Faith no more?

On July 10, Michael Pratt, the principal of the LDS seminary at Lone Peak High School was arrested by police. Pratt, who is married with three children, had alleged sexual relations with a 16-year old student.

A Facebook group called “Pray for Brother Pratt,” boldly displaying the famous painting of Jesus cradling a lamb, was launched within hours of his arrest and features more than 350 members and 129 posts to the group’s wall. These range between adamant, firm denials (including one from Pratt’s sister) and harsh indictments and references to Pratt’s 16-year old lover as an “innocent child.” As of this writing, no group called “Pray for the 16-year old girl that Brother Pratt [allegedly] slept with” exists.

However, the most interesting reactions are the former students whose faith has been shaken to its foundation. Students that spent hours being counseled or befriended by Pratt when he was their teacher have nothing but kind, generous things to say.

Nevertheless, despite their own admittedly positive experiences with their former instructor, their conscience weighs heavy at the sight of a spiritual role model falling from a rarefied air of grace.

As Pratt was an employee of the LDS Church and a professional instructor of its doctrines, I would certainly consider him a member of the small minority of paid clergy within the LDS Church, and members of the clergy having inappropriate relationships with their congregations, students, or followers is not as new (or rare) as some of us would prefer. But if someone’s faith in a religion that simultaneously believes in the imperfection of Man-with-a-capital-M and the perfection of God can be shaken by the good evidence of illegal, adulterous behavior of one of the church’s representatives, did that person have faith in the religion at all? Or did they have faith in a man?

Any organized religion has its fair share of darkness in its history. A central tenet of Judeo-Christian belief is that man is imperfect and makes mistakes, so I cannot see how criticism of the unsanctioned practices of its members equates to a criticism of a church’s doctrine. But the issue at hand is that some think that because they “felt the Spirit” or were encouraged by his counsel and support, Pratt’s alleged mistake either negates all of the good he did, or could not possibly have occurred.

There’s a widely unchallenged – if not accepted – understanding that Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church, had only one wife, Emma. However, it is documented in several biographies and histories that Joseph himself practiced polygamy and married, among others, Helen Mar Kimball in May of 1843, when she was the tender age of 14. The circumstances, of course, are wildly different: Smith had founded a church while Pratt was representing it; Smith had parental consent while Pratt faces federal kidnapping charges; Smith’s relationship wasn’t widely kept a secret while Pratt hid his from his wife and family, etc. But knowing about Joseph Smith’s relationships should not shake a true faith in a religion, just as Bill Clinton’s several dalliances should not shake faith in the United States.

I never had what is being called the privilege of learning from Michael Pratt, and a video of him at the courthouse, choking back sobs and fighting back tears, appears to my unfamiliar, untrained eye to be an imperfect man who made a terrible mistake and is willing to pay the price for it. He has not made a claim, explicit or otherwise, to either innocence or guilt, but simply hoped that the “whole truth” would come to light.

For the sake of all, let us hope with him.

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