[*Please tread respectfully and carefully in the comments*]
Americans watch in shock and disbelief as riots in the Middle East are explained to be the result of a terribly-produced video mocking the prophet of Islam. Having been born and raised in a place where freedom of expression, however repugnant, is protected by law with First Amendment authority, we miss the fact that, in such highly moderated countries, the allowance of such a production is understood as being ratified by people and state, rather than being something to snicker at given its fundamental silliness and ill-execution. Strength, for us, would best be shown by ignoring rather than igniting.
But Mormons are typically highly attuned to ways video and images can be used to trample sacred-held beliefs. When it comes to us, the ultimate taboo isn’t placed upon any prophet, but rather within rituals enacted in Mormon temples.
Participation in Mormon temple ritual is reserved for an inner circle of Mormons who live according to a certain code of morals including payment of a ten percent tithe, affirming faith in God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and present church authorities, and abstaining from alcohol and tobacco. Participants swear to several obligations, although Mormons refer to such swearing as “covenant.” As one Mormon apostle explained:
“The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions” (James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 84, see the first edition with photos here).
This excerpt emphasizes the moral nature of the covenants Mormons make in temples. Such praiseworthy promises could surely be lauded by a wider American public attuned to the necessity of civic virtues for their nation’s well-being. Unmentioned in this excerpt, however, are the covenants of secrecy–that participants promise not to disclose certain elements of the ceremonies. This, above all else, has been the seedbed of public scrutiny and anxiety regarding Mormon ritual practice. Ironically, the book in which Talmage’s explanation appeared was originally published as a way of short-circuiting ongoing exposés of Mormon temple ritual. In particular, one Gisbert Bossard, snuck into the Salt Lake temple to take photographs. His efforts to blackmail Joseph F. Smith backfired as the church scooped him, publishing better images along with explanations by Elder Talmage. Changes in subsequent editions here and there manifest the ongoing ambiguity amongst Mormons regarding the level of appropriateness in disclosing various aspects of Temple worship.
Despite Bossard’s failure, temple rites had been disclosed by former Mormons in the national press almost from the very start. In the accidentally-comic film September Dawn, the revealing of temple secrets is guaranteed to bring to pass violent retribution–a possibility which older versions of the ceremony helped give grounds for, as Sam Brown has discussed elsewhere. Big Love caused a stir a few years back by depicting elements of temple worship on HBO, now available on DVD, but no riots ensued and the Church Newsroom released a statement encouraging civility and calmness on the part of Church members.
Perhaps such calm reactions help explain why Robert Sivulka immediately distanced his “Courageous Christians United” group from an advisor to the ridiculous Muhammad film, while at the same time providing links to videos of LDS temple rituals recorded using hidden cameras, and promising more to come. Sivulka’s respect for things which other faiths hold sacred seems limited to the extent which disrespect generates physical violence. Sivulka would take advantage of Mitt Romney’s place in the public eye to further his own religious agenda of discrediting Mormonism. He appears unaware that the temple, for Mormons, can mean many different things, and that discomfort with the temple can exist for some Mormons even apart from its secrecy.
Meanwhile, to see LDS ceremonies plastered on youtube feels like an invasion of privacy, uncomfortable, sad, upsetting, unjust, inconsiderate to many members of the Church. Mormons often say the Temple is sacred, not secret, but when it boils down to it, the Temple is both of those things for Mormons. Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in the age of Wikileaks? Even if there is, expectations won’t prevent exposés. The question turns to what Mormons might do in the face of public disclosures. I have three suggestions, in addition to Sam Brown’s excellent explanation of the importance of taboos in the present world:
First, the Temple can remain a sacred and even secret place for members of the Church despite internet videos and descriptions. This is precisely because the ceremony is personally enacted and experienced in companies of people in the flesh. You can read about going to a concert, but feeling the pulse of the music and the heat of the crowd or listening to a cruddy bootleg recording doesn’t have the same effect. Mormon historian Richard Bushman suggested as much in a 2007 Pew forum on Mormonism:
“Once you get past that [temple] door, you immediately go to a changing room where you shed your outer clothes and put on special white clothing. In the temple you speak in whispers. You don’t speak aloud. And then outside the temple you don’t talk about it at all. Some people think of this as secretive in the sense of hiding things. But for Mormons, it’s all part of the process of creating a sacred space. When you walk in there, life is different. You just feel things are on a different plane.
When you come out, it’s not usually an overwhelming vision you have experienced, but you feel elevated. It becomes very important for Mormons to go into that space, just like practicing the Sabbath, keeping it holy, has an exalting effect on human life. So that’s the way I look at the temple ceremonies.
Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It’s all there. So it’s not like it’s hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don’t talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.”
As Bushman seems to imply, Mormons can continue to recenter the sacrality of Temple ritual somewhat away from elements of secrecy toward the personal, communal, embodied importance of participation in the covenants. After all, many of the elements participants promise not to disclose are received in the company of others. This doesn’t mean Mormons will start “telling it all,” but that individual Mormons can keep promises aside from whether people can Google things, and that the participatory elements of the ceremonies can be better emphasized in preparing for and discussing Temple participation.
Second, with the temple being available in various online places, youth will be more able to give in to curiosity. The first time I heard anything specific about the temple was in an AOL chatroom where Mormons and anti-Mormons were arguing. It left me with a lot of questions. Better–and perhaps more specific–temple preparation classes can help circumvent such surprises.
Third, better temple prep for youth will help lead to better prepared missionaries. They could be prepared to meaningfully discuss specific aspects of the Temple and its role in our current framing of the plan of salvation, even while remaining true to specific covenants of non-disclosure. As Nibley and even some Mormon leaders have shown, there is a bit more latitude in what might be discussed than many folks think. Investigators who are met with hemming and hawing, discomfort, hasty dismissals, etc. are likely to feel put off instead of more interested in learning about Mormonism. They would better be met by specific descriptions, testimonies, pamphlets and photographs than silence or uncomfortable redirection.
Yes, Temple exposés are uncomfortable. I believe they are fundamentally disrespectful, that people who disseminate them manifest either an ignorance or a disregard for the sacred elements of Mormon ritual and the feelings of those who participate in them. They really do make me feel bad. But at the same time they can also serve as an opportunity for members of the Church to reevaluate the ways we present the Temple–including its sacred secrets–to ourselves as well as outsiders. Keep this in mind, should our temples ever receive more public scrutiny.