That’s It! I’m Going Back!

Advice Callings discrimination Ethics Homosexuality Mainstreaming Politics Power

I just finished scrolling through the reader responses to the Danzig affair in the Trib. Granted, it’s the Salt Lake Tribune and not the Deseret News but I have to admit that I am shocked.

May be, it’s just me but the tone of the discussion seems to have changed. The critics of the LDS leadership are dominating the discussion. For every defender, there are probably three or four critics.

What is even more striking is the tone of the discussion. Although there is still the usual mocking by RfM types, most critics express sadness and their commitment to decency, neighborliness, and American values. They are claiming the high ground.

Only two years ago, that would have been unthinkable. The Trib has always been independent. It is new, however, that there is now a public forum where participants dare to define good and evil in opposition to the Mormon establishment.

That means that the Mormon hegemony has been broken. I do not understand why this is happening now but the Brethren are facing increasingly tough choices. Their menu of options consists of bad and horrible choices.

The historical truth claims of Mormonism are largely discredited, at least in their literalist form that we have all learned in Sunday school and the missionary discussions. There is nothing the Brethren can do about that. The past cannot be changed and apparently the Brethren have lost control over the narrative.

The anti-gay campaign may endure for a couple of years but is largely a spend force, in large part because Karl Rove and George Bush are widely discredited in America. Even in the unlikely case that the Republican nominee should win the White House, the influence of the religious right generally and the LDS Church specifically is declining steeply. Most importantly because the verdict about the nature of homosexuality is in.

As being gay is neither unnatural nor harmful, the official Mormon agenda of discrimination lacks any ethical justification. Only tradition supports the Brethren in this matter, which is a kind way of referring to superstition.

Moreover, Mormons have had to learn that carrying the water for the religious right has only earned them contempt. Rather than reciprocate for Mormon support in the past, Evangelical right wingers have chosen to discriminate against Mitt Romney for his religion. In both cases, the frantic attempts of Gordon Hinckley and Mitt Romney to please right wing Evangelicals have only proven self-destructive.

But politics ought to be the least concern of the Brethren. Power in Washington is relevant only because it happens to decline at the same time as the Brethren’s hegemony of public opinion in Utah has been broken.

I am feeling sorry for them. There are no good choices for the Brethren. If they delay reform, things will be getting worse because the momentum is already against them. Reform, however, raises the specter of a Gorbachev like melt down of the empire.

That puts me into an uncomfortable position. I would much rather be the underdog. If I could offer my services to the Brethren, I would.

Here is my advice: First, do not make things worse. Every time you pick on someone like Peter Danzig or Grant Palmer, you are needlessly bringing things to a head.

However shocking revelations about LDS history may be, in the end, nobody cares about that stuff as long as they are happy at church. When the Brethren pressure people to remain silent, then they are creating unhappiness and are thus only increasing the incentives for resistance and criticism.

Of course, it is only human to respond to challenges and criticism with suppression. Since that is human nature, the Brethren must protect the Church from themselves with institutional safeguards. For starters, church discipline should be governed by the rule of law.

That works pretty well in the Roman Catholic Church where discipline is governed by canon law and due process without compromising Catholic doctrine in the least. When LDS leaders have to account for every case of church discipline according to the precepts of canon law, then they will be more likely to resist the temptation of going after members who are merely trying to deal with Mormonism’s challenges in a way that is consistent with their conscience.

As arbitrary prosecution becomes less likely, the LDS Church and its members would be spared a lot of unnecessary aggravation. When people like Peter and Mary Danzig can be the loyal opposition then tens of thousands of us may be able to remain loyal as well.

My second piece of advice to the Brethren would be, play to your strengths. Mormonism might be weak with respect to historical truth claims but it is strong with respect to the dedication of its members.

You need to figure out how to leverage the dedication of the members to strengthen the Church as a community while its origin myth is besieged by stubborn facts. The best way to do that is to unleash the creativity and initiative of the members.

The way to do that is to train and supervise the members while letting them govern themselves. Self-government in the form of callings has literally transformed the lives of thousands of converts. Paired with accountability, self-government of the members will enrich the life of the members, attract converts and strengthen the LDS Church financially and demographically.

If you do that then I will be gladly on your team, especially since you will be the underdog from here on out.

12 thoughts on “That’s It! I’m Going Back!

  1. You are absolutely right, Seth. The gay thing won’t be over for many years. What surprises me is that there are so many people who are willing to claim the high ground from the Brethren in a public forum in Utah.

    That indicates that the Brethren’s cultural hegemony (in Anthony Gramsci’s sense) has been shattered. If they want to, the Brethren can continue to struggle for decades but to an increasingly large segment of the population, the Brethren will only come off as superstitious, illiberal, and domineering ignoramuses.

    The longer the Brethren avoid the embarrassment of changing course on human rights, the longer their prestige will be emaciated.

    It is not the predicament of the Brethren, however, that gives me hope for that is not a cause but an effect. What gives me hope is that so many Mormons are becoming ethically self-reliant and that their message has matured.

    Anger is receding. The invocation of American values is coming to the fore.

    In the process, the power of setting the standards of acceptable behavior has shifted from the Brethren to the dissenters, not only in Washington, DC but in Utah itself.

    In that context, the events of the last two weeks are revealing. Two Mormon demagogues have been castigated for their racism and their self-righteousness. The whole affair begun with a municipal ordinance over benefits for same sex partners.

    That says a lot.

  2. Hellmut, what do you make of the general religious trend in America where the liberalized denominations tend to lose members rather than gain them?

    If you’re just going to have your church mimic popular culture, what’s the freaking point of having a church in the first place? I’m not looking forward to the day when Mormon theology reads like a callow, self-righteous MTV2 youth documentary.

  3. I think that you have a point that reactionary religions are going to grow at a time of social transformation and secularization. However, what ultimately determines the success of an organization in the religious marketplace is its ability to add value for its members.

    I may be wrong but it appears to me that the Brethern are no longer able to manage the flow of information. Too many people are speaking out.

    Fortunately, there are other factors that can render a church vibrant and successful.

    A religious organization that can facilitate meaningful relationships, validate its members’ identity, and provide worthwhile services will do well.

    Being old-fashioned can be an attractive quality when change rattles people. However, being in denial about history and biology will promote behavior and policies that will hurt church members, especially when it is impossible to suppress information in the open host society.

    Clearly, Mormonism has no longer been successful for the last thirty years. Retention is zero. There is not sustainable growth in any developed country. The latest indication is that membership numbers are not only declining in Europe but that Mormonism is also atrophying in the United States.

    We all know about the disastrous state of affairs in most Latin American countries and the Philippines. In Japan, they are running jokes about ineffective Mormon missionaries on late night TV.

    Last year, I enquired on BCC if anyone could point me to any region in the world where the LDS Church had sustainable growth. Only one poster responded and referred me to the Cape Region of South Africa. I am sure that there must be some other successful areas but there won’t be many.

    Clearly, what we have been doing for the last thirty years isn’t working. I don’t know how to change that but I do suggest that the Brethren refrain from acts that will only amplify the persisting negative trends.

  4. I basically agree with Hellmut – and I am torn between sorrow that an institution that I love has feet of clay, and relief that many of its intolerances and repressive tendencies are being brought to light. I too do not know what the answer is – but I think that some of the doctrines of the church are brightly shining beacons and could be polished enough to draw people to it. I think the Church is going to have to quit emphasizing the historicity of the Book of Mormon, for example, while emphasizing some of the better teachings in it. The eternal nature of families is appealing to people, as are the doctrines of a personal God who loves us and takes great interest in each of us. It is clear that the church is going to have to quit institutionalizing discrimination against various groups – ie gays and women – and be more inclusive. They are going to have to allow for more diversity of beliefs and forget trying to standardize mormonism across the whole world. I think they will have to allow for some local customs, while trying to maintain purity in the core doctrines of: Jesus Christ and his redemption, a personal God who gives personal revelation, free will, eternal progression, and eternal families. At least those are the doctrines that seem to ring most true – the rest is window trappings. They have got to stop persecuting their honest intellectuals – it just looks too much like Galileo. This will have to happen gradually in very small and palatable increments or they will lose the “core” Mormons. Oh well, I am glad I don’t have the job.

  5. I basically agree with Hellmut – and I am torn between sorrow that an institution that I love has feet of clay, and relief that many of its intolerances and repressive tendencies are being brought to light. I too do not know what the answer is – but I think that some of the doctrines of the church are brightly shining beacons and could be polished enough to draw people to it. I think the Church is going to have to quit emphasizing the historicity of the Book of Mormon, for example, while emphasizing some of the better teachings in it. The eternal nature of families is appealing to people, as are the doctrines of a personal God who loves us and takes great interest in each of us. It is clear that the church is going to have to quit institutionalizing discrimination against various groups – ie gays and women – and be more inclusive. They are going to have to allow for more diversity of beliefs and forget trying to standardize mormonism across the whole world. I think they will have to allow for some local customs, while trying to maintain purity in the core doctrines of: Jesus Christ and his redemption, a personal God who gives personal revelation, free will, eternal progression, and eternal families. At least those are the doctrines that seem to ring most true – the rest is window trappings. They have got to stop persecuting their honest intellectuals – it just looks too much like Galileo. This will have to happen gradually in very small and palatable increments or they will lose the “core” Mormons. Oh well, I am glad I don’t have the job.

  6. all excellent comments.

    what may be missing is ‘strength’.
    If the ‘strength’ of tscc is the illeberal stances of the top select matters…. I think a slow disconnect between them & rank-and-file will weaken the org. ‘Strength’ really isn’t Only measured by numbers; that’s only the PR shot which doesn’t tell nearly the whole picture.
    IMHO… due to the INET, + other cultural factors (a more sophisticated society?)… the ‘strength’ of the past won’t be much like the strength of the future.
    I even wonder if the GAs could today mount another effort like the anti-ERA thing of a few years ago… They just don’t have the credibility that they used to.
    just my .02

  7. I agree that campaigns such as the ERA are of the past – I certainly didn’t see much grassroots effort when they asked us to vocalize about the marriage amendment – most TBM gave lip service to it, but did nothing. The GA’s definitely need to get out of the political arena and concentrate on fixing what is wrong with our missionary and retention efforts, as well as figure out how to get some standard doctrine out of the messy past.

  8. The HT was proud that when GBH passed away that there is no political struggle to find a replacement. The church continues on without the disruption that a vote (even if it just between the Qo12)could ensue.
    As he said this Ii thought ‘how are new ideas and new blood brought in if the succession is settled’. I did not ask because I knew the answer – Jesus is in charge, revelation will supply the leaders with necessary direction. This is where the atrophy has started. Most members think there is no need for change. The church has found some meaning in comapring itself to other churches, we have the truth and so on. This implies some sort of external standard for comparison. In the 21st century external standards are few and far between. And they do not last long. The church will have to redefine themselves. A living prophet should be able to do that. But if the prophet is someone that succeeds because he is the longest standing and thee is no politics in his ascension, where dos the true politics of the church lay. In the Qo12? In the seventies? Where would new ideas gain ground and get to the pews?

  9. the top of the church is mired in atrophy/apathy if not cancer. The anti-mormon brush covers any-everything they don’t want to deal with materially. If an issue or incident comes up that they don’t see a clear way to save face, leaders ignore it or disparage the individual that brings it to attention; I have / represent the ‘perfect’ example of this, I am ok with telling details from my email, manderst@yahoo.

  10. “However shocking revelations about LDS history may be, in the end, nobody cares about that stuff as long as they are happy at church. When the Brethren pressure people to remain silent, then they are creating unhappiness and are thus only increasing the incentives for resistance and criticism.”

    Absolutely right. Excise the festering wounds – put to rest all the contentious historical inconsistencies. Get rid of the rituals that mean nothing and start becoming accountable to your congregations and to the world.
    Start to properly train and pay your clergy to critically think about the issues that their congregations face. Do not allow them to make decisions that encourage the breaking apart of families.
    Base your tenets on preserving the strong community and family base you already enjoy and encourage scholarship and openness.
    Religion can be a constructive social force in this complex time, but it cannot pretend to have the answers, otherwise it will become as redundant as a monarchy – it must be at the forefront of institutions willing to work for social change, not social stagnation.

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