My Reflections from My Interview with Richard Bushman

John Dehlin Mormon, Mormon Stories

Most of you will likely consider this a rambling mess, but I wanted to post my reflections from my interview with Richard Bushman somewhere–so I’m doing it here. I include these comments in audio form at the beginning of part 5, but here they are in text form:

Hi. This is John Dehlin, and thank you again for joining us on Mormon Stories. You are about the hear the final portion of my 5 part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, former Stake President and current Patriarch of the LDS Church, professor of U.S. history, and author of the book: “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.”

Before I play the interview, I wanted to share a few final thoughts

  • At the beginning of the series, I indicated that Dr. Bushman and I intended to cover 10 or so of the toughest issues surrounding Joseph Smith’s history. Unfortunately, because of the breadth and depth of the first several segments, we burned through all the time that Dr. Bushman was able to offer–and will not continue beyond this final episode (at least for now). Dr. Bushman has indicated that he may have time at some future date to continue the series, so there’s still some chance–but for now, this will be the final segment of our 5 part interview with Dr. Bushman.
  • I want to take the time again to thank Dr. Bushman for his willingness to come on Mormon Stories podcast. In making that decision, it seems as though he had everything to lose, and precious little to gain. In my opinion, Dr. Bushman walks a very fine, and difficult line. On the one hand–he is viewed almost universally as a faithful, devoted member of the LDS church–not only in good standing, but currently serving as a Patriarch for the church. His books have been widely sold in church book stores, and many feel that he has (at least tacit) approval from the leaders of the LDS Church to do what he is doing. We should not underestimate the heavy burden that he must feel, in this position. Notwithstanding, Dr. Bushman is not only a scholar–but remains a clear champion of more open, honest, and accurate history withing the LDS Church. He is not merely defending Joseph and the church–he is also calling for changes, improvements if you will, on all of our parts. This position, between the extremes, can be a very lonely road to walk. On the one hand, he risks being criticized by conservatives as eroding faith by airing too much “dirty laundry”, as they say. On the other hand, he exposes himself to ridicule, derision and even blind dismissal by disaffected Mormons–for acting out the role of apologist. Again–this can be a very lonely road to walk–one that requires deep faith, heavy preparation, strong integrity and conviction. In my estimation–Dr. Bushman deserves great praise and admiration for trying to walk this middle path. While dissenting scholars like Brodie, Quinn, Palmer, and Vogel clearly deserve our respect–so does Dr. Bushman. Regardless of what type of Mormon, or ex-Mormon you are–for those of us who are interested in mainstream members of the LDS Church finally coming to grips with the factual, toughest aspects of Joseph Smith and LDS church history–including peep stones, masonry, polyandry, Kingdom of God, the Nauvoo Expositor, the Kinderhook plates, and all of the other tough topics–I cannot think of another Mormon historian who has done more to drive awareness of these issues deeper into mainstream Mormonism than has Dr. Bushman. In that respect–he deserves credit and praise from all sides of the faith spectrum.
  • And yet he continues to believe–perhaps the most amazing, inspiring and for some –maddening– aspect of all.
  • Still–as I’ve re-listened to these interviews, I remain almost stunned at the non-traditional language Dr. Bushman is willing to use in his discussions of LDS faith. He describes his testimony as being centered upon goodness, rather than the traditional language of truthfulness with a Capital T (though I’m sure that he also holds the gospel to be true). Still, this is reassuring language, for the many saints who struggle with the words “know” and “true”, relative to testimonies. It is like a breath of fresh air. Instead of avoiding the issue, Dr. Bushman openly acknowledges the paradox of the honest, yet faithful saint and scholar–who experiences the conflict between a belief in the exclusive truthfulness of the LDS church, and the awareness that there is so much good outside the church, and that there must be more to God’s plan than what we currently know. This, again, is refreshing. He boldly calls for more openness and honesty with our history–at all levels–and acknowledges that perhaps our hesitancy to be candid with the historical evidence has caused many to feel unnecessary pain, and feelings of having been deceived. He does not blame the victim. In addition. Dr. Bushman was willing to step out from the safety and control of the written word–and directly confront charged question after charged question (from me) with both poise and acceptance–never shying away from the harder aspects of the history–always validating the historical evidence, and never resulting to ad hominim attacks, as so many Mormon apologists have done in the past, and continue to do. He is respectful enough to show deference to, and even praise for someone like Dan Vogel–in spite of the fact that Mr. Vogel is not a traditional believer in the church. And perhaps most importantly of all, Dr. Bushman extends words of support and encouragement to those who are struggling, and questioning their faith. He does not demean them–but instead shows compassion and understanding for their plight–and openly encourages them to consider the struggle–to not give up the quest. He even reduces the dilemma to something very simple: he calls belief in prophets “a choice”–something that our current heavy emphasis in “the spirit” and “feelings” often does not allow. In conclusion–if every faithful member of the church — from Apostle, to Prophet, to General Authority, to Stake President, to Bishop, to ward member, to neighbor, to family member — were to follow Dr. Bushman’s example of how to deal with Mormon history, and those who have been negatively affected by it–I firmly believe that there would be significantly less pain, anguish, suffering, divorce, isolation, disaffection, antagonism, loneliness, depression, and maybe even suicide within Mormonism.
  • If I have any criticism of the interview at all–it is in a slight contradiction that I, and a few others, have noted in Dr. Bushman’s narrative. On the one hand, he begins this series by speaking so highly of his early Harvard days–where other members of the church were able to spend hours upon hours of time studying, exploring, and discussing all aspects of Mormonism — without any real fear of judgment or castigation. While I acknowledge that the Mormon Historical Association allows for dissenting views–I remain uncertain as to what forums regular Mormons (not historians) today have for similar types of discussions. Certainly not sunday school. Study groups and symposia have been formally discouraged by church leadership. And while Sunstone has made GREAT strides under the leadership of Dan Wotherspoon and others to emphasize what is positive and faithful within Mormonism–the stigma remains. I will ask our listeners, and Dr. Bushman an open, somewhat rhetorical question–where, other than the Internet, can faithful LDS members go to openly discuss the issues and controversies of both LDS church history, and other social aspects of the church–without fear of judgment, disloyalty, or punishment? Where are the open forums for thought and faith within Mormonism–accessible to all? Sunstone has definitely been through its ups and downs–but until I learn of a better place, I will continue to give Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Bloggernacle my time and support. For those who are not comfortable with Sustone and Dialogue–but are aware of the dilemma of disaffected LDS saints–I’ll ask it one last time: where can disaffected Mormons go for open, friendly, informed, non-judgmental, Church-sanctioned support? If it is not the Church’s role to directly and officially reach out to those struggling with their faith–what is their role, exactly? And if not Sunstone and Dialogue–Who? Where?
  • Now…about this episode. After 4 hours of interviews with me, it was clear that Dr. Bushman felt as though, in his words, I had gotten the best out of him. Once we realized that it was time to wrap up, there were a few final thoughts that Dr. Bushman wanted to share with my listeners: so the first part of this episode represents his final thoughts about the interview, and the challenges of dealing with tough Mormon history in general. The last part of the interview, however, represents something that was very important to me. After drilling down so deep on the controversy of Joseph Smith’s life, I didn’t feel comfortable ending on a negative and controversial note, so I asked Dr. Bushman to share with us a story or two that would encapsulate his view, and even testimony of Joseph Smith, after a lifetime of studying the man, and the prophet. This segment ends with that story, and those expressions by Dr. Bushman.
  • As a final request–If you end up appreciating, finding value, or even experiencing renewed faith because of this interview with Dr. Bushman, please take the time to send me an email at addressed to Dr. Bushman, and I will make sure that he receives the email. Since Dr. Bushman is quite likely to receive some grief simply for coming on Mormon Stories (given our open format, and our willingness to explore all sides of an issue)–I would really appreciate it if the listeners of mine who felt inspired or appreciative of the interview would take the time to let Dr. Bushman know what his scholarship, and faith, have meant to them. And who knows…maybe we can convince him to complete the series!!! (when the time is right of course).
  • And now, on with the final segment of my 5 part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Your story, today on Mormon Stories.