In a less charged example, what if a co-worker wears a new shirt or dress that you personally find in bad taste? The completely honest response is to say, "What an ugly shirt." Is a more diplomatic response dishonest or kind? Or both? There is a fine line between expressing truths bluntly in an insensitive way and expressing truths in such a way as to soften the blow, without telling actual untruths.
In law, in politics, in advertising, in medicine, in all walks of life, there are complex decisions involving ethics. (For instance: I have a doctor friend who has told me that sometimes he does not give patients the complete truth about the seriousness of their condition immediately. This is withholding truth, which can be a form of dishonesty. Yet he does it for practical, compassionate reasons. He does reveal the whole truth gradually.) The same is true of religion. Sometimes the church presents ethical dilemmas whose solutions are not obvious and straightforward at first glance. In this environment, as in others, sometimes policies in which the whole truth is not disclosed can be carried out for idealistic reasons.
One of the most thoughtful discussions of honesty and deception in Mormon religion is the appendix to Carmon Hardy's remarkable history of post-Manifesto polygamy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. In this book, he shows how Mormon leaders, including the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, continued to practice and encourage polygamy in secret after the Manifesto, in America, Canada, and Mexico, and how they publicly denied such practice and encouragement. To them, loyalty to what they considered a true principle trumped the principle of full disclosure toward non-Mormons. (Throughout the nineteenth century, a state of extreme polarization between Mormon and non-Mormon existed, and Mormons often felt that anti-Mormons, who admittedly were often extremist, unpleasant figures, did not deserve full ethical considerations.) In Hardy's appendix, he observes that policies of "double truth" can be maintained for idealistic reasons. For instance, the general authorities who denied their own involvement in polygamy did so motivated by loyalty to (in their view) a higher principle, loyalty to God, revelation, their forefathers, and the church. Nevertheless, Hardy concludes that such a conscious "double truth" policy had a negative impact on the church. When the sub rosa polygamy was discovered by non-Mormons (as was inevitable), the credibility of church leaders suffered. Reed Smoot, the non-polygamous Senator from Utah, was not seated for months as a result. The Smoot hearings publicly exposed the Mormon "double truth" policy on the issue of post-Manifesto polygamy. And this confusing policy encouraged the rise of modern, twentieth-century polygamy. Even though the church opposes modern polygamy, this modern "fundamentalist" movement, with all its problems, is partially a result of that difficult transitional period in which "double truth" sent many Mormons and non-Mormons mixed or contradictory messages.
Modern church educators and members who seek to censor difficult truths in Mormon history may be acting out of loyalty to the church. But such a policy, even if carried out through idealistic motives, will only damage the church, in both the short and long term. If we agree that censorship of difficult truths has an unethical component, the message being propounded is that the church and gospel needs the support of dishonesty to survive. Which I profoundly believe is not the case.
To present an example of a Church educator who has grappled honestly with problems in church history: I understand that Reed Durham, while an institute teacher, taught a class called "Problems in Church History" that introduced college students to a number of paradoxical, disturbing issues, and discussed them from his perspective of faith. As a contrast, we have another kind of Church educator who avoids like the plague even the slightest hint of problems in church history, creating a view of Mormon history that is entirely sweetness and light and that has little or no relation to the complexities of church history and the American west as found in primary documents. This policy leaves church members defenseless when they are introduced to real historical problems by anti-Mormon writers (who do not explain matters from a context of faith). Most seriously, this policy subscribes to the idea that dishonesty is needed to protect the church and gospel.
Nevertheless, I agree that complete honesty is difficult. No one achieves it fully. I dedicated ISL to my parents, who gave me "ideals of faith and honesty." I personally am far from perfect, and can only strive for those ideals. But ISL was written as an attempt to achieve those ideals – it was not written as an attack on theism and Mormonism. It was written profoundly out of loyalty to Mormonism – accepting the idea that striving for honesty is the best way to prove your loyalty to the church and gospel, and the only policy that authentically pleases God. Finally, I should state that though I have concentrated on LDS extreme conservatives' rejection of balanced, honest history (because Anderson, Faulring and Bachman have characterized me as atheist, a Brodie-esque psychohistorian, and a John C. Bennett figure), the anti-Mormon version of Mormon history is as dishonest as those who would completely whitewash Mormon history.
First, anti-Mormons almost by definition entirely eschew balance, which is a transparently dishonest position. I remember one day when I was in college going to Special Collections and reading through one well known anti-Mormon book. The sum total impression of the work was that no Mormon leader has ever been a good, decent, person. While some of the factual elements in the book were true, by not even seeking for balance, the author gave an essentially false perspective on Mormonism and the Mormon people.
Second, conservative Protestants have often specialized in anti-Mormon writing. Thus, they apply harsh historical and moral judgments to Mormonism, but then are unwilling to apply the same standards of perfection to the Bible and their own traditions. This is an inconsistent position, showing a lack of principle, fairness and honesty. (In my view, if they mature, they will come to accept human failings and textual inconsistencies and errors in both the Biblical and Mormon traditions, and see both traditions with more sympathy and compassion.)
Given my lack of sympathy for anti-Mormon writing, some have asked me if I regret that I have "given anti-Mormons fuel for their writing," and if I regret that some anti-Mormons have used my book to try to further their purposes. I have answered that I do not believe historians or church members need to worry about how truth is used; they need to reflect truth as well as they can. Obviously, some people will misuse truth; that is not the truth's fault. Other people will use truth in a responsible way. I sincerely believe my book will help to fill out a mature believer's faith, his or her vision of the infinite breadth and beauty of the gospel, taken in conjunction with other books of Mormon history. (I encourage all readers of Mormon history to go to the works of Leonard Arrington, Juanita Brooks, Lowell Bennion, Linda King Newell, Valeen Tippetts Avery, Richard Bushman, RLDS Church Historian Richard Howard, and D. Michael Quinn, and many others, in conjunction with In Sacred Loneliness.)
I believe that presenting a dishonest view of Mormon history, leaving out all problems or conflicts, gives much more fuel to anti-Mormons than does balanced, "honest" history. Non- Mormons will notice a pervasive strain of dishonesty, including policies of censorship and ad hominem attack, if such exists in the church. (And any clumsy attempts to deny or hide such dishonesty will only make the situation worse.)
Some have asked how I would feel if someone read my book and "lost faith" in the church. Again, I believe a significant part of the problem is that such people have often been given an over-idealized, unbalanced view of history throughout their lives, and when they are confronted with primary Mormon documents, or Mormon history that reflects such, there is a feeling of shock, and also a feeling that they have not been treated with honesty. Whereas, if the church had had a policy and curriculum of discussing such problem issues in a faithful context in Sunday School, Seminary and Institute, and pre-baptism teaching and discussions on problem areas for potential converts, the issue would have been defused years before.
Furthermore, I believe that many people in their religious searchings leave the church for a time, but come back after a time. Such searching is an individual matter, and I respect individuals' free will and their need to work things out for themselves. However, when I run across Mormons in the midst of religious searching, I always encourage them to stay with the church in some fashion, if they can.
Just to reiterate: I believe that all truths, however difficult (whether it is Joseph Smith's polygamy or the Mountain Meadows massacre), build authentic faith, taken in conjunction with the totality of the gospel. A true church needs fear no truth. It is oversimplified, over-idealized, unbalanced, censored history that undermines authentic faith.