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On political labels in religious discussion

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 19, 2014

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.

[but also:]

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.



17 Comments »

  1. This is why my wife wisely counsels me constantly about not getting involved in political discussions on Facebook. Last time I did, about a week ago, I complained that two of my friends, who are both active LDS folks that I really like and admire, kept insisting anyone that didn’t adhere to there conservative viewpoints=liberal=progressive=marxist. I objected to what I called label slapping, just as they would object to evangelical Christians calling them as LDS members non-Christian. Labels don’t help discussions, they are primarily used to dismiss others as “others,” different, not like us, therefore not valued is some way. Particularly, as your examples here show, these labels become meaningless in a religious sense pretty quickly. We are most often all “compounds in one,” to borrow a phrase from Father Lehi, and not given to easy categorization.

    Another way to say this may be that people who use such labels are to be themselves labeled “Jello-nailers,” as in nailing Jello to the walls.

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2014 @ 11:43 am

  2. That old-time use of “Jehovah” gave me a bit of pause yesterday when it came up in an 1849 Millennial Star, but someone reading over my shoulder was really thrown for a loop.

    And I guess I need to figure out the situation with lodges. I’m slowly working on the story of a crime involving a member of the Church who was also a member of a lodge (1880s-1890s) and don’t quite appreciate the significance of that involvement.

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

  3. If you aren’t a Mormon historian, its hard to regularly attend church and read church publications and not realize that there *is* a mainstream. I don’t see that the historian’s view is weightier than the naive participants’ view.

    If you don’t use ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in some contexts of discussing Mormons, you have to either invent replacement terms with equivalent meaning or eschew clarity.

    Comment by Adam G. — February 19, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

  4. Adam, I would only say that it might appear that the use of labels appears to be helpful to you in defining “others” out of the “mainstream.” Sorry, my tone of voice doesn’t feel right for Keepa, but there is much more subtlety and nuance involved that these easy labels have room for.

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  5. Labels are such tricky, slippery things. On the one hand, they seem to be such a convenient (if admittedly simplistic) way to identify issues, people, etc. On the other hand, they’re so reductionistic as to be meaningless or worse misrepresentational. But we often find ourselves using them (even when we’re completely unaware of doing so) …

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 19, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  6. The other solution to Adam’s quandary is to simply quit discussing Mormons. I don’t recall which of the great commandments included the charge to discuss my fellow believers and their relative righteousness–is that part of loving God, or does it fall within loving my neighbor?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 19, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

  7. Agreed that the terminology transfers very poorly, if at all. But I think you’re overreaching here.

    there is an obvious traditional or mainstream view of anything in Mormonism

    For example, as much as I argue against the idea, I can hardly find General Authority sources or mainstream thought at any time period that do anything other than read the flood as a historical, global thing. Ditto for, say, a historical Book of Mormon. So if by “traditional” we’re meaning “monolithic”, I can agree. But not everything has undergone radical changes or shifts.

    Comment by Ben S — February 19, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Ardis. Most of the objections you raise are also raised in some form about the use of “conservative” and “liberal” as political labels. I think the terms are nonetheless very useful in both politics and religion. Most social scientists agree and use them in political analysis and research. (However, while there’s a good deal of overlap, the words aren’t always used in the same ways in politics as in religion.)

    The rancor associated with the terms is part of my point. The division between liberal and conservative in the Church, as in politics, is deep and often rancorous. As I suggested, it often appears to be a deeper division than that between believer and unbeliever. I’ve found it’s often easier for a conservative Mormon to get along with a conservative Catholic or agnostic than a liberal Mormon, and likewise for liberal LDS, who often have a harder time communicating with conservative LDS than liberal non-LDS. Sometimes I express this by saying that it seems politics is deeper than religion in our culture.

    The definition of “conservative” that comes up on Google is “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.” The contrasting definition of “liberal” is “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.” There are also definitions in terms of the word “orthodox.”

    “Traditional” in those definitions means currently traditional. Tradition changes. What was traditional 100 years ago would only be relevant in understanding what conservatives 100 years ago believed. Notice that in politics the same thing applies. What conservatives and liberals believed 100 years ago was often very different than what they believe today.

    Current traditional, orthodox, mainstream LDS views include that the Book of Mormon is a true historical document, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and (to mention what Julie Smith wrote about) that a chief reason dress should be modest is to avoid inspiring unhelpful sexual reactions by others. There is currently liberal dissent on each of these points.

    I don’t entirely follow your argument around the issue of helping others. If part of the point is that Mormonism involves both liberal and conservative elements relative to US politics, I agree. US policy also comprises both liberal and conservative elements. If the point is that the same person can have both liberal and conservative views, that’s also true.

    Comment by Kent — February 19, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

  9. Just as soon as you put a label on someone, they will say or do something that belies that label, rendering it useful only to the person applying that label to define others into insignificance and marginalize them.

    And I live in dread fear that the Savior’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 means exactly what it says it means, and will be the chief criteria upon which we are judged: “Even as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

  10. Labels need not have any of those effects. I at least don’t consider either liberals or conservatives insignificant or marginal. Nor Mormons, Christians, Democrats, Utahns, gun owners, senior citizens, politicians, voters, and so on. Labels are indispensable.

    Comment by Kent — February 19, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

  11. IN the descussion of “liberal’ vs. ‘conservitive’ in all contexts ( Political Social, religeous, financal) i have found grate value i the work of Dr Jon Haidt on moral foundations. the theaory he proposes is that we all respond to six diferent ‘Moral Foundations’ and that liberals, and coservitives (and libertarians) have different response paternsthis moves the dscussion from a set of positions held to the moral weighting we use to decide what possitions to hold.

    I recomend ever one take a look at what he has discovered .I know it helps me in deepening my understanding of why other people hold the positions they hold.
    Examination of the Church useing this frame work

    Comment by Joseph M — February 20, 2014 @ 10:41 am

  12. I share your enthusiasm for Haidt’s work, Joseph. Part of what he does is explain why those of differing moral/political beliefs, liberals and conservatives in particular, have such trouble understanding and respecting each other, and why the differences are useful, even necessary, for a healthy culture. An important book, I think.

    Comment by Kent — February 20, 2014 @ 10:54 am

  13. Joseph, you make Haidt’s work sound intriguing. I intend to take a closer look. Thanks for your input.

    Comment by kevinf — February 20, 2014 @ 11:01 am

  14. But can we really talk about liberal and conservative without a little Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 20, 2014 @ 11:26 am

  15. Ha, never seen that bit of G&S. That private is a natural political philosopher!

    Comment by Kent — February 20, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

  16. Every political argument is improved by a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. (And every philosophical one by Ogden Nash.)

    Comment by Amy T — February 20, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

  17. 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.

    A few months back a friend of mine was quite excited to find (on the internet) someone who was explaining how the LDS church had strayed from its roots. Only with great difficulty could I convince her that the premise of such a claim is faulty, even if all the examples given were strictly true.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 21, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

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