The increasing political polarization in our country has some interesting parallels in early colonial history. There are some underlying reasons progressive church members and conservative ones don’t see eye-to-eye. We have different values and different fundamental visions of the role of religion and freedom. This has always been the case.
A few months ago, I was listening to a Maxwell Institute podcast interview between Blair Hodges and history professor Ben Park. Professor Park was talking about the very early arguments about religious freedom and the ideals of the American nation. I’ve been reading more about this time in history since my trip to Boston and investigating my Massachusetts Bay Colony ancestors.
In the colonial days, every town and settlement had its own version of religious values and government, and these were designed based on the founding members’ values and beliefs of what was an ideal society. Puritan groups believed in “religious freedom,” but they meant the freedom to create a society bound by their “true” religion. They didn’t want to be persecuted or prevented from worshiping in their own way, but they also wanted the right to persecute others and keep them out of their society through heavier taxes, not allowing them to vote or hold office, or not granting them lands. Many early settlers were executed simply for being Quakers (the charge was heresy).
Some more progressive settlements wanted to privilege the founding religion (through tax benefits or giving them a public role in ceremonial events), but to tolerate other religions. And then there were pluralistic societies like Pennsylvania where there were simply too many different religions to privilege any one of them, so they resorted to neutral language about religion that would not offend anyone (although many of the preachers would co-opt this neutral language and claim that it bolstered their own brand of faith). These more diverse societies believed that religious freedom meant that there was a free market of religious ideas, and that true devotion couldn’t be a byproduct of compulsion or it would result in hypocrisy. People had to be free to choose their religion without any pressure, based on their own beliefs.
I mentioned in an earlier article that I had an ancestor (Johnathan Fairbanks) who came to Massachusetts without religious conviction, but who converted and signed the Dedham Covenant. Towns that were founded by Puritans had a written and signed covenant that was a pledge from the signing members that they and all their progeny would hold the same values outlined in the document, and as a result, they and all their progeny could be participants in the community. They would be able to vote and be elected to office in local government. They could be part of a support network with their neighbors. All of these rights were based on a professed shared religious belief. If you didn’t claim that, you couldn’t participate. The entire society was based on a desire to create an ideal society, entered freely, but binding to future generations (under the assumption that because they were following God’s will, their descendants would likewise want to build on what they were creating).
In other places, like South Carolina, religion was used to maintain the status quo and order outlined in scripture, such as the role of slaves and masters. Slaves were originally not taught the gospel because they were not considered equal. Beginning in the 18th century, they were taught the gospel as a way to teach them to obey their masters the way their masters were supposed to obey God.  It was also a way to teach them that they were cursed, that their skin color was evidence of this curse, and that their role as slaves was God-ordained.
Interestingly, New Englanders were against westward expansion and immigration, and their arguments may sound familiar. An excerpt from the interview transcript:
HODGES: Right. In a democracy, if you add more people to the pool who disagree with you, you lessen your own power.
PARK: Right. They also have an amendment of limiting immigration, or at least the voting rights of immigrants, saying that “these people coming in”—who often vote Jeffersonian—”we don’t trust and we don’t see them as part of the American body so we want them excluded from voting.”
This concept of who is IN and who is OUT is one of the key defining problems of nationalism as discussed in the interview. Different people at different times and in different places have included or excluded people that didn’t fit their vision of what America should be. In the conclusion of the interview, he summarizes:
PARK: It reaffirms that our rhetoric matters, that our civility—the way we think about other people has a tangible effect; that whether we in our mind include certain people into our imagined nation has a direct link to the types of policies we try to implement. And I think that’s why images of representation, that’s why our language concerning people, matter. Because it’s not just some abstract thing. It’s the foundations upon which we build our literal nation.
HODGES: What do you think’s holding it all together right now?
PARK: I don’t see anything holding it together right now. When I look at America I see a fractured nationalist culture. I see people who are disagreeing not just on policies, but on foundational principles upon which those policies are based. And I think the more that people recognize that we need to return to the basic principles and then move from there I think the better our nation will be.
I can’t help but draw the parallel with our church culture and the vision of church members and leaders for what the church is.
- Is it a group of people bonded through covenants who are striving to bring about the second coming through temple work? If so, then determining purity and “worthiness” are vitally important to achieving this. Anyone who is not a true believer poses a threat to the group.
- Is there a social hierarchy within it upheld to maintain order and status quo? Is it ideal to exclude some from the power structure in an effort to uphold order? Or is this just a status quo argument posed by those with the most to lose, those for whom the status quo works well as is and those who hold positions of power and influence in the existing structure?
- Is it an invitation to all to join and better themselves and participate? If their views and ideas shift the group’s perceptions, is that a threat to our way of life and to the mission of the church or does it make us stronger, more empathetic and more resilient?
 Anyone else hearing the parallel here?
In my experience, Satan often tries to convince us that we only have two (bad) choices to keep us from taking the right path. One simple example — if he can convince us to decide between being “Liahona” members and “Iron Rod” members he has already won (as we need to be both Liahona and Iron Rod members).
Sorry, to continue (accidentally posted early):
It is the same thing. The Church is all of your examples. It is a place to come together and participate to become better. It is a place for people bonded together by covenant to do saving ordinances (including temple work). And it is a place with a structure because the Lord’s House is a House of Order (run, of course, by imperfect people). One could almost say it is for proclaiming the Gospel (come together, participate and become better), perfecting the saints (this structure will help to teach and bring us further light), and redeeming the dead (temple ordinances). Admittedly it is not a direct correlation in this example, but it isn’t wholly different, either.
I think we run into problems when we either (a) try to divide up and exclude certain necessary parts of the Church; and likewise (b) when we try to add to that or turn the Church into something it isn’t (charitable organization, social club, etc.).
So you ought to read Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. It gives a lot of background on the roots of New England culture, which gets all the historical attention, but also the middle colonies and the south. In many ways, it was the pluralistic and more religiously tolerant culture of the middle colonies that came to define America, not the sectarian, evangelistic religious culture of New England.
That aggressive New England approach nevertheless carried a lot of cultural and religious influence. There was what some scholars refer to as informal Protestant establishment (behind the veil of formal religious disestablishment) that prevailed in America until Supreme Court cases in the 1950s finally gave other religions true equal standing before the law. But a consequence of dismantling informal Protestant establishment was displacing some of the shared values, both religious and political, that went with it. Result: the Sixties, and the increasing diversity that has followed in its wake. The Sixties were a cultural, political, and religious revolution that is still playing out and that America is still struggling to come to grips with.
While I agree with Prof. Parks’ call for more civility in politics and public rhetoric, how to engineer a return to more shared values in the public polity to support that outcome is a challenge. We can’t go back to the Fifties. Same challenge for the LDS Church, where the way senior leaders talk it’s clear that, in their mind, the 1950s is the cultural template for the ideal society. They can’t stop complaining about how The World and even The Saints won’t talk and think and behave like we are still in the 1950s (they aren’t very troubled by the rampant racism and sexism of that era). It wasn’t until THIS DECADE that LDS leaders could finally bring themselves to explicitly repudiate the Mormon racism that continued to circulate all through the Church, 1978 notwithstanding. That’s how far behind the curve they are.
To a certain extent, I think the general authorities of the church have been pursuing a Purity of Purpose model over the Diversity of Thought model. I think of President Hunter’s emphasis making the temple the “great symbol of our membership” and President Hinckley’s subsequent acceleration of temple building which still continues. This increased emphasis for members to get temple recommends – a literal purity litmus test. While one can make the case that the recent change to the temple ceremony is a move to accommodate a greater diversity of thought, the gate-keeping questions haven’t changed.
Without getting into whether the church should pursue one model over the other, I can see grass-roots leaders (Bishops/Stake Presidents) taking a more accommodating view of how members decide to answer questions in the temple recommend interview. In fact I’ve seen this happen as members question leadership direction on women and gay issues but still get recommends. Could be the temple structure is left intact but the grass-roots adjust what purity of purpose means. New definitions may themselves lead to greater diversity of thought.
From the other side of the world, it looks like the only way America can return to basic values is to remove Trump. He does not seem to support any uplifting values, like honesty, truth, respect for others, respect for women. It will take a while with a respectable leader to get back to normal.
Pres Oaks seems to be the exponent of religious freedom in the church, and what he seems to want is the right to be a bigot, without anyone saying he is a bigot. So that is not going to happen. Like his fight against gay marriage which he lost, this one is a looser too.
Freedom of religion is the right to practice your religion. Religion has lost the right to impose their values on others, because they abused it. Religion has spent all its respect, and is now just like anyone else with an opinion. One would hope that a prophet would be better at choosing winners, and garnering respect. Sadly not.
The one way that the 1950 to 1970s were better than today is that society was more equal. In the US the share of total income going to the top 1% in 1970 was 10% it is now 20%. Australia was 5% in the 70s and is now about 9%, some northern european countries are 5% now. https://ourworldindata.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Top-Incomes.png
Part of the dissatisfaction is caused by inequality, and how to deal with it in a free society. Why people support a devisive figure like Trump is beyond me, and how members justify it also beyond me. It is difficult for me as a member to be associated with Trump supporters.
The many recent changes in the LDS church appear to me to be a feeble effort at accommodation to a degree, of more diversity of behavior and thought. What perplexed me on a recent tour of orthodox relatives in Utah is their frequent anxious reference to these many changes as a sifting process, or a separation of the wheat and the tares. I don’t get it and heard no sensible explanation. I also became aware that many seemingly orthodox members do have a shelf stacked with concerns they do not deal with at this time. The shelf is not close to collapse for most, but accommodations are threatening to them and added to their shelf.
Mike, I’m hearing the shifting metaphor pretty regularly in my nonjellobelt ward. Right next to that is that the changes are in preparation for the imminent arrival of the second coming. I see this as a sign of stress in the membership. Everyone wants to understand why these changes are necessary (and so suddenly for many) and that is the best faith- promoting answer that most come up with. I find myself feeling compassion
Huh.. it suddenly posted mid word…
I feel compassion for those who do feel stressed about change. I know that feeling.
Let’s not lose sight of the important news here: you listened to a podcast!
Great post, Angela. I worry that we are experiencing the inevitable results of a loss of community as we increasingly form online groups detached from our everyday lived life.
Amen and amen.
They split my ward about 7 years ago when the youth numbers were in the single digits. Sacrament attendance was over 150 then but mostly transient young couples without callings. That was the justification. Since then most people regret the split and sacrament meeting attendance is under 75 in each ward. Most of that generation of youth (only 6 years between age 12 and 18 are disengaged. Nothing like the failure of one’s grown children going astray and shacking up with their lovers, etc to cause orthodox members to disengage from the community. It is obvious that when parents are inactive, children seldom become active members but the opposite also is not uncommon.
My wife attends a evangelical church that meets at 10:30. We ahve agreed to not let church split us (and little else). We go to sacrament meeting at whichever ward is meeting at 9:00 am. We have a few friends in both wards and some of them have moved. Being inactive for 1 year and then semi-active for another on the one hour block program makes it impossible to form close new friendships.
On line chat groups seem to be dwindling to me in favor of one way entertainment. The final irony is that more than half of the audience in sacrament meeting are playing with their digital devices during the meeting.
“If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything.”
But few people can stand on a narrow platform.
The church is really several churches; there’s the more-or-less everyone welcome on Sunday, come-as-you-are church. It’s wide and fairly basic. As you go deeper into it the rules become increasingly stringent. They can be capricious in nature serving solely as gatekeepers, or they may have some substantial reason for existing; that part seems less important than their existence as gatekeepers.
For church, one such gate is the temple and its endowment. But additional layers exist. These barriers to random thought processes maintain the purity of the CORE while the edges waft back and forth drifting somewhat with the tide; like a boat with a really long stretchy rope but still solidly anchored. You won’t even see the anchor but it’s there and you don’t want it to move or it isn’t an anchor.
All groups (IMO) purify themselves. A group may start out somewhat randomly; some men and women meet at the mall and discover they have some interests in common. They form a group, maybe a -Users Group (UG). It grows. It starts to institutionalize. Pretty soon it has requirements for admission, gatekeepers and founders and police; acolytes and detractors. Its purpose might be established AFTER the group has formed, in which case as the group membership changes so will its purpose.
Greenpeace for instance has almost nothing left of its original purpose or membership.
My willingness to sacrifice to a group depends in large part on the stability of that group; its adherence to enduring principles rather than fickle personalities.
Geoff-Aus writes “It will take a while with a respectable leader to get back to normal.”
Hopefully a respectable leader will (1) become known and (2) become elected in my lifetime. I have a doubt about either. I do not consider Trump to be any farther/further (not sure which) down that hole as compared to the alternatives which were bred by the very swamp he is at least occasionally draining at the edges.
Honor? Trustworthy? Would YOU vote for an Eagle Scout?
“1] Anyone else hearing the parallel here?”
Yes. A typical blog has all those features. (a group of people bonded through the blogroll, a social hierarchy within it, Is it an invitation to all to join and better themselves and participate? If their views and ideas shift the group’s perceptions, is that a threat to our way of life)