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McKay Coppins: McKay Coppins: The case against Mormon censorship

Published: Friday, Sept. 24 2010 4:30 a.m. MDT

I finally did it. I bought a copy of Richard Bushman's highly acclaimed, slightly controversial, brilliantly written biography of Joseph Smith, \"Rough Stone Rolling.\"

I'm not very far in, but I can already tell that this is my kind of LDS book. It's not the solid prose or unmatched depth of research that sets it apart from so much Mormon writing; it's Bushman's unflinching honesty in portraying a man he regards as a prophet. Indeed, it's his refusal to whitewash history.

Instead, Bushman takes a refreshingly bold approach, which he describes in the book's preface:

\"For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws.\"

And why not? No prophet has ever been perfect, and human error doesn't disqualify someone from receiving divine revelation. Most Latter-day Saints know this intellectually, but we still sometimes feel uncomfortable with discussing the shortcomings of revelators.

I believe this reluctance to acknowledge the obvious — that even the most prominent heroes in LDS Church history are capable of human sin — is part of an unfortunate cycle in which Mormon historians avoid publishing potentially \"sensitive\" information because they know it might shake some members' testimonies. As a result, many Mormons only see church history through rose-tinted lenses, thus making them more sensitive to more realistic accounts.

With the \"Joseph Smith Papers,\" the church is beginning to break this cycle, publishing thousands of pages of history without regard for whether all of it fits into the tidy narrative some members have constructed. Still, I think we have a long way to go.

Now, as a journalist, I must admit here to a bias against partial truth and blissful ignorance. (After all, fact-finding and truth-exposing are the primary functions of my industry.) But a fierce loyalty to truth is not the only reason to support a Bushmanian approach to Mormon history.

The fact is, the information-saturated world in which we live simply doesn't afford the luxury of willful ignorance. At some point during our lifetimes, we will most likely be confronted with half-truths regarding our faith's history. And it's much better to understand the full context of the quote or event in question than to be blindsided by it.

In other words, censorship is bad for the soul.

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