In the most recent General Conference, Pres Oaks gave an ethnocentric political talk called “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution.” While I disagreed with approximately 90% of what he said, he ended with this statement:
“We encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate. We teach correct principles and leave our members to choose how to prioritize and apply those principles on the issues presented from time to time. We also insist, and we ask our local leaders to insist, that political choices and affiliations not be the subject of teachings or advocacy in any of our Church meetings.”General Conference April 2021, Sunday Afternoon session
Yesterday, I was listening to a discussion between British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook about the overarching trends of culture wars, dating all the way back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. Part of the discussion was about the historical precedent of erecting and subsequently removing statues as a symbol of the changing cultural values. The clashes arise when the two camps each see the other as “evil” or something you cannot compromise with or you have betrayed your values. They discussed an example of a statue of Victory or Nike that was in the Roman senate. As Christians began to take over, many of them believed all the Pagan statuary was demonic and had to go. They wanted to pull down the statue, although the statue had been erected to commemorate their leaders’ prior victories, the strength of their nation, and the inspiring ideals embodied by winged victory.
Likewise, in our current culture wars, there have been arguments about statues. Statues portraying and honoring slave-holders have been torn down while some conservatives have decried this as “cancel culture” and throwing away history. There have been calls for BYU to rename buildings that are currently named for white supremacists, slave-holders, and other racists. These calls also resulted in the commission of a race study I blogged about previously.
In a different podcast I listened to about a month ago, they discussed the idea that after the 60s, the left won the culture wars, but the right won politically and economically, meaning that the most common outlook, particularly among the Boomer generation, was to be both economically conservative (anti-taxation, anti-welfare, pro-business) and socially liberal or progressive (pro-civil rights, pro-equality, pro-freedom of choice for individuals). Now that we are several decades later, there is a backlash against social progressivism from the right, and there is backlash against economic conservatism from the left, so even though these arguments were “won,” they are far from over.
Whatever the outcome of these disagreements, these historians made some very interesting points about culture wars, that they have always existed, and that they are always religious in nature. One of the historians pointed out that in the US in particular, the religious right attempts to frame their anti-social progressive stance as a religious imperative against the “godless, secularist liberals,” but it’s important to recognize that the progressive position is also a religious viewpoint. Both sides are making their arguments from different interpretations of theology, and they always have been. Martin Luther’s civil rights speeches are all religious, all viewing the oppressed black Americans as ready for God’s liberation, like the ancient Israelites. When we talk about culture wars today, we are usually talking about either preserving something conservatives feel is a religious imperative (traditional values, hierarchical relationship, the authority of the Church), or purging the Church of things that run counter to Jesus’ teachings (such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and hatred, and yes, authoritarianism and hierarchy).
Essentially, the culture wars repeat forever throughout history because the varieties found in human temperament repeat. The historians identified several flavors of argument in culture wars, all of which were very familiar:
Traditional. When we argue for something that is traditional, we are trying to preserve and honor the values we’ve been taught, things our parents and ancestors created, reverred, and handed down, things that we believe have created a society we value that we don’t want to see change. Losing them could mean losing everything.
Progressive. When we argue that what we want is progressive, we are saying that the old system is harmful or limiting in some way, and that we need to shed these elements to be able to achieve something better.
Reactive. This is basically the traditional argument re-asserting itself after some progress has been made and some traditions have been shed. This is the slippery slope argument, the backlash pointing out what’s been perceived to be lost already and worrying that more will be lost.
Restorative. This is framing a progressive argument as a restoration of the original that was lost. It takes some of the fear out of change by claiming that the traditions were incorrect or not original, and now we are getting back to what was really intended.
That last one really puts the progressive nature of the Church in a fresh light. The Church today (post-1960s) feels very traditional and reactive, and not very progressive, but I have long suspected that a lot of that is 1) temperament of individuals–particularly those most likely to be “promoted” into leadership, and 2) borrowing doctrines and beliefs from politically conservative Evangelicals. But every so often, if you look for it, you will see glimpses of the Church’s progressive bent. The Church’s views on immigration, equality for women, reproduction, homosexuality, and race are mostly to the left of conservative Evangelicals. They aren’t where I would like to see them, but they are also not as reactionary or traditional or intransigent as other conservative faiths.
If we look at the substance of the arguments that people are making in the culture wars, whichever side you come down on, you have a values-based or religious argument for your view. You think that preserving or changing a tradition will lead to more human flourishing. You find evidence for your view in the values you hold dear, most often Christian (or religious) values you were taught. If you want to find evidence that women should be treated equally and with respect, and that they can contribute on par with men, there is plenty of evidence that the original Christian church did this (far better than we do today). If you want to find evidence that women required protection and owed obedience to their husbands, you can find that too. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, is full of contradictory evidence. That’s what makes it so subject to proof-texting.
Hippies were very interested in the economic equality described in the New Testament, creating communal living built on the principle of loving each other rather than controlling each other. Conservatives saw this as a rejection of the discipline required to live a Christian life, one that involved sacrifice and duty to family and the hierarchical structure of a patriarchal family. While both these viewpoints may be extreme in practice, both have common ground in the contradictory evidence of the Bible and in a desire for human flourishing, kindness, and devotion to a greater good.
Many of us have felt extremely fatigued by the partisan views at Church, particularly those of us who feel our views are in the minority of an increasingly conservative Church that takes different sides in these highly publicized culture wars. Pres. Oaks also said in his talk:
There are many political issues, and no party, platform, or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time. Then members should seek inspiration on how to exercise their influence according to their individual priorities. This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election.
I love the idea that Church members are encouraged to think through our political views and make our own personal, informed decisions without regard to party affiliation. I can think of several Church members for whom this is for sure never going to happen because they would sooner cut off their arm with a rusty railroad spike. Just the fact that it’s possible, and that it’s encouraged by Oaks, gave me a little shard of hope. Listening to these historians describing the eternal human nature of these types of disagreements and how they are framed gave me some anthropological perspective on the politics in our congregations. The culture wars aren’t going anywhere, but perhaps we can take some of the heat out of these arguments if we quit believing everything is good vs. evil, including shrugging it off just a little more when others insist on seeing things in black and white.
The other point in the discussion was about who wins culture wars eventually. Can culture wars be won by grass roots efforts, or does it require those in charge to get on board? The example was given of the English reformation in which Catholic monasteries, Churches, icons, and abbeys were torn down to make way for the new state-led Church of England. Because these efforts were undertaken by the state, they succeeded; however, as a counterpoint argument, there was a lot of pushback, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace in which many Catholics willingly protested and were slaughtered in defense of their beliefs. When Mary I succeeded her father Henry VIII, the backlash was severe with many people tortured and killed at Smithfield for heresy.
Ultimately, the historians concluded that culture wars are won in the university, that whoever persuades the rising generation wins. Across the US, it seems pretty clear what that bodes. Within the Church, it’s a little less clear as the cultures at Church-run schools are very anti-progress when it comes to most of the culture wars. But you never know.
- Do you think the outcome of the current culture wars are a foregone conclusion? Why or why not?
- Do you see (as many have observed elsewhere) that the Church will end up in the same place as the rest of society, just 30 years later) or do you see different trends?
- Do these personality types ring true for you when it comes to the culture wars?
- What impact do you think Oaks’ advice will have on Church culture?
 Except literally everything he just said in his talk which will now be taught in Priesthood and Relief Society over the next six months.