“Liberals,” “Tolerance,” and Other Canards of the Right

Over at A Bird’s Eye View, I’ve been having a conversation in comments with John Fowles. In one comment, John castigates a student who made a remark that he viewed as derogatory towards Mormons. John writes: “If she is ‘liberal’ doesn’t that mean she is supposed to be ‘sensitive’? Or does that only mean she is sensitive to the favored social causes and minorities and intolerant towards others?”

Ahh, where to begin?

The Critique

It seems to be a cherished belief of various self-defined conservatives and/or critics of liberalism that “liberal” views (also sometimes characterized by such critics as “moral relativist” views) are characterized by some level of prioritization of some idea of “tolerance” which includes universal acceptance and tolerance. Conservative critics run this view up the flagpole any time any liberal criticizes any conservative. “How dare you criticize me? Aren’t you supposed to be the tolerant ones, anyway? Inconsistent!” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

Let’s discuss this critique.

Eliminating Straw Liberals, Round One

As an initial point, it is necessary to point out the obvious fact that there are “liberals” of all different types. Indeed, this critique is generally employed against a party characterized (by a critic) as a liberal, and there even more types of are as-described-by-others “liberals.” There are radical Marxists. There are Clinton Democrats. There are union workers, inner-city poor minorities, and rich East Coasters. There are as many “liberal” types as there are “conservative” types. And guess what — they are not all the same. In fact (gasp!), many groups who might be characterized as “liberal” don’t really prioritize any type of universal tolerance. Read Marx, and you’ll find a lot of ideas. Universal tolerance isn’t one of them. So it’s really not fair to castigate “liberals” as a group for being inconsistent if the proof in question is the statements of a Marxist. So the first question for John (and for others wishing to employ this kind of critique) is who exactly is speaking, and why their statement should be viewed as representative of some group of “liberals” who do prioritize some idea of universal tolerance.

(To frame it in reverse, imagine a liberal arguing against her conservative friend: “But aren’t conservatives supposed to be patriotic? But you’ve got Bo Gritz trying to start up his own country! Inconsistent!”).

The basic moral here: Cast a broad enough net (“I’m going to define all people who disagree with me as ‘liberal'”), apply a broad enough standard (“all liberals must be tolerant!”), and you’re likely to find an inconsistency. It’s not the end of the world; it’s your own definitional problem.

I think that a large number of instances of this critique are probably based on definitional problems, misreadings, and other attacks on straw liberals.

Eliminating Straw Liberals, Round Two

Moving beyond the first batch of straw liberals, it is true that some people who define themselves as liberal seem to advocate tolerance as an important virtue. Again, however, we have to examine the actual beliefs of these people, not simply the soundbites created by their opponents. For example, organizations like the NAACP strongly advocate racial tolerance. However, this position is not necessarily derived from a broader position of advocating “universal tolerance.” It is possible to derive one from the other, but it is not the only possible derivation.

The Real Question

But moving beyond that second cut, let’s give John’s argument the credit it deserves: There is some subset of self-defined liberals who view their beliefs as stemming in whole or in part from some idea of prioritization of some concept of universal tolerance. Given that those people exist — and putting aside for a moment the liberal-conservative labels and the attendant baggage — let’s focus on a logically interesting question:

“Is it possible to prioritize universal tolerance?”


“How does someone wishing to prioritize universal tolerance treat the intolerant?”

Let’s take our universal-tolerance advocate — call him Nate — and ask him some questions. “Can I criticize Blacks?” “No, you should be tolerant.” “Can I criticize gays?” “No, you should be tolerant.” So far, so good. But the question that raises interesting issues is this one: “Can I criticize Nazis?”

If Nate allows me to criticize Nazis, Nate is being intolerant to the Nazis. If he does not allow me to criticize them, he is supporting their intolerance towards Jews.

The fact is, Nate is going to have to develop some ordering of priorities in order to determine who he will favor. If he values tolerance highly, then it may follow that he will prioritize tolerance for immutable characteristics over tolerance for chosen attitudes. That is, someone has no choice whether or not to be Black or Jewish or a woman. However, people have choices whether or not to belong to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, Nate may decide that he will be intolerant to Ku Klux Klan members.

Is that position inconsistent? I don’t think that it is. It’s a required ordering of preference. However, given the choice between tolerating a group that is defined by some immutable characteristic (such as members of a race) and tolerating a group that is defined though voluntary membership, and which wishes to discriminate against the first group — well, John makes the decision that best goes with his belief system.


So — to move back to John Fowles’ original question:

A speaker criticized the church for its treatment of minorities. Is that statement intolerant towards church members, and is that intolerance evidence of a logical inconsistency in some “liberal” position?

Well, (1) if the speaker was indeed a tolerance-minded liberal (not a Marxist, or another liberal-minded person who prioritizes some other values over tolerance), and (2) if that person espoused some sort of universal tolerance ideal — and if either of these arguments aren’t met, then John’s question is irrelevant — then the universal-tolerance-minded speaker’s analysis could reasonably be as follows:

(a) The church is an organization comprised of voluntary membership, and is intolerant towards racial minorities;
(b) Racial status is immutable; therefore
(c) My belief system requires me to prioritize tolerance towards minorities over tolerance towards church members; thus, I should criticize the church’s treatment of minorities.

Inconsistent? Only if you write for the National Review.

61 comments for ““Liberals,” “Tolerance,” and Other Canards of the Right

  1. D. Fletcher
    December 30, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Excellent! Kaimi, and fascinating.

  2. Kaimi
    December 30, 2004 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks, D.

    By the way, if anyone is wondering about incarnations of this post, I just now slightly reworded the hypothetical, to make it more directly applicable (and with fewer characters named John).

  3. December 30, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    Kaimi, to be fair, the practice of castigating straw men for “what they should have done if they’d live up to their goofy ideals”, like most political tactics, is one copied by all sides. Even the bad ones are copied if they work! Who knows where it started. Moreover, liberals and conservatives often play into these stereotypes by giving exaggerated, vague definitions of their own positions. When conservatives say that the core of their “philosophy” is “getting the government out of people’s lives”, they’re referring to a specific kind and function of government (taxation, local law enforcement), which is rarely defined. This use of the term “government” is misleading as is the liberal charge that conservatives are inconsistent since opposition to abortion rights is somehow a function of “big government”.

    John Leo is a classic case–a career of column-writing based on a cheesy rhetorical trick. Everyone believes in limits to tolerance (tolerance broadly understood). The right is even more insistent on these limits than the left. But Leo keeps digging up every campus nut-job as evidence that “the left wants to limit toleration! Er–so do we, but we want the right limits…”

    As for the study of political language, this is a fascinating phenomenon. It seems that precisely when an ideological ideal becomes widely accepted do those who find themselves on the outside looking in begin to look for instances of hypocrisy. Small government and toleration are ideals that everyone wants to be seen with. The other side thinks that there need to be limits or qualifications to these ideals. But instead of outlining the limits, and looking like a stick-in-the-mud, they try to show how the standard-bearers are hypocrites. This gives them two options. They can make the opponent look bad, and then the argument is a basic ad hominem. Or they can use the hypocrisy as evidence that the ideal can’t be applied in such a pure way. Or they can do both, even though making both claim both undercuts the two. Either route gives you a way to make an advance against either an entrenched opponent or popular political ideal without directly engaging the ideal itself.

  4. December 30, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    Correction: (taxation, NOT local law enforcement)

  5. December 30, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    Kaimi: All I can say is that I am glad that self-described conservatives are the only ones who fall into over generalized arguments with straw-person opponents. I mean, it would be a real tragedy if this happened all across the political spectrum.

    Er..never mind…

  6. john fowles
    December 30, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    A central paradox of The Social Contract is it’s admonition that we should tolerate everyone except the intolerant. What does this mean? If we are not tolerating the intolerant (who are they, by the way?), then we ourselves are intolerant, thus meriting not to be tolerated.

    Kaimi, this is a good discussion but it starts from a premise that I didn’t intend over at a bird’s eye view. That is, you have equated “tolerance”/”tolerating” with “not criticizing.” I believe that you can criticize and still be tolerant. But stating to an audience in a graduation speech that Salt Lake City is a “theocracy” that oppresses minorities is not a mere “criticism” either of the Church or the political system of the state of Utah. This statement is and must be informed by anti-Church (or intolerant) sentiment, but it is a little difficult to articulate why. It seems that the assumption that allows this statement to make sense at all (and it’s a long shot since you will have a difficult time arguing that Utah is a theocracy just because roughly half of its inhabitants belong to one Church) is that the Church is an existentially oppressive institution. Thus, given the black-and-white fact that there is an absolute institutional separation of church and state in Utah, both from the side of the state and from the side of the church, Utah can be an oppressive theocracy merely because of the fact that some individuals in state leadership positions are also members of the Church. What I was trying to say is that there is a lot of negative baggage behind such a statement; this person had every right to say what she said, but I pointed out that the comment was rude and intolerant and questioned whether she would be content with a similarly informed comment aimed at one of her own favored social causes or groups.

  7. Greg
    December 30, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    In support of Nate’s and Jeremiah’s point, Andrew Sullivan has posted his final selections for both the John Derbyshire Award and the Michael Moore Award at http://www.andrewsullivan.com/ .

  8. December 30, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Note that the statement here was not about “minorities” but about the exclusion of outsiders. She used her experience growing up in the “theocracy” of SLC to explain her empathy for those, such as gays, who feel as outsiders to the “theocracy” of America under the current administration. The thrust of her argument seemed to me to be that it is not right for people to feel excluded from societal benefits simply because they don’t belong to the club or adhere to some obsolete, unchanging notion of, say, what the founding fathers thought proper. Thus, the constitution ought to be interpreted as a “living document,” to prevent the exclusion to mainstream society of outsiders.

    Her jab at SLC was only meant, I think, to show the grounds on which she could empathize with other outsiders in society. As such, although it was annoying to a mormon federalist like me as was her entire speech about the “living” constitution, I think her remarks are being taken out of context by all involved here. Mostly, I think it was inappropriate for her to use the opportunity the class gave her to speak by voting for her as the commencement speaker as a platform to become a pundit for her own views. Instead, she should have tried to address thing more common to the class.

    Of course, perhaps her comments were common to the general ideals of the class, which would certainly support the notion of Michigan as a liberal institution. As such, while I roll my eyes at it as I have so many times over the last few years at Michigan, I do not think it was very offensive or that her comments were meant as an accusation that the church suppresses minorities.

  9. john fowles
    December 30, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Besides, if conservatives, as you say, “often” throw accusations of intolerance at liberals in order to expose internal inconsistencies in the liberal position, liberals have themselves largely to blame for that. Liberals often, it seems, claim that the problem with conservatives are insensitive, intolerant, and uncaring. This implies that the liberal position is not that which makes the conservative position bad, i.e. it must be sensitive, tolerant, and caring. So remind me, why is it wrong for conservatives to demand tolerance from liberals? Another thing that liberals (I am avoiding your own straw man of Karl Marx here; I don’t consider Karl Marx an American “liberal”) pride themselves on is being “open-minded.” So I have often wondered why being “open-minded” doesn’t include giving due consideration to conservative ideologies and principles. Being “open-minded” only rquires accepting or tolerating things that go against conservative norms, I have observed. One of the other descriptors used by the Left to describe themselves–“progressive”– captures this idea nicely in the way it connotes the opposite of “conservative.”

  10. john fowles
    December 30, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Jordan, the “outsiders” she was referring to are also “minorities”; in the context of the SLC statement, those who do not belong to the Church are the “minority.” Minorities and minority rights were the underlying and explicitly stated subjects of a large portion of her talks, so I don’t think it is a mischaracterization of her statements at all to say “oppressing minorities.” Besides, I was looking at what is and must be informing the statement that SLC is a theocracy.

  11. JCP
    December 30, 2004 at 6:27 pm

    One interesting fact about political discourse is that people by and large buy into an implicit assumption of the above argument: religion is merely a choice–“an organization comprised of voluntary membership.”

    Now on one level this is clearly true. People come in and out of churches (especially some churches). Coming in and out of “woman-ness” (or any similar status) is a significantly higher hurdle. But do members of any religion really see their own membership that way? Many (perhaps a majority) clearly do not. They are Mormons or Muslims or Catholics or whatever not out of a sense of simply belonging to an organization but because they are converted to the position that the organization is “true” (obviously this is more applicable to some religions than others, but it seems a worthwhile generalization about most religions). Of course not everyone feels this way–and we ought not make the assumption that they do–but enough people feel this way that the viewpoint ought to be considered.

    Now setting aside whether anyone is right about a particular organization being “true” or not, we are left with the fact that a large fraction of the world’s believers (of any religion) do not buy the secular premise that religion is merely a “voluntary organization.”

    I suppose this doesn’t really directly address the points made above. But it does shed light on one important fact: many on the left are prone to thoughtlessly dismiss religion as a club. Though I do not suspect that the gentleman posting above intended any such dismissal of faith, he did include that language in his post. (Adding all of this baggage to the post would water it down considerably.) And it is a pretty crucial addition, as anyone who considers the logic will see.

    Perhaps he is right, and perhaps he is wrong. The broader and more important point about tolerance is not that those who preach tolerance need adhere to a thoughtless application of a tolerance principle. It is that any serious form of tolerance would not dismiss belief cavalierly as simply being a club. From what I have read of the graduation speaker’s comments, she probably implicitly buys that assumption as well.

    (By the way the right doesn’t dismiss religion, it merely panders to religion. I’m not really sure that’s at all better.)

  12. December 30, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    JCP: Democracy is all about pandering…Always has been and always will be. Hardly something to be surprised about…

  13. JCP
    December 30, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Nate: I’m not sure democracy is that easy to pin down. The problem is that it produces a lot of pandering and a lot of other things as well (principled opposition to evil, protection of minorities, I could go on but …). If only democracy was simply pandering it might be easier to think about.

  14. Kristine
    December 30, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    John, we’re all at a disadvantage, not having heard the speech in context. But if your brother, who was there, can appreciate the underlying rationale of her example, and find it goofy but inoffensive, is there just the teensiest possibility that you are being overly sensitive? (You wouldn’t want to unwittingly fall into the liberal trap of proudly chosen victimhood and identity politics, now, would you?)

  15. December 30, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    “goofy” is too much of an understatement. “extemely annoying” is a better characterization. But I was not offended.

    In other news, goodbye Ann Arbor- this is my last day here. Tomorrow it’s off to more conservative fields in Texas.

  16. john fowles
    December 30, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    I know I am open to accusations of being over-sensitive, especially given Jordan’s “corrective” on what she said. Jordan is describing the words she used; I am exploring the premises her statement must be built upon and simply noting that it was rude and insensitive. Why is that such a refutable observation? Am I over-sensitive because I find a blanket statement to a general audience that SLC is a theocracy because of the influence of the Church there to be discourteous? Kaimi has taken my observation further than I wanted to go in asking why she wasn’t attuned on a human level to the effect her statement might have had on a believing Latter-day Saint in the audience. I would certainly steer clear of such a statement about any other religion in a graduation speech to a general audience merely out of a sense of courtesy, even though I have made my share of derisive comments about evangelicals in this very forum here, which, as a discussion group, is a very different context than a graduation speech at a public university. Many people have described me as “conservative” but I try to be cognizant of other people’s feelings in real-life interaction and in public events. (Again, countering that I am decidedly intolerant on these blogs doesn’t count, because that is not the context we are discussing.)

  17. Kristine
    December 30, 2004 at 7:08 pm

    John, from your description, I would say that her description of SLC as a “theocracy” is a sloppy, inaccurate, and insensitive characterization. I don’t think it rises to the level of “anti-Mormon” sentiment that you want to assign it. What she’s reacting against is cliquishness in a dominant group. And that criticism was levelled by Elder Ballard a couple of years ago in General Conference. He went so far as to suggest that there is a “doctrine of inclusion” which Latter-day Saints, especially where they are in the majority, are guilty of violating. Of course the critique comes more appropriately, and no doubt more effectively, from an insider who cares about the people he’s criticizing. But it seems to me that a more appropriate response to the situation she describes–that people of minority groups feel marginalized by the behavior of the dominant population of Latter-day Saints–would be to say, “ouch, we’ve got a ways to go in living the gospel” as well as some eye-rolling at the overwrought rhetoric about theocracy.

  18. john fowles
    December 30, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    Kristine wrote But it seems to me that a more appropriate response to the situation she describes–that people of minority groups feel marginalized by the behavior of the dominant population of Latter-day Saints–would be to say, “ouch, we’ve got a ways to go in living the gospel� as well as some eye-rolling at the overwrought rhetoric about theocracy.

    This is very true; I agree with you. But I do think that it was offensive on a human level because of the assumptions that back it up about what the Church is and is not. Obviously, other Latter-day Saints (e.g. Jordan) in the audience weren’t “offended” by it. That is their prerogative. But I still don’t think it’s necessary over-sensitive to find it to be a downright rude statement–and to call her on it. I actually think I have a relatively tough skin with regards to disparaging remarks about the Church, having grown up in Dallas where junior high and high school teachers haveno compunction with outright telling kids (e.g. in American History class) that JS was a fraud and that the Church is absurd (this comes in the context of teaching the “history” of the pioneers and the expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from Missouri). But I have noticed a certain zero-tolerance level on my part with criticisms of the Church in the last year or so, so I’ll give you that much. Usually the only places that this zero-tolerance policy flares up are on the blogs or when “Doug Fabrizzio” comes on the air on NPR, much to my wife’s chagrin, although to be fair, she doesn’t even read these blogs because of how critical they are of the Church, which is so close to her heart. I have never really known myself to hold a nonmember to this new zero-tolerance policy that has taken me over this year, absent outright and blatant anti-mormon bigotry. But for some reason, this graduation speech invoked the zero-tolerance policy in me, even though the speaker was not a member and even had every right to say what she said. So I vented on my blog.

  19. Kristine
    December 30, 2004 at 7:50 pm

    “But I have noticed a certain zero-tolerance level on my part with criticisms of the Church in the last year or so”

    Me too! :)

    I think you have to make some allowances for people’s intent–this speaker’s intent was not to be rude, but to make a point about majorities (especially religious or ideological ones) and their tendency to intolerance. Dan Fabrizzio probably just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Your high school teacher (and mine–I’m from Nashville, remember?) probably had a nastier agenda, as well as a bully pulpit–there’s an appropriate place to take offense. But if you’re going to get upset every time somebody says Mormons aren’t perfect or that the institutional Church sometimes partakes of the same idiocies that befall all human institutions, you are going to die early from high blood pressure and other stress-related ailments (and you’re going to consign me and Kaimi to a similar fate, as we seem temperamentally unable to ignore you ;))

  20. Nate Oman
    December 30, 2004 at 9:44 pm

    Kristine: There is a bit of irony in thee — the cautioner to those who parse census data of how potentially offensive they are being — calling on others to be a bit less sensitive. Of course, I completely agree with you ;->

  21. a random John
    December 30, 2004 at 10:08 pm

    Having been away from SLC for a few years I have been without Radio West, which I always enjoyed. You should hear the local NPR programs in Boston! What has Doug done recently other than cause Nancy Workman to throw a childish tantrum?

  22. Kristine
    December 30, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Ah, Nate, thank goodness we have you to be the irony police. Actually, I think I’ve made the exact same point in each case: the speaker who so offended John was sloppy and imprecise in labeling Utah a theocracy–her phrasing was offensive, even though there was some truth in her premise; I cautioned Frank that his imprecise statement of the comparison btw breastfeeding mothers and non-breastfeeding mothers could lead people to take offense, even if the underlying idea was more or less sound.

  23. December 31, 2004 at 12:53 am

    I think all groups of people who subscribe to an ideology practice some level of intolerance towards conflicting ideologies. And yes, this includes me as a member of the anti-ideological-group group.

  24. Martin James
    December 31, 2004 at 12:20 pm

    I think the emphasis on prioritizing involuntariness has it precisely backwards.

    There is a privacy and freedom compenent of the liberal tradition also.

    I don’t think the following is inconsistent. Persons L prefers freedom in sexual practices so L proposes a tolerance principle. I won’t interfere in your practices if you don’t interfere in mine. If you do interfere in mine then all bets are off and I can interfere in yours.

    Now, under this formulation inconsistency remains only if L attempts to interfere in areas L has agreed are covered by the scope of the tolerance principle. For example, education of children may be included or excluded from the tolerance principle. If the bargain was only for the sexual practices of consenting adults and not for the education of children, L is not being inconsistent in being intolerant of education that L sees as threatening the free sexual practices of adults. If L did include freedom of education within the scope then a better case can be made for inconsistency.

  25. JCP
    December 31, 2004 at 1:58 pm

    Consistency is a nice virtue. I certainly agree that it ought to matter. But it isn’t the ultimate goal. Whether you’re applying L’s tolerance principle (or Kaimi’s or anyone else’s principle) is less important than the actual fruits of tolerance: civility and dialogue among other things.

    In our society, more concern about those things would be nice–even if it came with the cost of some inconsistency.

  26. Pete
    December 31, 2004 at 2:15 pm


    I am glad you have recognized that the graduation speaker’s “phrasing was offensive,” when she spoke of Salt Lake City being a theocracy that oppresses minorities, but I would like to know what you think the “some truth in her premise” is.

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  28. john fowles
    December 31, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    A random John, I have no problems with Fabrizzio’s exchange with Workman.

  29. Adam Greenwood
    December 31, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    Kind of a cheap shot, Kaimi, if you ask me.

    You got into a wrassle with John Fowles over on his blog, over your usual refusal to think that Mormons might have any legitimate grievances against the secular left.
    Then you take quote from it, characterize it as a strawman, and beat it to death over here. Would you yourself really like to be subjected to this level of scrutiny?

  30. David King Landrith
    December 31, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    Your analysis is pretty superficial. Being a conservative myself, I get special joy in mocking the insensitivity and bigotry displayed by liberals not because of some idealized liberal straw-man, but because so many liberals I meet assume that I want to screw over the elderly, minorities, women, and poor folks just by virtue of the fact that I’m conservative.

    When I was younger, I never tired of restating the same, very simply arguments to dense liberals (is there any other type, really?) in order to explain that differences in public policy approach don’t typically determine whether one really cares about the fate of elderly, minorities, women, and poor folks (the only consistent difference between who conservatives and liberals care about is communists: liberals love ’em; conservatives hate ’em). Now that I’m older and more mature, I’ve simply given up.

    And I think that Adam Greenwood hits the nail on the head about the illegitimacy of your approach in addressing the issue here.

  31. Kristine
    December 31, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Pete, see my comment #17.

  32. Pete
    December 31, 2004 at 6:33 pm


    Post 17 doesn’t lend any truth to the premise that “SLC is a theocracy”, given that Mormons are not a clear majority in SLC and political views within the SLC Mormon community vary pretty widely. In other words, as generous as may be to ascribe the speaker’s reference to sloppiness, instead we should call it as the false stereotype and pot-shot at SLC that it was.

    Whether you agree with the graduation speaker or not, surely you can admit the impulse of her remark was at the very least, somewhat anti-religious. “Theocracy” was not being used as anything less than a pejorative term. Maybe the speaker is simply a liberal of the “intolerant” type (as per Kaimi). Would that be so shocking?

  33. Kristine
    December 31, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    It would not be at all shocking if a liberal were intolerant. That said, I also think it’s pretty easy to imagine what Utah politics looks like to an outsider: 80% Republican, 70% Mormon? (I’m guessing; I don’t actually know what the numbers are, but I think it’s a safe bet that Republican Mormons are an overwhelming majority everywhere outside of SLC, and a pretty significant majority in the city)–of course it’s not technically a theocracy, but it can certainly function like one, or (more importantly in this case) seem to function as one. Can you imagine trying to, say, get a sex ed. curriculum approved by an SLC school board, if it had anything that could possibly be perceived as offensive to Mormons? Do you not think the Church’s position on homosexuality had anything to do with the Gay-Straight Alliance controversy at East? Although the church as an institution doesn’t often use its leverage in Utah politics, in some sense it doesn’t have to because Mormon culture is so thoroughly dominant and embedded. So I think “theocracy” is imprecise (since a “culture” can’t actually govern), but not based on a wholly false perception or some vicious stereotype. I don’t think it would be very pleasant to be a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, and I would be inclined to lay the blame for that on the church in some way, as this woman did. (Similarly, it wasn’t especially fun to be a Mormon in Nashville when I was growing up–fortunately for my own inclinations to sloppy stereotyping, there were lots of evangelical churches to blame, making it impossible to accuse any one of them of trying to create a “theocracy.”)

  34. JCP
    December 31, 2004 at 10:09 pm

    Tossing around the word “theocracy” to describe Utah politics damages the integrity of the word. There are real theocracies out there in the world. Utah and Iran just aren’t that much alike.

    And if Mormons voting their values is a “theocracy,” then what democratic place is not governed by a theocracy? Most places the size of Utah (or even larger) have rather cohesive majorities that run the show. Presumably labelling Utah a theocracy, or a place that functions like one (which sounds an awful lot like an actual theocracy to me) means that people voting their values there are behaving badly (perhaps because their values are religious?).

    Are liberals in other places similarly tyrannical by expressing their values at the ballot box?

    P.S. SLC proper is a bit less than 50% LDS. The state-at-large is around 70% LDS (or just a bit more).

  35. Kristine
    December 31, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    JCP–I know population stats for SLC, but what does the leg. look like, or the city council? Also, I know that voting values is what people do and are supposed to do, it’s just that people’s values (and hence their votes) are both monolithic and religious in Utah, and a government chosen by voters with values informed by a monolithic religion (which Mormonism surely looks like from the outside) is surely more like theocracy than some other kinds of democratic outcomes, say, for instance, the state government here in “liberal” Massachusetts, where the governor is a Mormon Republican and the state house is an entertaining mix of Irish-Catholic-union-worker-supported Dems, wealthy-suburban-conservative-supported Republicans, and a few Greens and Libertarians for color and silly speeches. It’s not terrifically effective, but I’m pretty sure nobody feels as disenfranchised as non-Mormons in Utah might.

  36. Kristine
    December 31, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    ” I’m pretty sure nobody feels as disenfranchised as non-Mormons in Utah might.”

    Oh, to be smart enough to read before posting! I shouldn’t presume to speak for everyone in Massachusetts. It seems to me that a broader spectrum of opinions are represented in the Mass. legislature than the Utah one, but I’m an expert on neither.

  37. January 1, 2005 at 1:46 am

    I mentioned above (or was it on John’s blog?) that the word theocracy was of course misapplied in the case of Utah. Iran and Vatican City are probably the only real ones in the world, though there are plenty of state churches and special priviledges for certain churches or faiths in many countries.

    Mormons are something over 70% of the state of Utah but I think at least 80% of the state legislature.

    An ideologically monolithic majority can of course be bad, but the church-state issue in Utah has an added element about which non-Mormons complain. It would be one thing if Mormonism translated easily into a certain ideology which dominated the state. Most of the non-Mormons are Dems, but there are plenty of disagreements (most notably urban-rural disputes) in the legislature with Mormons on both sides. The bigger problem which some perceive is that there is a lot of healthy disagreement about many issues but only until the church takes a position on them (if indeed the church does take a position, which it obviously only does occasionally). At that point, so the charge goes, the discussion basically ends and the church position never loses.

    I don’t think that the church intends this kind of thing, and in some cases the effect is exaggerated. For example when I worked in the state legislature in 2000 the church took no position on any of the big issues from what I remember. Still, it is a problem for democracy if an unelected dominant institution in civil society can get its way without accountability and without public debate. Notice the claim is not that Utah has a very dominant political value system which decides some issues without discussion. It doesn’t really have this and if it did it might not be that bad. Rather, it’s that the instruments of state government might by proxy be bent to the will of a private insititution. This can be a problem even though the church is well within its constitutional rights and is not intentionally trying to be sponsored by the state. I’m not at all sure about the empirical question of whether and to what degree this is going on in Utah, but I do believe that the potential problem goes beyond that of a dominant belief system (as in a very liberal state) and beyond the simple fact of religious people excercising their rights.

  38. Adam Greenwood
    January 1, 2005 at 11:10 am

    “Notice the claim is not that Utah has a very dominant political value system which decides some issues without discussion. It doesn’t really have this and if it did it might not be that bad. Rather, it’s that the instruments of state government might by proxy be bent to the will of a private insititution.”

    Given Mormonism’s emphasis on revelation, the dominant political value system turns out to include whatever the Church pronounces on a subject. So I don’t see understand your point unless you are worried that the Church will be able to control some outcomes behind the scenes, say by speaking to legislators privately, without making their position on the matter public. Even in that case, though, the Church is probably acting privately not to hide things from its own members, but from outsiders who would complain that the Church has too much influence. If the members knew what was going on and what the Church’s motives were they would probably approve.

    Incidentally, my impressions from working in the legislature in 2001 was that the institutional Church was invisible. Mormon legislators from rural areas tried to pass Mormonish legislation (e.g., pretty restrictive porn laws), though usually not in a very thought out form, while Mormon legislators from suburban and and urban areas tried to squelch them, usually successfully. As best as i could tell, the goal of these Mormon squelchers was to have the state business run along with a minimum of fuss and to downplay the Mormon role in the state.

  39. Nate Oman
    January 1, 2005 at 12:13 pm

    Kristine: Hah! You have obviously never spent time in Cambridge as a Republican! For what it is worth, I found that in many ways the political enviroment in Cambridge and Provo was quite similar. Both places were dominated by a single political ideology that was never really questioned, except by same side extremists. (In Provo this meant arguments between conservative Republicans and Bo-Gritz-supporting-right-wing wackos and in Cambridge it meant arguments between liberal Democrats and Chomskyite Greens and hold overs from the Spartacus League.) You had town gown disputes but these weren’t really ideological per se. The main differences in the dynamic — other than political ideology of course — is that Cambridge is considerably wealthier than Provo, Harvard and MIT are a bit more selective that BYU and UVSC, and by and large the people in Provo are nicer (if frequently less interesting) than people in Cambridge.

  40. Nate Oman
    January 1, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    A final point of contrast: Cambridge townies probably resent Harvard considerably more than Provo townies resent BYU. Harvard is a bit more imperious in local politics than is BYU, and because of the Church Provo townies are probably more likely to identify with BYU than Cambridge townies are to identify with Harvard. For half my time at HLS I lived right off of Central Square, which is basically where genteel, Harvard Cambridge gives way to gritty non-Harvard Cambridge (but a bit before you get into uber-nerd, MIT Cambridge). I felt like if I walked out my door and turned right I entered one world (Harvard) and if I turned left I entered a completely different world (a largely immigrant neighborhood filled mainly with people from Central America).

  41. Kristine
    January 1, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Nate–you’re right, of course, (I should just build that into some script for my comments on threads with you!) about Cambridge city politics. However, I think that there is significant representation of Republican/conservative views in the state legislature, and certainly in the governor’s office, where there have been Republicans for how many years now?

  42. Kristine
    January 1, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    ” Even in that case, though, the Church is probably acting privately not to hide things from its own members, but from outsiders who would complain that the Church has too much influence”

    And you wonder why someone would complain about a de facto theocracy?(!)

  43. JCP
    January 1, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    I don’t understand how the church successfully persuading people on an “occasional” set of issues is such a big problem. Every interest group in the world is trying to gain that kind of power. The LDS church has done so successfully (on a very narrow range of issues). They are to be blamed for this?

    “it is a problem for democracy if an unelected dominant institution in civil society can get its way without accountability and without public debate.”

    Is this a fair characterization of Utah politics? From what I observe there are plenty of people to oppose a church position, and try to hold Mormons accountable. They just don’t get very far because so few agree with that position. But even if this characterization were accurate, any society where private institutions cannot take positions in an effort to persuade the public would be clearly much more tyrannical than Utah (where this activity is now permitted). I for one would much prefer to live in a society where the government permits the debate–even if I am going to lose the argument.

    Isn’t the bigger problem in Utah not politics, but social interaction? Mormons are not as neighborly as is required to avoid criticism. They should probably change their interactions with their neighbors. But if the point is that they should (for some reason) not vote their beliefs, I am baffled. What other group in society needs to pass that hurdle?

    Utah is more like a theocracy than Massachusetts in the sense that I am more like a giraffe than is my daughter. I am after all taller. We’re not talking about a difference of degree. We’re talking about a difference in kind. I just googled some news on the middle east. Saudi Arabia crucified someone for stealing today. Now that’s a theocracy.

    P.S. Which state really has more ideological diversity? The state that hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress in well over a decade (but does elect Republican governors)? Or the state that has a reliably mixed congressional delegation but rarely elects statewide Democrats? I’ll admit I am not sure, thought it sounds like a wash to me.

  44. JCP
    January 1, 2005 at 1:51 pm

    Oops: point of clarification. It was just pointed out to me that Saudi Arabia crucified that man for stealing from, and then killing his mother. My apologies for bringing up the entire repulsive matter.

  45. Adam Greenwood
    January 1, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Yes, I do wonder, Kristine. Theocracy, especially when used as a pejorative, does not imply that a religion has such a hold on its people that they tend to vote its views, while allowing basic civic liberties to all. It implies mullahs hanging heretics.

  46. January 1, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    JCP: “Is this a fair characterization of Utah politics? From what I observe there are plenty of people to oppose a church position, and try to hold Mormons accountable. They just don’t get very far because so few agree with that position. But even if this characterization were accurate, any society where private institutions cannot take positions in an effort to persuade the public would be clearly much more tyrannical than Utah (where this activity is now permitted). I for one would much prefer to live in a society where the government permits the debate–even if I am going to lose the argument.”

    You should re-read what I wrote. First, I said several times that I’m not sure that it is a fair characterization of Mormon politics, but that it is a *potential* problem. I also made it clear that the church is within its rights. It is true that a modern democratic society where political action by private groups in civil society is prohibited would be impossible, let alone, as you say, tyrannical. But that’s not the point, and the choice is not between a society where private groups are allowed to make their views public and a society where there are no such freedoms. The choice is between a civil society where private groups contribute to a heathy public sphere (where important issues are brought up, relevant concerns about policies are expressed, perspectives of those affected are voiced, social costs are weighed etc.) and a civil society where a dominant group or groups effectively subvert these important functions. The difference lies less in the virtue or intentions of the groups than in the overall composition and character of civil society.

    I agree that you can’t just ban churches or other groups from participating who seem to be bad for the public sphere. But it seems just as unhelpful to continually focus only on what rights are due, abstracting from the political effects of their exercise, or to take the relativist turn and deny that we can say which issues are important, whose concerns are relevant, what a “social cost” is, etc.

    The concern I raise here is similar to that raised in Federalist 10. There the quesition is not whether government should operate in some measure by popular majority rule. Rather, the question is how political society should be organized so that majority rule does not lead to tyranny or factional strife. I’m not proposing any constitutional remedy as Madison is in Fed 10 but I am pointing out that the exercise of perfectly legitimate political rights can lead to bad outcomes.

  47. Adam Greenwood
    January 1, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    I understand your point in the abstract, Jeremiah J., but I don’t see quite how it applies to Utah.

    The Church-as-faction is very much checked by the fact that Utah is just one state among many in a system where states are somewhat peripheral. I have no reason to think that counter-majoritarian rights are not protected in Utah, for instance.

    More fundamentally, applying Madison’s worry about factions to the Church seriously would require either discounting the element of revelation or accounting for it in a way that still makes the Church’s power on the whole dangerous.

  48. January 1, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    Great Post Kaimi

  49. JCP
    January 2, 2005 at 2:19 am

    Jeremiah J: As per your instructions …

    I reviewed your post. And it certainly does contain more nuance than I first saw: my apologies on that score. But I remain confused by your overall line of argument. I am in wholehearted agreement with your more recent post regarding an obsessive focus on rights leading to an inability to assess political outcomes (although I am unsure why a few paragraphs about rights imply such a strong worldview). I think you are quite right about civil political behavior and how citizens ought to think and deliberate.

    But context is everything. Given what we were discussing, I took your earlier post to be about governmental systems—not the political attitudes and arguments of individuals. As I have already said in posts above, I would agree with a call to more dialogue and civil discourse that should lead to a more “healthy public sphere.� But I am wondering exactly why that would solve the problem you cite:

    (Of course it is apparently a merely theoretical problem with no empirical content whatsoever.)

    “[A]n unelected dominant institution in civil society can get its way without accountability and without public debate . . . . [T]he instruments of state government might by proxy be bent to the will of a private insititution . . . . even though the church is well within its constitutional rights and is not intentionally trying to be sponsored by the state.� [Run the state?]

    This seems like it could imply several things (learned my lesson: hunt for the nuance!). Listing a few of the more relevant ones:

    1. The institution has too much power and should be curbed through formal institutions.
    2. The institution has too much power but nothing should be done.
    3. The institution has too much power and individual people ought to be aware of this and temper their individual political activity accordingly.

    Thinking that we were discussing systems of government I took you to mean 1. But apparently you either mean 2 or, more likely, 3. I hope the world gets outcome 3 (and I even personally take steps to push us in that direction). It certainly might smooth the political process. But won’t the faction that consistently loses political fights get a bit miffed no matter how civil the discourse? (And I should probably admit that I do flatly disagree with the idea that Mormon religious values do not translate fairly easily into a dominant ideology. The strategy of Utah Republicans is clearly based on this premise, and given their political success in the state …)

    I suspect the (un)likelihood of producing good political outcomes or satisfied citizens by exhortation, is exactly why Madison offered an argument about systems and not one about political attitudes and behavior. While we may want to live in a society with healthy civil discourse, we cannot count on that. Thus while I hope and strive for option 3, I suspect the real choice we face—in designing a political system—is 1 or 2.

  50. Jeremiah J.
    January 2, 2005 at 7:09 pm

    JCP: I didn’t mean for “reread what I wrote” to sound scolding, so don’t worry about it.

    My original comment was largely idle talk, not in the sense that it was just off the top of my head, but in the sense that it wasn’t motivated by any deep concern with Utah politics.

    I do want to avoid critiques without options–i.e. compalints that lead nowhere and about which nothing can be done, but it is important to separate diagnosis of the problem with possible remedies. In this case, my remedy would probably be your #3, to include also the church realizing its political influence and the effects it has, not just on policies, but on the way politics is done. But there are various kinds of indirect policy remedies which the church and the state government could implement which might help as well, without denying the church or its members their political rights. I’m not really interested in figuring out the remedies right now, to me the problem isn’t that pressing and is largely “potential” as I said earlier.

    As for Mormonism translating into a coherent ideology. On the grand theological question, I’ll register a cryptic ‘no’ for now and leave it at that. But we’re talking about the more empirical question of whether most Mormons turn out, e.g. to be GOP and have right-wing political values. In Utah yes, but their politics is pretty similar to the politics of similar states in the region like ID, WY, and NM (states with only between 5-25% LDS, ID at the high end). Utah Mormons probably have a politics that is more mountain west than it is uniquely Mormon. Still the basic point is that Mormons are able to disagree on many things in Utah, so I don’t see the dominance of a specific value system as a problem. Beyond that, I don’t see agreement on values as a big problem. In fact I think it would be good if we had a little more of it in America.

    The problem is that private groups, no matter how right they are in their views, act differently than the government as a whole. They are not as accountable and responsible. Why should they be? their concern is to represent their own interests (godly and true as they may be) and those voters who identify with them. Just like individual voters and even congressmen do not act as responsibly as a democratic system as a whole, the church does not take into account every possible cost and good objection to its positions. That’s not it’s job, that’s the job of the public sphere. I imagine that if the church suddenly became the temporal politcal power in Utah, it would act differently. It might, like it did in Nauvoo with the council of fifty, incorporate non-members in its political decision-making. As it is the church probably speaks infrequently on political issues because it knows the power that it has and only wants to make statements on its most vital interests and the most pressing moral questions.

    As a faithful member of the church, I don’t admit the possibility that the counsel of the prophet can be struck down by some separate tribunal, at least in my own life. But as a good citizen, it seems that I must admit that these counsels can be legitimately rejected by the political community. The only reason for me raising a “potential problem” is to find a way to think through this issue.

  51. Nate Oman
    January 2, 2005 at 10:38 pm

    Jeremiah J.: If one looks at hte political reality in Utah over time what you see is that the Church has great political power because it chooses to exercise that power very infrequently. Conversely, in the past when the Church more frequently intervened in Utah politics it was less successful. The most dramatic example is Heber J. Grant’s failed attempts to get Mormons to oppose the New Deal but their of numerous other examples. This suggests that there is already a self-checking mechanism in Church power. It also suggests that the Church’s low profile political lobbying in Utah comes from the fact not that it is all powerful but under-handed, but rather from the fact that it is in some ways compartively weak and wishes to husband its political influence, realizing that the more public that influence is the less likely it is to be effective. I realize that there is something counter-intuitive in saying that the Church is politically weak in Utah, and I certainly would not want to deny that it has great influence. It is a mistake, however, to view it as omnipotent or even potentially omnipotent. In many ways, understanding the Church’s weakness illuminates more than fixating on its strength.

    I am sure that Kristine will agree with me.

  52. Jeremiah J.
    January 3, 2005 at 12:41 am

    Nate: Yes I think what you say is probably right. That is essentially the argument of a recent paper by Quin Monson of BYU and David Campbell of Notre Dame. They characterize Mormon politics as “dry kindling”–Mormons have political skills, resources, and are remarkably responsive to church direction on political matters (esp. comparing Catholics to Catholic social teaching, etc.), but the church rarely invokes its authority there. Later they suggest the same thing as you do–that the responsiveness comes from its rarely being invoked.

    It does add a significant wrinkle to my earlier, abstract, point, which I only reluctantly followed through. That point wasn’t so much about the church as it currently operates but about how a dominant institution in civil society might have an ill effect on the public sphere, without it having anything to do with a dominant set of values. I’ve already spent too many comment-words trying to back off of any particular claim about Utah politics, so I won’t go through it again. Perhaps my point was uninteresting and ill-placed, under a post on “canards of the right”.

  53. January 3, 2005 at 1:19 am

    That a rather perceptive recognition Nate. However I think that most people complaining about the LDS “theocracy” really are simply complaining about the large Mormon population and the fact that they vote their views. Thus the minority who think that many things Mormons think wrong or improper are fine, feel persecuted. A lot of it is quite silly, such as complaining about Sunday closings. (Which, lets be honest, really isn’t very extensive and the places that do close down often do so because of low traffic)

    I can understand the complaint. But the fact is that what they really are railing against is Utah having a different culture. I still remember this woman who came to BYU to do a graduate degree in the biology department due to the reputation of her advisor. Unfortunately she knew little about Mormons and less about the non-cosmopolitan life. Boy did she rail against Provo and Utah.

  54. January 3, 2005 at 9:38 am

    (a) The church is an organization comprised of voluntary membership, and is intolerant towards racial minorities;
    (b) Racial status is immutable; therefore
    © My belief system requires me to prioritize tolerance towards minorities over tolerance towards church members; thus, I should criticize the church’s treatment of minorities.

    Translates into:

    I believe in tolerance for anything I agree with.
    If I disagree with you, then my priorities require me to be intolerant to you, and make your life a living hell, given the chance.
    That is perfectly ok, as I am in the majority and you are in the minority and I can get away with it as a matter of casual spite.
    And no, my “tolerance” is not a matter of hypocracy.

    I know, I’ve been blunt, and the topic has drifted away into discussions that lay the foundation for saying the premises are inaccurate that Utah is a theocracy well damned by liberals.

    But most simplified prioritizing really devolves into “I am justified in seeking tolerance only for things I agree with.”

    I think you have more of an explanation of why people feel justified in that intolerance rather than why they are really being tolerant.

    And a good sense, now, of why those on the other side intutitively feel there is something wrong there.

  55. January 3, 2005 at 9:40 am

    As an aside, you are right that not all liberals treat tolerance as an expressed goal, but most of those in public discourse will repeat the mantras of tolerance without thinking, much like most conservatives will express patriotic thought without noticing that they are doing it. Fourth of July celebrations anyone?

  56. Kristine
    January 3, 2005 at 9:55 am

    Nate, you are probably right, and I should never have tried to say anything about Utah politics, since I don’t even have the expertise that would come from having lived there.

    However, even if you are right, I don’t think that very many non-Mormons living in Utah would be able to see the fine distinction you’re making. And while their complaint is, as Clark rightly points out, probably much more with the dominant culture than with the political process, there just isn’t any place else in the U.S. where a single church exerts that much influence on the political process. To an outsider, I can’t imagine that it would matter much whether the influence is direct or indirect–the effect is that Mormon values influence legislation in Utah to a much greater extent than Catholic values influence legislation in Massachusetts or even than Evangelical (and, especially, more than Baptist or Methodist or any single denomination’s) values influence legislation in Tennessee. And while that surely doesn’t fit any careful definition of “theocracy,” it’s enough to make the sloppy vernacular usage understandable.

  57. danithew
    January 3, 2005 at 9:57 am

    I haven’t been able to read through all the comments on this thread, so I hope my thought here won’t be too out-of-sync with the topic or what has been said.

    Years ago in Israel I observed left-wing groups acting in concerted fashion to prevent a radical right-wing person from speaking. It struck me as odd that groups who normally claim to support free-speech would go to such great efforts to prevent this person from speaking. In fact, in the process of resisting police and others who showed up, windows were broken and the speaker was prevented from giving his piece. Of course, this guy was a conspiracy theorist who was claiming Shimon Peres had helped orchestrate Rabin’s assassination. Still, my feeling is free speech advocates have to be willing to suffer when a wacko, a racist or a fool expresses himself or herself.

    Another odd experience I had was with a friend’s roomate who was an avid liberal, who asked me (the first time we met) what my thoughts were regarding abortion. At the time I was a more avid pro-lifer than I am now — and I expressed that opinion. After that this liberal person was openly unfriendly to me every time we met.

    My conclusion is simply that liberal people can be close-minded and anti-free-speech, especially when they are dealing with those who have a different point of view. Some liberals are truly tolerant and open-minded (and are willing to be very friendly with those who have varying opinions) but others are quite narrow-minded and bigoted towards those who they disagree with. This tendency has more to do with the human condition than an cannot be solely assigned to a particular political persuasion (liberal, conservative, etc.).

  58. JCP
    January 3, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Three points for consideration.

    1. The Campbell and Monson paper includes a time component that they address lightly but is crucial. The church “failure” happened in the 1930s. Since then the church has enjoyed a more or less unbroken string of successes. That’s not to say that the church clearly has more influence now, but it does imply that things may well have changed. (Additionally while the Campbell and Monson paper is very perceptive it does rely on a questionable ecological inference model to assess the 1930s voting. Perhaps an overly technical point …)

    2. Mormons outside of Utah vote Republican about as often as those inside Utah (admittedly the studies are limited and the samples are invariably small and private).

    3. How anyone could know the degree of Mormon influence in the legislature is beyond me. If it is all behind closed doors, assessing it is not simply difficult, it may be impossible.

  59. January 3, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    JCP: One might know something about it by working in Utah politics and discussing the issue with those who do…

  60. JCP
    January 3, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Nate: Having done just that, I’m pretty sure I could produce a rather normal looking distribution of opinions: no one is really sure, though there are many opinions on both sides.

    I think the more important point is that word of mouth is not a great way to evaluate the claim.

  61. October 8, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    I just wanted to point out that the nazi party in America now likes Jews. I enjoyed the topic anyway. Great topic.

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