Despite decades of universal depictions of Mesoamerica in Book of Mormon art in chapels, Church manuals and media, and even the Arnold Friberg paintings published in the book itself, many members of the Church don't buy it. I'd say most don't buy it, based on my personal interactions, but I'd like to see a poll on this; maybe I'll conduct one. Among active members, the politically correct approach is "I have a spiritual testimony so it doesn't matter to me where it took place." I've discussed the fallacy of that approach before. At any rate, I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of inactive and former members don't buy the Mesoamerican theory; there are plenty of anecdotes about how the Mesoamerican theory ultimately leads to loss of faith in the Book of Mormon.
I've mentioned that when I discuss Book of Mormon geography, many Church members tell me they never thought the Mesoamerican theory made sense. "How did Moroni put the plates in New York if the entire Book of Mormon took place in a small area of Mesoamerica?" they ask. And this is before they realize that Joseph Smith never once referred to Mesoamerica and expressly repudiate the hemispheric idea, including Mesoamerica.
In my view, the scholars who promote Mesoamerica started out thinking they were defending Joseph Smith; i.e., they actually believed Joseph wrote the 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons, so they've done everything possible to show the Book of Mormon did take place in Mesoamerica. As I've documented in this blog, however, the proponents of the theory have completely changed things around. They have used a variety of rhetorical techniques to evade (or to undermine--okay, I'll say it, to discredit) what Joseph Smith actually said and wrote about the topic. They rely on "correspondences" between Mesoamerican archaeology and anthropology and their reinterpretations and additions to the text. (One of my favorite is how Sorenson changes "head of Sidon" to "headwaters of Sidon.") In the process, they become adamant about their position and harshly attack different points of view, as I've shown in this blog. When confronted with the evidence about Benjamin Winchester et al,, they refuse to even consider it.
That's a common academic response, one of which I was warned before I published The Lost City of Zarahemla, but I have to admit, I didn't think the LDS academics would react the way they have.
As near as I can tell, most Church leaders don't have (or express) a strong view on this issue. By and large, they are so busy administering the Church and ministering to people that they defer to the scholars. That's the way it should be, I think. Those leaders who do express their views publicly, such as the "Advisory Board" on bmaf.org consisting of four former General Authorities (Elder Ted E. Brewerton, Elder Robert E. Wells, Elder Merrill C. Oaks, and Elder Clate W. Mask), seem to have no problem so long as they support the Mesoamerican view. I know several former General Authorities who don't accept the Mesoamerican theory but they have been asked not to express those views publicly. The Church's essay on DNA, which Church Historian Steven Snow recently affirmed was approved by the First Presidency, cites Mesoamerican proponents including John Sorenson and Matthew Roper, and even cites one of the 1842 Times and Seasons articles! Mesoamerican proponents point to that essay as proof that the Church approves their views. Hopefully that will change, sooner than later, but in the meantime, there seems to be a big gulf between what most Church members believe (i.e., Joseph Smith and the North American setting) and what is tacitly approved (i.e., the Mesoamerican setting).
Economist Friedrich Hayek wrote a book in 1944 titled “The Road to Serfdom.” Something he wrote about truth there is analogous to the situation with the Mesoamerican theory. Here's what Hayek wrote. My emphasis in bold.
"The word truth itself ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief; it becomes something to be laid down by authority, which has to be believed in the interest of unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require it.
"The general intellectual climate which this produces, the spirit of complete cynicism as regards truth which it engenders, the loss of the sense of even the meaning of truth, the disappearance of the spirit of independent inquiry and of the belief in the power of rational conviction, the way in which differences of opinion in every branch of knowledge become political issues to be decided by authority, are all things which one must personally experience—no short description can convey their extent. Perhaps the most alarming fact is that contempt for intellectual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established, but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith and who are acclaimed as intellectual leaders even in countries still under a liberal regime. . . .
"The tragedy of collectivist thought is that while it starts out to make reason supreme, it ends by destroying reason because it misconceives the process on which the growth of reason depends. It may indeed be said that it is the paradox of all collectivist doctrine and its demand for the “conscious” control or “conscious” planning that they necessarily lead to the demand that the mind of some individual should rule supreme—while only the individualist approach to social phenomena makes us recognise the super-individual forces which guide the growth of reason. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility before this social process and of tolerance to other opinions, and is the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process."
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