Mormon Politics Time Out?

Mark Brown would probably like George Orwell’s aphorism: “To see what is in front of our nose requires a constant struggle.” In the wake of Harry Reid’s speech at BYU, ‘naclers have been struggling with the role of politics in our religion.

Because our political persuasions are a function of social conditions rather than reasonable reflection and amount to prejudice rather than virtue, Mark Brown calls for suspending politics in church. Although I sympathize with his sensibility, I believe that Mark has misidentified the problem. The problem is not that Mormons are just as prejudiced as gentiles. The problem is that it is more difficult to do something about prejudice in Mormonism.

Many of the twentieth century’s heroes were religious people, Martin Luther King Jr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Helmuth Huebener come to mind. They would not have been able to exercise power without organizing within their religious communities.

Therefore, it would be a mistake to exclude politics from the body of Christ categorically. Nonetheless, I do agree with Mark that the particular politics that intrudes into Mormonism is distasteful.

Mormon politics pretty consistently is on the wrong side of human rights issues. Our leaders were among the defenders of segregation. Mormon politics is also partially responsible that the United States remains the only western democracy where women do not enjoy equal rights under the constitution. Lately, church leaders have been using majority rule to suppress the rights of gays and lesbians.

In 2006, the First Presidency even coordinated the timing of its endorsement of a marriage amendment with the Senate majority leader to increase Republican voter turn out. Three days before Bill Frist announced to bring a bill that had no chance of passing, the First Presidency issued its declaration of support. Only a fool would assume that this was happenstance.

Troubling as it may be, the lack of commitment to human rights is not the worst aspect of Mormon politics. Every society has trouble applying the golden rule to the weak.

The ultimate problem with politics and religion in Mormonism is conformity. Once Mormon authorities speak out, the bulk of the membership follows. Many Saints place their concerns about human rights on the famous Mormon shelf. Those who dare to speak out become marginalized. More often than not, they are labeled sinners, anti-Mormons, and apostates.

To be sure, there have been courageous voices. Mo Udall, for example, demanded racial equality in American and Mormon society. It is not an accident, however, that Mo Udall also did not remain an active member of the LDS Church. There was no room for somebody who disagreed openly with Mark Peterson, Delbert Stapley, and Joseph Fielding Smith. Their authority not only dominated the conscience of rank and file members but also made it impossible to appeal to the conscience of many faithful Mormons.

With the benefit of hindsight, the consensus has shifted. Most Mormons now share Mo Udall’s view of race relations and reject the authorities’ racism. There is widespread agreement that the old attitudes were not righteous after all.

That should be a warning to all those who abdicated their conscience to leaders’ authority and worse silenced and excluded the Mo Udalls in our midst.

I do not really blame Mormonism for getting the race question wrong. Many organizations are slow to recognize the rights of outsiders.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, does honor to Lutheranism but the fact is that most pastors did not help him and a substantial number collaborated with the Nazis. Likewise, it took Desmond Tutu some time before the Episcopalian churches around the world would support the struggle against apartheid.

But when the Lutheran Churches recognized their complicity in National Socialist crimes against humanity, it was able to issue an apology and to adopt the agenda of Bonhoeffer’s confessing church. The LDS Church does not have that ability.

As Mark points out, we are just as prejudiced as everybody. The difference is that Lutherans are confronting each other about their prejudices on an even level. In Mormonism we allow some people to advance their prejudices with claims to divine authority. That puts members into a position where they have to suspend their critical judgement or begin to question their testimony. Too many of us do not stop at self-censorship but impose their commitment to church leaders on others so aggressively that the Mo Udalls are better off leaving Mormonism behind. When it turns out that the Mo Udalls were right, the prestige of the leaders requires that he receive no recognition and that the members restrain from publicly improving the capacity of their conscience.

The nexus between authority and prejudice renders politics in the Mormon context particularly nefarious. The problem with Mormonism is not that we prejudiced. As Mark observes so eloquently, prejudice is a feature of the human condition. The problem with Mormonism is that it constrains our ability to engage our prejudices more than many other creeds and organizations.

It is happening again, Marlin Jensen, the Democratic poster boy among Mormonism’s spokespeople, suggested that Mormons who disagree with Mormon authorities about homosexuality ought to be disciplined. Without getting into the substance of sexual politics, it is clear that Elder Jensen and his colleagues have not learned the lessons of our racist past. The ethical quality of the Mormon experience diminishes when authority subordinates members’ conscience.

We need to adapt our theology so that it can explain our ethical failures of the past and allows us to acknowledge those who spoke the truth. When it becomes possible to talk about ethical challenges without shutting down the debate with appeals to authority then it will be possible to engage into the Orwellian struggle not only in Mormon hearts but also in our church.

The Orwellian struggle is incompatible with appeals to feelings and authority. When feelings and authority are mistaken as a reliable source of truth then we may never be able to tell if we are confusing our prejudices for virtue. The Orwellian struggle to recognize what’s in front of our noses, requires an ethical act, the commitment of individuals to subject their opinions to logic and evidence.

Of course, we will continue to fall short of such a commitment but as Elder Monson likes to quote, we might not be able to reach the stars but if we follow them, we will reach our destination. All we need is a little more space for the Orwellian struggle.

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15 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Interesting post.

    I’d not heard about Marlin Jensen suggesting that those who disagree with the FP stance on homosexuality be disciplined. Could you provide a link?

    Thanks for the link.

  2. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Im sure the church will drag out their old, tired sayings, which most have heard..
    Hellmut: are you suggesting
    a)the church will become more upfront abt their political influences,
    b) gen X will re-think this whole subject, then thought will (eventually) rise to the top,
    c)LDS politics impacts prejudice,
    d) Something else (which I missed)?

  3. Hellmut says:

    Andrew, Marlin Jensen said that during the interview on the PBS documentary The Mormons. You can see most of the documentary at the movie’s website. Clicking on Jensen’s name in the main post will take you there.

    If you find the passage, I would be interested in your thoughts, Andrew. My impression was that Jensen responded to a question that inquired for an example of what kind of language might get a member into trouble. May be, Jensen would change his answer if he had more time to consider the question.

    I am trying to say, GNPE, that prejudice is not a particular Mormon problem. That’s human nature. However, there are particular Mormon constraints that prevent us from engaging our community’s prejudice.

    The most important Mormon constraint to dealing productively with prejudice is conflating personal prejudice with claims to divine authority.

  4. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    H: I agree.
    most every thought that TBMs have is tainted by their tendencies to defer to authority.

  5. Andrew says:

    Hmmm. I think I found what you were referring to:

    “If you advocated, for instance, that gay people should be allowed to marry, and you were openly vocal about that, and in the process malign the leadership in the church for not adopting that position, that’s something that would be severe enough, I think, to warrant disciplinary action.”

    I think you ignored a central part of this quote, Hellmut, which is that in the process of advocation you’d have to malign the leadership for not taking your position.

  6. Hellmut says:

    That’s a good point, Andrew, I am not sure, however, if we can take much consolation from the maligning clause. Would it be maligning leaders to say that they are wrong or that their views are ignorant?

    Besides, there are many members that will reply to anyone like Mo Udall: Who are you to contradict the prophet?

    This mindset makes it difficult to question the quality of our attitudes.

  7. exmoron says:

    Compelling argument… Deference to “divine” authority probably does stifle critical thinking and absolutely stifles debate. Boy would I love to see an actual debate in a Mormon meeting. Sometimes I wish Mormonism was still like it was when good ol’ Joe was the profit – not that it would be more moral, but it certainly would be more entertaining! (“My rock is right!” “No, my rock is right!” “My rock just told me that your rock is wrong.” ad infinitum)

  8. Andrew says:

    Hellmut – two good valid points. I personally don’t think (and I hope) that it would not be considered “maligning” leadership to say something like, “they’re from a different generation” or simply, “I disagree with them on this point.”
    You’re last point, though, is really the crux for liberal (particularly socially liberal) Democrats. I guess my response to that would be, that as a strict separationist, I believe that the polis and the church are two separate spheres. Church leadership can make decisions for their sphere, and the polis should be able to make decisions for their sphere. If the church doesn’t wish to perform gay marriage, for instance, it shouldn’t have to. But that should not prevent those who wish to enter into marriage with people of the same sex from doing so in the eyes of the polis if not the church.
    I know that wouldn’t satisfy many, many TBMs, but it is my prerogative to believe as I do.

  9. Andrew says:

    Oops. I meant, “the crux for socially liberal Mormons” above.

  10. Seth R. says:

    Apparently Bob Jones University just endorsed Mitt Romney.

    Hooray for our side… I… guess…

  11. Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Seth. I predicted months ago that Pat Robertson would endorse Mitt Romney if that was what it took to stop McCain. HP from BCC replied that he would eat his hat if Robertson did that.

    McCain is down right now but the theocons seem to dislike Giuliani almost as much. We might have that hat eating party after all.

    PS: To be precise, one BJU dean endorsed Romney. I linked an article at headlife with the details.

    Andrew, I am with you on the gay marriage thing. It is a good thing when gays get married but it would be wrong to compel religious organizations to conduct the ceremony.

  12. chanson says:

    This reminds me of the ward boundaries and choice discussion. The system seems pretty explicitly designed to prevent local leaders from offering different church experiences and hence competing with one another for members. There’s a certain logic to such a system if you believe that doctrine and practice should not be determined democratically but rather should be dictated by the prophet.

    It’s a reason for the top guys to be wary of pronouncing on things outside of the spiritual realm (like politics), though, since the social forces that keep the doctrine unchanging from one unit to another apparently work (to some degree) on other types of opinions.

  13. John C. says:

    Did I say that? I prolly ought to be prepared to eat some cloth then. In any case, I am a great believer in the deeply held prejudices of the religious South, in part because I am deeply prejudiced against most of them.

  14. Hellmut says:

    Well, one dean at BJU is not Pat Robertson yet, John.

    If Robertson does endorse Romney, we should have a hat eating party. All in good fun, of course. We could devise some creative hat recipes. 72 hours in a crock pot should render most hats edible.

    You could also auction pieces of your hat for a good cause, the new shelter for the lost boys in St. George comes to mind, and the winning bidder redeems you partially from your hat eating obligation.

  15. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Got a flavor/color/fabric picked?

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