Oh say, what is truth? ‘Tis the fairest gem That the riches of worlds can produce, And priceless the value of truth will be when The proud monarch’s costliest diadem Is counted but dross and refuse. Yes, say, what is truth? ‘Tis the brightest prize To which mortals or Gods can aspire; Go search in the depths where it glittering lies Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies. ‘Tis an aim for the noblest desire. The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp When with winds of stern justice he copes, But the pillar of truth will endure to the last, And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast, And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes. Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first, For the limits of time it steps o’er. Though the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst, Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst, Eternal, unchanged, evermore.
The John Adams Center addresses the intersection of “faith, philosophy and public affairs.” Increasingly the discussion of these matters is taking place on the internet. While much valuable information and serious argumentation appear online, we also see a profusion of questionable claims and weak reasoning that often go uncontested. The John Adams Center has resolved to do what it can to raise the level of discussion on blogs and other internet sites that deal with our issues, beginning with those sites of special interest to Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Though keenly aware of our own fallibility, we intend to stand as a “firm-rooted bulwark” of rigorous thinking open to revealed truths, providing an evaluative overview of relevant internet activity, recommending serious and sound contributions (“fairest gems”) and fairly but frankly calling attention to what seems to us defective (“dross and refuse”). Along the way we may amuse ourselves and others from time to time, deliberately or not. Below you will find the first review of such internet discussion
The Bulwark, by Ralph Hancock, JAC President, with the help of many contributors.
MARRIAGE, FAMILY, SEXUALITY
Joanna Brooks is very sure that all attempts to alter same-sex attraction are futile, and immoral besides. She appears unable to make the distinction between respecting (even loving) a person and considering a person’s sexual orientation not only as immutable but as fundamental to a person’s identity. And, of course, she is eager to see the LDS Church “progress” in the direction of considering same-sex attraction as fundamental to a person’s identity. This brave and eloquent (if anonymous) response to Brook’s post deserves to be quoted:
I am disheartened and feel marginalized every time I read articles criticizing change efforts. Why, Ms. Brooks, do you feel it necessary to attack my decision to live heterosexually despite experiencing same sex attractions as a teen? These therapies are NOT disproven, despite politically motivated apa position statements. The actual research does not substantiate the oft repeated charge that anyone is “born that way.”‘ Like most psychological phenomena, sexual responding and attraction, are influenced by diverse factors, including reinforcement, social learning, inflexible thinking, genetic predisposition, identity, and more. This is not the one issue immune to being shaped through environmental processes. I appreciate many of the things you say, Joanna, but please stop marginalizing people who want to make their own decisions about how to live. BTW electroshock therapy was an outgrowth of behaviorism…not Mormonism. It was practiced as a treatment for homoeroticism at many leading research institutions…not just BYU. And yes I agree that form and perhaps other forms of therapy are inappropriate…but not ALL forms. They can be extremely helpful for some people. It is inappropriate to say that if a particular therapy harmed a particular person, that all therapies are bad for all people. Therapies come in diverse forms and so do people. While therapy is not for everyone with unwanted attractions, it helps many people. Some people (like me) experience change in attractions over time and options should be available. This requires respect for diversity…even my kind.
Sister Brooks, of course, disagrees. So she has also been very active playing up the significance of the brother in Oakland described as “openly gay” (though not currently practicing) who has been called to be a Ward Executive Secretary. Unsurprisingly, Sister Brooks touts this calling as favoring a turn toward the view of “liberal Mormons [who] tend to view homosexuality as a naturally-occurring human trait that is not abhorrent to God,” including those, it seems, who “feel that it is unjust and impossible to expect gay Mormons to abstain from intimate relationships their entire lifetimes.”
Let us note, in this connection, that “(Gay) Mormon Guy” — I like the positioning of the parentheses — seems more attached to his membership in the Church than to his status in the liberal movement:
I’ve found that happiness and peace in life doesn’t come from following natural urges, but by becoming a different person — by working and growing and making a difference… and by doing what is right. It is more than possible to have an amazing, fulfilled life in the gospel and never be married or have a family (as long as that’s out of my control).
We certainly possess neither the information nor the inspiration — nor, for that matter, the inclination — to quarrel in the least with Mitch Mayne’s Stake President over the decision to call Brother Mayne to be a Ward Executive Secretary. To be sure, it may seem that the enthusiasts of liberal progress are making rather much of a calling that is, after all, to a staff position (however valued) and not to one of direct leadership at the ward, not to mention the stake level. But for those ever alert to winds of progress, encouragement must no doubt be sought in any slight straw blowing past. And we do wonder whether the stake president in question is happy that the likes of Joanna Brooks are doing their utmost to turn this event to the advantage of those who style themselves “liberal” Mormons — by which they seem to mean Mormons who consider themselves free to pick and choose among Church teachings they prefer, or that they consider to be “on the right side of history.”
To pick which side of history is right, it helps of course to know, with Allison Moore Smith at Times and Seasons, not only that “The Church Was Wrong” in the case of excluding blacks from the priesthood, but also that “sexism” (differentiating between male and female roles) is a mistake comparable to racism. To her credit, Ms. Smith pauses to consider whether “sexism” might have a different character from racism: “Is it because racism is more objectionable than sexism? Is it because they see gender differences as meaningful (and therefore rationally allowing discrimination) and race issues as irrelevant?” Good questions — questions, which, if thought through, might lead to abandoning the language of “sexism” and “discrimination.”
Over at Modern Mormon Men, Luke Warmer also takes comfort from the fact that, as he sees it, the Church has been wrong in the past. He wants to be pro-gay-marriage and LDS at the same time, which seems hard to me, but at least Luke tries to come up with an argument:
Firstly, the church’s stance on a lot of controversial topics has evolved over the years. Think of Polygamy, Blacks and the Priesthood, etc. But mostly, I’m one of those people, for better and worse, that needs to feel spiritual confirmation when the prophet speaks, especially on sensitive and controversial topics. And, I feel spiritually inspired to support gay marriage despite the church’s official opposition.
That’s certainly a formula for a very … unencumbered style of Mormonism: A knowledge of the true direction of the “evolution” of doctrines + “spiritual confirmation” unhindered by any institutional Church authority.
That said, I do like the socks. Is that wrong?
While we’re considering Modern Mormon Men, let’s give Pete Codello big-time credit for following the prophet on the gay-marriage issue: “I believe the LDS Church president, currently Thomas Monson, is the Lord’s mouthpiece just like Moses once was, and I choose to support him.”
And Pete may be right that traditional marriage as a legal norm may be doomed in the U.S., but why concede the point in advance? I think a certain defeatism in Pete’s otherwise brave outlook stems from the fact that he believes traditional marriage has no other support than the dictates of revelation — as if all the momentum towards “gay marriage” were somehow grounded in reason. As I have argued at some length, and more than once, there is no reason to concede the honor of reason to the “liberationists” (a name that now fits the “liberal-progressives,” too).
Consider in this connection D&C 101:97-98: “Let not that which I have appointed be polluted by mine enemies, by the consent of those who call themselves after my name; For this is a very sore and grievous sin against me, and against my people, in consequence of those things which I have decreed and which are soon to befall the nations.” There is certainly no reason to consent to the absurdity of “gay marriage.”
And anyone who still imagines that those favoring rights for homosexuals will leave more traditional believers alone if we just leave them alone should consider the reception that President Samuelson received earlier this summer at the Scottish Parliament.
But to return to Joanna Brooks and the topic of liberalism: if “liberalism” (in North America, at least) now implies commitment to the complete interchangeability of natural, normal sexuality (the old fashioned man-woman thing, I mean) with homosexual unions, then maybe it is not surprising or objectionable that most LDS consider themselves conservative, and only a small percentage liberal (as Joanna Brooks again reports, without enthusiasm this time). In fact, if this is the definition of “liberal” (and not, for example, a certain view of the rights of organized labor or the role of government in the economy and the environment), then perhaps even that small percentage of “liberal Mormons” need to rethink the coherence of this position.
Note, too, that Ms. Brooks (in this same article on “Five Myths About Mormonism) argues that the fact women do not hold the priesthood or have high leadership callings is evidence that women do not have equal status in the church. She also criticizes the Family Proclamation’s statement about the man presiding in the home and the unequal gender language of the temple. It is easy to see why Joanna Brooks is eager for what she considers “progress” — her beliefs are certainly quite far removed in essential ways from actual LDS teachings.
And she would like LDS presidential candidates Romney and Huntsman to join the liberal-progressive cause by proving themselves capable of “non-theocratic reasoning” in other matters besides business — Church matters, we are clearly given to understand. She bids them be “willing to step outside the institutional reward structures they’ve profited from, or to state hard truths that challenge majority opinions within their own circles of power and influence.” This means repenting for support of Proposition 8 and, more generally, for the sin of benefiting from “an openly patriarchal culture.”
Apparently, Huntsman’s confession of “not being overly religious” is not enough: Ms. Brooks calls for explicit commitment to the religion of liberal progress.
Allison Smith shares Sister Brooks’ impatience with a Mormon Patriarchy that relegates her to “serving on the sideline.” She doesn’t find that LDS images of exaltation provide much to nourish the imagination of the women among us: “Men create worlds, men direct the work of the gospel, men bring to pass immortality. Whatever we see God doing are things men can anticipate doing should they be exalted. What will women do? Will we still be in the Relief Society room asking the bishop for permission to get someone to teach a lesson? I have no idea and know of no doctrine that gives any clarification on the issue.” Really? I would have thought the language of Gods and Goddesses, Priests and Priestesses, Kings and Queens would have been enough to suggest that womanhood is central to exaltation. Do women have no role in the creation and peopling of worlds? Somehow I always assumed they did. And as for the tedium and anonymity of staffing the Relief Society, I can only imagine Sister Smith’s frustration when, from her “sideline,” she observes that all priesthood service is manifestly exciting and prestigious.
One might hope that a new history of the Relief Society, Daughters in My Kingdom by Susan W. Tanner (a former president of the church’s Young Women’s program who is now serving a mission in Brazil with her husband) would provide plentiful images of blessed (even if sometimes tedious and often anonymous) service that might address Sister Brook’s and Sister Smith’s chafing from the “sideline” under the “patriarchy.” But somehow I doubt it.
Perhaps, though, they will be buoyed up by a new, feminized version of The Book of Mormon. An excerpt will dispense with the need for any commentary:
Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephie, and also of the Lamanites—…Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lady, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of Goddess unto the interpretation thereof—Sealed by the hand of Moronnie, and hid up unto the Lady, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of Goddess.
I think you get the idea. How long must we wait for the whole quadruple combination?
POLITICS & ECONOMICS
At the ever-reliable Meridian Magazine, Gary Lawrence reminds us (in “The Real Villain in the Economy”) of some rather elementary good sense regarding human agency, applies it to current economic woes, and suggests gospel parallels.
The good sense is that meaningful action presupposes consistent and certain rules of the game. So the “real villain” of the title is the uncertainty created by political instability and partisan maneuvering. The gospel parallel is clear enough: God is “the same yesterday, to-day, and forever….” 1 Nephi 10:18. (Other scriptural citations are not lacking: D&C 20:17, Malachi 3:6…) Comments were mostly very appreciative, though of course not everyone agreed with Bro. Lawrence. One respondent thinks “greed” is a better candidate than “uncertainty” for being the real villain. But then, of course, the question is, whose greed? Certainly there is plenty of greed, and plenty of blame, to go around. But concerning the authors central thesis: it would be nice if the economic and regulatory environment were as predictable as God’s eternal laws, and we should do what we can to move in that direction. That, essentially, is what constitutionalism is all about: the establishment of a fundamental law that the people will grow to revere and to defend from unnecessary change. (Federalist 49, 78) The problem is that the economy does not spring directly from God’s nature, but requires a political framework to establish the rule of law and to secure common consent to that framework. That’s why economics started out as “political economy.” There’s no way to remove the political dimension from the challenge of human agency. And, to return to our present woes, we now face a situation in which the government has made promises it can’t keep. So consistency and certainty will be impossible as we negotiate this crisis. Constitutional fundamentals must be re-established. Returning to an order that better resembles God’s reliable cosmos will not be easy, or painless.
Also at Meridian: Warren Aston (“The Gathering Storm”) has no wish to be alarmist, but his insights are still alarming. Although there is always the risk of idealizing the world of yesteryear, we can by no means dismiss his description of “moral collapse” in western society: “What was unthinkable a few decades ago is increasingly considered normal. A coarseness has crept into our discourse, our entertainment and interaction with others. Rationalism has replaced moral values for many. … Ultimately, materialism (trusting more in things and in ourselves than in God) has become the dominant religion of the developed world.” Further on he warns against “the false sense of security that can insulate us from events. We … [may] be unaware of how much of the foundation has been weakened, if not totally eroded. Many of us are in denial about how quickly collapse can come in our sophisticated culture.” Sobering reflections, indeed, and all too plausible.
The author voices a key concern of the John Adams Center when he notes that “Too many of us still live in comfortable bubbles of habit; too few of us remain unaware of the cultural assumptions that are so prevalent among us.” Our only quibble might be with this formulation of the problem: “Rationalism has replaced moral values for many.” This censure of “rationalism” might seem to suggest that reason itself is the problem. And yet Aston’s insights are themselves eminently reasonable, even rational. It’s OK to define “rationalism” as inherently godless and blind to the moral conditions of human well-being – just as long as we recognize that there’s nothing truly rational about such an outlook. Let’s not concede “reason” to the irresponsible.
More reason for alarm: the riots in London and other English cities over the summer. UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech(15 August) points to the root of the problem in the breakdown of families: “So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start.” It’s hard to imagine such “mending” going very far as long as our would-be intellectual elites (even, too often, among LDS), put the indefinite expansion of sexual “rights” of one kind or another above protection of solid, normative family structures.
Jeffrey Weiss (according to Peggy Fletcher Stack at the SL Tribune, Aug. 24) argues that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism ought to be considered fair game for questioning insofar as it would impact his policies.
Fair enough indeed, but Mitt ought to be able to defend reasonably any views (on abortion, or homosexuality, for example) that might be associated with his religious beliefs. And in any case, there is no reason to assume that Romney would feel compelled to implement any and all religious beliefs in the public sphere — such application is always a matter of prudential judgment. The candidate might reasonably hold that the world would be better off without tobacco, for example, but it by no means follow that it would be reasonable now to try to eliminate the substance.
Jana Riess (at Flunking Sainthood) taking her bearings from the seemingly ubiquitous Joanna Brooks, celebrates the “diversity”revealed in the “Mormon Moment,” and especially in the difference between the two LDS presidential candidates.
But must we really choose between the foreboding “monolith” of both conservative and dissident myth and the “diversity” to which Riess and Brooks invite us? And does not this “diversity” have its own foundation — even monolithic foundation, i.e., liberal or liberationist progress, “evolution” in a certain direction, increasing acceptance of the plainly irreligious terms of peace held out by secularism (as in The Book of Mormon musical)?
For that matter, are we sure, even at the outset, that we want to be strictly impartial between Mitt’s and Jon’s Mormonism — the old-fashioned kind, on the one hand, and the “complicated,” non-committal version? A “ Mormonism” that means whatever a presidential candidate, a blogger, or anyone else defines it to be is not “diverse.” It’s gone.
The exclusion of clergy from the 9/11 ceremony would not seem to bode well for a national atmosphere conducive to religious freedom: Religioun is now divisive? Even when the moment calls for remembering and honoring the dead?
A recent Pew Report further points up a disconcerting trend in the decrease in religious freedom around the globe.
And this fine article by William McGurn shows how the push for a new view of “tolerance” tends to erode religious liberty
Paul Mero, at the Sutherland Institute, makes a wise and much ignored distinction: “Compassion is a personal virtue. Justice is a public virtue.” Mero goes on to argue that true compassion, or respect for human dignity, cannot dispense with some definite idea of what constitutes our humanity. To respect a “gay” person in his human dignity may require not respecting his self-identification as “gay.” One might in fact go further and argue that compassion or pity is not in fact a virtue — but rather a passion — and that it must be guided by a virtue such as Charity or the Pure Love of Christ.
Meanwhile John Canzono at The Oregonian bravely praises BYU’s handling of the Brandon Davies matter: “But they stood tall and earned a lot of respect.”
Since it’s always nice to for the Church to receive compliments, here’s another: From LDS Newsroom: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Compliments LDS Church’s Welfare Program.
LITERATURE & ARTS
Prompted by the Mormonad featuring the roach in the ice cream (“It’s Great, Except for…”), Scott Hales re-raises the valid (if, as he grants, somewhat tired) question whether faithful LDS must steer away from literature, film etc. with objectionable content. He rightly argues that it would be best to get beyond this sometimes sensationalist question and get down to “the weightier matters of Mormon literature.” Indeed. And Scott is right again when he notes that the question is bound up with the fact that “appropriateness of content” depends in part on the “spiritual maturity” of the individual reader or viewer. (I would add: “literary maturity and experience,” too.) But the question will not go away, as Scott knows.
Why won’t it go away? In part, surely, because non-literary people (a.k.a. “philistines”) find it easier to focus on content than on inherent quality. But let me suggest putting some of the responsibility back on the shoulders of us (if I may include myself, a mere political philosopher) literary types. First, literary intellectuals are sometimes too ready to delight in what is edgy, subversive, sometimes taking these to be sure signs of artistic merit. Second, even where literature of real quality is concerned, literary intellectuals are too covetous of the applause of the many, demanding that their tastes be recognized as normative for the community. And third, literary intellectuals, however spiritually and literarily “mature,” are likely, as fallen human beings, to overestimate their own immunity to the degrading potential of “objectionable” material, even in artistic works of great merit. (I consider Manon des Sources to be great cinema, but my wife makes me skip over the naked Manon in the fields scene, and she’s probably right. No, she’s just plain right. Maybe when I’m 70 I’ll be more “mature.”)
Conclusion: let’s gather the best we can out of the best books, not assume that what is subversive is therefore brilliant, not overestimate our own high-mindedness, and, especially, not insist that everyone in our Sunday School class or our home-teaching route find edification in what we think edifies us. If many of our brothers and sisters believe the roach ruins their ice cream, they might just be right.
Speaking of which, there is Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. Way, way too many roaches — big, stinking roaches.
Nevertheless, someone who goes by “MikeInWeHo” at By Common Consent assures us that “The Book of Mormon musical bursts with fondness toward the Mormon people, despite its decidedly secular worldview. It is an olive-branch extended across the great divide between believers and non-believers, not an attack on anyone’s faith.”
Allow me to refuse this “olive branch.” I am quite puzzled by the inability of many LDS to see what is quite obvious, namely, that there are terms attached to this offer of peace. All we have to do is give up any claims to truth, and then we can all get along just fine. Clearly the central take-away from the play is that Mormons are irrational, dumb, but well-meaning folks, and that religion — for all of its absurdity and ridiculous nature—can sometimes help people live better lives. Liberals are now confident enough of complete cultural hegemony that they will make nice to us, as long as we submit ourselves to their ridicule. Mormons who are so eager to be accepted by the decidedly middlebrow cultural powers who set the tone on Broadway (and way beyond Broadway) that they are willing and even eager to swallow the smiling insults to real Mormonism (or any serious religion, for that matter) clearly implied in the latest craze have already given up a precious birthright for a pretty paltry mess of pottage.
For an antidote to the craven conformism at By Common Consent, consider the intelligent reflections of Melissa Inouye at Patheos.
Returning to real LDS literature, Scott Hales here reminds us of the virtues of Douglas Thayer’s fiction, going back to his first novel,Summer Fire (Signature Books, 1983). Contrasting Thayer with Hemingway and McCarthy, Hales praises this “classic of Mormon fiction” in ways that make me want to read more:
Thayer’s hold on to the possibility of joy and redemption, even when neither possibility is readily discernible… Not only has Thayer written the novel in an incredibly teachable way—it employs traditional plot structure, a clear theme, and plenty of accessible symbolism—but he has also used it to address many of the basic doctrines (i.e. atonement, eternal progression, etc.) that young Latter-day Saints learn about and discuss in the Seminary program…Summer Fire, in short, is an excellent novel that deserves recognition as a classic of Mormon fiction.
Thanks for reminding us, Scott, of the admirable work of Douglas Thayer (a former
teacher of mine, with whom I get to talk every ten or twenty years…).
THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS LIFE
The estimable James Faulconer, posting an insightful piece at Patheos, explains why Mormons don’t focus on theology, but rather on practices and service. It is notable, as he points out, that there are no systematic theological credentials needed for leadership in the LDS Church, even — or especially — at the highest level.
There is much truth in Jim’s perspective, I think, but does he not risk understating the role of doctrine (if not of systematic “theology”). Is the practical service we render separable from deeply held and quite distinctive beliefs about God, man, the plan of salvation, etc.? One of the most remarkable areas of service for LDS, for example, is vicarious temple work done on behalf of the dead. But this makes no sense except with reference to some very definite and rather well-developed teachings.
It remains to spell out the distinction between teachings or doctrine and systematic theology — which indeed seems to presuppose and/or to encourage a recognized theological elite, whose absence is indeed notable among LDS.
At Wheat and Tares, meanwhile, some yearn for more theology in Sunday School class. But this yearning, in my experience, too often derives from the need of would-be intellectuals to demonstrate their superiority to the common run of saints. A good rule for self-regulation in official Church meetings might be simply to consider prayerfully what best contributes to the spiritual growth of others present in the meeting. Those of us who cannot repress our “theological” yearnings ought to be able to find suitable friends with whom to pursue such interests, without distracting our fellow saints from more urgent spiritual concerns.
Speaking of being a-theological, let’s not go so far as to regard the intellect as a curse. The beautiful simplicity of the gospel should provide a touchstone for our ongoing quest for understanding, not a pretense for settling on ignorance as bliss.