In his explanation of the theory of loyalty in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman asserts that
Loyalty is a key concept in the battle between exit and voice not only because, as a result of it, members may be locked into their organizations a little longer and thus use the voice option with greater determination and resourcefulness than would otherwise be the case. It is helpful also because it implies the possibility of disloyalty, that is, exit. Just as it would be impossible to be good in a world without evil, so it makes no sense to speak of being loyal to a firm, a party, or an organization with an unbreakable monopoly. While loyalty postpones exit its very existence is predicated on the possibility of exit. The even the most loyal member can exit is often an important part of his bargaining power vis-à-vis the organization. The chances for voice to function effectively as a recuperation mechanism are appreciably strengthened if voice is backed up by the threat of exit, whether it is made openly or whether the possibility of exit is merely well understood to be an element in the situation by all concerned.
This is, I think, simply untrue with respect to Mormonism. At least in the internal logic of Mormonism, the church has an unbreakable monopoly. There are a few moments where exit may matter—for new converts, post-mission men, and young people in the transition from youth programs to Relief Society or Elders’ Quorum. Otherwise, exit simply doesn’t matter. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t matter to individual church members or church leaders—-every person’s exit from the church affects someone else, usually many others, and I think many (almost all, in my experience) leaders care deeply and may even think more deeply about certain issues when they are broached by members with concerns serious enough to leave the church over–but statistically, for the institution, unless you belong to a large, identifiable cohort of exiters, it just doesn’t have anything like the kind of leverage Hirschman describes. In a Protestant context, where inter-denominational movement is possible, perhaps exiting one congregation for another would register in a different way, but I don’t think it works in institutions with the kinds of truth claims and robust notions of authority that, say, Catholics and Mormons have.
Exit is simply not a viable option for protest. (This is not to say that there are not honest and compelling reasons to exit. I believe that there are honorable reasons to leave, and I deeply respect my friends who have chosen this path, even as I grieve the Church’s loss, the injury to the body of Christ. I mean to say only that exit is not a productive mode of articulating criticism.)
Matt Bowman, borrowing from a Catholic theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, has formulated the problem this way:
But at the same time, Dulles reminds us that dissent always occurs within the context of a church, not merely as a rejection of it. This is important because, for both Catholics and Mormons, belonging to a church means membership in an ecclesiastical body that claims to be more than merely a gathering of Christians. Rather, God is in contact with the Church as well as with the individual. In other words, the church is a sacrament; it is a channel through which God extends grace and duty to human beings in ways not possible for individuals alone. In such a religion, authority and conscience exist in dialectic; they condition each other, strain at each other, but neither can exist fully before God without the other. The Church does not exist for its own sake, but neither do we gain salvation in isolation. So one can—and should—dissent as a member of a faith. The act of dissent should not be understood as a departure from that Church but rather as an act within it that draws upon its theology, history, and relation. A Mormon dissenter should dissent first as a Mormon.
Dissenting as a Mormon is tricky, of course, since there is both doctrinal discouragement and fierce social pressure to refrain from voicing any criticism. At the very least, a plausibly Mormon dissent requires abandoning the possibility of exit, and making it plain that one has done so. In his “Decalogue for Dissenters”, Armand Mauss has offered suggestions for how to do this:
1. Seek constantly to build a strong personal relationship with the Lord as the main source and basis for your own confidence in the alternate voice you are offering.
2. Do your homework before you speak up.
3. Relinquish any and all aspirations (or even expectations) for leadership callings in the Church.
4. Endure graciously the overt disapproval of “significant others,” including family members, but never respond in kind. [ed. note: If you can pull that off, beware of whirlwinds]
5. Pay your “dues” as a Church member. …Make clear your willingness to serve wherever called.
6. Be humble, generous, and good-natured in tolerating ideas that you find aversive in other Church members. …No one is won over by being put down, especially in public.
7. Show empathy and appreciation for Church leaders, male and female, from the general level to the local ward and branch. …Some of them sacrifice a great deal for no apparent benefit, and all are entitled to our support and our praise, whenever these can reasonably be given.
8. Do not say or do anything to undermine the influence or legitimacy of Church leaders at any level. …Let us by all means criticize policies, practices, or interpretations of doctrine; but let us not personalize our criticisms with ad hominem attacks. We should feel free to seek private interviews and/or correspondence with leaders, in which we can offer, in a spirit of love and humility, our constructive criticisms and suggestions.
9. Take advantage of legitimate opportunities to exercise your “alternate voices” and to exercise your free agency in “alternate” ways within the LDS Church and culture. We must never lapse into a posture where we just sit and gripe.
10. Endure to the end.
John Durham Peters has articulated a similar point in an interview with Ethan Yorgason, locating in the person of the Apostle Paul a model for would-be critics:
Ethan: Yeah, as long as you’re bringing him up, how would you present this to Mormon audiences: Paul’s idea that as for myself, I’m not necessarily bound by the law, but for others who feel bound by the law, I respect their view and their field of vision. This is a very different Paul than most Mormons would feel comfortable with, I’d guess.
John: This is actually a deeply Mormon Paul, one who combines deep devotion with respect for reason and care for the other; he is believing, modern, and neighborly all at once. It seems to me that Paul’s argument is that, if you have higher knowledge, you should prove it by your higher kindness, rather than by exposing or insulting or belittling people. So, I think Paul kind of gives a mission for the intellectual, the task of understanding those who are not intellectuals. He talks about those who have gnosis (knowledge), the Gnostics. What are the Gnostics supposed to do? They’re supposed to respect the narrower field of vision of the other.
Ethan: Does that mean that you accept what the other has and don’t try to ask them to stretch themselves?
John: Well, why should just I ask them to stretch themselves if they’re not asking me to stretch myself? I may have knowledge, but what’s that worth if I don’t have love? And the best way to stretch your mind yourself is sometimes to stretch your mind into a smaller box. [laughs] And see how I’ve let condescension into the idea that it is a smaller box—maybe it’s just a different one. I don’t know. . . If it’s not a mutual enterprise—this is going to sound like dialogue instead of dissemination—but why should it just be a one-way thing? We all know that the best teachers are those who are vulnerable, those who are ignorant, who really want to know.
I think this can be formulated to apply to critics as well-—the best critic is the one who is sincerely trying to understand and sustain the church leader or policy she is criticizing. We have a distinctly Mormon articulation of this possibility:
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
We cite these verses always directed at those who wield authority by virtue of priesthood office, and yet, if we take seriously the idea that personal revelation and faithfulness also confer the authority of knowledge and wisdom, these words must surely apply to us as dissenters, as well. We cannot prevail by force of argument, or threat of exit, or insistence on credentials . We claim the power of our own revelation and wisdom only on the same principles that priesthood authorities can. We may, indeed we must, regard ourselves as fellowcitizens with those who are (temporarily) in authority over us, and our discussion must recognize that we are engaged in the same project, even if that project is so large and beyond all of us that the visions we see through the glass darkly appear to be in conflict. And here I want to insist that calling for a critique articulated in community and in love is NOT to suggest self-censorship. Faith lies in acting according to the commandments of God and being dedicated to the work of building the Kingdom, not in twisting one’s reasoning faculties into a knot to believe that manifestations of human weakness in the church organization are somehow divinely sanctioned. Friends don’t let friends perpetuate racist, sexist, homophobic, or stupid policies. A fearful silence is the very opposite of speaking the truth in love.
For a complicated and troubling example of such humble criticism, we might turn to Levi Savage. (I’ve stolen this succinct sketch of his biography from Nate Oman at Times and Seasons).
Levi Savage emigrated to Nauvoo after joining the Church, where he was intimate with Joseph Smith. After the Saints left Nauvoo he travelled west with Brigham. In 1846 at the urging of Church leaders, he signed up for the Mormon Battalion, marching hundreds of miles through the desert until his discharge in California in the summer of 1847. …In 1852, he was called on a mission to Siam (present day Thailand). He left his wife and 21-month old son, walking from Salt Lake to San Francisco, where he caught a boat to the Far East. During his passage he almost died of small pox. He spent over two years preaching the Gospel in Asia. He initially landed in Calcutta, India but couldn’t make it to Siam due to a civil war in the country. He did, however, get as far as Rangoon in Burma. In October 1855, he headed for home, reaching Boston, Massachusetts via the Cape of Good Hope in early 1856. In short, Levi Savage was a man willing to make enormous sacrifices and literally circle the globe at the direction of the leaders of the Church.
From Boston, Savage made his way west to Winter Quarters, where he had joined the Mormon Battalion more than a decade earlier. There he met a group of westward bound immigrants from England. At the urging of another prophet and apostle — Franklin D. Richards — this group of immigrants formed themselves into two companies, one led by James G. Willie and the other by Edward Martin. The companies were part of an experimental system of moving immigrants across the plains with handcarts. The initial attempts with the new handcarts had gone well, and Richards assured the immigrants that if they trusted in the Lord and did their duty to Him that they could cross the plains in safety.
By this time, it was mid-August and Levi Savage, who knew something about the problems of crossing the vast distances of the North American interior, was incredulous. He insisted that it was too late in the season to begin. The handcarts might be trapped in the high Rockies by an early winter. It was too dangerous, he insisted. His objections were overruled by his ecclesiastical superiors. He then said:
“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”
I think this may be the only viable model of dissent, the only expression of voice that can matter in the contemporary church.
Sappy though it may be, I think that it finally comes down to love — the sort of loyalty that motivates us not just to articulate criticism kindly, in ways that consider the needs and capabilities of those to whom we are speaking, but to be willing to die with the Saints because we love them beyond all differences of opinion, indeed, beyond all reason. In a community that aims not merely at tolerance or acceptance, but at the transformation and redemption of its members, criticism must proceed from unshakeable love and a commitment to the sort of radical submission of the will that Christianity demands.
In some ways, especially immediate, practical ones, this is profoundly unsatisfying—-Savage’s counsel, after all, went unheeded—robustly mistaken authority triumphed over knowledge. We can multiply examples of silly policies and worse—-of lives wrecked by uninformed or uninspired counsel from authorities. I have some experience with these consequences; this is not a blithe dismissal or glib theoretical conclusion. I have longed for a way to communicate my own grief and others’ in a way that would be heard and make a difference, result in changed minds, or hearts, or, especially, policies (in some amount of time measured in units smaller than epochs). And yet I believe this slow, excruciating (and I mean exactly that word–note the etymological kinship with crucifixion, the resonance with the crosses we must take up) process of governing and being governed by persuasion and longsuffering is the tragic price of the freedom that is ultimately redemptive, the gift of a God who demands that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, both individually and collectively. Our love of God and our love of each other are ultimately meaningless without the opposing possibility that we will disappoint and fail and hurt each other, sometimes terribly. If the scriptures are to be believed, or at least taken seriously, we have to grapple with a model of criticism that proceeds by submission, that insists that the meek will inherit the earth, and that the bonds of love are stronger than death.