By Michael J. Barrett
Michael J. Barrett is assisstant general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington.
I've just been excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The charge was disobedience. I have to confess, I did disobey a direct order.
On April 17, two men in dark suits knocked at my door and delivered a letter from my stake president. The letter informed me I was "considered to be guilty of Apostasy (sic)." The trial would be the following Sunday morning at 8.
That was a difficult week filled with questions of why and how, but the morning of the trial was worse.
"Excommunicate" is a terrifying word, conjuring visions of hooded men in black robes, darkened rooms, drawn faces.
As I walked alone into the high-council room, I was told to sit at one end of a long, narrow conference table. Seated on both sides of the table were 12 high councilmen, with the stake president and his two counselors at the other end.
Behind me were my bishop and two clerks. All wore dark suits.
The stake president, LaMar Sleight, read the charges against me: deliberately disobeying his orders by disclosing some of our unpopular doctrines in published letters to several newspapers. The truth of my statements was not in question, he said. The court would hear only evidence of my disobedience to his direct order.
He directed my attention to the six men seated closest to him, and said they had drawn lots and been chosen to ensure that neither I nor the church would be abused during the trial.
He then proceeded to tell the court of my sin. I had, he declared, disobeyed his direct order, and that of his predecessor, to conceal certain doctrines from the press and public.
He called the former stake president as his witness. After about 30 minutes, they finished and the stake president asked whether I had any evidence that his charges were false. No, I said, but I
would like to explain.
Sleight, his predecessor, and two general authorities from Salt Lake City had been clear. As they explained in a letter to me, "Latter Day Saint scholars have no license to publish what a president of the church may have said when under a (U.S. Congress) subpoena. . ."
And I had disobeyed.
I was pained to discover about 13 years ago that some church members believe it's better to deny or conceal doctrine and history, rather than discuss things honestly and openly.
At first, I attempted persuade church leaders that honesty was our best option. I was told that the decision already had be made by leaders such a Elder Boyd K. Packer Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
Some facts, some doctrines, are embarrassing and must be concealed.
Only faith-inspiring facts and doctrines may be discussed. Anything that is not immediately faith promoting is considered to be "advanced history" (Packer's term) and must be concealed with all of the zeal of a corporate lawyer hiding documents that could incriminate his company.
I could not accept this. Not only was such an approach dishonest, but it also presumed that Mormon doctrines are foolish an cannot withstand scrutiny.
So, when I noticed newspaper stories about the church, I began writing letters to editors in an attempt to educate the public, appeal our leaders' better judgment and demonstrate that we, as Mormons, are not afraid to confront our own history.
On one occasion, he called me in and he, together with Elder F. Burton Howard of the First Quorum of the Seventy, directed me to stop disclosing our doctrines and history publicly, even though these teachings were taken from church publications, church records and public documents.
Howard, a lawyer, told me the public had no business knowing what President Joseph F. Smith said in his sworn testimony to Congress about polygamy in 1904. He said that any member of the church who would reveal that Smith's testimony was false was unworthy of a temple "recommend."
McQuivey immediately concurred and refused to issue me a recommend, which is an official stamp of worthiness to enter the temple and is given only to select Mormons who are deemed obedient to church commandments.
This was the first time I'd been without one since l can remember. I asked how I could repent and get a new recommend. McQuivey said I would have to agree to keep certain church doctrines and historical facts secret. I refused, saying I thought that would be cowardice in the eyes of Jesus Christ, and a tacit denial of those doctrines.
And so we came to the two issues before the court: Did I willfully disobey Sleight's order to remain silent? And, if so, why? The answer to the first question is a simple yes.
I would answer the second by recalling [Joseph] Smith's words [the founder of Mormonism], as written in The Doctrine & Covenants, Joseph Smith History 1:25:
"Why persecute me for telling the truth? . . .(W)ho am I that I can withstand God?
I knew (the truth), and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation."
Embarrassing but truthful
Yes, it can be embarrassing and difficult to be honest about polygamy and the fact that we still believe it was a divine commandment. But does that justify concealing it?
Many people are offended by our belief that Joseph Smith was visited by God and Jesus Christ, and an angel bearing new scripture. Shall we deny or conceal that, too? I know we very much wish to be considered "mainstream Christianity," but that does not justify concealing the gospel.
Do I regret that some people, members of the church and investigators alike, may read my letters and have serious questions about the church? What I regret is that someone lied to them originally, or discreetly omitted some basic truths. When they read the letters now, and ask questions, we should answer them honestly and directly.
I realize we can all make mistakes, including prophets, and that this is a human quality. I love and appreciate our prophets for the truths they have given us and the principles of the gospel they have shared with us. I also love them knowing they have made mistakes. Those mistakes just reaffirm their humanity and the opportunity we all have to progress in light and truth.
'Bad things' under wraps
I concluded my remarks. And waited.
Several of the high councilmen asked questions. One angrily announced that we have no business discussing the "bad things" in the church. Then I was dismissed so they could begin their secret deliberations.
Later that afternoon, two men in dark suits knocked at my door and delivered a letter from my stake president.
I was excommunicated.