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.
ON THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH AND THE CHURCH’S MEMBERS
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.
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.
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.
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.
ON NATE’S USE OF HISTORY
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.
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.
ON NATE’S USE OF THE TERM “LIBERAL”
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. )
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.
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.
“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.
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.