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.
OUR MS. BROOKS has had another busy and productive month. As part of a notable conference at Columbia University on “Mormonism and American Politics” (Feb. 3-4), she gave an interesting, informative, and insightful talk on LDS participation in the Proposition 8 campaign in California. She was there and was clearly an alert observer. She provides a useful account of the way LDS money and LDS wards were mobilized to make what appears to have been a decisive difference in this critical campaign. To be sure, she seems less proud of the LDS contribution than I am, but that is to be expected.
Most interesting is the way she frames her analysis. She is struck by how the Prop 8 campaign tapped into an LDS sense of difference and vulnerability, one that she sees as rooted in the LDS experience with polygamy. This sense expressed itself in California in 2008 by what she sees as a disparity between the public and private rhetoric of pro-Prop 8 members, an “undergrounding” and “double-coding” by which LDS concealed their deepest motives from the public. Now, in one sense, this is unsurprising and hardly objectionable. That is, LDS have their own deep theological reasons that dispose them to favor the norm of heterosexual marriage, in addition to good social and moral reasons that they share with other social conservatives. Naturally, Mormons would appeal to these deep theological reasons when communicating with each other and use more widely available reasons when addressing a more general audience. But Brooks sees this as a failure to embrace a fully transparent and public standard of “communicative reason” (I suppose she is invoking the German political theorist Jurgen Habermas here), which she sees as essential to the ethic of modern democracy. She wishes LDS did not have any deeper reasons among themselves which they did not share transparently with a wider, secular and liberal public. She wishes, in a word, that LDS were less distinctive than they are (she sees our commitment to eternal marriage as an anchor of “LDS theocracy” – presumably not a good thing), and she imagines that liberal democracy would be healthier if no groups in society were defined by any beliefs not validated by public opinion at large, or rather, by some ideal notion of properly “rational” public discourse.
We disagree on both religious and political grounds: LDS ought to be proudly free to hold unpopular beliefs, including beliefs that have not been pre-approved to conform to the secular reason of Habermas or John Rawls, and, in fact, the American polity is better off for the existence of strong communities that resist dissolution into a homogenized and secularized mass opinion. That said, we think Ms. Brooks is right that some opportunities for “robust civil exchange” are missed when members retreat excessively from the public square and insulate themselves from the challenge of reasonable persuasion We owe it to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to do the hard work of translating our peculiar religious views into language we share with potential friends and allies in the political and moral realms. This is what such leaders as Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Quentin L. Cook have been urging us to do, and they have provided excellent reasons and evidence that deserve everyone’s attention — including Joanna Brooks’.
More generally, the Columbia conference seems to have been very fair, reasonable, and full of insight. We have not been able to locate transcripts, but Ms. Brooks’ and others’ presentations are available at youtube.com. A good place to start is with this nice summary of the conference by Max Perry Mueller.
Speaking of marriage, Brooks wonders whether the LDS Church’s statement that it has always had the view that marriage is between a man and a woman poses a problem when we consider polygamy. But, unless I am mistaken, all LDS marriages in the period of plural marriage indeed involved a man and a woman. We have no interest in reviving any argument in favor of polygamy. In fact, we are partial to the beautiful ideal of monogamy; but it has to be noticed that the other arrangement has not been uncommon throughout human history (in the Old Testament, for example), no doubt because (speaking now not religiously but anthropologically) it is one way of addressing a vital and permanent social interest in binding parents to the interests of their children. The same cannot be said for the fantasy of “same-sex marriage,” a pure experiment in the further liberation of sexual desires and their severing from our deep common interest in the nurturing and education of the next generation. To Brooks’ credit, she does faithfully report key arguments in the dissenting opinion in the Prop 8 case – but only after quoting “Laura Compton, founder of Mormons for Marriage, a pro-marriage equality group” as evidence of the positive reception of the opinion by “progressive Mormons,” as if that were a group in any way commensurate with those regular Latter-day Saints who firmly support traditional marriage.
Randy Bott and ‘Persistent Racism’
Moving her focus from California to BYU, Brooks argues that Randy Bott’s recent “racist apologetics” are proof of persistent racism among LDS Church members. In an interview with the Washington Post, BYU Professor Randy Bott says that “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom He grants the priesthood and argues that blacks were not ready for the priesthood before 1978. Brooks goes on to connect Bott’s comment to previous statements from Church leaders (Bruce R. McConkie et al) to show that such racist speculation is all-too-common among the Church’s leadership. To her credit, Brooks does recognize that McConkie immediately backed off his comments following the 1978 revelation and told church membership to forget all previous speculations he and others made with limited knowledge. She remains upset, however, that Mormon Doctrine (revised or otherwise) stayed on the shelves for so many years and that the Church didn’t address the issue in a more straightforward manner. In other words, she wants more hand-wringing. It’s not enough to say one was wrong. She wants a more thorough cleansing. Meanwhile, Joseph Walker at the Deseret News provides a kinder and ultimately more comprehensive perspective on the the subject and reminds us that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (2006) has been as clear and as authoritative as can be in instructing Latter-day Saints that we do not know why the ban was instituted and that we should cease indulging our conjectures on the matter.
Professor Bott’s public speculations were a huge blunder, if not a disaster, and Ms Brooks is right to criticize them. If he needed to say anything, he might have stopped after the minimal statement, “God has always been discriminatory,” which could be understood as reminding us that the priesthood and other divine blessings are just that and not rights to be demanded on our own terms. The rest of his argument, besides flouting clear and direct counsel from Elder Holland and other Church authorities that we abandon all such speculations, simply makes all kinds of very dubious assumptions. If we must presume to plumb the mind of God, why not try the plausible hypothesis that it was not the blacks but the whites who were not ready for a wider participation in the priesthood? But mostly: why give Joanna Brooks and other critics of the Church grounds for repeating the argument they are so eager to keep alive, namely, that racist attitudes continue to permeate LDS culture? Such has not been our experience — certainly not at BYU, or in the Church more generally.
Moments after Brooks posted her plea for greater openness, the Church gave this statement condemning all forms of racism:
Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”
We can only wonder whether Brooks is satisfied with this straight-forward, though altogether unsurprising, repudiation.
Baptisms of the Dead and the Unique Access to Heaven
The topic of LDS baptisms for the dead has been in the news as of late. Best-selling author Elie Wiesel called upon Mitt Romney to ask the LDS Church to stop baptizing Jews by proxy. This is a complex and sensitive issue, and we appreciate the efforts of Michael Otterson to explain the doctrine to a larger audience. Likewise, Joseph Walker’s thoughtful article on the subject includes a telling remark by Washington Post On Faith panelist and blogger Brad Hirschfield:
To the extent that such rituals indicate that people who lived and died as Jews still require repair of their souls or spiritual status, there is going to be hurt. That any group clings to doctrines that trumpet their own spiritual superiority or unique access to heaven, to me, is problematic as well, but that is hardly a unique feature of the LDS.”
This remark reveals, I think, the heart of the problem: what some Jews, among others, find offensive is not only the specific ritual of baptism for the dead, but, more fundamentally, the belief it reveals in a “unique access to heaven.” We LDS should avoid being hurtful and make every effort to respect and to learn from other faiths and from other philosophies, but we can hardly compromise our belief in the efficacy of saving ordinances.
Reasoning About Faith
Following up on our discussion last month with James Faulconer, we should point out his excellent post on Faith and Reason at Patheos, which should help thoughtful Latter-day Saints think about their faith and engage in serious conversations with others who share different perspectives. We quote him at length:
“Ideological atheists are unlikely to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, no matter how many examples of rational religious thinkers we show them. So we can ignore them until they are ready to engage in genuine conversation, which requires that each side acknowledge at least some possibility that the other side is right.
That means, of course, that if we engage atheists (or those of other faiths) in genuine dialogue, then we too must be open to the possibility that those with whom we disagree are right. We don’t have to agree, either in the beginning or the end, but we cannot take another person seriously if we believe that his or her belief is simply impossible. We would have to think the person at least slightly mad—which is what ideological atheists think of religious people. We ought not to imitate that ideology.
In the absence of genuine dialogue, we can only ignore the ideological atheist. But what about the religious person who shares the atheist’s understanding of faith as belief without evidence? One hears that more and more often among believers, though the earlier list of religious thinkers, including Al-Ghazali and Pascal, who might come closest to being fideists, would not agree to that understanding of faith. Fideism is a dangerous idea.”
Our own Daniel Peterson, recalling an argument from the late Stanley Kimball, makes a valuable point: Naïve views of LDS history tend to assume that Church leaders were virtually perfect and infallible, and are thus vulnerable to subversive critiques by enemies of the Church. A little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing. But learn a little more, and the firm foundations of our faith come back into focus, more clearly than ever. I would cite as an example Richard Bushman’s marvelous biography of the prophet Joseph, Rough Stone Rolling. This magisterial work discusses many issues that faithful members may find troubling, including some that the author does not himself know exactly how to resolve. But, still, the overall impression left by the remarkable tale he tells of the prophet’s life is unmistakably one of Joseph’s sincerity, authenticity and greatness. Another, more compact and still more powerful example: consider this video in which Elder Holland uses powerful historical evidence to testify of the Book of Mormon and of the Joseph’s true calling as a prophet.
And here is Brother Peterson again, this time dismissing the all-too-common assumption among LDS dissidents and detractors that plain, faithful Mormons are sheltered and inexperienced, unlike the presumably more worldly-wise “liberal” and “progressive” ones who would like to show them the way.
Along the same lines, the great scholar of LDS thought and culture, Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond, offers an insightful perspective on the meaning of the Romney candidacy against the background of an earlier implicit settlement between Mormons and their American neighbors, a tacit agreement in which Mormons were accepted as good and normal people, but their beliefs were politely bracketed:
“But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: ‘What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.’
“But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction…”
Brother Givens then goes on to distill the essentials of LDS teaching into five main points, beginning with this: 1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
Mitt Romney and the Impending Theocracy
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan doesn’t mind letting facts get in the way of his statements about Mormonism. And the most recent Republican debate offered him another opportunity to fire off a few lazy rounds at the horrible specter of “Theocracy.” Writing about Romney and Santorum (See: Theocracy and its Discontents), Egan seems to argue that both candidates are suspect because they connect with people who are real believers in something beyond the Lockean religion of toleration. Although he discloses his view that Romney seems “blandly secular” compared to Santorum, we are, as it were, urged not to forget about Egan’s take on the Mormon past. Surely, he seems to say, Romney can’t be an altogether proper American given his Mormon faith. For Egan, Mormonism, like the religion of the Puritans (his other target), stands against “reason”, and stands for one and one thing only:
“Then let’s look west, beyond the Wasatch Mountains in the 19th century, where Brigham Young built a Mormon empire in which church rule and civil law were one and the same — the press, a military brigade and the courts all controlled by the Seer and Revelator of a homegrown religion.”
“The Mormons, for all the cheery optimism of their present state, were birthed in brutal theocracy, first in Nauvoo, Ill., and later in the State of Deseret, as their settlement in present-day Utah was called. The Constitution, separating church from state, press from government, had no place in either stronghold. And it took a threat to march the United States Army out to the rogue settlement around the Great Salt Lake to persuade Mormon leaders that their control did not extend beyond matters of the soul.”
Perhaps brutal theocracy is the natural parent of cheery optimism. Or maybe there’s more to the story, which is our only point.
Gary Lawrence’s praise of the Constitution over at Meridian Magazine is welcome and refreshing, but we wonder whether the language of the “sacred” is the most useful for this important task. “Anything the Lord establishes is, by definition, sacred,” Lawrence argues, “and He Himself established the Constitution as detailed in D&C 101: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose…”
To be sure, it is essential, as James Madison already recognized in Federalist 49, that a people come to venerate or revere their Constitution, and thus to see it as something more than a useful charter that can be changed whenever it seems convenient. Still, to hold it as sacred risks distracting us from the important, and perhaps even urgent task of understanding as best we can the wisdom of those wise men whom the Lord raised up. Such an understanding will better equip us to counter the arguments of those who hold “Progress” to be sacred.