Before I sign off – or am run out of town – I might serve you well by offering a perspective on an extremely interesting conference held last weekend on the USC campus in LA. The conference was titled “Mormon Engagement with World Religions,” and was organized by Randall Paul, founder of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy, and by Brian Birch, head of the LDS chapter of same Foundation.
Randall’s vision of the inter-religious conversation is quite rich and distinctive. He is not interested in diluting or understating doctrines in order to commune lamely on some lowest common denominator of belief; rather, he believes we can get closer to the truth by being frank about our differences and talking together to figure out what they mean. I think he’s right, and this conference went some way toward proving such a proposition.
Let me first say that this was a terrific conference, with very interesting and substantial presentations from in 7 sessions over 2 days. Elder Bruce D. Porter gave a clear and bracing keynote address in which he first expounded the expansiveness of LDS thought, its openness to all sources of truth, and then made clear our commitment to the essentials of the Restoration. Finally, he emphasized the interest of LDS in making common cause with other believers against aggressive secular trends in our Western societies.
Panels followed that focused on general theological questions, on the current situation, and on LDS engagement with Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, respectively. Some of the excellent LDS presenters whose names will be familiar to many of you were Jim Faulconer, Dan Peterson, Richard Sherlock, Greg Smith, Bonner Ritchie, Phil Barlow.
I was on a panel on The Mormon Voice in a Pluralistic Society: The Challenges of Secularism and Religious Indifference. I won’t be able to do justice to the other participants’ remarks, but let me try to convey something of what went on. (It would be great if other panelists could jump in and join us here at T&S to correct/supplement this brief report.)
James Burklo, Associate Dean for Religious Life at USC and an ecumenical and (self-described) liberal Protestant minister. He spoke from a wealth of experience with college students, and made very concrete the proposition that the upcoming generation is “spiritual, not religious.” He seems to take this to be good news, of which I am frankly skeptical. One feature of his ministry he was proud to note was, to quote: “I help gays be who they really are…” that is, find some place within Christianity that will not constrain their sexuality.
Kristine Haglund, Editor of Dialogue and well known to most at this blog, I think, gave I think the best presentation, but also the hardest to summarize – very literary and nuanced. I want to read it. A central theme was that limitation of language, “the little narrow prison of imperfect language” (–J.Smith). She used the tabernacle as a metaphor for a space between the temple and the public space (poplars); there we should forthrightly declare our position on issues such as marriage, not on rational, public grounds but on theological grounds. (Again, please supplement and correct, Kristine.) Good stuff, and well said. It was unfair to be so much more poetic than the rest of us.
My old friend, BYU colleague (he holds – or sits in — a very distinguished chair at the law school), and ideological nemesis ? Fred Gedicks. Fred is skeptical of LDS engagement as LDS in the public square. We had to pay a price (under W. Woodruff) to move into the mainstream at the end of 100+ years ago, and it looks like we’ll have to do so again. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves regarding the influence we, a mere 2% of US population, can exercise over the direction of the country. We don’t have reliable allies. We’re “weird,” and we must come to terms with this fact. (Fred: please join in and fix what I’ve said of what you said.)
And then there was me. I, like Fred, accepted my duty of raining on any ecumenical parade that might be forming, but from a different vantage point on some religious and/or political spectrum. Yes, you guessed it, I was more “conservative” – it’s an inadequate, often reductive and dismissive term, but I won’t refuse it.
My main point was to ask about conditions of true “openness” to Truth, that is understanding that concerns some purpose or Good of the human soul. Closedness comes in two forms: the more obvious form of thoughtless, un-self-critical religious dogmatism: one isn’t open if one believes he/she already fully possesses it. The less obvious, more subtle, and perhaps now more common form of closedness takes the form of a pretention to pure openness: each has his own “truth,” so there is no Truth to seek.
The problem of openness has an inevitable, insuperable political dimension, because the fundamental terms of our existence in common our settled and re-negotiated in the political realm. Politics requires closure, and this closure cannot be irrelevant to our religious approximation of the Truth. Therefore, to dismiss the political is to fall under its sway.
For the rest, I self-quote:
The rich and difficult ‘pluralism’ – the non-generalizable openness of friends to possibilities the convictions of one friend may offer to the enrichment of the convictions of another – this true, difficult and rare ‘pluralism’ is always at risk – even here, I propose, among friends – of confusion with a shame pluralism that is in fact a closed secularism.
For example: when we uncover diversity, apparent contradiction w/in our own beliefs, or their history – in the making of doctrinal or theological ‘sausage’ – then we may indeed make this out as good news, food for thought to be celebrated, a welcome challenge to think more carefully and deeply about ‘things that unite us.’
But there is always the risk that this ‘good news” will come too easy, and that instead of digging deeper with the help of deeply committed friends, we will join in the ungoing manufacture of another kind of sausage, that is, we will simply assume that “what unites us” is what secular liberalism says unites us – i.e., our progressive quest for limitless personal freedom, freedom from authoritative norms, from shared understandings of something “higher”, some good of the soul — a quest for limitless freedom that is always accompanied with the promise of the scientific mastery of the natural limitations on our humanity. The risk, then, is that we will assume a progressive direction to History, that we know what kind of sausage we are making, and that all that’s left is to try to help the less enlightened and progressive ones around us see that there’s no authority but the joint reign of science and freedom.
This is the factor that we must be aware of when we include non-religious views in our quest for respectful contestation – we must be aware that a certain viewpoint that seems readily, easily, immediately amenable to inclusion in such a rich conversation among friends, that is, secular progressive liberalism, the view that all views are equal by default, because none can be settled by science, so none really matters – this view is actually the most crippling to our efforts to be both grounded and open at the same time – for in truth it is neither.
Secular liberal fundamentalism is the most subtle, most alluring, but also most hardened and often self-deceived , non-negotiable, debilitating fundamentalism. I propose to you that Randall Paul would have more to talk about with Jerry Falwell than with John Rawls or Richard Rorty.
I conclude, here, for now: The sine qua non of “openness” is belief in the possibility of a Truth higher than scientific mastery and limitless, amoral freedom.
Nice write up and interesting thoughts. Especially because I really wanted to go to this conference. But alas, I couldn’t make time.
“Secular liberal fundamentalism is the most subtle, most alluring, but also most hardened and often self-deceived , non-negotiable, debilitating fundamentalism.”
Now you are toying with me.
“secular progressive liberalism, the view that all views are equal by default,”
I do not see this. I am a probably within this category (with an LDS twist), but we do not view all views as equal. We just rank or categorize the hierarchy of such views differently.
BTW, Elder Nelson is sounding a lot like Ralph:
Since he quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, he must be getting this stuff directly from Ralph. Why else would he be quoting de Tocqueville. :)
Thanks for putting this up, Ralph. It was a fun session, and there was enough fodder for a full day’s discussion, at least.
Alas, readers of this blog probably know me well enough to know that the prose gets purple as the argument gets muddy–let me do a little cleaning up so that I can summarize it more pithily.
Some might be interested in my recent blog post on the conference as an attendee, a participant in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, and as a part of the group putting together the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy: http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com/2010/06/foundation-for-interreligious-diplomacy.html
Why does belief in a higher truth have to include association to a religious group and why can’t it be part of a general set of spiritual beliefs? Is that not a point you are making? In my opinion the most dangerous fundamentalism is the Tea Party Movement gathering right now in the US. It seems to have re-awaken dorment racism in the baby boomers and created new bigotry and hatred among Gen X & Y. This seems dangerous to our people and country and is already fragmenting LDS congregations in UT and AZ.
Very interesting. Thanks for writing this up.
sister manaen and I enjoyed both days thoroughly.
Although we couldn’t name a single speaker we’d bump to make room, we would have liked to see included representation from Black churches. Two local representatives that could have been considered are:
(1) “Chip” Murray emeritus minister at FAME (First African Methodist Episcopal) in Los Angeles — founded by Biddy Mason, former slave of Heber C. Kimball who petioned California for her emancipation when Bro. K returned to Utah from the nascent San Bernardino (Calif) Stake. Margaret Young posted a touching story in 2006 about his visit to BYU and his counsel to her about her son in the 6th through 9th paragraphs here (starting with “A few years ago…”). His prescient pre-election perspective on the presidential chances of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can be viewed here.
He gave an interesting presentation at a La Canada-Flintridge Miller-Eccles Study Group meeting last year and he was the keynote speaker at the 2008 edition of the “Discover Your Roots” African-american genealogy seminar hosted annually by the LA Stake.
(2) Frederick K. C. Price, D.D., leader of the Crenshaw Christian Center. Although he hasn’t had much direct contact with the LDS Church (as far as I know), he is an influential leader among Black churches in LA — he was one of the key organizers of their support of Prop 8 — and would have an interesting voice in a conference like this. (sister manaen was a member of this church when she converted to the restored Church).
8. (addendum to prior comment)
IMO, Black churches should be included in conferences like this because according to the study published by the Pew Forum last year, 26% of those who self-identified as LDS also self-identified as converts and of the converts, 9% self-identified as Black (scroll down to section entitled “Demographic Characteristics of Converts to Mormonism” and its embedded table near end of linked page). Blacks already represent 9% of LDS converts living in the U.S.!
The wave is forming in this country; Jane Manning would be pleased.
Apologies in advance for a ridiculously long comment.
I’m inclined to disagree with Ralph about the bugbear of licentiousness married to soulless science–it’s a poor liberalism indeed that defines itself as freedom _from_ all constraints, rather than as freedom to articulate the kinds of constraints one believes ought to be freely chosen by citizens. No doubt there are plenty of folks who misread Rawls (and his whole genealogy back to Locke whom Ralph indicted as co-conspirators)in exactly this way, but I don’t think we need to take their word for it, any more than we ought to take Glenn Beck’s word for what conservative thought is about. I’d happily join Ralph in arguing against the extreme he presents above. Moreover, I join him in mistrusting a pluralism that magnifies points of agreement and trivializes disagreement by sticking it on a pedestal away from rational scrutiny and merely celebrating it as “diversity.”
Where I think I part company with Ralph, if I understood him correctly, is in the belief that religious people can or should try to shape the consensus of public morality by an appeal to some common language of moral reasoning stripped of particular religious content. Religious people need the force of a secular liberal government that does not take sides in religious arguments, precisely so that they can forthrightly argue their religiously-derived, theologically-grounded moral beliefs in the agora. Of course, where we can, where our religious belief overlaps with ideas that can be articulated in a common philosophical vernacular, we should choose that language that is most easily understood by the broadest number of people. But where our beliefs are extra-rational, that is, where we ourselves are persuaded not by argument but by revelation or deference to religious authority, we ought not try to coerce assent by misappropriating the language of public reason or some vague civic religion which conveniently fits the prejudices of the majority.
My argument about language, then, meant to point to the particular dangers of linguistic “slipperiness” for Mormons. Right from the moment of Joseph’s “translation” of the Book of Mormon, there has been the sense that language is a leaky vessel for meaning–that mere words on a page are always a “sealed book,” which is inscrutable to either common sense or to scholarship. A contemporary example is in our discourse around missionary work and conversion–we shrug off the fact that missionaries are unable to convey the principles of the gospel clearly through verbal argument or explication, and appeal instead to the affective meaning with which the Spirit imbues their words. Besides the Spirit, we also rely on authoritative fiat to fix meanings to words–and here I used a couple of examples from Elder Oaks, on the language of prayer and on the propriety of using “homosexual” as a noun.
The one exception to this slipperiness of meaning is in the temple, where we undertake ontologically performative speech acts–that is, we utter words whose meaning is fixed not just in the moment of their being spoken, but forwards and backwards into eternity. And these deepest, most meaningful words at the core of Mormon experience are, necessarily, shrouded in silence.
This silence at the center of Mormon speech is a problem for us in engaging our interlocutors in the public sphere. Because all of our speech outside of the temple is self-consciously (to varying degrees) designed to convey the persuasive force of the truth we learn in the temple and simultaneously conceal its precise content, we can fall into the trap of reflexively choosing the words we think are most likely to convert our interlocutors, and, as discussed in the example of missionary speech, we tend to testify rather than explain and rely on persuasive force that comes from outside of words. Needless to say, that approach is rarely effective with a secular audience relying on what they believe to be a common language and logical syntax.
However, the solution to this dilemma, in my opinion, is not to try to translate Mormon speech into the speech of American conservatives who agree with us on some portion of a political agenda. It is, instead, to more fully articulate our Mormon-ness, both to others and to ourselves. We should not spend our time attacking the supposed godless liberals (and, btw–where are they?? I live 5 miles from Harvard and yet participate in a vibrant religious community–including the thriving Episcopal church in Harvard Square where I sing in the choir– and find respectful conversation partners at every turn) or trying to get them to convert to some civic religiosity. Instead, we should invite them into our discourse, articulate our Mormon reasons for our political positions, and then let those reasons compete in the public square to persuade others (or not). If we believe that “truth is independent…to act for itself”, then we have nothing to fear.
Here’s my probably overwritten conclusion, drawing on the symbols of the Lombardy poplars Wallace Stegner described in _Mormon Country_ and the pine beams in the roof of the tabernacle that were displayed in a magnificent exhibit at the Church Museum of History and Art last year (thanks, Nate’s dad!):
How can these symbols help us think about the problems of Mormon language, public image, and the various sets of political complications that tangle the institutional Church’s relations with politicians and scholars? We want people to see the poplars; we want them to understand that Mormons are agents of civilization, of taming the desert and making nice, über-American towns. We are pleased with attention from scholars at fancy universities, especially if we can keep them on a guided tour of the parts of our history we like best. But of course, we can’t—the poplars are not really very robust, and it turns out that we really did settle a desert, which is, in very many respects still a desert, separate and apart from the robust farmland of the Midwest which we so dearly want it to look like, or the Gothic, ivied-campuses whose professors we would like to impress. Despite what President Hinckley told Larry King, we ARE weird. We are REALLY weird. We build upside-down boats in the middle of the Salt Lake Basin so that we can have a place to sing Handel’s Messiah and the Star-Spangled Banner, but also “Come, Come Ye Saints,” “In Our Lovely Deseret” and “Sons of Michael, He Approaches” (!)
The only way for us to be comprehensible to outsiders is to take them up in the roof of the tabernacle, to show them the broad, thick pillars of Mormonism, shorn of their leaves, bound with messy, but enduring animal skins–to say without embarrassment that our temple rituals are not just sacred, but secret, and that when Big Love depicts that ritual on TV we’re offended not as American liberals who believe in freedom of religion, but as believers who fear that the power of our ritual is threatened by such exposure, to acknowledge that we’re NOT Christians in a way that Evangelical Christians can accept, to forthrightly declare that our opposition to giving marriage rights to homosexuals is a theological position, not a legal or sociological or historical one.
Finding a Mormon voice with which to speak both inside and outside the Mormon community is not simple or straightforward, even for thoughtful Mormons—it is no wonder that it can be hard for outsiders to unearth the necessary interpretive tools to translate our words. We can invite them in from the poplar-lined streets and try to show them why it is that our voice paradoxically requires the protection of the highest ideals of a secular, pluralist society and also protection from the shallowest manifestations of that secularism that insists on the freedom of the individual from even freely chosen submission to authority, requires valorization of individual expression above communal meaning and privileges a shallow “authenticity” over truth.
As any of you who have toured Temple Square will know, the acoustics of the tabernacle are excellent.
Thanks for good comments and suggestions.
Chris and Kristine are of course right that my shorthand characterization of contemporary liberalism doesn’t quite do justice to efforts of liberal theorists to justify liberalism. I skip over lots of argument to get to my quick conclusion in very broad brush strokes. I do think my reduction of the thrust of contemporary secular liberalism to the twin authorities of science + freedom rightly identifies a powerful tendency of liberalism in practice, and, moreover, that liberal theory, despite ingenious efforts, cannot really get beyond this framework. That’s because the framework goes back through Mill and Locke to Hobbes, and to really question it would be not to be a liberal anymore — that is, a liberal theorist, since the best friends of liberalism are those, like Tocqueville who defend the best practices of liberalism while warning against its theoretical implications. (A good statement of the twin authorities as mentioned above is in Pierre Manent, A WORLD BEYOND POLITICS?; also Philippe Beneton, EQUALITY BY DEFAULT.)
But the whole question, Kristine, is precisely what kinds of restraints we admit on personal freedom. Everything depends on how we understand “the kinds of constraints [that] ought to be freely chosen by citizens? Is there some weight on this “ought,” or does everything finally turn on the “freely chosen.” If all “oughts” finally derive from an original, amoral freedom (whether in Rawls’ Oriignal Position or an old-fashioned liberal State of Nature), then we’re back to the hard liberal premise, leaving no publicly authoritative restraints but those that can be justified by “science.” Rawls still fits very much within this frame of reasoning. In fact the authority of “Society” arises to replace all scientifically discredited religious or otherwise truly grounded moral authority.
My view is that there can be no such thing as a “secular liberal government that does not take sides in religious arguments.” Of course this can be true up to a point and in certain circumstances, but every government will by shaped by moral priorities, and they can only be more or less friendly to particular religious or anti-religous interests.
I agree to a point with embracing the distinctiveness of our “extra-rational” beliefs, though I don’t such a clear border between reason and revelation, as you might gather from my previous post. And I am indeed more tolerant of “some vague civic religion” which has served America pretty well in the past, on balance, and which at least has a chance of being right on the main question, the deep, almost ontological question that has worked its way, alas, to the surface of our politics: do human beings create their own meaning (that was Justice Kennedy in Casey, no?), or does freedom or moral agency involve recognition of some authority beyond The Individual and beyond Society. This, again, is the intra-religious question that proves deeper than the inter-religious question. Have you addressed it with your “vibrant religious community”?
And let me add this further provocation (not for Kristine in particular): it is inevitable that issues surrounding sexuality and the family emerge as the focus of this basic ontological-cultural-political question. Our times will require of us thoughtful and engaged LDS to know where we stand on this basic issue of the meaning of freedom with respect to moral-religious authority. I’m not saying that, philosophically, even cosmologically, LDS would not have a lot to speculate about, legitimately, concerning the meaning of agency. (See my first post.) But a pretty clear parting of the ways reveals itself to us in practice, a decision that cannot be avoided, at least for any who make their way from the temple to the tabernacle and the poplars.
What we mean by “agency,” religiously, will be inflected decisively in one direction or another by our concrete practices, and these will be shaped by fundamental questions that, alas, have now become political questions.
“Of course, where we can, where our religious belief overlaps with ideas that can be articulated in a common philosophical vernacular, we should choose that language that is most easily understood by the broadest number of people. But where our beliefs are extra-rational, that is, where we ourselves are persuaded not by argument but by revelation or deference to religious authority, we ought not try to coerce assent by misappropriating the language of public reason or some vague civic religion which conveniently fits the prejudices of the majority.”
I agree that there as some limits to public reason. During the Prop 8 debates, the “public” reasons offered against gay marriage were horrible and based on rubbish social science. Sometime, I just prefer that somebody says “because God said so.” Of course, we should not expect that to be all that compelling, but if it is true, say it.
The proviso that Rawls offers in his argument for public reason is that religious arguments and beliefs are welcome is the public sphere, but in a democracy we should also appeal to public values that can appeal across the religious divide. I honestly think that Rawls is not trying to beat back religious voices. He is trying to beat back the anti-religious sentiments and impulse which often find favor within the religious tradition. I think he illustrates this is his treatment of atheism (which I will deal with elsewhere soon).
Oh, I am absolutely weird.
“My view is that there can be no such thing as a “
‘secular liberal government that does not take sides in religious arguments.'”
I agree. I think liberalism is neutral about many things religious, but I am committed to a very moral conception of liberalism. By clinging to a certain vision of the individual, we are clinging to a religious outlook, in some sort of way. I am cool with that, but I can see why Ralph is not.
Being on the same thread as Ralph and Kristine is very intimidating.
#12 is responding to #10
#13 is responding to #11
Of course, you’re aware, Chris, that the LDS Newsroom link that you provided above is now dead. No worries. It’s still available here.
I was not aware of that Chino…hmmmm.
Maybe they did not like being compared to Ralph. Ralph is very good looking and smart, but he has nothing on Elder Nelson.
In other words, it’s all on you now, Chris. Pity. You were one of my faves up until recently.
I have lost many friends lately around the bloggernacle lately. Hey, I commented over at Mainstreat Plaza.
Should only be one “lately.”
Ralph, the separation of church and state protects us as an insignificant and greatly disliked religious minority primarily from other religionists who would like to see our faith snubbed out on religious grounds, because of conflicting truth claims. Whereas atheists just think we are stupid, my sense is that it is certain other religionists who deep down do not think that we “deserve” basic human rights such as the freedom of religion (the grandparent of human rights, as Cole Durham is known to say) based on their view of our “ontological” status as believers in heretical doctrines. (Remember, even in the Ukraine you have freedom of religion: everyone is free to belong to the Orthodox Church.)
As Latter-day Saints let’s step up boldly and nobly and independently demand a very robust framework of the separation of church and state lest we find the state that we have helped to imbue with a voice in religious matters with the opening it needs to shut us out entirely. America’s separation of church and state is the reason that the Restored Gospel was able to take root there to incubate while the rest of the world became similarly enlightened.
As members of a despised religious minority, we are the primary beneficiaries of the pluralism that can only flourish in such a framework. If atheists flourish in like manner under this framework, that is so much the better because it gives us as people of strong faith the opportunity to learn to overcome the natural man (who would have us be insular, cliquish and condescending toward them) and reach out to them to find that which binds us together.
“the authority of “Society” arises to replace all scientifically discredited religious or otherwise truly grounded moral authority”
Truly grounded in what? Are you arguing (with Elder Porter) that there can be no morality without a belief in God?
Here’s the nub of the disagreement, I think:
“Everything depends on how we understand “the kinds of constraints [that] ought to be freely chosen by citizens? Is there some weight on this “ought,” or does everything finally turn on the “freely chosen.””
I think everything does turn on “freely chosen.” It seems to me that God is pretty serious about allowing agency with as few constraints as possible. If he’s willing to risk a world where some of his children hurt and destroy one another for the sake of making human beings truly free, then we can risk a civil society where people call us bigots. We can even risk seriously attending to their arguments and possibly convicting ourselves of bigotry and repenting (as we have done, painfully, in the past). The weight on “ought” has to come from willing submission to moral suasion, not from the majority’s resort to force of law or violence.
Thank you for your recent posts. I found much in them that is not in common discussion, which gave me a lot of food for thought. Quite a feast in fact, almost too much to process in one reading.
Since the upheaval that was Prop 8, I have been on a journey of investigating what I believe. There was much in this post and the last one to fuel this journey further, and I just wanted to let you know that it’s appreciated.
Chris, the link has been resurrected. It’s all good.
That said, #21 is even better. Ralph’s mistake (as far as I can tell) is to assume that folks like me have thrown our American baby out with the Mormon bathwater.
It’s why I wonder why anyone (like Matt Holland) would want to sit on the board of an org led by someone (like Ralph) who seems hell-bent on dividing us, unless the point is that the LDS leadership really does want to see the country divided?
All apologies, but folks like Ralph strike me as willfully obtuse. And if Matt’s in the mix, he’s obtuse as well. How to make them understand that folks like me would give our all to repel any *real* threat to the LDS right to exist and believe and prosper?
Of course, I’m an atheist. And a liberal. And a secularist. And probably a progressive.
As if any of that matters. It’s not about me. It’s about you, Ralph.
Who are you, Ralph? Are you anyone I’d want to emulate? Whether or not you are, how about leaving me alone, and I’ll leave you alone?
“It’s why I wonder why anyone (like Matt Holland) would want to sit on the board of an org led by someone (like Ralph) ”
My guess is because Matt and Ralph largely agree on these matters.
“As if any of that matters. It’s not about me. It’s about you, Ralph.”
It obviously is not about you, Chino. I guess I am mostly annoyed that you have turned it into being about Ralph.
Actually, I think that john f. is wrong. It is not the seperation of church and state, but the seperation and division of powers that protects us from others groups.
It is not the seperation of church and state, but the seperation and division of powers that protects us from others groups.
Which is another way of saying that Adams and Jefferson were both right on this question.
Well, without the institutional precautions, the religious principle is useless. But, yes Madison and Jefferson were both right (and Lincoln brought the two together…for another day).
Of course it’s not about me. I’d never be that silly as to take Ralph’s penchant for identifying enemies to its logical conclusion. And even then, it still wouldn’t be (entirely) about me.
In any case, Chris H. strikes me as quite the liberal secularist. Pity we’re both members of the Judean People’s Front. If he were one of the Judean Popular People’s Front, I’d suggest a right crucifixion, I would.
Mommie Dearest, Glad to be of service.
Kristine (and john f.): but you see, I think the “ought” and the “free chosen” have to be held together. For “moral persuasion” to be possible, the space in which morality is taken seriously has to be kept open, and the political “regime” — to talk like Arisotle — will affect this space. The force of law will have its way, or its sway, one way or another, and it will affect what is meant by “moral” in “moral suasion.” So your dichotomy “moral suasion” // “coercion” is finally simplistic. I think we LDS intellectuals have to get over this simplistic liberalism. To be friends of a healthy, moderate liberalism in practice we have to get over this simplistic liberal theory, which imagines that “freedom” is some neutral space in which each individual starts from scratch. Human beings are fashioned to a considerable degree (of course I do not say wholly and absolutely) by their families, their communities, their polities. Of course we may need to raise our families increasingly against the grain of our polities and even communities, but is it really charitable to give up on the moral environment which affects everyone’s lives? Elders Oaks was right (Rexburg, last October): there is a battle under way (and I and my “conservative” friends did not start it) concerning the meaning of freedom. We might well lose it, but if we don’t even engage it, we will lose our souls in the process — we will lose the idea of moral agency to the idea of amoral liberation.
“this simplistic liberal theory, which imagines that “freedom” is some neutral space in which each individual starts from scratch.”
Who is articulating that idea here? Not I. But there has to be some way of articulating community norms that is both more broadly potent and less coercive than the law. A trivial example will suffice: the law says that the speed limit is 55 mph, and yet somehow there is a functioning consensus that somewhere around 10 mph faster than that is the *real* speed limit. The legal blood alcohol limit generally allows a person my size to have a glass of wine or so and still not be considered intoxicated, and yet in my social circle, I would face opprobrium if I drank a single glass of wine and then got behind the wheel. (Actually, I’d face opprobrium if I drank the wine at all, because my friends seem to value my commitment to Mormonism and would be puzzled and unhappy if I publicly violated their understanding of my ethical code). The law is at the same time too forceful and not forceful enough to be the communal force that shapes character and behavior. The web of meaning in which people come to understand themselves has to be thicker than that which a political regime can create.
OK Kristine, “web of meaning” – that’s helpful. And broadly, well, Burkean, let’s say. So, if freedom does not operate in some neutral space, it’s in some social-moral space. And how does the law relate to this space? Is it based on some abstract principles apart from or opposed to this space? Or does it build upon, reinforce, preserve this space, and develop possibilities emergent within this space? No political regime “created” heterosexual marriage. Explicit, positive laws and policies grew up around it, reinforced it, protected it — and of course sometimes tweeked it, modified it. But it is the liberationists, it seems to me, who want radically to transform the thick web of society based upon an abstract theory, or rather a vague and abstract longing for the liberation of liberty from all authoritative webs of meaning. I thought I was the one arguing for the political regime modestly respecting the social-moral web.
It is one thing to want to separate liberty from all authoritative webs of meaning. It is another thing entirely to want to extend that web of meaning and expand its influence.
Ted Olsen is now attempting to build upon (your words) that social-moral space, and he is no radical liberationist.
But it is the liberationists, it seems to me, who want radically to transform the thick web of society based upon an abstract theory, or rather a vague and abstract longing for the liberation of liberty from all authoritative webs of meaning.
Perhaps the circles of my acquaintance are altogether too narrow, but I’ve never in my life (to my knowledge) met a single person—much less gay persons who wish to legally marry—of whom this is an even remotely accurate description. In my own, again, admittedly limited personal experience, the enemy you so vividly describe and decry simply does not exist in reality.
Don’t get me wrong, as someone who thinks that C. S. Peirce, Marshall Sahlins, and Talal Asad better understand human nature than John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Gregory Mankiw (or, if you prefer, John Rawls), I’m not at all unsympathetic with what I take to be your larger project. This, in the sense that I too believe that Reason, of either the authoritative scientistic or rationally-self-interested varieties, is wholly insufficient as a basis for organizing a stable polity (or any other meaningful social form, for that matter). I no more buy into the actual existence of Homo economicus than I do your much-to-be-feared liberationist.
But this post, taken in light of your Square 2 piece from last year (and your reference here to Elder Oaks’ speech late last year), strikes me as basically a sophisticated, jargon-encumbered (Pot, meet Kettle…), philosophically rendered version of the claim that because we, as a religious body (working in cooperation with other, more or less like-minded religious bodies) wish for certain persons not to have certain rights, if said persons do manage to officially acquire for themselves said rights, they will be taking away our right, as a religious group, to withhold rights from them. Explain to me how what you’ve articulated on this matter could not equally apply as a defense of a proposal to, on religious grounds, prevent persons of different races from marrying, to force all female polity members to wear headscarves in public, or to force a loathed religious minority to conform to the marital standards of the larger public. It’s one thing to say (quite rightly, in my view) that religious folks have a right to actively engage in the policy making process even when they are motivated in their actions by traditional religious conviction; it’s quite another to suggest (or claim straightforwardly) that if they fail to achieve their desired ends that their rights have somehow been abrogated, as if being religious or being a religious group confers the right not only to engage in politics but to win.
Of course it is entirely likely, as Elder Nelson notes in the newsroom piece and as many other Church leaders argued during the Yes-On-8 campaign, that a generation after gay marriage acquires a social normativity via legal protection, it will be more difficult for Mormons and our common-cause bedfellows to continue to teach that homosexual relationships are an abomination without seeming intolerant or bigoted in the eyes of an increasing majority of the public. And I know we really, really like our newfound prettiest-girl-at-the-anti-homosexual-dance status among our Evangelical and Catholic peers.
But to argue with a straight face that we, as a religion, a church, or a group, are existentially threatened by the possibility that soon some persons will be able, with the support of the state, to do things which we consider immoral (and the concomitant result that people will increasingly roll their eyes at our insistence that it is, in fact, immoral) strikes me as cynical at best. And to portray supporters of gay marriage, even implicitly, as acting primarily out of a compulsion derived from worshipful allegiance to the abstract notions which comprise, in aggregate, a word you made up (liberationism) is as facile and unfair as it is factually inaccurate. While it might have the virtue of, in tautological fashion, leveraging the abstractions of your well-articulated imaginative vision into an pragmatic defense of specific political actions, it also presupposes a (rather errant) belief that their is no affirmative case being made in favor of letting same-sex couples marry with the blessing and sanction of the state, outside of the purely abstract, ideational framework of liberationism.
Finally, although I don’t know you personally, a number of people whom I greatly admire and whose judgment I implicitly trust think very highly of you. I sincerely hope you do not read my comments here as a personal attack.
Really? Brad thinks that anthropologists have a better understanding of human nature than political philosophers. I am shocked and offended. :)
jargon jargon jargon Ralph is likely being inconsistent jargon jargon jargon
There. I’ve summed up Brad’s response for dullards like me who didn’t finish their secondary degrees.
I am not sure how the theories of liberalism can be viewed as so abstract, but that the concepts of tradition and revelation are not.
“But it is the liberationists, it seems to me, who want radically to transform the thick web of society based upon an abstract theory, or rather a vague and abstract longing for the liberation of liberty from all authoritative webs of meaning.”
I, like Brad, reject the term liberationist, but I am not all that bothered by it. I do not completely reject the idea of webs of meaning, but I am not convince that they are authoritative. Additionally, I think that the fact that gays are seeking to be married shows a certain commitment to traditional stable relationships (I think this is Andrew Sullivan’s argument). Gay marriage has thrown a wrench into our long running discussions about homosexuals because it goes against the stereotype of gays as promiscuous and irresponsible in their relationships and sexual behavior.
If anything I am fascinated because I do not view this as a claim of licence or liberation, but rather an attempt to become part of suburban middle-class Americana. Not sure why anyone wants this, but it seems to be something which many people desire.
“for dullards like me who didn’t finish their secondary degrees”
Please do not throw the rest of us ABDs under the bus with you.
Well, Peirce is hardly an anthropologist, and the nod to Sahlins and Asad was specifically in reference to their arguments against post-Enlightenment, rational-choice models of human subjectivity (over and against the other theorists I mentioned), and not necessarily a sweeping judgment of political philosophers, per se. Nevertheless, Chris, I do confess a strong affinity for (at least some) explicitly anthropological strands of social theory, particularly those grounded in Peirce’s semiotic. It’s another way of saying that I find Sandel’s critique of Rawls (or, even better, Ricoeur’s) more compelling and persuasive than, say, Nozick’s. :)
“It’s another way of saying that I find Sandel’s critique of Rawls (or, even better, Ricoeur’s) more compelling and persuasive than, say, Nozick’s. :)”
I think both Ralph and I agree with you there. Though only I think that both Sandel and Nozick are wrong. For me Sandel is much like Aristotle. I like a lot of what they have to say on many things…but I reject the basis framework. Oh, well.
I was thinking as I made my reference to anthrolopology, though I did not say this, that much of these tension me be due to the limits of western political rhetoric, even of the more philosophical variety.
In the interest of consumer protection, I should note that it is entirely possible that the version of Ralph’s arguments against which I have positioned myself is itself a strawman of sorts, that I’m misreading Ralph or mischaracterizing his position (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I made that mistake…). If that’s the case, please feel free to utterly disregard everything I’m saying. In fact, please feel free to do so regardless. :)
disregard regardless? Geez Louise, you college people and your jargon!
Thanks, Brad, for keeping the question open. Of course we’re all at risk of countering strawman versions of opponents arguments. We try to listen, but we think we’ve heard it before, and so we keep hearing what we’ve heard before. But if we really try to listen, we might learn something.
I’ve learned from many responses here.
Brad, although I want to don’t know your anthropologists, I want to, especially if you know how to combine them with Peirce. Certainly Sandel is 100X richer than Nozick, but Sandel still agrees too much with Rawls and Nozick for my taste — his “community” tends to be a kind of romantic vision in which the bonds of community would come without any real cost to individual freedom, as modern liberals understand it. Like so many communitarians, he’s in favor of any community except one that has ever existed or could exist. So Sandel + anthropology sounds promising. Unless anthropology > relativism. So make that Sandel + anthropology + Aristotle. Then we could add Leo Strauss to help sniff out any residual relativism/historicism.
Note that I haven’t included revealed authority in this formula. The most reductive way in which liberals are compelled continually to misread me is to look right past the argument and say: well, he actually takes seriously what the GAs are saying on social issues these days, and he’s just trying to dress that up in academic language. Well, unlike some in the “LDS intellectual community,” I’m not embarrassed to agree with rather strong and simple statements by prophets. But here’s my predicament: I learned through decades of study, beginning, really, at Harvard University (after my study of Rawls and Kant at BYU, where I was still basically in Rawls’ camp, except maybe more egalitarian)a deep critique of modern liberalism (which, in its deepest theoretical premises, is essentially atheist and “liberationist” at its core — even Rawls’s, contra the ever-reasonable and amiable Chris H.), a critique which has in fact “inoculated” me against many concerns that make many T&S participants (and not only them, of course)embarrassed to have GAs. So my bad luck is that my reason and my faith agree in my critique of the deep tendencies of liberalism, and so I don’t qualify as a “Mormon intellectual,” because that really means, essentially, Mormon Liberal, since, for so many, to think “rationally” turns out to mean to think like liberals, or, rather, more often, the way the true, deep liberals want us to think (i.e., that we can have our religious freedom and eat it, or let others eat it, too).
Which doesn’t mean, needless to say, that I have all the answers. I certainly am not sure what to do about the extreme straits of our liberalism-tending-to-liberationism today. I know how to critique it, but I’m far from sure how to fix it, what might replace it (since it may be too late to moderate it any more), pending the coming of the Kingdom. If you think that Kingdom is coming so soon that there’s no point in trying to be good citizens — or, if you think that we’ve entered an age beyond politics in which we have no stake in the moral character of our political community — then my efforts to think politically as a LDS will not seem very important to you, and may seem gratuituously fractious. Sorry ’bout that, but I press on. I will soon take up some of these questions over at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/
Well, unlike some in the “LDS intellectual community,” I’m not embarrassed to agree with rather strong and simple statements by prophets. But here’s my predicament: I learned through decades of study, beginning, really, at Harvard University (after my study of Rawls and Kant at BYU, where I was still basically in Rawls’ camp, except maybe more egalitarian)a deep critique of modern liberalism (which, in its deepest theoretical premises, is essentially atheist and “liberationist” at its core — even Rawls’s, contra the ever-reasonable and amiable Chris H.), a critique which has in fact “inoculated” me against many concerns that make many T&S participants (and not only them, of course)embarrassed to have GAs. So my bad luck is that my reason and my faith agree in my critique of the deep tendencies of liberalism, and so I don’t qualify as a “Mormon intellectual,” because that really means, essentially, Mormon Liberal, since, for so many, to think “rationally” turns out to mean to think like liberals, or, rather, more often, the way the true, deep liberals want us to think (i.e., that we can have our religious freedom and eat it, or let others eat it, too).
I appreciate you taking the time to address some of what I’ve said. To the degree that you did engage my concerns/arguments, I think it’s reasonable to say that you did not mischaracterize them.
What you have mischaracterized, however, as the paragraph I’ve pasted above makes clear, is the blogging community in which you have been invited to participate and, in my own limited and perhaps naive experience, the community of “mormon intellectuals” upon which you heap superior scorn and against which you seem to be positioning yourself with an air of intellectual righteousness. There are very, very few folks I’m aware of who would characterize themselves as LDS intellectuals but do not take the words of Church leaders, past and present, extremely seriously, if not altogether uncritically. The liberal-oh-so-liberal, liberationist-atheist enemy you’re trying to expose at the heart of [our politics, the academy, LDS intellectualism, whatever…] strikes me as a rather golemesque strawman. Unwittingly subservient to a Dark Force, unsympathetic yet pathetic, reducible to a single, all-consuming unrighteous, perhaps even self-referentially evil yearning for power to destroy what good remains in the hearts of men. And a fiction (albeit of the rather compelling, mythic variety…).
Pat yourself on the back at the expense of the “LDS intellectual community” all you like, but the fact is that most of choose to engage straightforwardly with what we perceive as some of the problems of our shared Mormons past—even the things that “embarrass” us just a bit and not excluding recent problems—from a perspective informed and define by a basically faithful posture. Our engagement is driven by a conviction that, on balance, when the counting is done, when we have faced head-on the vexing questions of what it means to be Mormon in a fallen world, to trust leaders we know to be capable of making mistakes (though certainly no more so than ourselves), the reasons for choosing to remain committed to Mormonism will outnumber the moments which give us pause.
That you appear to never had cause for concern, that your reason and your faith align in righteous harmony, might make you “unlucky,” might frame for you a predicament as you look from a distance at the kids at the cool (read: liberal) intellectual table and ponder your outcast status. But I personally suspect that if you were to choose to cling just a little less ferociously to your besieged vision of omnipresent liberationists stalking you and the Restoration, you’d step back and see yourself positioned along a continuum of more or less like-minded colleagues and coreligionists who, like you, wish to have a valued voice in the world and struggle with the calculus involved in pitching that voice in a manner that makes it audible and legible but also does justice to its Mormon roots.
“Then we could add Leo Strauss…”
That would be taking things a tad too far. :)
“which, in its deepest theoretical premises, is essentially atheist and “liberationist” at its core — even Rawls’s, contra the ever-reasonable and amiable Chris H.”
I do not see secular and atheist as the same thing. We may be at an impasse on this point. BTW, my reading of Rawls is held by many,though Ralph strongly disagrees. I worry that I am being dismissed here as clueless, which would be true on most posts, but not this one.
I worry that I am being dismissed here as clueless
Well, you and “many T&S participants (and not only them, of course).”
As ever, sigh.
I agree with Prof. Hancock in his #11, that “… it is inevitable that issues surrounding sexuality and the family emerge as the focus of this basic ontological-cultural-political question.” What also seems inevitable is Ralph’s rush to change the subject as soon as this focus has been noted. I think the discussion would benefit if those leading it could summon the patience to first “show their work” when it comes to sexuality and the family, since that’s apparently the focus.