. He reads Fawn Brodie’s life of Joseph Smith, alternating between total credulity and strong doubts. He falls in love with Blake’s “London,” memorizes it, and quotes it entirely in the journal, commenting on the mind-forged manacles that he feels still binding him:

In every cry of every man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

January 7, 1943
“We are all conscript minds, but in different armies. And none of us are striving to be free, but each to make his own conscription universal.” Santayana is right; Blake is right. Yet there are some who work free of at least most of the manacles–some who become conscientious objectors in the conscription of the mind. [Block that metaphor!] If I didn’t think that I had, in part, cast off some of the manacles, I would have less hope of ever achieving any degree of greatness of spirit. But the distance ahead is indicated by nothing more than by my own “complicity” in the Jewish matter [the news about the Nazi atrocities was getting clearer and clearer]. With all my sincere horror and sympathy, with all my subscriptions to Refugee societies and my talking and debate, with all my reiterated concern about a society that allows mass brutality and does nothing until attacked, I find myself guilty, as I have found myself guilty a hundred times before, on the score of personal selfishness of the sort that has caused the war, personal desire for acclaim of the sort that breeds politicians and Hitlers, intolerance of the sort that persecutes Jews. . . .

Musing in this way leads one easily–unless one is careful–into nonsense about original sin. . . . Very few can ever maintain a true central position: man is neither good nor bad; he is both good and bad. He is eternally damned and he has eternal possibilities of “salvation.” Mankind as a whole will not go down to bestiality tomorrow, to please [Albert Jay] Nock or [Alfred] Kazin. . . . Nor will mankind achieve tomorrow any sort of genuinely Brave New World, with everyone being super-human, nor even with social ills eliminated, not even with war eliminated (I’m afraid). But I know empirically that men can improve (I have actually improved, myself). They can learn; they can sublimate their selfish desires (to use a corny phrase). They can, in short, progress, whether they have done so or not in the past.

And with this, the young unbeliever who yet believed in “progress,” in “the validity of the scientific method” and the continuing triumphs of science, in “the possibility of development of a beautiful spirit of man,” in “free will” (though some versions of “science” threaten this one especially strongly), in the moral truth that “it is always in all cultures wrong to hurt others,” in the inherent value of a Mormon upbringing that young man, radically confused not just about the problem of original sin but about almost everything (as I see it in 1998, in my utterly unconfused state of mind) that young man completed his assigned two years as a designated “clergyman” and was then belatedly drafted into World War II.

For two long years, then, Elder Booth had been learning–without knowing what he was learning–the arts of rhetorology. As some of the skeptical Mormons he knew gave up their skepticism and returned to orthodoxy, and others pushed it further and broke with the Church, he chose, as I still choose, to pursue the ground shared by both the orthodox and the diverse brands of the unorthodox. (As M. Wilford Poulson had taught him to say, “Every Mormon trusts his own unorthodoxy.”) Just as I “pray” daily to “God” with full “devotion,” hoping for “salvation” (grant me my special definitions all the way), so I am now still a “devoted” “Latter-day Saint.”

That confession meets some difficulties when I add that I also believe in (my version of) Judaism, Catholicism, and Quakerism, not to mention (my even more ignorant versions of) Buddhism and Hinduism, and the three disguised “secular,” even “atheistic,” religions I am trying to write about in that book on the rhetorics of official and disguised religions.

Why I feel grateful for two years of hypocritical strivings.

Why did the young wanderer not feel guilty–except sometimes–about the hypocrisy implied by the vigorous “accommodation to the audience” required to survive as a Mormon missionary?7 Why do I not feel guilty now–except sometimes–about the innumerable other accommodations to the audience that my rhetorological inquiries have required? Why did I not then and do not now feel like a mere waffler? Why, in short, do I now feel grateful for those two years of hypocritical strivings–to say nothing of the decades of hypocritical to-and-froing that followed?

Three main reasons have been implicit throughout here.

First, those years converted me to my lifetime “religion of rhetorology,” though even the word “rhetoric” never occurred at the time. I was learning, daily, just how deceptive our habitual dichotomies can be: believers/unbelievers; religious/ atheistic; good/evil; saved/damned. And I was learning some of the crucial techniques for breaking into and dissolving such misleading dichotomies.

It was not a matter of theoretical inquiry; it was a daily practice that developed habits of probing what I later learned to call topoi, or “topics,” in the Aristotelian sense of shared places or groundings that underlie surface disputes. It was only when I was required in graduate school to dig into Aristotle’s treatment of topics that my practice of good and bad versions of hypocrisy became a subject for conscious intellectual inquiry. I can remember, working toward an MA four-hour examination on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, suddenly realizing, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been up to.” The old dismissive term “commonplaces” suddenly became crucial, as Aristotle distinguished the “common topics” (common-places loosely defined spaces that all people share) and “special topics” (spaces that only practitioners in a given “specialty” share).

Consider some examples of “common,” or shared, topics, and special topics. All readers of Sunstone share many topics (common-places–call them universals if you prefer) with Catholics and Muslims and atheists and indeed almost everybody: for example, “To get more of whatever is really good is better than to get less of it,” but on the other hand, and in potential conflict, “It is wrong to harm a close friend, even if to do so will get you more of something you want”). More narrowly, Mormon readers of Sunstone share with one another and with readers of the Ensign certain somewhat more special topics: for example, “In our culture it’s better to be able to read and think about religious questions than not to be able to,” and “Some ways of reading are better than other ways,” and “To read about Mormonism is more important than reading about baseball scores,” and “To involve oneself with religion and religious questions is an essential part of any good life.” Any disagreements so far?

Finally, most readers of Sunstone share certain even more specialized topics not shared with many other sub-cultures: for example, “You’re likely to be a better Mormon, and a better person, if you think deeply about your beliefs and exercise free agency than if you accept blindly, without thought, whatever this or that authority says,” and “Too many important questions don’t get treated in official Mormon publications.”

Being my kind of missionary didn’t teach me to think quite like that (of common-places), but it built the habits that made such thinking finally indispensable. And it taught me, implicitly, the connection between those habits and the religious command to love our fellow creatures. I was learning to “worship” or “serve” that deepest of all human values that I celebrate here: genuine understanding, sympathetic serious listening, the “loving” act of entering the spiritual domain of other human beings–those who these days tend to be labeled “the Other.” Nothing we ever work at, the young man was discovering, is more important than the drive not just to maintain peace with rivals or enemies or misguided friends, not just to tolerate them generously, not just to condescend to them with a benign smile, but to understand them: to learn to think with them while assisting them to think with us in return. That became his definition of love, love not just as a belief but as an intellectual spiritual practice. In effect, that became his definition of God’s missionary assignment.

Second, in teaching rhetorology as a loving practice, those years saved me from a frequently powerful impulse to cast off the Church–or to get the authorities to cast me off. Unlike some friends who could discern no middle ground and consequently leapt off into being not just “jack-Mormons” but non- or even anti-Mormons, I found that my search for shared ground removed all reasons for a break: increasingly I discovered that most of what I most deeply believed was derived from Mormon teachings: “Do what is right, let the consequence follow,” “Have I done any good in the world today? If not I have failed indeed,” “All is well, all is well.” Though ensuing decades yielded many moments of radical doubt about various notions of God and various choices made by Mormon authorities, I never came to doubt that Mormonism is one of the “true religions.”8

Third–and perhaps most important as we think about the various forms of hypocrisy thriving within the Church today–my hypocritical years taught me the inherent value of one kind of hypocrisy, what I have elsewhere called “hypocrisy upward.”9 The word hypocrisy originally meant “playing a role on the stage,” and it is clear that all of us at least some of the time are playing out roles we think appear superior to what we “really” are. Every parent tries to play a role that he or she knows is to some degree doctored, purified for the child’s consumption. Every teacher knows that the “self” who stands before the class is an utterly different and (usually) superior person as compared with the one who the night before swore over her income tax returns or slapped his five-year-old daughter. If we did not rise above our “everyday selves” in that way, hypocritically enacting superior selves, our culture would collapse much faster than even the most cynical see it as collapsing today.

While not defending such acting out when it is used to exploit others, should we not defend it when it helps us practice being “characters” superior to our ordinary selves, thus learning how to be such characters? When I hypocritically act like a person of saintly generosity, am I not learning how to be generous? When I hypocritically enact the role of someone who believes in a belief I question, am I not likely to discover that thinking in that previously detested way actually makes sense?

Everyone who succeeds in any practice experiences such hypocrisy upward somewhere along the line.

  • You know you’re not a good public speaker, but when assigned to give a talk you pretend to be the best speaker you have heard–and you then give a better talk than you thought you could.
  • You know that you do not possess the full range of virtues required for a given church position, but you accept the calling, act out those virtues, and soon discover that you are actually developing at least some of them: by pretending to be another, better person, you have become another, better one.
  • You know that you are not a perfect surgeon, but you put on airs that show that you aspire to be.

What my practice of rhetorology as a missionary taught me was that if I pretended to listen sympathetically to beliefs I detested, I would sometimes discover that they were better beliefs than those I had held when entering the discussion. And even when that did not happen, my “hypocrisy upward,” or “outward,” did at least broaden and deepen my own grasp of the world and of how we limited creatures can deal with its mysteries.

I hope it is clear that nothing I’ve said suggests that all “religious” or “Mormon” “views,” open or disguised, are in my view equally defensible; the point of rhetorological dialogue is not relativistic tolerance but genuine progress toward truth. Some religious commitments save; some destroy. Some “hypocritical” efforts to listen can reveal beliefs even worse than they appeared at the beginning. To “take in” or “act out” the “other” with full empathy, learning to think with the other, is no surefire route either to self-improvement or to brightening some one corner of the world’s darkness. And when rhetorical probing is used to exploit the other, as Tartuffe’s brilliant imitations of piety are used, the practice cannot be called rhetorology but chicanery.

But surely our world would be a better one if more of our brothers and sisters more of the time would practice not the kind of lying, self-aggrandizing hypocrisy so prevalent around us but hypocrisy upward: the aspiration, through taking on roles or taking in “the other,” that produces genuine understanding. Would not the Church itself be radically improved if more of us–not just lowly active members and peripheral hangers-on but the highest authorities, too–would really listen lovingly to “the enemy” long enough and closely enough to discover what is really there?


1. My friend Garth Myers was president of the other quorum, and each Sunday morning an hour or so before church time we’d ride around the Second Ward on our bicycles, knocking on doors to round up the deacons needed to ensure victory by Quorum 1 or Quorum 2.

2. Still in unwieldy, unpublishable manuscript form.

3. Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation Stopper,” Common Knowledge, (spring 1994): 1-6. There are hints in Rorty’s article of the possibility for finding some common ground between his views and the views of non-atheists, provided that the believers abandon the notion that their moral beliefs have any connection to religious conviction.

4. Most prominent among them: M. Wilford Poulson, professor of psychology, P. A. Christensen and Karl Young, professors of English, and A. C. Lambert, whose “field” I cannot even remember but who gave one of the best courses I had at the “Y”: an introduction, in a required religion course, to the shocking sequence of changes that had been introduced into the Doctrine and Covenants through its first century. There were of course other unorthodox professors I can remember less clearly: a professor of biology and a professor of geology who openly professed belief in evolution; a historian who raised questions about some myths of Mormon origins; a member of the religion department who centered his required religion courses on the works of great, non-Mormon philosophers.

5. Oh yes, indeed: he has thought a lot about just how strong an effect the draft-threat had on his sticking with the full two years. One part of himself–the hypocritical part?–is convinced that it had nothing to do with it: he stuck it out from pure motives of service to the world. Another self knows that the motives were indeed mixed.

6. He was sometimes aided by reading reported struggles of other earlier probing Mormons, such as W. H. Chamberlin.

7. From Aristotle on through Quintilian and into modern times, rhetorical theorists have discussed–almost always superficially–just how much “accommodation to the audience” is ethical. The short answer is: accommodate your means, but hold fast to your convictions and purposes. But every rhetor knows how hard it is to draw a clear line between accommodation and selling out. As I view him now, he crossed the line rarely–but he did cross it.

8. Why, then, have I been not an active but a “peripheral” Mormon? A complicated, puzzling question. I must confess that one reason for “inactivity” is that I have found that too little of the current official activity has fed my own spiritual quests; too much of it is designed to induce blind, dull obedience.

9. Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 253-56; 258-59.

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