Mormonism and Utopian Politics

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I don’t mean to make a habit of responding to Matt Bowman’s essays in The New Republic, if for no other reason than that the man’s scholarly chops and writing skills are both impressive and intimidating. Both those talents are fully on display in his latest piece, which thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney’s technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism’s history of progressive-style responses to social problems. But there’s a problem with Bowman’s essay: what he identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon “classical American progressivism” isn’t really, or at least isn’t at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance–one which, I’m sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all.

Bowman presents this affinity as emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, “when the [progressive] movement itself began,” which in a way tips his hand. He is presumably assuming–not without a good deal of historical warrant, to be sure–that progressivism’s genesis was concomitant with the collision of several particular forces and transformations in American thought and practice a little over a century ago: the rise of the Social Gospel; the example of European (particularly German) models of scholarly research, public administration, and technical expertise; the increasing complexity of the industrial economy; and the many political controversies resulting from the ethnically and racially fraught corruption which characterized political parties and governing bodies throughout America’s immigrant-packed cities. This is a good story to tell about progressivism–but it ignores the enormous historical influence which the many populist and communitarian movements of the previous century, particularly the last thirty years of it, had on the progressive movement’s moment in the sun. Bowman unknowingly acknowledges this debt with this early progressive agenda owed to the Populists when he talks about “influential progressive leaders like William Jennings Bryan” visiting Salt Lake City–Bryan being, of course, more generally and accurately known as a progressive only by accident and association, as the agrarian populist movement he’d helped to lead into the Democratic Party in the 1896 and 1900 elections slowly adapted both itself and its titular leader to more urban constituencies and priorities. 19th-century American populism–with its borderline utopian insistence upon economic sovereignty and the virtuous potential of the “plain people” organizing themselves without the assistance of monied and corporate elites–is too often wrongly understood as a kind of primitive dry-run at the more successful political reforms of the later progressive era, and Bowman’s piece unfortunately perpetuates that understanding, by eliding the deeply communitarian roots of those Mormon practices which supposedly make Romney into something of a progressive himself. The story is more complicated than that.

It is true that throughout the first half of the 20th century the Mormon church built (or, in the case of the Boy Scouts, borrowed) a large number of social organizations for its membership, culminating in the construction of the extensive Church Welfare Program, which enlists the time, effort, and financial support of both the church itself as well as its individual members to provide basic necessities and opportunities for productive work to all whom local church leaders reach out to as potential recipients of aid. But to what extent were these organizational and charitable reforming institutions and practices “progressive,” in the sense of seeing a grand alignment between emerging standards of economic and technological efficiency and the moral goal of charity and general human uplift? The actual history suggests that the connection was negligible. The ideal of the “Mormon beehive”–which to this day remains the symbol of the state of Utah–wasn’t associated with the competent management of the Social Gospel, but rather with the kind of cooperative organization that presumably would characterize a devout, consecrated, and sovereign community of equals, of the sort that we Mormons attempted to build repeatedly in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally Utah, stymied at every juncture by our own failings and the relentless hostility of state and national governments to Mormon separateness and communitarianism. This old egalitarian Mormon attitude–mostly abandoned long ago in the face of legal challenges over plural marriage, but echoes of which remain in Mormon culture and practice today–isn’t progressive, but utopian. And moreover, not utopian in the way Matt stretches to associate that idea with the early progressives’ tendency to conflate good administration with moral virtue; rather, it was utopian in the way most of the radical and populist experiments of 19th century were utopian–that is, it aimed challenge the inequities and ugliness of capitalism and competition, and replace that system with one more cooperative and divine. Indeed, the Church Welfare Program itself was not understood by those who created it as solely some kind of work-centered charity program designed to “cultivate habits of thrift and industry”; on the contrary, as longtime church leader J. Reuben Clark (ironically, a man who considered himself a strong conservative opponent of any kind of socialism) put it, “the Welfare Plan has [within it]…the broad essentials of the United Order,” in which all would contribute to, and may, as needed, be “given portions from the common fund.” The organizational world we Mormons move through, and which Romney spent years administrating on various local and regional levels, is a world haunted by something much grander, much more populist and egalitarian and community-minded, than the progressivism that Bowman points to.

This is not to say that the progressive perspective in America, as it flourished and developed into a technocratic, generally (if not deeply) egalitarian, and regulation-friendly liberalism through the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, and up through Romney’s youth in the 1960s, didn’t maintain an important hold on the Mormon mind. It absolutely did, and Bowman’s essay makes important points in its second half as he observes how typical Romney’s “white collar, well-educated” leadership style is of the American Mormon elite today. It is indisputable that, to whatever extent we wish to look at Romney’s Mormon inheritance as a way to understand the manner in which he will likely frame in his mind the social problems, fiscal dilemmas, or moral controversies that he’d encounter as president, he will probably exhibit “a profound faith in the efficacy of organizations.” (A common Mormon joke, riffing on both the thirteen “Articles of Faith” originally penned by Joseph Smith and the language of Paul from the Letter to the Corinthians, is to speak of a fourteenth Article: “We believe in all meetings, have endured many meetings, and hope to be able to endure all meetings.”) But it is wrong to suppose that the tangential, historically vitiated moral connection between utopian populism and technocratic progressivism, as important as it may be for appreciating the development of liberalism in the 20th century, provides a legitimate story for seeing parallels between progressives “who fought for workers’ rights and organized private charities” and the political priorities of Mitt Romney. The egalitarian aspects Mormon politics have deeper, more radical, more communitarian and utopian roots (and potential!) than that…and for better or worse, they play a far smaller role in the majority of contemporary American Mormon political discourse than any circumstantial progressivism might happen to. Mitt Romney is definitely a moderate, but to make him out as influenced by progressivism is, I think, to leverage Mormon history towards the wrong target.

Comments

  1. I just finished reading (and will soon be reviewing for the AML) “A History of Utah Radicalism” which touches on a lot of what you discuss here. In fact, I may even revise part of my review based on your thoughts here.

    It does seem to me that, however, too many commentators (both LDS and non-LDS, as well as both friendly and not-so-friendly) focus on the church’s “suits and ties” image and overlook the welfare system. There’s more going on under the surface.

  2. I think part of the problem here is that we’re defining words like “progressive” in different ways. I think you’ve bought into a common misunderstanding about the social gospel being basically the Red Cross with a veneer of religious language and not the profoundly transformative movement that it in fact was, that you’ve bought into the romanticized notion of the Populists being noble anti-capitalist agrarians assimilated by lukewarm progressive compromisers, and most of all, I think that progressivism only barely and glancingly resembles the New Deal and the later regulatory state, because it imagined a new form of American life. It was not, perhaps, the agrarian ideal of the Populists but it was, surely, not the society World War I left us with. This is why progressives like Jane Addams found the New Deal profoundly disappointing.

    Suffice to say, you’re taking me to task for arguing that the progressives were utopian by saying “no they weren’t;” I think they deeply and profoundly were. Now, of course this has to do with what we define “progressivism” as being, and of course there’s entire books devoted to that. So perhaps you’re defining progressives to include mostly boring politicians like Hiram Johnson while I’m including visionary reformers like George Herron and Florence Kelley – or even somebody like Frances Willard or Richard Ely, people who surely believed that all Americans could be remade into virtuous and conscientious citizens and that we could have 100% voter turnout and no child would be left unable to recite Plato. Of course, that’s not your utopia, and it may not have been that of Brigham Young. But it surely became that of Joseph F. Smith, and Reed Smoot, and particularly Heber J. Grant. This is why you take issue with me calling William Jennings Bryan a progressive – because you like Bryan and do not want to see his ideals sullied by association with men like Theodore Roosevelt. The movement’s borders were fuzzy, surely.

    Of course, we’ve not even begun to talk about the reams of historical evidence in which Mormons speak highly of progressive movements and progressive associations and endorse things like Prohibition and the NWSA – all in the end of building the Kingdom of God on earth.

    I’m surely sympathetic with your elegiac tone; the vision of Zion is a deeply seductive one, but I’m also tempered, as are you, I think, with a sort of Lutheran pessimism, and the visions of the progressives strike me as a bit naive. None the less noble, though, for how radically different they thought society could be.

  3. It is perhaps folly for me to jump into a conversation of such things with RAF and Matt, but I would like to point out that the people most involved with the welfare programs genesis weren’t always the most similar politically. On the one hand as you note, James R. Clark was important, but so too was Amy Lyman on the other.

  4. Exactly, Stape – and that’s something commentators at TNR aren’t grasping. “Progressivism” was less a political movement than it was a way of understanding human capacities. We’ve barely touched on the aspect of it that Mormon theologians very much mirrored: a limitless faith in reason to figure out how humans should live and in will to make us do it.

  5. Amy Lyman is all about progressive efficiency and professionalism–she argued passionately against Susa Young Gates’ older local, community-centered notions about charity work & building Zion, explicitly in those terms. Likewise, the professionalization of medical services (over and against midwifery and folk medicine which was part of the early Utopian ideals–”And whosoever among you are asick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be bnourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild cfood, and that not by the hand of an enemy”) is clearly a progressive project inspired by exposure to the social gospel. The Primary becomes explicitly and deliberately an organ of progressive education for children, inspired by Pestalozzi and Montessori. I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Mormon communitarianism inspires Mormon progressivism any more than the broad American movement to which Matt refers.

  6. Russell, I always enjoy and appreciate what you have to say; it is, without fail, thoughtful and insightful. What strikes me about your responses to Matt, along with a couple of other pieces you’ve written attempt to engage American and Mormon history, is the disciplinary disconnect between the historical argument Matt is making and the philosophical one you are. Your own vision of Mormonism and your related affinity for local communitarian economics and politics colors everything you write—this works well when you wax philosophically about what Mormonism means to you and how Mormonism is best understood and lived, but unfortunately is also leads you to misunderstand the history at play. I think both your and Matt’s perspectives are valuable here, but from a strictly historical perspective, Matt’s argument is thoroughly more convincing.

  7. Excellent TNR article and excellent response here, Matt.

  8. Thanks, I’ve been thinking a lot about utopian thought vis a vis seeking Zion.

  9. Matt,

    I think you’ve bought into a common misunderstanding about the social gospel being basically the Red Cross with a veneer of religious language and not the profoundly transformative movement that it in fact was, that you’ve bought into the romanticized notion of the Populists being noble anti-capitalist agrarians assimilated by lukewarm progressive compromisers, and most of all, I think that progressivism only barely and glancingly resembles the New Deal and the later regulatory state, because it imagined a new form of American life.

    I’ll possibly grant you the first charge, strongly dissent from the second charge, and more mildly dissent from the third. Your essay has but me in an interesting position, Matt, because as I’ve gotten into arguments about populism, progressivism, and American utopian and anti-capitalist movements with others over the years, I’m usually the one arguing that a certain conceptual continuity, in terms of moral (both religious and civic) fervor and a bottom-line insistence upon being able to govern oneself and one’s community in a context of equality, may be seen as extending from the People’s Party all the way up through the era of progressive reforms and even into the New Deal (thanks to the influence of thinkers like John Ryan). So generally, I’d be one to strongly agree that progressivism was a “transformative” movement, in the sense that I think it conveyed, in a different and more technical language, the same community-building goals of 19th century utopians (whether articulated by Henry George or Edward Bellamy or the Farmer’s Alliance) to a more urbanized, industrialized, and individualistic audience. Now I suspect that something vital was lost to this movement as the social gospel of the early 20th century replaced the often very literal “groundedness” of the populist argument for the rights and power of a community to sustain its members and command respect (an analog to the specificity of Zion here, perhaps?), but the visionary core concept endured through the decades, or so I believe. The problem, as I read it, with your treatment is that you’re postulating that a parallel conceptual continuity tells us something about Mormonism, and thus something about Mitt Romney’s leadership style and organizational vision. But the parallel doesn’t hold, because the chain of continuity isn’t there; Mormonism is missing the second step, where utopianism was translated into a different, organizational language. I don’t see it–I see your evidence about the Boy Scouts and Sunday School, and I’ll accept under advisement your claim about Mormon support for Prohibition (under advisement not because you’re incorrect, but because that doesn’t seem on my reading to support your claims for a Mormon embrace of the reforming moral power of efficient organizations either, seeing Prohibition was a cause very much shaped by the utopian fervor of 19th-century temperance movements), but overall what I see is a difficult, contested break from utopian equality and community, and its gradual replacement with a highly spiritualized but not in any way “progressive” trust in the righteousness and decency of the correlated programs of the modern church. Our welfare program, and other elements of our organization practices, often hint at or even directly partake of those older communitarian understandings, but I’m unaware of any concerted attempt to mold those understandings into an ideology of effectively administered moral renewal. Sure, I suppose that kind of justification can be grafted onto Sunday School and the like, and I’m not opposed to that–I like civil religion as much as the next guy–but as I understand it, for example, Sunday School was about making children into Saints and enlisting them into a community of such, not improving the race.

  10. Kristine,

    Amy Lyman is all about progressive efficiency and professionalism–she argued passionately against Susa Young Gates’ older local, community-centered notions about charity work & building Zion, explicitly in those terms….The Primary becomes explicitly and deliberately an organ of progressive education for children, inspired by Pestalozzi and Montessori. I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Mormon communitarianism inspires Mormon progressivism any more than the broad American movement to which Matt refers.

    That’s fascinating–and it’s not a history I’m familiar with, so I’ll take your word for it. Still, I’m trying to figure out what you mean by your final sentence. Am I misunderstanding you, or you me, or are both of us confused? I don’t think I argued that “Mormon communitarianism inspires Mormon progressivism”; I think I argued that there really wasn’t much Mormon progressivism at all, in the sense of it being a Mormon progressivism. I stated above that I could see how that kind of progressive/civil reform perspective could be aligned in a justificatory way with the practices left behind after the break from the “older, local, community-centered notions of charity work and building Zion” elucidated by earlier leaders, and as I don’t think I made that point clear in my original response that’s probably a correction I should note. But still, my basic point remains: Matt wanted his readers to suppose that the way Mitt Romney thinks about organizations and their power has something in common with the moral vision of progressivism, and I don’t think that works, for exactly the reason your own point makes clear: the whole moral premise of these practices–in this case, the education of children–was different from, and had to be “explicitly and deliberately” turned into “progressive education.” I’m not arguing that such turning was a necessarily a bad thing (though obviously I have my doubts), but it is such a turning that I think it compromises the whole historical point of Matt’s affinity thesis. If he just wanted to say “Mormons think modern organizations can be instruments of enlightenment and grace, kind of like the progressives did,” he has plenty of contemporary evidence for that, and needn’t suggest that such was part of their historical premises, because I don’t think it was.

  11. You bring up a good point. The Social Gospel is not dead. It’s been placed on ice to prevent Babylon from annihilating the Church. The Welfare Program is the vigil fire that’s a symbol of hope and a model that keeps the knowledge from being lost. Someday all stores will be like the welfare store. You go in and get what you need, but you don’t whip out your wallet at the end.

    As for Mitt, methinks he’s a wee bit too friendly to Babylon.

  12. Words like “progressive” and “liberal” are used in the scriptures in a very positive way. However, there are always those people who want to redefine the terms and cast them into a negative position. The New Testament uses the word “liberal” at least seven (7) times, every time positively. I received a letter from the head of the Republican Party in which he used the word “liberal” seven times also, but every time negatively. I wrote back and told him that if he would tell me one positive thing that the RNC had done to help those in need, then I would send him money. He did not bother to reply. Mr Romney has aligned himself with a Party whose leadership has shown no concern for the poor. Now they are proposing to reduce the taxes on the rich. Some of the current leadership of the GOP have said that they would, if elected, seek to overturn Social Security. Jesus told a parable about a man who needed help and the “high class leaders” walked away from him. It applies to today.
    The ideals of Mr Romney are different from the current leadership of the GOP. That is why they are hesitant to support him.
    #11, Yes, Mitt may be “a wee bit too friendly with Babylon”. I assume that you are equating the GOP with Babylon, because that is the current organization with which he is “a wee bit too friendly”.

  13. Russell – thanks for your interesting reply. I’ll just make two points.

    1) I’d be one to strongly agree that progressivism was a “transformative” movement, in the sense that I think it conveyed, in a different and more technical language, the same community-building goals of 19th century utopians (whether articulated by Henry George or Edward Bellamy or the Farmer’s Alliance) to a more urbanized, industrialized, and individualistic audience . . . the social gospel of the early 20th century replaced the often very literal “groundedness” of the populist argument for the rights and power of a community to sustain its members and command respect

    I don’t actually think that this is the utopia that the progressives really imagined; and this may be our difficulty. I think the ideals behind progressivism were, in some ways about community, economic opportunity and equality, concepts you seem to understand to be the guiding principles behind any good American utopia.

    But progressivism certainly was not about small-scale community or the redistribution of wealth. I think the progressive utopia was far more cultural than it was economic, far more about moral rigor, the cultivation of middle-class virtues like temperance, self-discipline, and punctuality, far more, in a word, about the moral tempering of the individual than it is communitarian. Its true ancestor is the evangelical voluntarism of the nineteenth century, though it’s by the 1890s wedded to new technocratic virtues and the cult of expertise: the progressive educators that Kristine cites, social scientists like Richard Ely or . This makes Prohibition very much progressive in spirit. It also is the source of progressive utopianism. This utopia doesn’t look like the Oneida community, but that makes it no less visionary.

    This is also what makes the social gospel transformative. The social gospel as I understand it is utopian through and through; it imagines a reorganized American economy (Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, Herron, etc etc), but understand that reform to be based first upon the “conversion” of all Americans to what they call a Biblical way of understanding the economy – and that Biblical vision comes only through a rebirth offered of the Holy Spirit.

    All of that, I suppose, is why I don’t buy the sort of narrative of declension that you’re arguing for – that Mormonism was about this communitarian ethos that we’ve struggled to cling to, and somehow managed to make it through the fifty years after the Manifesto without absorbing any cultural influences from the nation around the faith. I think progressivism spoke directly to a different strain of Mormon identity than the one you’re emphasizing – the communitarian utopia of Brigham Young’s Zion. That vision, unfortunately, had been trampled under the feet of the federal marshals and the tracks of the railroad. However, progressivism’s utopian vision of the perfection of human society preserved that, and its unbounded faith in the capacities of human beings to master their own souls and thus change world as they wished reflects exactly Joseph Smith’s repudiation of original sin and wild confidence in human potential.

    The problem, as I read it, with your treatment is that you’re postulating that a parallel conceptual continuity tells us something about Mormonism, and thus something about Mitt Romney’s leadership style and organizational vision. But the parallel doesn’t hold, because the chain of continuity isn’t there; Mormonism is missing the second step, where utopianism was translated into a different, organizational language.

    I don’t think it’s simply a “parallel.” In fact, it strikes me that you’re the one making an argument based on ideal typology rather than on historical evidence. I think there are precise correlations of influence here. The language that men like George Reynolds, who was an early organizer of Mormon Sunday schools, uses to describe what the Mormon Sunday schools want to accomplish mirrors precisely the language that people like Jane Addams and other advocates of the settlement houses and institutional church movements of 1880s and 1890s: that is, the inculcation of a particularly consistent set of virtues into their charges through methods that increasing numbers of experts in education and psychology endorsed. Mormon leaders are reading and citing the same people – John Dewey, say, as well as the progressive educators Kristine cites – that progressives are. The arguments that Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant make for the reorganization of the auxiliaries and the embrace of Prohibition and the importance of Mormonism’s voluntary organizations – it’s Smith, of course, who makes participation in Relief Society and Sunday school and all the rest mandatory – echo precisely the arguments that other progressive reformers were making about the virtues of community activism and its contribution to moral uplift. Heber J. Grant and Nephi Morris and other Mormon leaders explicitly in various places discuss their endorsement of the Prohibition movement the leaders of the temperance movement favorably. Meanwhile, the great Mormon thinkers of the age – Widtsoe, Roberts, et al – are devouring progressive thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Henry Cope and so on, and making very similar arguments about the perfectability of human society and the unlimited capacities of rational thought and so on and so forth. To say the evidence isn’t there is sort of a boggling claim.

  14. Matt and Russell, I was intrigued by Ardis’ posts over the past month of so quoting very progressive lessons from old lesson manuals in the 20′s. (Say like this one) While I think both of you are right that this was once a big position within the Church it doesn’t appeared to have lasted long in the 20th century. Any thoughts as to why?

  15. Russell–sorry, I’m the one who wasn’t clear. With Matt, I don’t think that the older communitarianism inflects progressivism; it’s that progressive ideas were able to help Latter-day Saints achieve what they had not managed to do with their older utopian attempts at Zion. The ideals, perhaps, were there, but it was progressivism, from outside, that gave them the tools to build Primary, the welfare system, hospitals, etc.

    In fact, maybe an instructive example would be the conflict between Sunday School and Primary. Sunday School had kind of limped along, being run by men as a vaguely priesthood-authorized attempt at educating young people. It mostly didn’t work all that well (until, as Matt notes, it was rescued by being caught up in a sort of progressive proto-Correlation). Primary, on the other hand, was women’s idea and they executed it with not much ecclesiastical oversight. The borrowed ideas from progressive educators, especially from the kindergarten movement, who came through the Salt Lake City lecture circuit and who, in some cases, were induced to stay and train teachers. Primary starts working really well precisely because they abandon Eliza R. Snow’s old didactic songs and dreadful dramatic readings and start using progressive methods that encouraged learning through play and meaningful work, actually interesting literature, etc. Although they do keep some Evan Stephens songs, thank goodness!

  16. Matt,

    Thanks for the additional reply; this is an interesting discussion.

    I think the ideals behind progressivism were, in some ways about community, economic opportunity and equality, concepts you seem to understand to be the guiding principles behind any good American utopia. But progressivism certainly was not about small-scale community or the redistribution of wealth. I think the progressive utopia was far more cultural than it was economic, far more about moral rigor, the cultivation of middle-class virtues like temperance, self-discipline, and punctuality, far more, in a word, about the moral tempering of the individual than it is communitarian.

    Progressivism was a large and various enough movement that I suppose we could both find plenty of representatives who reflect out preferred readings. There were self-identified “progressives” who spoke in terms economic equality and community governance; both Jane Addams and Mary Parker Follett can be found talking this way. But I’ll also grant your point here that the real shift from earlier populist/utopian ideas to progressive ones can be found in the focus on “the morel tempering of the individual”; the utopian/populist encounter with the pluralism of American cities, and the appeal with that individualization had within the American experiment, obviously changed the direction of egalitarian reform efforts (though I continue to believe that it didn’t change them so much that you can’t find a continuity there).

    I think progressivism spoke directly to a different strain of Mormon identity than the one you’re emphasizing – the communitarian utopia of Brigham Young’s Zion. That vision, unfortunately, had been trampled under the feet of the federal marshals and the tracks of the railroad. However, progressivism’s utopian vision of the perfection of human society preserved that, and its unbounded faith in the capacities of human beings to master their own souls and thus change world as they wished reflects exactly Joseph Smith’s repudiation of original sin and wild confidence in human potential.

    Now this is an intriguing argument–and not, I think, exactly the one you made in your TNR essay. There you made use of elements of Mormon institutions and practices–which, I would argue, were (and remain) echoes of Mormon utopian communitarianism–to posit a similarity between the sort of moral aspiration at work in the way Mitt Romney today thinks about the uses of administration and the aspiration which the progressive reformers had. Here, you’re more explicitly grounding that similarity in an affinity between progressive moral aspirations and the expansive theological vision of Joseph Smith. I suppose I could be entirely at fault here; after all, you did mention “Joseph Smith’s rejection of original sin” before, and perhaps one could argue that said a rejection gave room for a visionary reforming impulse that essentially animated these self-same practices and institutions. But I still resist that continuity in the Mormon case, because the two or three generations of Mormon history between Smith’s visions and the moment we’re talking about didn’t generate a visionary reforming impulse; they generated a passion for a utopian, egalitarian community, and it’s that passion which I think haunted (and continues to haunt) various ostensibly “progressive” Mormon institutions and practices such as the Welfare Program. You say that I’m dealing in static ideal types in talking about ideology here, and maybe so….yet you were the one who introduced the idea of this deep historical continuity in the first place (yes, I know, you didn’t choose the “deep affinity” title). Again, as I wrote in response to Kristine above, if your argument is basically that “many Mormons think modern organizations can be instruments of enlightenment and grace, kind of like the progressives did,” then you’re almost certainly correct….and you needn’t re-present the remnants of a defeated utopian moment from Mormon history to provide depth to that.

    I think there are precise correlations of influence here. The language that men like George Reynolds, who was an early organizer of Mormon Sunday schools, uses to describe what the Mormon Sunday schools want to accomplish mirrors precisely the language that people like Jane Addams and other advocates of the settlement houses and institutional church movements of 1880s and 1890s…Meanwhile, the great Mormon thinkers of the age – Widtsoe, Roberts, et al – are devouring progressive thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Henry Cope and so on, and making very similar arguments about the perfectability of human society and the unlimited capacities of rational thought and so on and so forth. To say the evidence isn’t there is sort of a boggling claim.

    But I’m not saying there is no evidence of a correspondence between how early 20th-century Mormons talked about their institutions and practices, and how progressives educators and scientists of the era were talking, am I? Have I misspoken here? I think what I’ve been saying is that it seems to me that you want to go beyond correspondence; you want to argue that there is something fundamentally progressive about these Mormon institutions and practices, because that will enable to you to make a claim about the likely (hidden?) progressivism of Mitt Romney. Perhaps I’m not seeing what’s obvious to you, but I look at those same institutions and practices, and I see the attempt to shore up a lost vision with another, later, borrowed one, making the correspondence merely circumstantial. Consequently I think the fact that Romney may use language similar to that of an early 20th-century progressive it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything, because there doesn’t necessarily appear to be anything to those institutions and practices tied to the progressive moral vision, or the sort which led to, as you put it, “workers’ rights and organized private charities.”

    Note that none of this is an argument against the likelihood that Romney may view organizations and good administration in the way you suggest; it’s a challenge to the genealogy by which you present it as coming into Romney’s worldview.

  17. But I’m not saying there is no evidence of a correspondence between how early 20th-century Mormons talked about their institutions and practices, and how progressives educators and scientists of the era were talking, am I? Have I misspoken here? I think what I’ve been saying is that it seems to me that you want to go beyond correspondence; you want to argue that there is something fundamentally progressive about these Mormon institutions and practices

    I’ll confess, this seems a distinction without a difference to me. You appear to me to be arguing for some sort of pristine and ideal Mormonism to which progressivism was actually an alien force that they handled only with rubber gloves and hazmat suits, so it did not actually contaminate them at all; this seems sort of implausible to me. So Mormons using progressive language, reading and citing progressive authors, participating in progressive reform movements and so on was all merely “circumstantial” and had nothing to do with their Mormonism, despite the fact that Robert and Widtsoe wrote Mormon theology using progressive ideas, and despite the fact that Amy Brown Lyman and George Reynolds used progressive models in formulating Mormon institutions, and despite the fact that Heber J. Grant explicitly endorsed a progressive movement to young Mormons telling them that it would make them better Mormons? I’m not sure that this is as ‘circumstantial’ as you’d like to believe; I think, rather, it’s a particular iteration of Mormonism, the same way that Ezra Benson’s later moralistic libertarianism is also a particular iteration of Mormonism.

    It seems to me that you’re arguing very much that Mormons are influenced, ideologically, politically, and socially, only by one particular version of the Mormon past, and that their interactions with the various cultures, politics, and societies they find themselves in do nothing to shape what they believe or think; this seems somewhat implausible to me.

    Again, as I wrote in response to Kristine above, if your argument is basically that “many Mormons think modern organizations can be instruments of enlightenment and grace, kind of like the progressives did,” then you’re almost certainly correct….and you needn’t re-present the remnants of a defeated utopian moment from Mormon history to provide depth to that.

    Well, I hope that’s not what I’m doing. Rather, I’m saying Mormons were participants in the progressive movement – as were African Americans, Baptists, Catholics, and a variety of other groups – and found ways to use progressive ideas, language, and techniques to express and give shape to their Mormon ideas. They formulated a Mormon progressivism, as John Ireland or other Catholics formulated a Catholic progressivism and WEB DuBois formulated an African American progressivism.

    We can argue, I suppose, about just how much of the Great Basin Kingdom remained in the Welfare Program or correlation (though you’re dwelling on the former rather than the latter, which I also mentioned in the essay). You seem to be arguing that it was entirely Brigham and Joseph. My argument, I think, would be that the notion of Zion and Joseph Smith’s optimistic theology made Mormons particularly interested in progressive ideology, and it became a tool that Mormons used to shape and remake their Mormonism; it appealed to them because it resonated with certain ideas and concepts already present in their religious tradition.

  18. Matt,

    Thanks for this illuminating, if not conclusive, exchange. A couple of quick concluding remarks:

    I’ll confess, this seems a distinction without a difference to me. You appear to me to be arguing for some sort of pristine and ideal Mormonism to which progressivism was actually an alien force that they handled only with rubber gloves and hazmat suits, so it did not actually contaminate them at all; this seems sort of implausible to me.

    I respectfully disagree, because you appear to me to be arguing for some sort of theologically rooted progressive conception inherent to Mormon institutions and practices, and that plays fast and loose with the actual nature of the particular egalitarian conception which give birth to those institutions and practices. Did that conception change over time? Surely. But in that case we’re not seeing an affinity with progressivism; we’re seeing an adaptation to it, which doesn’t strike me as the same thing.

    We can argue, I suppose, about just how much of the Great Basin Kingdom remained in the Welfare Program or correlation (though you’re dwelling on the former rather than the latter, which I also mentioned in the essay).

    True; if you want to make the argument that correlation carried within it a spirit parallel to the reforming instincts of the progressives, I hope you’re right and I wish you great luck and all the success in the world, because heaven knows our church organizations would function much differently, and better, if those responsible for them recognized that our institutions and practices ought to parallel movements towards direct democracy and citizen transparency.

    Happy Thanksgiving! I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  19. If I understand him correctly, Russell is arguing that Matt has overlooked the 19C roots of both turn of the century and early 20C Progressivism and Mormon organizational developments. While I find that a valid criticism, I think that the more significant criticism of Matt’s thesis is the way it distorts subsequent 20C developments. Progressivism began as a movement with both significant private and governmental thrusts, but with the New Deal Progressivism married itself irretrievably to government activism. In the mid-20C this government activism blended with a philosophy of corporate management which was bureaucratic and technocratic. Mid 20C Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George Romney certainly partook of that overriding ethos, as did the Church with the Correlation movement. (Note that Correlation was very much a product of the late 50s and 60s mindset of efficient bureaucracy, and not the earlier 20C developments like the Boy Scouts or the Welfare program with which Matt links it.)

    However, in the 1930s Mormons and their Church began separating from this New Deal – Progressive marriage. Leaders like Heber J. Grant and J. Reuben Clark clearly and definitively rejected that alliance. At first most American Mormons did not follow this lead, but with the rise of the modern secular conservative rejection of that marriage as crystallized by the Goldwater revolt of the 1960s, regular American Mormons began in ever-increasing numbers to join the modern late 20C conservative movement which rejects the New Deal melding of Progressive philosophy and governmental activism.

    Now comes Mitt Romney, who clearly does stand in the mid-20C “moderate” technocratic/bureaucratic Republican tradition of his father and Richard Nixon, etc. However, I believe Mitt’s grounding in that tradition has as much to do with his HBS schooling and traditional “Wall Street” professional life as it does his with his Mormonism. The Church organization is still bureaucratic/technocratic, but it is wholly divorced from any broader social vision which may even hint of New Deal progressive governmental activism. More importantly, in the Republican world, that bureaucratic/technocratic tradition has lost its ideological underpinnings with the complete dominance by the conservative ideological rejection of the New Deal ideology of achieving Progressive aims almost wholly through government activism. A President Romney who tried to resist that new conservative ideology would be quickly rendered politically impotent, and Mitt is smart enough to realize that and act accordingly. Therefore, I believe Matt is misguided in thinking that Mitt’s religious background would lead him to be more politically progressive as that is understood in the early 21C, where TNR readers still sit in the shadow of the New Deal and the rest of America and most American Mormons are moving beyond it.

    However, TNR might well publish a piece by Russell, for while early 20C Progressivism and New Dealism clearly has no place in early 21C Mormonism, I am continually surprised at how alive the older 19C communitarian idealism is. (Although only a few would use the label “communitarian,” I think it is accurate.) However, this is an idealism of private effort, and has now become almost wholly divorced from support for any kind of governmental activism. It might, however, manifest itself in a Romney administration in influencing policy in areas where government is already involved, such as humane immigration reform.

  20. Thanks for the exchange, Russell.

    JWL – I think I’ve already dealt with most of your points, particularly as regards to the New Deal and the ways in which it’s distinct from Progressivism, in my various responses to Russell, and many others, like the fact that I’m not claiming Romney has much affinity with contemporary so-called “progressivism” in the article itself.

    Mr Widemouth. – you are silly.

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