A recent discussion at By Common Consent about the role of public affairs, and whether church members are permitted to disagree with the Newsroom [1] led to the following comment by Nate Oman:

I do, however, think that the Bloggernacle at times mistakes arrogance, cynicism, and posturing for intellectual insight, moral nuance, and righteous indignation. That happens at T&S, it happens at BCC, and elsewhere it happens with even greater frequency. I think that our covenant relationship with the Church is like a marriage. It rests in very large part on habits of affection and loyalty, habits that can be eroded by mental and conversational habits in which we dissect the beloved’s shortcomings with others. I assume that it would be dangerous for my marriage if I was to spend a lot of time kibitzing online with my friends about my wife’s failings. Now, I think that marriage is ONLY an analogy to the covenant relationship with the Church, and hence I think that there are lots of conversations about the Church and its failings that are quite appropriate and would be harmful in the context of a marriage. Still, I think that it is ridiculous to suppose that our public discussions of Mormonism have no impact on our emotional and spiritual habits, or that such habits are not very close to the heart of what it means to faithfully keep our covenants.

This is an analogy that has been used a lot with regard to how people handle church.  Some view the church as a flawed but ultimately supportive partner, while others see the church as an abusive spouse.  Jesus referred to the church as his bride, also pointing to a covenant relationship.  Either way, the analogy bears more scrutiny, and like many parables, yields the most valuable insight when we look at our own behavior rather than that of others.  Nate’s version of the analogy is worth exploring, particularly in that it is consistent with E. Oaks’ remarks on criticism.

I think he’s right in part.  I love his choice of phrase “habits of affection & loyalty.”  Certainly if we spend the majority of our time focusing on our partner’s flaws, we will ultimately feel cheated and entitled to a better relationship.  For example, if I go to my kitchen and see my husband’s dishes not done, just left out on the table, as if a servant is going to take them to the sink and wash them, I may feel a twinge of resentment.  I can wash the dish.  I can express my discontent.  I can leave it there.  I can be passive-aggressive and stew over it.  I can humbly remember that although he didn’t wash his dish, he did spend an hour fixing the leaky air conditioner in the hot attic without any help from me.  Marriages are full of give and take, and when I take a broad view, we each contribute plenty.

According to studies, there are 4 things that predict divorce, and maybe there’s a church counterpart to these:

  1. Contempt.  This goes beyond negativity and criticism to seeing yourself as superior.  In a marriage, this might be thinking “I could have done better,” or “I can do better.”  In one’s relationship with the church, it might be when a person feels morally superior to the church, feeling smarter than, better than or more sensitive than the church.  The reason this is bad is because you quit contributing and being sensitive to the needs of your partner when you think they are inferior.
  2. Criticism.  This goes beyond observing someone’s flaws and turning that into a statement on their character.  What kind of person doesn’t wash his own dish?  A slob.  What kind of person doesn’t help repair the air conditioner?  A selfish person.
  3. Defensiveness.  This relates to one’s willingness to shoulder any of the blame in the relationship.  Do you frequently see yourself as the powerless victim or do you consider how your actions and reactions have contributed to the relationship?
  4. Stonewalling.  This is refusing to engage in a dialogue about issues.  There are many who would say the church does this by not brooking any criticism, and yet, the church does seem to be engaging with criticism in some of the topics that are being addressed.  It’s difficult to draw a comparison to church

First of all, it seems this goes both ways. If the church criticizes and shows contempt for gay people or stonewalls legitimate concerns of women, that’s also a predictor of “divorce.”  I was also reminded of the old adage that you should enter marriage with both eyes open and after that keep them only half-open.

But here’s where the marriage analogy falls apart for me a little bit. There seems to be a difference between the institutional church and one’s local ward.  If so, it seems that the local ward experience trumps the institutional church, for good or bad.  If my ward is like my spouse, then maybe the institutional church is more like my in-laws or my spouse’s friends.  If my local ward is mostly welcoming and empathetic, full of friendly faces, mingled with occasional idiotic Fox News comments, but really there for me consistently when it matters, then just maybe that outweighs the institutional church which is more theoretical and less a lived experience.  I can take this pragmatic view since I don’t work for the church or attend a church school.

Going back to the four predictors, if I evaluate my own perspective, here’s where I feel I shake out.

  1. Contempt.  I’m probably 50/50 on this one.  On a bad day, it’s easy to feel superior when I hear some of the incredibly stupid things people say and believe.  On a good day, I see that there is also a lot of good heartedness mingled with the idiotic, and we go to church to explore how to live our Christianity, not to hear smart people say wise things.  I can watch TED Talks for that.
  2. Criticism.  I do a bit better on this one, in particular within my own ward.  These are people truly worth admiring.  They care about us and our kids.  They are good neighbors as well as being good examples.  Church leaders in the highest ranks, who knows?  I don’t know any of them well enough to form a negative opinion on their character, although I do see flaws in things that are said.  I assume that like most people of their generation, they are slightly racist, homophobic and sexist.  I don’t expect them to rise above their entire generation.  I’m sure future generations will see me as a product of my time also.
  3. Defensiveness.  I do pretty well at avoiding this one, mostly because I really hate “victim” talk.
  4. Stonewalling.  Generally speaking, this one doesn’t seem to fit as blogging isn’t a two-way dialogue.  Nobody asked me.  Ultimately, nobody cares what I think.  That’s the nature of the beast.  Que sera, sera.

Let me ask each of you the same questions about your habits of affection & loyalty with the church, locally and institutionally.

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Discuss.

[1] According to the Newsroom, no.