I did a quick read of Shelby Steele’s Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (Basic Books, 2015), a conservative treatment of the culture wars from a conservative viewpoint. Steele is variously described as a black conservative or a cultural critic. I don’t find the book’s argument terribly convincing, but it’s good to get other perspectives on complex issues, politics and the American culture wars being one of them. Let’s talk about one of the central ideas of the book: Poetic truth.

Early in the book (p. 15) he summarizes his own approach and political evolution:

It was exactly this loyalty to fact over ideology that had driven me away from liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s into an appreciation of conservatism’s commitment to individual freedom. In other words, for me, ideology does not precede truth. Rather, truth, as best we can know it, is always the test of ideology. I want my fervor for conservatism to be disciplined by a deep and abiding humility. Passion is one thing, but “true belief” is blindness.

Try substituting “Mormonism” for “conservatism” in that quote and see if it works for you or not. Following this passage, Steele develops his idea of “poetic truth” (second emphasis added):

Poetic license occurs when poets take a certain liberty with the conventional rules of grammar and syntax in order to achieve an effect. They break the rules in order to create a more beautiful or more powerful effect than would otherwise be possible. Adopting this idea of license and rule breaking to the realm of ideology, we might say that “poetic truth” disregards the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant. Poetic truths defend the sovereignty of one’s ideological identity by taking license with reality and fact. They work by moral intimidation rather than by reason, so that even to question them is heresy.

Try substituting “religion/religious” for “ideology/ideological” in that quote and see if it works for you or not. Later, Steele gives a more compact description of poetic truth as the “assertion of a broad characteristic ‘truth’ that invalidates actual truth” (p. 19). Sometimes it is said that facts are stubborn things. Sometimes it is said that an ugly fact can slay a beautiful theory. More recently, as authoritarian regimes experience increasing power in the world and our own American politics is dominated by the troubling popularity of what many call “the Big Lie,” facts don’t seem so stubborn. Facts can be ignored. Facts are deceptively malleable. One might say that facts just don’t seem to matter much anymore.

You can read the book to see the author’s development of this idea as it applies to recent American politics and the culture wars. Keep in mind the book was written in 2015, before the dawn of the Age of Trump. But I will wind up the post with a couple of Mo apps (Mormon applications).

First, borrowing from the first quotation, is the idea of having “a deep and abiding humility” about one’s religious convictions. If truth is, in fact, a test of religion in the same way Steele thinks it should be a test of ideology, that suggests one’s religious beliefs and convictions should always be in some sense contingent on future developments. New facts and new data might change one’s beliefs or might reinforce them. More life experience as you get older might lead you to frame religious questions differently or find new religious questions more relevant and more meaningful than previous ones. Perhaps your religious beliefs and commitments are dynamic, not fixed. Have you ever gone back and re-read a book you once read as a child or teen? I’ll bet you found yourself saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that at all the first time. It’s like this is a different book.” Congratulations, you are older and wiser than you once were.

Second, the idea from the second quotation that poetic truths “work by moral intimidation rather than by reason.” That’s an insightful term, moral intimidation. Are there questions you don’t/shouldn’t ask in Sunday School? Are there things you don’t/shouldn’t say in a Sacrament Meeting talk? What happens if you throw caution to the wind and do ask/say those things?

So I think the Church would do well (at all levels) to put more emphasis on facts and less on belief, more emphasis on sober reasoning and less on poetic truth (overarching religious and historical claims that seem largely untethered from and therefore largely immune from actual facts). There’s a balance, of course. Sunday School and Elders Quorum are not graduate seminars where we kick around alternative theories and question every assumption and claim. People go to church to worship and be uplifted and have their faith strengthened. But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about that task. We need to move that balance point more toward humility, toward curiosity, toward learning, toward facts and reason and careful reading of our canonized scripture. Progress can be made, line upon line, one precept at a time.

What do you think?

  • What would it mean to have “a deep and abiding humility” about one’s faith and beliefs? Does that describe the Mormon approach?
  • “Moral intimidation” is a nice concept, but I’m having a hard time narrowing it down. Do you have any examples that might help? Or counter-examples?
  • Is there an opposing concept, maybe “moral confirmation” or “moral wishfulness”? The idea being that a claim may not be true, but it seems morally good even if it’s not factually supported so it is somehow good to believe it is true even if it is not. Maybe this is an alternative concept rather than an opposing one. Moral wishfulness seems as wrongheaded as moral intimidation.