TT is a blogger at www.faithpromotingrumor.com. He recently posted “Five Questions for Ralph Hancock,” and the comment thread included a lengthy comment that we have asked his permission to re-post. Reading the thread at Faith Promoting Rumor will help provide the context for some of this, but readers who have been following the Brooks-Hancock chatter of late should be able to follow. (Related BCC posts can be found here.)
This post represents a response, of sorts, to the set of exchanges between Ralph Hancock and other LDS thinkers, most recently his apologia. My post is not a defense of Joanna Brooks (though it uses her arguments as an example, in part, of some of the issues at stake), nor a treatise on any particular idea, but rather a discussion about how reasoning about LDS teachings might occur.
Hancock appeals to both “authority” and “reason” in his attempt to depict certain ideas held by LDS intellectuals as incompatible with Mormonism, especially the equality of women and the acceptance of certain kinds of same-sex relationships. I think that both claims to authority and reason need to be investigated, and suggest that both routes to establish a univocal Mormon framework to address to these questions face serious difficulties.
I think that this is a key issue, perhaps the key issue. I don’t claim to resolved this question definitively, perhaps because it cannot be resolved, but must exist forever in tension. The problem with critiques of authority is that they start from unequal ground. The authority can always simply reassert itself without having to engage the critique at all. Defining ground where both faithfulness and critique is possible is incredibly tricky. But Hancock’s claim that some “liberal Mormon” modes of thought represent an intrusive “absorption” from the outside is both a rhetorical construction of a pristine Mormon mode of reasoning that is distinctive from a historical context, as well as a misunderstanding of how the act of interpretation of Mormonism necessarily proceeds. Hancock’s rhetorical assertion that there is “a strong tendency for liberalism to migrate from politics and to penetrate and reshape religious understandings” proceeds as if his “religious understandings” are uninterpreted, while defining neither religion nor politics. Such a framing of the disagreements between Hancock and others seeks to present his own situated interpretations as pure, missionary appropriations (thus baptizing Plato, Tocqueville, and Strauss), while his opponents are improperly “penetrating” Mormon thought.
I do have a few thoughts about authority that I think are relevant here:
a. I don’t think that assertions of authority of the kind Hancock advances pay sufficient attention to competing authorities. For instance, Brooks seems to suggest that there are other scriptures, even Mormon warrants for her theological perspectives. To assert that the Proclamation, or some other “authority” trumps it is not really an argument, but an assertion. The fact is that all traditions are made up of competing authoritative claims. Terryl Givens calls these “paradoxes,” but I think tensions is more accurate. To fail to acknowledge these tensions is to fail to understand Mormonism. The negotiation of competing claims, values, and potentialities is inherent in all religious traditions. There is no univocal tradition, only the mythical attempt to normatively enforce one.
b. Even the Proclamation on the Family (Proclamation) is not free from internal tensions, some may even say irreconcilable contradictions. That is, the document must still be interpreted. An interpreted text or speech (as the nature of all texts and speech) is open to resignification. There is no ‘interpretation-free’ claim to authority. For instance, Hancock seems to believe that the Proclamation’s claim that there are two “genders” entails an argument against women holding the priesthood, against ensuring that “all desirable social outcomes are equally available to men and women,” or a society “in which men and women are equally represented in all careers and public positions.” Now, this text says absolutely nothing about the priesthood, about the preference for an inequality of opportunity or a preference for unequal representation of men and women in any, let alone all, careers and public positions. The text is only only used in an argument against the priesthood, equal opportunity, or equal representation through a series of complicated hermeneutical moves. In fact, almost all of the claims about what the text says, or what kinds of things it excludes, rely on a subtext about what the text is about, including its call to political action, rather than any explicit prohibition in the text itself.
But on the text itself, let’s consider some of the various ways that the Proclamation may be evaluated:
- The text seems to contradict itself: “fathers preside” and “equal partners”
- The text uses undefined or unclear terms: “gender,” no discussion of premortal or postmortal life, vague warnings
- In tension with Mormon scripture and history on polygamy
- In tension with other LDS practices with respect to sexuality (the text implies that birth control and other non-procreative sexual intercourse is forbidden, e.g., “sacred powers of procreation”)
- The text vacillates between making prescriptive claims and empirical claims
- The text contradicts other authoritative texts in the Bible and BoM, “there is no male and female…in Christ Jesus,” “all are alike unto God”)
- The text may be interpreted in ways that can accommodate religious, feminist claims- “equal partners,” as a model for family and church governance, there are exceptions granted to the universal claims the text makes earlier).
A fuller evaluation of the Proclamation needs to be undertaken, but these brief sketches suggest that one may evaluate the Proclamation according to its own internal logic and with respect to competing Mormon authorities. That is, the critiques of the Proclamation are not simply “liberal” ideas that are creeping in to some pure Mormonism where all questions are already answered. Rather, the text itself is already in conflict with itself and with other authoritative texts, traditions, and experiences. There are no rules for how one resolves these tensions, so to assert the authority of the text is to assert a particular reading and understanding of the text, one that requires that other authoritative texts be ignored, reconciled, or superseded.
c. Finally, I think that we need to consider what it means to say something is authoritative. Authority is not an inherent quality of some thing, but rather a feature which is granted to some thing by a community. The authority of anything derives not from it’s claim to be authoritative, but from its ability to persuade its audience to take it as authority. Indeed, one could argue that the very foundation of Mormon claims to authority is persuasion itself (D&C 121:41). That which is not persuasive cannot be authoritative. That is, there must be something persuasive about a claim in order for its authority to be established. Otherwise it is the establishing of authority by force. (I will grant that Mormonism holds some juridical powers, but that is not the question here).
This understanding of authority as rooted in an ability to persuade is something that needs to be seriously considered in the exercise of authority. If the church’s teachings on gender hierarchy or the value of homosexual marriage cease to be persuasive to those in the church (much as say, anti-evolution, or theologizing about racial biology, or even the monarchical authority of church leaders), these ideas cease to be authoritative. If they fail to be persuasive, there is nothing they can to be authoritative. In this sense, one cannot simply assert that the Proclamation is authoritative without also establishing a framework in which it is persuasively so. For some, that persuasion may reside solely in the source of the claim, but for others, the command to study it out in your mind might be the grounds for authority based on persuasion. (Even the rules of what makes something persuasive must be negotiated.) This is why we can later call things “folklore” or dismiss earlier authoritative statements, because they are simply not convincing within the intellectual frameworks in which we operate as Mormons in a 21st century historical context. If there is some other persuasive way of understanding gender, marriage, sex roles, etc, those ways will be authoritative.
The attempts to reconcile these ideas with competing authoritative claims within Mormonism is the task of those who are faithful to the tradition. We may see how this works by looking at how the introduction of “equal partners” language into LDS discourse about the family in the late 20th century seems to be emphasized more than fathers presiding, suggesting that equality in marriages is become the dominant way of reading the Proclamation, one that stands in significant tension with earlier articulations of Mormon family structure. This is the hermeneutical point, that the foundation is shifting. That doesn’t mean sheer relativism as Hancock supposes. It just means that one builds from a different, more persuasive foundation.
If we can concede that LDS ideas must present themselves as persuasive in order to be granted authority, how does Hancock articulate his defense of unequal treatment of women and same-sex relationships? Hancock seems to suggest that liberal views have not seriously considered the reasons for the status quo. His explanation of what he thinks feminist aims are or what he thinks an LDS view that accommodates same-sex relationships are largely products of his imagination (e.g., “boundless late-liberal ‘toleration’” or “an ethic that gives final authority to personal self-expression” or “the standard of equal (at least) statistical representation of women”). Rather than stick to the specific matters at hand, such as women receiving the priesthood or same sex couples marrying in the temple, Hancock attempts to hyperbolically describe these issues as the end of social articulations of sexual difference or some kind of androgynous nightmare.
I’m not sure that there has been some failure of feminist critiques to tackle the philosophical arguments that start by talking about the role of the family in promoting virtue and the common good, and then ask what part heterosexual relationships play in all of this. Rather, I think it fair to say that this has been precisely what has been the object of inquiry in feminist thought since the first wave. The argument that women’s roles are to stay at home have been the primary arguments for excluding women from voting, being educated, working, working for equal pay, and of course ecclesiastical leadership. The problem with such arguments about the “the goodness of the man-woman union” is that “goodness” seems to exclude the people that are harmed by such a good. Some people’s equality must be sacrificed on the altar of goodness. But why exactly should women or homosexuals need to be sacrificed, and how does this particular sacrifice guarantee the promised good?
Presumably, Hancock accepts that women should be able to vote and work in protected environments, and that non-married homosexuals may freely form long term relationships and even raise their own children. My question is why he accepts these (assuming he does, which is a big assumption given some of his rhetoric) and not those. Namely, what about excluding women from the priesthood uniquely disrupts either a divine responsibility toward children in ways that they others kinds of “equality” between men and women (suffrage, callings in church, work) do not? And, what about the legal or ecclesial recognition of same sex relationships uniquely disrupts the “goodness” of mixed sex relationships in ways that the legality of non-heterosexual relationships (let alone heterosexual relationships outside of normative marriage customs) do not?
The assertion that “there are good reasons to raise boys (and thus to motivate them by honoring and rewarding them) in different ways from girls” elides a number of key points as a justification for excluding women from the priesthood. First, Hancock seems to believe that the priesthood is about “raising boys,” not the exercise of the power of God. Hancock situates excluding women from the priesthood in the context of “raising boys” pretends as if the priesthood is some extension of familial responsibility rather than an issue of ecclesiastical power. This notion that priesthood is somehow a kind of parenting tool is without foundation. Nearly all of the leadership functions of the priesthood are held by adults, and certainly all of those with power over women. Further, the specific function of the “priesthood” cannot really be said to be about “raising boys” since boys are not given the priesthood until age 12, and most priesthood functions that exercise power are held by adults. Perhaps we could withhold the priesthood from girls until they are adults, when the question of raising boys has been accomplished? Has the failure to raise boys without the priesthood before age 12 produced chaos between the genders? Does the failure to separate primary classes on the basis of sex fail to motivate and honor boys? Second, the assertion that withholding the priesthood from women is “essential” for “the formation of a productive and responsible male identity” is entirely without warrant. None of these terms are defined or substantiated, and I see no reason to believe that LDS men are the only ones who can lay claim to “a productive and responsible male identity” as the sole holders of the priesthood, nor for why the exclusion of women from the priesthood is essential to that goal. Third, no one is suggesting that a “gender-neutral” stance with respect to the priesthood means that gender is somehow erased, only that it is not a relevant factor for deciding who has power and who does not. The idea that if men and women share certain spaces (the voting booth, political offices, ownership of property) that somehow men and women will cease to exist is the oldest argument against treating women as fellow human beings. I don’t see how gender neutral policies with respect to other public spaces have led to the end of sexual difference. Men and women are able to function along side each other in business, education, and political spheres. It would be hard to imagine how male identity hangs solely on the monopoly on priesthood as either an empirical claim or a theological desideratum. Indeed, Hancock fails to explain how such a policy of excluding women from priesthood cannot also be used to exclude women from other arenas, both public, private, and ecclesiastical. To consider the ecclesiastical, if we have a special obligation toward motivating and honoring boys in different ways from girls, why not exclude girls and women from other kinds of roles, such as teaching or speaking in church? If priesthood is a zero-sum game, where men’s development can only come at the expense of women’s, why not maximize men’s success by minimizing women’s participation more fully? In other contexts, why not motivate and honor boys by excluding women from voting, the workplace, or hey, even the family? Why is the priesthood the unique place where boys should be honored over girls?
Hancock’s appeals to these “good reasons” as the basis for excluding women from leadership to benefit men, or excluding same-sex couples from legal and spiritual benefits of marriage for the benefit of mixed sex couples frame the success of one group as dependent on the unequal access to authority and spiritual blessings of another. It seems to me that when asking a particular group of society to bear the burdens of inequality for the common good, that the burden of proof is on those doing the asking to demonstrate the necessity. There may indeed be “good reasons” for such ecclesiastical policies. The failure to receive them does not necessarily require that one reject such policies. But Hancock has not provided the good reasons for them that he thinks he has.