This post was sparked by a Facebook discussion with a friend-of-a-friend yesterday. He is certainly welcome to participate and respond here, by name or by pseudonym, but I do not name him myself because he isn’t a regular participant at Keepa. Also, while the quotations are accurate, I do not reproduce the entire discussion or even represent the substance of the discussion – this post does not debate the substantive issues raised by “Friend,” but only one narrow aspect of how the discussion was framed.
Speaking of Julie Smith’s recent T&S post, Men, Women and Modesty, Friend wrote, “I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but got to thinking again about the gulf between liberals and conservatives, which this strikingly illustrates.” There exist, he writes, “the views in this essay, and the reactions to it” on the one hand, and on the other, “the sensible side of conservative views about modesty.” Indeed, “I’ve often though[t] the gap between liberal and conservative is deeper in our culture, and in the Church, than that between believer and unbeliever, and maybe this illustrates that.”
What followed, or at least my part in it, was a unsatisfactory attempt between Friend and me to pin down what he meant by applying those political labels in the Mormon religious context, and what my objections were to his ambiguous list of synonyms (“orthodox … traditional … mainstream”).
I have tried before to indicate why I don’t think “conservative” and “liberal” are useful terms for religious discussion. They are freighted with political baggage, e.g., Conservatives are fiscally responsible and emotionally cold, according to the stereotype, while liberals ignore economic reality to spoil the undeserving. But, as I noted in that earlier post, Mormon faith supports both sides of the same coin:
I think that work is ennobling and that the dole is spiritually impoverishing, and … I need to be a wise steward over the means I have.
I think the first questions to ask are, “Are you hungry? May I help?” and that “Are you worthy of help?” trails far behind.
and so on through a list of other situations sometimes labeled “conservative” or “liberal.”
So my first objection to the usefulness of those political terms in religious discourse is that they are meaningless when people simultaneously believe in and support both sides of the same question. It’s an either/or situation in politics (that is, you can’t rationally demand that government spending be cut to the bone while simultaneously demanding that government services be dramatically expanded), but in religion it’s both/both (you have to care for people’s emergency needs while simultaneously teaching them to be self-reliant).
But my greater objection to using the undefined labels “conservative” and “liberal” in Mormon religious terms – or in defining them merely by synonyms (“orthodox … traditional … mainstream”) without further explanation is this:
I am a Mormon. I am a historian. I am a Mormon historian.
Taking for granted, as Friend does, that there is an obvious traditional or mainstream view of anything in Mormonism is nearly impossible for a historian, who can catalog endless adaptations, changes, reversals, and reinterpretations through history. It ought to be impossible for any Mormon who believes in continuing revelation to take it for granted that anybody else necessarily understands what you understand to be traditional or mainstream (or even orthodox, within an extremely narrow set of points, such as those reviewed in the temple recommend interview).
What is “traditional marriage” in Mormonism? That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, in both casual and official discourse. We are meant to understand that it is monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. But obviously, within Mormonism that has not always been the norm, not always something we can assume every Mormon considered orthodox. When you refer to “the conservative Mormon” view on marriage, are you speaking of heterosexual marriage in contrast to gay marriage? or are you speaking of monogamous marriage in contrast to polygamous marriage? And does that “mainstream” Mormon view of marriage and family address wives who work outside the home? or whether birth control is used within a marriage? or whether single adults should form families through the adoption of children? If so, what are the orthodox answers? What can you assume about your ward members’ assumptions? And what era are we talking about, anyway?
Mormon views on race certainly differ in 2014 from what they were in 1914. What is the “traditional Mormon” explanation for why blacks were denied the priesthood for so long? Wouldn’t anybody say that the “traditional” view includes something about the seed of Cain, or neutrality in the war in heaven? And yet that is most certainly not the orthodox view, not anymore. But is a “conservative Mormon” one who supports the Church’s call to abandon such faulty explanations (because that’s the orthodox position today), or one who clings to those explanations and quietly continues to teach them privately (because they have been traditionally taught over generations)? That’s hardly a hypothetical situation, is it?
In our historical discussions here at Keepa, we often run into momentary confusion over very familiar terms. What is our mental image of a missionary and his activities? (It depends on the era, doesn’t it?) Yesterday’s question on why a ward held regular ward meetings on October Conference weekend arose, probably, from the assumption that local meetings have always been cancelled in favor of Conference — they haven’t been; that was the case only in places and in recent times when canceling local meetings allowed those congregations to attend or listen to General Conference. We’ve laughed about official Church railing against the evils of “round dances” like waltzes, which are considered today to be the most traditional, conservative, mainstream dances imaginable – what’s the traditional Mormon view on dance? It’s a lot more traditional to have the organist playing soft music during the passing of the Sacrament than it is to sit in stone silence – yet most of us would find music during the sacrament today to be unorthodox and very much non-mainstream.
We lovers of Mormon history know that things change. Even doctrinally significant points change (recall the 19th century identification of Jehovah as God the Father, compared to the 20th century identification of Jehovah and Jesus Christ) – we depend on continuing revelation to correct and clarify and expand our doctrinal knowledge. Points with enormous implications for eternity change (for anyone who treasures the sealing promises, whether you’re sealed in a line of your own direct ancestors of the body, or, as was done for some time, you were sealed to an apostle or prophet, really, truly matters). Cultural factors change (ask the millions of Church members who live outside the United States whether they prefer lesson manuals that speak of their own cultural experiences, or whether they would rather go back to the “traditional” and “mainstream” habit of much of the 20th century, where the materials they used were so American as to be incomprehensible). Practices change (we no longer insist that Latter-day Saints refrain from joining lodges, or from playing with face cards, or from dancing waltzes, or call for a return to wrist/ankle-length temple clothing), but principles remain (those whom we sustain as prophets speak to our times, if not necessarily and explicitly to later times).
All of that is muddied and ambiguous when someone uses the political terms “conservative” and “liberal” to stake out religious and cultural positions without defining those positions explicitly. We just can’t take it for granted that your obvious understanding is all that obvious to someone else with a different cultural tradition or a broader awareness of history.
Worse, the rancor and inflexibility and divisiveness of the current political atmosphere in the United States inevitably transfers from the political sphere to the religious sphere when undefined political terms are applied to religious thought. Even if somehow you are able to separate your visceral political response to “the other side” when you hear “conservative” and “political” used in religious discourse, you cannot assume that someone hearing you can make the same noble distinction. I can’t. If I know, or suspect, or even assume your personal political position, how I respond to your calling me a “conservative Mormon” or a “liberal Mormon” is poles apart. Maybe that’s my personal flaw, Friend; I don’t think I’m alone in that visceral response. If you want to communicate – and I assume you do – you can’t afford to taint your religious discussion with political labels.