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