Let Language Garnish Thy Virtue: The Subversive Language of Mormon Public Discourse in the Age of Trump

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.

Comments

  1. Brilliant thoughts. Illuminating. Ouch!

  2. Any discussion of virtue as not being heavily linked to chastity within the context of that verse is pointless when one considers the more important admonition to have ones bowls filled with charity.

    Christ like love is the supreme virtue* and must necessitate chastity. Christ would not act sexually provocatively. He would not see others a means to an end in sexual desire. (*and here I’ve used virtue differently again)

    So while the concept of virtue is being narrowed in that verse with our current discourse, and while I wished we’d more often link this verse to Christ and the atonement; there’s little utility in pointing out that chastity isn’t the full meaning of virtue. Scriptural truths are multifaceted, and when we employ a verse for one lesson, it doesn’t mean it can’t be used for another.

    With that multifaceted-utility approach to how we employ scriptures, what’s truly “revolutionary” is that a verse which clearly points to Christ and his atonement is discussed on an LDS blog in political intellectual terms without pointing to the Savior once. Ouch!

    If LDS leaders can’t speak against Trump (huh?!) because of their cultural paradigm, it could also be said that politically liberal Mormons can’t speak in the name of Christ because of theirs. Of course, I’d never say that in a world where progressive Mormons just focused on pointing to the Lord without attempting to redefine conservatives as fundamentally misguided because I don’t have an axe to grind until presented with an intellectual piece of dead wood that needs to be hewn down and cast into the fire.

  3. Thank you for this, Jacob. You’ve taken some familiar issues and cast them in what is, for me, a new light. I’m struck by the idea that Mormon conservative political beliefs are sticky and persistent because they aren’t really conservative at all. For Mormons, right-wing politics has become a modern-day incarnation of the old Mormon radicalism which was rooted in the sacred mission to prepare the world for the Millennium. In the nineteenth century we proposed to change the world by retreating to the mountains and building our utopia. Now that we have entered the cultural mainstream, the radicalized politics of the extreme right is our vehicle for changing the world. In my view the radical right is and has always been misguided in its substance, which is incompatible with the gospel in fundamental ways. But the substance of right-wing politics is not really what appeals to Mormons, is it? What matters is its radicalism, because radicalism is our true political heritage from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. And if substance is relatively unimportant, then a shabby populism will serve our radical mindset just as well, as long as it appears to be sufficiently subversive.

  4. It’s far from clear Trump has been successful at doing what conservatives have wanted for 50 years. I think some people portray him as successful because they’ve redefined conservatism into just a certain type or style of fighting. It’s very hard to see that as what conservatives have wanted to do. At best it was seen as a means to an end but I’d argue against even that except for a relatively small group – typically more the angry talk radio crowd.

    My guess is though that after Trump fails at enough things the romantic view of that ‘fighting’ will lose its charm.

  5. It’s easy to forgive Trump for his past sins, he was a typical Democrat. I rejoice that he has reformed and now promotes more conservative principles.

  6. Angela C says:

    Mark L: Yes, there is precious little that is more conservative than white supremacy and misogyny.

  7. from merriam-webster.com:

    Definition of conservatism
    1
    capitalized
    a : the principles and policies of a Conservative party
    b : the Conservative party
    2
    a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established
    b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (as retirement income or health-care coverage)
    3
    : the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change religious conservatism cultural conservatism

    Ooops! Looks like they forgot white supremacy and misogyny.

  8. Angela C says:

    My response was tongue in cheek to Mark L’s assertion that Trump represents conservative principles. Sarcasm doesn’t convey in print, unfortunately.

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