This is for all those who say things like “I can’t understand how [polygamy] is such a stunning revelation for any long-time members” or “the only way not to be introduced to polygamy as a member is to not pay any attention” or “People are going to need to be responsible for their own study and stop asking ‘why didn’t the Church teach me these things’.” Let me help you understand not how members of the Church might be “stunned,” but why.
Personally, I haven’t felt any angst over the Church’s recent articles about polygamy. I think this is a more of a matter of chance though, rather than any systematic attempt to prevent these feelings.
As critical as I’ve been about the Church Educational System, the Institute instructor I had as a freshman at a university far away from the Mormon Corridor was instrumental in helping me become a well-adjusted LDS. I don’t remember the title of the course, but I was the only one who showed up, and the instructor (who was a full-time CES employee) said that if I kept coming to class so would he. He also switched the topic of the class to discuss, in his own words, “The four things I find the hardest to deal with in the Church.” We spent the bulk of one semester talking about polygamy, the priesthood ban, the role of women in the Church, and the Book of Abraham (IIRC). Looking back at it, parts of the course were too apologetic, but by and large, the time I spent with this instructor was instrumental in allowing me to feel that issues I had heard mentioned by other LDSs could be discussed openly, even in a church setting. In retrospect, it helped me maintain trust in the Church.
Trust, Reliance, and Betrayal
One difference between trust and reliance is the degree to which we render ourselves susceptible to various harms. We rely on our babysitter to show up on time, we rely on our car to start in the morning, and we rely on our employees to put in an honest day’s work. But when these things do not occur, we usually do not say that we feel betrayed. Betrayal tends to be reserved for situations where trust is breached beyond mere reliance. A friend sharing sensitive information publicly, a spouse entertaining the sexual advances of someone else, or a sibling depleting the savings of our aging parents; these are all cases where feeling betrayed is appropriate. Betrayal entails something deeper than reliance. Indeed, betrayal is only possible when something of great value is entrusted to another whom we thought cared for our righteous interests more than their own selfish interests.
Betrayal often occurs in spite of desire to trust. In other words, we want to trust the person or people we’ve rendered ourselves vulnerable to. However, betrayal cannot be willed away. We cannot simply decide not to feel betrayed. Rather, some kind of reason must be provided to either show that trust was not breached or that those we trusted can rebuild that trust.
At the same time, trust is harder to gain than to lose. As such, attempting to justify the act without the possibility of apology can often backfire—appearing as a refusal to acknowledge the betrayal, as selfishness, or even worse, appearing as deception. In these circumstances, the possibility of an apology can often pave the way for a meaningful discussion that begins to disarm feelings of betrayal and restore trust. Refusal to acknowledge even the slightest wrongdoing, however, compounds the problem; and eventually the person feeling betrayed loses the desire to trust.
Many of those feeling betrayed by the Church start out not wanting to feel this way. They want to trust the Church; however, their experiences with the Church have led them to feel conflicted. With regard to polygamy, they feel that the Church has breached their trust by not being upfront about polygamy (i.e., it seems that the Church is more interested in preserving its own image rather than being honest with its members that it claims to serve). Rather than telling these people that their feelings are unwarranted (which only compounds the problem) because one’s experiences are different from theirs, it is far more productive to entertain the possibility that in fact the Church could have been more upfront about polygamy. This, IMO, would open the door to a discussion about what it means to be upfront about polygamy, and may even mitigate feelings of betrayal by contextualizing what the Church has done within its practical constraints (i.e., there’s only so much time at church). But by not opening the door to truly listen and learn from those feeling betrayed, it not only blames them for their own unwanted feelings, but decreases the possibility of any reconciliation.