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The Bulwark’s December Blog Review


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.

John Jaques

 

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.

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Secularism & Religious Freedom

Ashby Boyle at Meridian asks “Can God be Killed”? He provides a concise history of the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to impose atheism, but wonders, in a rich if somewhat desultory essay, whether the “cultural formlessness” that became ascendant in the “Woodstock Generation” has left us “a culture at sea without a rudder.” “The hard work needed for character becomes culturally illegitimate,” he observes, and agency risks giving way to “addictions and obsessions.”

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Boyle’s concerns are legitimate, and they strike deep. His observations raise a question central to the John Adams Center’s mission: does the flourishing of moral agency require a cultural environment in which moral discipline is supported by shared norms? And beyond this lies another question, one that Bill Duncan helps us raise below in his discussion of threats to DOMA — is a shared moral environment not ultimately reflected in a nation’s laws and policies?

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As a distinct religious minority in the United States (not to mention elsewhere), Latter-day Saints have a lot of practice in sustaining strong families and religious communities despite countervailing social pressure. This may lead us to believe that, whatever our personal religious “preferences,” we have no essential stake in the general culture. But, if we consider together what Boyle and Duncan have to tell us, there is reason to attend to the political conditions upon which the full scope of our moral agency depends.

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In the Deseret News, Michael McConnell, a leading expert on the constitutional law of religious freedom, asks “Is Religion Special” — and answers in the affirmative. What makes religion special? That is, why does religious freedom deserve a special place among our constitutional protections? Because religion plays a unique and fundamental role in human existence:

Religion is an institution, a worldview, a set of personal loyalties and a locus of community, an aspect of identity and a connection to the transcendent. Other parts of human life may serve one or more of these functions, but none other serves them all.”

It follows, then, that “To believers, the right to worship God in accordance with conscience is the most important of our rights.” To round out the argument as impartially as possible, Professor McConnell adds: “To nonbelievers, it is scarcely less important to be free of governmental imposition of a religion they do not accept.”

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Fair enough. But I wonder whether religious freedom can ever be safe where religion is not widely viewed as a positive feature of the life of individuals and of society. If “a connection to the transcendent” is not commonly held to be important, then freedom from “governmental imposition of religion” will not be enough, because a people who conceive human meaning as autonomous from any higher authority will demand freedom from the moral and cultural influence of religion. Freedom of religion will either be perceived dominantly as freedom for religion or as freedom from religion. Neutrality will not forever be possible on this question. Are we not at risk of tipping from “for” to “from” in our understanding of religious freedom?

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Marriage & Family issues

At Meridian Magazine, Bill Duncan, a leading expert on legal and political issues surrounding marriage, reminds us of the importance of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). All Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee showed their true colors by voting to repeal, even though popular support for DOMA makes a vote in the full Senate unlikely. The real threat to DOMA is in the courts, where the Obama administration has bowed to gay rights groups by refusing to defend the law. Duncan gives four compelling arguments why DOMA must be preserved, beginning with society’s fundamental interest in its children.

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Joanna Brooks reports on a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute showing that 56 percent of 18-29 year olds are uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon president. Surely some of this is swallowed up by the fact that the youth are decidedly Democrat and 50 percent of Democrats feel similar unease about the prospect of a Mormon in the White House.


Brooks says:

Cox [the head of PRRI] believes that millennial voter aversion to Mormon candidates (evangelicals too scored low marks among 18-29 year olds) may be in reaction to the perceived social conservatism of Mormonism, and particularly its political campaigns against same-sex marriage.

If Cox is right—and it would be great to see subsequent polls gathering qualitative data to confirm these hypotheses—It’s not that millennials hold a prejudicial view of Mormonism as a cult, or discredit our theology. It’s that they object to the Church’s stance on LGBT civil equality.”

Brooks, of course, is too quick to sever the Church’s stance from its theology. She seems to see this as an “image problem” and that the Church should be “lightening up” (as one of her readers puts it) on the homosexual question. Apparently Brooks sees no connection between the principles laid out in the Family Proclamation and its stance on Prop 8. Or, perhaps, she is eager to see us all “progress” beyond the Family Proclamation altogether. No doubt she agrees with her readers that the homosexual issue is already lost because the rising generation is “over it.”

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One would indeed have to be blind not to recognize that the risk is grave, indeed, that the Church and other defenders of a traditional idea of marriage and family have for now lost the cultural-political battle. But, if this is so, then those who call this “progress” are only compounding the disaster and the moral-intellectual confusion. It would be good to know one issue on which Joanna Brooks and other would-be LDS “progressives” would be willing to stand up and say: “Most people, and in particular most young people, and especially most young people who consider themselves educated or progressive, believe X, but I am worried that they may be wrong.” Such words would be good to hear, but I’m not holding my breath. Such “progressivism” seems hard to distinguish from power-worship, that is, from a compulsion to identify oneself with whatever social force seems dominant. Not exactly moral or intellectual leadership.

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Maybe we ought to reconsider (with Daniel Peterson’s help), Peter’s declaration that “we ought to obey God rather than men,” — and with it, the promise that all shall be well for the faithful.

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Sister Wives and Socialism 

Mormon Heretic (the author’s appellation, not ours) over at Wheats and Tares talks about the new Sister Wives series and the ruckus it has caused. The author draws a connection between contemporary polygamy and the United Order, bringing in some of Brigham Young’s comments regarding the “profiteering side of capitalism” and the importance of communalism. In the end, Mormon Heretic asks, “If polygamy becomes legal again via gay marriage, will the church embrace polygamy?” This idea has seen a resurgence as of late. In a notable law review article, Eugene Volokh criticizes such a simple slippery slope argument (see page 122 in particular). The gay marriage agenda has advanced in many ways through discussing its “benefits,” or at least “harmlessness,” and one must wonder whether this same discussion would ever enter the public forum anew on the plural marriage issue. Eugene Volokh thinks this unlikely given the dearth of political allies on this issue on both the political left and political right and the probably reluctance of courts to reconsider arguments against bigamy.

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In any case, the common ground between contemporary polygamists and gay marriage proponents is purely negative. That is, they both contribute to undermining any remaining shared sense in our culture of the sanctity of marriage. The serious question before us is the alarming trend towards the virtual abolition of marriage — a trend that was not started by, but is now led by the “gay marriage” activists. Any polygamists who want to jump on that bandwagon will certainly not be reviving Brigham Young’s conception of plural marriage.

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In other marriage-related news, Bill Duncan at Sutherland alerts us to a “treasure trove of new research on the family.” Thanks for the tip, Bill!

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At Feminist Mormon Housewives, Reese Dixon raises an important question concerning the cases of Penn State football coaches Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.


I know from sad personal experience how little it takes to help a child in trouble. It takes so little to stop abuse…And yet we see students rioting because a man who protected a child rapist was fired.We see men who were in a position of authority over young boys enable abuse in exchange for money, prestige, and a winning record. We see sports commentators mourning the tarnishing of a legacy instead of worried about the lives of the victims he failed to protect. This is not an isolated incident. Just as I was browsing another site in the bloggernacle yesterday I came across a comment from someone trying to justify an abusive father not wanting to go to his bishop for fear of the legal consequences.”

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Our tendency to excuse those in power for flagrant vices as long as they provide us with some benefit might put one in mind of Machiavelli, who understood the power of combining the “satisfaction” of popular interests with the “stupefaction” of power and prestige. (Prince, ch. 7)

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LDS/Politics

Max Perry Mueller at The New Republic raises a fair question: “Has the Mormon Church Truly Left Its Race Problems Behind?” If the question is whether all traces of the race problem have been effaced since the blessed revelation of 1978, then obviously the answer is no. A harder question is whether more ought to be done to uproot prejudices grounded in “folklore” that used to be considered doctrine. Darius Gray, a faithful and thoughtful African American Mormon (since 1964) thinks we must do more: “If you try to sweep the past underneath the carpet, what you end up with is a lumpy carpet.”

To be sure. But there are costs involved in tearing up the carpet, too. Still, certainly the article raises a fair question fairly. I note only one exception: the statement that “a Church-wide Sunday School lesson … also illustrated the persistence of” certain folkloric ideas is misleading, since it clearly implies, falsely, that such ideas were actually contained within the official lesson.

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Meanwhile, Stephen Marsh offers a valuable critique of the oft-repeated notion that the church must “come clean” on one thing or another. As he points out, this kind of demand is often informed by assumptions, or by an agenda, that itself needs to be brought out into the open and scrutinized. In the discussion that follows Marsh’s post, a dominant theme is some imperative of “transparency.” But this imperative would seem to be vulnerable to the same kind of critique. It is naïvely rationalist and democratic to assume that “the facts” are univocal and that everything can be equally plain to everyone. If no interpretive authority were necessary, then I suppose the Church wouldn’t be necessary. Such naivete is further evident in Sarah Hogan’s critique of the New Relief Society Book. Hogan feels that, though Daughters in My Kingdom has some important contributions, the church should expose the “hidden” stories dealing with the organization and the mistreatment of women: 

This history is pretty much what one would expect of a chronicle of the Relief Society by the Relief Society for the Relief Society: That is, no one wants to tell the most uncomfortable stories of our own past.” Right – no interpretations, just the facts. Sarah Hogan’s “facts.”

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Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, posting on the New York Times’ “Opinionator” blog, provides another entry into the season’s arguments regarding the political relevance of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. While attracted to Amy Sullivan’s position that “it’s their decisions, not their deity that really matter,” Gutting argues that it is essential that a politician’s positions not be matters of sheer religious dogma but rather that they be discussable in publicly accessible terms. Fair enough, we say, as long as religious views are not in principle excluded (in the manner of John Rawls’ “public reason”) from the realm of what is “rational” and therefore legitimate grounds for public debate. As Gutting rightly points out (and Rawls, incidentally, can’t admit) is that “every argument has to start from some basic premises that are not argued for,” including, for example, the idea “that all human beings, as created by God, have equal rights.” The only constraint, then, is that a political argument must have “wide appeal among citizens of a democracy, regardless of their religious views.” Fair enough. But then the only test of this criterion is the actual give and take of debate in the public square. So we are left with the insight that political positions in a democracy must appeal to the people. In which case we would not seem to need enlightened experts on what counts as “rational” to vet arguments or candidates for us. So we are left with this: if Mitt Romney is a Mormon and if Mitt Romney can get elected, then a Mormon can get elected.

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The former Governor of Massachusetts’ record of church service is being scrutinized by The Washington Post, with the help of the Exponent II circle of LDS feminists in the Boston area. The best they can find to say about him is the backhanded compliment that he seems to have “evolved.” I myself knew Mitt in days of yore as an ecclesiastical leader, but I think I will refrain from adding my own eye witness account of his quality as a church leader. I will only note that Brother Romney is surely too much a gentleman and too conscientious a church servant to respond in kind with his own recollections of dealings with people who sought his counsel or who otherwise required it. In any case, there is no reason to accept Exponent II’s definition of “evolve” or, for that matter, their implicit claim to be the voice of LDS women in the Boston area. I’ve known some LDS women in the area who did not, and would not accept that claim.

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Joanna Brooks gives a fair account of the coverage surrounding Romney’s service as a bishop and stake president. She rightly notes the sensationalism of a story at Salon, but, unfortunately, seems to accept many of its one-sided reminiscences at face value all the same: “This, of course, does not excuse Romney’s egregious incidences of coldness and disrespect towards women as reported in Salon and elsewhere.”

Brooks closes with this:

As Romney continues his march to the nomination, readers deserve coverage of the candidate that moves beyond sensationalism and the entrenchment it engenders. It is important for readers to know that Romney developed his leadership style in a non-democratic, patriarchal, hierarchical church culture where he rarely encountered open challenge. And it is important to know that there are serious concerns about the status of women in the LDS Church. Those concerns merit progressive coverage that highlights a diversity of Mormon voices, as did the Washington Post when it took the time to talk to Boston’s still-vibrant Mormon feminist community.”

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Thanks to Ms. Brooks for calling out the “sensationalists,” but her single-minded commitment to “progressive coverage” prevents her from even considering certain questions. For example, how many faithful member share the progressive-feminist “concerns about the status of women in the LDS Church”? And just what does this mean? Would progressives not be satisfied until the Church looked like the rest of the (progressive) world? What would it mean for the church to be “democratic”? Are “patriarchal” (and even, for that matter, “hierarchical”) always bad words? “Progressives” can’t afford to ask themselves such questions.

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Ms. Brooks criticizes the presidential candidate further on what she names “Mitt Romney’s Honesty Problem.” She, of course, is talking about the misleading Romney ad that took an Obama speech out of context:

 

But this time around, as attention continues to consolidate on Romney as once-and-future frontrunner, it seems clear that the honesty meme is going to stick. It may in fact be the issue that defines the Romney candidacy.”

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Brooks seems to be projecting a fair amount of her own hopes onto this statement. I find it hard to take left-wing columnists and bloggers seriously as they feign shock (Shock!) over such matters when they’ve so clearly acquired a refined skill of looking away from similar ads on their on side, including this Obama doozy, which was far more malicious and destructive to the country’s social fabric..To be clear: Yes, Romney’s ad was misleading. The fact that it worked — as Team Romney was quick to point out in its defense — does not change this. He should not have done it. But, let’s not pretend that this means Romney is or should now be characterized as having an honesty problem. Let’s also not pretend that talking about the economy does not, in fact, worry President Obama.

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Brooks takes this discussion of Romney’s integrity to return to his alleged heavy-handed dealings with the Boston feminists:

For me, the more revealing question is one of leadership. Where did Mitt Romney learn that a leader should think and act tactically, but rather than risk appearing deliberative, flexible, and human, try instead to disable those who question him with the imperious force of his own assertion? How does this comport with what we know about his time at Bain Capital, or the particular tenor of his service as an LDS congregational lay leader?”

She goes on to praise Romney’s father’s different approach:

I don’t think Mitt Romney learned this at home. Candor forced his father, George Romney, into an early exit from the 1968 Republican presidential primaries. Asked by a television interviewer why he’d changed his position on US involvement in Vietnam, George Romney calmly and confidently explained that he realized he’d been “brainwashed” on the war by American generals and that a subsequent study of regional history led him to believe that US intervention was not necessary. “I did change my mind,” George Romney said. That was some straight shooting, and George Romney paid for it.”

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Apparently Mitt Romney, however, does not get candor points for admitting he was wrong about stem cell research or abortion. For Brooks, it only counts when you move to the left on an issue. For more on the Romney/Religion & Politics question, see the notable rant by the once-brilliant literary critic Harold Bloom in the New York Times (subscription required) and the brilliant and sound reply by Rabbi Boteach in the Deseret News.

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Over at In Medias Res, Russell Fox corrects New Republic’s Matt Bowman regarding Mormonism and progressivism. Fox points out that Bowman “thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney’s technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism’s history of progressive-style responses to social problems.”

Fox notes, however, that what Bowman 

identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon ‘classical American progressivism’ isn’t really, or at least isn’t at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance — one which, I’m sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all.”

 

Fox does a nice job of correcting Bowman’s misdrawn connection between Mormonism and Progressivism, pointing out the — need we say it — altogether deeper (spiritual) and more profound (revelatory) roots of Mormon communitarian and egalitarian teachings. Fox concludes

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The egalitarian aspects [of] Mormon politics have deeper, more radical, more communitarian and utopian roots (and potential!) than that…and for better or worse, they play a far smaller role in the majority of contemporary American Mormon political discourse than any circumstantial progressivism might happen to. Mitt Romney is definitely a moderate, but to make him out as influenced by progressivism is, I think, to leverage Mormon history towards the wrong target.”

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As for Romney, it seems fair not to judge the extent to which he has been influenced by this deeper inheritance of Mormonism by what we see in his effort to obtain the presidency. In any case, what he owes to Mormonism in strictly practical, political terms, could just as easily be a moderately conservative outlook rather than a fundamentally progressive one. Fox is certainly right that communitarian and egalitarian ideas have deep roots in the LDS idea of a Zion society, but just what it would mean to translate such ideas into a practical political agenda for the United States is of course another question.

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Meanwhile, the political role of the LDS church has become an issue in Arizona in a way that raises the question of partisanship from a fresh angle. Joanna Brooks notes that Mormon Arizona legislator and author the controversial SB 1070 immigration bill, Russell Pearce, was voted out of office and replaced by another Mormon, Jerry Lewis, in a recent recall election.

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What is interesting to note here is that a predominately LDS district shifted against Pearce on this issue, undoubtedly in response to the Church’s immigration statement this summer. Closer to Church headquarters, one wonders if the Utah Republican Party will likewise get on board with the immigration issue. As of right now, that prospect does not seem likely unless some of the major players change. But, perhaps that is precisely the issue and the real lesson is that the Mormon citizenry is more moved by the Church’s statements than the party elite, and that Utah Republicans could face rejection at the polls if they don’t moderate their position.

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This issue poses an interesting contrast to Prop 8. Conservatives criticized liberal Mormons for not following the prophet. I criticized them for often not even considering the possibility they might be wrong and instead attacking the Church for its position. If God does not ask us to leave reason behind when the prophet speaks, surely Latter-day saints should at least care enough about the prophetic word to consider that their own opinions, to borrow a phrase, might need “evolving.” If divine authority doesn’t simply suspend the responsibility to think for ourselves, surely it has sufficient force to make us set aside prior judgments long enough to create the intellectual space necessary to give the Church’s position a fair hearing. Mormons of all political stripes would do well to lower their partisan guard — should they ever come into conflict with the Brethren — and search out the best arguments on the Brethren’s side, from sources in and outside the Church. It’s when Mormons do not even make the effort to do this that they get into trouble, both spiritually and intellectually.


Comments (1)

  1. Kaimi

    December 14, 2011 at 3:34 am

    It’s true that slippery slope arguments are overused in the area of same sex marriage and polygamy; and it’s also true, as Volokh notes, that not all slopes are slippery. But it’s also also true that some slopes are indeed slippery. And if MH’s post was too quick to jump to the slippery slope questions, this post may be too quick to dismiss the possibility.

    If polygamy becomes legal, the church will be in a complicated position. This is not because all slopes slip (they don’t) but because the particular ground of the church’s move away from polygamy is so closely tied to its legal status. In fact, that’s basically all that the Manifesto says: Polygamy is illegal now, so let’s not do it anymore. There’s no theological explanation. It’s a purely legal and pragmatic rationale.

    “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. . . . I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”

    Given the particular nature of this particular slope, it seems extremely vulnerable to slippage if the legal status of polygamy changes.

    I don’t think it will actually slip. But if polygamy becomes legal, I do think the church will probably need to take steps to solidify the theological understanding of the basis for the church’s current approach. The Manifesto does not provide that grounding (and I don’t think that the Proclamation really helps all that much either).

The comments are now closed.