I’m somewhat wary of secrets. Yes, I absolutely think there is a time and a place for keeping confidences, and I’m very much a supporter of private information staying generally private (like not having your entire web history auctioned off by your internet service provider to the highest bidder. But I digress). I’m not entirely on board with the trend in our contemporary culture to leak anything that can be leaked; given my history of willingness to criticize the church, you might be surprised to learn that I actually have some serious reservations about the recent MormonLeaks phenomenon.
Still, secrets are tricky beasts. Sometimes they’re necessary, no doubt about it. But I don’t like how they can place excessive burdens on people who get stuck with more knowledge than they can handle on their own, but who can’t ask for support because the knowledge is secret. I don’t like how they can create dividing lines between people, separating out those “in the know” as a privileged group. I don’t like how they can create a toxic atmosphere in communities (think, polygamy under Joseph Smith), or in families (such as when a parent selects one child and share their secrets with them but not with anyone else, and the dynamics get weird fast).
So you can imagine my reaction when, as I’ve blogged about before, I found out in ninth grade that God had his very own secret club, that people who’d been through the temple knew secrets about getting into heaven that weren’t available to the population at large. I was utterly devastated.
I know, I know—when it comes to the temple, it’s not secret, but sacred. But can we begin by simply admitting that it’s both? And whichever word you use, I’ve wondered a lot about the purpose for it. The standard explanation, of course, is that it’s to protect sacred things from the mocking eyes of the world, which would likely see them as just bizarre and not understand or honor their value. But I can’t help noticing that the church also has sacred practices which might sound very strange indeed if they weren’t so familiar (e.g., eating a representation of someone’s flesh and blood) which are openly displayed to the world.
Also, in the age of the internet, the secrets of the temple aren’t actually being protected from those who might wish to make fun of them. A quick google search will tell you that that particular ship has already sailed; the secrets are out there. In fact, in an interesting twist, these days one could argue that the secrets of temple liturgy are being protected not primarily from non-members, who might randomly chance upon them while surfing the web or even look them up out of curiosity, but from members, from the faithful but as of yet unendowed, who are presumably more likely to respect the church’s wishes and not go seeking the information on their own. Given this, I don’t think it’s a stretch to propose that at least in the present historical moment, the existence of secret temple rites is aimed less at hiding privileged information from prying eyes, and more at other things. One important motivation is arguably that of creating sacred space that is ritually set off from the mundane, a process nicely articulated by Richard Bushman in a 2007 Pew Research Center interview:
How do you create a sacred space? . . . Just like time is set aside on the Sabbath devoted to God, can you have space set aside that’s devoted to God? Mormons have become very good at that. Before you can go to the temple, you can’t simply be a member of the church. You have to see your bishop. Every two years you have to talk with your bishop who will ask you a set of questions . . . It’s a worthiness interview, and you have to have a recommend to get past the front door of the temple. Once you get past that 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.
Additionally, temple secrecy creates a particular dynamic in the community in which social capital in the form of “in-the-know” status is conferred upon those who conform to the behavioral requirements of the church. In other words, it’s a way for the church to actually enforce its expectations—if you fail to pay your tithing, or break the Word of Wisdom, or affiliate with groups deemed apostate, there will be real consequences. (For a fascinating and thorough consideration of the ways in which temple secrecy and social capital interact in Mormonism, see this long ago post from Kiskilili.)
While I’ve had a lot of reservations about this set-up over the years, I do want to give it a fair shake. Some contemporary thinkers have critiqued any religious community which does this sort of thing as being contrary to the fundamental ethos of Christianity, which they see as inherently inclusive and opposed to any sort of esoteric information available only to a privileged few. But to be fair, this has not always been the case in the history of Christianity; in the early centuries of Christian worship, to give one example, the unbaptized were required to leave before the secret part of the liturgy in which the Eucharist was distributed. Even in the text of the New Testament, Jesus seems to indicate that there are insiders with special knowledge, and outsiders for whom this information is obscured: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.” (Mark 4:11) In addition, I will say that I really can appreciate the value of the idea of sacred space as described by Bushman in the quote above, of a place set apart from the mundane where you can in a sense step out of the temporal or mortal world and contemplate the the things of eternity.
Furthermore, LDS leaders quite reasonably make the case that they are ultimately not trying to limit anything from anyone—that they are in fact eager for everyone to partake of temple blessings. Given the strong missionary impulse so deeply embedded in Mormonism, I have little reason to question the sincerity of church leaders who state that they truly want everyone to participate in the secret liturgy at some point, that it is in some sense being offered to everyone.
On the other hand, as I said above, the situation undeniably creates an exclusive club in which members of the community are divided into insiders and outsiders. And human nature being what it is, it seems inevitable that at least some of those in the former category will see themselves as more enlightened, as intellectually and spiritually superior to the uninitiated. Those who go through the temple at a young age may be less aware of just how deep this divide runs, but I can say from many years of experience as an unendowed member of the church that those in that situation are confronted with regular reminders that they are not fully insiders, and do not have the privileged status reserved for temple-attending members of the church. And have to admit that I’m fundamentally uneasy with this divide.
The lack of accountability is another byproduct of the secrecy of temple rites that concerns me. For one thing, while the church can and does get interrogated by outsiders about its refusal to (for example) ordain women, it is rare for there to be much pushback from the broader culture with regard to its temple practices regarding gender, as whenever those issues come up, church leaders play the “it’s too scared to discuss” card, and simply refuse to engage the issue. There are even times when I would go so far as to say that LDS leaders are enabled by the secrecy of temple rites to able to flat-out lie about the status of women in the church, and claim that there is no subordination based on gender anywhere in the tradition. Obviously this bothers me a lot. I do realize that some would object, however, to the entire way I’ve framed this, and assert that the church has zero responsibility to be in any way accountable to the expectations of the broader culture in the first place. I can appreciate such a perspective. But I come down more on the side of thinking that it’s actually not a bad thing for there to be some broader pressures on religious institutions—not to force them to one hundred percent conform to current cultural norms, but to keep them honest.
Even more troubling to me, however, than issues involving the relationship of the church to the broader culture, is the the way in which the secrecy of the temple rites enables the church to not have to really acknowledge or confront the harm done by the liturgy to at least some members of the institution—because once again, the subject is simply entirely placed off-limits. I don’t know if this has changed in the past decade, and I truly hope that the proliferation of temple stories on places like feminist blogs has at least somewhat countered this (see for example the amazing series of posts on FMH titled “When the Temple Hurts”), but when we first started discussing issues related to the temple on our blog many years ago, I was struck by just how many people reported having utterly devastating experiences but literally no place to talk about them, and profound feelings of isolation and disconnection from the church and their fellow saints as a result.
And to be blunt, there are ways in which the whole thing is disturbingly reminiscent of the dynamics of abusive families. I find myself hesitant to make this comparison, as I realize that it’s provocative and may well raise the hackles of many and make them more likely to simply dismiss everything I am saying here. But I nonetheless think it’s worth noting the parallels, just because they so clearly illustrate the ways in which secrecy can be destructive. A basic characteristic of families in which parents are abusing their children is that the children are forbidden, with threats of severe consequences, to share the details of what is going on with anyone outside the family. The damage done to them is thereby compounded, as not only is no one able to intervene and put an end to the abuse, the children also don’t get access to alternate narrative frameworks which they could draw on in interpreting the situation, ones which would lay the sole responsibility for the abuse at the feet of the abuser. Instead, tragically, they almost always blame themselves for what is being done to them. To clarify, I’m not arguing that this is a perfect parallel to the situation of people harmed by the temple. But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve encountered echoes of this dynamic in the stories of people who have had their faith and confidence and belief in their own worth utterly shattered by their temple experiences, but who don’t dare tell that to anyone in their lives for fear that others will quickly shut them down (citing the requirements of secrecy), and also quite possibly blame and judge them for having a bad experience and especially for sharing it.
In any situation in which there is an expectation of secrecy and you are wondering about its legitimacy, whether in a family or a church or other social institution or the workings of a government agency, I propose that the crucial question to ask is this: exactly who or what is this secrecy protecting? If we’re talking about a therapy relationship, for example, it’s clear that the built-in confidentiality requirement, in which the therapist is tasked with keeping the secrets of the client, is aimed at protecting the client, and that seems quite legitimate and defensible. On the other hand, if the secrecy in an institution appears to be primarily protecting the people running the institution, while causing harm to some of its more vulnerable members, I think we need to ask some hard questions.
Given all of this, I am not persuaded that the benefits which arise from keeping the temple ordinances secret outweigh the costs. Perhaps the situation would be different if the liturgy were universally experienced as benign, but that is far from the reality in which we currently find ourselves. And so I find myself asking: are there ways of creating sacred space, space that’s set apart from the rest of the world as a kind of refuge—which I agree is a powerful thing and something worth pursuing—that don’t involve secrecy, and its accompanying dynamics of privilege, exclusivity, and lack of accountability?