Responses to Nate’s “How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations”

Yesterday, Nate Oman, at the “other blog,” wrote a thoughtful post on liberal angst within the Church. Addressed to his “liberal friends,” he argued that the common narrative of the Church being too late in making changes, coupled with a misunderstanding of hierarchical power, has led to an unfortunately misguided framework in which we understand change within the Mormon tradition.

Well, a thoughtful post deserves thoughtful responses. Unfortunately, many of the responses have been scattered throughout several spaces: the original post (which at this time already has 74 comments), Nate’s facebook wall (where he set an all-time record by tagging 85 people–I didn’t even know that was possible!), and BCC’s backlist (and I’m sure numerous other places). We thought it would prove useful to gather some of the most cogent responses from BCCers and reproduce them, in a slightly edited form, here.

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ON THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH AND THE CHURCH’S MEMBERS

Ronan

Nathan B., this is an astute description of how the church really is rather than how we might wish it to be. It won’t comfort the liberal Mormon very much, though. Here is the problem:

As a faithful and covenanted Latter-day Saint, you owe the Church your loyalty, affection, and service. On the other hand, you cannot expect it to bring about all of the righteousness that you would like to see in the world. You should be anxiously engaged in a good cause.

Because that covenant demands so much in terms of time and means, the other good causes that would reach the rest of God’s children are largely neglected — one simply does not have the energy to be “anxiously engaged”. If one perceives Mormonism to be failing, it brings you down with it. That may be intolerable for the progressive.

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Russell

Nate is defining ‘liberal Mormons’ as liberals of a particular progressive stripe which have regularly clashed with its authoritarian leadership structure throughout its history–you had the Godbeites in the 1870s, and the supposed ‘Signaturati’ of the early 1990s. And the response to both has been simple (and, to those who find that kind of progressivism unappealing, very satisfying): give up one’s full-throated progressivism, or give up one’s full commitment to Mormonism. Neither seem to be options particularly relevant, however, to either the ecclesiastical fate or the intellectual destiny the majority of those who consider themselves ‘liberal Mormons,’ most of which aren’t progressive crusaders, but rather folks who accept their minority position within American church culture, and nonetheless root for change. To suggest that they stop such rooting undermines the basis of the loyalty which Ronan notes the still nonetheless feel.

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Mark

I also have a major quibble with this: “The Brethren are powerful because they use their power sparingly and avoid deviating dramatically from expectations of the median active member.”

I think what Nate means to say is that is that the Brethren are hesitant to deviate dramatically from the expectations of the median active member *in North America*. The membership is not as monolithic as this argument assumes. The attitudes of members who live on the Wastach front should not be used as proxies for the entire worldwide membership.

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Aaron

I don’t care how much power they do or do not have today. I just want truth in advertising. Whatever the Church really is, and however the power dynamic between the leadership and membership can be most accurately described, I want THAT description to be what my daughter learns in primary, what I talk about with my fellow Elders in EQ, and what the missionaries in my ward say to their investigators. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, thank you very much.

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ON NATE’S USE OF HISTORY

Mark

Nate, the following quibbles shouldn’t distract from my general agreement.

1. Pres. Kimball put a lot of effort and time into building consensus among the 12. Woodruff dropped the manifesto on them like it was a bomb. Surely this accounts for at least some of the way the two policy changes were received.

2. I think your argument rests too heavily on the assumption that all liberal Mormons want from the leadership is political activism. To the extent that I am a liberal Mormon, I’d be satisfied with a church welfare system that actually worked in places besides North America.

Further, there is a blind spot in this argument where it fails to take into account the real cost and opportunity cost of hanging on too long to conservative or reactionary policies. The argument assumes that schism or apostasy or loss of membership only occurs when the church undertakes actions which Nate labels as liberal. But let’s consider 1978 for a moment.

1. During the 60s and early 70s many members did leave the church because they no longer wanted to associate with an overtly racist organization.

2. Our missionary work in many parts of the world (Brazil, the Caribbean, most of the African continent) was stunted. How many thousand more multi-generation LDS families would we have in those places now if our leadership had told the racists among North American Mormons to go to hell?

3. Our tendency to worry first about mollifying the most reactionary Wasatch front members has the effect of ratcheting the membership ever further in their direction.

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Ben

I do wonder, Nate, if correlation and a deeper sense of obedience to authority played a large role in the difference between 1890 and 1978. In my (albeit early) research on Mormon diversity in territorial Utah, I do think there was a very difference sense of relationship between the prophet and the average member than there was a century later.

Not saying that is the only, or perhaps even the primary, reason for the difference of reactions to the manifestos, but something to keep in mind.

In fact, in your smart point on how power is conceived, I think one could make a case for a definitional change between the 19th and 20th centuries: 19th century Mormons, much to Brigham’s chagrin (and a reason he was often so outspoken on it), saw power as the way you are describing. I’m not so sure that tradition continued.

 

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ON NATE’S USE OF THE TERM “LIBERAL”


Cynthia

I think you haven’t really been listening to intra-liberal conversations if you haven’t heard repeated, almost ad nauseum, the appeals to patience due to the constraints the brethren face in terms of their power wrt the membership and not wanting to cause fracture due to too-rapid change for the slowpokes. That is to say, I agree with your analysis of power, which makes it sort of irritating that you ascribe a bunch of straw man views of power to liberals with a broad brush. (Let me add that even I grow weary of intra-liberal conversations, so I wouldn’t expect a non-participant to follow them obsessively. Heaven knows there are about 10 million better things to do with one’s time. But knowledge of something should precede loud public critique of it–(ideally) even in blogging!)

“if you think that the struggle for a particular conception of political justice is the highest good”

I could have picked any number of examples, but this is a nice concisely-encapsulated one: where your otherwise wise and incisive analysis takes vacations to indulge in unfortunate and inaccurate liberal-bashing. Is wanting other people to be treated with love and dignity, rather than disowned and run off to suicide, a “political” issue, or a moral one? To those who would put this as the highest good, they will feel it is a moral one, and there are not a few scriptures supporting that conclusion (though I would stop short of calling *anything* an unassailable conclusion in terms of scriptural support). Your circular reasoning dismissal of liberals is thus: (1) Only someone with out-of-whack priorities would prioritize politics over morality and loyalty to the church. (2) I label your moral issues political issues. (3) Liberals continue to prioritize their political issues. (4) Ergo liberals have out-of-whack prioriites. While (1) is true enough, (4) only comes from an uncharitable blind spot in understanding others’ views.

While I understand the speed constraints and power constraints, I still think that in practice such analysis is too often and too heavily deployed in resisting change. For one, it completely ignores the casualties and opportunity costs on the other side, as Morris well articulated. It also becomes harder for me to hear status-quo defenders say that doing the (happens-to-be-progressive) righteous thing can’t happen if there might be the slightest negative side-effect, after I’ve witnessed such dramatic actions as mobilization of the church to support Prop 8, and the zealotry with which so many said, “So help me I will defend this position come what may, darn the torpedoes, if we run the whole church’s popularity into the ground and with it the church itself, alienate huge swaths of our own members, that will be worth it for we can never be moved from this cause of righteousness no matter what the cost!!” Where’s that kind of darn-the-torpedoes attitude when it comes to progressive change? Nowhere to be found. (That said, I actually find that darn-the-torpedoes attitude really immature and irresponsible regardless of which side displays it. My point isn’t to advocate such, but to say that there is a telling lack of balance in its application. )

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Brad

I think it’s strange to either assume or argue that the incidence of belief in unlimited prophetic power is higher among Mormon liberals than it is among Mormon conservatives. Liberals are probably more likely to see the specter of unlimited prophetic authority as problematic, but why on earth would you think they are more likely to believe in it?

And while I feel obligated to acknowledge the likelihood that Nate has his finger more firmly on the pulse of liberal Mormons than I do, I have to say that I do not know a single liberal Mormon who believes in anything remotely resembling unlimited prophetic power.

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Kristine

Yeah, Nate–I think the problem is really that both liberals and conservatives have distorted views of how much power the hierarchy has, and those distortions amplify rather than correct each other.

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Russell

“Many liberal Mormons believe that the Brethren act in relatively unconstrained ways and that this is deeply troubling because their power is unchecked and likely to be abused. The whole language of institutional suspicion is premised on the idea of tremendous hierarchical power.”

Nate, where do these “many liberal Mormons” live? Who are they? And, most crucially, how many of them are under 60 years of age? You’re scads better than the old school FARMS folks; don’t make the same mistake of continuing to fight against the dreaded plague that was the liberal Signaturati of 1991 years after their perspective has stopped being dominant.

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Aimee Hickman Evans (who is not a BCCer, but a friend, and whose comment on Nate’s fb thread deserves to be read)

Kristine Haglund: Nate, I don’t disagree with you at all; I only wonder why you think your “liberal” Mormon friends don’t already know this?

Nate Oman: Because most of them aren’t as smart as you and because many of them imagine virtually unlimited prophetic power.

This is what gets my goat, Nate. You really don’t believe that “liberal Mormons” have thought about these things, or if they have they don’t possess the requisite intelligence to think about them with maturity or historical perspective. It’s insulting. To assert that the Church could not have survived another several decades with Joseph Smith while failing to acknowledge the current hemorrhaging of members is one example of how a conservative reads what the “real” Church should look like. Another several decades with Joseph Smith may have continued in a more radical religious trajectory which may have failed but may also have merely weeded out less radical saints, resulting in a more radical institution. On the other hand, the leadership of the past 40 years, whose focus has been so prominently on obedience and a post WWII nuclear family model, has resulted in its own exodus. You can argue that you personally like this modern institution better, but you can’t say it’s the only model for the Church. Clearly Mormons of both liberal and conservative varieties know that the brethren are people who are as bound by us as we are by them—a reason why currently so many people are choosing to vote with their feet.

To be clear, I’m not as tortured a liberal Mormon as I’m sure it seems having the above opinions would lead you to believe. But I am a liberal Mormon, deeply engaged with my church community, doctrine and history. I’m tired of being pitted against the vast majority of the people I worship with by the kind of rhetoric used in your article and on this thread.

Comments

  1. Kristine, Cynthia, and Aimee have better stated what I would have tried to say, but I’d just like to add that is it strange to see a stereotypically “liberal mormon” argument being used to console/condescend to “liberal mormons” as if it was some utterly new thought brought to light by Nate. Every loyal “liberal mormon” has basically come to the conclusions that Nate has come to in his post. It’s a bit like being told by a well-meaning Baptist that Mormons should believe in the power of grace superseding what our works can accomplish. Thanks, but we’ve already worked that out.

    I also suppose that Nate could have gone the route of ldsphilosopher, who presents a much more stereotypically “conservative mormon” argument in his recent post at M*. In fact, I’d dare say that Nate’s post can be read as an excellent response to that post. Perhaps he meant “Conservative Expectations” as well as liberal. There are lessons to be had for all.

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Nate’s post and all of the great responses. I know that Nate make some important clarifications/distinctions in some of his responses to responses. Should those not be included as well to give a fuller picture of the discussion?

  3. Sonny,
    This post is part of a dare to see if we can get Nate to actually post a comment at BCC. Don’t jinx it.

  4. Sonny: an important question. We posted these because we didn’t want to post people’s comments without their permission. Nate is encouraged to copy-and-paste his responses here; or, if he just gives permission, I’ll copy-and-paste his responses.

  5. Quickmere Graham says:

    Should those not be included as well to give a fuller picture of the discussion?

    I reckon anyone, Nate included, can feel free to add virtually anything here in the comments, Sonny. Here’s my addition:

    Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Nate’s post is that he seems to think he is actually responding to something I believe. The problem is, I already understand the distribution of power within the church similarly to how he describes it, and in fact I think most “liberal” Mormons do as well. That is, they understand that the leaders operate under various constraints, including the views of the wider membership of the Church. Of course, that doesn’t mean that deep down they have a vast store of radical changes waiting to burst forth as soon as the membership is ready to receive it all, either, though. (Does Nate think otherwise?)

    I was surprised by this claim:

    “Second, the shift exacted virtually no ecclesiastical costs for the Church. There were no mass apostasies in 1978. There were no splinter groups that formed as a result.”

    Nate is speaking as though the white American body of the Church is the place to assess ecclesiastical cost. An argument can easily be made that there was tremendous ecclesiastical cost to the church by virtue of the fact that the ban ever existed in the first place, and that the ecclesiastical cost is still being exacted to this very day! Measuring ecclesiastical cost simply by the rubric of whether white members apostatized in the year 1978 is short-sighted.

    Nate, in essence, seems to be saying “hey, liberal Mormons who I’m not actually identifying, your problem is that you think Mormon prophets are actually powerful in their ability to affect change within the Church. Your problem is that you actually believe all that stuff the institutional church teaches about the blessings of having a prophet in these latter-days, about the importance of following the prophet, etc.” He’s essentially saying, pay less attention to what we actually teach.

    Also, comparing the change in ’78 to the change in ’10/14 so simplistically overlooks practically every confounding variable. Up to 30% or so of the church body at the time was practicing plural marriage. Virtually all members were either practicing it, anticipated practicing it, or directly knew people who practiced it. They had suffered some serious repercussions from the US government over the principle, they had defended it in their writings, in church meetings, in the public sphere, in national newspapers. It was an active, vibrant part of being Mormon. It was bound up in the Mormon cosmology.

    Meanwhile, we simply didn’t give blacks the priesthood. This required little or no action or participation on the part of most church members. Comparing this shift so simplistically is severely off balance to me. And we’re still dealing with internal disagreement about why blacks were denied the priesthood in the first place. The fact that internal meetings and minutes aren’t available to be analyzed on these points, as they more often are in the case of the manifesto, means that the data by which Nate is making his analysis is entirely lopsided. His claim that a late-coming revelation was more effective because it was easier for a white church who virtually never interacted with black members anyway to accept based on their changing views over time simply falls apart for me.

    The hubris is grating. Like this bit:

    “Liberal Mormons too often talk about power without thinking about it very carefully.”

    Thanks for letting me know what I’m thinking about carefully? Then there’s the problem of blanket claims, like that liberal Mormons think “true believing” Mormons are brainless automatons.

    On the other hand, I especially like this piece of advice:

    “The problem, however, is that we pick and choose in how we see the past.”

    More attention to the ways Nate is picking and choosing would improve your case, I think.

  6. Also, I want to make clear that the fact we are taking time to deal with Nate’s post demonstrates the respect we have for him and the thought-provoking nature of his post. I probably should have been more explicit in the post, but we are taking for granted that Nate made some very important points that deserve to be addressed, hence this compilation.

  7. I have been reading silently the post and comments and I have to admit that although I couldn’t agree with him, for a moment Nate had me fooled he had an objective view of the issue. But I guess this comment settles it for me: “Because most of them aren’t as smart as you and because many of them imagine virtually unlimited prophetic power.”

    I am starting to suspect more and more, he is nothing more but another grain of sand in a litter box of people who make caricatures out of those with different concerns and will try to silence them for his own comfort.

    Now with my cynicism heightened by his demeaning remark, his post simply states in a passive aggressive way what many other bigots in the Church would love liberals to do: to silence themselves. His post says: liberals please silence yourselves and let our white, racist, homophobic and misogynous society in Salt Lake and Utah counties continue to be so and continue to dictate how the Church should be in the rest of the world.

    One thing that I find peculiar and telling about the post is that people with his view always worry about a specific group within the church, but never seem to worry too much about the specific groups that are being greatly affected by the issues at hand. “Let’s not bring racial equality in the priesthood because that will tear the church apart! People will leave, and create splinter groups! Let people with racist views continue to be comfortable in their meetings and in their racism.” OK. So, what about people who are under the yoke of this racism? Do they count at all in these views of, let’s not disturb the conservatives and their views? The ultimate message is: let’s protect the most conservative members and lets keep their victims under their yokes for the sake of their comfort, lest they find out the Church expects them to act Christlike and truly love one another and we wake their rage and disappointment and leave the church creating a “disaster.”

    So, it is a disaster when conservatives leave the church, but it isn’t a disaster that basic Christian principles like “love one another” are trampled under their feet and actual people, actual children of God are victimized for the sake of their selfish comfort and pride? So, the leaders are “constrained” by the comfort of conservatives and their misguided and un-Christian/anti-Chrisitan traditions. Heaven forbid the leaders will teach us how to be more Christlike toward each other because conservatives may leave the church in flocks.

    Wow. Could we actually give conservatives the benefit of the doubt and think maybe they will listen to their Church authorities? I guess not. It is better for their traditions to continue to victimize, and sometimes brutalize the souls of innocent people and lag until some safe day when their oppressive and self-serving traditions become so anachronistic that they are completely out of touch with society and they are embarrassed to continue to behave the way their parents taught them to. That’s the ideal Church? That is how our leaders are “constrained”?

    I say, let liberals keep lifting up their voices LOUD AND CLEAR as to what they feel is unjust and un-Christian. And let those voices continue to be a precedent for when the Church actually comes full circle and abandons their bigoted, anachronistic, racist, homophobic, misogynous, as it historically has. Because I also fear without the voice of liberals, the Church would move even slower towards actual Christianity (to truly love one another).

    And let’s all be very alert and resist passive aggressive conservatives like Nate Oman trying to silence us for the sake of the comforts of a conservative society living in a bizarre bubble decades slow in the middle of the Rocky Mountain Range.

  8. #5 and #7: please watch your tone. You can make your comments without the negative tenor. In fact, I fear both of you are caricaturing Nate in the way that you are accusing Nate of doing with liberals.

    I really hesitated going forward with this post because it had the potential of piling on Nate, which I really don’t want to happen. I genuinely think he wrote a thoughtful and sympathetic post, and I am only ok with this thread if people speak on a sympathetic and civil level. I will hereafter be quite heavy in moderating comments that don’t respect that goal.

  9. Yes, Manuel, that is exactly what I am trying to do. [Insert super villain laugh here]

  10. See, I knew it! (note that I stated I am in a heightened state of cynicism triggered by your demeaning remark also quoted in the content of this OP)

  11. Hugs! ;)

  12. Quickmere Graham says:

    Nate, I hope you’ll respond to some of the less acerbic responses here. It would be a shame if you treated the more acerbic as representative at the cost of not engaging other views.

  13. I do still see the same message of letting the victims of the repression continue to suffer the repression for the sake of the safety and comfort of conservatives, so I see an extremely unequal concern for two different groups of members of the Church. I agree, both have to be considered, but I am afraid in your proposal, there is only concern about the feelings of classic conservatives while others are expected to sit it out quietly. And that is no joke.

  14. Manuel, that is one of the most amazingly inaccurate portrayals of someone I have read in my lifetime – and that’s not hyperbole.

    I think Nate makes some extremely important points that need to be discussed, but I also think that the overall tone of much of what he says gets in the way of those discussions being as productive as they could be. That’s a real shame, because there is some serious meat in his post that ought to be digested by members at all points along the spectrum.

  15. And if Nate’s description of the church and how it makes decisions is correct (and sadly I suspect there is some truth in this) then what does this say about revelation and the spirit of prophecy. If it to be bottled up, correlated, and contained by a corporate entity as well as the constraints Nate identifies then God may want to consider looking elsewhere to get out his radical message about the kingdom of God. Perhaps the words of the prophets are truly on the subway walls and not in boardrooms.

  16. #14 was directed at #7, not #13. I hadn’t read #13 when I wrote my comment.

  17. Ok, I’ve started moderating a few comments. Those whose comments have been removed are free to try and make their point without the same vitriol and tone.

  18. Nate’s post also fails to address the fact that there are in fact many areas where church leaders are not constrained by the concerns he suggests they have. Nevermind the giant elephant of church finances. What in his theory accounts for the building of a Super Mall? The church has real power to decide how to use their money (although we lack financial transparency for the most part) and in this case they chose to use it to build a mall among a myriad of alternatives. Nothing constrained them to do that. That was their choice. There are many areas over which they have power that is not constrained in the same ways as things like the recognition of women’s priesthood, temple marriages for gay couples, etc.

  19. Fucshiaplant says:

    Once upon a time, contributors to Mormon blogs would hold conversations where people of differing viewpoints engaged with each other directly instead of publishing rejoinders on their home blogs backed up by a spluttering, outraged amen chorus. If you have a response to Nate, how about responding to him directly, rather than rounding up a posse?

  20. #19 – Did you actually read the post over at the blog that cannot be named on BCC and see all the comments by BCC participants that engaged directly with Nate and others?

    Given the content of your comment, I assume not.

  21. Re: Ray

    “Manuel, that is one of the most amazingly inaccurate portrayals of someone I have read in my lifetime.”
    OK, got it. I do not think the summary of my concern about his post is inaccurate, I stated the remark and the tone which tone I was responding to, and in my defense, unlike Nate, I never said he wasn’t smart enough to understand me.

    I agree he raises good points, but I still think there a group of people is being neglected in his proposal while another one is being protected. I don’t disagree with him that there are constraints and consequences to the decision making process of LDS leaders. But I think the consequences he lists are focus and geared towards the benefit of a peculiar group (which is increasingly becoming a demographic minority in the Church imo). The Church is global, I live in Mexico and I don’t feel like catering to Utah conservatives by being complaisant of things I feel strongly about in my heart and in my spirit. I have been tried to be silenced too many times by white conservative Utah Mormons, and I do have a heightened sense of reaction to certain issues.

  22. Once upon a time, contributors to Mormon blogs would hold conversations where people of differing viewpoints engaged with each other directly instead of publishing rejoinders on their home blogs backed up by a spluttering, outraged amen chorus.

    Such a pristine Bloggernacle never existed, nor does such a corrupted one exist today.

    If you have a response to Nate, how about responding to him directly, rather than rounding up a posse?

    This post was constructed from the actual responses given to Nate in those other places. In some cases Nate wasn’t responding to the points, and since they were scattered we thought it would be a good idea to put them all in one place.

  23. Manuel, I didn’t address at all your commentary about the post. All I addressed was your commentary about Nate. There is a huge difference between those two things.

  24. In re-reading your last comment, Manuel, #23 might be unnecessary. If so, I apologize.

  25. Ray,

    No worries. I do not want to be disrespectful of Nate the person, but in my comments it is not uncommon for me to be disrespectful of people’s ideas. I am rather radical, so I am sorry if my comments are too sharp and they seem to describe a person, while I am trying to state how I view their ideas not their character. So, I understand your point.

  26. I think one issue that was only brought up as a brief aside in the T&S post, of liberal mormons who “strongly committed to a progressive version of history”, is worth discussing more. I don’t presume to know exactly what Nate meant by that, but there are a lot of dangers in assuming a teleological model of history, that somehow past events must have inevitably led to present-day beliefs or should necessarily dictate future actions. That is to say, the past was as open-ended when it occurred as the present is now (and likewise as constrained by the social and cultural forces of the day), so the narratives we construct of “progress” aren’t necessarily so. The same, by the way, applies to folks who see modern history more apocalyptically as an inevitable march toward decay and ruin. So, yeah, a little more responsible discourse about the proper role of history would be useful for everyone. Incidentally, that’s one reason I don’t like “progressive” as a way to describe my own beliefs. Everybody wants “progress” as they see it, they just define the word differently, and I guess “progressive” just seems presumptive, especially given how wrong-headed early 20th century progressives now seem in certain areas.

  27. Casey, and an argument could be made that the church has been regressive in many ways. Economics seems one area easy to make that argument

  28. “what does this say about revelation and the spirit of prophecy”

    Good question. While I don’t actually agree with the viewpoint that “conservatives in the church are wrong, and God is just dealing with them until they come around to the enlightened liberal position”, I think we can see what it says about revelation and prophecy as it’s directed at the church. I don’t think for a minute the prophet’s don’t know the ultimate mind and will of God concerning the church, but they may not have a perfect knowledge of how and when to implement that will.

    Back to what it says… it says similar to what the scriptures say. That as we act on knowledge we have received we receive more. That when we fail to act or live up to the knowledge we’ve received it’s taken away from us.

    Prophets testify what we need to know and do in order to come to the feet of God and commune directly with him (and thus act and increase in light and knowledge within our own sphere). If we are expecting our prophets to testify of all societal ills, or fix all problems, we are expecting a king. Mix in with the fact that the prophet points the true way to God, is the fact that the Apostles are also leading the church organization.

    Both liberals and conservatives seem to place too much hope in that organization “doing something” in order to solve problems that we perceive. I’d suggest this hope comes from the fact that we misidentify what kind of organization the church was created to be — one that provides for an organized path back to God.

  29. @27: I imagine that if we sat down over PG-13 beverages and discussed the state of the church we’d probably agree on a whole lot of issues. What I meant is that I object to the use of the term “progress” as having an absolute moral dimension that’s somehow dictated by the trajectory of history. For example, the recent history of gay people in the US has been one of increased acceptance and broadening rights over a retrenchment driven by fundamentalist Christian values. I happen to believe that’s a good thing, but it does not, therefore, necessarily follow that the church’s positions are incorrect or on the “wrong side of history” because of that history. You or I might like to see the church take different positions on some issues, and that’s fine, but I guess I just prefer to see humility in admitting that our beliefs don’t necessarily carry the mantle of absolute moral correctness any more than more orthodox beliefs do. I know I find it infuriating when some conservative members act as though their views, which to me seem obvious products of culture and socialization, represent God’s Eternal Will. In order to be consistent moral relativist I have to apply the same standards to my beliefs :)

  30. Kaphor,

    In your # 27 you said: “I don’t think for a minute the prophet’s don’t know the ultimate mind and will of God concerning the church, but they may not have a perfect knowledge of how and when to implement that will.”

    I can agree with the second part of that about not having a perfect knowledge, etc, but the first half seems to fly in the face of reason and history. There is huge difference between assuming we know something, and actually asking about it. The 1978 revelation on the priesthood and temple ban is certainly an example of that. Not only do we have Pres, Kimball tirelessly inquiring through prayer in the temple and at other times about the ban, but we also have evidence that some of the scholarship on the ban was being read and discussed at the highest levels of church administration. Even Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith had to admit after inquiries by “progressive” Eugene England and others that the scriptural precedents for the ban weren’t really there like he had always thought.

    I do think that Nate may have over simplified the attitude of most liberal/progressive members of the church, but it makes me wonder if he had someone or several someones in mind when he wrote his post. There are certainly some liberal critics that likely have a higher profile than the majority of self-described liberal Mormons in the Bloggernacle. I haven’t read all the comments over at that other place, so this may have already been discussed there, and I wouldn’t know it.

  31. Sorry, I was pointing back to Kaphor’s # 28, not 27.

  32. I am not going to even try to reply to everyone’s comments or ideas. To the extent that I do not, just assume that I was completely persuaded by your points or intimidated by your genius. In the case of Josh, you can safely assume that I am just ignoring you. That said, let me see if I can make a couple of comments that will clarify and further offend people.

    First, a lot of folks are bent out of shape about my use of the term “liberal Mormon.” These folks think that liberal Mormons either already agree with what I say, think that I am being unduly dismissive or abbrasive, or think that using the term creates unfortunate divisions and delegitimates the faithful efforts of good people who just want to love and be loved, etc. (ht Aimee). To start with, this is was a blog post, so I am pretty quick and sloppy in how I write and use terms. Feel free to simply insert “some” in front of every use of the term “liberal Mormon” and see if that helps. Some liberal Mormons agree with me. These people are clearly highly intelligent and extremely insightful. Some, I suspect do not. As for the abrasiveness of my tone, some of this is unintentional. I try to be blunt and clear, and this often times comes across as smug and condescending. (Also, I often AM smug and condescending. See, e.g., supra my comment to Josh.) Some of my abrasiveness is intentional, and should just be regarded as a bit of good clean rhetorical fun on my part. The only liberals who are allowed to complain about this are those that have never put up a snarky FB update or rolled their eyes when their conservative Uncle LaVern started quoting Glenn Beck. As for creating divisions in Zion, I am not sure that the use of the term “liberal Mormon” really does this. For example, if I wrote a post suggesting that the new website http://www.mormonsandgays.org represents a step forward in Church rhetoric about homosexuality, a step for which liberal Mormons can claim some credit by insisting on pointing out the damage caused by past rhetoric (FWIW, I think this is true), I suspect that most self-described liberal Mormons would applaud the post rather than worry about my use of the term “liberal Mormon.” We tend to dislike labels when they are used in criticism and like them when used in praise.

    Second, the purpose of the post was to explain why I think that the Church will tend to be at the tail end of social changes that it absorbs rather than at the leading edge of such changes. My point is that by combining the role of prophet and priest, we constrain the hierarchy’s influence. I don’t think that they are without influence. I don’t think that they are without blame. I don’t think that the way in which they are constrained explains the timing of every change. The priesthood ban probably could have been ended just fine before 1978. It would be great if we got a more explicit repudiation of past racist theology. We could have had it a long time ago without any real costs. Etc. It’s a complicated world, and I don’t think that it is explained in its entirety by a blog post, even one of my blog posts. I do think that those who long for a church that positions itself at the leading edge of progressive social movements are going to be perpetually disappointed with the Mormon Church, because historical experience seems to suggest that maintaining the unity and cohesion of church is deemed sufficiently spiritually important that radical and disruptive change is generally not going to be pursued. I don’t see this as nefarious or tragic, per se. I also don’t see it as an insular and reactionary elite perpetuating its own power for its power’s sake. Rather, I see it as a reflection of various doctrines that make the continued health and unity of the community a priority.

    Third, some people objected to my comparison of the abandonment of polygamy and the abandonment of the priesthood ban. They pointed out that these were very different situations and that the members of the church had reasons for being far more committed to polygamy than to the priesthood ban. My response is: Yes. Others have suggested that part of the reason that the 1978 change happened so smoothly is that correlation and the twentieth century emphasis on following the prophet has made Mormons more docile than they were of old. Perhaps. I tend to think that causation goes the other way. Contemporary Mormons are comfortable saying “I will always follow the prophet!” because in actual fact the prophet doesn’t ask them to do anything as radical as entering plural marriage or abandoning it. They also don’t expect the prophet to do so. This may be very regrettable; it may not be. I tend to live in a cost-benefit world, so I see ups and downs on both sides. I also like continuous, incremental, organic change, over revolution and Progress with a capital P. Your milage may vary.

    Fourth, there are a couple of things that I am not saying. I am not saying the inertia of the church or the constraints on the Brethren’s power are costless or always benign. I am not saying that the median faithful member really means the median faithful member along the Wasatch Front who votes Republican. I actually think that the hierarchy tends to be rather more liberal than the median Utah Mormon on a lot of issues in part because the median member of the Church is more liberal than the median Utah member. I would add two caveats here. First, I think that the hierarchy probably IS more constrained by the median opinions of North American Mormons for financial reasons. The Church, as a financial matter, exists to transfer money from relatively wealthy Mormons in the United States and Canada to less wealthy Mormons elsewhere in the world in the form of church programs. From what I understand, it would be hard pressed to operate as it does abroad without the financial support of Mormons in North America. Second, while I think that the median opinion on Mormons outside of North America acts as a contraint on the hierarchy as well, I think that progressives ought to be pretty hard headed about how this works. I think that some like to imagine international Mormons as a rising tide of Latter-day Saints who love social democracy and have progressive opinions on matters of gender and sexuality. I suspect, however, that outside of Western Europe and New Zealand and Australia, the average Mormon is likely to be to the left of the median American Mormon on matters of economics, but actually to the right of the median American Mormon matters of sexuality and gender.

    Finally, I was not offering any particular advice to liberal Mormons on what they should do to advance their institutional aspirations. I was not trying to demonize them. (I admit that I enjoy occasionally needling them.) I am certainly not trying to silence or marginalize them. To the extent that I have tactical advice it would be to try to persuade the median Mormon to believe more as you believe by showing how your aspirations are consistent with and flow from core Mormon commitments. I wouldn’t spend a lot of effort demonizing the hierarchy, which is probably a waste of time and resources. As near as I can tell, this is what the smarter liberal Mormons of my acquaintance think they ought to do. To the extent that I was offering advice in the post it as not about how to manage institutional politics or aspirations for change. Rather, it was about how to manage one’s own emotional and spiritual life. I think that remaining a happy and committed Mormon while hoping for liberal change requires that one find reasons for loving Mormonism that are unrelated to the hope that it will emerge at the cutting edge of what you regard as social progress. It is very unlikely that this is going to happen. Accept this fact and move on. I think that there are two good ways of dealing with the ideological sadness this may cause. First, shift your expectations to be a bit more realistic. (Most smart liberal Mormons do this.) Second, you might want to re-examine the various emotional and moral hierarchies that place the heroes on the cutting edge of progress and history on the highest pedestals of your spirit.

  33. I do think that those who long for a church that positions itself at the leading edge of progressive social movements are going to be perpetually disappointed with the Mormon Church, because historical experience seems to suggest that maintaining the unity and cohesion of church is deemed sufficiently spiritually important that radical and disruptive change is generally not going to be pursued.”

    I appreciate the response, it’s much better than the original post, and in some ways overturns it. But I’m still not convinced that the twelve are secretly holding back a bunch of “progressive” ideas and actions on the grounds that they don’t want to alienate entrenched Mormons.

    Also, much of your new comment won’t come as a surprise to many of the less conservative Mormons I know.

  34. Nate, how would your theory account for let’s say the church’s position or lack of position on an issue like torture? A lack of position which perhaps which encourages individuals like Bybee, Mitchell, and Jessen to help create a torture regime? Was this in order to maintain unity among members? Are members closet lovers and supporters of torture that wouldn’t be able to handle the church joining the NRCAT or making their own statement? We do worship a deity tortured for crimes against the state.

    I understand the glacial pace of change on a number of social issues but there are many issues outside the purview of gay marriage etc. that the church could take a stand on and chooses not to. Issues that would do nothing to harm the unity of the church and would probably do much to help its image globally. And again there is still the $ issue. They control the purse strings. Nothing in your post or subsequent comment really addresses decisions to having hunting preserves, build shopping malls, etc.

  35. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Nate. This is a helpful exchange.

  36. Blair: I think that this comment largely restates my original post rather than over turning it. As for what the Brethren are doing or not, I don’t imagine them as secretly longing to implement every change that Joanna Brooks would like to see. My point is that even if Joanna Brooks were prophet, she wouldn’t be able to do everything that she would like. I suspect that mainly the Quorum of the Twelve want to do the Lord’s will and in the mean time not screw things up too terribly. Their instincts are going to be “conservative” but they are mainly interested in the health of the Church and the progress of its work. That, at least, has been the attitude of all of the priesthood leaders I have worked closely with.

  37. Ah, so this is about Joanna Brooks after all.

  38. Contrary to the beliefs of many the brethren do not have frequent easy access to clear revelation like Joseph did or to anything close! President Kimball spent months on his knees seeking an answer to the ban on blacks. How can anyone expect a group of politically conservative old institution managers called for life to spend months on their knees praying for a liberal agenda? They are simply not motivated to work for it as it opposes their view. They give a little here and give a little there perhaps aided by inspiration so they don’t look like complete social dinosaurs.

  39. And I really do think that your follow-up comment (which acknowledges that the original post was a blog post containing a bit of slippery argumentation) overturns some of what you originally argued. The thing that bothers me most, though, is the way you calculate positive and negative effects on the church based on the extent to which changes would bother a certain segment of the church at a certain point in time (largely white, North American Mormonism see Quickmere’s #5). The thing that bothers me second most is that your analysis doesn’t account at all for the institutional teachings regarding the role of prophets over time, which consists of a pretty different view of the way prophesy works in the church.

  40. prophecy, dangit

  41. Nate Oman says:

    No it’s not actually about Joanna, who seems like a pretty sensible example of her particular ideological breed to me. As for privilege other than the financial caveats I made at the begin inning, your perception here may be an artifact of the hypothetical I posed regarding blacks the priesthood and a change in the 1940s. I actually don’t really know if it would have been destructive at that point to the church as an organization and community. Given the demographic of the church at that point in history it would necessarily privilege white Amaericans. I think this is less the case now. It does privilege the median member because that is how you privilege the unity and survival of the institution and community. Let me suggest that the disease might come from a belief that the institution and community are always made better off by moving to a better or more just outcome and that any costs involved in doing so are worth it or else not really costs (e.g. Who cares if we lose some bigots?!). I am not convinced this is always the case. Again, I tend toward a cost benefit universe rather than one with clear lexical values. The result is that I am inclined to say that sometimes change is good and sometimes it isn’t, even when the change is in a progressive direction.

    My way of talking is certainly different than one often sees in the church. I think that my view is more accurate of what happens. I think it makes sense to think about why this is so and see if there is any reconciliation to be had.

  42. “Perhaps the words of the prophets are truly on the subway walls and not in boardrooms.”

    Don’t forget about tenement halls. Rumor has it that they’re there too.

  43. Nate Oman says:

    I pass this along in the spirit of open and respectful dialogue:

    http://m.quickmeme.com/meme/3s36i1/

  44. yes of course jimbob.

  45. In the same spirit? Channeling David Brooks…

    http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3s3dl5/

  46. Was this one yours as well Nate

    “To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.”

  47. How are we defining “influence” or “power?” Because in my admittedly limited experience (5 wards in my entire lifetime), the attitude of “when the prophet speaks, debate is over” runs deep and strong. Amongst rank & file, salt of the earth Mormons, the prophet carries massive influence. Here in CA, the social pressure to support Prop 8 was intense.

    Regarding the fear of suffering a loss of tithes – Following the City Creek issue and a few others, I’m already considering paying my tithes via alternate charitable channels. I just don’t have the confidence that the money I give is being used in entirely Christlike ways. I’m not so naive as to not understand that the church can invest and prosper by that method, but I would expect those investment projects to be more modest and Zion-oriented (in the classic definitions of both those words).

    ” The Church, as a financial matter, exists to transfer money from relatively wealthy Mormons in the United States and Canada to less wealthy Mormons elsewhere in the world in the form of church programs.” And if this is what the majority of my tithes are being used for, I’m all in. But is this really what my tithes are going to? Am I really cleaning my church building (which, by the way, REALLY needs some repair work and has needed for years) to save on maintenance costs so those monies can go to nobler causes? I just don’t know. Conservative wealthy Mormons probably outnumber “liberal” wealthy (well, relatively wealthy) Mormons like me. So if the entire thing boils down to “We’re going to stay ‘conservative’ so we can keep receiving tithes from our wealthy ‘conservative’ members,” then… that’s disappointing in a way I find difficult to articulate. Maybe I’m fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of God.

  48. My sense is that Prop 8 was extremely costly for the Church and the attitudes you identify among rank and file members probably wouldn’t survive regular repeats if this kind of thing. The Church has been relatively absent from subsequent gay marriage fights. The reasons for this are complex, I am sure, but I think the Prop 8 experience largely supports my thesis.

    As for the nature of God think of it this way: Mormon theology is finitist. We believe that God’s providence operates within constraints but that his power and grace is sufficient to bring about his purposes. Among those constraints are the limits inherent within the power structure of the Church. God’s providence will be sufficient here as well to accomplish his purposes. Inherent in this argument is the assumption that the “rich conservative American Mormons” you deride are not such abject moral lepers as to frustrate God’s work. I am willing to extend to them that charity.

  49. I believe God generally speaks to his children “in their own language” and “according to their own understanding” – and I believe that is relevant to this conversation.

    I also believe we are gods and children of the most high God and that the kingdom of God is within us – and I believe that is relevant to this conversation.

    I think we ascribe inaction to God too often when the inaction is ours – and I believe that’s true of lay members and leaders at all levels.

  50. Many have already pointed out that the description of liberal Mormon naivete Nate gave wasn’t very charitable or accurate, but I know people who’d probably fit the description well. The problem is they would more accurately be described as inactive or former Mormons that held to a rather fundamentalist view of prophets while they were active, and once they discovered those expectations didn’t match reality very well, they left. They left, but still retained those fundamentalist expectations. And these would be people very unlikely to be reading Mormon blogs or really engaging with the church in any significant way.

    (In all fairness to them, I think the church very much sells this fundamentalist message pretty frequently.)

  51. The whole liberal / conservative thing within Mormonism must go. It is a great big festering neon distraction. On an individual level, it mostly serves to keep us in agreement with ourselves, and hence in a place where we cannot learn. On a collective level, it makes for tensions and even little enmities that hinder and often preclude movement towards becoming a Zion society. As a liberal Mormon, I must assume that the conservative is in possession of bits that I must learn, since they are more likely the things that I lack. Of course, as in a marriage, one would hope for some reciprocity; and truly, conservative Mormons desperately need to be able to learn from liberal Mormons. This is a path towards wholeness and completion, towards becoming like Jesus in a broad and soulful sense; whereas now we are stuck in our categorizations and projecting on to deity our own faces. The best we generally do is to try to show that we are willing to make an attempt, but behind this conceit lies the wretched face of our self-interests and paranoias. I’m sick to death of it – and recognize I need to do better in listening and synthesizing, and allowing true if limited perspectives to work on me.

  52. I’ve been thinking about this and I want to emphasize that I mean something more than “not arguing” or ‘not contending’ or coming to positions of consensus for their own sake. To really shorten the lines my thinking has been taking me, when I should be thinking about Foucault and Aztecs, I think that an as individual project we need to suspend ourselves and engage with other people and their ideas as holding those elements and potential actions that we are potentially (probably) in need of ourselves. I was thinking about how in the BoM we read that sometimes little children have words given to them – so that we should listen to little children in order to learn, not merely to find opportunities to teach. The same goes for the insane, and for liberals and conservatives. I feel that in so far as we are able to do better at this, we will individually expand, and come to bring much more (fruit) to the collective table. None of this is complicated, at least as a general idea, but it shore ain’t easy.

  53. I agree, Thomas.

    I have found the most profound insights often come from people from whom I naturally would not expect to be able to learn anything – and they have come almost always when I am in the right frame of mind to listen carefully to what someone is trying to say and not get so caught up in crafting a response that I forget to listen to everything they say prior to reaching a conclusion about what I assume they are going to say.

    For example, I have had too many experiences of not liking what someone has said in General Conference and then realizing they really didn’t say what I had heard when I read the talk afterward. In nearly all cases, the disconnect was my focusing so intently on one statement that I failed to hear the surrounding statements or consider context enough to realize that I had misconstrued the original statement and turned it into something other than what had been intended. That same experience has occurred in conversations with fellow members, with talks they give in Sacrament Meeting, with co-workers, with my wife and children, while reading blog posts and comments, etc – and it generally is because I was thinking of a response before they were done talking or before I was done reading.

    If it happens with people from whom I want to learn, I know it happens even more frequently with people from whom I am not as inclined naturally to want to learn.

  54. Kevin #30 what would you say is the ultimate will of God? I assume the prophets know it because its firmly distilled in my soul. I’m not sure the most perfect course in application for us all to arrive at that point though… I think its best to step back and look at the big picture rather than focus on the weeds of policy first.

  55. The word “liberal” is used 7 times the NT, always very positively. People who object to that word either do not believe in the Bible or else they have created a new definition for that word. Perhaps someone would like to comment on that.

  56. Except Nate does see a lot of preaching by liberals that fits exactly what he says.

    “but we are all really better than that” is what the counter argument simplifies to.

    Ok.

  57. Ray, that was well said.

  58. Stephen, he says he does see a lot of it, but given that so many liberals are at a loss to know where, he should really point to at least one example. Something that should be easy if it’s as pervasive (near universal!) as his OP suggests, but something that he has yet to do.

  59. I have a hard time believing that Nate O’s blog post is really worth all the comments it has generated. His historical speculations are self serving and he has no problem telling us “liberal” mormons what we think and what we want. Why is it that “moderate” and “conservative” mormons feel it’s so important to tell us “liberals” what we think, and why we are wrong? There must be some wide spread fear that liberal intellectuals, feminists, (and gasp, gays!) are going to stage a leftist insurrection to take down the coveted phallocentric institutional narratives and orthodoxies while burning bras and missionary call letters! Nate’s post is not thoughtful at all, it’s speculative historical commentary and political posturing, nothing more.

  60. Douglas, to be fair, whenever conservatives refer to “liber intellectuals” it’s always “so-called intellectuals” to separate the fact that they think they are intellectual from whether or not they follow intellectual principles…

  61. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thomas, I hate to pick on your comment because I generally agree with the things you have posted in this thread, but doesn’t your #53 illustrate some of the disconnect? You say that you “must assume” that the other side has things that you might learn, but those on the other side “truly… desperately need” to learn from yours…

  62. douglashunter says:

    #62 – No doubt this is same reason that church leaders use the phrase “so called” when talking about gays and lesbians. :-)

    Another thought on history. We can see writing like Nate’s as being an example of a type of diversion away from the substance of the temple and priesthood ban. It attempts to move our attention away from being critically engaged with the substance of the discourse of church leaders during the time of the ban; towards a general discussion that need not get into the actual details of the issue, and that starts from the a priori that certain understanding of institutional continuity is really the most important thing.

    I loved Nate’s last paragraph concerning Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony using terms such as “moral heroism” “vanguard of history” “brave souls” etc. Look at his assertion that “often the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred.” thank goodness that Nate is here to keep us honest! I mean, I thought that working for God’s justice on Earth was what we are called to do as followers of Christ. Now I realize that my peace making, and desire for justice its really just another form of hate.

    Nate is right, we are selective about how we view the past (it’s impossible to be otherwise). As a Mormon though, what I see as meaningful in that selectivity is not so much the remembering of Dr. King as a cultural icon (we have many such icons after all), but rather the willful forgetting of the substance of the Mormon opposition to civil rights. Go back and look at the talks and writings by leaders such as J. Rubin Clark, Dilbert Stapley, Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie. Its not hard to make the arguments that 1- there is a significant thread of white supremacy within their discussion of race. and 2- there is also willingness to be completely passive, there is no question that their views are God’s views. This is very strange, if things were just the way God wanted them. Why would there be a need to make white supremacist arguments? A good example of both of these is found in the well known Stapley letter. It states “I fully agree that the Negro is entitled to considerations, . . . but not full social benefits nor inter-marriage privileges with the Whites, nor should whites be forced to accept them into restricted white areas. In my judgement, the present proposed Bill of Rights is vicious legislation.” one sentences later he writes that “The position of the Church cannot change until the Lord changes it Himself.” Now that is only one example, but it gives us a lot of material to examine. There are many others, and the degrees of nuance from author to author and statement to statement are well worth noting and exploring. Anyway, as a historical, intellectual, theological issue this is a starting place of greater substance when talking about the temple and priesthood ban, as well as how change occurs in the church, since Stapley was writing against change in the church and society. I am deeply skeptical of general discussions of “how change occurs in the church.” being so general they have little meaning, and are usually deployed to a different end. As was Nate’s blog post which sought to use the “how change works” theme to knock down his liberal Mormon straw-man.

  63. Mark Brown says:

    “Dilbert” Stapley has got to be the most awesome misspelling in the history of BCC.

    Carry on.

  64. douglashunter says:

    Glad that I could provide some humor! What else are us stupid liberals good for?

  65. someone (from #49) says:

    Nate in #50: “As for the nature of God think of it this way: Mormon theology is finitist. We believe that God’s providence operates within constraints but that his power and grace is sufficient to bring about his purposes. Among those constraints are the limits inherent within the power structure of the Church. God’s providence will be sufficient here as well to accomplish his purposes. Inherent in this argument is the assumption that the “rich conservative American Mormons” you deride are not such abject moral lepers as to frustrate God’s work. I am willing to extend to them that charity.”

    Nate, I think you were reading an attitude into my comment that just wasn’t there. Please re-examine my comment and tell me where any derision occurs. I assure you my intended tone was one of mild sadness and honest dialogue. I’m not anyone you know, I’m just an occasional commenter here that didn’t want my real name attached to a claim of being (relatively, certainly no one-percenter) wealthy. And since I attend church with, serve and am served by many conservatives who I love dearly (and a few who I struggle with), I hardly consider conservatives “moral lepers.” I have actually been married to a conservative for 17 years, and he/she (anonymity, you see) is the epitome of all that I admire about conservatism. Amazingly, a “liberal” like me can see merit in well-considered, humbly argued conservative positions. I simply believe their scriptural justifications for some of their positions are tenuous.

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