What is the Appeal of Mormon Orthodoxy over alternative ideologies?
In my last blog post, I engaged with Jeff G’s post at New Cool Thang that attributes the deterioration and loss of so many Mormons’ testimonies to the adoption of the alternative ideology of “liberal democracy.” There, I wrote:
I think a lot of causes of disaffection are precisely because we live, learn, and work in a society with profoundly different values than the church espouses and the church’s values can’t keep up in competition.
It’s absolutely not a neutral matter. And for that reason, all the values systems don’t appear as equally interchangeable. But most folks are increasingly steeped in modern values and since the church cannot pull people out of external society, it’s an uphill battle.
For example, we increasingly live in a society (and absolutely prefer such a society) where women have equal participation and autonomy in school, work, etc., so the fact that the church doesn’t operate in step with feminist ideas puts it vastly in conflict with what we enjoy and appreciate in the rest of our lives.
It’s absolutely a values mismatch. But the church has to show why its values should be taken over the outside society’s.
I think that last line quoted is particularly important. Because today, an earlier (I didn’t even notice the article was from October of 2013 until I double checked) post by Jeff G at Millennial Star started circulating through many of the progressive and liberal Mormon Facebook hangouts. This post talks about the trojan horses of Mormon intellectuals. Whereas Jeff now speaks about the dangerous of the ideology of “liberal democracy,” Jeff’s earlier post relied upon the intellectuals’ adoption of a “culture of critical discourse” (or “CCD”).
In the post, Jeff details the aspects of CCD that he finds to be incompatible with Mormonism, and also details four manifestations (the “trojan horses”) where these incompatibilities are instantiated. Per Jeff, the CCD/intellectualism is incompatible with Mormonism because of Mormonism’s stance of priesthood, which Jeff defines as being “a tool which is specifically aimed at stifling criticism by certain people against certain people about certain things.” (To the contrary, the culture of critical discourse rejects the idea that “certain people” or “certain things” can be protected from criticism.)
(For whatever it’s worth, Jeff states that the CCD is not just incompatible with Mormonism on this point, but on any system where some folks (the “authorities”) have the “last word” while others do not, such as the military, court rooms, most work environments, and traditional church organizations.)
According to Jeff, the specific trojan horses by which intellectuals mask their incompatibility with Mormon orthodoxy are the overemphasis of personal revelation, the overemphasis of explicit revelation-tagging statements like “thus saith the Lord”, the overemphasis of the importance of church history, and the overemphasis of the fallibility of prophets.
Most of the liberal and progressive folks online responded negatively to Jeff’s thoughts, but as with the NCT post I covered earlier, I do not think I would disagree with Jeff. Instead, the issue I raised earlier remains ever relevant: why should the church’s values be taken over any other ideology’s?
As a setup to that question, I’m going to highlight part of what Jeff said on his section about the intellectual’s overemphasis of the fallibility of prophets. Emphasis added:
This disproportionate focus on the fallibility of priesthood leaders distracts us from the question of who is uniquely authorized to speak (the prophets) and who is not (the intellectuals) in a rather straightforward way. First, CCD does acknowledge a certain kind of authority within some limited field which is based in qualifications such as competence, familiarity, frequency of citations, and other measures of having passed peer review. In other words, any person’s authority (even God’s?) is exclusively derived from their familiarity and competence with the relevant data, qualifications which can be called into question at any time, by anyone and are thus fully compatible with CCD. This construal of authority as competence serves to connect the question of infallibility with the question of authority in a way which is utterly foreign to the restored church. The intellectuals’ focus on fallibility serves to draw attention away from the calling and ordination of the priesthood leader – things which are not at all compatible with CCD – and refocus them instead on the priesthood leader’s familiarity and competence with the relevant information. It is this view of authority as familiarity and competence, then, that is a major source of malcontent regarding who can and cannot hold the priesthood in the church.
Whether we like it or not – and CCD most definitely does not like it – priesthood authority is not based in the competence or familiarity of the ordained and the fact that our priesthood leaders are fallible does not change the fact that it is their job to speak on certain issues and it is church members’ job to trust and support them. Yes, the prophets are fallible, but their supposed infallibility was never the reason we were supposed to listen to them in the first place. The reasons why we are to follow rather than lead the prophets are the exact things that CCD is designed to dissolve: namely that their social position which they have been set apart to allows them and no others to speak on certain issues regardless of their perceived familiarity or competence on the subject. It is for this reason that while the fallibility of those who carry social standing is of the utmost importance in CCD, the fallibility of priesthood leaders is of marginal importance within a Mormon tradition that does not see competent familiarity with the relevant information as a source of authority. Within a tradition in which people are not authorized to publicly vet prophetic statements regardless of the competence or qualifications of either party, fallibility simply isn’t that pressing of an issue and therefore is rarely mentioned.
As an elaboration of something I wrote in a Facebook comment, what Jeff is doing here is pointing out the ways that Mormonism (at least a conservative strain) really isn’t compatible with secular ideals of critical discourse and evidence. (This isn’t to say that it isn’t compatible with any ideal of evidence or critical discourse, just that it’s not the same standards or ideals.) At best, I think someone might disagree with whether the strain Jeff describes is the only institutionally acceptable form of Mormonism, but here I think recent events continue to show us that the church is far more interested in excommunicating and silencing liberal members than conservative members…
What is crucial is that although Jeff points out there are multiple values systems at play (whether it’s “CCD” as he writes in this article or “liberal democracy” as he wrote in a more recent article at NCT), he doesn’t show why one should rely on one system over the other (although apparently, since he has reconverted, he must have somehow made that determination for himself.) So the real question for liberals to ask themselves is this: “if Jeff is right about what is acceptable Mormon value, just if, then can you comply with that? Would you want to?”
It seems to me that most progressive/liberal folks viscerally react to things like Millennial Star posts, Jeff G’s posts, Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, Mormon Women Stand, and so on, because they would not want to be a part of such a religion. What keeps them in Mormonism (when these folks are saying that that is what Mormonism is) is the conviction that Jeff simply isn’t ultimately right about what the only acceptable or valid view of Mormonism is.
Certainly, there are many possible ways to be a Mormon, but the question is how many of those can credibly be authentic?
I would love if progressive, liberal, big tent, etc., approaches were validated, even as I recognize the conservative critique that in many ways, these sorts of approaches only thrive with a strong conservative base. I think that there are strong cases to be made for these things. But my ultimate, cynical (but in times like these, I feel my cynicism is not unwarranted) conclusion is that Mormonism is not going to validate those approaches, at least not without a lot of heartache and disciplinary action. And the narrower, conservative approaches that Mormonism does institutionally validate will not win out among competing values. Because a lot of people are going to say: “Yes, I like liberal democratic values, even if (and often because) of their difference to conservative Mormon values. I can’t “turn off” critical thoughts, and I don’t see the value of participating in an organization that demands such as a minimal requirement.”
I see your idea that you have fallible leaders that I must follow regardless of their known fallibility simply because they have a social position that demands my loyalty, and I don’t buy it.
But then again, I guess that’s what makes me an apostate, rather than a liberal/progressive member or an orthodox member.