Blasphemy, Censorship and Doubt

September 10, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 5:22 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,orthodox,Truth

When Joseph Smith ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, he was quite clearly participating in the censorship of others.  Whether he was commanded by God to do this or not is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this post.  Rather, I would like to focus on the continuity which exists between this case and other scriptural examples of censoring or compelling speech.  With this continuity in mind we should be able to better conceptualize the tensions between apostasy and censorship that we see in the bloggernacle today.

Before I address the scriptural examples of censorship and compulsory speech I would like to briefly review the three main models according to which we might evaluate such examples.  1)  The consumer model strongly objects to censorship and compulsory speech as an infringement on individuals’ freedom.  Within this model, a person should be able to affirm or deny whatever suits their individual purposes so long as it doesn’t actively interfere with other people’s pursuits.  If we don’t like what they do or do not say, we are free to simply disassociate with such people.  2)  The critical model also objects to censorship and compulsory speech, but for different reasons.  Within this model, censorship and compulsory speech not only constitute but actively disguise and reinforce domination and other asymmetries in power.  In other words, censorship and compulsory speech are forms of domination whereby one group props itself up and keeps others down.  Indeed, the critical model will sometimes go so far as to interfere with the freedom of persons and organizations inasmuch they amount to forms of indirect censorship and compulsory speech.  3)  The feudal model, by contrast, will not only sometimes see censorship and compulsory speech as morally tolerable, but as morally required.  Within this model, a person who threatens or undermines the legitimacy of the feudal lord and his representatives (aka a blasphemer/apostate) ought to be silenced.  Whereas the consumer and critical models of society see persuasion and reasoning as the only legitimate forms of convincing others, the feudal model does not necessarily object to some measured use of compulsory threats.

Now we can move on to the scriptural examples of censorship and compulsory speech.

  • In biblical times blasphemy was a capital crime, even if the blasphemer was not a believer. This was supposed to have been Jesus’ crime.
  • Jesus said on several occasions that if we do not believe in his gospel we are damned.
  • Nehor was “caused” by his execution squad to acknowledge that his teachings were false.
  • Alma the Younger and Korihor was both physically incapacitated for their teachings against the church.
  • Many people in the scriptures have been socially stigmatized with disfellowship due to their apostate beliefs and teachings.

Within the scriptures we find many examples of people raising an issue, doubt or question that is then met with some form of persuasion or reasoning.  Other times, however, such issues and questions are met with threats of one kind of another.  Sometimes these threats come in the form of naked physical violence.  Other times, the physical violence comes only indirectly in the form of social and economic sanction and isolation.  Still other threats are to be carried out after this life.  In none of these cases are timeless principles, evidence or any other kind of reasoned information used to answer or settle the issues, doubts and questions at hand.

Whatever might be said of these forms of censorship and compulsory speech, they are not at all compatible with the modern (consumer and critical) forms of society.  While the consumer model certainly would endorse the church leaders’ freedom to indirectly punish members by way of disfellowship, it cannot so endorse the other ways in which free speech is clearly being constrained.  A critical model objects to these examples even more strongly than does the consumer model since the primary purpose of reasoned and impersonal responses to issues, doubts and questions is to not only replace but dissolve the domination which one group exercises over another.  All of the cases mentioned above are the exact opposite of what the critical model says is right.  Only the feudal model is able to see these cases as examples of rather exceptions to its moral values in that it alone will sometimes accept compulsory threats as a legitimate response to issues, doubts and questions.

In conclusion, blasphemy and apostasy are sinful forms of speech that ought to be punished in some way.  Censorship, by contrast, is the immoral idea that sinful forms of speech ought to be punished in some way.  Not only are these two moral values very often in direct contradiction to each other, but they are also typically aimed at the exact same phenomena: sacred beliefs that wield power.  One side (feudal) says that such things must not be attacked, even verbally, while the other says that such things either can (consumer) or even ought (critical) to be verbally attacked.  In the case of the Nauvoo Expositor, William Law was the blasphemous apostate while Joseph Smith was the threatening censor and there simply was no middle ground between the two.  I suggest that we see this exact same tension within the bloggernacle today between those church members who think that some issues, doubts and questions must not be raised, those who think they can be raised and those who think they must be raised.  Plainly put, some of us are more worried about blasphemy/apostasy while other are more worried about censorship.


  1. Clearly.

    Comment by Martin James — September 10, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

  2. When Joseph Smith destroyed the William Law’s press, he was mayor of Nauvoo, commanding officer of the Nauvoo Legion, and prophet of the LDS church. He played a political, military, and religious function. He was overstepping the bounds of his political power by destroying the press. It was an unconscionable act. He was in clear violation of the 1st amendment. Leaders of the LDS church do not currently play political roles in any capacity. They may move to excommunicate someone, but they are perfectly within their rights to do so.

    Comment by Steve Smith — September 11, 2014 @ 5:33 am

  3. Interesting overview Jeff.

    In the case of the Nauvoo Expositor, William Law was the blasphemous apostate while Joseph Smith was the threatening censor…

    This was high drama that became deadly tragedy. To argue the rightness or wrongness of these apparent (surface) positions is to miss the very significant underlying human psychological motivations for playing each of these roles – see Karpman Drama Triangle.

    Comment by Howard — September 11, 2014 @ 6:59 am

  4. A couple of things:

    First, there was no constitutional issue – the First Amendment was not incorporated to apply to the States until post-Civil War.

    Second, those who seek to defend William Law must deal with his role in Joseph’s martyrdom.

    Third, for all the claims of religious censorship, it has been my experience that secularists are far more likely to suppress religious speech than are religionists to suppress secular or anti-religious speech.

    Finally, we believe that there was a War in Heaven, fought with words (presumably – or some other means of communicating) and ideas. That War in Heaven continues here on Earth. If we’re engaged in a shooting war, we don’t say to ourselves “let them shoot whenever and however they want, and we’ll shoot back and win.” Nor are all points of conflict the same – fire from the trenches is treated differently than firing on an enemy daycare. Well speech and ideas are the ammunition in this continuing War in Heaven.

    Comment by Jonathan Cavender — September 11, 2014 @ 7:13 am

  5. I believe that Jeff has said that God controls who is the head of the church. We don’t know why God allowed the martyrdom.

    Comment by Martin James — September 11, 2014 @ 7:49 am

  6. Joseph Smith did what was already done to the Saints publications in Missouri. The difference is that he did it under the laws on the books. The modern interpretation of the First amendment has nothing to do with what happened.

    Comment by Jettboy — September 11, 2014 @ 8:09 am

  7. Guys,

    I really don’t care about the rightness, wrongness or causes of the nauvoo expositor. The post is about three different moral structures according to which we might adjudicate the tension between apostasy and blasphemy.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 11, 2014 @ 9:22 am

  8. The post is about three different moral structures according to which we might adjudicate the tension between apostasy and blasphemy.

    So you want to consider these three in a logical, intellectual vacuum void of very significant subconscious motivation? Seems counter to your frequent use of logic to invalidate logic based arguments but it that is close to your intent I’ll gladly bow out.

    Comment by Howard — September 11, 2014 @ 9:36 am

  9. I think the reasons why people are opposed to censorship vary. Some are intrinsically opposed to restricting information.

    Others see that trying to keep information restricted in our internet world is impossible. Thus, restricting information simply delays someone finding out some faith-jarring piece of information. If the discovery comes at a spiritually sensitive time, it could lead someone, who would otherwise be a faithful member, away from the Church.

    I am opposed to censorship, but I am not sure which camp I am in. Maybe it does not matter. I know I had Church teachers tell me things that were untrue when I asked questions as a youth. I think that the blatant untruths were things that the teachers believed to be true. I am pretty sure a couple of the teachers straight-up lied when they said they did not know the answer to some questions, though. That caused some hard times for me later, but maybe the teachers would have faced hard times if they had answered.

    Comment by DD — September 11, 2014 @ 9:48 am

  10. Howard,

    I’m not interested in understanding Joseph Smith’s actions here. Rather I’m interested in understanding those would defend and attack those actions.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 11, 2014 @ 11:14 am

  11. Jeff,
    #10 suggests you don’t understand subconscious human motivation. Psychologically the motivations and actions of both Joseph and his attackers and defenders then and now are necessary intertwined, none are random events relative to the others and if you have little appreciation for subconscious motivation of the elephant you are limited to discussing the hypothetical logic of the (elephant) rider. Drama and tragedy are well explained by the Drama Triangle.

    Comment by Howard — September 11, 2014 @ 11:32 am

  12. I misspoke slightly.

    The post is not about Joseph smith at all or his attackers. The post is about different ways in which we within the bloggernacle evaluate censorship and apostasy. The nauvoo expositor is no more central to this post than any of the other examples, which is to say not very.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 11, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

  13. I don’t think that it is crystal clear that Nehor was “caused” to acknowledge “that what he taught the people was contrary to the word of God”. The passage reads: “they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God”.

    It seems to me that Alma may have had second thoughts on his initial description of what occurred. His use of “or rather did acknowledge” after the word “caused” is a phrase that seems to suggest that Nehor’s acknowledgement may not have been “caused”, but rather, unforced.

    Then again, maybe the original description, that he was “caused” or forced, was essentially accurate, but Alma, not liking the way it sounded, and not able to erase, added the extra phrase.

    Comment by Allan Thompson — September 14, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

  14. Either way, acknowledging such things at ones own execution hardly seems completely free of coercion.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

  15. Good point. However, the coercion that was exercised in bringing him to his last breath may not have necessarily included coercion in the formulation of his last utterances. I say this because it appears that he was going to be executed regardless of what he said on that day of ignominy. If he could have avoided execution by acknowledging erred teaching, then that would surely evidence the exercise of coercion.

    Comment by Allan Thompson — September 15, 2014 @ 9:53 am

  16. Last sentence should read “surely evidence the exercise of a coerced acknowledgement”.

    Comment by Allan Thompson — September 15, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  17. I agree that it’s hardly an air tight case. But the verbiage is suggestive. So much so, that the only reason that I think we would assume that there wasn’t any kind of coercion would be due to our moral biases – biases that this post meant to make problematic. In other words, while I do not think the case of Nehor makes for rock-solid evidence for my point, I think that my points give us good (even if not overwhelming) evidence to think it was a case of coercion in some sense.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 15, 2014 @ 10:46 am

  18. Jeff G.,

    I thought you might find this topical. Your posts always smell a bit catholic to me and so its not a coincidence that this guy’s post reminded me of you.

    Joe Carter, Web Editor, First Things

    The average pastor in America has sixty people who will hear their sermon on a Sunday morning. In contrast, a blogger who writes about religion can expect from two to one thousand times as many visitors will read their thoughts over the course of a week. The result is that thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Christians are more influenced by their favorite blogger than by their local pastor. Academic bloggers, particularly those who are also pastors or teach on religious subjects, can expect to have an especially outsized influence, one than often dwarfs the impact they have on their own peers and students.

    Despite their importance, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. But should these bloggers be able to teach large audiences without oversight from a higher-level polity? If a professor and ordained minister at a Presbyterian college writes regularly on issues about religion and theology, should her writing be exempt from denominational authority? Or what if a Lutheran layman and a Catholic priest hold a regular open debate? Should they not be held to account as if they were writing in a denominational magazine or journal?

    I suspect that most religion bloggers will argue that their blogging should not be overseen or scrutinized by their college, local church, or other ecclesiastical body. They would claim that since their blogs are neither churches nor parachurch ministries, they should be free from congregational supervision—even when they are writing about issues concerning their denomination’s view of doctrine. If this view is widely held—and my own experience convinces me it is—it marks a peculiar shift in the decentralization of ecclesiastical authority. Whether they are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, when it comes to religious discussions online, all bloggers act like Baptists.

    Comment by Martin James — September 18, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

  19. @Martin James,
    Joe Carter is actually some kind of evangelical Protestant.

    Comment by Adam G. — September 22, 2014 @ 9:30 am

  20. Martin,

    That is a fantastic quote which accurately reflects my own thoughts on the subject, as far as I can tell. (Sadly, I’m not that well versed in the difference between Protestant churches.)

    You are right, however, in seeing a bit of a Catholic thread within my posts. I most certainly do believe that there will be greater overlap between the LDS and Catholic churches than there is between the former and Protestant churches, if only because they both proclaim to be the same thing: the one and only true and authorized church with an unbroken priesthood lineage.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 22, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

  21. Adam G.,

    He’s the kind of evangelical protestant associated with First Things.

    Comment by Martin James — September 22, 2014 @ 4:50 pm