Jacob is a former perma at BCC, and shares his smart thoughts with us from time to time.
Any time a Mormon luminary speaks is a good time to think about what’s going on with public Mormon discourse. Elaine Dalton’s recent remarks concerning virtue reveal how modern Mormon discourse attempts to resist and subvert the wider culture in which it lives. The way ‘virtue’ is used in that discourse has been combed over in online Mormonism for years, of course, but I’m thinking about it here with regard to the larger weave of how modern Mormonism has sought to re-define certain concepts and interpretations of traditional themes and values, not as a means of preserving them so much as a means of re-imagining them in order to deploy them toward specific ends. This always happens with new generations of practitioners, but I think it’s important to note here that this kind of orthodox religion-making is actually perceived by its makers and adopters as radical, not conservative or orthodox.
The re-definition of virtue, for example, while couched in the language of restoration and renewal, is actually intended to be a radical resistance to the prevailing culture. Philosophical understandings of virtue as moral excellence have a much longer tradition than understandings of virtue as related solely to chastity, and yet it is sexual virtue that is wrapped in the language of wistful retrospection, as if everyone saw how important it was from the beginning of time until recently we lost sight of it. And it is used to resist a liberal culture that is perceived (not without warrant) to have become the universal intellectual and linguistic standard over the last 50 years or so.
Which, of course, ties this element of modern Mormonism to what happened this last election. Trumpists saw themselves as the radicals, the Underground Resistance, the Rebels vs. the Empire, not the traditional conservatives. And it’s important to understand that everyone—wherever you find yourself situationally—wants to see themselves as the underdog good guys, waging war against the overwhelming horde, and in sole possession of the Key of Knowledge by which they will win the war against the ignorant and malevolent. Modern Mormons certainly see things this way. They know their endorsements of virtue or health or chastity are not popular, and largely for that very reason they ring out as Right and True. And pointing to a past age where they were popular (or at least perceived to be so) is critical for this, because it means these unpopular moral understandings come pre-packaged with a mythos and gravitas that they wouldn’t otherwise have. In other words, they’re weighty and serious and imbued with cosmic significance in part because they’re attached to a grand past epoch, but one that, importantly, cannot be fully recovered (so that we can’t really test their cultural validity but we can nevertheless suggest that it’s there). The re-conceptualization of virtue and other values is therefore seen to be subversive and insurrectionary in the context of a wider culture that opposes and suppresses them, not as restorative and reformative. Or, better, the supposed “restoration” of these values’ “true meaning” is itself perceived as a revolutionary act.
Transforming the intellectual itself is the revolution here, altering the way we think about everything is the real game. This is why Trump gets a pass on so much that is obviously transgressive and immoral on multiple scales, because he finally succeeded in doing what conservative movements (including religious ones) had failed to do for 50 years—above all, he made serious headway against liberal culture by contesting the language—political correctness, intellectual jargon, interpersonal etiquette, educational status—in which it conducts its business. And when you ask someone who sees this as a radical revolution of the people what they think about Trump’s transgressing of traditional morals, they will say they do not approve of it per se. But his excruciatingly obvious immorality comes attached to an important context; immoral behavior doesn’t happen in isolation, it can’t be considered apart from the larger narrative in which it is embedded. And the overarching narrative in this case is the revolution that he wrought, one that has the first chance to really change everything about the world that the liberal intellectual tradition had conquered.
So while church leaders and orthodox public figures within Mormonism would never condone the individual immoral acts (from numerous people) connected with Trump and his rise, neither can they explicitly speak against it because this larger movement of language-altering is important for their own insurgent project against the forces that threaten the ideologies that have been woven into the Mormon narrative over the last half-century, particularly, of course, those that touch on the modern Mormon understanding of the traditional family.
And this is one crucial reason why, for many of us in the Mormon tradition, Trump’s election was the incoming of something already familiar. We had already been immersed in this language-altering project, and on some level we recognized something very akin to it in the rise of Trump (though not, of course, in the public behavior of church leaders). And, likely, many Evangelicals did as well, since our project has dovetailed with theirs for about as long.