Who on Earth knows what the ‘Strengthening Church Members Committee’ is or does?By: Jake
On Tuesday the BBC did a documentary called The Mormon Candidate. The aftermath resulted in every one of my member friends shouting (virtually, of course) that we should all complain about the programme’s misrepresentation of the church. By Common Consent even published an open letter to the BBC about the decontextualisation of the facts in the programme.
The programme was undoubtedly sensational and less-than-favourable to the church (perhaps “less-than-favourable” is a slight understatement). However, beyond the harsh criticism that inspired the frenzy of emotional reactions from my friends, there was something the programme raised that was problematic for me other than its polemic tone.
Sweeney brought up the Strengthening Church Members Committee (SCMC) whilst speaking with a bunch of ex- and post-Mormons. This committee is a strangely mysterious organisation about which we know very little, and it seems that we are not alone: the people high up in the church also know very little about it as well, as the documentary shows that even the head of PR and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland are unsure about what the SCMC actually does. This leaves me even more baffled about who knows about it, and who knows what it does. Before we look at what the churchs representatives had to say on the matter in the documentary, let’s first look at what we know about it already.
The first sign of its existence came from a leaked document from the Presiding Bishopric about satanic rituals.The 12-page document was intended for the SCMC for them to review. After this initial exposure in 1990, the SCMC became a topic of a Sunstone panel by Eugene England and Lavina Anderson, who called it ‘an internal espionage system.’ The church, uncharacteristically, responded to this criticism with a public statement in response to the claim that it had ‘so-called secret files’ and invoked Joseph Smiths revelation that instructed the saints to gather anti-mormon literature as a precedent for the committee as the document says:
“The Strengthening Church Members Committee was appointed by the First Presidency to help fulfill this need and to comply with the cited section of the Doctrine and Covenants. This committee serves as a resource to priesthood leaders throughout the world who may desire assistance on a wide variety of topics. It is a General Authority committee, currently comprised of Elder James E. Faust and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They work through established priesthood channels, and neither impose nor direct Church disciplinary action.
“Members who have questions concerning Church doctrine, policies, or procedures have been counseled to discuss those concerns confidentially with their local leaders. These leaders are deeply aware of their obligation to counsel members wisely in the spirit of love, in order to strengthen their faith in the Lord and in His great latter-day work.”
Now, perhaps it is just me, but this definition seems very vague about what exactly the SCMC does. From it we learn that the SCMC exists, is under the first presidency, and that it advises leaders about doctrine, policies, and procedures. This hardly gives us any indication about what it actually does. In order to establish a bit more then the above vacuous statement gives us, we need to look at those who have actually seen it in action.
Last year, Mormon Heretic reviewed a book, Latter-Day Dissent, which provided an insight into the SCMC through its coverage of the September Six, the infamous series of excommunications of Mormon Intellectuals in the 1990′s for speaking out against Church doctrine or policies. MH notes that the book’s interest for him came from its insight into the SCMC. As one of the September Six described the SCMC as:
There is a Strengthening Church Members Committee that we didn’t know about at the time, a Gestapo-like group which press-clipped everything anyone said who might be considered an enemy of the Church, meaning one who disagreed with Church policy.
Since then from various anecdotal evidence from the excommunication of other Mormon scholars, such as Grant Palmer, it appears that the SCMC catalogues members’ controversial statements so they can be later used as evidence against those members in church disciplinary settings. Donald Jesse, a former employee of the public affairs department, better explains this:
Donald: It ‘s a committee that seeks information that, in time, if the proper action is taken, does just that–it can strengthen Church members through proper discipline.
Philip: How so? Many excommunicants have claimed that it collected files on them in preparation for potential disciplinary courts.
Donald: They do it by caring about members of the Church. Discipline is designed to help members who have gone astray. The Church from its beginning has gathered anti-Mormon literature and derogatory or false information about the Church. If the source of this information comes from Church members of record, then action is taken. The Church must be aware of its critics and enemies. Again, Church leaders must keep the Church morally clean and ethically straight.
(Quote taken from Mormon Heretic in his review of the book on the September Six).
This explanation seems to fit in with what the experiences of the September Six suggest, but als0 with what Don LeFevre, the church’s official spokesman in 1993, said of the SCMC: “[it] provides local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism.” There is a lot about this that I find deeply concerning. Considering I already think the church has some similarities with Animal Farm, this seems like something directly out of 1984 and the thought police. However, let us look at what the church representatives have to say about SCMC in the documentary.
Head of Media Relations Micheal Purdy
With this brief overview of what we know about the Strengthening Church Members Committee, let us look at what some of the excerpts from the documentary have to say about it. The first person asked about it is the Head of Media Relations, the brains behind the ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign (well, the one who copied it from Scientology, who then altered their campaign), Michael Purdy.
John Sweeney: What’s the Strengthening Church Members Committee? And does it still exist?
Micheal Purdy: I don’t know. I guess that’s not a question for me. I couldn’t tell you that. I don’t know.
John Sweeney: You’re the head of Media Relations for the church?
Micheal Purdy: Right.
John Sweeney: I’ve spoken to people, um, ex-members of the, err, church, who say that the Strengthening Church Members Committee does still exist, does it exist?
Micheal Purdy: I… I.. Er. I’ve heard. Er. Yes there is a Strengthening Church Members Committee, but I couldn’t tell you the details of how that works but I would be happy to provide someone who can.
John Sweeney: Sorry for my confusion, but when I originally asked you weren’t sure, now you are sure and you do know that it exists and you will give me someone who will tell me more about it.
Firstly when questioned if he knew about the SCMC, the head of PR said that he had never heard of it before. That’s right; the head of PR said that he didn’t know if it existed, but then he changes his mind about it. So the head of PR initially out-rightly LIED about the SCMC by saying that he didn’t know about it, and then admitted he had heard of it but knew nothing about it (perhaps this is like if Gordon B. Hinckley knew if man becoming like God was taught at church, or maybe its more Brigham Young-style lying for the Lord). This made me wonder if he had not been told anything about it by his predecessors who may not only have known about it , but would have been able to say what the SCMC did. How then how did he not know anything about it? Don LeFevre clearly knew and spoke about it, so how did our current spokesman not know about it?
Perhaps we can forgive the head of PR for not knowing what the Strengthening Church Members Committee does: he might be new to the job and not privy to what the SCMC is or does. His intentional dishonesty, perhaps might require a PR statement for apology, but I am prepared to overlook that as a simple mistake. I actually felt sorry when I watched him, as he clearly was not prepared for such a question. With little luck from him, maybe Elder Holland can shed light on the matter?
Well, as it turns out, Elder Holland seemed to know just as little, and what he tells us doesn’t seem to fit with everything else we know about it. The following is my transcript of the interview:
JOHN SWEENEY: What is the Strengthening Church Members Committee?
ELDER JEFFREY R. HOLLAND: The Strengthening Church Members Committee was born some years ago to (pause) protect against predatory practices of polygamists.
SWEENEY: I asked what it is, not was
HOLLAND: That is what it is…
SWEENEY: So it does still exist?
HOLLAND: It does still exist; it does still exist…
SWEENEY: And it…er, looks at. It’s there to defend the church against polygamists?
HOLLAND: Principally, that is still its principal task.
SWEENEY: Ermmm. So what is its subsidiary task?
HOLLAND: I just…suppose to…to be protective generally, just to watch and to care for…any, err, insidious influence. But for all intents and purposes, that’s all that I know about it…is that it’s primarily there to guard against polygamy. That would be the substantial part of the work. I’m not on that committee so I don’t know much about it.
Polygamy? That is what Holland tells us the SCMC is all about. The church is so concerned about polygamists that it has a committee that is ‘primarily’ concerned with dealing with them. Considering how much the church tries to forget about polygamy, I find it interesting that this would be listed as its prime purpose being to deal with the potential threat of them. With over 14 million members across the globe, the church needs to establish a group that monitors its membership for potential predatory practices of polygamists?!? I thought the latest $3 billion mall was a waste of church resources, but forming a committee at the highest level of the church just to stop polygamists seems to be a bit excessive and on the same level. I haven’t seen many predatory polygamists recently, anecdotal I know, but still I doubt polygamy is reaching epidemic proportions in the members. (Ed. I guess it’s because the SCMC is doing its job.) And if this is what it is primarily about, then does that mean they got involved with the September Six because they thought that they were about to start a polygamist group? Perhaps Lavina Anderson was going to have D. Micheal Quinn sealed to her as her second husband.
Given that the church has told us that three of the twelve are involved with the committee, it makes me wonder how Elder Holland could not know much about it, or not even know what it does beyond polygamy. Did Elder Holland miss the meetings in which they spoke about the SCMC? Is the presence of SCMC so secretive that even the council of the twelve are not privy into what goes on within it? Is communication at the highest level of the church that bad that nobody knows what everybody else is doing?
…On the other hand, he’s old, so perhaps he simply didn’t remember the meetings they spoke about it.
Either way, both the interviews with Elder Holland and the Church spokesman did not end up portraying either of them very well (although Holland redeemed himself with his comments on shunning ex-mormons) and the church later sent its PR friends over to the BBC to hand deliver a complaint that Elder Holland was ambushed in the interview.
But even if the documentary was heavy-handed and polemic, I am still really confused about what the Strengthening Church Members Committee is all about. The official church release said that it was about teaching members about doctrine and alluded to gathering anti-mormon documents. The old spokesman, Don LeFevre, said it was about collecting information for potential disciplinary action regarding criticism of the church, but Elder Holland is now telling me its all about Polygamy. With so many conflicting statements the whole thing is turning into a surreal Kafkan mystery in which we are like K in the Castle, who struggle to find out about a mysterious organisation that no one really knows what it is, not even the people who work for it.
Which leaves me to wonder…who on earth knows what the committee is or does? Do they even know themselves?