The Difficulties of Mormon Diversity
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At the end of every blog post I try to add something clever about donating. The “try” part isn’t about adding the sentence, it’s about being clever, and I fear that I fail more often than not. But asking for money is always something of a grubby business, with lots of questions attached. For example, just the other day, one of my donors, who I know personally, asked me what I did with the money. Well there are hosting expenses for the podcast, and I use some of it for my vague attempts at marketing. Of course, the dream is to make a living at it, but I am a LONG way from doing that.
Among the questions, you might be wondering about, is whether I, myself, donate to any blogs or podcasts. I do, to several. One of the blogs/podcasts I donate to is LeadingLDS, and if you happen to be LDS I urge you to give it a listen. It’s fantastic. And of course once you do listen to it, and realize how great it is, you should donate to it as well. It’s run by my good friend Kurt Francom, and in fact if you could only donate to one of us, you should definitely donate to him. He is trying to make a living at it.
You may be thinking that all of this is a prelude to some sort of fundraising drive, that pledge week has come to the blog, but actually all of this is just my way of introducing the subject. Recently LeadingLDS published an article, by Ryan Gottfredson, about the orthodox-
progressive divide in Mormonism. It was a great and thought-provoking article and it prompted me to want to discuss the same issue. There are several reasons for this: First, I want to offer some comments on the original article. Second, I want to offer more extreme examples of what he’s describing, though still within the context of the Mormon Church. And finally, I want to look at how this applies to the world at large, because, obviously, a similar split is happening everywhere, not just within the LDS Church.
As I said, let’s begin with my thoughts and comments on the original article. Right off the bat, I should make clear, that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only did it cover a topic that needs as much attention as possible, but it did it in a way that was straightforward and useful. Accordingly here, in no particular order are some things I liked:
His emphasis on not avoiding conflict but managing it, was particularly timely, and something I think that everyone should be reminded of, but particularly religious leaders, since there is often an incorrect assumption that if religion is working properly that there will be no conflict.
Furthermore pointing out that conflict, if handled well, can be beneficial. (A point I’ll definitely be returning to when it comes time to discuss the world at large.)
Specifically identifying the orthodox-progressive divide, naming it, and relating it to other religions in a way that was easy to understand. In particular, I think most Mormons would be alarmed to have a split in Mormonism as great as the split in beliefs between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
I thoroughly enjoyed his examples, particularly given that I have encountered three of the four things he gave examples of personally, so it was nice to know it wasn’t just me. (Full disclosure: I have a beard. This will be important later.)
As our understanding of psychology grows it’s becoming more apparent that fundamentally some people have a more “liberal” or progressive disposition while other people have a more conservative disposition. He specifically brings in the OCEAN standard, which I won’t get into, but if you’re curious you should check out the original article.
My final point is a bigger one, and unlike the other five, it’s a criticism. But you should not take this to mean that I didn’t like the article or that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I already said it’s great. This is only an indication that it takes more words to expand on why a certain part might be a little weak, than it takes to say, “Preach on Brother!” a bunch of times. So what is this criticism? I feel that his examples, and his orthodox-progressive continuum are both drawn too narrowly.
Let’s look at his actual examples, as I said above, I liked them, but I also think that if we closely examine the problems he discusses, that while they are real, are not the kinds of things that keep people up at night. At least the stuff he talks about is not what’s currently vexing me. I’ll start by relating his examples and then offering up a different example, in a similar vein, but vastly more severe. I’ll be doing this from the perspective of a hypothetical Stake President. For those who aren’t LDS, the Stake President, is the highest authority most people would actually know and interact with. In other words for most issues, he’s where the buck stops.
Gottfredson’s first example of conflict between the orthodox and progressive wing of the Church concerned a meeting about ministering to people on the fringe. And the problems which arose when someone brought up people struggling with same sex attraction as one of the groups on the fringe. From the article:
More orthodox members… were not very happy that same-gender attraction was brought up in the meeting, and several went to the Stake President to complain.
As I said I have experienced situations very similar to this. And yes you will have people who feel that even mentioning same sex attraction (SSA) is the first step on a slippery slope that leads to gay marriage in LDS temples. But when even the LDS apostles are talking about reaching out to individuals struggling with SSA, and when the Church is putting up a website about the issue. I don’t think this example is really going to be that difficult for our hypothetical Stake President.
Now, to turn to a more extreme version of this. My wife has several close family members who are gay and in the past she actually marched in the gay pride parade, as you might imagine she is not the only LDS person to have done so. In particular I’m thinking of Mormons Building Bridges, who have a webpage devoted exclusively to pride parades. On that page they mention an interview with one of the apostles, Elder Todd Christofferson where he seems to be saying it’s okay to march in a pride parade. Despite this, imagine a situation where a member’s gay son, and the son’s husband want the member to march with them in the pride parade. You can see where this situation, even in light of the comments by Elder Christofferson, presents a very different, and much more difficult question, than the situation given in the example.
To reiterate, this is not to say that the initial example is not valuable, but rather to say that things won’t end there. And I’m interested in examining how to deal with conflict which increasingly appears to difficult or impossible to reconcile.
His second example is about beards, and the argument wasn’t so much about the appropriateness of beards but whether a Stake President was making a reasonable request to have certain of the leaders be clean shaven, and if so, whether it was the individual's duty to obey that request. In reality it was less a debate about beards than a debate between obedience and agency/choices.
Nearly this exact thing happened to me. I was called to a position of leadership and the Stake President asked me to shave my beard. At the time, I’d had my beard for probably 13 years (with the exception of shaving it off once on a dare, but then growing it right back.) And I admit it did seem silly. But I was prepared to shave it off, if that’s what he wanted. Fortunately the Stake Presidency was replaced before I was put in, and the new Stake President didn’t care. I bring this up to point out that, having been on the other side of this issue, that while it was a little bit annoying it wasn’t that big of a deal.
As a more extreme example, imagine this: I often talk about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Once again we turn from my actual Stake President, to our hypothetical Stake President, who may already be getting pressure we don’t even know about on beards (I have it on pretty firm authority that President Uchtdorf is very anti-facial hair.) And then you get someone from the MTA, who comes in and asks him what the Church’s position is on replacing his perfectly working hand with a cybernetic hand, or wants to know the church’s position on cryonics. With the beard you can at least look at Church Presidents previous to David O. McKay, but where do you go for the answers about cybernetic hands? You may think this is more “improbable” than “extreme”, but it will be happening sooner than you think, for example cryonics is already available.
His third example concerns a discussion of the apostasy of early members of the Church, along with offering reasons for why these people might have apostatized. This discussion alarmed people who didn’t want any focus given to potentially negative events from the early history of the Church. Once again, given the lengths that the Church itself has gone to provide illumination on these issues, including publishing the Joseph Smith Papers, the Gospel Topics Essays, and things like that, I don’t think this is going to be very tough one for our hypothetical Stake President to handle.
Once again it may seem like I’m beating up on the original article, which is not my intent. In the original example he’s talking about being in the middle of giving a lesson when the people he’s teaching start to object, I have very much been in a similar position, and I agree that it requires a great degree of tact to avoid causing offense or discomfort. Accordingly the article touches on something that’s very common and very difficult, but it’s manageable, and the original article is exactly what you should be reading to understand how to manage it. As I said, the direction I’m headed and what I want to explore is the stuff that is less manageable, not only because of my own curiosity, but because I think that’s the way things are headed.
In any event, returning to the example, we’ve discussed the original, what’s the more extreme version? Well at the last conference, apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk where he revisited and re-emphasized the Church’s Proclamation on the Family, explaining how it came about, the care with which it was crafted, and the ways in which the world has changed since it was issued. In it he draws particular attention to the ways in which attitudes towards same-sex marriage (SSM) have changed and reiterates that the Church’s position has not, and is still that “marriage [is] between a man and a woman”. Lincoln Cannon, prominent member of the MTA (and yes, I’m using them again) responded to this by, as far as I can tell, acknowledging the inspiration of the Family Proclamation, but pointing out that it doesn’t specifically enjoin against same-sex marriage. And further pointing out that Church standards on marriage have changed, i.e. with respect to polygamy. All of this culminating, again, as far as I can discern, (perhaps he’ll stop by and clarify) in arguing that Elder Oaks is wrong when he claims that the church’s standard will not change even in the future.
His final example, concerns a statement released by the Church in support of the LoveLoud festival, which has a specific focus on LGBT youth. Once again the response was predictable with some people angry at the recognition while others applauded the Church for being so inclusive. In this case it’s something the Church officially did, so our hypothetical Stake President should have no problem passing the buck upward, so to speak, though to be fair it is possible for people to become disaffected and leave because they’re more conservative than the main body. Still, as I think the previous examples of SSM and SSA show, people who feel the Church is not progressive enough are far more likely to leave than those who feel we’re not conservative enough.
As the more extreme example, I turn to another episode of LeadingLDS where Francom had a roundtable interview with several members who experience SSA, gender dysphoria and family members of individuals with those issues. In this episode one of the female panelists was married to a man who strongly felt that his true gender was female. To make her husband feel comfortable the ward/bishop (and I assume the Stake President) had decided to allow this man to attend church meetings while dressed as a woman. That is, by all accounts, remarkably open-minded, and I suppose we already know what decision the Stake President made in that situation, but I don’t imagine that it was an easy decision, and I’m guessing that most Stake Presidents are hoping to not have to deal with similar situations.
Again, I am not providing the more “extreme” examples as an attempt to undermine the original article. In fact following the LDS principle of milk before meat, I think the original article represents some excellent milk, and a great entry way into understanding the issue, and dealing with the conflicts that can arise, in fact if you have somehow made it this far without reading Gottfredson’s article you should read it before continuing with this one. But, having read that article I think there’s some pretty tough meat to tackle afterwards. Whether it’s someone who wants to march in the gay pride parade, or a man who wants to wear a dress to church, and the question of where to draw the line is difficult and only going to get more difficult. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
I may have mentioned a recent trip to Montreal, but I don’t think I mentioned why I went. Well, the purpose of that trip was to visit an old mission companion, who has come out as gay, left the church and now lives with his husband/partner. (Which I guess makes me one of the progressive members? Who would have thunk it.) While there, I asked my friend where I should draw the line. Obviously his response was that I should be pretty accommodating, but even he thought the story of the man attending church in a dress was stretching things.
Obviously being maximally accommodating is one possible strategy, and is, in fact, the strategy that probably the majority of people have adopted. And by doing this we do end up with maximum diversity. Which is one of Gottfredson’s recommendations. That said, diversity is an interesting word, and I don’t think I’m being very controversial to say that it’s a loaded word, so loaded that it’s lost many of the nuances of meaning it might once have had. In fact if I’m being honest I think that these days it’s become less an exhortation which leads beneficial actions and outcomes, and more a password, that lets you skip otherwise difficult questions and shows that you’re “with the program”.
I know that for the really progressive (those people featured in the extreme examples) Dallin H. Oaks is probably their least favorite apostle, but I’d like to reference a talk he gave on diversity back in 1999:
Since diversity is a condition, a method, or a short-term objective—not an ultimate goal—whenever diversity is urged it is appropriate to ask, “What kind of diversity?” or “Diversity in what circumstance or condition?” or “Diversity in furtherance of what goal?” This is especially important in our policy debates, which should be conducted not in terms of slogans but in terms of the goals we seek and the methods or shorter-term objectives that will achieve them. Diversity for its own sake is meaningless and can clearly be shown to lead to unacceptable results.
And this is where, to conclude, I’d like to shift from talking about the Church to talking about the world at large. There is a similar orthodox-progressive split, and similar conflicts, and similar calls for diversity. And I think both the examples we’ve already covered and Elder Oaks counsel about diversity being a means to an end, rather than an end itself, transfer very well to the wider society.
To being with, not only is diversity a means to an end, but there are various kinds of diversity. (This is one of the nuances which is in danger of being lost.) The two biggest categories are ideological diversity and qualitative diversity. As an example someone might have the quality of being a women, or asian, or transgendered, but none of those qualities necessarily imply anything about their ideology, which may also be different, or, more and more, exactly the same.
To Gottfredson’s credit he mostly emphasizes ideological diversity, which, if you’re looking at diversity as a means to an end, rather than an end itself, is the sort of diversity we should be encouraging. (Interestingly, religion is one place where someone might plausibly argue that you shouldn’t have a diversity of ideas.) Ideological diversity is how you get new ideas, it’s how you keep one idea from being taken to an extreme, and it’s the only way liberal societies function period. Despite this there has recently been a rejection of ideological diversity in favor of qualitative diversity.
In many respects this rejection mirrors what is happening in the Church, though at a much larger scale. And the punchline to all this is that qualitative diversity is, for all intents and purposes, diversity for its own sake, and because of that ends up being naturally opposed to ideological diversity because it is, in fact it’s own separate ideology. Qualitative diversity/diversity for its own sake, ends up being indistinguishable from ideologies like “Live and Let Live” or “Do whatever makes you feel good.” Or more broadly the idea that no one should be able to tell anyone else what they should do. And if that’s your ideology I suppose that’s fine, but by cloaking it as true diversity, those advocating this end up entirely undermining, true, ideological diversity.
Of course you can see why Elder Oaks was worried about it, since telling other people what they should do is the essence of religion. And I understand that people are uncomfortable with this, and that it is, in fact, precisely the reason they’re not in favor of ideological diversity. Because certain ideologies may condemn whatever it is they want to be doing. But, as usual, people overstate the value of individualism and understate the value of sacrifice and community. Thus there is a natural tension between doing something for the good of the community and the inherent selfishness of diversity as many people commonly understand it. This is what makes Gottfredson’s advocacy of ideological diversity, and all advocacy of ideological diversity so important. And this is what makes allowing the constructive conflict he advocates, important as well, because ideological diversity functions best when there is a marketplace of competitive ideas.
There’s much more that I wanted to say, and I’m not entirely sure that what I’ve have said is as clear as I want it to be, but I’m out of time. So, I’ll end by emphasizing the importance of allowing ideological diversity. Of not confusing it with diversity for its own sake, and finally of recognizing that this whole subject is becoming more and more difficult. So, if your hypothetical Stake President, asks you to shave your metaphorical beard, remember the importance of ideological diversity, and try to be understanding…