Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
2 Nephi 2:27
A comment on Mormonism: Inside and Out, the collaborative blog between John Dehlin and Patrick Mason, reminded me of an experience I had in high school.
Throughout the scriptures, “expedient” is used to describe good, righteous, appropriate, moral things. Over at Mormonism: Inside and Out, commenter rah was contrasting a particular form of disaffection (involving a sense of betrayal over historical truth claims) with another form of disaffection (involving a more fundamental distrust over the moral claims of the church and its leaders) and wrote a comment that agreed with this basic understanding.
I think [church leaders] have not only sound reasons but a moral obligation to honestly deal with the possiblity [sic] of being mistaken when they are affecting the many thousands or millions by their teachings. For me this is about integrity, honestly and self examination – the core of living a moral life. Is it more *convenient* for them not to do this? Yes. I believe a core teaching of Mormonism is that convenience is not a barometer of doing what is right or being honest.
I don’t think this statement should be surprising. I think if you asked almost any member, they would agree that convenience is not a barometer of doing what is right or being honest.
An Inexpedient Truth
So, you could imagine my surprise when I was in 10th grade English class, taking one of the old SAT-style analogy vocab tests, and I missed a question on “expedient.” I don’t remember the exact question, but I do remember was that the analogy was looking for an antonym, and the correct antonym for “expedient” was “moral.”
After missing this question, I decided to do what I probably should have done in the first place, and I studied my vocabulary list. I went to the Dictionary. And there I found something I did not expect:
1. tending to promote some proposed or desired object; fit or suitable for the purpose; proper under the circumstances:“It is expedient that you go.”2. conducive to advantage or interest, as opposed to right.
3. acting in accordance with expediency, or what is advantageous.
Of these three examples, the first and the last appear to be morally neutral, while the second is indeed seen as in conflict with what is morally correct.
As a 10th grader, this was just a momentary curiosity, but after years of disaffection, I’ve wondered if there is anything more to expedience in Mormonism.
“Some things that are true are not useful.”
Boyd K. Packer has been a perennial favorite for disaffected Mormons, for a number of reasons, but his The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect is infamous in its own right, particularly with Packer’s second caution to historians:
There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.
Some things that are true are not very useful.
As with the question of convenience vs moral principle, I don’t think there would be any question if you asked Mormons about whether Mormonism is concerned with truth. Yet, here we have a quote from Packer that suggests that the pursuit for truth must take utility into consideration.
This explicitly pragmatic approach rankles disaffected Mormons, many of whom likely were not raised with the understanding that there needed to be a calculus between truthfulness and utility (or perhaps even that there could ever be conflict between honest disclosure and utility).
From the perspective of someone who believes that truth is valuable for its own sake, it seems extremely challenging to reconcile the idea that truth instead should be seen as instrumental to some other goal.
What does Mormonism really believe?
At the end of the day, I think that a lot of the profound miscommunication between disaffected Mormons and faithful Mormons (which comes out on blogs like Mormonism: Inside and Out) is due to a fundamental disconnect over what Mormonism fundamentally is, teaches, and believes about itself and the world. Notwithstanding the correlation process (or perhaps partially because of the correlation process), people raised in the church or who convert to the church develop an internal understanding about what Mormonism is, and if they find out that that internal understanding doesn’t match the external reality, that can call into question the foundation for their having dedicated time, energy, and effort into the church.
It seems, however, that it would be too easy, too cheap (and, therefore, too simple to account for complex reality?) to say that Mormons really are amoral, only following what is useful, practical, or expedient (in the sense of what is advantageous, as opposed to right). At the same time, the strength and scope of faith crises suggests that a simple view that Mormonism prioritizes truth and morality in a vacuum is also likely to be untenable.
Really, I think that if one really pays more attention, one will see that Mormonism does care about truth and morality, but that those claims have always been tied to practical concerns.
Let’s turn back to Boyd K. Packer’s Mantle.
Earlier, Packer states:
There is no such thing as a scholarly, objective study of the office of bishop without consideration of spiritual guidance, of discernment, and of revelation. That is not scholarship. Accordingly, I repeat, there is no such thing as an accurate or objective history of the Church which ignores the Spirit.
You might as well try to write the biography of Mendelssohn without hearing or mentioning his music, or write the life of Rembrandt without mentioning light or canvas or color.
To secular critics, this assertion is nonsense. From a secular perspective, not only would “objectivity” (especially in a scholastic sense) not require insider elements such as “spiritual guidance,” “discernment,” or “revelation,” but perhaps, it might sometimes preclude such things.
So, it makes sense that nonbelievers should find this to be a non-starter.
But what about Mormons?
I think that a cause for a lot of disaffection is that many Mormons come to believe that Mormonism should stand and fall on essentially secular grounds — that members (prospective or otherwise) can rate or judge the church’s truth claims (historical, moral, or otherwise) using the same tools as they would use for other secular pursuits, and that Mormonism stands or falls depending on its ability to meet those secular grounds.
So, from the realm of history, these Mormons expect that scriptural events stand or fall based on the extent that a disinterested archeologist could find the material implements of those scriptural events. From the realm of translation, these Mormons expect that a scriptural translation stands or falls based on the extent that a secular translator can verify the message and the translation.
From a realm of finances, these Mormons expect the sort of financial disclosures that we would expect of secular organizations, and we expect the church to cleanly steer clear of for-profit terminology (such as “corporation”) in a way that even our secular tax code distinctions does not require for churches. This of course, has implications outside of taxes and finances — on moral grounds, these Mormons expect the church to silo its moral beliefs regarding LGBT (or anything else) similar to what is expected generally in anti-discrimination statutes (that is…public accommodations should not discriminate, so to the extent a church wants to promulgate beliefs that are seen as discriminatory, they should not operate in the public.)
If you read those three paragraphs, you may see yourself in them, or you may recognize that as a belief of some members you know. But are those essentially Mormon beliefs?
Might it be that ultimately, Mormon moral thinking doesn’t concede ground for its own judgment to secular processes?
Every so often, there are articles written scrutinizing LDS church finances (such as Bloomberg’s “How the Mormons Make Money“). While the article was criticized by many faithful LDS (see especially this Deseret News article) for its insensitivity, there were a quotation of D. Michael Quinn from even that article that made me think a little differently:
On the other hand, says historian D. Michael Quinn, who is working on a book about the LDS Church’s finances and businesses, “The Mormon Church is very different than any other church. … Traditional Christianity and Judaism make a clear distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal, while Mormon theology specifically denies that there is such a distinction.” To Latter-day Saints, opening megamalls, operating a billion-dollar media and insurance conglomerate, and running a Polynesian theme park are all part of doing God’s work. Says Quinn: “In the Mormon [leadership’s] worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars.”
Though D. Michael Quinn was excommunicated as one of the September Six, it seems to me that his comments should not be so readily dismissed as distorted. If you google for about the temporal and the spiritual with respect to Mormonism, you can find several talks on lds.org from throughout the years discussing the relationship. From an April 1981 conference talk from Marion G. Romney is a much older quote from Joseph F. Smith:
“You must continue to bear in mind that the temporal and spiritual are blended. They are not separate. One cannot be carried on without the other, so long as we are here in mortality. …
“The Latter-day Saints believe not only in the gospel of spiritual salvation, but also in the gospel of temporal salvation. We have to look after the cattle, … the gardens and the farms, … and other necessary things for the maintenance of ourselves and our families in the earth. … We do not feel that it is possible for men to be really good and faithful Christian people unless they can also be good, faithful, honest and industrious people. Therefore, we preach the gospel of industry, the gospel of economy, the gospel of sobriety.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939, p. 208; emphasis added.)
This thinking should seem reasonable, especially if you know the church’s past history with near bankruptcy. Although this is written to address the financial point, this similar thinking can be used to better explain Mormon positions elsewhere. After the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination posted its Gender Identity Guidance, one of my faithful LDS Facebook friends, in commenting on the conflict between religious liberty and anti-discrimination statutes, made the following remark:
The law assumes that churches have two categories for what their church does:
1. Religious stuff
2. Non-religious stuff
I don’t really know of any seriously religious organization or individual who makes these kind of distinctions.
Let me tell you a little secret – It’s ALL religious.
While I believe there certainly should be protections for minorities at public accommodations and am perturbed that “religious liberty” seems to be the biggest avenue against LGBT folks these days, I would have to admit that there’s something to the idea that even something like a spaghetti dinner open to the public serves a religious cause for a church [hello…missionary work?]
Ultimately, it gets back to that concept of expedience. Although one definition (and the definition commonly used in today’s world…at least on the SAT) contrasts expediency with morality, there were still other definitions, like:
tending to promote some proposed or desired object; fit or suitable for the purpose; proper under the circumstances
This definition is neutral; it depends on what the proposed or desired object is, or what the purpose or circumstances are. For Mormonism, though, at least ostensibly, we know what the object, purpose, or circumstances are. Again, from the scriptures:
And Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.
Ultimately, I can’t decide for anyone whether Mormonism actually aligns with its goal to promote things that promote Christ, or are suitable for the purpose of returning to Christ. But I hope that we can recognize when we are judging Mormonism according to a secular framework as opposed to a Mormon-internal framework.