Nate has written a very articulate and worthwhile post that I think cuts to the heart of a common problem in how we emotionally respond to issues we have with the church. It goes together well with this other post of his which is similarly worth (re-)reading.
I’m responding not because I particularly disagree with the things he has said (though I think he has mis-framed the issue a bit), but because there’s so much more to say on the subject that I fear Nate’s characterization may threaten to cover up rather than shed light on the issue.
A few quick disclaimers: 1. I’ve not had the time to read through the comments, so much of what I have to say might have already been said and said better there; and 2. Nate’s and my own truncated treatment of this issue are unfortunately subject to the constraints of the format in which we’ve chosen to discuss it – a blog – clearly not a format conducive to a substantive exploration of the issue. 3. In addition to writing a very thoughtful and perspicacious post, Nate writes in a very generous and non-confrontational tone. I don’t think I have the same talent. But I’m undeniably responding to an ally and hope that what I say is able to be read in a friendly spirit. At any rate, here’s the response:
1. The framing: We’ve got too many exclusive binaries floating around: reform-minded vs. passive fatalists; practical/active response vs. emotional response; democratic liberalists vs. liberalism-resistant Mormonites (“communitarians” is probably the appropriate term, though Nate doesn’t give one). The difficulty is not simply that issue is not susceptible to a binary reduction (with each of these there are a multiplicity of possible positions on both sides of Nate’s specifically named points on the spectrum; ironically I think one of Nate’s overall goals is to point this out: it’s not simply a matter of living up to or failing to live up to our individual, sovereign responsibilities – such a claim would be an exclusive binary of modern “liberal” perspectives). Nor is the problem that setting up the framework in this binary fashion implicitly denigrates the legitimacy or relevance of positions that don’t squarely fit into one or the other sides of the binaries. Rather the problem is that as is, Nate’s framework only allows him to give us a purely negative treatment. In other words, while I certainly don’t think he’s in danger of giving us a “glib” dismissal (“the church is not a democracy”), I think he has in fact given us a more sophisticated dismissal (“the perspectives of democratic liberalists are inadequate to the phenomenon of living faithfully in the church – because it’s not a liberal democracy”). In the end, it’s still merely a dismissal. What’s needed (and what I ought to be doing here rather than copping out and merely responding to Nate like I am) is first giving a much more positive account of what it is to live in Zion and what sort of a creature the church is as an institution. This would then help us to weigh the appropriateness of various attempts at reforming the church.
2. Democratic liberalism: I think this term picks out too broad a political philosophy for what Nate’s discussing. Various forms of communitarianism (which is what I think Nate is gesturing toward with his description of lived experience in the church), the politics of difference, agonistic political approaches, and the host of Habermasian/critical theory approaches are all going fit under the umbrella of Nate’s democratic liberalism. Maybe Nate meant to cast a wide net; either way, I think the net is too wide to be very helpful. What’s more, Nate’s discussion sounds not just like a pointing out of various limits to what he calls democratic liberalism, but as though there were significant failings to this political philosophy generally that we ought to eschew or at least be skeptical of. What I think Nate wants to do is not to eschew democratic liberalism and the obvious host of goods and improvements on other historical experiments that go with it, but to avoid certain pernicious tendencies which modern democratic liberalism is prone to. Specifically, I think Nate is opposed to pernicious strains of individualism, soft relativism, and the undermining of any legitimate source of authority (beyond self-authority) that often thrives in modern liberal democratic societies.
3. The Church & democratic liberalism – Unfortunately, in his sophisticated claim that the church is not a democracy, I think Nate steamrolls over some significant facts. I certainly agree that the church is not merely a liberal democracy, nor friendly to the pernicious forms of individualism that I think he eschews. But there are numerous strains of democratic liberalism and post-enlightenment individualism in the cosmology, doctrine, tradition, and policies of the church. I am personally quite communitarian, and convinced that the church is institutionally more closely aligned with certain communitarian ideologies than with more bland or general forms of liberalism. Consequently, I agree that certain of the liberal approaches to reform are inappropriate to the sort of institution that the church is. But even if Nate and I are right, more needs to be said than for horses to claim that we don’t belong to the genus Equus simply because we’re not jack-asses.
4. Liberal DNA – What’s more, the church was born and has grown up in what is arguably the most successful experiment of liberal democracy in history, and even more importantly almost all of us, particularly as a largely convert church, have grown up in a climate where liberal values are ubiquitous (not even the most conservative among us reject them!). We DO have “democratic liberalism” firmly implanted in our intellectual, emotional, and practical DNA. If all Nate and I can do is vaguely gesture at the unique institutional nature of the church, without helping others understand what it or its values are, then all we end up doing is covering over the defects of the institution when we say that certain lines of criticism are inadequate or illegitimate. This is why no mere dismissal – even a sophisticated one – is adequate.
5. Appropriate idioms for expression – I too would like to filter my own complaints/attempts at improvement through a more native (and faithful) idiom. Given the sui generis nature of the church as an institution, however, I’m not sure how to do this. The reality is, we’ve never been explicit enough with ourselves or what we are institutionally, and as far as I know we’ve yet to have a competent sociologist or political scientist (or better yet, prophet) give an adequate analysis of what we are and hence what sort of vocabulary would be more adequate. Growing up in the church, we do gain a sort of native dialect, but again, I don’t think it’s one with a vocabulary adequate to meta-criticisms of our institutional make-up. Consequently, I echo Nate’s sentiments about wanting at the end of the day to just build the Kingdom of God. I don’t see how this blanket claim, however, helps move the dialogue forward on how properly to work toward reform.
6. Sovereignty – this is perhaps, I think, the biggest gap in Nate’s discussion. Obviously we are self-sovereign, with a theology and narrative of eternity that strongly reinforces this notion. Nonetheless, Nate is certainly right that we are likewise bought with a price and owe proper humility an other Sovereign. Once again, however, merely stating this threatens to obscure both the picture that the gospel gives us and our own responsibilities therein. Having already waxed too long-winded, I’ll leave this point with the pregnant metaphor given by Joseph Smith: we are subject to God, but not in the sense that a peasant was subject to a king in medieval times. Rather, we’re subject in the sense of a princess or prince – as daughter or son – are subject to their mother and father the Queen and King. Subject in the sense of needing to adequately prepare and improve oneself for the day when one will be called up and anointed Queen or King. The atonement and its legitimate ransom is perhaps reduced to mere empty suffering without the subsequent exaltation of God’s children.
In the end, I genuinely appreciate Nate’s post and think he is getting at some very important ideas. Nonetheless, I think it’s too narrowly negative (i.e., dismissive), inadequately framed, and in need of a positive account of the church as an institution and what therefore an adequate response to its shortcomings would be. This said, one might fairly accuse my response of the exact same thing.