That’s faint enough praise for January 8th — but Noah Feldman’s recent New York Times article is strong enough that it would be a contender for that title, even in December. I already described the piece as “remarkable” in my sidebar link. I was surprised, though, to note the negative reaction the article has garnered in some Mormon circles.
First, the article itself. Feldman, who was the keynote speaker at the Princeton conference on Mormonism and politics, does an admirable job of discussing some of the more interesting points of Mormon interaction with the public sphere. Feldman covers a number of interesting and complicated topics — including the interaction between church and Republican party; the place of persecution in LDS culture; the place of secrecy as both a protective and a ritual device; the difficulties raised by the assimilation question — and does as well as any non-Mormon I’ve seen, (other than Jan Shipps, of course) at getting the details and nuances right. (Dave Banack has a good discussion of some of Feldman’s key points here.) At multiple points while reading the article, I thought, wow, he really nailed it. And these are really hard topics to get right — I’ve seen many people, both members and non-members, who aren’t nearly as perceptive.
Feldman discusses these complex topics with dexterity. For example, the difference between superficial Mormon belief and actual Mormon doctrine is a difficult question. It is undeniable that Mormon doctrine is extremely hard to pin down, and not at all fully evident from the texts of scriptures used or the words of church leaders.
That is, Mormon doctrine consists in the Old Testament (except the parts that aren’t doctrine), the New Testament (except the parts that aren’t doctrine), the Book of Mormon (except the parts that aren’t doctrine), the Doctrine and Covenants (except the parts that aren’t doctrine), and the Pearl of Great Price (except the parts that aren’t doctrine). All of these, as augmented by statements from church leaders (except the ones that aren’t doctrine). (It’s very easy to find non-doctrinal examples in every category: The prohibition on eating meat in the D&C, the prohibition on divorce in the New Testament, the prohibition on interracial marriage in various church leader statements, and so on.)
And how do we know which aren’t doctrine? Well, we rely on scripture (except the part that isn’t doctrine) and church leader statements (except the non-doctrinal ones) to determine which ones are doctrine. And finally, there is no one Rosetta Stone giving an explanation of which statements really matter, and which don’t. Thus, determining which statements matter becomes an extremely complicated task for anyone who is not a native speaker.
This point has often been told in one of a few very simplified forms. Sometimes it is observed by Mormon scholars or friendly observers in a lament — how frustrating it sometimes is that LDS doctrine is so protean. Very often, some version of this idea is used by critics as an attack — the church is hiding its secret doctrines from the unwary, and the corollary that even faithful, practicing church members don’t know “real” church doctrine (as defined by some throwaway statement of Brigham Young’s). This kind of duality is sometimes denied by church apologists.
Feldman neither laments the duality, nor uses it as a wedge to attack the church or claim that real Mormonism is tied to some sinister conspiracy. Rather, he observes that the duality naturally springs from church history; that it is something that church members themselves navigate comfortably; and that it creates serious perception difficulties for the church and for Romney, among natural political allies.
Feldman writes, for instance:
Mormonism was born amid secrecy, and throughout its existence as a religion it has sustained a close yet complex relationship to the arts of silence. From the start, the Mormon penchant for secrecy came from two different sources. The first was internal and theological. Like many great world faiths, Mormonism has an important strand of sacred mystery. Mormon temples have traditionally been closed to outsiders and designed with opaque windows. Marriage and other key rituals take place in this hallowed space â€” a manifestation of religious secrecy familiar to students of world religion but associated in the United States more with Freemasonry than with mainstream Protestantism.
Like Mormon ritual, much of Mormon theology remains relatively inaccessible to outsiders. The text of the Book of Mormon has always been spread to a broad audience, but the text is not a sufficient guide to understanding the details of Mormon teaching. Joseph Smith received extensive further revelation in the nature of sacred secrets to be shared with only a handful of close associates and initiates within the newly forming church.
. . .
Faced with the allegation that they do not believe in the same God as ordinary Protestants, or that their beliefs are not truly Christian, Mormons find themselves in an extraordinarily awkward position. They cannot defend themselves by expressly explaining their own theology, because, taken from the standpoint of orthodox Protestantism in America today, it is in fact heterodox.
What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.
This analysis is neither hostile nor sensational. It starts with a keen observation, and follows it to reasonable and interesting conclusions. (This is not to say that Feldman’s article covers every possible angle. There are other points I think he could have fruitfully explored, though these are not major omissions.)
I can’t say how thrilled I am to see that Feldman’s article is on the NYT top-10 list. I’ve been often disheartened by the (poor) quality of some of the discourse about Mormonism in the public sphere. Some of it has been very good, but it seems that for every Damon Linker or Richard Bushman giving nuanced analysis or discussion, there has been an equal and opposite Lawrence O’Donnell. The NYT has been as bad as any other venue. They’ve had pretty good (if short) analysis by David Brooks which relied on well-regarded scholars, and also a thoughtful article by Laurie Goodstein in the week in review, citing to Richard Mouw of the Fuller Theological Seminary. But until now, I believe the most widely read Mormonism-and-politics piece in the NYT this electoral cycle was a Maureen Dowd op-ed which relied almost exclusively on Jon Krakauer’s oversimplified claims. I was so sad to see the juxtaposition last month of Dowd’s column in the top-10 while Goodstein’s wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen. (See, e.g., my blog discussion here.) And so I’m thrilled to see that Feldman is providing a correction of sorts — a nuanced, well-researched, thoughtful piece on Mormonism and politics, that people are actually reading. I really liked and appreciated Feldman’s article. He deals with a lot of complicated topics, and does so very well.
I was surprised by the strongly negative reaction from some LDS blog quarters. Adventures in Mormonism makes the startling assertion that church doctrine is easily accessible through any missionary or through quick and simple perusal of Deseret Book or LDS.org. (This claim is astonishing. Vast swaths of church doctrine aren’t in the basic scriptures. As for Deseret Book, it contains everything from Elder McConkie’s non-doctrinal Mormon Doctrine to Sperry Symposia, FARMS books, older works like the Lectures on Faith or the Journal of Discourses — it is simply mind-boggling to suggest that a well-meaning non-member could navigate that terrain with anything less than a very skilled team of guides.) The Romney Experience blog, meanwhile, seems to have mistaken Feldman for a run-of-the-mill Evangelical anti-Mormon. The mere mention of secrecy makes the blogger (is it Ryan?) become defensive and assert that there is no secrecy. (And the comments on Deseret News are predictably bad, and range from assertions that polygamy had nothing to do with celestial marriage — um, have you read Section 132? — to various testimony-bearing comments. Sigh.)
This response seems wrong-headed. Feldman is not engaged in the classic anti-Mormon claim that the church is a secret conspiracy. He’s observing, correctly, that the existence of a complicated set of doctrines, not ascertainable on the face of any one document, creates a form of inaccessibility — and that that inaccessibility in turn creates suspicions among some outsiders.
The reactions to Feldman’s article themselves provide a fascinating window into some Mormon thinking. As Mormons, we have become so used to having our beliefs mischaracterized and held up for ridicule that we become chary of any outsider analysis that looks at all hostile. I don’t believe that Feldman’s article was at all hostile, but he does discuss certain ideas and perceptions about Mormonism that have been used before (by others) in attacks on the church — the “Mormonism is a secret cult/conspiracy” variety of attacks — and that is apparently enough for some LDS bloggers to label his article as an attack, and respond accordingly.
It reminds me of the overreaction to Helen Whitney’s documentary. Again, a thoughtful and perceptive outsider gave a well-researched and reasoned account of Mormonism — and again, that outsider was treated by many church members as an enemy.
I’m saddened by this phenomenon. I wonder if suspicion of the hostile outsider is such among church members that any outsider offering any account that deviates from Sunday School history will immediately be labeled an enemy. (It doesn’t help that Sunday-School history is so impoverished that many rank-and-file LDS members are woefully underinformed about their own history — and so objective accounts of real events, like Whitney’s discussion of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, may be viewed as anti-Mormon lies.)
I hope that the negative response from some Mormons doesn’t deter Feldman from continuing to focus on some of the interesting questions raised as church doctrine and culture go under the microscope of public scrutiny. We know our own terrain relatively well, and are certainly quick to defend it. But if we never bother to take seriously how it looks to reasonable outsiders, our own discussions and perspectives will remain hopelessly parochial. And so we can certainly use more of the sorts of thoughtful outsider analyses and observations that outsiders such as Feldman provide.