Recently, a discussion about Neo-Apologists has erupted in various online forums. This is a term that, although not new or uniquely Mormon, was coined by John Dehlin in a Mormon context. About a year ago on reddit, he explained how he was using the term to contrast “new” apologists with “classic” apologists:
Classic LDS apologists = Examples: Hugh Nibley, Daniel Peterson, Lou Midgley. Brian/Laura Hales. Old FARMS, Maxwell Institute prior to eviction of DCP. Old FAIR. Use(d) faux scholarship, ad hominem, etc. to defend the church. Live in the binary, “church is true/false” world. “Validity” truth criterion (vs. utility truth criterion). Very literalistic in scriptural interpretations. Try to defend past GA actions/statements. Brass knuckles and/or dismissive with critics and/or doubters. Squarely Fowler Stage 3 LDS church participants. TOTALLY becoming marginalized/irrelevant in today’s Mormonism. Ironically, still have influence amongst the brethren (i.e., DCP publishing column in Deseret news) since most (if not all) of the First Presidency/Q12 still hold this world view.
Neo-apologists = Terryl and Fiona Givens, Richard Bushman, Adam Miller, Dan Wotherspoon, Gina Colvin, Thomas McConkie, Patrick Mason, etc. Don’t focus on “true”, but instead on “good.” Pragmatic truth criterion (vs. validity truth criterion). Focus on practical value vs truth claims. More universalistic in approach to church — view LDS church as one of many paths. Use mellifluous prose, humanities, philosophy, and pragmatics to justify staying in the church. Acknowledge GA imperfections, de-emphasize following the brethren dogmatically. Focus on liberal/symbolic interpretations of scripture. Make slight attempts to be more pastoral/empathetic (at least in word) in their approach to critics, but often prefer to ignore them in public discourse. Attempting to grow a Fowler Stage 5 population within LDS church participation. TOTALLY on the rise in today’s Mormonism. Have become the darlings of Deseret Book and Peggy Fletcher Stack, which is really ironic and fascinating.
At first blush, I have a few observations about these descriptions. First of all, a caveat: I don’t find Fowler a particularly convincing model for faith stages.  It’s too self-congratulatory of those with diminished or nuanced belief and too dismissive of all others. It also points to an underlying temperament difference rather than actual “stages” that a person goes through. Fowler seems like a recipe for self-deception.
Secondly, I think the “brass knuckles” description is a bit unkind and overstated, although believe me, I haven’t appreciated some of the strong-arm tactics of a few individuals on his list. I think his point is that the “classic” apologists are more aggressive and less forgiving of dissent and that they often take umbrage at positions held by the second group, whom they consider to be wolves among the sheep rather than true or valid defenders of the faith. Apologists have historically often disagreed with each other, so this is nothing new. It should also be stressed that those in the second group probably would likely not self-identify as apologists at all, but more on that in a minute.
I did a post back in 2008 explaining apologetics a bit more. That post was partly in response to a conversation I had with John Dehlin at the time. It was clear he didn’t think much of apologetics in general, and so my post was framed as a defense of apologists (although I wasn’t enamored of them either–I just wanted to explore the topic in more depth). I have generally seen apologetics as a necessary byproduct of criticism. In short, the apologists respond to the critics to defend the religion from whatever the criticisms are. Their position is always defensive; the critics set the stage. Those who revile apologists do so on the following grounds:
- They are not objective. Of course not, and neither are critics. Apologists always start from the position that the church is defensible or in some way right and the criticism is either untrue or irrelevant.
- They are defensive. Yes, they are literally defending against a criticism. That’s what apologetics are.
- They require “mental gymnastics.” This is a tricky one. One person’s logic is another person’s twisted logic. “Mental gymnastics” can also be a byproduct of a defensive position. As I have often said in business, “When you’re explaining you’re losing.” Whenever you take a defensive position, you sound . . . uh, defensive.
- They bicker. Yes, but the other guys started it!
- They are irrelevant. It does seem to me that defending faith and belief with logic and reasoning is counter-intuitive. We don’t “prove” our way into a testimony. As Peter Enns said in a Maxwell Institute podcast, once you introduce the scientific method and secular reasoning into religious argument, you’ve already conceded the field. You’ve made religion a secular study.
As commenter Clay Whipkey noted in that discussion:
The process works like this (very similar to litigation):
1. criticism is given
2. indictment is made (doubt)
3. apologist presents a complicated defense
4. in many cases, the best the defense can do is re-introduce reasonable doubt in the details of the criticism, but usually it does nothing to support the faithful claim
Neo-Apologists in Evangelicalism
This term isn’t John’s invention. For another take on the term, check out this post by Fred Butler on an Evangelical site called Hip & Thigh. There are actual year long programs to become an Evangelical neo-apologist. The blogger takes umbrage at certain features of neo-apologists that don’t necessarily apply to Mormon neo-apologists (if such a thing exists beyond the borders of John’s mind):
- They aren’t anchored to a local church.
- They aren’t scripture focused, but rather anthropocentric.
- They are often in their early 20s.
- They aren’t officially sanctioned.
Those criticisms don’t apply to the group of people John identifies for the following reasons:
- Everyone who attends church as a Mormon is tied to a local congregation. We don’t shop churches like Evangelicals.
- Mormons aren’t a sola scriptura religion. You could argue (perhaps) that Mormonism would substitute leaders for scriptures and apply the same criticism, but since our leadership is an oligarchy, I would argue that Mormonism is anthropocentric. Therefore, neo-apologists being anthropocentric would be a very Mormon approach, not unique to apologetics.
- These guys are certainly not all in their 20s; they have more decades of life experience.
- The people John identifies aren’t in any deliberate grouping and haven’t done a certification program.
But that doesn’t mean that just because they aren’t like the self-identified Evangelical neo-apologists that they don’t represent a new apologetic movement. The criticisms leveled at the Evangelical neo-apologists aren’t authoritative, just one blogger’s opinion. From what I’ve seen, apologists tend to be individuals writing defenses of a religion, with or without reference to the bible, with or without special schooling, and with or without affiliation with a local church or other apologists.
Are Neo-Apologists Apologists?
So that’s what apologetics are and how they work. Back to the question about whether Neo-Apologists are really apologists or not. One Redditor, TigranMetz, argues that the Neo-Apologists should be further split into those that are progressive (seeking change) and those who are passive about change (de facto supporters of the status quo):
I also think that “neo-apologists” should be split into two groups. The first group of neo-apologists recognize and acknowledge some of the pressing issues, but then just side-step them and say that the status quo should go on anyway because it makes them feel good (in so many words). The second group of neo-apologists differ from the first in that they also advocate for systemic change to the status quo, however slight that change may be. Consider the following three straw men:
Issue: Joseph Smith made a lot of objectively dumb decisions and made mistakes that objectively hurt the church (i.e. bad choices in counselors and other leadership, BoA and Kinderhook plates, Kirtland Safety Society, etc.).
Classical Apologist: JS was clearly inspired and most of that information is out of context, blah, half-truths, blah, blah, triple pretzel somersault, blah. So you see? The Church is perfect, our prophets are perfect, and we should obey them perfectly no matter what!
Neo-apologist 1: Yes, these facts are real and they present issues to the official narrative. It seems JS wasn’t as perfect as we thought. However, I get such great feelings when reading the Book of Mormon and feel spiritually enlightened by the subtle supernal scribbles found therein! The church and our prophets aren’t perfect, but they are connected to God somehow so we should still obey them perfectly because they are His inspired mouthpieces on earth!
There is no functional difference between these two. They advocate for the same thing: conformity to the status quo. They just reach that conclusion from two different angles.
Neo-apologist 2: Yes, these facts are real and they present issues to the official narrative. It seems JS wasn’t as perfect as we thought. These facts illustrate problems with the practice of following our leaders as if they were infallible. I still have good feelings about church generally, and feel spiritually enlightened by scripture, etc., but I think the organization as a whole will improve and step closer to perfection in Christ if it stops perpetuating the myth of infallibility and rescue the Law of Common Consent from the depths of vestigial obscurity and re-institute it as a real balance against unchecked authority.
The second group of neo-apologists both acknowledge the issues and advocate for change within the system. In other words, they see the system as inspired, but is also imperfect and could benefit from change.
John’s response to this:
I think the church is trying to have it both ways. For people still in a black-and-white worldview, they’ll offer up the classic apologetics. For people troubled by the new information, they’re recommending Givens and Mason. Making room for the nuanced believers means that they have to take the sharpest edges off the classic approach, but it doesn’t mean it’s going away entirely.
But apologetics is always “the church having it both ways” because apologists are unpaid shills for the institution  and that’s how it’s been since the dawn of Christianity. The critics criticize, the apologists defend, ad infinitum, worlds without end. This isn’t something the church invented for its nefarious purposes. Well-wishers of the church who want to help people fazed by specific criticisms of the church are wise to point them to the most effective apologetic sources they can.
As Matt Thurston aptly put it in the 2008 discussion, classic apologetics often fail to persuade when they are too strident and lacking in nuance:
My problem is that Church feels like an anemic two-instrument symphony… I can only hear the Correlated Piccolo and the Apologetic Violin.
Surely this is a case for a more nuanced approach, whether progressive or not, one even divorced from implied institutional backing. Redditor zoidbergs_moustache further explains the differences between individuals lumped into John’s “neo-apologist” category:
I think of apologists as starting with the conclusion and then making whatever contortions and leaps are necessary to support it. It’s a bit different than the dictionary definition that you quote. Maybe less charitable? I think my understanding is common among internet mormons, but I don’t have any data to say whether it’s more or less common than the dictionary version.
I think my definition applies as well to Nibley/Peterson/Hales as to Givens/Bushman/Mason, but the conclusion being justified has changed from “the church’s story is literally true” to “the church will make you a better person”.
From my reading of his book, listening to his Colvin interview, and hearing him at a ATF meeting in Alpine a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t say that McConkie starts from the conclusion that you should stay in the church, and then tries to back it up. He is very much centered on personal growth and development from a clinical (and sometimes mystical) perspective. I would agree that he justifies continued engagement as a valid path. But it’s just one of many equally valid paths. I don’t think he would say that “the church will make you a better person” is true for everyone.
Colvin I don’t know as well. I’ve heard her many times on the interviewer side, but not as the interviewee or advocating any particular path. My hunch is that she’s justifying her decision to stay, but it really doesn’t feel like she’s pushing that decision for others.
I think you’re making an important distinction between the old and new styles of dealing with people’s doubts. It’s hard to lump McConkie and Colvin in with them though. I don’t think the brethren like them much. On the other hand, maybe my liking them is clouding my judgment.
And commenter anironrod takes exception to the underlying agenda to categorize the later group as apologists at all, seeing it as counter-productive:
Terryl comes across as having devotion and loyalty to the church. He’s committed to furthering the purposes of the church.
I get more of a sense from Gina that she finds herself in the church because of previous decisions. The church isn’t anything special–it is just where she is and so out of service to the community she continues to explore ideas within the context of Mormonism.
Further–John I don’t know if you have some sort of goal in mind with your current advocacy. But if you generally think it is good for orthodox members to transition to more and more progressive and open thinking, then each of these people and the approach they take can be a stepping stone on that path.
It doesn’t do them a service to all be labeled as ‘neo-apologists’ and to be forced into the same box.
Can a group be considered apologists merely because they find good in an institution (without defending individual points of doctrine), even if they are marginalized by that institution? The term “apologist” as used by John has usually been a slur which is why applying it to some of his close associates (Dan & Gina) is perplexing. In a related note, I know John has previously considered me an apologist, although I think the definition here is so broad that anyone who writes from a pro-church perspective, whether progressive or critical–so long as they still hope for the good of the church–is an “apologist.” Surely we aren’t all apologists? Or maybe we are.
Because of the church’s exclusion policy toward gay people, graspingreality implies that anyone who hopes for change has to be cast as an apologist because being Mormon and progressive is apparently an oxymoron:
I like this and I’d argue that “neo-apologists” is a better description than “progressive” Mormons.
Applying “progressive” to active participants in the wake of the exclusion policy seems absurd. You would never call anyone participating in most far right organizations “progressive.” “Neo-apologists” fits.
Given the description, is apologetics really what these folks are doing? Doesn’t that make everyone who still sees good in participating in the church an apologist? Does the label “apologist” apply when people are no longer defending the church from specific criticisms but defending:
- their own decision to engage?
- the choices of believers to remain involved despite disagreement?
- the institution’s flexibility to progress past current positions?
 Or as kimballthenom put it in the Reddit link:
The Fowler Stages of Faith:
- Stage 1: You don’t know shit about the tooth fairy.
- Stage 2: The tooth fairy is gonna make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.
- Stage 3: Perhaps a buck-fifty isn’t gonna get you very far in life.
- Stage 4: You realize your mom always has a buck-fifty less in her purse after every time the tooth fairy visits.
- Stage 5: You don’t know if the tooth fairy exists, but the thought of its existence makes you happy.
- Stage 6: The tooth fairy does exist. You are the tooth fairy.
And then there is me who jumped ship at Stage 4. Faith is not the virtuous trait I thought it was. It’s a sham. It teaches us to trust our feelings over verifiable logic. The tooth fairy doesn’t exist. Get over it already.
 “Every member an unpaid shill” didn’t catch on so they went with “Every member a missionary.” However, I hasten to add that there are apologists who are subsidized by the church, including the “kidsplainy” 3 Mormons Youtube videos.