In the 2008 BBC Documentary “The Mormon Candidate” John Sweeney interviews Jeffrey Holland about the nature of the oaths Mitt Romney would have performed in the temple (among other topics). Given the nature of the presidential office and potential conflicts of interest such oaths might entail, a frank discussion of the topic seems relevant for the time.

Members online often assert that Holland did not lie in this interview.1 Below is a transcript and semantic analysis of the conversation. The key phrase (#2) is emboldened below:

  1. SWEENEY: Let’s talk about Mitt Romney, the man who may well become the most powerful man on earth. As a Mormon, in the temple, I’ve been told, he would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple lest he slit his throat. Is that true?

  2. HOLLAND: (2a) That’s not true. That’s not true. (2b) We do not have penalties in the temple.

  3. SWEENEY: You used to.

  4. HOLLAND: We used to.

  5. SWEENEY: Therefore, he swore an oath saying I will not tell anyone about the secrets here lest I slit my throat.

  6. HOLLAND: Well, the vow that was made was regarding the ordinance–the ordinance–of the temple. <conversation continues>

Summary of the discussion: Sweeney asks if Romney swore an oath “to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple lest he slit his throat.” Holland replies (2a) “That’s not true. That’s not true.” Then, he qualifies his response by stating a true fact (2b) “we do not have penalties in the temple”, but said in such a way as to mislead Sweeney from concluding that #1 was true. Had Holland said nothing else and Sweeney hadn’t known any better (i.e., if the conversation had ended with statement #2), then Sweeney would have been left with the impression that Romney had not sworn such an oath. But Romney had sworn such an oath.2 As it turns out, Sweeney had done his homework and was able to push back in the appropriate manner in which to receive some confirmation of statement #1. Holland’s statement (#6) ultimately acts to confirm that Holland understood the general truth of #1 (i.e., “vow” is used to refer to the “oath” from #2).

Semantic Analysis

A lie is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive”. In its loosest sense, a lie is to “create a false or misleading impression.” (see Merriam-Webster).

Romney had sworn an oath in the temple not to pass on what happens in the temple (specifically not to reveal signs and tokens except at a specific time and place in the temple itself). We expect that Holland would know this, and he confirms his awareness in #6. Hence statement #2a was “an intentionally false statement.”

The entirety of #2 also qualifies as a lie under the looser definition. Holland’s statement #2 was designed to get Sweeney to believe that (#2a) Romney had not sworn such an oath by stating a truth (#2b). So, #2 in its entirety conveyed a false impression and was therefore a lie under the looser definition.

Potential Justifications

LDS leaders tend to follow a system of “theocratic ethics” where God’s law trumps other considerations (critics refer to this as “lying for the Lord”).

Latter-day Saint (and Christian) scripture and history is replete with instances where God instructs “higher knowledge” to be kept from the uninitiated. Biblically, the pattern of withholding higher knowledge is consistent with the actions of Paul:

I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” (1 Cor 3:2)

And with the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:6:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

In the LDS canon, Moses 1:42 states:

(These words were spoken unto Moses in the mount, the name of which shall not be known among the children of men. And now they are spoken unto you. Show them not unto any except them that believe. Even so. Amen.) [emphasis added]

Early LDS leaders persistently lied about the practice of polygamy with such justification.

And, in general, Latter-day Saints avoid talking about specifics of the temple ceremonies because of their perceived sacredness.

Against this backdrop, we may seek to justify Holland’s words (particularly #2a) in a couple of ways:

  1. Holland was justified in lying to and misleading Sweeney because it’s not the right of “the world” to know about sacred temple oaths in the first place.
  2. Holland succumbed to a knee-jerk reaction to protect the sacredness of the temple. He didn’t mean to deliberately lie (#2a was a mistake) and he corrected the misunderstanding with #6. In general, he was tip-toeing around the issue because of the temple’s sacredness and he momentarily stumbled due to the difficulty of managing truth and sacredness in an unscripted situation.

Regardless of whether a person chooses to accept either of the above justifications for this case, either seem to fall short of the high standard of honesty espoused in the Gospel Principles manual itself:

Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. … here are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest. …

People use many excuses for being dishonest. People lie to protect themselves and to have others think well of them. …

These excuses and many more are given as reasons for dishonesty. To the Lord, there are no acceptable reasons. …

Posted online here; The most interesting and informed rebuttal is from everything_is_free here. There is some merit to his analysis. Still, Holland has plenty of time initially, it seems, to have focused on that part of the argument. Instead, he misdirected Sweeney and only circled around after-the-fact to focus on a technicality. I do not think the argument is enough to fully exculpate Holland here.

  • “I did not hear the the discussion you are talking about but I do not find it to be a lie or prevarication.” source
  • “How did he lie? He stated that we do not have penalties in the temple. Which is true. Then when the interviewer stated that you used to he acknowledges that and said that the oath is about the ordinance. How is that a lie?” source
  • “I gave it a listen. There was nothing misleading about it.” See comment by JediMormon

Or refer to his actions as obfuscation:

  • “…He had several potential reasons to want to obfuscate here…” source
  1. Members online state or argue that Holland did not lie: 

  2. We can firmly conclude that Romney swore such an oath based on deductive logic: All individuals who received their LDS endowment before 1990 swore such an oath as part of the temple ceremony; [After at least the early 1900s] All individuals who are sealed in an LDS temple are first endowed; Romney was sealed in the LDS temple after 1900 and before 1990; ∴ Romney swore such an oath.