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Progressive Mormon Tropes: Religions as Citizenship

January 5, 2015

As with the exmormon trope I discussed in the last post, I have seen a trope from liberal or progressive Mormons (and some pastoral apologists) more and more often. The setup for this trope will usually be the liberal Mormon arguing for why he or she stays in the church. A critic of the church will counter that the church has a variety of moral failings, and thus, remaining as part of the church is complicity with those moral failings. The trope goes something like this (this is an actual quotation of someone using this argument in an online discussion, so I’m not making this up):

One of the things I didn’t get to explore in the post is the fact that this problem of “myth” vs. “reality” is not just a Mormon problem. It’s a human problem.

We are constantly being faced with the reality that things aren’t always what we thought they were. And when that happens, we are faced with a few options: retrench into literalism, abandon our former beliefs completely, or find a middle way that lets go of some (most) of the literalism but still finds value in the symbols.

I think America is a good example. There are plenty of people disgusted by the fact that our country conducted a vast torture program under the banner of “freedom,” which is a value as Americans that we hold dear. We were lied to by our leaders. They manipulated us, and they manipulated the system in order to get the result they wanted.

And yet, I’m not aware of many Americans who are using this as a reason to renounce their citizenship and move to another country. Because we have the ability (in reality, I think it’s more of a human need) to set aside pure, literalistic interpretations of things and “break the myth” of the thing we once valued. It allows us to keep what we treasure while discarding what is unpalatable for us.

As with before, I don’t know where this trope originated, but it also doesn’t make sense to me. 

There are certain parts of the analogy that I think are broken, but which I will give the benefit of the doubt to the analogizer. For example, I don’t think that American citizenship, or citizenship in general, compares to membership and participation in the LDS church because to be American doesn’t require one to believe that America is the one and only true country, etc., (That being said, I’m giving the benefit of the doubt because I’m aware that there is a strain of patriotism in many parts of the country that would emphasize a sense of American exceptionalism.)

Instead, I’ll focus my criticism on two points: religious membership and participation isn’t obligatory like citizenship is, and obligatory citizenship/residence doesn’t make an argument for truth.

Obligatory Citizenship

Many people will point out that even if they disagree with many political, legal, judicial, or executive actions of the United States government, they choose not to leave because of a number of factors. Maybe they can’t leave. Maybe they recognize the costs are too high. Maybe they feel that other governments are as morally problematic to not justify the switch.

I think these are all good reasons, but recognize that they are just weak enough to allow the progressive Mormon to make the same claim about their own membership in the LDS church. The underlying argument, though, is more simple: if people were really bothered by the things they claim they are bothered by, if people really saw things so starkly, then they would leave, no matter the cost. But most people aren’t, so they don’t.

Here, I think that the obligatory nature of citizenship and residency matters. The fact is that people have to live somewhere. It may not be America, but it must be somewhere.

With religions, one doesn’t have to be a member of a religion or participate in a religion. (To the extent someone will say that people do…and that being unaffiliated or being atheist or agnostic is still a religious choice, then no matter — I’ll just say that unaffiliation/atheism/agnosticism are sufficiently different enough choices that the analogy still fails. It would be like saying: “imagine if all you had to do to leave the country was stop paying taxes, stop participating in the community, etc.,”)

This also leads to my second counterargument:

Obligation as Truth?

Even if one accepts the obligation analogy, this…doesn’t…look all that good for religion. I mean, let’s go back to what I said in my previous section:

Many people will point out that even if they disagree with many political, legal, judicial, or executive actions of the United States government, they choose not to leave because of a number of factors. Maybe they can’t leave. Maybe they recognize the costs are too high. Maybe they feel that other governments are as morally problematic to not justify the switch.

So, if this applies to religion, then we are saying that one might participate in a religion because they can’t leave, because the costs of leaving are too high, and because all of the other options are just as bad.

None of these are a favorable endorsement of the situation.

Additionally, none of these justify believing in the truth of said religion. If one is effectively held hostage by circumstance and that’s the reason they participate, then maybe that is justification enough, but one doesn’t then need to say that the religion is true.

But actually, that leads to a more horrific possibility.

What if these folks who are arguing for the truth of religion (even as they discount the factual claims of the religion) are doing so precisely to avoid retaliation? That not only are they being held hostage, but the terms of their continued safety in the hostage situation is that they have to play this role and paint a happy picture?

I’m sure I’ve offended all of the progressive, liberal Mormon readers I could possibly have by even suggesting this, but that’s just where that citizenship analogy leads to me. I don’t get it.

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One Comment
  1. Seth R. permalink

    Also, citizens have rights.

    Members of a religion don’t. At least not vis a vis, the religion itself.

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