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Liberal vs. Literal, Internet vs. Chapel, Mormon Label Showdown

February 4, 2012

Kathryn Skaggs, LDSNanaTo get away from the Reuters/ABC News/apostasy drama-fest that’s been going through the blogs, I’ll get to a bit of a less dramatic dramafest. Kathryn Skaggs (@LDSNana) has written an article for Meridian Magazine announcing, much like Abraham Lincoln (or, for that matter, the Bible), that A Church Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand. I’ll start with (what I believe is) the non-controversial, quite reasonable conclusion first:

I found peace when I finally came to the conclusion that a ward, or our church congregation, is pretty much like our individual families. In the LDS Church, we don’t get to pick which ward we will attend, or who the Bishop is, etc… We have to learn to love everyone regardless of quirks, differences, weaknesses, challenges and so on. I don’t know about your own family, but mine is whack! Nonetheless, they are mine!

I can honestly say, that through all of the challenges of being married for almost 34 years, having raised my five children and having gone through drama upon drama in doing all of these things — that I wouldn’t trade one of them for anything! In fact, I couldn’t even begin to share with you my love for each and everyone of them — which has come through learning how to love each one individually and most importantly, unconditionally! Being a part of a family is the greatest blessing we are given here in this life — with hopes of a continuation. Families of all kinds are intended to stretch our capacity to love. That is the great test that each one of us has on this earth — to ultimately learn to love as He loves us.

Can you think of a better way for us to extend our opportunity to learn how to love as He loves, than through the many differences in people that we find among the body of the saints? I sure can’t! So lets all try to get along and love a little bit better.

Who disagrees with that?

In fact, interestingly enough, I ran across this concept first from the — pardon my labels — “liberal” Mormon (and true blue Mormon liberal) icon, Eugene England, via his Why the Church is as True as the Gospel . From his essay:

In the life of the true Church, as in a good marriage, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve—or possibly even associate with—and thus there are opportunities to learn to love unconditionally (which, after all, is the most important thing to learn in the gospel). There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be “active”: To have a “calling” and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people’s ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures. To attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response. To be subject to leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blind­ness, even unrighteous dominion—and then to be called to a leadership position and find that we, too, with all the best inten­tions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous.

Two keys to this paradoxical power in the Mormon church are first that it is, by revelation, a lay church—radically so, more than any other—and second that it organizes its congregations geographically rather than by personal choice. I know that there are exceptions, but the basic Church experience of almost all Mormons brings them directly and constantly into very demand­ing and intimate relationships with a range of people and prob­lems in their assigned congregations that are not primarily of their own choosing but are profoundly redemptive in potential, in part because they are not consciously chosen. Yes, the ordinances performed through the Church are important, as are its scriptural texts and moral exhortations and spiritual conduits. But even these, in my experience, are powerful and redemptive partly because they work harmoniously with profound, life-giving oppositions through the Church structure to give truth and meaning to the religious life of Mormons.

So, this gets me to the real theme of my post.

As I mentioned, Eugene England, author of that post, is most Mormons would call a liberal Mormon. Yet Kathryn, as she herself describes herself, is a True Believing Mormon or True Blue Mormon. What is the difference? Kathryn uses similar labeling systems to try to express the difference — liberal vs. literal, internet vs. chapel. As she writes:

There are many other terms to distinguish between these so-called liberal and literal Mormons, such as “Chapel Mormons” and “Internet Mormons”. Internet Mormons tending to be more educated, prideful, rebellious, knowledgeable, oppositional to many Church policies and leaders, etc… Then we have your generic Chapel Mormons, who sit in Church on Sundays with the “all is well in Zion” approach to their membership, who know the Church is true, confident in their Exaltation — also known as “clueless” to the Internet/liberal Mormon who knows the “real truth”. Ugh.

From the part I quoted of her article at the top of this post, you should see that her point is ultimately to encourage people to avoid using labels. However, in grappling with the labels, she exposes their usefulness, and she exposes the true flaw behind labels.

The usefulness of labels

Quite simply, labels are useful because they help us sort people out. Yes, they may be problematic in that they cause us to overgeneralize. They may cause us to fail to appreciate the nuance that every person have. Nevertheless, when we’re speaking about broad groups instead of particular individuals, the fact is that the labels describe groupings that are meaningful.

If we didn’t want to use labels, then perhaps Mormons ought not label themselves “Mormon.” Perhaps they ought not care whether Christians want to let them use the label or not.

But this isn’t the case…Mormons use the label Mormon because they view themselves as distinctive in a way that deserves a mention. Christianity is a label with different groups who have differing opinions on what deserves to fit within that label.

So, labels are valuable…it just matters whether we have effective labels or not. That is where I’d suggest Kathryn first errs:

Kathryn is trying to conflate too many different labeling systems…and the issue is that the labeling systems weren’t meant to be interchangeable. For example, she’s conflating the liberal/traditional moral (or progressive/social conservative political) dichotomy with the liberal/orthodox religious dichotomy. It would be fine if she were just talking about liberal Mormons vs. “TBMs,” but that’s not all: she further conflates the previously mentioned dichotomies with Internet/Chapel.

But here’s the thing…the internet/chapel mormon dichotomy wasn’t developed for quite the same reason that the liberal/traditional, progressive/social conservative, or liberal/orthodox dichotomies were developed. There may be “many other terms to distinguish between these so-called liberal and literal Mormons,” but “Chapel Mormons” and “Internet Mormons” weren’t really one of those term pairs. Rather, the term “internet Mormon” was to describe the growing (mostly online) phenomenon of apologetics groups. The idea was that the ways apologists tried to reason against criticisms of the church would be foreign to the average member in the chapel, and perhaps counter to official pronunciations from GAs.

But, for the most part, apologist groups don’t try to go against the GAs. They aren’t calling for social reforms, either.  They aren’t “rebellious.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t liberal religious or politically liberal “internet Mormons.” But the term “internet Mormon” wasn’t really developed with that in mind.

The real flaw behind labels

As I alluded to above, one flaw with labels is that they flatten individuals…it takes the three-dimensionality of a person and puts it into an easy to comprehend cartoon. But as we are talking about cartoons, we often forget that there is depth to a person beyond what we see on the screen.

But even worse, labels are prone to judgments. They are prone to negative connotations. And I think that’s what Kathryn means to decry. She means to say that it’s a shame that “liberal” Mormons see “literal” Mormons as “clueless.”

…but here’s the issue…the judgments go both ways. While she ultimately doesn’t want people using labels, her use of them reveals her inner thoughts. For her, Internet/liberal Mormons are “prideful” (not something you want to be seen as in Mormonism particularly), “rebellious,” etc., Of all the words she could use to describe, these ones certainly have less-than-positive connotations.

But ultimately, are we trying to go for a happy-feel-good tolerance zone? Or, especially with something like religion, are we kinda going for judgment calls? Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we distinguish between “Mormon” and “non-Mormon” — because the idea is that those states will have very different impacts for people in the future (or so, people believe)? If we say no to labels, then don’t we essentially say no to the consequences we believe about those labels?

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  1. David permalink

    I taught a class on personality that discussed personality traits as dichotomies: flexible v rigid, introvert v extrovert, etc. Granted that each trait is seen as a continuum, still, who wants to be labeled as “rigid?” but by substituting consistent for rigid, you get the same feeling but without some much judgement. Not irritable, but sensitive. The problem with poltics, religious and otherwise is that initially neutral labels become infused with negatives. Patriot, for example.

  2. David,

    I think that last point that you mention is really insightful…even language and terms that start out as neutral can become infused with negative connotations…language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so that’s something we should always expect…

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