Three bright young Mormon scholars have started an interesting public conversation by publishing Radical Orthodoxy: A Manifesto at an online LDS journal. The public conversation has continued in articles at the Salt Lake Tribune and at By Common Consent. The Radical Orthodoxy (“RO”) folks have set up their own website with some additional essays fleshing out their views. I’m going to first take a short look at the Radical Orthodoxy post and why I think the three authors and two dozen signatories think this proposal needs to be published and defended. Second, I’ll spell out my alternative proposal, Conventional Unorthodoxy, and suggest that is what the Church really needs to make room for.

Radical Orthodoxy?

In the summary blurb at the top of the Manifesto post, the authors situate RO as a middle ground between skeptical scholar/critics of the Church and an emergent movement of young online defenders of the Church who energetically espouse traditional conservative LDS faith claims:

Many young believers feel the only options they have are to be rigidly dogmatic to the point of being fundamentalist or to reject the Church’s teachings in favor of progressive political doctrines and intellectualism. This statement encourages intellectual engagement with the Church of Jesus Christ in ways that are faithful and flexible instead of either rigidly dogmatic or heretical and doubting.

First of all, what’s disturbing here is identifying “progressive political doctrines and intellectualism” with “heretical and doubting.” Really? For many years the Church has honestly tried to be politically neutral, despite the conservative tilt of its doctrines and despite public statements by the leadership on conservative moral issues. There has been an LDS Democratic majority leader in the Senate and, not too many years ago, a Democratic governor of Utah. So for the authors to quite clearly identify Democrats (who else supports “progressive poltical doctrines”?) as “heretics” is both out of line with the oft-repeated official LDS position and, let’s be clear, just a very stupid thing to say. Hey, if you’re trying to sound sophisticated and enlightened, don’t start off by proclaiming that only conservative Republicans are welcome in the Church and that Democrats are LDS “heretics” because they support progressive political doctrines.

But I do understand the desire of the authors and the signatories to carve out some space for themselves within the mainstream Church. They want to publish articles on LDS topics, or secular topics that bear on LDS doctrines and history, without having their faithfulness called into question by bishops who are largely uninformed on … well, LDS doctrines and history. That’s the “orthodoxy” part of the proposal. They want to be able to write an essay on the problematic golden plates or the stubborn DNA evidence about the Asian origins of Native Americans or the health claims of the Word of Wisdom without having their bishop accuse them of disloyalty or heresy. The response is, “Hey, look at our Manifesto: we are publicly committed to ‘meticulously heeding and unabashedly embracing the counsel and teachings of prophets and apostles regarding chastity and morality, the divinity of Christ, and the foundational claims of the Restoration.'” If questioned about the fidelity of Book of Mormon translations, they’ll happily reply, “Yes, indeed, with a rock in a hat.” If called on to support Joseph’s practice of polygamy or the troubled provenance of D&C 132, they’ll reply, “Yes sir, an angel with a flaming sword.” They are happy to be more orthodox than your high school seminary teacher, as long as they can be “radical” in their scholarship. Or maybe they want to be orthodox on Sunday and radical the other days of the week. And just as a reminder, “orthodox” means right or correct opinions or beliefs, so proclaiming one’s orthodoxy means proclaiming one’s agreement with “official” LDS doctrines and beliefs. So RO means believing (or stating that you believe) in what you, as a Mormon, are supposed to believe, but claiming license to speculate in interesting and enlightening ways about what lies behind those beliefs or what goes beyond them.

And let me be perfectly clear: there is nothing wrong with that! The RO people are trying to deal with two problems. First, trying to distinguish themselves from fundamentalist apologists on the right and those who espouse “progressive political doctrines” on the left. That is what they explain in the opening summary blurb I quoted above. They’re looking for solid and defensible and loyally Mormon middle ground. The second problem is local leadership who think anything said about LDS doctrine or history that isn’t right out of the Sunday School manual is skirting with heresy or “alternative voices.” That’s the “radical” part of the RO position, arguing that it’s perfectly acceptable to speculate about LDS doctrine and history during the week as long as one is reliably orthodox on Sunday.

The RO people are not really pushing a new or edgy idea here. There are now publishers and journals putting out books and articles by the dozen exploring Mormon topics across the full spectrum of belief and scholarship. The Church itself is part of this industry, with the excellent JSPP publications and the Gospel Topics Essays series. There are now several Mormon Studies programs and endowed chairs at various universities. The Church is mildly supportive of or at least pleasantly neutral about these programs. So from a different angle, the RO position might be phrased like this: “Hey, the Church is pretty much okay with all of this research and publishing and public discussion, so if we academics and the interested lay persons who buy our books and read our articles are reliably orthodox on Sunday, then you shouldn’t have any problem with it, Bishop. You’re welcome to attend our monthly study group. Have a nice day.”

Conventional Unorthodoxy

The RO people seem to be arguing a point that is not really in dispute. Richard Bushman and Armand Mauss published a variety of books and articles on touchy LDS issues from the 1960s on. They were radically orthodox but didn’t need a manifesto to stay within the mainstream Church. The same could be said for dozens or hundreds of LDS scholars right down to the present day. Things get a little trickier if a person is on the LDS payroll, but that’s a different scenario. I think the RO people are fighting a war that has already been won. What we need is not room for RO within the Church. What we need is room for Conventional Unorthodoxy.

What is Conventional Unorthodoxy, you ask? Let me borrow the style and format of the Manifesto to explain the “unorthodox” part first, here rewriting the fourth paragraph:

Conventional Unorthodoxy is unorthodox because it acknowledges that truth (true accounts of historical events and true descriptions of the real world) can sometimes be at odds with the current positions of the institutional Church and its present leadership. While some may argue that membership in the Church requires meticulously heeding and unabashedly embracing the counsel and teachings of prophets and apostles on a wide variety of topics, Conventional Unorthodoxy affirms the scriptural statement that we are all individually given the divine power to distinguish between good and evil, and between truth and various falsehoods. Furthermore, we have a moral obligation to support what is good and true, even when doing so runs contrary to popular worldly views or popular LDS views. Those who embrace Conventional Unorthodoxy recognize the complex choices and values that people face in the modern world, but strive to support truth over falsehoods and misrepresentations, and to do some good in the world.

That doesn’t mean you have to wear your unorthodoxy on your sleeve. You don’t have to ask confrontational questions in adult Sunday School class or go to the pulpit at fast and testimony meeting to muse about the days to come when women will get the LDS priesthood. The “conventional” part of Conventional Unorthodoxy addresses just that point. Let me borrow and rewrite the fifth paragraph of the Manifesto:

Conventional Unorthodoxy is conventional because it promotes relaxed but willing conformity with the familiar patterns of life in an LDS ward: you go to church on most Sundays, you accept most callings, you engage in friendly chat with fellow ward members, you show up for some service projects, you write a tithing check or two. Conventional Unorthodoxy is not out to rewrite the Handbook or publicly protest this or that LDS doctrine or policy. Quiet, gradual change is the best one can hope for in the Church, so pick your battles and support positive change when you can. For now, help a neighbor, encourage the sad and lonely, keep your family happy, support your local leaders when you can, and do no harm.

The Manifesto affirms a list of bolded virtues at the end. Humility and integrity, great, although they explain “integrity” as not “compartmentalizing the Gospel from our professional pursuits, politics, scholarship, social interactions, or hobbies.” But the whole defense of radical orthodoxy in the body of the Manifesto was all about compartmentalizing! They want “bold exploration beyond what is familiar” and “to revisit many facets of our received paradigm,” but then to be thoroughly orthodox on Sunday. That’s closer to compartmentalization than to a unified and integral approach to life. I’m not saying that’s unethical. Life is full of compromises. But what they are describing in the body of the Manifesto is not “integrity” in the strict, unified sense they are claiming at the end.

Faith, hope, and charity, that’s great, too. That goes to the “conventional” part of Conventional Unorthodoxy, because there are plenty of those good things in the day-to-day activities that one participates in as an active Latter-day Saint in an LDS ward or branch. Faith, as informed by knowledge and reality. Hope, directed to good ends. Charity, kind and loving words and actions to those within one’s circle of contacts and influence.

I’m not looking for signatories, although I suspect some readers have spelled out for themselves, whether explicitly or implicitly, some similar set of principles to guide their activity in the Church. And I suspect that those readers who have exited the Church (or who were never LDS to start with) have grappled with similar issues. It’s part of modern life to have to define the parameters of your individual relationship with all manner of corporate institutions: the government, the public school your kids attend, your employer, your HOA, a political party, a club, a church. Sometimes we shift those boundaries, switch allegiances, or change our terms of engagement. We might support some activities of one of these institutions, but not others. And so it is with the Church.

So: Are you radically orthodox? Conventionally unorthodox? Or something else entirely?