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 a review of such internet discussion.
Chris Lehmann demonstrates once again that a little knowledge of “Mormons” can be a dangerous thing. His new eight-page Harper’s essay, “Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the G.O.P.,” (subscription required) certainly demonstrates imaginative virtuosity operating with marvelous freedom — linking the golden plates to Cleon Skousen’s yearning for a gold standard, for example — but no one who knows the teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the inside will give Lehmann much credit for balance or even verisimilitude.
A comparable earlier exercise in imaginative if willfully ignorant high-brow cultural interpretation of Mormonism was Alan Wolfe’s, “White Magic in America: Capitalism, Mormonism, and the Doctrines of Stephen Covey,” The New Republic (23 February 1998): 26—34. The reply that I authored with Daniel Peterson still works as a reply to Lehmann in Harpers: Wolfe’s treatment of basic facts reads like a product of that children’s game in which a faintly whispered message is circulated from ear to ear until its resemblance to the original is just enough to be amusing. And where argument is concerned, the central premise of Wolfe’s tortured interpretation of Mormonism as the weightless and relativistic postmodern religion…is preposterous on its face, as the author once almost acknowledges….Wolfe’s portrayal of Mormonism as a “nondemanding” faith is, simply, ridiculous. Its tithe-paying membership, its monthly fasts, its unpaid clergy and missionaries, the hundreds of settlements its religiously motivated people established in the inhospitable Great Basin and beyond, and the unnumbered graves they left scattered across the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains as they fled mob violence, testify eloquently and irrefutably to the contrary.
Our leading intellectuals will find it impossible to understand Mormon views of economic things as long as they insist on operating within a simplistic dichotomy between selfish “capitalism” on the one hand and its ethical opposite (as they believe), some redistributive egalitarianism, socialist or otherwise. Now it turns out that a terrific antidote to such simplistic thinking was just pronounced by President Uchtdorf in his talk in the Priesthood session of General Conference. This struck me as a particularly rich and clear statement of the LDS linkage between spiritual and temporal welfare: responsible stewardship on the one hand and a clear imperative to relieve poverty on the other hand. Noticeable by its absence, of course, was the reigning technocratic view (or residual assumption) that the problem of poverty can be solved simply by transferring money.
Meanwhile, a certain “award-winning scholar” ever-grateful to have escaped her “conservative Orange county” upbringing continues to have little doubt that the interests of the poor are best served by the growth of the state.
Also concerned with questions of material welfare is Sam Brunson at Times & Seasons. Both posts advocate some kind of redistribution in the name of charity. Brunson believes he has arrived at a definitive understanding of “Social Justice” through (1) a study of Catholic interpretation on the subject (including an egregious misunderstanding of Aquinas by a Jesuit priest in the 19th century), and (2) a new book by Haskins and Sawhill entitled “Creating an Opportunity Society.” Brunson is certainly right that we should do more to help the poor. Whether this can best be done through large-scale government programs of redistribution, as the author seems to assume, is of course another question. The attempt to implement religiously grounded ideals of equality (as in Enoch’s Zion) through statist and non-religious means will always founder on this basic contradiction. The underlying assumption is that only the “haves” need to repent, and the “have-nots” lack only a little cash to make them worthy saints and citizens. Again we recommend close attention to President Uchtdorf’s recent remarks in Priesthood Session of General Conference.
Also particularly worthy of further reflection in relation to the concerns of the John Adams Center were the following items from General Conference:
President Monson’s reference to the disastrous moral revolution of the sixties that proposed to overturn traditional moral standards in favor of relativism and unrestrained individual “freedom.” We are alas, still living this ongoing revolution, which now may seem quite routine and commonplace — because it has almost succeeded, I suppose. (If its success were certain and complete, the JAC wouldn’t be taking the trouble to oppose it.) Elder Packer also addressed the need to resist this undertow of relativist individualism. And Elder Andersen spoke very firmly on the blessing of children, and the spiritual danger of considering children just one lifestyle option among many.
Speaking of General Conference: Feminist Mormon Housewives was keeping a running score of feminist points for and against our church authorities (how many women speaking, in what kind of voice, how many minority children in the choir — you get the idea).
They might have saved themselves some trouble in their score-keeping if they had just pondered Sister Thompson’s quotation of Eliza R. Snow: “Let [us] seek for wisdom instead of power and [we] will have all the power [we] have wisdom to exercise.” Clearly in the negative column for our feminist arbiters of General Conference was Elder Callister’s proposition that The Book of Mormon is what it says it is, or it is a monstrous fraud. And since it isn’t a fraud, it is what it says it is, and so the Restoration is true. Understandably, the simplicity of a choice between true and false annoys the housewives in question; they are looking for some third way, yet to be explained. Even more annoying, unsurprisingly, was Elder Andersen’s clear statement of the true priority of child-bearing and -raising. Why can’t he just say it’s between the couple and God, and leave it at that! Well, esteemed housewives, consider this: the fact that the decision has a necessarily personal dimension is not incompatible with the proclamation of general principles to guide such decisions. If Elder Andersen is making you feel guilty by affirming authoritatively that having children is, from a Gospel perspective, a very high priority, and not just one possible choice among many, then you should ask yourselves if your priorities are right.
Also at FMH, Nat Kelly ponders Marx’s characterization of religion as “the opiate of the masses.”
Most interpreters, Kelly thinks, miss the “incredibly compassionate” quality of Marx’s take: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” While recognizing (unlike Marx), the permanent need for such an “opiate,” our blogger plaintively bemoans “the lost potential for religion to serve other, more radical purposes. I am drawn to religion as ‘a protest again real distress.’ I daydream about a faith that is incredibly earth-bound, with mortal life and its conditions paramount in theological importance [sic].” Making faith “incredibly earth-bound” wouldn’t be a bad description of what Marx was up to. Thus, when Marx was asked, what if this earth doesn’t last forever? his only reply was: you can’t ask that question, it’s not scientific. Preventing people from asking such questions later proved to be quite a bloody business, as Marx’s 20th century followers were to learn. Marx’s spirit may perhaps find some consolation in having found a soul-mate at FMH.
Besides, as Daniel Peterson (JAC Advisor) eloquently explains, Marxism and other forms of atheism, apart from being false, are ugly: “Without Religion so much Beauty would be Lost.”
At the Sutherland Institute, David Buer suggests a parallel between Tocqueville’s famous and ever-timely warning against “soft despotism,” and The Book of Mormon’s warning against Satan’s strategy of lulling us into “carnal security” (2 Ne 28:21-2). And Matthew Piccolo reminds us of Elder Maxwell’s understanding of the moral basis of constitutionalism: …Finally, in a 1993 speech, LDS apostle Neal Maxwell made the following bold observation:
Our inspired Constitution is wisely designed to protect from excesses of political power, but it can do little to protect us from the excesses of appetite or from individual indifference to great principles or institutions. Any significant unraveling of the moral fiber of the American people, therefore, finally imperils the Constitution.
Wheat & Tares has featured some interesting discussions of evolution in relation to the origins of humanity in Adam & Eve — certainly open questions, as far as I can tell. Also, there was an interesting post that took up an article from BYU Studies about the “Chicago Experiment” that occurred about a hundred years ago when the Church encouraged some of its educators to attend the notably liberal Chicago Divinity School to advance their religious education.
The author is saddened that, as he puts it, “the fundamentalists won” — but I guess we could have guessed that by his blogger name: Mormon Heretic. What saddens me is the irrepressible tendency of “modernists” or “liberals” to identify themselves with whatever, in any age, is considered “modern” or “liberal” or “progressive.” Thus, while striking a pose of independence in comparison with the perceived “conformism” of the ordinary Mormons in their midst, they tend to fall right into the lap of a ready-made politically-correct “modernist” position. UVU President and JAC Advisor Matthew Holland, in a recent address to LDS students, encouraged them to keep their minds open to new insights while resisting fashionable teachings that contradict gospel essentials:
As you pursue this education, you will find things to which you disagree that will challenge things that you felt in the past. Guard against … new ideas that (will) lead you down the path to accepting that which goes against the teachings of the Lord.
As a thinker matures, Daniel Peterson helps us see, this grounded openness can produce a kind of “holy envy” for the beauties and insights of other religions without undermining our confidence in familiar truths.
It’s so easy to flatter oneself for being a bold and original thinker by criticizing the conformism of the rest of Sunday School class! So I sympathize with the sentiments of a certain “allquieton” as expressed in response to the above Wheat & Tares post:
It frustrates me as a think-for-yourself conservative that the same folks who correctly identify some of these problems with the Church, tend to be the ones trying to push the Church into adopting worldly, politically correct, values and truths. I think there must be plenty of fed up conservatives, but I never seem to run into them.
Keep in touch, allquieton. You have friends at The Bulwark.
Elder Oaks’ talk on Truth and Tolerance at LDS Newsroom is a major and welcome statement of principles to guide us in the public sphere. And we at The Bulwark will not conceal our delight in finding that Elder Oaks cites the hymn from which our name “Bulwark” derives: “O say what is Truth,” including the couplet we feature on the site. Here are some highlights:
While we must practice tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs, including their constitutional freedom to explain and advocate their positions, we are not required to respect and tolerate wrong behavior. Our duty to truth requires us to seek relief from some behavior that is wrong.
It is well to worry about our moral foundation. We live in a world where more and more persons of influence are teaching and acting out a belief that there is no absolute right and wrong, that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made choices that can prevail over the commandments of God. Many even question whether there is a God.
The philosophy of moral relativism, which holds that each person is free to choose for himself what is right and wrong, is becoming the unofficial creed for many in America and other western nations. At the extreme level, evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil are now legalized and paraded like a banner. Persuaded by this philosophy, many of the rising generation — youth and young adults — are caught up in self-serving pleasures, pagan painting and piercing of body parts, foul language, revealing attire, pornography, dishonesty, and degrading sexual indulgence.
First, when believers in Jesus Christ take their views of truth into the public square they must seek the inspiration of the Lord to be selective and wise in choosing which true principles they seek to promote by law or executive action. Generally, they should refrain from seeking laws or administrative action to facilitate beliefs that are distinctive to believers, such as the enforcement of acts of worship, even by implication. Believers can be less cautious in seeking government action that would serve principles broader than merely facilitating the practice of their beliefs, such as laws concerning public health, safety and morals.
In any event, as defenders of the faith, believers can and must seek laws that will preserve religious freedom.
We recommend a close study of this clear and bold address to all Latter-day Saints interested in finding their way in the critical public debates of our times. The whole raison d’etre of the John Adams Center is to resist the implementation of the “unofficial creed” of moral relativism to which Elder Oaks alerts us. Many bloggers trying to hold together some version of this relativism with their LDS identity could spare themselves and their readers a lot of trouble, we dare say, if they could only grasp the clear reasonableness of Elder Oak’s position. (For example, our Award-Winning Orange County Ex-Conservative, or AWOCEC, might take notice of the distinction between respect for persons and respect for their behaviors, which might conceivably temper her enthusiasm for LGBT epiphanies in the Kirkland temple .
Also (and as a follow-up to matters discussed in last month’s Bulwark), I note with some apprehension this statement from the most famous Executive Secretary in the church, the openly (but not actively?) “gay” Mitch Mayne of San Francisco:
I understand my sexual orientation to be a core component of my spiritual identity — not something that has been placed upon me as a burden, test of my faith, or cross I must bear. Orientation encompasses much more than simple attraction; I think to reduce it to that one aspect dismisses how deeply this is embedded in my spiritual DNA.
How that squares with Elder Oaks’ talk, or, for that matter, with the Family Proclamation, is beyond me.
For his part, (Gay) Mormon Guy seems to have grasped the sobering implications of Elder Oaks’ talk, but insists on converting Elder Oaks’ careful reasoning into an apocalyptic appeal based purely on prophetic authority:
Maybe it was just me, but I thought this talk had Proposition 8 written all over it. But that wasn’t all. At the end of the talk, he referred to the parable of the watchman on the tower, in the Doctrine and Covenants (the one where the Lord tells us that prophets foretell the future), and said, “As an apostle of the Lord, I am the watchman in the parable… and I have just spoken to you on a subject that was directed to me by the Spirit.” That’s about as clear as it gets to me… the political world is going to get rough. The Constitution is going to hang by a thread. We’re going to be in the minority (not a new thing for me). And we, I, whoever was listening tonight, is going to have to take the reins to support God and His plans when that time arrives.?
What can we say? One doesn’t need to be a prophet to predict that “the political world is going to get rough.” Unless we preemptively lie down and submit to making the creed of moral relativism officially the law of the land.
Standard of Liberty perceptively suggests that people who are confused by the LDS effort against the legitimization and canonization of homosexual rights in the world and church are possibly “afflicted with that spineless fickleness that causes people to side with the winner just because they’re winning.” The author, we think, puts her finger on a very common rationalization for a tendency to go along with a certain fashionable crowd. Rather than buckle under the pressure of the progressive pretension to be ‘on the right side of history,’ true Christians must, as she writes
be on the right side and stay there, which is a continuous personal struggle. And then you have to fight evil, come what may. In what corner of the battle are you?
Referencing an article in First Things about the Christian church’s failure to attract men (“Jesus is Not a Cagefighter“), David Banack at Times & Seasons wonders whether LDS Church leaders are making the church appealing enough to manly men. Will some tune out General Conference because of the chastisement they received last year about marriage? It seems frivolous, though, to talk about church teaching as if it were a question of an advertising campaign. In any case, as a non-LDS scholar happened to observe to me recently at an academic conference, the LDS Church in fact does a tremendous job of channeling manhood into religious service and family responsibilities — one has only to consider the power of a lay priesthood and of a two-year mission as a rite of passage for worthy males. The “natural man” is of course another question; he is not to be recruited but must be left behind.
— Award-Winning Harvard-Educated Ex-Liberal