“Optimal Tension” fine, but how far are we from “optimal”?

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We hear a lot on the Bloggernacle about Armand Mauss’s theory of optimal tension. Getting down to brass tacks, it’s that when the LDS church denies the priesthood to black people or marriage to gay people, it’s not just about the black people or the gay people — it’s also about about staying just different enough from the rest of society to maintain a unique Mormon identity.

I contend that Mormons’ choice to march into the culture wars flying the banner of the the social conservative movement doesn’t represent asserting Mormons’ unique culture (in the face of society and the world). Quite the opposite. It represents being led by cultural forces outside of Mormonism, and becoming beholden to them.

Early in the “great wall of comments” I suggested that it would be possible for the prophet to have a revelation clarifying eternal gender roles, for example adding a cool, alternate plan of salvation for gay people (it’s not like there’s not room for it, see this interesting musing on eternal gender from ZD’s). What if God had a special role for gay people just as He (supposedly) has a special role for women?

Whether you think we should or shouldn’t pine for the days when prophets spoke like prophets, Andrew correctly pointed out that it would be impossible. Not theologically, but culturally, as the conservatives would never accept it. The Sunstone article I linked above quotes Levi Peterson on “optimal tension”:

Given the fact of proximity and interaction, the Church has inevitably influenced its sister cultures, not merely by proselyting converts from among them but also by the example it gives of Christian living.

Exactly. The world has a very clear picture of what an “example of Christian living” means, and Mormons are bound and determined to live up to it.

This really jumped out at me in the 1970 New Yorker Article that I wrote about recently. It told a story of a rich non-Mormon couple who donated a ton of money to BYU just because they were impressed by how clean-cut and orderly the students were. Whatever the rosy retrospectives of the late 60’s and early 70’s may look like, the “counterculture” at the vanguard of the sexual revolution was a minority which set the average person running in terror in the opposite direction. Mormonism was right there with its fresh-scrubbed sincere-if-slightly-dorky smile to intercept them. And that meant quite a lot of serious, long-term converts.

Back then.

Now that the sexual revolution has been won, a different strategy may be in order if the LDS church would like to achieve “optimal tension.” But would it even be possible? It would take some real leadership to steer the army once it has started running in a certain direction.

15 thoughts on ““Optimal Tension” fine, but how far are we from “optimal”?

  1. I really think that Mormonism is slowly but surely drifting into mainstream conservative Christianity, though I don’t think it’ll ever totally merge.

    I totally agree with Andrew’s explanation on why Hinckley or Monson, etc., don’t behave the way Smith and Young did as “prophets” – it’s too weird, and even in MOrmonism, they accept that old, dead prophets did that stuff, but to have them now claim to be seeing angels and getting new “revelations” daily would be too strange for many members, and certainly most investigators/new converts.

    It’s gotten rid of its racist doctrines, its polygamy (ostensibly), is as virulent anti-gay as the Southern Baptists, and is trying so, so hard to be seen by other right-wing Christians as fellow soldiers for Jesus fighting against the evils of liberalism and secular society.

    It is in many ways a total denial of everything Mormonism was supposedly founded upon. Mormonism used to be an extremely liberal religion (in terms of the early 1800s) and besides the whole debacle with polygamy, was reasonably egalitarian towards women and blacks – until BY came into power that is. And even then, the communal, socialist aspect was still very strong, until it became politically expedient to suddenly switch ideologies, and rail against the evils of socialism (Benson). Rather than leading the way, or having any sort of unique society, Mormonism is now, since about the 1940s, just following whatever conservative social norms it sees. The atmosphere at BYU For the past 50 years is ample evidence of that.

    So while I don’t think the Mormons will ever be accepted by conservative Christians as one of them, the Mormons will try and try and keep trying to get into that little (homophobic, sexist, ultra-conservative) club, all the while ignoring the fact that they ostensibly believe (and promise in the temple) to be eternal socialists.

    Of course, it may be that the tension over gays in the church will, like blacks, force the church to accept gays or become totally irrelevant. If that happens before the main body of conservative Christians have to do the same thing, who knows what’ll happen to Mormonism.

  2. There may be a better explanation for periods relatively liberal and authoritarian behavior by the brethren than optimal tension.

    It seems to me that too little money induced the brethren to treat the members deferentially. When the brethren were financially secure, they lorded it over the members.

    To be sure, there are considerable delays due to socialization. David O. McKay, for example, had a lot of money during the latter part of his presidency but he had assumed his role in the First Presidency during a time when the LDS Church still recovered from the Edmunds Tucker default and was hit again by the great depression.

    Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee were not only more literalist Mormons than McKay but could afford to do so because post new deal Mormons were sufficiently wealthy to fork over tithing without any problems.

    So they could afford to push correlation and break local and Relief Society autonomy. If Lee and Smith would have had to woe members for money, they might have presented themselves much less demanding.

  3. I am not sure that the brethren’s desire for Christian fundie validation makes any difference to the well being of the LDS Church.

    It seems to me what really matters is whether the Church is worthwhile to the members. That depends very much on the benefits that Church life confers on members at the ward and family levels.

    In my opinion, the brethren have weakened the Church on both counts. Correlation is sucking the energy out of the auxiliaries, mutuals, and the local organizations.

    And family sacraments have become less meaningful as well. Funerals are supposed to be the first discussion. Missionary farewells are becoming less and less personal. Sealers are no longer allowed to address the couple at all.

    That’s where the real problems are. Lets be honest, whatever people may believe about the gospelâ„¢, in reality, they need the Church to properly stage family events and to enjoy community at the ward level.

    If those two things work, the LDS Church will be fine and members will remain willing to sacrifice. When Mormon family sacraments and the ward experience do not work, the Church will decline.

    Everyone, including the most orthodox believers, knows about the atrophy of the missionary program. The only reason why atrophy is not visible in other Mormon realms is the baby boomer bump. As Mormon baby boomers raised all their children, wards continued to grow in many parts of the United States, missionary numbers and “conversions” went up.

    But in reality, retention is zero. In Europe, the Church is clearly shrinking. In the Philippines and in Chile, hundreds of wards had to be closed. And the recent Pew study about religion entails numbers that mean that for four converts in the United States, five Americans stop identifying themselves as Mormons.

    Those people mostly remain on the roles but the brethren cannot expect another red farthing from them.

    Atrophy is upon us. It will work slowly but steadily. Without a fundamental reorientation of the brethren’s management model, they can embrace or reject Protestant fundies all they want. Unless you are gay, that stuff does not matter in the daily lives of Mormons.

  4. I still think that even though consequentially it seems like the LDS church is on a collision course with the social conservative movement, we cannot dismiss the fact that ideologically, the LDS reasons are much different than the Baptist or evangelical or whoever else’s reasons.

    So, really, none of those other groups have near definitive literature about the eternal nature of gender, the family, etc., The Church does. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of the Mormons trying to “get into that little (homophobic, sexist, ultra-conservative) club” expressly to get into that club…it’s just a matter where the church has determined who its moral and spiritual enemies are…and the enemy of an enemy is a friend.

    I do think that the church is going to stick with the conservative, “family” (at least, their idea of a family)-focused, clean-cut model and use that as their competitive precisely BECAUSE everywhere else, social institutions and society itself are progressing at the speed of light past these things. Chanson has said that she thinks that this is not a viable solution now that the sexual revolution has “won” and become normally, but I don’t think that’s the case. You will always have people who will like the “good ole days” (even if these days weren’t all that good — but people will conveniently forget that part) when men were men and women were women and everyone respected their elders. The church will capitalize on these guys.

    Really, I don’t think the church will falter because of steady footing in the past. That’s quaint and attractive to many (even if the people who it’s attractive to would be unlikely to visit MSP). Really, I think a problem is that the church is facing an identity crisis, as it NOT ONLY wants to be quaint and homey, but it ALSO wants to be 1) administrative, executive, and mega-corporation-like, 2) prepackaged and sterile, and 3) mogul-like in its operations.

    To illustrate, the church is trying to be Wal-Mart AND the mom and pop store. Both have different strengths (and both will turn off different crowds), but you can’t really combine the two or else you’ll end up doing the worst.

    I also think there’s something to Hellmut’s idea that that church adjusts behavior with financial situation.

  5. Re 4:

    good points here, some of which I’ve played with before. I absolutely agree that if the church cannot maintain what I call a “homey” environment and what you called “family sacraments, the ward experience, community at the ward level,” this will be quite threatening. In the end, I can’t say anything for the historicity issues or the doctrinal issues, but I can say that I think this kind of community-building and fellowshipping process is something that needs work.

    But…then I have a slight disagreement. You mention the atrophy of the mission program — and I used to think about it like that too. but when you realize it, the missionaries are still massively successful. Baptism counts are where the buck stops for missionaries, so retention isn’t a fault of them.

    Retention goes back to the idea of the ward experience. After all, isn’t it strange how the iconic idea of missionary work — tracting — isn’t even supposed to be the missionary’s main “source” of contacts? Members should be seeing from their friends who is receptive and friendly to the gospel and then recommending them to the missionaries. That way, the new members have a support group and are less likely to fall away.

    Now, the interesting thing is is that the missionary push was a mostly administrative job. It was a classic example of the church being more like “walmart” than “mom and pop store.” So, the success of the mission program is the success of logistics and administration. But how can the church turn that into fellowshipping at the ward level? That’s where the problems come, I think. Because fellowshipping is a mom-and-pop activity, so essentially, the church has to shift gears.

  6. it’s too weird, and even in Mormonism, they accept that old, dead prophets did that stuff, but to have them now claim to be seeing angels and getting new “revelations” daily would be too strange for many members, and certainly most investigators/new converts.

    Yeah, people say that and it may well be true. On the other hand, who knows what might be possible if they had a dynamic leader at the helm (instead of picking their leaders according to who’s-not-quite-dead-yet)?

    Hellmut — I agree that the brethren themselves are not deliberately shooting for “Optimal Tension.” I think the theory of optimal tension is model that intellectuals came up with to describe how the church culture appears to function. But there may well be better models and better explanations, like the ones you suggest.

    Really, I don’t think the church will falter because of steady footing in the past.

    Exactly, straight-shooting for the past would be a very good strategy. My contention is that that’s what they’re trying to do (that’s the whole theory of “optimal tension”) but that they’re failing at it.

    The thing is this: nostalgia for the way things used to be is timeless and universal. But “the past” means something very different to each successive generation. For example, you can look at a Norman Rockwell print and say “Ah, that’s sweet” but it won’t mean the same thing to you as it means to someone remembers reading The Saturday Evening Post back when it came out.

    Here’s what I meant by my remark about the sexual revolution:

    To a strong degree, the rise of the Religious Right in the eighties and nineties was a reaction to the “counterculture” (real or perceived) of the sixties and seventies. But stuff that was shockingly radical back then is totally mainstream now. Mormon culture sadly got in on that specific generational trend and capitalized on it for converts. And Mormon culture is still riding that particular wave as much as they’d like to imagine that they’re maintaining a consistent distance of twenty or thirty years behind current trends.

    To see what I’m talking about, I think it’s constructive to compare to the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have traditionally been comparable to the Mormons in size, outsider-ness, and proselytizing. If I recall correctly, according to the same Pew surveys that Hellmut mentions, the JWs haven’t had the same decline in member retention that the Mormons have had the past couple of decades. One reason may be that they’ve done better than the Mormons at maintaining “optimal tension.” Unlike the Mormons — who only distanced themselves from the liberal end of worldly external culture — the JWs differentiated themselves from social conservative culture in important ways as well (extreme pacifist stance, no holidays — so in the “War on Christmas” they’re on the anti-Christmas side, avoidance of high-profile politics in general).

    Regarding your theory of how Mormonism has a strange mixture of “mom-and-pop” style and “wall-mart” style, I agree with you on that. I think it’s related to the tension in Mormon ethics between “do as you’re told” and “do it yourself” that I talked about in Family history: we’re different.

  7. Yes, I agree. Optimal tension is an academic fantasy.

    Even if identity is important, Mauss’s thesis ignores how easy it can be to separate your community from mainstream society.

    Fear and arrogance are sufficient, for example. So will any number of ideological adjustments.

    In the end, human beings are organisms that have to adapt to their environment. Culture is a way for collectives to carve out their niche.

    There is a large set of effective niches in humans’ ecology.

    That means that culture and identity are essential but remain epiphenomenal. They are a function of political economy.

  8. the JWs haven’t had the same decline in member retention that the Mormons have had the past couple of decades

    That is probably not correct. I have not checked Pew for Jehovah’s Witnesses but the CUNY Religious Identification Survey found that JW’s have the same retention issues as we do.

  9. Great post.

    I suspect that the Church’s Prop 8 effort was primarily motivated by (a) a desire to forge ties with the conservative Evangelical Christian community; and perhaps to a lesser extent, (b) a fear of losing its tax-exempt status (however unfounded that fear may or may not be). It had to do with maintaining Mormon peculiarity only with respect to liberal and secular segments of society.

  10. That is probably not correct. I have not checked Pew for Jehovah’s Witnesses but the CUNY Religious Identification Survey found that JW’s have the same retention issues as we do.

    My recollection of it was that the JWs do have the same retention issues as the Mormons except that they’re not doing quite as badly. Unlike, say, the Pentecostals who are actually growing rapidly. I may be remembering wrong though — I guess it wouldn’t be too hard to look it up…

    Steve M — Thanks!

    I agree on the motivations.

    It had to do with maintaining Mormon peculiarity only with respect to liberal and secular segments of society.

    Right, and my point is that distancing yourself from one worldly trend by running straight into the arms of another is an incredibly poor recipe for “optimal tension.” I think that people are trying to come up with some sort of explanation that makes the church’s political behavior vis-a-vis the Republican Religious Right seem reasonable…

  11. To a strong degree, the rise of the Religious Right in the eighties and nineties was a reaction to the “counterculture” (real or perceived) of the sixties and seventies. But stuff that was shockingly radical back then is totally mainstream now. Mormon culture sadly got in on that specific generational trend and capitalized on it for converts. And Mormon culture is still riding that particular wave as much as they’d like to imagine that they’re maintaining a consistent distance of twenty or thirty years behind current trends.

    I got that’s what you meant. But I disagree in that it doesn’t matter whether something is counterculture or mainstream — the church has a vantage point to oppose it either way. if it’s counterculture, then they oppose it from the aspect that they are preserving tradition from an encroaching menace. If it is mainstream, then they oppose it because the LDS are in the world, but not of it.

    JWs, by the way, have the “lowest retention rate of any religious tradition” at about 37%. http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

    But then again, I’d say that, even if it’s just an “academic” hypothesis and not indicative of reality, JWs are poorer at “optimal tension” than even the LDS. So it’s easy to see why they have the worst retention. So, I mean…uhh, yeah…might want to update your ideas for that (because I think taking all of your data points, I can just about come up with the exact opposite conclusion. Their distance from the social conservatives has HURT them [and this would make sense with terrible retention] and they aren’t really seen as all that viable at all, whereas the LDS church are bigger powerplayers precisely because they *do* get involved with hot topic political issues.

  12. “It would take some real leadership to steer the army once it has started running in a certain direction.”

    Is there any steering going on at all? Maybe the Mormon church actively opposed Proposition 8 because, because, what else was it going to do? Or, was it actually capable of doing anything else?

    Can the leadership have actual motivations if they are simply doing what they have been selected for and trained to do?

    “On the other hand, who knows what might be possible if they had a dynamic leader at the helm (instead of picking their leaders according to who’s-not-quite-dead-yet)?”

    It’s not so much picking who’s-not-dead-yet, as it is that everyone in the hierarchy was picked by someone before them and generally they were picked because they fit the way things are. The process selects for non-dynamism, for doing what is already being done really well.

    The Mormon Church has its foundations in untrained, dynamic 14 year old boy. And prides itself on it. Today, does anyone in the church want to hear from a 14 year old boy that hasn’t been trained and vetted for 40 years? So I think there is a good case that the “decision” to oppose Proposition 8 was made 60 years ago, with the rise of correlation, the acceptance of McConkie’s Doctrine, etc. 60 years of inertia.

  13. Andrew — OK, well then the JWs are a bad example. Given the (apparently wrong) assumption that they were doing better than the Mormons, I merely speculated that their better use of “optimal tension” might be the reason for it. But who knows? Maybe shooting for “optimal tension” doesn’t actually work. 😉

    But seriously, that example (which I thought of off the top of my head during my commute to work yesterday) doesn’t detract from my two main points:

    1. That the Mormons — and the Religious Right politico-social conservative movement in general — may think that their movement is just pining for the past in some sort of universal/generic sense, but they’re not. They represent an ideological trend, and one which doesn’t even universally represent “the past” for the baby-boomer generation (at the heart of the trend).
    2. Distancing yourself from one worldly cultural trend by running straight into the arms of another does not represent peculiarity or “optimal tension.”

  14. It’s not so much picking who’s-not-dead-yet, as it is that everyone in the hierarchy was picked by someone before them and generally they were picked because they fit the way things are. The process selects for non-dynamism, for doing what is already being done really well.

    I think that’s absolutely true. It may well be that one reason Mormonism has survived so long is the fact that the leaders are essentially selected for not making any sudden changes.

    It might be fun to have a dynamic, charismatic leader, but look at this article (via Pharyngula). Apparently, a congregation built around a charismatic leader can run into trouble when it comes time to pass the mantle to someone else. On the other hand, selecting for non-dynamism creates an organization that can’t react in real time to cultural changes (eg. the Internet, etc.)

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