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Mormon incrementalism

November 12, 2010

The church is releasing a new Church Handbook of Instructions. Different parts of the handbook have been analyzed at Wheat and Tares, Project Mayhem, and by MoHoHawaii. There’s a lengthier discussion (or, one might dare say…thesis…) here.

I feel a bit numbed from all of the changes in a sense. On a day-to-day basis, I don’t deal with Mormonism offline…the only times it comes into radar offline is when someone makes some comment about Mormons — the hairs on the back of my neck still rise for that.

But online, I’ve been keeping at least a bit afloat…and so whenever I see one of these comparisons (especially the ones Moho has posted), I get a little bit excited for the changes…at first.

Consider his evaluation of the changes regarding gay marriage. The new CHI completely eliminates a first paragraph that says, among other things, “The Church accordingly opposes same-gender marriages and any efforts to legalize such marriages. Church members are encouraged “to appeal to legislators, judges, and other government officials to preserve the purposes and sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and to reject all efforts to give legal authorization or other official approval or support to marriages between persons of the same gender“.

I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems like a tremendous shift.

Yet…later parts of the passage bring me back down to reality. It’s not so monumental a shift. It’s just incremental. A lot of that is rephrasing and streamlining…and the genuine changes are more modest.

In most instances, incremental improvements would be disappointing to me. I’m not quite sure what HP Palm is doing with the Pre 2, for example.

…but with the church, I recognize that for the most part, the way the church changes is through quiet, almost imperceptible incremental changes. Oh yeah, and pressure from the outside.

But these understated changes have downsides. For one, their low key nature makes it possible for people to continue believing the old stuff…since the old stuff is never denounced and repudiated, but merely scuffled somewhere, there exists pockets of people who believe the old, pockets who believe the new, and everything in between. There becomes the vacuum of responsibility for doctrine: when advantageous, someone can support previous statements of previous leaders. Why not? They have not been repudiated. But when more advantageous, someone can reject the previous statements as non-doctrinal, non-current, or whatever else, and stick with the more recent statement. Why not? The church has continuing revelation.

I don’t know for sure why the church does things that way. I suspect (but this may just be a tin foil kind of paranoia) that the church does it for the pragmatic reason of keeping everyone in the tent…that way, if it makes a new statement, it may not risk alienating the base of people who agreed more with the previous stance. Those people need not leave or even get on the train with the rest of the church — they can continue believing in the beliefs of the previous policy era.

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  1. Perhaps its done this way because the Church is a very large corporation whose primary aim is one of unity. In other words, as long as they don’t rock the boat, they don’t have to worry about their worker bees jumping ship.

  2. Mme Curie,

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks that. I’ve thought that ever since I’ve seen what has happened to other churches (e.g., the Community of Christ). In moving to more liberal positions (e.g., priesthood for women, etc.,), it’s come at the cost of bleeding their more conservative members.

    The LDS church doesn’t have these problems (firstly because they don’t implement hugely liberal positions, but secondly because even when they do, it’s incremental and understated).

  3. The Church tolerates its progressives to a limited degree but allows its conservatives to do or say just about anything. We saw this during the Prop 8 debate when members in California reported that extreme right-wing political views (i.e., views far to the right of the Church’s actual position) could be aired without problem from the pulpit, but anyone against Prop 8 had to be very careful about what they said in Church. In California wards at that time you could stand up and say that gays ate babies for breakfast and not get in trouble, but heaven help you if you publicly said you were going to vote against Prop. 8.

    People have also noticed a similar phenomenon that when Mormons are together the most conservative opinion in the room sets the standard of what ‘righteous’ means. Mormons are unsure of where the line to right has been drawn by the Church, and they permit almost anything. Think your wife is chattel? Fine. Pray to a female deity? You’re a trouble-making near-apostate.

    I think this is the legacy of never repudiating past statements.

    • Yeah, I agree with this. Conservatives make up the bread and butter of the Church’s proceeds, as well as the bulk of the membership. Lose the conservative base and you lose most of the LDS membership, at least in the US.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    The LDS church is a big tent. Which seems counter-intuitive to those versed in the stereotypes of Mormons as a bunch of people in the “borg-cube.” But there is a huge amount of diversity going on quietly among the membership.

    The LDS Church navigates this diversity by keeping most everything general and vague whenever possible.

    We have no natural outlet for schisms, like Protestants do. When a Baptist doesn’t like what his church is doing, he just switches pastors, or congregations. When a Mormon doesn’t like it – then what? Where do you go?

    Bridgette Jack Meyers wrote an article that talks about this a bit here:

    We have to keep together a group of people who are far more diverse ideologically, theologically, and socially than most people give us credit for. You can’t do that by throwing half the High Priests Quorum in your local ward under the bus.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, I tried to comment with a link, and it basically failed to publish.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    I think a part of this may be pragmatic as well.

    The LDS Church cares more about whether a guy is providing good service to his ward and the needy members within it, than they care whether he is racist, or homophobic, or whatever else. If some bigoted High Priest is providing valued compassionate service to widows in the ward, they simply are not going to drive him off just for being a bigot.

    I guess it depends on where your priorities are.

    • I suspect this is another of those “your mileage may vary” comments. I was told by a friend that willingness to serve in my calling and do my visit teaching was not sufficient if I wasn’t 100% believing and willing to pay a full tithe. His argument was that as a home teacher and bishopric member, he was tired of trying to keep up with the less-active Mormons that would just do service but not attend or pay tithing. His argument was that the Church is not a social club – so, either believe and be 100% committed or get out.

      Its the first time I’d heard that sort of argument, though, so it probably isn’t the norm.

  7. Seth, but the problem is that “good service to his ward” is up for grabs, definitionally.

    Is good service to the ward encouraging people to vote for Prop 8? Is good service to the community campaigning for it?

    In this case, it’s not that the church wouldn’t care whether a guy is homophobic or whatever else — it’s that they would view that as positive (e.g., “he’s not homophobic at all. He just agrees with revelation that marriage is a union between men and women.”)

    That’s the big issue. Beyond the doctrinal and historical quibbles in and of themselves, we feel that the doctrine *impacts* the service that members give. So all of a sudden, it’s not just about compassionate service to widows. It’s about checking the box for Home Teaching requirements. It’s not about being there for someone’s needs. It’s about trying to reactivate them when they’ve lapsed into inactivity.

    • Seth R. permalink

      That becomes a matter of perceived needs though.

      It may well be that the good a bigoted High Priest provides to the widows in the ward, far outweighs the harm he might do to any homosexuals in that ward (with whom he doesn’t interact with much anyway).

      • But what if members of the church in whole or in a substantial part misperceive the needs of particular groups or individuals as a result of church teachings?

        I mean, I don’t think this utilitarian calculus addresses the underlying issue. Couldn’t the High Priest conceivably help *both* the widows and the homosexuals? Shouldn’t the church be a place that allows for both? But if the definition of “help” that the church has isn’t helpful, then it doesn’t matter whether the High Priest is bigoted or not. His beliefs — yes, those weak, cerebral beliefs — impedes him.

        We can of course turn this around to people who are pro gay rights or who do not view homosexuality as a sin. Their perception of the needs of gays may be incorrect, as a result, what they view as “helping” could be completely disastrous.

        • Seth R. permalink

          Andrew, people can’t be everything to everyone.

          Most people can’t even be everything to some people.

          The older you get, the more you realize this, and the more you tone back your expectations of people.

          • Seth, I am aware that people can’t be everything to everyone.

            BUT if you want to talk about being part of a church that should ideally be “transforming” you — if you want to talk about this action process over and above “cerebral beliefs,” I don’t think it should be unrealistic to ask whether your ideal, or the practices you engage in to move closer to that ideal, help you to become everything of everyone.

            You think I’m just speaking about the High Priest. One fallible person. Or that I’m just speaking about the institution. A corporate collection of fallible people. But no…I’m speaking about the ideal itself — the aspiration itself. I’m speaking about this thing that people say God is directing or inspiring or whatever…and when I see it, it’s not pretty. And it’s not even getting prettier. The ideal itself that people have seems to be not God-given at all (whatever THAT would look like), but fallible and demonstrably damaging.

            …and if you have to tone back your expectations of the inspired and the divine, what is the point? I can do pretty well with low expectations…but it’s a lot more difficult when people are trying to tell me in the first place that I should have *hope*, *faith*, and *trust* rather than these low expectations. And when they assert that there actually is a place on earth where people are being “transformed” in such a way that moves them closer to the ideal.

            To summarize in an example of this bind: You comment about how atheists don’t offer anything. They only tear down, or criticize others, or whatever. You say that instead they should have something positive, something constructive. But then you say that we have unrealistically high expectations that are naive and should be lowered.

          • Seth R. permalink

            I just don’t think the only criteria, or even the dominant criteria of the LDS Church’s success in doing its job should be whether it is turning racists into egalitarians.

            Sure, it should be doing SOMETHING about it – which it is (see Gordon B. Hinckley’s remarks in Priesthood session shortly before his passing). But many people want to make racism or homosexuality the ONLY critieria by which the transformative power of the institution be judged. Not because these are the most pressing social problems facing the LDS Church (I don’t think they are – actually), but because it is fashionable to see these issues as the most pressing agenda items in some social circles.

            Personally, I do not feel that race and sexuality are the most pressing concerns facing our society. I feel there are other concerns that are far more important. But such often become the touchstones for judging institutional worth. I think this is misguided.

            The LDS Church should put its foot down on its top priorities. Right now, racism is not one of those, for example.

          • Seth R. permalink

            I take a huge risk in posting that comment – because I just know someone is going to misread it and take advantage of it. Oh well…

  8. The LDS church is a big tent? If so, they’ve pitched it inside the world’s biggest black box. If there is a huge amount of diversity going on quietly among the membership, there’s also a huge amount of not-so-quiet institutional funding that amounts to wackadoodle wingnut welfare. Google GFC Foundation. And if you’re a forensic accountant, take a look at their Form 990s for the past few years. The reasons why they’ve kicked back over a million dollars to LDS HQ during the past few years don’t require tinfoil hats or overactive imaginations. It is what it is. And at the next World Congress of Families, we’ll be there looking for answers. Because it’s out of control and the time has come for a little accountability. No more free passes (like what happened in Amsterdam) that allow Russell M. Nelson and Sheri L. Dew and Paul Mero to share a dais overseas with no repercussions back home.

  9. Seth,

    It’s not about whether the church can turn a racist into an egalitarian. That’s a question of whether you believe Christ can change hearts and minds or not, or whether a sinful nature persists even in conversion. That’s not even my discussion.

    It’s about whether, racism or no racism, the *actions* the Church demands of people are fair/egalitarian/etc., or not. About whether the *transformation* it wants to encourage in people transforms them into fairer/more egalitarian/more charitable people. Whether the *ideal* (that people will inevitably fail to reach…but still strive for anyway) is charitable.

    Of course, the church believes that all of its policies are righteous and moral, charitable, fair, etc.,. Its argument to the world is that its efforts in Prop 8, or against the ERA, or etc., etc., etc., were moral and righteous, or at least not worthy of being flatly and universally condemned (in the case that one of its positions is reversed at a later time.)

    But the question is not just about racism or homophobia or whatever these *particular* issues are. The issue is…why couldn’t an inspired church progress forward on all of these issues instead of having a spotty track record with many of them? Why do you insist that it’s ok for the church and its members to make a utilitarian calculus here, decide that these minority issues are not the most pressing social problems (which they aren’t…that’s a numbers game), and then decide that it’s ok that the church is subpar on these issues?

    Oh, right, right, imperfect people.

    I have a bit of a different answer: it’s because God, whether he exists or not, is abandoned from the church, or is not being listened by the church even if he is talking to it, or maybe he is talking, the church is following, but God is quite a bit more of a jerk than I imagined.

    …I’d like to remind you that there’s an entirely different course of argument than the one you are pursuing. If you were saying instead, “The church isn’t subpar on these issues. It IS following God’s ideal,” then that would be a very different argument. Then I’d say, “OK, God and the church are jerks. The transformation you seek is that which will turn you into something utterly offensive to me. Goodbye.”

    But so far, you haven’t said that. You’ve said, “Eh, these aren’t pressing issues. So it doesn’t even matter whether the church gets them right — or is even approaching a good ideal on them — or not. It’s an acceptable loss now.”

  10. “Personally, I do not feel that race and sexuality are the most pressing concerns facing our society. I feel there are other concerns that are far more important. But such often become the touchstones for judging institutional worth. I think this is misguided.”

    And yet, your own church apparently feels otherwise. Historically, race was a big deal for Mormons, and presently, sexual orientation has become the new curse of Ham. But accepting for the moment that there are far more important concerns, what are they?

    That they’re not immediately apparent to outsiders seems to go right to the heart of any concerns regarding institutional worth. To paraphrase Stephen Fry, if this is the best you can do, what are you for?

  11. You know, Seth, I’ve copied-and-pasted this before, but since you’re pretty much the most well-known Mormon voice on the LGBT blogs, I’m gonna drop it here again for all our edification:

    In Romer v. Evans (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that laws that infringed on political participation by gays could offend the Equal Protection Clause. In dissent from the opinion in Romer, Justice Scalia wrote that there was nothing unconstitutional about antigay discrimination because the Supreme Court, in Davis v. Beason (1890) ruled that Idaho acted constitutionally by depriving polygamists of the right to vote.

    … Justice Scalia compared early Mormon polygamists to gays in the important Romer case. Of course, he did so as a sneer, to show that sexual minorities do not deserve rights.

    In doing so, Scalia made a conservative rhetorical move against expanding rights by equating a left-wing sexual minority against a right-wing sexual minority, so that each upon reading his argument would be offended at comparison to the other, and crawl back under the bed in silence while heterosexual, Protestant white men golf and drink whiskey, their womenfolk bake, and their sheep get nervous. A pox on all deviants, his dissent reads.

    On both an intellectual and heartfelt personal level, I suspect that you know full well that I’m not the enemy, but you and too many of your Mormon co-religionists are too goddamned stubborn and proud to admit it. A friendly heads up: Nothing good is gonna come from your obstinance.

  12. They don’t pull out continuing revelation to explain changes except as a last resort. It’s kinda like a Weapon of Mass Destruction: “Okay, conservatives. You will change your opinion on this stance.” They can do that only so often. The hope is that the mantra of church leaders as prophets, seers, revelators holds steady throughout the incremental change.

    Still, as I posted here — if the changes in, say, the Church handbook aren’t explained by the Church, then potentially powerful others will explain the changes for them. What happens when a story about Mormons becomes louder than the story Mormons themselves are telling? It’s a question of controlling history.

  13. I actually eventually want to address the audacity of the HRC in thinking that they impacted anything about the church. I agree with the church spokesperson that that is simply absurd.

    But I’m not sure about the rest of what you had written. I feel like the church will lose control of its narrative, but I don’t know what that will look like and what the extent of the church’s ineffectiveness at trying to retake it will look like.

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