Jon Stewart and the Role of Intellectuals in Mormonism

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.


  1. .

    Yes! Anyone odd can get along with the masses as long as they do things like help at moves and show up to priesthood meeting.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Over the past week I’ve been thinking about this.

    It isn’t just thinky people who overvalue their potential contributions to the kingdom. Pretty much everybody does. We’ve all sat through a musical number from somebody whose musical talents were undeveloped. Some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had thought very highly of themselves as teachers. Once when I was called as a clerk I had to sit through hours of orientation from the previous clerk who thought of himself as the world champion clerk, or something. Only after I was able to get him to quit talking and get out of the office was I able to start on the total mess he had made of the records.

    Sooner or later we will all come face to face with the realization that God is not as impressed with us and our monkeyshines as we are, and that he has already told us a hundred times what he wants from us. It’s frustrating, but bracing. The thing that makes intellectuals a bit more annoying than anybody else at that stage is that they have such good verbal skills, and it’s hard for them to quit talking.

  3. I like it! A very intriguing and even profound statement: “The primary problem of intellectuals in the church is that their competencies are irrelevant to the means of government and behavior in the church.”

    Mark Brown (no. 2) — I don’t quite make the connection you did from intellectuals (who comment on the actions of others) to those who are humbly making an offering in magnifying their own callings. I hope we never get to the point that only EXCELLENT musicians (as judged by whom?) can present musical numbers or only EXCELLENT teachers (as judged by whom?) can teach classes. True, God probably is not as impressed with us as we might be, but I have always thought that he appreciates honest even-if-imperfect effort. So I’m hesitant to make the connection you did between (a) those who offer intellectual comments on the the offerings of others; and (b) those who are making imperfect offerings of their own.

  4. Man, I’m such an intellectual, I’m going to insist we talk about this post in Sunday School.

  5. Cynthia L. says:

    Hm. I personally have never felt like the church should respect me more because I have a degree or whatever. And I’m just as happy, if not more, serving in Nursey than some calling that purports to require intellectualness (by the way, iPhone autocorrect just tried to change that to ‘ineffectualness.’ Awesome.).

    However I would prefer that “intellectual” be retired as a standard go-to Sunday School answer for “teh bad people” amongst members of the church. That would be nice.

  6. I think one of the reasons this argument fits our culture — and it does, quite well, nicely articulated, John — is that it doesn’t matter if the church’s policies work or not. Members for the most part don’t care; we are here to serve and belong, not to achieve goals. Some of the leaders care about achieving goals, but always less than service/belonging. So the cutting edge of persistent rational pestering ends up being less valuable than in most other domains, I think.

  7. “…..they cannot let falsehood, grammatical error, missed notes, or incorrect history pass by unacknowledged.”

    The LDS Church cherishes truth and to not challenge a falsehood or incorrect history does a disservice to all members and God. We are here with all our monkeyshines to embrace the truth of all things.

  8. observer (fka eric s) says:

    BCC is the Jon Stewart Show of the bloggernacle: pure intellectualism that cannot be taken too seriously or valued too much. Thank the Good Lard for BCC (pronounced in thick Logan accent)!

  9. observer (fka eric s) says:

    (5) Cynthia – That’s funny. It seems like all intellectuals serve in the Nursery for some reason.

  10. Mark Brown says:


    Hmmm. I think the gifts of an intellectual amount to a lot more than making comments about the efforts of others, and I’m not convinced that intellectual people offer unwelcome comments any more than anybody else. I’m also not convinced that they are any less humble than anybody else. Some of them are insufferable, no doubt, but insufferability is fairly well distributed across the spectrum. The best we can do is bear with each other.

  11. What I don’t get is what “intellectual” is such a naughty word in Mormon lingo. It’s one of the cherished boogeymen in the closets, as Cynthia notes. I’ve heard people express no small amount of disdain for intellectuals, but the definition of “intellectual” is usually somewhere right around “someone who questions the official” story/answer/manual/whatever. H3ll, I’ve been told to stop “intellectualizing the gospel” for merely raising a question about the Hebrew or Greek origin of a word in the Bible during a Sunday School lesson. It’s as if some members – though I’m uncertain of the percentage – just aren’t comfortable with people in church who aren’t quite as “normal” as they are.

    And yet, I’d welcome more vigorous discussion in Church. More room for questioning. More room for outside viewpoints. Stop making “intellectuals” the boogeymen/women they aren’t and start focusing on the two great commandments would probably be the best solution.

    There’s more than enough insufferability to pass around, so let’s all grab a chair and join the same dinner table.

  12. Nobody and Cynthia,
    I think that my point (if I have one) is that being considered normal simply isn’t going to happen. So we should give up on that goal and let our freak flags fly. Just don’t expect it to amount to anything, because then it might.

  13. “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).”

    It’s got nothing to do with welfare assignments. The lingua franca of the jester’s cap is being funny. if you’re funny, you can get away with a lot of questioning and commenting that otherwise would raise a lot of ire (or at least eyebrows).

    Stewart knows this, and he uses his comedy central platform like a duck blind. But if he weren’t funny, he would have no audience and no one would care what he said about anything.

  14. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    He that hath an ear, let him hear?

  15. Cassandra says:

    So long as we’re all up on the attitude adjusting, could we chill on the political angle as well? I know your many Sabbaths have been blighted by some right wing nut, but that doesn’t mean that credentialled intellectual = enlightened liberal, while any conservative = comic imbecile. Your post was careful to avoid making that mistake, and thank you, but the online NerdMo haunts get pretty insufferable.

  16. Ron Madson says:

    I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this post for some reason. Perhaps it is because I am not sure how you define someone as an “intellectual in the church”? Is it having academic degrees? Is it using big words? Is it straying from the correlated lessons? Is it simply being vain and proud and offering irrelevancies to show off? Not sure what you mean?

    Being as introspective as I can, there is no doubt that I suffer from varying degrees of vanity and pride–whether merited or not. But, I would suggest there are times—many times in our church lessons and interactions with our faith community that our offerings of our analytical skills are not only valuable but critical for the health of the community. One example. Once a GD teacher said “the blacks finally progressed to the point that they could receive the priesthood.” And to add insult to injury he spoke of their lack of valiancy in the pre-existence. I could see the angst of a black sister and her husband sitting in the back of the room. I decided to use my litigation skill/questions to challenge/deconstruct the teachers statements. He was embarrassed to a degree, the lesson derailed (actually his comments were off track to begin with) and I have absolutely no regret in doing so. THe sister visited with me after class and then in her home. She had never heard what I had to share as to church history/doctrine in all her years in church-it brought her to tears of joy-so I suppose we can keep quiet and just get along. But some things deserve a push back/deconstructing. Some call any deviation from the correlated lessons as intellectualizing the gospel. As if ignorizing the environment is preferable.

    While I agree we should be civil and avoid just showing off because we can and/or just being a contrarian, I do think that unhealthy myths and teachings need to be challenged with reason and intelligence. We owe it to our faith community. I would hope no one would selfishly withhold their valuable knowledge/insights.

  17. Mark Brown says:

    The difference being, of course, that Sabbath meetings are not optional in the way that online NerdMo haunts are, and there are plenty of them anyway which welcome conservatives, even the comic imbecile variety.

  18. Interesting post and discussion.

    It seems there is often an unspoken tension between “intellectuals” and “the brethren.” On the fringes and extremes of the spectrum, the two seem to be irritated by the presence of each other. How many General Conference talks speak about the dangers of overzealous intellectuals and how it can potentially undermine faith if one spends too much time chasing down the wrong rabbit hole.

    You essentially have two competing methods of arriving at truth: the Socratic method (Intellectuals) vs. Revelation (Priesthood authority / the brethren). And while the two methods can be both complementary and divisive when mixed, the two will never be equal. For once the prophet has spoken all debate on the matter is settled. Intellectuals, therefore, will always be trumped by revelation (no matter how poisonous it may be). And so at the extremes, and at the margins, the two sides will always be somewhat suspicious of the motives of the other.

    I think most of the active rank in file find it much safer to follow the orthodoxy, serve with commitment and loyalty, and stick to the proscribed path without worrying about the rabbit holes that are not consequential to the quest at hand. The problem with intellectuals is also their strength: they like to ask questions because their quest is to understand and examine the rabbit holes regardless of where they lead.

  19. Aren’t there three paths commonly used to learn gospel truth? Line upon line, intellectual and the Spirit. Each approaches truth in different way but I think it becomes a problem for others when intellectualism becomes intellectualization.

  20. Bona Fides says:

    I wish to establish my bona fides as an intellectual by not allowing Anon’s grammatical errors to pass unnoticed (we won’t worry tonight about sentence fragments or the correctness of assertions):

    The term is “rank and file.” Picture an army unit in formation; the ranks are the rows across from left to right, while the files are the lines from back to front.

    “Proscribed” means “forbidden”; the word you want is “prescribed.”

    I do compliment you, however, on your correct choice of “complementary.”

  21. I don’t have to worry too much about being an intellectual at Church – I teach Primary to 6 year olds. I just need to make sure I have treats and chalk for hangman.

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think we get at the right idea when we recall that we all have one central purpose, under covenant. That is, to become like Christ. Not two purposes, depending on gender. Not six, depending on personal inclinations or innate talents. (Martha, Martha, thou are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is neccesary.) Everything that the ‘intellectual’ has as a tool is something that all should desire as a tool. What the intellectual lacks, he should similarly desire. Because Christ, the being we are meant to become, is the being with all tools, and knowledge, of facts, as well as other kinds of knowledge. Is fully furnished, the completed work. To lack is to be in a sinful state: and sin is related to keeping ourselves or others from becoming more full, less lacking.

    I’ve always loved this bit of Nietzche’s Zarathustra, and recall it when we start thinking about our big brains:

    I have seen … diverse things so hideous … : namely, men who lack everything except they have too much of one thing — men who are nothing more than a big eye, or a big mouth, or a big belly, or something else big,– reversed cripples I call such men.

    … I could not trust my eyes, but looked again and again and said, “That is an ear! An ear as big as a man!” I looked still more attentively — and actually there did move under the ear something that was pitiably small and poor. In truth, this ear was perched on a small, thin stalk — the stalk, however, was a man!! A person putting a glass to his eye could recognize further a small, envious countenance, and also that a bloated soullet dangled at the stalk. The people told me, however, that the big ear was not only a man, but a great man, a genius. But … I hold to my belief that it was a reversed cripple, who had too little of everything, and too much of one thing.

  23. Great post, great discussion, Mark Brown’s #2 comment is right on. Anyone who uses their intellectualism as a crutch or a soapbox needs to tap into the Atonement more (self included).

    Mike S #21 – I hope that was sarcastic. Given America’s history of lynching and all. I’m always amazed when Mormons use hangman in classes and at how common/unconscious it is as a default, even in Primary sharing times. Like, do they not see what they’re drawing??

  24. What exactly is a Mormon intellectual? In my experience it is a derisive term aimed at people we don’t like. It frankly doesn’t mean much to me. The smartest guy in my priesthood quorum is an uneducated handyman.

  25. Ron,
    Being an intellectual is mostly a matter of self-identification, especially in our church, where the discipline necessary to achieve the title (and the title itself) are not much valued. Also, please note that I am not asking you to be quiet in Sunday School. Quite the opposite, really.

    I think that you are right about there being a tension between intellectuals and the brethren, but only because the church itself values intellectualism differently that the society immediately surrounding it. So, intellectuals, trained in that society, feel like they should be treated with the respect they would receive in that society. But the church doesn’t particularly value intellectualism (it doesn’t hate it either, usually, with the exception of an apostle or two), so the due respect isn’t (and probably won’t be) accorded.

    Also, I dislike any argument that separates the “rank and file” and the intellectuals. I don’t really believe in the difference. Everyone in the church (and out of it) uses both heart and head to approach God (as Thomas always says better than me). That the church particularly values the heart at present is only an indication (I think) that the surrounding society overvalues the head (or, at least, how it thinks the head should act). I actually think that if you reversed the positions of the intellectual and the charismatic revelators (the brethren) in the church, you’d find that it would be the brethren with jesters hats on. Certainly, that’s how Joseph Smith (and Mormons in general) initially appeared to the Christian world. Now that the perceived American dominant religious culture has gone equally anti-intellectual, perhaps Mormonism will undergo and re-intellectualizing shift to balance them out. Who knows?

  26. what if you don’t have the talent to make people laugh?

  27. Daniel,
    A sense of humor is a wonderful (probably a necessary) thing, but I think you can get along without it so long as you don’t project an image of taken yourself seriously (or, at least, too seriously). For intellectuals, being correct is more important than being funny (which is why we aren’t comedians). So go forth and be right. Just don’t expect accolades.

  28. 2 Nephi 9:28-29 speaks about intellectuals in typical straightforward Book of Mormon fashion.

    I recently heard two at least nominally-affiliated LDS scholars say that they don’t believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ – which leads me to conclude that some intellectuals are in danger of thinking themselves (and perhaps others) right out of the church.

    On the other hand, from what I’ve seen and experienced in life, faithful intellectuals are invaluable to the Church and how it works. They are inquisitive, intelligent, enthusiastic learners and sharers of thoughtful ideas – but also sense when it is appropriate to attenuate reason and rely on pure faith.

  29. danithew,
    I assure you that it doesn’t require smarts to think yourself out of the church.

  30. CJ Douglass says:

    Rank and File here-

    To all my thinky friends and aquaintences in the Church:

    While you may be “irrelevant to the means and government in the church”, you’ve done a great deal to enhance my personal relationship with God, the scriptures and the Church.

    You’ve validated my concerns and questions without passing judgement. You’ve shown me a Mormonism that is rigorous and dense. My membership in the Church is not dependent on you, but your unique talents and abilities have definitely made it more enjoyable and interesting.

    – Thanks

  31. CJ Douglas, a hearty “amen!” to that.

  32. Sam Brunson says:

    But John, how can I value a church that doesn’t (vocally and centrally) value my contributions to the literature surrounding mark-to-market accounting?!?

  33. Well, Jon Stewart is really intelligent, as is Colbert, and I like both of them. But there is quite a range. While The Book of Mormon Musical is playing on Broadway, John C., your thesis is challenged nightly. Stone and Parker are talented but seethingly reductive, as are many satirists. For every Jonathan Swift, you’ll find fifty wannabes who think they know what they’re doing.

  34. Sam,
    Oh…you’re one of those intellectuals. Why don’t you study something more useless and demonstrate your worth?

    The close contact between Stewart and Stone and Parker (he both praises them and finds his show in close proximity to them) would seem to indicate that his understanding of context and how it should affect our reception is correct.

  35. Big Jon Stewart fan, but it’s worth noting that Tucker Carlson actually had the winning position in the rhetorical chess match at that point. (Both Crossfire and Daily Show mix entertainment and news, but the latter is a principle source of news and opinion for a large demographic, and it really was hypocritical for Stewart to pretend he had no responsibility to ask hard questions of powerful guests while self righteously bashing Crossfire for failing to do the same.) Tucker was too befuddled to take advantage of the opening and wound up losing badly nonetheless.

  36. Tim,
    I, like Stewart, think that America turning to him for news is a travesty, which really does show how bankrupt cable news (and possibly news in general) has become. So, no. I don’t think Tucker had the better point.

  37. Laurs Fey says:

    I love the idea that a sense of humor can mitigate tensions and I have seen it used very effectively in the church. But if Jon Stewart ever needed to come out an say something definitive I don’t believe he would ever have that power. Is trading a little irritation here and there really worth a persons credibility in a religious setting?

  38. Laurs (laura?),
    The point is that intellectual achievement gives you zero credibility within the church. To some degree, it works against you. Not saying that’s the way it should be, saying that’s the way it is and there is nothing intellectuals can do to change it, aside from embracing it. Stewart has said definitive things on occasion. For instance, his (and the Onion’s) reaction to 9/11 demonstrated that fake news can do a better job of explaining the American outlook than the real news. Because they don’t have to be serious, they can, occasionally, do a better job at getting to the truth. Intellectuals, because they don’t subscribe to the authority model that makes the church run, can do the same thing. But don’t expect the church, as currently constituted, to see them ever as anything but oddities. Jon Stewart is not now nor ever will be real news; so it is with intellectualism in the church. Note that I say intellectualism, not intellectuals.

  39. Thanks for this. I’ve always been troubled by the woe-is-me attitude in the Mormon blogging world, by gratuitous, self-identifying-as-intellectuals and the troubles they (or we) are forced to endure as members of the Church.

  40. Mark Brown says:

    John C., you’re overthinking this.

  41. Lolz, Mark. I think you mean he’s over-intellectualizing this.

  42. Mark Brown says:

    I heart Crawdaddy.


  44. It isn’t just thinky people who overvalue their potential contributions to the kingdom. Pretty much everybody does.


    I think I need to blog about some experiences I had with the “Children of Ephraim” movement. A group of self-identified intellectuals who petitioned Salt Lake for a separate ward in the Provo area at one time.

  45. We are frequently reminded that every gift and talent we possess is a gift from God. Our intellect is to be used to serve our fellow beings and bring souls to Christ. We each have different talents and as we use them to bless the lives of others, our lives then become meaningful. Because He is above us all, He is only impressed with those who help in His work. The Savior found all of us lacking. How we use our talents is crucial. In 2 Ne. 9:51: Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. Also, in James 1:22, Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. I appreciate those who share their talents and strive to build up God’s kingdom.

  46. Jess Lang says:

    I am somewhat suspicious that intellectualism in the Church is a bit like some instances of sexual harrassment in the business world (i.e., “It is only harrassment if you are not attracted to the presmptuous him or her.”)
    In my experience, when we like what the intelligent person says, we call them “in tune with the Spirit.” When we don’t, we call them “intellectuals.”
    And there are so many holes we just choose to ignore. Fore exanple, it is so interesting that Republican groupthink passes for Gospel on a regular basis, while charity and tolerance are dubbed as liberal drivel.
    I wonder if the majority of the Church would recognize “intellectualization” if it hit them squarely on the butt. And the hypocricy! We want our kids in the best schools…as long as they do not learn to think. Do we really want a church full of software writers and accountants?
    Maybe it is time we find another word for these talkative contrarians. By the way, the founder of our church was a multi-talented man…a thinking and opinionated man, comfortable speaking with people of various education, intellects, and opinions.

  47. Stan Beale says:

    In the calumny of intellectuals being human non sequiturs as far as unser Kirche goes and as quintesisential exemplars of boorish behavior, there is some validity, Many members dismiss people they label as “intellectual” and a number of “thinky people” can be as boorish as the first part of this sentenceI. But I believe a far greater poblem is that Church is plagued by a plethora of anti-intellectual Luddites.

    By this I do not mean “the humdrum thinkers” that you speak of, but of people who embrace anti-intellectual leaders or practices. Like Ned Ludd and his followers who set out to destroy modern innovations in the textile industry, these individuals seek (or are prone to) reject modern scholarship or any type of reasoned analysis.

    Let me give five simple examples:
    1. Faith Promoting Rumors: We have all heard them. My favorite is the one
    where no grass grows on Governor Boggs’s grave in Napa California.
    No one could quote a source or knew of anyone who saw it, but it
    was “true” (For the curious, grass does grow there, quite well actually).
    2. If its on the internet (especially without sourcing) and it fits my right
    wing/left wing or TBM/NOM beliefs, it must be true. I just got one
    where Thomas Jefferson used twentieth century economic terms
    3. Facts don’t matter, Cleon Skousen and David Barton are great historians
    (Skousen: Harry Hopkins gave 50 suitcases of information about the A
    bomb to Russia. and Barton: 27 of 56 signers of the Declaratrion of
    Independence were trained ministers).
    4. Nouveau Bishop Ushers: Supporters of Young Earth Creationism. If
    anything is a complete denial of all the modern science, this is it . On
    the smaller side, I know we have a lot if Eagle Forum Schlaflyites, but i
    am not sure how many many of us adhere to her sons attack on
    Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (For part of his proof see John 4:46-54)
    5. Glenn Beck (For those who want political balance, Randi Rhoads. She is
    the perfect example of reducto ad absurdum. She would start a paragraph
    with a reasoned criticism of President Bush and end with “and the Bush
    Crime Family strikes again”)

    The disdain of intellectuals and people that think makes it easier to reject modern thought. . It is the progressives or liberals or RINOs, or intellectuals or NOMs who are at fault for the world’s ills

  48. Folks, I appreciate Stan showing up and giving us a textbook case of “This annoys me and a stand against it is a stand for truth.” We all do it (singling out Stan is probably unfair). But there isn’t anything particularly intellectual about it. Everyone thinks the smart people are on their side.

  49. Note: I say that as someone who also finds all those things annoying.

  50. Glass Ceiling says:

    John c.,

    If Stan’s comments aren’t relevant in your opinion, what are we actually discussing in this thread?

  51. Mark Brown says:

    Spencer, fyi, President Packer has since backed off that statement, and has pretty much disowned it.

    My proud, unhumble, intellectual nature caused me to point that out.

  52. Glass Ceiling says:

    Mark Brown,

    Thank you for that information. I really hope it’s true. All I can say is, “Thank heaven.” Lest people forget, one of the reasons people join the Church, is because its very tenants are WAY out of the proverbial box. The capability of deep thought is part of our heritage.

  53. Glass,
    I’m not sure I follow. I never said that Stan’s points weren’t relevant. I did imply that I didn’t want to have that particular discussion (all those rank and file members believe stupid things) and that I don’t think pointing to specific beliefs and labelling them unintellectual is helpful (mostly because we all (including intellectuals) believe a lot of stuff without putting much thought and research into it). So, I’m sorry if you feel like I’ve cut off the conversation. I certainly wasn’t trying to.

  54. “If Orson Pratt were chopped into a thousand pieces,” Brigham Young said, “every piece would shout that Mormonism is

    I don’t care if you think you are an intellectual, if you assume that all of us on the right side of the aisle are “the masses” and that you are the enlightened ones. All I care about is if the same could be said about you as could be said about Orson Pratt. Some people in the (usually progressive) Bloggernacle fit that bill, and some don’t.

  55. Glass Ceiling says:

    John C.,

    It just seems as though Stan was giving examples as to what so called “intellectuals” find irritating about the rank and file (you know, the ones who can’t stand intellectuals.) He has a point. And I don’t think it was just to make a list, but rather to express the mindset of many who feel threatened by intellectuals in church.

    I can name many moments where someone NEEDED to open their mouth in order to get the lesson taught correctly because the teacher was ill-prepared or ignorant. And, yes, sometimes lessons get political or way too deep. But sometimes learning occurs as well, and this can be more valuable than it may appear at the time. For example, I’d rather risk going off-topic and learn something that might help me answer a future question by a skeptical non-member than to keep everything safe in class. Frankly, if we can’t have these discussions in the safety of the Saints, where can we have them? Granted, Gospel Principal class is one thing, but should we sweat Gospel Doctrine and Priesthood?

    If someone IS a constant contrarian, they should be spoken with. But somehow I suspect that this thread is actually discussing the personality-type (and often political leanings) of sincere people who want to contribute to class discussion just like anyone else. The only difference is that their opinion differs from the majority…so they get labeled. Then they get told they are the Church’s biggest problem.
    If so, then is free agency next?

    Maybe we could just grow up a little. Just a thought.

  56. Glass Ceiling says:



  57. I honestly thought this post was a joke, but in the comments people seems to be taking it seriously.

  58. Glass Ceiling says:


    It does seem to be a major concern in the Church today. Sunday School just seems to be the place where the different political camps meet.

  59. The word “intellegence” is used very positively in Mormon scriptures, but the word “Intellect” is used to describe someone that the writer does not like. Those who speak unfavorably about “intellectuals” might consider reading what Jesus said to those who called others “fools”.

  60. Fen Ho Jowls says:

    It is annoying when it is obvious that someone considers him or herself an “intellectual”, that is true. But the anti-intellectualism that exists in Church culture is truly alarming. It is correct that it derives from the mentality that “once the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done”. Moreover, because of the verses that danithew quoted above, many members of the Church throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that approaching a topic “intellectually”, i.e. from a basis of inquiry, is per se wrong.

    One factor that I believe contributes significantly to this alarming trend in the Church is that General Authorities appear to be more and more frequently called from “practical” professions such as primarily business and law and less and less from academia or the arts.

    In fact, I heard a very disturbing report five or six years ago from someone in a position to know that learning in the humanities generally is less appreciated/valued by current Church leaders, as evidenced by large cuts made to various humanities programs (in particular foreign languages) at BYU Idaho. These fields of study, apparently, weren’t valued in and of themselves as worthwhile knowledge and a committee of Church leaders (who despite being called/employed to run a university were themselves career managers/administrators, not academics) decided that our young people needed to be learning more “practical” things like business management and agricultural studies.

    This throws the general attitude in the Church toward those seeking learning in truly academic intellectual fields into stark relief. If your Ph.D. is in business, then you can be a Church rockstar like Clayton Christensen. If your Ph.D. is in philosophy or comparative literature (or history), you and your particular knowledge and potential contributions border on being irrelevant and impractical at best and potentially dangerous at worst. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our view of the value of knowledge in and of itself in the Church, and the value of the human intellect. Our theology is not shaped by “Scholars” — to the contrary, we are proud that it is not and that it has come to us by revelation to people who did not have doctorate degrees in theology — so why should anything else in our Church culture be shaped or influenced by the contribution that could be made by intellectuals who are experts in their fields? Our collective attitude in the Church (to our own detriment) is that the only thing worse than the person with the Ph.D. (or Masters) in history or divinity raising his or her hand in class to explain the Greek or Hebrew root for an awkward construction in the King James Version is one that is the Gospel Doctrine teacher and actually tries to teach his or her class something on a Sunday instead of simply making each point in the manual and asking the lowest common denominator-oriented questions prompted in the manual.

    This is a form of pride, is it not — a sort of intellectual poor man’s pride? And aren’t we therefore under condemnation for our pride in the face of the contributions that our “intellectuals” could be making?

  61. Indiana says:

    At the risk of sounding like the obnoxious know-it-all stereotype…I think there’s been some conflating of annoying personality types with constructive/much needed critique and critical thinking.

    Perhaps the big problem is with what people characterise as essentials. My husband and I (an my father-in-law) are all “thinky” people. We have long conversations about how often God *actually* gives you a flat tyre to make you meet someone or avoid a horrific accident, or picking apart the racial tensions created by various histories and parts of scripture. By contrast, I recall my mother-in-law dismissing my husband’s interest in a book on evolution and Mormonism by saying to him, “Is that really going to help you get to the Celestial Kingdom?”

    Perhaps the overwhelming feeling is that “intellectuals” in the Church are focussing on unimportant semantics rather than the essentials of salvation. May I humbly suggest that sometimes even the most annoying people of this type find these “semantics” to be crucial to their own more complete understanding of truth? Perhaps the occasional digression into Hebrew linguistics, logical fallacies, or correcting apparently tiny historical inaccuracies is really just an attempt to clear away potential misunderstandings before they become stumbling blocks.

  62. Behold, the violence inherent in the system. THE VIOLENCE INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM!

  63. John C., your # 62 is pretty cryptic — what is it referring to?

  64. Glass Ceiling says:

    All of us in the Church say we value truth. Some of us truly do, from wherever it may come. Others of us are afraid to think for ourselves, and will only accept truth from Church leadership (and find it very difficult hearing anything even slightly out of the box from anyone else.)

  65. A few commenters here remind me of a certain peasant.

  66. For those who don’t get the reference in #62 & #65

    On a more serious note, I have to say that church is the only context in my life where I have seen so much navel gazing about intellectuals being done by anti-intellectuals. Its more than a little absurd. There are obvious reasons why this goes on but its doesn’t make it any less absurd. And as this post suggests the best any anti-intellectual critique can hope for is to parody stereotypes of so-called intellectuals.

    As for the hand wringing, I think that is pretty silly too. But I suspect that a good number of intellectuals have not had to confront their scholarly activity as a negative identity, imposed by someone else, in any other realm other than church. The hand wringing is a response to a synthetic identity crisis. If only they could recognize the falseness of this crisis. But it might be difficult because the falseness of the contemporary crisis has its roots in actual events that did impact people’s lives in negative ways.

  67. Chris Gordon says:

    @John F., if John C. wasn’t clear enough in his equally cryptic response, it’s a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

  68. All I can say is I’m glad that we pseudo-intellectual permabloggers at M* are always taken seriously by those in power**. The BCC permas may be intellectuals, but other than that they are just John Stewart wannabes. ;)

    **And the voices in my head tell me exactly who those powerful beings really are!

  69. Scott Armstrong says:

    Yesterday at church I saw a flier for the ward “pick nick” which invited members to bring their favorite “deserts.” While I chuckled to myself as I imagined ward members sitting around debating the pros and cons of Nolte, Lachey, and Hornby with either the Gobi or Sahara in tow, I had no desire to pull out the red pen or track down and correct whoever made the flier. However, the type of thing Ron mentioned (16) is vital to the health of the church. I don’t know if the post makes a distinction between the two, but there’s a big difference between faithful intellectuals and know-it-all d-bags.

    A thoughtful comment in Sunday School about Elijah Abel is great. Interrupting the teacher with the correct pronunciation of Zeezrom…not so much.

  70. #69- Noticing spelling errors or correcting pronunciation have nothing to do with being intellectual.

  71. Scott Armstrong says:

    (69) That’s my point.

    The original post creates a straw man by conflating nitpicking and intellectualism:

    “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.”

  72. @ Ron #16:

    Can you elaborate on how you approached that topic with the teacher? I, for one, would be interested. The point you made is key: sometimes the discord raised by thoughtful disagreement is both needed and beneficial, even if its slightly uncomfortable for all involved.

  73. Ron Madson says:

    rayray#72, sorry this is long but you asked for it…
    Before trying to recollect how I approached “that topic with the teacher”, I have learned (but incredibly after all these years still suck at it at times), that the best way, for me at least, is to ask questions, then at times follow-up with “I have heard” or “some have interpreted”–thus distancing myself to a degree so it is not as personal, but in some cases, simply say, “I respectfully disagree.'” For example, in this case ideally I would first ask, “What scripture are you relying on in asserting that blacks as a people had to progress to the point that they could receive the priesthood?” or “What scripture informs us that blacks were less valiant as a group in the pre-existence?” Then I might offer some statements such as: “It was preached from the pulpit in Europe during the dark ages that it was the Jews that had the curse of Cain upon them” or to bust open the doors to allow more discussion: “I discovered that JS gave more than one black man the priesthood” (Elijah Able as you pointed out). But in that class that day, I did ask some pointed questions then mentioned Eugene England’s great essay called “The Mormon Cross” and that maybe we should consider that the ban was a policy that reflected our weaknesses and not theirs (I took that article to that black sister after church), and that a true and living church by its nature evolves and grows out of its’ errors (much like the constitution we revere, a “true” church adapts by change and only an immature people/church/government would try to justify all its past errors whether slavery or prejudices–which errors does not invalidate the church or the constitution but simply reflects the nature of a true and living church and constitution).
    In that case, that day, I probably went over the line and pushed it further by stating that I was personally convinced it was a prejudice that we share culturally with out nation which we had to repent of and return to the surer principles of each man judged individually and not collectively as to “worthiness”.

    Another example recently—and this might even bother some here, but when a teacher in HP was attempting to excuse destroying Nauvoo Expositor in that William Law and others were lying I simply asked: “Have you read the Nauvoo Expositor (only one issue) and if so what exactly in it was a falsehood?” A HC member stood up in class glared at me and stormed out of the class—to report me. The teacher said he had not read it–to which I said, “maybe we should identify the “lies” first lest we are guilty of slandering someone, ironically of “libel.” Even if it there was libel in the paper (debatable) maybe we need to challenge our tribal narratives if only to grow up a little collectively.

    I agree with the OP that we need to play the jester/fool at times (even if we/I are poor at it) because it diffuses things and easier to accept. Heck even Shakespeare had to subtly use Henry V (mocked the war rhetoric rather then praised it if read half intelligently) and many of his plays to make social commentary that he could not make openly to the royalty or they would have his head—or in our case our ticket to the clubhouse.

  74. 7
    The LDS Church cherishes truth and to not challenge a falsehood or incorrect history does a disservice to all members and God. We are here with all our monkeyshines to embrace the truth of all things.

    What I don’t get is what “intellectual” is such a naughty word in Mormon lingo.

    It seems there is often an unspoken tension between “intellectuals” and “the brethren.”

    Aren’t there three paths commonly used to learn gospel truth? Line upon line, intellectual and the Spirit. Each approaches truth in different way but I think it becomes a problem for others when intellectualism becomes intellectualization.

    I am somewhat suspicious that intellectualism in the Church is a bit like some instances of sexual harrassment in the business world (i.e., “It is only harrassment if you are not attracted to the presmptuous him or her.”)
    In my experience, when we like what the intelligent person says, we call them “in tune with the Spirit.” When we don’t, we call them “intellectuals.”


    The post and some comments rightly, in my view, speak of context. The context of the Church is to elevate us “Till [sic] we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) In this context, also in my view, our goal is to become Christians in the full sense; to use other self-labels in this context is to miss the mark.

    Elder Oaks– who as former clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, law professor, and justice in a state’s Supreme Court, could be an “intellectual” — noted that, “I found some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism — but I find no salvation in any of them.”

    Salvation includes the process of conversion, the converting of our natural-man-ness to the -new-man-ness of the scriptures. Elder Oaks also discussed this,

    “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the plan by which we can become what children of God are supposed to become. This spotless and perfected state will result from a steady succession of covenants, ordinances, and actions, an accumulation of right choices, and from continuing repentance. “This life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32).
    “We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life. This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason—for the pure love of Christ. The Apostle Paul illustrated this in his famous teaching about the importance of charity (see 1 Cor. 13). The reason charity never fails and the reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness he cited is that charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47), is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in a conversion. Charity is something one becomes. Thus, as Moroni declared, “except men shall have charity they cannot inherit” the place prepared for them in the mansions of the Father (Ether 12:34; emphasis added).”

    This is outside the scope of intellectualism and at the center of the Church’s context.

    Even the understanding we need to achieve this conversion is unavailable to the natural man through intellectualism. (I speak from my own failure in the attempt),
    “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually gdiscerned.” (1 Cor 2:14)

    For me, intellectualism in the Church has it’s place if used to support the central purpose of conversion. My own crash a couple decades ago and the help I received afterwards from some Church members taught me why the misspelling, especially-for-Mormons , political crazies who had unjudgmental hearts to lift my hands that hung down and to strengthen my feeble knees had more of value to offer than the intellectuals who could outquote me from the JoD but had nothing to offer me for my misery. Intellectualism now strikes me as focusing the discussion on the surgeon’s shiny instruments instead of using them to heal broken souls.

    My son taught me when he said, at age 5 1/2, “The heart and the brain are both important but the heart is more important than the brain because the brain only thinks but the heart feels.”

    37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
    38 This is the first and great commandment.
    39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt alove thy neighbour as thyself.
    40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    — Matt 22

  75. Ahhh. You have expressed my feelings entirely. I have been ostracized by the leadership for my opposition to prop. 8. I have remained silent about this until last Sunday in H.P. group. The teacher read from the pages of a 1960s Handbook of Instructions that the Church does not use force or duress but love and long suffering.

    I finally found a voice and said that in the “recent episode” the Church used plenty of force and punishment to get its point across, no love. I said that I found that practice “reprehensible.”

    What are they going to do? take away my calling as a home teacher?

  76. Manaen, #74,

    I do not think for an instant, nor do most here, that the heart should be left behind by a monster brain. But I believe that the “glory of God is intelligence” and that “a man can be saved no faster than he gains knowledge” and that the only things we take with us to the next life are our understanding.

    One of the things which intellectualism brings is self knowledge and introspection. When we try to understand the external world we, almost inevitably, turn the spotlight inward. It is this lack of introspection that I find very difficult to deal with among the prolies and the generally hard core righties. It is so refreshing to be with people who are aware of themselves and aware of their relationship to other people, who are flexible and who will try to take facts into account when making or changing an opinion.

    I had a wonderful physics adviser who pointed out that, following a foundational concept of quantum mechanics, to a good approximation,
    truth * clarity = a constant (1)
    Equation 1 states that with much truth the situation is totally unclear. If you have spent your life studying the truth of a subject, you become totally obscure because of the cross connections and modifiers and conditionals within your understanding. Conversely, if something is totally clear there is little (or no) truth in it because so much is ignored for clarity’s sake.

    Intellectuals deal with truth. Non-intellectuals deal with clarity.

    Which is not to say that clarity does not have a place. Bridges and airplanes are built largely with clarity because the truth is too complex. Bridges are designed with a 2.5x safety factor because of the clarity problem. Airplanes would be too heavy to fly if they were designed like bridges, so they only get a 1.25x safety factor to account for the unknowns. Engineers design as much as possible with truth but pad for clarity.

    Thus our lives: Everything is better with truth but we are cautious and buy insurance for clarity’s sake.

    The scriptures are written for the lowest common denominator, for clarity. It is not to say they are not true, but in context lead to greater understanding. Truth is infinite (and unclear) but we need to start somewhere.

    This life is the counterbalance to existence. In the eternities everything is truth because all things will be known. Here we learn that it is possible to live in clarity. But, never-the-less, the more truth the better.

    More truth does not mean less heart.

  77. It’s no coincidence that one of the favorite targets of facist regimes are the so-called “intelligencia”. I’m no history expert, but I think the reasoning goes something like this: 1.Our “thing” needs to be a well oiled, highly effective organization in order to fulfill our stated purpose. 2. The less our values and beliefs are in lockstep with one another, the more difficult it will be to achieve success. 3. “Intellectuals” (however that ephemeral term is conveniently defined by their detractors) tend to ask questions and throw logic (ugh!) into the mix instead of practicing blind allegiance which can slow our progress. 3. Therefore it’s in our best interest do whatever we can to eliminate these groups from our ranks. Political parties, nations, and religions have all seen their fair share of this sort of mentality. Its probably part of human nature to roll this way, but the devastation caused by this limited mindset has been frightful over the centuries.

    In the context of religious organizations – Mormons very much included – the most intolerant enemies of critical and open thought are often people whose testimonies are primarily based upon blind obedience and doctrine. They feel threatened by any discourse they perceive as not conforming to what they have been taught all their lives, and feel a need to lash out. The spiritual component of their commitment may be the real cause of their insecurity.

    It’s also apparent to me that the biggest component of intellectual intolerance within LDS lies not at the highest levels of leadership, but rather among the rank and file within the wards and stakes. It is organic in nature, and seems to be part and parcel of our own personal prejudices, insecurities and fears. It seems that a vibrant and productive faith, however, should work within a person to ease these negative elements.

    Finally, it’s easy to talk about “intellectuals”, but much more difficult to define what we mean by an “intellectual”. Is it anyone with an impressive degree or two – or does it require more to achieve offender status? Or how about the myriads of church “apologists”? These earnest souls – often with advanced academic degrees or some other credential (e.g. science fiction writer Orson Scott Card) – fill the blogosphere with elegant and (at least in their own minds) profound thoughts in their zeal to rebut the most prominent critics of Mormonism. These loyal souls are well meaning and probably very fine saints. But when all the dust settles what’s left is rarely anything much of substance. In a very real sense they are doomed before they even start, for their real objective is not to discover the truth at all. Rather it is to use their verbal skills to convincingly propound a belief structure and trounce their opponent argumentatively. A true “intellectual” in my opinion has a much different agenda. It is not to advocate – it is to use one’s gifts in the pursuit of “truth”, however it emerges. That takes courage folks.

  78. “Intellectuals deal with truth. ”

    Intellectuals deal with questions and concepts, the relation of questions and concepts to “truth” is a little difficlt to trace and is not constant. I suppose that since there are a variety of different types of intellectual discourse, there may be some intellectuals who deal with truth, but the stated relation between their discourse and some notion of truth would be unstable.

  79. Scripturally, we see over and over people being referred to in degrees of righteousness and their righteousness is determined by a variety of factors. Chief among those are obedience to god, good intent (having a pure heart) and diligence. Intellectual capability is not only never positively factored into righteousness, its is almost uniformly referred to in a negative context. Further exacerbating the matter, the presence of an above average level of intelligence is looked at as a blessing which requires a corresponding output of righteousness (where much is given, much is required). So culturally, we are taught that first, people who have above average intelligence, have an above average likelihood of displeasing god and also, that they must do more to please god than someone with a lower level of intelligence. Furthermore, no matter how much they refine their gift of intelligence, the difference between their intelligence and the intelligence of a rock is the same in the sight of God.

    So, why would intelligence be a thorny issue within the Mormon community ;)?

  80. sonofmosiah says:

    From the Mormon dictionary: “Intellectual. n. v. adj, adv. Pejorative term for (1) Any person who does not swallow what the Brethren say hook line and sinker. (2) Any such person who, after praying about a subject, does not receive a burning bosom that the Brethren are correct. In both cases the person suffers from the sin of pride.”

  81. During my mission in a former Eastern bloc country in the early 1990s, a church authority visiting a zone conference spoke scornfully of “so-called intellectuals.” I don’t remember what his beef was, just that it seemed jarring and irrelevant–most everyone I hung with at the time worked at the local shoe factory.

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