Dear 100 Hour Board,
until about a year ago I was an entirely faithful church member, on track for my mission and BYU. Then I took a step back and analyzed both the church and a religion as a whole and did not like the information that I found, and decided that religion as a whole was untrue. Afterwards I faded out from both the church and religion as a whole, never really explaining to my ward or parents exactly why I now have such a distaste for religion. Then my friend at BYU told me about this board, and I was hoping I could get a response to the line of reasoning that led me to becoming an atheist. Sorry if this is a bit long but I would like to know how the church would have dealt with my concerns had I brought them forward. Ill shorten each of my points to single sentences if possible to make this brief so as not to make a response impossible.
-Why does the church fight for a tax exempt staus when they collect a 10% tithe and financial records show the church donates less than a penny to the dollar for the money it takes in, so how does this qualify as a charitable organization? And then use its funds to construct a billion dollar megamall?
-why would joseph smith run for president?
-why would african americans not recieve the priesthood until a certain date, one would think gods church would be pure from the start.
-why did mormons cling to polygamy even after it became unecessary and the mexican american war ended, only giving it up when the federal government threatened not to give utah statehood.
-why did brigham young appear to be so bigoted against other races in numerous church speeches that he decalred as doctrine.
-if god exists and is all loving, why would he genocidally cleanse the earth with floods, create such an imperfect world, allow slavery and the crusades to occur under his name, and allow such confusion around the matter of his existence.
Thats just a few of my concerns. Any more and i fear that the 100 hour board will find it too long to respond. Anyways thanks in advance and I look forward to any responses!
I'm not a Church leader, so I don't know if what I have to say is exactly what Church leaders would have told you had you brought these concerns to them, but I did take a history class on basically these issues (at least some of them). My professor was a bishop, and one of the leading experts on Church history in the world. Apparently these days he's in charge of the Maxwell Institute, a research institute owned by the Church. However, he was also very real about the seriousness of many of the topics, and didn't try to sugarcoat anything, so I really appreciated his take on things. Hopefully something I say can be of help, although if you would like to talk to someone with more expertise than I, shoot me an email at alta(at)theboard.byu.edu and I can get you in contact with my professor, Dr. Spencer Fluhman. In writing this answer I tried to link to as many official Church sources as possible, to give you the most official response I can, although I am admittedly not a spokesperson for the Church, and everything I say here is a conglomeration of official Church stuff, historical context, and my own opinions and conjecture.
Why Joseph Smith ran for president
To sum things up, basically it's because members of the early Church were deeply disillusioned with the United States leadership after seeing them fail the Mormons many times.
In the 1830s a large group of LDS pioneers moved to Missouri after Joseph Smith had a revelation saying Independence, Missouri, was to be the site of the new Zion. At the time Jackson County, where Independence was located, was mostly filled with rough and tumble settlers, who were disturbed by a huge group of what they saw as religious fanatics moving in. From the Saints' point of view, their own behavior made sense. They wanted to stay together because they had found a group where they fit in, and they were all able to mutually support and help each other. But the other Missourians didn't understand them and their odd behavior, and for as much as the Mormons said they weren't politically involved, they all had the same views and voted the same way, which seemed like a huge potential threat to the people who already lived there. The tension between the Saints and everyone else boiled over in a series of violent attacks on the Mormons by mobs, which you can read about here. This all culminated in Governor Lilburn W. Boggs' infamous Extermination Order in 1838, mandating that Mormons either be driven from the state of Missouri or exterminated (explicitly violating the 1st Amendment which guarantees freedom of religion). As a result virtually all the Latter Day Saints in Missouri were forced out of their homes during the winter of 1838-1839 with nowhere to go to, and Joseph Smith was unlawfully imprisoned in Liberty Jail in horrible living conditions. The Saints relocated in Illinois, where many of them died due to disease. Following the Extermination Order a mob also attacked a group of Saints living at Haun's Mill, brutally killing 17 people, including a child who was only 9 years old, and injuring many more.
In late 1839, after being released from Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith went to President Martin Van Buren to seek redress for the many illegal persecutions the Saints had suffered in Missouri. Although Van Buren initially seemed sympathetic to their cause, when Joseph Smith met with him again in early 1840, Van Buren told him, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. … If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri." This was understandably incredibly frustrating, because the Saints had just suffered years of illegal mob action, and even though the president of the United States agreed that they deserved justice, he refused to help them because it would be an unpopular move.
So when the election of 1844 rolled around, the Latter Day Saints were looking for a candidate who wouldn't simply ignore the problems they were facing. In late 1843 Joseph Smith wrote letters to the five main presidential candidates, detailing the abuse in Missouri and asking what they would do about it as president. Only three of the candidates even responded, and they did so with very little sympathy to the persecution the Mormons faced. So, in January of 1844, Joseph Smith announced that he was running for president as an independent. He had a detailed party platform which called for things like the abolition of slavery and the expansion of United States territory if they obtained the permission of the Native Americans already living on the land. He didn't specifically address the illegal mob action against Mormons in Missouri, but he did say that the chief magistrate should have "full power to send an army to suppress mobs … [without requiring] the governor of a state to make the demand." This would prevent anything like what had happened in Missouri ever happening again.
Joseph Smith himself said,
I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens, even those rights which the Constitution guarantees unto all her citizens alike. But this as a people we have been denied from the beginning. Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion; and no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief. And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:210–11).
He was assassinated in June of 1844, during his candidacy for president, but before the election occurred.
It's also important to remember that church and state weren't nearly as separated as they are now at this time in US history. That made it a lot less weird that the prophet of the LDS Church would run for president. We also have to remember that a lot of Church members believed the Second Coming was imminent, and they were honestly concerned about the state of the nation if Christ were to come at that time, because their personal experience was that the United States was full of mobsters and corrupt politicians. They saw Joseph Smith running for president as a way to not only save the Church, but help save the country, as well. Since then the Church has said that its foremost leaders can't run for public office, and is now strictly non-partisan and politically neutral.
For more detail about Joseph Smith running for president, and as a source for a lot of the information here, see this article.
Brigham Young being bigoted
So first of all, Brigham Young appeared to be bigoted against other races because he was bigoted against other races. He was a product of his times, and unfortunately, his times were ones where white people were widely considered superior to everybody else simply because they were white. Nobody exists in a vacuum, and it's virtually impossible for someone to completely throw off the preconceptions and ideas that are ingrained in them by their culture, society, and personal experiences.
I know that it's hard to accept that a true prophet of God was so visibly imperfect, because shouldn't the prophet be better than everyone else? The thing is, though, literally everyone on earth is far from perfect. It is impossible for God to pick a perfect prophet, because nobody will ever fit that bill. God could maybe force the prophet to be perfect, but that would go against our agency to make decisions for ourselves, and honestly I would be more uncomfortable with a God who forced us to be perfect by taking away our choices than with a God who allows for some trial and error. Despite his imperfections, Brigham Young had the traits the Church needed at the time in its leader to help it continue to exist, and later prophets have had the traits needed to correct some of the problems that Brigham Young brought about.
Another factor in Brigham Young's more racist proclamations is the fact that he was actively trying to make the Church seem "more American." At the time, the LDS Church was seen as not white and not American, and that led to a lot of problems for them. In response, the Church (Brigham Young included) worked very hard to become more acceptably white, something that ended up leading to some very racist policies and speeches.
Like I already mentioned, the vast majority of Americans at the time were very racist, and they were suspicious of anything that seemed to threaten their idea of what an American should look and be like. As such, they were incredibly suspicious of the LDS Church. By the time Brigham Young was prophet, it was well known that the Church practiced polygamy, and that horrified most of the general public. There were concerns about child brides and morality, but perhaps more surprisingly, there were also concerns about polygamy being practiced in the United States because it was seen as an "Oriental" practice. People were really horrified about such an un-American practice being practiced in America, and that led them to think of the LDS Church and its members as un-American and even not white, despite the fact that most of them had come from places like England and Scandinavia. At the time, being "not white" was about the worst thing that could happen to an organization in the United States, and the perception of Mormons as their own separate "Mormon race" helped propagate the idea that Mormons deserved all the persecution that came their way, and did not deserve religious freedom. This article is very well-researched and does an awesome job explaining how the Church was painted as not nearly white enough, both because of polygamy and because of their tolerant stance on other races, and how that led to a lot of problems for the Saints.
Oh, also, in case it's not clear enough already that the Church faced a lot of problems for not being "white enough," the original Republican Party platform was dedicated to eradicating the so called "twin relics of barbarism," polygamy and slavery. That's right, an entire political party was formed to not just get rid of slavery, but also to force the LDS Church to stop being so barbaric with its un-American practices of polygamy (and as another part of that, intermarrying with other races, something that was seen as almost as heinous as polygamy itself). One of the huge problems that the American public, and also the American government, had with polygamy was that it was seen as an "oriental" practice, and not something that should be practiced in white America. Because the Church wasn't about to get rid of polygamy any time soon (I'll get around to that later), they had to resort to other measures to try to make themselves seem more white and American to the public to try to decrease some of the persecution and mistreatment they regularly faced. So, that meant they started disparaging other races, becoming more racist to fit into a racist society a little better. Or, as Paul Reeves, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, said, "The irony is that they start participating in the same racial construct that was denigrating them." So part of the reason Brigham Young made so many comments that we now understand as racist is that he really did believe that, but part of the reason also could have definitely been that he was operating in a society that hated the Church because of its supposed un-Americanness.
Why African Americans couldn't hold the priesthood for so long
In the Church's inception, Joseph Smith actually had no problem with blacks being ordained to the priesthood, and even personally ordained at least one black man, Elijah Able, to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Elijah Able also was able to attend the temple and did baptisms for the dead there. And as we saw in Smith's bid for presidency, he was against slavery. In 1847 Brigham Young called a black man, Q. Walker Lewis, "one of the best Elders" of the Church in a private meeting. So in response to your point about God's church being pure from the start, it was. It was only after more than twenty years of acceptance toward African Americans that it changed its policy to exclude blacks.
In 1852 Brigham Young made the official statement that men of "black African descent" could not be ordained to the priesthood, though they could still be baptized and ordained members of the Church. (Subsequent prophets extended this ban to the temple, as well.) However, at the same time as Young revoked the right of black men to be ordained to the priesthood, he also said that they would eventually "have [all] the privilege and more” given to other members. Clearly the priesthood ban was never meant to be a permanent thing.
So, why did the Church change its stance? Why did it start excluding blacks? Well, for one thing, remember what I said about how racist America was at the time, and how the Church faced a lot of problems for not being racist enough to fit in? I think that definitely applies here. At the time, blacks were widely regarded in America as property, not people deserving of rights and respect. While there were a few outspoken abolitionists, the vast majority of Northerners were pretty apathetic with regards to slavery, as long as it wasn't happening in their state, and most of those who did oppose slavery still didn't believe that blacks should receive the same rights as whites. Meanwhile in the South, many prominent leaders were making the argument that slavery was a positive good that was actively benefiting all parties involved. It was in this climate that Charles Sumner, a Northern abolitionist senator, was caned almost to death on the House floor during a session of Congress by a representative from South Carolina, simply because Sumner had given a speech opposing slavery. The representative who caned him was met with a parade in his home town. It was also in this climate that the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v Sandford codified racism into national law with its decision that blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Although the caning of Charles Sumner and the Dred Scott decision happened in the years following Brigham Young's statement about blacks and the priesthood, they're pretty indicative of the rising tensions about African Americans at the time, and how deeply unpopular it was to advocate for, or even openly support, black rights. That was bad news for a Church that allowed for total integration of blacks with whites, and whose leaders advocated for black rights.
Now we've got the political climate set up, enter Brigham Young. In 1850, Utah was made an official territory of the United States. This meant that although they had none of the rights of statehood, they did have the obligation to follow the Constitution and were subject to jurisdiction from Congress. This was basically the worst of both worlds for the Mormons, who had purposely relocated in what was currently Mexico in order to escape the United States (remember all their issues with the government?) However, as a territory they had none of the freedom they had hoped for as a small colony in Mexico, yet none of the rights of states. This caused them to be pretty highly motivated to try to become a state, not because they particularly loved the US, but because they wanted more autonomy. As governor of the Utah territory, Brigham Young's decision to instate the priesthood ban could well have been influenced by some political motivations to get in with the federal government and help to Utah become a state. I don't know, because obviously I'm not Brigham Young and I didn't make that decision, but from the context at the time, that could make sense.
Once the ban was in place, people, including Church leaders, came up with all sorts of rationales trying to justify it, such as adopting the popular idea of the time that black people were inferior because of the "curse of Cain," or because they were supposedly less faithful in the war in heaven. These ideas were NOT doctrine; they were weird ideas supported with scanty evidence pulled from a few misinterpreted verses of scripture. However, they gained a lot of momentum, probably because people were eager to find a reason for the ban, so they took any idea they could get and ran with it. Unfortunately, a lot of these ideas were taught as doctrine at the time by Church leaders, and that's tragic. With the benefit of hindsight we can look back and say that they definitely weren't doctrine, but in the thick of it there were a lot of people who said they were. What does that mean about those Church leaders? Well, for one thing it means they were people. People are fallible, and they try to come up with reasons and justifications for bad things, and sometimes those justifications aren't great. Church leaders were fallible, too, and they demonstrated that with some of the racist rhetoric we see from this time period. However, if it gives you any hope to know this, at the same time there were Church leaders who actively opposed the racist ideas supporting the priesthood ban and fought against them, so it wasn't a Church-wide thing, just individual fallacies. The fact that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve never officially stated that the reason for the priesthood ban was because of the "curse of Cain" or "blacks were less faithful in the premortal life" also means that those ideas were never accepted by the Church as doctrine, and any attempt to pass them off as such was merely individual conjecture.
The problem is, once an idea catches hold it's hard to get rid of. The simple force of momentum can keep a lot of things going, and in my non-expert opinion, I think that's what happened with the priesthood ban. It was getting harder and harder to believe any of the rationales about why those of African descent couldn't hold the priesthood or go to the temple, especially in view of the sacrifices and faith of Church members of African descent across the globe, but with the weight of years of that practice behind them, it was hard to change course suddenly. Think of a yacht: you're not going to get a ship of that magnitude to turn 180 degrees all at once. An organization like the Church is like a giant yacht, where big changes don't just happen (for example, the missionary age change from a couple years ago only took place after months of meetings and pondering, and the missionary age is something that hasn't been as deeply defended as was the priesthood ban).
Why would God allow His Church to instate a racist policy? Well, first of all let me just remind us all of what I said earlier, about how we all have agency, and even if we do dumb things with that, God isn't going to stop us. Going along with that, He's not going to force answers down someone's throat, even if that someone is a prophet. Until a prophet could escape the weight of history and the racist context/rhetoric of his own day, the ban was going to hold. Second of all, I have no idea how things with Utah territory and the Church would have panned out had the Church continued to promote full integration of blacks. It's possible that that plus polygamy would have been too much for the US government, or even just common Americans, to handle, and things with the Church could have turned out much differently than they did. This is murkier water here, because it's impossible to quantify, and I don't want to say that the individual suffering of black members of the Church can be quantified and justified in relation to the overall well-being of the Church, because we have absolutely no idea what would have happened without the priesthood ban, but this may have been a contributing factor.
For a lot of my information in this section, see here. But just to be clear, this is the section where I had to make the most inferences, and everything I said about why the Church might have instated the priesthood ban is my own personal thought, backed up by official Church sources as well as historical research. So I didn't just pull this stuff out of nowhere, and I feel that what I said is pretty well backed up, but I do want it to be clear that the Church hasn't given an official reason for the ban.
Why the Church continued to cling to polygamy for so long
First of all, from your question it seems like you have a mistaken idea of why the Church practiced polygamy in the first place. I may be reading this wrong, but your question makes it seem like you think they practiced polygamy because there was a shortage of men due to the Mexican American War, so in order to temporally take care of all the women in the Church they decided to start practicing polygamy so every woman would have a provider. That's a popular defense of polygamy that I've heard from all sorts of people, including missionaries at Temple Square, because it's an easy explanation that at least somewhat makes sense to us and is harder to attack from a moral point of view. The thing is, though, it's wrong. The Church had been practicing polygamy for a long time before the Mexican American War, and as you pointed out, they continued to practice it for a long time afterward. There might be some sort of argument in there about helping provide for women because there were fewer LDS men than women at the time (I don't know if that's true or not), but the revelation instructing Joseph Smith to practice polygamy says nothing about that. The reason the Saints practiced polygamy is that God told them to do it. It was hard, and I honestly don't know why He told them to, but from their point of view, despite how difficult it was, they were doing it for the logical reason of obeying God's commandments.
One of the most commonly accepted reasons for polygamy in the early Church (and the one we have the most evidence for) was to "raise up seed unto [the Lord]." Jacob 2:30 in the Book of Mormon uses that phrase, and it's when Jacob is actually telling off the men of the Church at that time for taking more than one wife. He says that they were justifying it because Solomon and David did it in the Bible, but he also says that God has said that polygamy absolutely shall not be practiced just because someone feels like it, or thinks it's the right thing to do. Jacob quotes the Lord and says,
Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. For if I will...raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things. (Jacob 2:27-30, emphases mine).
So, here we have God saying that polygamy is unacceptable, unless He specifically commands otherwise in order to raise up seed unto Him, or in more modern terms, in order to have more children born in the bounds of the Church. God does reserve the right to command polygamy, but for the reason of having more children be born in the covenant. In the early days of the Church there were incredibly few members, and although growth was relatively fast, there still weren't a ton of Mormons in the world. Polygamy did lead to the birth of a lot of children in the Church, and greatly helped its membership. Those children went on to do amazing things and help the Church and the world in a lot of ways, and if you look at a lot of members of the Church today, they come from a polygamous heritage. I personally only exist because of polygamy, so my selfish reason for being glad it happened is being grateful that I'm alive.
Another possible reason I've heard for why the early Saints practiced polygamy is because the Restoration of the Church was a restoration of ALL things (as Elder James E. Faust called it). Well, if we're going to restore everything that ever happened in any of the previous dispensations, one of the things we restored had to be polygamy, because we do have evidence of it being practiced anciently in the Church. According to those verses in Jacob, they only practiced it anciently in order to build the righteous membership of the Church, which is also why it was practiced modernly, but the thing is, if we're restoring everything, polygamy is on that list. So it had to be practiced at least briefly in this dispensation, but was later discontinued. This isn't doctrine, no Church leaders have come out and said that we practiced polygamy in the 1800s because it was practiced anciently and we had to restore everything, but it's an idea that sits well with me. You can take it or leave it, it's just an idea I heard that personally made sense.
Okay, so now that we sort of know why the early Saints practiced polygamy, lets look at why they defended it so vigorously. There are firsthand accounts of both men and women detailing just how difficult and heart-wrenching it was for them, so why would they continue to live it? Why would they defend it, and even call it a good thing? For one thing, at the start they had an incomplete understanding of sealings, because not a lot of information about temple sealings and eternal families had been revealed yet. They knew that it was necessary to be sealed to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom, and that in heaven everyone was going to be one big family, meaning that everyone was going to somehow be sealed to each other. However, the practice of vicarious sealings for the dead hadn't happened yet, so if you had parents or grandparents who died without the gospel, they thought there was no hope of being sealed to them. Without being able to create a ladder of sealings going up through the generations, they thought they had to do a web of sealings, going out horizontally to everyone who lived concurrently with them rather than going up vertically to past generations. One way to do that was polygamy. So one reason they approved of polygamy was because they saw it a a way of creating an eternal family, and despite the hardship involved they thought that was worth it and necessary. (I don't have time to look up the source for this right now, but if you either email me or submit another question I can get find the source for you).
Going along with that, another reason the early Saints continued to uphold polygamy despite their own personal feelings about it is that they saw it as the most surefire way to gain eternal salvation, and their focus was the eternities, not the here and now. They thought it was necessary to deal with hardship in this life for celestial rewards in the world to come. Annie Clark Tanner was a polygamous wife in Utah, and in her autobiography A Mormon Mother she talks about how the Church, and the individuals within it, tended to emphasize the hardness of the gospel, and the strictness and condemnation of God. Polygamy, along with all its trials, fit very easily into that framework of the prevailing culture, something that might not have happened if they had emphasized the joy of the gospel, and the love and mercy of God like we do now. But because they sort of expected life to be hard and God to ask them near impossible things, they were more ready to accept polygamy. The Church also made it fairly easy for women to get divorces, to have an escape valve from the pressures of polygamous life
Finally, another thing that I've noticed in a lot of personal accounts of people who lived through polygamy is that they saw it as a way of unifying the Church and binding them together. We're called a "peculiar people," and the peculiar practice of polygamy certainly cemented that. The internal suffering and outside persecution they faced as a result really created bonds of unity in the Church, because common suffering is one way to bond with someone fast (just think of Harry, Ron, and Hermione becoming friends after being attacked by a troll). With that positive effect of polygamy in mind, along with the hope of eternal rewards and satisfaction, mixed with the idea that they were creating a huge eternal family through polygamous sealings, the Saints overall were fairly supportive of the practice, despite any personal hardship they had with it.
Due to the huge support polygamy had in the Church, and the immense faith of the early members who were willing to do anything God asked them to, polygamy had a lot of momentum and force behind it, meaning that they weren't going to give it up for almost anything. When they did stop practicing it, it had to be as a result of an official declaration from the prophet, because they were so faithful they wanted to be sure the command to stop was coming from God.
Why would God suddenly change His stance on polygamy? I don't think He did "suddenly change," He just went back to the norm. The Saints had pretty successfully raised a lot of children in the Church, so there was no longer any need to keep practicing polygamy. They had enough members that the Church could be self-sufficient and self-sustaining without having to rely on polygamy to replenish the ranks, and God has been pretty clear in the scriptural record throughout all of history that polygamy is not the norm, it's only a rare exception. The conditions necessitating that exception had come to an end, so they returned to the normal state of affairs (aka monogamy). Second of all, things were looking pretty dire for the Church's continued existence within the political climate. First there was a Supreme Court case that specifically banned the practice of polygamy for religious reasons, and then there was a succession of national laws that outlined specific punishments for polygamy, and that threatened the Church's ability to continue to function as a religious institution. Faced with the choice to either keep practicing polygamy and lose the right to even have a church, or discontinue the practice of polygamy, Wilford Woodruff turned to prayer to find out what he should do, and then issued the Official Declaration 1 of the Church, officially discontinuing polygamy. It might seem a little weird for a revelation to come about as a result of a political situation, because we think of the Church as separate from politics, but personally, I don't think it's wrong for revelation to be preceded by a sincere question, like this one was, or for that question to be motivated by the current world situation, like this one was. It simply shows that President Woodruff did not live in a bubble and was aware of the consequences of the Church's actions.
Look, I know that you're truly wondering and trying to find out the truth. And I know that there are some real, hard questions about the Church and about Church history, so I'm in no way blaming or condemning you for having these feelings. When I first found out from first-hand accounts about a lot of the terrible things that have happened in the Church, and the toll they took on real people, I was shocked. I realized how fallible people are, even leaders of the Church, and for a while that really shook my faith in the Church. It was hard for me, and I had to grapple with a lot of questions that we don't have answers to. However, eventually I realized that I couldn't deny what I did know and what I have felt based simply on the realization that there are still lots of things I don't know. My questions about a lot of these topics didn't change the fact that I know I've felt God's love for me. They didn't change the fact that I know I've prayed about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and had it confirmed to me. They didn't change the testimony I had of Christ's reality, and the saving power of His atonement. That doesn't mean that my questions and doubts weren't legitimate, or that yours aren't, either, just that all my other feelings were also legitimate. I still don't have all the answers, and there are still things that I don't understand. But I chose not to let those questions overshadow everything else. I decided to keep believing in the Church, despite my questions about certain things, because I feel good when I read the scriptures and pray and go to the temple. I believe that there are answers to these questions, just that we don't have them right now, and that's a part of life, so for now I'm just going to shelf those questions and wait for the day when I can talk face to face with God about all of them.
Obviously you're in charge of your own life, and you can make whatever decision you choose, but my suggestion is to not just look for the bad in the Church, but also remember the good. Why did you want to serve a mission? Why were you a faithful member? Don't ignore the bad things you've found out, but don't focus on them to the exclusion of the good things you've seen and felt. Try to find answers to your questions, and know that a lot of them really do have answers, but some of them don't have answers that we can explain right now. If you run into that problem, be patient and see if any more light or understanding comes with time. Remember that everything has a bias, and don't take all information you see at face value. Your final decision about what to do is in your hands, and your worth as a person will not diminish no matter what you choose. I'm sorry that this has been so hard for you, and I hope that something I've said here has helped answer at least a few of your questions.
P.S. I'm so incredibly sorry for keeping this question so long over-hours. Hopefully it's still relevant to you.
In my Philosophy 150 class, we read an interesting essay by a non-LDS author who was tackling what is known as the "problem of pain," or why God would allow bad things to happen. He suggested that because we have a limited perspective, our morality is usually based on relieving suffering in the short-term. To claim that any suffering represents the "greater good" is far beyond our capacity, and has often been used to justify atrocities. However God can know if suffering in the short term is worth it for a certain long-term outcome. Also, God knows that we will exist for long after this life. Sometimes, we may suffer in this life, and the purpose isn't apparent or justifiable until the next life.
Moses 8 gives some good insight into the flood. First of all, it says that God gave them 120 years to repent. Second, Noah was pretty clear in his preaching: if you don't repent, floods will come and wipe you out. God gave people ample time to avoid the consequence of the flood. Finally, it says that the whole Earth was corrupted and filled with violence. God won't limit our free agency. God couldn't stop people from making the choice to be violent and corrupt. It's totally possible that God saw that cleansing the Earth of the violent and corrupt was morally justified, and that the innocents who would die in the flood would ultimately suffer less than if they had to continue living with these violent and corrupt people. Also, God had all the spirit children who had yet to come to Earth to think about. By cleansing the Earth of all but the righteous, they had a chance to be born into better circumstances, and be raised with a better chance of learning to do right instead of wrong.
Of course, this explanation leads to questions like, "Why would God do that in this circumstance, but allow evil to continue so many of other times throughout history?"
Frankly, I don't know. I don't even know exactly why the flood happened; the above represents answers given to me by my parents and various Primary, Sunday School, and Seminary teachers. The problem of pain, which the flood is a subset of, is a really difficult issue. I don't know if we have all the answers in this life. What I do know, personally, is that I have a testimony of the Atonement, and that the Atonement has the capacity to heal any injustice that we suffer. I also have a testimony that God loves us, and that He really goes intend to make us suffer as little as possible here on Earth, and right any wrongs that have occurred in the eternal scheme of things.
I realize that such an answer may be feeble and unsatisfactory. This one of the great questions of our mortal existence, and many religious leaders and philosophers from many different traditions have tried to tackle it. I don't think any of them have come up with an answer that satisfies everybody. To me, this is something that I feel on a personal level and have to accept the need for trust and delayed answers. But just because that is enough for me doesn't mean it's going to be enough for other people, and I think that's okay.
I am by no means a tax expert. But Anne, Certainly pointed out that according to section 501(c)(3)s of the tax code, any religious purpose is a tax-exempt purposes. Churches are tax-exempt because they are churches, not because they are charitable. While it's worth asking whether the tax code should tax religions in general, or if there should be limitations on what religious financial holdings can be tax-exempt, that's a different issue than whether the Church's current tax-exempt status is legit according to the current law. Sam Brunson has dug into the Church's tax exemption in much greater detail on By Common Consent, and I would recommend reading the article for another completely unofficial opinion that is nevertheless more expert than mine.
A Final Note
In your question, you said you'd like to know how "The Church" would have responded to these issues. You didn't ask about this, but I think that asking for what "The Church" would say is a little misleading, both in terms of your question and in terms of our answers. At the bottom of our website, we clarify that anything we say doesn't represent the Church. This is true both in the sense that we don't have any official Church position to speak on issues, and also true in the sense that the Church is made up of members who often do have different opinions on certain issues. Although it is true that there are certain core doctrines that have been outlined by the Church, there are a lot of things that are opinion. Some opinions are more mainstream than others. Some opinions frequently get promoted through official channels. Some opinions are a little more out there.
A lot of the things you asked are things that there is still some debate on, and people have different opinions. Because of this, the answers you get here may be different than the answers you'd get if you had asked your bishop, Stake President, Sunday School teacher, etc. And even if you don't like any of the answers you got here, that doesn't mean there aren't good answers; it just means we don't have them yet. I really believe that with a lot of issues in the Church, God allows people to believe a tiny facet of the truth, because that's the facet that will make sense to them at that point in their progression, and because all things have not yet been revealed. (Article of Faith #9). I think we do a lot of damage when we try to argue that our tiny facet is the only true facet, and we try to shame people for not believing in it, when they might be more suited to a different facet that they could obtain through their own prayer, study, and personal revelation.
I also believe that sometimes, God withholds any facets at all from us. I don't know why He does this, but I do believe that answers are out there and we will obtain them eventually.
If you are interested in some more in-depth responses to common issues that represent a General-Authority-approved perspective, the LDS Topics page has a number of essays on important issues that go a little more in depth and provide a little more "meat" than the traditional Sunday School manuals did.
The other writers have given some awesome answers regarding your first questions, so I'm going to focus my response on you last question.
If God exists and is all loving, why would he genocidally cleanse the earth with floods, create such an imperfect world, allow slavery and the crusades to occur under his name: This is something I've actually thought a lot about. I think about the people whose entire lives were filled with misery, and never even had the chance to strive for something better. I think about the horrors of the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities committed during wars. I think of persecution both against and by Christians. What all this boils down to is why God allows there to be evil in the world. My answer to this question focuses on two main points.
- Agency. This is one of the cornerstones of God's plan for us. We had it in the premortal existence, and will retain it for eternity. For agency to exist, there must be alternatives to choose between, meaning that if we are to be able to choose good, there must also be evil. Agency also comes hand in hand with consequences. Because God will never take away our agency, this means that when people make bad choices, bad things will naturally follow. So when people decide to do terrible things, like the crusades, there are terrible world consequences. God allows the consequences to occur because they are a part of agency. However, you're right in that it doesn't make sense for an all-loving God to to allow good people to suffer for bad people's choices. And that is where the Atonement steps in. I don't understand how, but I fully believe that Christ's atonement saves everyone from the effects of sin, including the sins of other people. This means that for every person who has unjustly suffered, Christ has made up the difference. We may not see these effects for all people while in this life, but I promise that while this life isn't fair, eternity most definitely is. Every wrong thing in this world will be made right. Just because we may not have seen that yet in no way implies it won't ever happen.
- God's purpose. This point focuses on the why of God destroying people, like in the great flood. Society often paints death as the ultimate reality, and worst alternative. However, the primary purpose of God isn't to ensure that people live long lives, but for people to gain eternal exaltation. Sometimes that best way for Him to accomplish this is to destroy certain peoples. It's true that He cuts their lives short, but by so doing, He puts them in a better state to eventually gain eternal salvation, and ensures that future generations won't be doomed to wickedness because literally everyone in their community is wicked.
If God exists and is all loving, why does He allow such confusion around the matter of His existence. An extremely important part of mortality is proving that we will choose God, that we will choose to have faith, strong enough to conquer doubts, in our Father. I'd like to point out that this "proving" isn't necessarily directed at God; rather it is critical for us to prove to ourselves that we will choose God. This entails not having a perfect knowledge of everything, including the very existence of God. If we began with perfect knowledge, and had an eternal perspective, it would be too easy to choose God. There needs to be viable opposition in order for it to be a meaningful choice. However, just because knowledge isn't broadcasted to the whole world doesn't mean that it isn't readily available to those who seek after it. I haven't ever seen God, but I know for a fact that He exists. I have gained this knowledge through prayer, scripture study, very personal spiritual experiences, and recognizing God's direct influence in my life.
I believe in God, and I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is God's church.
First, I hope you don't feel weird or abnormal for having these questions, because I've had a lot of them as well. I was a missionary when I found out that Joseph Smith ran for U.S. President and more or less sent some of the brethren out on missions to campaign for him. That didn't really sit well with me at all. As time has gone on, I find it doesn't bother me as much. I can't say that I have a specific reason why, but in general I think it just ties back to my belief that he really was a prophet of God. That doesn't mean he was perfect, but to me it means that what he did was well-intentioned, even if now it looks rather unsavory.
But, of all the questions you submitted, the one I wanted to focus on most was the one about City Creek. There's a talk that Gordon B. Hinckley gave in 1999 called "Why We Do Some of the Things We Do" that I really love. For a Conference talk, it's a bit odd: there's very little discussion of Church doctrine, with most of President Hinckley's remarks focused on more recent Church policies and decisions. That's sort of why I love it, though: rather than giving a sermon that contained general principles that apply forever, President Hinckley was inspired to give a message to address some concerns that members here and now (or, there and then) might be dealing with because of then-recent Church decisions.
I bring the talk up because President Hinckley tells us why the Church might decide to build a mall, years before City Creek was even proposed:
We have a real estate arm designed primarily to ensure the viability and the attractiveness of properties surrounding Temple Square. The core of many cities has deteriorated terribly. This cannot be said of Salt Lake City, although you may disagree as you try to get to the Tabernacle these days. We have tried to see that this part of the community is kept attractive and viable. With the beautiful grounds of Temple Square and the adjoining block to the east, we maintain gardens the equal of any in the world. ...
Are these businesses operated for profit? Of course they are. They operate in a competitive world. They pay taxes. They are important citizens of this community. And they produce a profit, and from that profit comes the money which is used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation to help with charitable and worthwhile causes in this community and abroad and, more particularly, to assist in the great humanitarian efforts of the Church.
These businesses contribute one-tenth of their profit to the Foundation. The Foundation cannot give to itself or to other Church entities, but it can use its resources to assist other causes, which it does so generously. Millions of dollars have been so distributed. Thousands upon thousands have been fed. They have been supplied with medicine. They have been supplied with clothing and shelter in times of great emergency and terrible distress. How grateful I feel for the beneficence of this great Foundation which derives its resources from the business interests of the Church.
Basically, the Church has a vested interest in keeping the area around Temple Square nice. Temple Square reportedly attracts three to five million visitors every year, and the Church dedicates an entire mission of sister missionaries to providing those people with the opportunity to hear the gospel. It's a huge missionary opportunity, and for that reason the Church wants to do everything it can to make sure that the space is inviting and people want to keep coming.
I am also encouraged by what President Hinckley said about the Foundation, which is something I hadn't remembered when I re-read the talk for this answer. The Church-owned businesses operate for profit, again so that they can remain competitive and attractive and keep the area around Temple Square strong. However, ten percent of that profit is taken and then given to a foundation operating independently from the Church and used toward humanitarian and other aid. That, to me, is incredible.
I hope this helped. As you can see by the numerous responses from myself and other writers, we really want to help you with these questions and concerns. We'll be happy to keep answering for as long as you want to keep asking.
The mall is an investment. It earns a lot of money for the Church that would otherwise have to be raised through tithing.
The Church is extremely careful with its money. The leaders aren't getting rich off of it--rather it's being used to build the Church so more people can have the blessings of the gospel in their lives. Those of us who believe in the gospel view paying tithing as a great privilege, helping others receive the gospel too.
About African Americans. This is the first time in the history of the world that the gospel is completely open to all people regardless of race. Throughout the Bible, the gospel was always limited to certain people. For example, Christ's mission was to teach only the Jews. Now, finally, all restrictions are lifted. I can't pretend to know all the reasons for that. But in the end, trying to get everyone into heaven is very different from trying to get everyone into the Church in this life. Everyone will eventually have a fair chance to hear and receive the true gospel, and for most people that will be after this life. Even if the Church hasn't always been available to everyone, salvation is available to everyone.
I believe in God because there have been countless evidences throughout my life of His love for me. That's a very personal thing, and it would be hard to use my experiences as proof to convince anyone else. But I've seen many people find their own evidences for themselves. God is my loving Father, and I feel that love every day. His role is not to ensure our comfort or ensure our righteousness. Rather, He does everything possible to pave the way back to Him, leaving it up to us to choose to take that path.
Thank you for feeling comfortable enough to ask these questions here. That can be a hard thing to do, especially when you know this is run by students at a faith-based school. That you're seeking understanding and some sort of answer from another perspective shows a lot about how open-minded you are and that is a pretty cool thing. I'm sorry these questions have been troubling you so much and hope that, whether you remain an atheist or not, you are able to find some kind of comfort on your own terms.
These are valid questions and also really hard ones, and it's understandable why they would lead you to question and ultimately leave your faith. The other writers give excellent answers to your questions and good places to start as you continue your exploration on these questions. I just wanted to touch a little bit on your last question as far as why God allows people to suffer in an imperfect word and why He allows horrible things to happen in his name.
Why God Created an Imperfect World
For this question, I have a literary example that might give you a faith-based perspective on why suffering exists in a fallen world. It comes from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. When I was in AP Euro, we had a nineteenth-century philosophy unit where we read this passage, during which two of the main characters (Ivan and Alyosha) discuss similar concerns that you bring up: if God is good and cares about mankind at all, why would He allow atrocities to be committed to His children? Ivan, who is an atheist, argues that God cannot exist because mankind is capable of so much evil and God does nothing to stop men from hurting innocent people. He seemingly doesn't bat an eye at child abuse, brutal murder, and so many other horrible things. Either there is no God or there is an evil, uncaring one.
And that's the extent of what we read of it in AP Euro... our teacher enjoyed making us naive Utah teenagers experience belief crises on the daily (see: the Nietzsche unit). Up through graduation, this passage messed with me a lot. I had already struggled with doubts and, at several times in high school, considered agnosticism or atheism, so this was a hard passage to swallow (probably for similar reasons as this question is hard for you). It raises valid questions against a loving God. Then some months later, I read the book and it offered some additional clarification or at least ideas on why God allows suffering and evil to happen.
The novel explores faith, doubt, and suffering pretty extensively. One way to read it is to view suffering as a means of redemption. Through suffering, we turn to others, and we seek to love them and love God. During spiritual, emotional, or physical agony, we turn to those we love or to God and we can become stronger people. In situations where we suffer beyond our control, we can have the opportunity to learn and change in ways that wouldn't be possible without suffering. It doesn't excuse injustice of the innocents or say that horrific acts are okay at all, or that God condones them, but it does allow some ideas as to why God allows us to live in a fallen, imperfect world when He is perfect and loving.
C.S. Lewis expressed similar thoughts in The Problem of Pain, which might also be worth a read, when he talks about pain and why a loving God would allow it: "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
If you haven't read The Brothers Karamazov, it might not give you answers, but it does wrestle with a lot of the concerns you bring up in your last question. In that way, it might help you find peace in some sense. It helped me find peace on this question in particular so I thought it might be worth mentioning to you.
Why God Allows Horrible Acts Committed in His Name
The Gospel is perfect, but we are not. How mankind interprets the Gospel is seen through the lense of imperfection. People have always twisted scripture to fit their biases, and sometimes this happens for ill intentions. Some of these atrocities might have been done "in God's name," but have very worldly, very non-religious intentions. A person may just say they are doing it in God's name to gain support or justify their own evil.
Take the Crusades, for example. They may have been fighting in Christ names, but they arguably abused His name and committed horrific acts for non-religious reasons. Although done with the guise of reclaiming Holy Land, their cause was imbued with racism and gaining land for land's sake. While religion was the superficial "reason" to fight, the war and violence were un-Christlike. It might be better to blame the political leadership and their military at the time rather than Christianity. Wrong has been done in the name of almost every religion or philosophical belief as people twist them to accommodate evil intentions.
So why did God allow these and other events (such as slavery, the Holocaust, or genocide) to happen at all? This is almost harder to answer, but I think what Anathema said earlier brings up good points. God gave all of us free will and, again, we live in a fallen world. If He stopped all the evil and only allowed good, we would no longer have free will and wouldn't be able to choose good for ourselves and grow as a result. God doesn't always stop evil from happening, but He does promise that justice will come in the end. We might not be able to see the full effects justice takes in this life for those who do evil in the name of Christianity or other good philosophies/religions, but maybe it will be clearer once we can see from an eternal perspective.
Understanding the Old Testament God
And why would God Himself commit what seems from a moral perspective like horrible acts like flooding the world or causing King David's baby to die in agony for his parents' mistakes? This is, for me, one of the hardest questions to answer. To be honest, I don't know. The Old Testament is hard to understand from a moral perspective. Even more complicated is considering this from the LDS perspective, which views the OT God as Christ.
For the sake of this answer, though, since you're asking why God did these things in the OT, we're not going to go into who the God of the OT is and just explore it from a general Christian sense. It's possible that part of the reason we don't fully understand is because we're not under that covenant. We don't live in the same society as those in the Old Testament, and some cultural differences might account for some reasons we don't understand why they depicted God the way they did. It's important to take the context of the culture into the situation, who saw God through a justice-based lense similar to their own society. They might have just as hard of a time understanding why we view God as loving and compassionate and mercy-focused rather than justice-focused.
That is the best I've got, beyond what is mentioned above. The other writers have more thoughts that could help.
As you can see, there are no easy answers. There are no easy answers to these questions, the other questions you bring up, or any religious questions. We can't tell you what to believe so much as offer our perspective and hope it brings you some sort of solace regardless of your spirituality. If you ever want to talk about anything, feel free to send an email. Hope you're doing okay.