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Orthodoxy as institutional imprimatur

August 11, 2015

Over the past few days, Alison Udall (whom you may know if you visit several of the popular Mormon Facebook groups…Mormon Stories Podcast Community, Mormon Hub, A Thoughtful Faith, etc.,) and I have discussed over Facebook about the new Mormon Spectrum website, of which she is a cofounder. I have written a post about this site at Wheat & Tares, and since it was getting too long (even for me), I decided to cut out an entire thread that I wanted to discuss:

Mormon Spectrum

Many people have complained about Mormon Spectrum for having an idiosyncratic method of classifying websites and blogs. In particular, the orthodox Mormon section only includes official LDS church materials — meaning that any blog, no matter how conservative, no matter how faithful, is relegated to the Exploring, Unorthodox, or Post/exmormon section. (So this produces interesting outcomes…Millennial Star is right next to Main Street Plaza in one of the sections…Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought is right next to the CES Letter in ex-Mormon resources.)

In my conversation with Alison, she gave an answer that suggested this was built into her typology:

ALISON: …We settled on the following areas along the spectrum: orthodox (someone ONLY aware of official church correlated material and unaware and unwilling to trust anything outside of that), exploring (someone becoming aware of material outside of the official correlated stuff and starting to navigate their way through that), unorthodox (well aware of issues and continuing to affiliate with the church in a variety of ways) and post & ex Mormon.

This statement seemed the boldest of everything she had said, and I pushed back. How could orthodoxy only be official church correlated materials? Did that mean that no blog, no matter how conservative, could not be orthodox because it did not have institutional imprimatur? Was Alison suggesting that orthodoxy was more about right affiliation than right belief? When I pushed back again her statement, Alison defended her position:

ALISON: The reality is there are still lots of members that fit this definition. Many many members throughout the world are only looking at official correlated material. Especially outside of the US where their ability to just bop into Deseret Book is super limited or non-existent. I grew up in Germany attending small German branches. All of my knowledge of church history came from what I got at church or seminary. I didn’t attend BYU so I wasn’t exposed to it there. I didn’t attend EFY because they didn’t hold those in Germany when I was a teenager. So even though people might scoff at the idea of our orthodox section and say there aren’t that many members that fit in here….I beg to differ. I was active, temple married, faithfully serving in a variety of callings and unaware until I was in my 40’s.

I also push back on the assertion that much of the uncorrelated stuff (historical issues narratives) are in fact in official church material. We aren’t talking about BYU, Journal of Discourses, BYU Library, Sunstone, etc….we are talking about the manuals we all grew up teaching and hearing from at church. There is a lot of this stuff that still is not in those manuals. As Richard Bushman said [in his Trib Talk interview on the seer stone]… you needed to be a specialist to know a lot of this.

With that, I asked one final question. By defining orthodoxy in this way, did Alison think that orthodoxy would inevitably decline in favor of exploring or unorthodox Mormons?

ALISON: I do think that the number of orthodox members (unaware of uncorrelated stuff) is going to decrease with the internet and the availability of information.

In some ways, that is obvious. It is a logical consequence of the way that Mormon Spectrum defines orthodoxy. If uncorrelated things like blogs are de facto unorthodox, then even with blogs like Millennial Star, orthodoxy will seem to decline over time.

But how much of that is just typology and how much of that says something bigger about Mormonism?

I think the recent controversy surrounding the Mormon Newsroom‘s statements about the Boy Scouts of America‘s decision to allow troops to have gay leaders (if they want!) is interesting. In progressive Mormon communities, the Mormon Newsroom has often been seen as a body with plausible deniability — it is an organization with partial institutional imprimatur, but which the church’s leaders can always disavow if they need to. And so, because of that working framework, many progressive Mormon communities do disavow the Newsroom when needed.

Yet, the Newsroom insists that they do not freelance; they are not rogue; they have full institutional imprimatur.

Defining Mormon doctrine has been said to be as difficult as nailing jello to a wall…but what if it’s as simple as: “Whatever official sources say”?

If so, then there may actually be a change as previously “orthodox” members go online to discuss their views in forums that are not — and cannot — be moderated and mediated by official sources.

Adam Miller has said that theology in Mormonism is gratuitous — it is unnecessary in Mormonism, but because it is unnecessary, it is unbinding. Theologians, therefore, are able to discuss what Mormons can believe rather than what Mormons must believe.

Others have expressed thoughts similarly. At Sunstone a few years ago, in a panel on apologetics, John-Charles Duffy described apologetics as setting up “plausibility structures” in Mormonism — that is, the apologist doesn’t have to prove that whatever hypothesis they are supporting is true…just that it could be plausible within a Mormon framework for belief.

…These sorts of things…plausibility structures and gratuitous theology…allow for many degrees of freedom…but at the same time, maybe that means precisely that they are “exploratory” rather than “orthodox”.

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8 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    Saying that Millennial Star is not orthodox strikes me as absurd.

  2. It’s definitely idiosyncratic, and it leads to a cascade of other issues for the site’s classification system. Like, even if one wants to say that M* is not orthodox (for whatever reasons)…M* doesn’t fit in the same categories as Main Street Plaza and By Common Consent,…

  3. Andrew,

    I appreciate your review of Mormon Spectrum, and I noticed my first traffic from this aggregator today. After reviewing your posts and the explanations at MS, I am struck by the definition of orthodox including lack of awareness as a primary factor. Am I off track in this assessment that for MS, orthodox = unaware? And am I also off track in thinking this is itself shallow and insulting?

  4. Eric,

    You’re not off track. This has definitely inspired the biggest discussion (and controversy) in other venues (mostly on FB). Alison from Mormon Spectrum absolutely did not want to budge from the idea that orthodox = unaware of non-church materials, regardless of everyone pointing out how condescending this is. Her response is that Mormon Spectrum does not cater to orthodox members, and focuses instead on exploring, unorthodox, and post/ex Mormons. She conceded after a bit to note that this would not be how orthodox Mormons would view themselves, so she accepted making a few changes on the orthodox description site, including a disclaimer that “This is how many exploring, unorthodox, and post-mormons may view orthodox Mormons.”

    In the discussions, many people pointed out that many people will perceive themselves as orthodox and disagree strongly with that definition, but she and the Mormon Spectrum team are really digging deep on that front. But as a result of that, it has called into question the exploring and unorthodox categories as well. Lots of criticism that the site implicitly believes that if you’re not orthodox, then you’re on the track to leaving the church. Also, lots of criticism that the site doesn’t explicitly organize in terms of different trajectories — unorthodox and exploring have a bunch of resources pooled together without distinguishing between those who may be conservative but faithful (since these resources, as per the previous paragraph, are excluded from “orthodox”), those who may be liberal but faithful, and those who may be on the way out.

    Alison seems open to discussing certain things about the site, but is not very willing to change the the approach to orthodoxy….

  5. I have to think that this post at M* is not orthodox: http://www.millennialstar.org/yes-god-is-a-child-sacrificing-misogynist-and-racial-bigot/

    There are other examples of people saying some stuff that had to make people in SLC go nuts. While it seemed weird to me at first, I think I agree that anytime someone writes their own take on gospel subjects, it is no longer part of the orthodox narrative. That said, I agree that putting M* next to Main Street Plaza is odd. I like the idea of organizing around different trajectories.

  6. AM, do you think that post is not orthodox because of the tone/poignancy of the language, or do you think that the underlying position (i.e., God is above our modern liberal/democratic 21st century moral categories in ways that would make us find him utterly repulsive from said moral categories) is not what an orthodox position?

    I could see how the people in SLC would go nuts over the optics of the post. But I’m not sure if they would disagree with the underlying message.

  7. Andrew,

    Good question. I guess I would say the tone makes it unorthodox. I cannot imagine that anyone in the COB would want an investigator to read that post. I think if we give Alison’s view a chance, it is not unreasonable to consider how tone and delivery affect orthodoxy as much as content. Saying that God is a misogynistic bigot sounds bad. Thus, it is unorthodox. Only the correlated material presents the proper message in the proper way and, therefore, is the only thing that should be considered orthodox, in that way of thinking. It would not surprise me if many church leaders considered M* an “alternate voice” in the same way that Sunstone is. It just caters to a different audience.

    Now, the GA’s may agree with the underlying message about not judging God by worldly standards, but they would word it very differently. I do not think they would ever ascribe to God negative characteristics even by those worldly standards.

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