Mormonism and church integrity/"Lying for the Lord"
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
I have a friend who claims that the Church teaches that it is okay to "Lie for the Lord." My friend insists that the Church leaders believe that deceiving others in a "good cause" for the sake of the Church is not a sin, and may even be laudable. Is there any truth to this claim?
Honesty and integrity are foundational values to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, the success which critics have in troubling members of the Church with tales of deception or supposed "lying for the Lord" is, in a way, a backhanded compliment to the Church.
If the Church as an institution typically taught its members to have a casual disregard for the truth, the charge that some Church leader had deceived someone else would be no great shock. But, because the Church (contrary to the suggestions of some critics) really does teach its members to aspire to live with honesty and integrity, accusations of deception can be troubling, especially if the critics can selectively report such instances without providing the context or difficulties which might have underlain such decisions.
Critics have long charged the LDS with organizationally and systematically “lying for the Lord,” equating such with a policy of using any means necessary to achieve some “good” goal.
This claim is false, and a biased reading of Church history. One must not use ethically questionable tactics because one believes the “end justifies the means.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks repudiated any such doctrine within the Church, specifically in the context of polygamy:
- Some have suggested that it is morally permissible to lie to promote a good cause. For example, some Mormons have taught or implied that lying is okay if you are lying for the Lord… As far as concerns our own church and culture, the most common allegations of lying for the Lord swirl around the initiation, practice, and discontinuance of polygamy. The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice.
Elder Oaks then reaches the key point: there will be times when moral imperatives clash. Sometimes, people who wish to make moral choices are faced with difficult choices. For example:
- if a rapist breaks into your house, and demands to know where your teenage daughter is hiding, are you morally obligated to tell him?
- if you are a French Christian hiding Jews from the Nazis in 1941, are you obliged to tell the SS about the whereabouts of the Jews if they ask? Is it wrong to lie to them?
- if the government seeks to destroy families formed under plural marriage, is breaking up those families appropriate? Should one abandon wives and children without support, or avoid telling the whole truth?
In all these examples—and there are many more like them—one cannot be both completely honest when confronted with a hostile questioner and meet other very real ethical demands. Doing both is simply not an option. Elder Oaks notes:
- My heart breaks when I read of circumstances in which wives and children were presented with the terrible choice of lying about the whereabouts or existence of a husband or father on the one hand or telling the truth and seeing him go to jail on the other. These were not academic dilemmas. A father in jail took food off the table and fuel from the hearth. Those hard choices involved collisions between such fundamental emotions and needs as a commitment to the truth versus the need for loving companionship and relief from cold and hunger.
- My heart also goes out to the Church leaders who were squeezed between their devotion to the truth and their devotion to their wives and children and to one another. To tell the truth could mean to betray a confidence or a cause or to send a brother to prison. There is no academic exercise in that choice!
The actions of wicked people may place the Saints in conditions in which they cannot fulfill all the ethical demands upon them. In such difficult circumstances, only revelation—to the Church collectively and to individuals—can hope to show us what God would have us do. Judging such cases is extremely difficult; it is also hypocritical for Church critics to point out such instances without providing the context which underlay their choices, and which made them so wrenching. As Elder Oaks continued:
- I do not know what to think of all of this, except I am glad I was not faced with the pressures those good people faced. My heart goes out to them for their bravery and their sacrifices, of which I am a direct beneficiary. I will not judge them. That judgment belongs to the Lord, who knows all of the circumstances and the hearts of the actors, a level of comprehension and wisdom not approached by even the most knowledgeable historians.
Each case must be judged on its merits. Did some Church members or leaders make wrong choices in such difficult moral choices? Probably—they and we do not claim any inerrancy. In the main, however, it seems clear that Church members did not “lie” or “deceive” because it was convenient, or because it would advance “the cause.” They lied because moral duties conflicted, and they chose the option which did the least harm to their ethical sense. Happily, they had personal revelation to guide them. Concludes Elder Oaks:
- I ask myself, “If some of these Mormon leaders or members lied, therefore, what?” I reject a “therefore” which asserts or implies that this example shows that lying is morally permissible or that lying is a tradition or even a tolerated condition in the Mormon community or among the leaders of our church. That is not so. (emphasis added)
- Critics often accuse the Church (or its leaders, its missionaries, or its members) about not telling "the truth" about that which Mormons "really believe." Generally, however, the 'truth' which the critic wishes the Church would spread bears little or no resemblance to what the Church teaches, believes, or practices. Cries for "honesty" from the critics are often nothing more than a claim that the Church must adopt the critics' perspectives, interpretations, or preoccupations.
- Critics may portray Church members as "lying" when the critics have, instead, misinterpreted or misrepresented what the member intended. A common example of this tactic is the claim that President Hinckley lied about LDS doctrine in an interview. As the wiki link demonstrates, this claim is false and represents a misunderstanding. This particular claim is particularly ridiculous, since it supposes that President Hinckley would believe that he could deceive a national newsmagazine, interviewing him on the record!
- Members of the Church are also bound by requirements of confidentiality. Members will not discuss certain matters which they have covenanted to keep sacred, and some experiences are not to be shared unless the Holy Spirit directs. Members may be portrayed as "lying" when they meet hostile attacks with silence, or when they attempt to protect things they consider sacred by deflecting the conversation to other topics.
- Church leaders who provide spiritual guidance to others operate under confidentiality rules (sometimes called a clergy-penitent relationship) which they will not set aside even if the member being counseled chooses to speak. This provides an environment in which leaders may be falsely accused or characterized by a disenchanted member, yet the leader remains unable to defend themselves. Often, charges of "lying" are one-sided reports from the disaffected, with the other party unable to respond. We should use charity and caution in judging such cases.
- Church members and leaders have similar confidentiality duties as non-member counterparts in various fields. Physicians and attorneys must keep professional confidences, military personnel must keep national security secrets from the enemy, businessmen must keep trade secrets private, etc. Meeting these ethical duties is not always easy, and could leave one vulnerable to charges that one is being 'dishonest' or 'hiding the truth.' Those who seek to find fault will likely succeed.
- [note] A thorough treatment of the historical, ethical, and moral issues surrounding "deception" by Church leaders in the practice of plural marriage is available: Gregory Smith, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." FAIR link PDF link. The interested reader is encouraged to consult it for a much more in-depth discussion.
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings About Lying,” BYU Fireside Address, 12 September 1993, typescript, no page numbers; also printed in Clark Memorandum [of the J. Reuben Clark School of Law, Brigham Young University] (Spring 1994). All references to Elder Oaks in this wiki article apply to this speech, unless otherwise indicated.