Sunstone 2012 Day 1: The New Political Restorationism…AND FEARLESS AUDIENCE QUESTIONS
If you have not been living under a rock that inconveniently has no wi-fi connectivity, you may have noticed a bunch of people talking about Sunstone this week. Blogging Sunstone is something I didn’t notice in the past (if it was a big deal), but now I see folks writing about their days…such as Bridget Jack at ClobberBlog AND the new Worlds Without End group blog, Chanson at Main Street Plaza, and others that I now do not recall because I did not save the blog links when I read them.
I have decided to join in the fray…
My journey to Sunstone began bright and early…or rather, early, but not-so-bright…I didn’t pack last night, so I had to wake up early to pack. My flight out of Houston was at 8:15, so I wanted to get to the airport by 7:00, which meant I needed to leave my apartment by 6:30.
Things went smoothly enough. When I got out of security and reached my terminal, they were just starting to board (which suggests that I planned with just the ideal amount of time…no waiting, but no hurrying as well.)
My first flight was from Houston to Phoenix. I would then have a flight from Phoenix to Salt Lake City.
When I got to Phoenix, I was aware that I had around an hour layover, but I really wanted to charge my phone. So I scoured pillars around my terminal for power outlets. I don’t want to judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, a city by its airport), but for a city that describes its airport as America’s Friendliest Airport, the impression I left with was that the airport is considerably unfriendly to the teeming masses of folks who have power-hungry electronic devices. Even when I was able to find a power outlet (and my phone claimed to be charging), my battery percentage continued to slip…and so I looked for other outlets.
I was so preoccupied with my search, but somehow, I diverted my attention just enough to hear that they were doing the last call for boarding for the US Airways flight to Salt Lake City.
I raced over there, and saw that the terminal was deserted. The attendant at the desk asked if I was Andrew, and I realized that I was the very last person to board the plane. So I made the walk of shame past a nearly full plane to my seat.
(Fortunately, I wasn’t the only cause for flight delay…there were some mechanical problems that delayed us an extra 15 or 20 minutes.)
In any event, this meant that our plane was a bit late arriving in Salt Lake City, so Jared Anderson — who graciously offered to pick me up from the airport — had to drive around a few times, because airports are like that. On the drive from the airport to the University Guest House at the University of Utah, we immediately jumped into conversation about panels, about topics, about articles and blog posts and recent conversations that had happened on Facebook.
That’s one thing I really love about Mormon cultural events like this and like the Mormon Stories Conference — with people within the Mormon cultural sphere (…whatever that sphere is…every time I try to define what Mormon culture might be…someone shoots down everything I suggest), there’s already that shared background. In other situations, there’s that awkward period where, because you don’t know enough about a person to know what serious topics are OK to broach with them, you resort to small talk. Blech.
I guess this isn’t a pure example, though. Jared and I have been going back and forth on blogs and online…so in some ways, this is just a continuation of that relationship. (Which is why I think it’s silly that many people view the foil of “online” as “in real life” — online is real life. This is true even when I or anyone else might present a persona online that is not presented offline.)
But let me continue with my story…
When I got to my room, I just chilled for a few hours…I had arrived too late to do any of the day’s workshops, yet it was several hours too early for the official symposium opening, the Smith-Pettit Lecture. So, I took a nap (much-needed), and when it was around an hour before the lecture, I started walking to the student union.
I’m not really huge into nature or whatever, and many of my readers probably already have been to Salt Lake City, so they will probably already know what I’m talking about, but since it was my first time, I noticed this for the first time: I knew that Salt Lake City was in the Salt Lake Valley, but somehow, I never internalized that valleys are surrounded by mountains…and so, as I walked around the University of Utah Campus, I saw mountains in the horizon on nearly every side — fuzzy from distance and atmospheric particles obscuring the light, but still omnipresent and enveloping. It was very different from what I’ve experienced in the Great Plains of Oklahoma.
In some ways, that made SLC seem more…close-knit. Like even the geography secludes this place from the outside world.
In the Union
When I reached the union, there was still a bit of time before the presentation, so not a lot of people were there. Eventually, chanson showed up to sit with the Mormon Alumni Association books, and we talked a bit. When the time approached 8, she stayed with the books, but I went into the Saltair room, where Dr. Mark Silk would be presenting on “Mormons and the New Political Restorationism.”
Instead of summarizing Dr. Silk’s talk, I’ll just point to Peggy Fletcher Stack’s great Salt Lake Tribune article, that covers the main bases (that I linked in the previous paragraph.)
What I do want to talk about in this article were a couple of the audience questions that occurred after Silk’s presentation. One question that I want to talk about is, of course, my own…
This is probably a segue that should be its own article, but I believe in asking questions. When I was in school, I would be the person to ask the teacher questions in class (and answer questions that the teacher would ask…especially when I knew that if I didn’t, there would be awkward silence.) Yeah, I was “that guy.” I would be the one to ask guest speakers questions too. I don’t know why, but my ears abhor a void…and I feel it is definitely embarrassing to have a guest speaker and not have any questions for him or her — like, were you even paying any attention?
However, I don’t want to ask dumb questions…my goal is always to ask the question that reaches at something deeper, or that makes connections across multiple things, or that is harder hitting than normal. This tidbit is definitely for an article of its own, but I believe that what turned the tide for me when I was recruiting with various accounting firms for an internship was a question I asked during a recruiting event. In the absence of killer networking skills to distinguish myself, I rely upon my mind and the rare-placed killer question.
At first, I didn’t think I had any good questions, and there were other folks who had really good questions of their own…but at some point in the Q&A session, things just…clicked. I knew what question I could ask. So, my question for Mark was (basically) this: why don’t liberal/leftist/collectivist/”progressive” types use the restorationist trope as well, especially in religious contexts (especially given that “restorationism” is a pervasive and extremely long-lasting trope)?
In other words…check out Peggy’s article again. It emphasizes how *Republicans* and *conservatives* have drawn upon restoration as central talking points, and how these things have shifted various religious groups (Mormons included) toward the Republican party.
…but as many people point out, Mormonism has the elements…the “lego pieces,” if you will, of leftist or progressive policies, as well. The United Order wasn’t really libertarian or conservative. Yet, we see that in the religious sphere, people have essentially “conceded” religious precepts to conservatives, and as well, they have “conceded” the idea of restoration to the conservatives. If you’re liberal, then you increasingly 1) flee religion (and become a “none”) or 2) don’t mention your religious values in any centralized way if you are religious.
(For whatever it’s worth, I can think of a few answers to my own question…the very framing of “progressive” vs. “traditionalist” or “liberal” vs. “conservative” suggests that those on the left might not recognize the potency of “Restoration” as a trope — and I dunno, maybe Jon Haidt’s moral foundations research could shed light on that. As well, those on the left also tend to be more universalistic when it comes to religion, so trying to create a leftist politics tied to particular religious beliefs seems incompatible with that. Nevertheless, I think the thing about efforts like Sunstone, Mormon Matters, Mormon Stories, etc., is that various folks are saying that not only can you be Mormon and liberal, but that you can be liberal because you’re Mormon, and you shouldn’t be ashamed or try to minimize that.)
The Killer Question
I thought my question was pretty good, and Mark had some interesting comments in response (one thing he had pointed is that you have to be careful about the restoration trope…at some point, even if we appeal to principles of our religious past, we have to recognize that there were some parts about the past that are not amenable to modern progressive politics. But just as well, it’s not like conservatives are necessarily restoring the past either — the idealized past is just that…idealized), but the person after me really shook things up.
She was an older black woman, and she actually stood up to ask a question before I did…but I was closer to the mic, which gave me the advantage. She started out her question by pointing out that when she heard people talking about “going back to the original intent of the Constitution,” that didn’t even seem like a good idea to her — after all, indubitably, the “original intentions” of the Constitutional framers weren’t equality for all folks, regardless of color, race, sex, etc., If she had had the right to vote (which she wouldn’t, as a women), she would be treated as less than a full person because of race — according to the original interpretation of the Constitution.
…so, she continued, the restorationist ideal to her seemed to have racial implications…which also shows up in things like voter suppression. And so she said, “It’s disturbing that we have people in Congress who say publicly that their single most important political goal is to make our president a one-term president. Has that ever happened before? And has it ever happened that if someone has said such a thing, there hasn’t been any backlash?
“It seems to me that the good ole boys woke up in 2008 and saw a nigger in the White House. What do you have to say about that?”
YES, on the first night of my first Sunstone ever, I get to hear someone use the n-word…and although some people seemed shocked, nothing happened. Actually, that’s a lie…what happened was she received applause.
At that moment, I knew: this is the place for me.
After the session was closed, some people whom I didn’t even know came up to talk to me. Some came to compliment me on my question, but one guy came to ask me if I agreed with the other lady’s question.
(OK, I’m not going to go into the possible ramifications of that…I mean, did this guy ask all the white folks if they agreed with her?)
I was considering my answer (traps…there are so many!), and then the lady walked by…she had a bit of an entourage, and she said, on her way out, “Ok, let’s roll out.” I want to use the phrase “like a boss” in a completely unironic way to describe her demeanor here. I want to subscribe to her newsletter, RSS feed, book club, whatever.
So, I think I’ll end that there. I feel pretty good about the rest of the symposium based on the events of this opening night.