I come today to bury Mormon intellectualism, not to praise it. There has been a bit of hand wringing regarding the place, purpose, and value of intellectuals in the church of late, mostly by a bunch of intellectuals. Our Mormon (usually, but not always, progressive) intelligentsia don’t necessarily require validation, but they do request acknowledgement of how hard it is to be them. To sit on their hands in Sunday School, to feign interest during another insipid Sacrament talk, to post that Obama/Biden 2012 poster in their Utah County neighborhood requires more courage, more moral and social discipline, than we mere humdrum thinkers can comprehend. If only their contribution to the church were truly accepted, then they would receive the respect they are due and be treated with the dignity they deserve. I could not disagree more.
That isn’t to say that I don’t respect intellectualism (even within the church), because I do find it respectable. At least, I find it as respectable as any other sales position. Academics and intellectuals make their living by convincing other people that they should pay to listen to their thoughts and ideas. These are not hobbyists; these are professionals. And people, plying their profession, should be treated with respect when they are competent. When they are incompetent, they shouldn’t be patronized at all.
The primary problem of intellectuals in the church is that their competencies are irrelevant to the means of government and behavior in the church. Or rather, they are often perceived as irrelevant. So, in spite of the respect we may give to them in secular contexts, respect earned via years of toiling in grad school, they are just like the rest of us in church. If anyone interrupts the teacher in Sunday School to explain that x, y, or z is wrong, they are equally tiresome whether they hold an advanced degree or not.
Intellectuals will sometimes say that they are in thrall to the life of the mind. They are, in the words of my high school calculus teacher, “thinky people” and, as such, they cannot let falsehood, grammatical error, missed notes, or incorrect history pass by unacknowledged. Our social reality is that we all are sufficiently undereducated, underdisciplined, and overconfident that mistakes come fast and furious in all our conversation. Most people know to let it go; to insert the proper information for the mistaken internally (like a corrective Mad Libs) or to simply pretend for the moment that the face value of that story is correct so that we can get through the moment with minimal conflict. The intellectual obsession with getting things right is ever jarring. However, the quality that makes it unpleasant is the reason that it is valuable.
Take, for instance, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. At one point, Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire and took down the show (perhaps literally; it was cancelled soon thereafter). His primary argument was that “He Said, She Said” shows like Crossfire do not serve the public good, because they don’t clarify or explain the political stakes. Instead, they rigorously provide two sides to every position and let those two sides engage in rhetorical bloodsport, never considering whether one or both positions should even be broadcast. However, Tucker Carlson (the one with the bowtie) calls into question Stewart’s authority to condemn CNN (or Crossfire). Pointing out that Stewart fails to grill the politicians whom he interviews, Carlson implies that Stewart is a hypocrite for arguing that the media is insufficiently informative. Stewarts reply is instructive. The particular reply is at the 1:25 mark in the following youtube video.*
Stewart notes that, no matter what political influence he may have, he is in a basic cable comedy context. No one should be taking him seriously. However, influential, bright, funny, coarse, or caustic he is, he should be allowed it because of the context. Just last week, Mark Halperin was forced to apologize on MSNBC for calling President Obama a bad word on a morning news show. Stewart does that (or the moral equivalent) in practically every show. If the mainstream/cable news press are frustrated with the freedom Stewart enjoys, it is only indicative of their failure to understand his position and their own. Stewart enjoys freedom of expression and influence precisely because he isn’t required to maintain some notion of journalistic integrity. His opinions, properly understood, are irrelevant. That is what gives them power. As he says in reference to Al Sharpton in the interview, people who know that they can’t win are able to speak more freely.
How does this apply to Mormon intellectuals? Instead of requesting dignity, intellectuals should, like Stewart, request a jester’s cap. The irrelevancy of the Mormon intellectual allows it to articulate truths that could otherwise not be uttered. Like the King’s fool, Mormon intellectuals can often comment on the ways of the powerful, speaking up for the voiceless, so long as they wear the court’s colors (or, in Maussian parlance, go to the welfare assignments). Accepting that the intellectual position is relatively valueless in Mormonism means no longer dealing with an expectation of dignified treatment or of an acknowledgement of your good ideas. They may come, but they should never be expected. We are all fools before God.
Whereas the secular context of the wider world might embrace the intellect, the sectarian context of the church prefers loyalty and priesthood authority. Intellectuals can demonstrate these traits, and many have, but their talents often lead them to question their use. So question on, as a fool would question whether the sky is truly blue.
Does this realization guarantee safety from persecution? Of course not. Even the most famous fools had to walk a fine line, risking a beating or worse if they told the wrong truths. But that is your calling. When the majority in the church call yes, it is necessary that someone else say “Really?” Just don’t expect to get aught but pie in your face as a reward.
*Here is a link to the full clip, if you are interested.