I used to be a fan of Christopher Hitchens, but now I need to speak up.
Hitchens, a British intellectual and terrific writer, once took in the novelist Salman Rushdie as Rushdie was hiding from fundamentalists committed to his death for the book, “Satanic Verses.”
Hitchens' was a deeply courageous act.
Similarly, Hitchens has regularly traveled to war zones and argued for human rights. His call for action to forestall the suffering and genocide in Darfur was among the most movingly persuasive opinion pieces I have ever read.
Furthermore, his very public battle with a grave cancer diagnosis has been moving. I wish him well in that fight.
Hitchens is an atheist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t object to his atheism, any more than I object to any belief system. It is a free county. I can learn from a principled atheist as much as I can a principled religious person.
In recent years, however, Hitchens became much more open and direct in his atheism. His 2007 book, “God is not Great. How Religion Spoils Everything,” gives you an idea of his tone in recent years. The book was a surprise best-seller.
Hitch has participated in numerous public debates between generic religion and atheism — including with his brother, an ardent believer.
Here’s where I ran aground: To my mind, Hitchens wrote one of the most vitriolic articles about the church during Mitt Romney's first run for president. He called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “mad cult.”
I long thought of directly replying to his argument over the years for what he had said, but debate and contention really isn’t my way. We become converts through prayer, not debate. Then, I thought of his illness and that time had passed. I thought it best to leave alone an article that was four years old.
But Hitchens is at it again. Only a couple of weeks ago, he called my Latter-day Saint beliefs “weird” and “sinister” in an article in the online magazine Slate.
He says we Latter-day Saints have a “supreme leader,” that we can be ordered to “shun” anyone leaving the faith, and that hefty donations are appreciated. He creates the impression of a coercive religion — a cult, really.
Of course, few Latter-day Saints care much about Hitchens. They’ve certainly seen worse than him throughout their history. And his arguments, to those who pay attention, are little more than warmed-over Fawn Brodie from 1945.
So, I write mostly to someone — maybe to one or two who stumble across me on the Internet — who might have read Hitchens and who have wondered about what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. I write to those who might think Christopher Hitchens conveys an accurate portrayal of Mormonism.
Putting it bluntly, Chris Hitchens was lazy and fundamentally inaccurate in writing about Mormonism — and he continues to be.
Consider the implication he makes that Latter-day Saints make their leaders wealthy. Look at President Thomas S. Monson. Were President Monson running a Fortune 500 company of the complexity of the church, he’d be compensated in the millions with stock options and have several homes around the world. He’d fly in his own private jet to Davos and Aspen and spend his weekends in the Berkshires.
But President Monson lives modestly in a Salt Lake suburb, a lifestyle not much different from most American Latter-day Saints. When he flies on a private jet, it is on one supplied by a friend, not to Aspen, but to meet with Latter-day Saints.
Many of his close counselors are doing far less well financially than they might have in business.
I am reminded that President Eyring gave up a promising career at the Stanford Business School to take up church service. My close colleague here in Rexburg, President Kim Clark, sacrificed career, salary and perks at Harvard to take over BYU-Idaho.
That is true of many of the church’s leading brethren. They sacrifice and don’t profit from church service. Anyone who chooses to pay attention would see that.
Indeed, the church is famous for having no paid clergy at all. When Mitt Romney was a stake president, he spent hundreds of hours meeting with members and organizing projects, yet he didn't receive even a dime in compensation.
Instead, free-will church offerings build and maintain buildings and provide church services for members and non-members alike.
That isn’t the only place that Hitchens runs amuck.
In his magnum opus about religion, Hitchens cites only two written sources — Brodie and Mark Twain — in his section about Latter-day Saints. There is no evidence that Hitchens engaged in reading any of the LDS apologists like Hugh Nibley or John Welch in his research.
In fact, there is little evidence that he actually read the Book of Mormon.
Let me give you this example:
Hitchens claims that Joseph Smith was allowed to show the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon to no one. It is true that Joseph did not show the plates widely, but the Book of Mormon begins with affidavits from 11 who said they saw the plates. Three swore they saw the same angel Joseph Smith said he saw.
It wouldn’t have taken long for Hitchens to find that. If he saw it, why didn’t he correct his narrative?
Then, Hitchens strongly implies that the Book of Mormon is simple derivation. He slyly quotes the number of words quoted from the Old Testament and the new in the Book of Mormon. But any reader knows that only about 10 to 15 percent — at most — of the Book of Mormon comes from the Bible. The balance is wholly new — and the Isaiah and Matthew passages include slight but dramatic revisions that add doctrinal insight.
If Joseph Smith were a fraud, he sure knew how to walk the theological tightrope. Wouldn’t a fraud have borrowed from Proverbs — a relatively simple work with straightforward teaching and poetry — rather than Isaiah? Wouldn’t a fraud have left well enough alone the densest sections of Old Testament scripture?
There are many other problems with Hitchens, but where he goes most astray in his book is his line about the murder of Joseph Smith — “he overreached himself and met a violent end.”
See the construction. It is Joseph Smith’s fault, he seems to say, that he was killed by a mob.
Consider, for a minute, how profoundly offensive this is, and consider, again, how Brother Joseph died.
How do genuine cult leaders who meet violent ends, usually die? As the authorities come around — as they did around David Koresh and around Jim Jones — these leaders use their followers as human shields.
These cultists call on those followers to make deathly sacrifices on their behalf. In both of those cases, these leaders died and took their followers with them in horrifying fashion, promising them a place in the Millennium.
Joseph Smith could have called out the Nauvoo Legion to defend him. He could have barricaded Nauvoo and expected the authorities to come get him and said the Second Coming was nigh. It could have been a darkly bloody campaign with an uncertain end that accompanied Brother Joseph in 1844.
Instead, he went, peacefully, to Carthage Jail, drawing comfort from the book he had translated. He made no Millennial claims for his death.
He allowed himself to be butchered and in so doing sealed his testimony powerfully with his blood.
Hitchens is wrong about the Latter-day Saint movement, wrong about Joseph Smith and demonstrated laziness in doing so. I wish Hitchens well, but next time he writes about Mormonism, he should pick up a few more books.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
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