Over at FMH, rah has a post responding to my “How Mormonism Changes” post. As I read it, she has basically three objections to my post. First, she insists that I misunderstand the motivations of liberal Mormons, which are grounded in genuine love and concern for others rather than ideological embarrassment. Second, she suggests that historically the priesthood ban’s elimination had more to do with evolution within the hierarchy than it did with progression of the membership of the church. Third, she claims that the model of prophecy I propose is mistaken or the like because it does not appear in the scriptures. Here are some thoughts in responses.
First, on the historical issue I actually agree with her. I think that creating unanimity among the highest leadership made it very difficult to abandon the priesthood ban. There was certainly a lot of racist theology taught in justification of the ban that ought to be examined and rejected. What is interesting to me is that despite the deep divisions among the leadership, the abandonment of the ban met with essentially zero opposition from the membership of the church. This historically was not always been the case with major ecclesiastical changes in Mormonism. I think that the lack of opposition among the membership was really quite striking and worth thinking about. I certainly do not think that the priesthood ban was without enormous costs for individuals and the church.
Second, the liberal Mormons that I know, have read, or otherwise interacted with all seem to be human beings. (All of them except Brad Kramer, at any rate.) As human beings I suspect that they have complicated inner lives. I don’t think that they are motivated by social embarrassment at cocktail parties. I suspect that they are motivated by their moral and political convictions, but I also suspect that these convictions — like everyone else’s convictions — arise from a mixture of biography, reflection, and social context. When I wrote about “ideological embarrassment,” I meant two things. The first is a sense of cognitive dissonance in which one’s religious identity and deepest political convictions clash. The second is a sense of social unease. Understandably, rah rejects the idea that such a sense of social unease matters to liberal Mormons, putting forth a purer narrative. I am sure that what she says is true much of the time, but I am skeptical that it is true all of the time. Let me put it more bluntly: I operate in a fairly politically liberal milieu professionally (legal academia) and within that mileu Mormonism is often regarded as racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. I also write about Mormon legal history, which puts me in the position of discussing Mormonism from time to time professionally with colleagues. I feel ideologically embarrassed when I have to explain certain aspects of Mormon history or doctrine, and my political ideology tends libertarian rather than progressive. That sense of social alienation that my religion causes for me professionally is actually something I have thought a lot about. It is part of the cognitive dissonance I work my way through. Now it may be that folks who self-identify as more liberal than myself have such a burning sense of moral purity that they never concern themselves with such social alienation. I am, however, doubtful.
Third, rah’s post suggested that my model of prophets cannot be found in the scriptures. There is some truth to this objection. On the other hand, in the scriptures the roles of prophet, priest, and communal leader are generally separated. One exception is Moses. In Joseph Smith’s translation and commentary on the Exodus narratives he does offer something like the theory I put forward. In Joseph’s retelling of the story, the original law delivered to Moses was the the fullness of the Gospel. After the golden calf incident, however, this law is lost and the lesser law of Moses is given to the Israelites. Paul hints at something like this interpretation of Exodus as well, when he speaks of the Law as a schoolmaster. Paul also wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22 NIV)
This is something like the sensibility that I am thinking of. Likewise, Joseph Smith often spoke of doctrines that he would teach if only the people were ready for it. Likewise, Brigham Young often complained that he was limited in what he could do and reveal because of the people that he led. To be clear, I don’t actually think that the Brethren are a cabal of uber-progressives bent on unleashing change on the Church. I think that they are on the whole a cautious bunch. Generally, I think this is a good thing. Sometimes it is regrettable. My point is that regardless of their motives, plans, or inspiration they face constraints from the membership.
A final point: rah suggests that I dismissed Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. as cranks. This is simply not true. My point was not that we shouldn’t be impressed by such people but that we should be less impressed than many liberal Mormons of my acquaintance are by the <i>persona</i> of the visionary activist. This isn’t because visionary activists don’t at times do great things in the world, but rather because many of those that adopt this persona are destructive cranks. MLK was a great man. Ghandi was a great man. Robespierre was a destructive fanatic, although one whose motives seem to have been remarkably pure. My only point is that downshifting the emotional and moral importance one gives to this persona is probably a good idea. One’s substantive convictions may remain the same, but one’s emotional and spiritual life will probably have a bit less strum and drang.