I spent a couple of days putting together a Who's Who for the people offering commentary as part of the PBS series The Mormons. Now I get to actually talk about the series, and I'd like to talk about transcripts of the interviews posted at the PBS site. Only snippets of these interviews made the final production; the transcripts provide much of the interview verbatim, along with the questions posed by the interviewer. I'm going to select a few quotes from the Marlin K. Jensen interview conducted (according to the site) on March 7, 2006, then add a pargraph or two of commentary. Elder Jensen is the LDS Church Historian and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Elder Jensen, who was given a lot of airtime in the final cut, addressed a variety of issues with candor and dexterity.
On a post-mission "season of doubt": Yes. I went off to college after my mission. I took some philosophy classes. I took some anthropology classes. I've tried to read widely. I'm not an intellectual, I don't think, in any stretch of that word, nor am I a brilliant person. But I do think; I do discuss. I have a substantial library, and I've tried to test my belief against other philosophies and other theories of life.
On Correlation: We are really trying to take account of cultural differences and to not feel that this Utah influence or even the American influence has to be worldwide. I've lived in places now where there are fourth- and fifth-generation members, in Germany, for instance, where there's very much a German church, in the sense that they honor their own customs and adapt what is produced here to their cultural needs.
On the lingering folklore of the racial priesthood ban: It had its purpose, trying to offer some rationale for why that ban existed, and then once the ban was lifted, that sort of remained in some form in various publications and so on.
A few years ago I did suggest that something be done, within the realms of my ability, to [address the folklore]. But nothing ensued from that, and one thing I've learned as part of my belief is that when I feel strongly about something, and I've expressed myself on it to the leaders of the church, I leave it then in their hands, when I'm aware that they know all the facts.
On the Church's approach to its own history: So we do take history very seriously. I think we take it very literally. We don't deconstruct and feel that what we have is the figment of language or our imagination, or that there is some middle ground. I know that is very polarizing. In a sense, I think the hardest public relations sell we have to make is that this is the only true church.
On "faithful history": Over the last 20 [or] 30 years there's certainly been an ongoing discussion about faithful history, faith-promoting history, as opposed to what some have termed more objective history. ... We're in the process actually of really trying to resolve the question: What should church history do? What should the church historian do? [ellipsis in original]
On doctrines that might get a person excommunicated: If you advocated, for instance, that gay people should be allowed to marry, and you were openly vocal about that, and in the process malign the leadership in the church for not adopting that position, that's something that would be severe enough, I think, to warrant disciplinary action.
Another example would be to take on the Book of Mormon, for instance, and its divine origins. To begin to criticize it on the basis of its geography or its historicity or the doctrines it contains or the way it came to be and the translation of it by Joseph Smith -- those are all core issue that would be so central to the church that they would require disciplinary action.
As I noted, Elder Jensen was admirably direct in his responses. On the gay marriage question, note that the elements were conjunctive: If you advocate gay marriage AND are openly vocal about it AND in that process malign the leadership of the Church for not adopting your position, THEN one's actions (he suggests) might be severe enough to justify disciplinary action. Likewise, I suspect the "openly vocal" and "malign Church leadership" elements apply to his comments on the historicity issue as well.
Given that he is the Church Historian, his remarks on history are worth considering. His view that LDS history tends to be polarizing and offers "no middle ground" is rather surprising. One might argue, for example, that Mormon history has been a middle ground around which LDS and non-LDS historians have been able to form a friendly and productive scholarly community. No doubt those historians have their own ideas about what Church History should do and the role the Church Historian should play.