Recently, I’ve noticed a meme from conservative Mormon commentators on certain progressive or liberal Mormon causes. I can’t say when I first started hearing this argument, but I will try to illustrate it with a few examples. First, a plain, moderate, matter-of-fact statement from our very own Hawkgrrrl, in response to Mormon Heretic’s recent post asking people to chime in on their thoughts of Ordain Women’s most recent General Conference (to attend the Priesthood session at their local stake centers) action:
…First of all, trying to attend another church meeting is definitely not my style. Second, sisters attending locally had a few different outcomes: 1) some few attended with little fanfare, 2) some attended after a bit of browbeating at the door (being asked why they wouldn’t follow the prophet), and 3) some were reportedly blocked from attending by men at the doors so their womanly taint would not disrupt the meeting. IOW, it’s a reflection of local leadership how the women were treated.
Those who were treated shabbily will probably be gone within a year, along with their families. Maybe that would have happened anyway. Some people seem to care about that more than others.
In Hawkgrrrl’s comment, the meme I would like to discuss is stated as an observation rather than an argument, but I have seen in many other places a similar concept expressed in more intentional terms. Example 2 comes from the same discussion, part of a comment from SilverRain:
I personally don’t think OW should have been turned away originally simply because they have rendered themselves not important enough to be worth the fight, but sadly the Church played right into their hands. The sheer demand for the leadership to communicate with them demonstrates hubris and an inability to be taught. Every change regarding women that has happened has been done in spite of OW, not because of them, by those who are humbly and earnestly petitioning in faith. They refused the lines of communication open to them, demanded and forced ones more to their liking, then failed to understand why they were rejected out of hand.
I believe it’s because many of those organizing OW fully intended the rejection of those who play into OW’s scheme. There are many earnest, believing, faithful people who have joined themselves to OW, never realizing that they are patsies being used to “prove” how hard-hearted and out of touch Church leadership are. Sadly, the only winners here are the ones pulling the strings. The casualties are those with good intentions who have been misled.
This isn’t limited to Ordain Women and to blogs. Example 3 comes from a Facebook group discussion on progressive Mormon efforts for recognizing gay marriage within the church (…or whether there will even be such efforts). There, one person stated this concern more overtly:
Yes, revelation will prevail. All the while, how many will apostatize because they cling to the idea that a western democratic style of governance should override God’s method of revelation for His church?
My worry isn’t that activist mobs will be effective in influencing God’s revelations, it’s that they’ll be successful in leading away members of the church.
Is progressivism the road to apostasy?
The common thread of each of these examples is this idea that progressive causes and progressive activism leads to apostasy. Even more, that the goal (whether intentional or not) of activism is to lead otherwise faithful members into apostasy.
From the last comment I’ve shared, that first paragraph actually sounded very familiar to me, and I realized when I read the comment today that I had seen it as the thesis of a couple blog post from certain conservative Mormon bloggers. Most notably, I can think of two posts from Jeff G addressing this idea, one from New Cool Thang and one from Millennial Star. So, in Example 4, from Jeff’s One Does Not Simply Lose One’s Testimony at New Cool Thang, Jeff contrasts the values of “liberal democracy” with the values of Mormonism:
This is THE lesson that I have learned regarding my misguided departure from the church. I had worked myself into a position where the values and standards of the gospel had become a second language to me – second to the values and standards of liberal democracy. The latter had taken the place of the former as my default mindset, the habitual patterns in which I automatically and uncritically thought, spoke and acted. Through years of training and practice, I had come to evaluate and measure the church and its values according to those of liberal democracy at a deeply intuitive and emotional level rather than the other way around. I had come to feel more repugnance, offense and moral indignation at the thought of somebody violating my liberal democratic values than if they had violated those of my Mormon upbringing.
The values of “liberal democracy” align with a what Jeff G earlier described as the “culture of critical discourse” (CCD) at M* (oh, and that article is actually titled the “Mormon Intellectuals’ trojan horses”, so there again is the meme). So, Example 5:
It is this principled distinction, this setting apart of certain individuals from their peers that is deeply hostile to CCD. Whereas intellectuals embrace criticism as a tool which is to be applied by everyone to everyone about everything, the priesthood, by contrast, is a tool which is specifically aimed at stifling criticism by certain people against certain people about certain things. It is the priesthood, then, and not prophecy which most scandalizes the intellectual, for it is at the very core of their culture to resist anything and everything which says that certain questions, answers and other speech acts belong exclusively to uniquely authorized individuals which have been set apart from their peers. It is the authority of priesthood, then, and not the supernaturalism of prophecy that intellectuals within the church will find themselves compelled to ignore, reinterpret or otherwise repress.
The Facebook commenter I quoted earlier (Example 3) said something else that makes me believe that he has been reading Jeff G…he said, regarding gay marriage but quite applicable elsewhere (emphasis added):
What interests me is the progression (or regression). Virtually all of the progMos I knew during Prop8 did not advocate for ecclesiastical endorsement of gay marriage. They were only in favor of gay marriage because they felt it was the lawfully fair thing to do, not because they condoned homosexual behavior. Now, however, most progMos I know favor ecclesiastical endorsement. Why the change? Does progressivism naturally lend itself toward a replacement of religious ideals with secular populism?
The following response was SO ON POINT (and it indirectly led to the creation of this post):
I’d say it lends itself to the replacement of religious ideals that synthesize the secular populism of the last generation with religious ideals that synthesize the secular populism of the current generation.
The reason I liked this response so much was because it pretty much encapsulated my questions (unsatisfactorily answered) to Jeff G. Jeff (and the facebook commenter above) speaks of apostasy being a replacement of Mormon values with liberal democratic (or critical) values. But he has no satisfying answer for the following two questions.
- Since Mormonism is not the dominant ideology, how does the church or Mormonism ensure that any of its members have been converted to Mormon values? (IOW, I as a member for life still lived and worked and went to school in a secular society. I might concede to someone like Jeff that I value liberal democracy or critical discourse over Mormon authoritarianism, but I can’t say there was ever a time when I didn’t. Living life in America means living life in a sea where liberal democratic ideals are the water.)
- How can we be so sure that some members (or even leaders) aren’t confusing or conflating Mormon values with secular conservative values? (As someone who has lived in the Bible Belt, I’m fairly sure conservative or tea party values are not actually Mormon values.)
Don’t get your hopes up
To try to tie together all of these quotes and thoughts, I would like to summarize the argument as I see it. It seems to me that some conservatives view liberal or progressive movements within Mormonism as being pathways to apostasy. Per this meme, how this works it that, whether explicitly or implicitly, the progressive activist replaces a faithful member’s Mormon value system with an external, secular value system. After that, they set the member up for disappointment as the Mormon church inevitably doesn’t live up to the external secular value system (and the supposedly authentic Mormon value system becomes no longer palatable to the member.)
So, the biggest argument against progressive activism basically is: don’t get your hopes up!
(This is related to a similar argument I’ve heard about apostasy — that apostates took the church too seriously.)
But I have a big counter-response, and it ties to my questions to Jeff G.
The conservatives seem to think that if liberal Mormons didn’t agitate, people would be OK with the status quo. They would remain within their Mormon values and not have that boat rocked.
I think this is dubious. I think the cause-and-effect relationship is mixed up. It’s not that agitation turns faithful members into apostate liberals. It’s that faithful, liberal (maybe apostate?) members are driven to agitate. The agitation happens because there is already a demand for it, and these movements pick up in steam because people feel empowered to do something to change the status quo, and think that something can happen.
I agree that there’s disappointment if and when they get knocked down, but whether they believe change is possible or whether they are resigned to believing that change is not possible, the status quo is still unacceptable to those members. Liberal Mormon activism isn’t the cause or catalyst for apostasy then. The status quo is unacceptable by itself.
In fact, I would probably go as far as saying that not only does liberal Mormon activism NOT cause apostasy, but it keeps some members in. Instead, what causes apostasy is when people who are unhappy with the status quo stop believing change is possible.
What do you think?