A Surreply to TT’s Critique of “How Mormonism Changes”

At Faith Promoting Rumor TT has a legthy response to my last post on how Mormonism changes. It’s worth a read and you should go over a take a look. I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but I’d like to push back on a couple of things.

First, he writes:

“Unity” of the church is selective, not a neutral category, one that excludes some in order to manufacture unity. That is, even the choice to “preserve” unity comes with costs measured in exclusion.

There are a couple of ways of understanding this. It could just be saying that maintaining unity has costs, it is not an absolute good, and that those costs are not evenly borne. Delaying the abandonment of the priesthood ban had costs for Black Latter-day Saints and for potential converts and members pushed away by the ban. If this is what he is saying, then I completely agree. Maintaining unity has costs. (More on this anon.)

He might be saying something else, however, something a little more radical. He might be suggesting that the idea of communal or institutional unity is itself an illusion, an epiphenomenon created through a discourse of exclusion, a mere nothing that gratuitously harms the Other upon whom its construction depends. This, I think, is mistaken. I think that it makes sense to talk about the cohesion of communities. I think it makes sense to talk about institutions being better or worse at coordinating collective activity. To be sure, unity depends upon a contingent choice about who is in and who is out, but that is precisely my point. How one makes that contingent choice has real consequences for things like the longevity of a movement, its ability to marshal resources, and the effectiveness of collective action.

In my post I assume that maintaining some level of unity – homogeneity of conviction and practice – as well as some level of institutional cohesion is valuable. I likewise assume that maintaining some level of unity of conviction and practice within the hierarchy of the church is valuable. In his post, TT suggests that I am somehow fetishizing unity or apologizing for the perpetuation of power for power’s sake. This, I think, is an unfair reading of what I am saying. It certainly doesn’t describe my beliefs. Rather, I believe that cohesion, unity, and an effective hierarchy are valuable because they DO things.  They allow for more effective collective activity than would exist in their absence, collective activity that can be – and is – directed toward righteous ends. I also think that the kind of unity, cohesion, and institutional effectiveness I assume to be valuable are important because they allow for systems of meaning that are not otherwise possible, systems of meaning that are part of what makes Mormonism valuable and worthwhile.  And so on.  So no, my argument is not premised on the idea that we should preserve the power of white guys for the sake of preserving the power of white guys.

Even if TT was to offer a more charitable reading of my post, however, I suspect that we would have disagreements about the value of institutions in general and of the church in particular. This isn’t that surprising.  Assessing the value of complex social entities and practices is really hard.  This is not a discussion of I have the energy for here, but I would offer one observation. Many commenters on my post suggested or implied that my identity – a white, conservative Utah Mormon (although I’ve lived my entire adult life outside of Utah) – dictated my sense of the value of retaining the kind of unity I discussed. Fair enough. I am sure that given different life experiences, I would make different judgments on any number of things. In the spirit of linking identity to value judgment, however, let me suggest that those whose expertise lies in the analysis and production of texts tend, in my opinion, to systematically under value institutions and the goods that they are capable of delivering.

All of that said, I don’t think that the goods delivered by institutions, unity and cohesion are infinitely valuable. I don’t think that unity is a master value. It is a good that is to be weighed against other goods. It is a good that often – indeed always – has costs. Sometimes those costs are tragic. Sometimes they are unconscionably high and we ought to tolerate schism, acrimony, and apostasy. I think, however, TT and I have fundamentally different ways of approaching how to deal with the fact that the same decision can have good consequences and bad consequences. The dominant strain of contemporary liberal philosophy going back to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice deals with this problem by creating lexical orderings of values and of people. Hence, one might create a list of basic rights in order of importance and then make one’s decisions by respecting the rights according to their lexical ordering. Alternatively, one might lexically order different people. Rawls famously argued for a maxmin principle, whereby inequalities were to be tolerated only to the extent that they were to the benefit of the least well off. (They could not, for example, be tolerated if they simply made everyone better off or increased total aggregate welfare.) I suspect that part of what lies behind TT’s ethical critique of my argument is some lexical ordering. A good candidate here is a maxmin principle. He presents liberals, Black Mormons, and others harmed by institutional inertia as “the least among us” and then suggests that toleration of harms to these folks is immoral or unethical. I could be wrong about the structure of his ethical critique, but I think this is it. Regardless, I think that some kind of implicit assumption that lexical ordering coupled to some maxmin principle is the proper mode of moral reasoning lurks behind much of progressive thought these days.

To borrow a rhetorical trope from TT, however, there is nothing natural or self-evident about this particular structure for moral reasoning. The obvious counter example is some kind of welfarism or utilitarianism. Everyone is counted but only counted once. We make trade offs between persons using some metric of welfare or utility. There are formidable conceptual problems with such an approach. How does one make trade offs between individuals? How does one observe the metric of welfare? And so on. On the other hand, the lexical ordering favored by philosophical liberalism these days is not without its own embarrassments. How does one construct the index of rights? How does one determine their relative order? What metric of welfare is used for the maxmin principle? Are we really unable to make <i>any</i> tradeoffs in aggregate wellbeing against hardships to the least well off? I don’t have an argument to present here as to why one should adopt lexical ordering over something more like cost-benefit analysis or vice versa. The implicit assumption of my argument, however, is that we are living in something like a cost-benefit world where we must make trade offs between goods rather than a lexically ordered world. I may be wrong about this, but it is not, I think, an unethical or amoral position to take.

TT says a bunch of other interesting stuff, especially about possible alternative historical counterfactuals and the way in which tension with society is used to generate legitimacy within Mormonism. However, I am getting tired and I am sure that you are getting bored, so let me finish up with one or two other observation. TT rightly points out that the leadership is not simply the passive reactor to the membership’s opinions but shapes those opinions. Furthermore, the leadership itself is a product of the experience of that membership. He suggests then that the relative conservatism of Mormonism may not be explained by the dynamic that I trace but by some more complicated feedback mechanism between membership and leadership. Fair enough. My model isn’t meant to make sense of everything, only to highlight one of the ways in which the power of the hierarchy within the church is limited. It is thus deliberately simplified in order to isolate a particular social mechanism. The deliberate simplification opens me to the charge that I am ignoring much that is important, suppressing stuff, and pursuing other nefarious or misguided agendas. At bottom, however, I think that my preference for such simplicity is methodological rather than rhetorical. So I would issue a challenge to TT. Rather than descending into a fog of multivariate nuance, come up with a concrete story or mechanism that explains the cross-causal feedback you intuit between leadership and membership.  I suspect that you are right and would love to see something I can get my head around.

26 comments for “A Surreply to TT’s Critique of “How Mormonism Changes”

  1. December 8, 2012 at 12:17 am

    let me suggest that those whose expertise lies in the analysis and production of texts

    Which would include law professors, I imagine.

  2. Nate Oman
    December 8, 2012 at 12:32 am

    Definitely. They aren’t as bad as philosophers however :-)…

  3. TT
    December 8, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Thanks Nate! This is a thoughtful reply and one that I don’t have time to fully digest or respond to this weekend. In the service of the short attention span in the blog world, let me quickly reply to a few things.
    1. Yes, I am saying that unity has costs.
    2. No, I am not saying that unity is an illusion.
    3. No, I am not offering an absolutist stance with respect to morality.
    4. Yes, I agree that all ethical actions require trade-offs.

    Where we differ is likely not in the nature of CBA vs. deontology in the analysis of ethical action, but rather the relative weight we accord to particular unethical acts. That is, we likely have a different tolerance level for the unethical, rather than a different framework altogether. What I think was missing from your original analysis was a sense that ethics should be accorded any weight at all in an assessment, since unity seemed to be deemed the highest good. I am glad to hear that we actually agree in principle that it is not an absolute good.

    My concern is that we actually are called to pay attention to the costs borne by “the least among us,” as you say, and to prioritize those in certain ways in our analysis of what actions are best. I am skeptical of the “It Was Great to Wait ’til ’78” apologetic precisely because it seems to misplace “unity” (a constructed version of unity, at least) as the highest good over the racism of the policy. It seems to say that racism is acceptable so long as the ends are justified. I suspect that we actually agree on that point, but I did not think it was sufficient considered in your first analysis.

  4. December 8, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I find the entire assumption of this conversation very interesting: it is that the Church morally lags behind — that the Church is led by a bunch of old guys who just don’ get it and are more concerned with corporate welfare than anything else. That is not my experience. In my view, they are waiting on divine approval. In my (admittedly limited) conversations regarding these matters with Church authorities, the consensus they seek is for revelation confirmed to the body of the 12 as lead by the prophet. That really is their primary concern and modus operandi.

    I do not mean to be naive. I do not believe that there was ever a reason in revelation or doctrine to justify e.g., denying the priesthood to blacks. But look at how it actually came about. They waited for confirmation from God. That is because they really believe that God is in charge and they must wait for His authorization to change established practices as they understand them.

    I’ll give concrete example of how all of this “from the ground up” stuff appears to me to have functioned. David O. Mckay told Sterling McMurrin in the mid 60s that he had come to the conclusion that there was “no doctrinal basis” for the practice of excluding blacks from the priesthood. (I have the letters from McMurrin and Mckay). He stated that if it were up to him alone he would change it — and he was a prophet at the time. So why didn’t he, as prophet, just change it? He clearly had the authority to just do so. However, he did not understand why the practice had started but knew that his predecessors in the prophetic office had continued the practice. He knew several historians had shown that Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to blacks. What was holding up the show? He didn’t believe it was his Church to just change to meet his preferences. He was waiting for God to give him a revelation that was confirmed to the 12 to change it. And guess what? According to the narrative of the 1978 revelation, a revelation was received, albeit 8 years after his death.

    Conservative Mormons, of which on this issue at least I guess I am one, accept this kind of narrative because we believe that change is not merely a matter of waiting for old men to die, or enlightened scholars leading the brethren to finally get it, or that there is really even a “moral lag” where the liberal Mormons are really the morally enlightened ones. I know several liberal Mormons that believe that all real change is merely a political issue — God really is so hidden and uninvolved that the generational span of values really is the whole narrative. But the good folks who are presently leading this organization (at least in my experience) really believe that God is the one who must have the say – and that comes from revelation to them in its own time.

    Given my personal value system, I would love full fellowship of our gay and lesbian brother and sisters if they would enter into a civil marriage and be faithful within those contractual promises to each other. I would love it if women were given the priesthood to be present in church counsels. But I would not want to belong to the First Church of Blake. I love it that the Brethren wait on God to disclose to them as they understand and receive it — because I believe that God’s will is the one that we ought to choose to reflect and {gasp} not the will of the people. I don’t want a Church that is a democracy; I want to know what God’s will is really and truly.

    Now for the hesitancy. I also believe that knowledge of the Church’s history of revelation and practice would have lead to a faster and much more comfortable change. I do not believe that revelation occurs in a vacuum. So a healthy and loving and respectful discussion of the issues focused on understanding God’s will (something like historical theology) may be useful to the endeavor of understanding God’s will. So I believe that respectful and loving discussion regarding these issues can lead us to better grasp where God has lead this people and where he would like us to go.

    But I also believe that God has reasons that often do not match with mine. He created a world where rape and genocide are not merely possible, but actual. I would not do that. I would not allow them. I have to believe that at times God has reasons that I am just not getting to even believe in God.I have to believe that God is infinitely more wise and resourceful than either I or the leaders of the church are.

    So I fault Nate’s narrative of change because I think it buys into assumptions that ought not be accepted about what the leaders of the Church are most concerned about. I fault TT’s narrative for the same reason and for the additional moral arrogance that liberal values are so much more advanced than the church presently teaches. (I apologize in advance for this harsh way of stating it; I just want to state it as glaringly as I can without failing to also express my admiration for TT). I think that following God’s will is the ultimate value; not the will of the people. It seems to me that they are both Nate’s and TT’s approaches are based on failing to recognize what I believe is the primary concern of Church leaders — and at the very least a major concern.

    What ought to matter in the kingdom of God isn’t the will of people; but God’s will. If you don’t accept that narrative, then of course there will always be a clash between culture and the way the Church functions. It is built into the struggle between our will and what God’s will for us may be. I believe that the Church leaders want to know what God thinks before changing what they understand the prior revelations require.

  5. December 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Blake: I think that you misunderstand me. I said that the Brethren are constrained. I did not deny inspiration. Nor do I assume that every change longed for by progressive scholars is either desireable or inevitable. There is some stuff that I’d like to see change, but I assume that this isn’t my church or the church of the Brethren. You are suggesting that by claiming that there are constraints on what the hierarchy can do that I am claiming that this is or should be their primary value. I don’t think that this is true. I just think that God’s providence is constrained in various ways and that among these constraints are the institutional structures of the Church and its needs. I don’t think this is the primary goal or concern. Frankly, it seems really odd that a guy who writes books about finitist theology would be upset by the idea of saying that there are constraints within which God’s providence works.

  6. Cameron
    December 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    While I am quite skeptical of potential for future contrary revelation, I remain open to it.

    Perhaps a better way of phrasing Nate’s statement of the brethren being ‘constrained’ is to say that Jesus, guiding his Kingdom, does so in mercy, according to our understanding, line upon line, and precept upon precept. As Elder Holland said in the missionary age news conference, ‘one miracle at a time.’

  7. Howard
    December 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    While unity must be considered, it should not be viewed in a static model. Change can occur at a controlled but accelerating pace without destroying unity.

    I do not believe the brethren are waiting on God, but I believe they believe they are. I believe God waits on the brethren. He waits for them to catch on. Mall building in the face of third world malnutrition deaths is not a gospel principal or something to be proud of! Obedience in place of enlightenment is marching place. And without enlightenment they lack the spiritual skills of Joseph to communicate with God at will so they must spend months on their knees to receive the equivalent on one D&C verse! Thus creating the reformer’s role of agitation.

  8. Howard
    December 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    marching in place

  9. Nate Oman
    December 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    An even briefer reply:

    1. I suspect that our difference lies less in our assessment of the magnitude of ethical evils but in our assessment of the value of institutions and cohesion. Hence, it isn’t that you hate racism more than I, but that I see greater value in an effective institutional church than thee.

    2. To say that something happens at a certain time due to constraints is not the same thing as saying that its happening at that time was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

  10. Nate Oman
    December 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    A reply to TT

  11. chris
    December 8, 2012 at 10:24 pm


    I do not ask this as a challenge or in any way to “call you out”. But I remember reading somewhere in the election coverage of some conversation Romney supposedly had where he said he was greatly concerned about the plight of the poor and really wanted to know the best way to help them.

    I have been in situations of providing great resources to those in dire need. I have created entire positions, made costly investments, personally trained spent months with individuals. I’ve used my position in the private sector and prayed about individuals I know needed help, and after making sure the financial side of things lined up and the appropriate business considerations were made, brought people into work who really needed a chance. And who were actually quite skilled. I did not just give them a desk or a job, but worked alongside them for a few months and paid them well.

    And in the end, the people I sought out, prayed about giving the opportunity to help “failed”. Of course, I’m speaking of failure in the business sense, and no, I’m not saying they made mistakes and had to be fired…I can tolerate mistakes, we all make them. These were people who consistently made bad decisions in their lives and they continued to make them so they pretty much ruined their own chances (that sounds harsher than reality perhaps, but I’m trying to be concise and already writing too much)

    Romney has unimaginably more resources than I have, the church more than him. Better men (and women) than I have found out that we can’t just spend money to solve problems. Unfortunately, many start with this premise in politics and then carry it over to the church.

    The absolute best way not only for the church to move forward, but for light to increase in the earth is to preach the gospel.

    Getting upset about the a mall, or any other investment, I know is a serious concern for some people. But the church has amassed a lot of money, and needs to be responsible for it. It can not bring about change just by spending all its money on good projects. Of course, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t do good works and the church is doing them. Investing the church’s resources prudently, allows it to weather the financial storms that occur frequently, but even that is a secondary goal.

    Ultimately, what the church needs to do is change lives through sustainable programs that promote spiritual and temporal self reliance.

    I’m also not suggesting “the church” couldn’t do more. Here I can see the call for more service missionaries. If the church had the bodies, they’d make more use of them.

    I realize we can disagree on this, but I do think it’s worth noting that the church has more experience in the area of possessing millions of dollars and wanting to do good with it. I know within my own experience that setting someone up temporally for success and coaching them along the way doesn’t accomplish much unless they are able to have an inner change as well. The church seems to consider that inner change to be most important, but it’s certainly not ignoring the physical needs either. There is a balanced approach.

  12. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 12:48 am

    I think you’ve confused some things and drawn the wrong conclusions. So to begin I would like to share with you that I’ve been a manufacturing executive, a small business owner and I studied the homeless by living side by side with them. My comment addressed third world people who are dying from malnutrition not people who are “down on their luck” and need a break finding a job. These are very different situtiations. I am not suggesting throwing money at the poor, the poor will always be with us for some of the reasons you pointed out. I am suggesting that a church that routinely trains postalizing missionaries native languages and places them in countries around the world is uniquely well situated to place service missionaries in those same countries to do water projects and teach farming, ranching and building local economies. Malnutrition is a multigenerational problem requiring feeding people first before they can be taught to fish, the alternitive is to allow them to die while we go shopping! Which would Jesus do?

  13. chris
    December 9, 2012 at 2:34 am

    Howard, its my opinion there are similarities in principle between the two. Whether we are talking about homeless, chronically unemployed or starving (due do systematic and structural issues that may be little fault of the starving). It does not mean we cant help but in my experience the best help starts with changing loves through individual ministry where the individual wants to be an agent for change. Faulting the church for not throwing all or most or more resources at the problem seems akin faulting the lord for manna from heaven or loaves and fishes while many many others starved in his day. He did saving work in this area and so must we, but I believe in principle to follow the ministry he performed.

  14. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

    There are important differences, for instance the starving will be dead soon and that is a perminate change of state ending their opportunity for a changed life and often condemning their offspring to a similar fate. I find the material choice of a Tiffany or Porsche Design over these helpless human lives an abomination and I believe Jesus does too.

  15. December 9, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Chris and Blake — I think you really hit the nail on the head.

    As for third world service missionaries we are sending out as many as who volunteer and last time I looked we were seeking more. Only about 25% of the projects the Church tries to fund are allowed by the government entities involved. We are already spending as much money as we can without giving into pressure for bribes and looting.

    Also, I think that the conversation is constrained if we assume that we balance ethics involved by assuming only visible costs and benefits within the walls of the world.

    I suggest that is a flaw.

  16. December 9, 2012 at 11:33 am

    The fact that God responded to McKay when he prayed and gave an answer that does not agree with some of the arguments I am seeing does get overlooked.

    It is not as if McKay did not seek the will of the Lord and not as if God was silent.

  17. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Something wrong with calling additional service missionaries and funding them with equipment and material? If we are government limited to 25% of the projects we try to do perhaps we should try to do more projects!

  18. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

    It is interesting to note that President McKay practiced meditation which seems to facilitate divine communication beyond common prayer.

  19. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Btw, I think the church can redeem itself from much of the mall critism by calling more service missions, gaining the retailer’s cooperation to collect humanitarian donations at point of purchase and matching those funds to fund the new projects. This would make the mall part of the solution rather than part of the problem and it would make prophets of those who argued invest first, save lives later!

  20. Cameron
    December 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    We can’t do more projects unless we have more people to administer them.

    The church is ready to call more service missions, but more people need to volunteer to go.

    My in-laws are now in Quito as humanitarian missionaries. They seek partnerships and contracts with local charities. Part of the challenge in the church’s humanitarian work is that we treat consecrated money more sacredly, and thus charitable partnerships must be vetted. I see no problem with the strictness. It might be bad for PR or the willfully ignorant that want to dislike us, but it is the Lord’s way. I don’t mind that. We already throw enough money at perpetual ‘problems’ in vanity, telling ourselves it will save people with no effort on our part. It just doesn’t work very well that way.

  21. Howard
    December 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Much of my career has been about removing bottlenecks in organizations ans systems. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

  22. Steve Smith
    December 9, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Blake, acting based on inspiration/revelation from God and acting because of external and internal pressures aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. What is to say that David O. McKay’s reasoning for not making any policy changes in relation to the blacks did not also include his belief that such a declaration may have risked causing divisions among the church leadership along side his belief that he had not yet received a revelation from God? But there is little doubt that the FP/Q12 factors in the attitudes and reactions of its core membership and its leaders when making changes in policy. They play a dual role of holy men who uphold core doctrinal points and businessmen who seek to optimally balance a number of competing internal and external forces in order to ensure the continued strength and growth of their organization. And growth means more members and more full tithe payers. Does God play a role in their decision-making? That is something that can be neither proven nor disproved, and can really only be accepted on faith. But I don’t believe that maneuvering based on reasoned cost-benefit analyses somehow negates the role of God.

  23. Cameron
    December 10, 2012 at 12:25 am

    It can be proven. You can get spiritual confirmations validating leaders’ counsel. Good points, though. I’m sure the Lord Himself in His mercy does the same thing, as far as patiently leading the church.

  24. stephen hardy
    December 10, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Cameron: The church needs more service missionaries? Can’t they just start calling our young men and women to be them? Many of our young people would probably prefer a service mission over a prosylting one. You may say that service missionaries need to be skilled in ways that prosylting missionaries aren’t. Well, two years is a nice long time, and would allow for substnatial training for six months or more while starting to serve. Or you may say that our young men and women need to do the prosylating, because they need that powerful converting experience. However, the service experience may be just as powerful. Those people from my Northeast ward have spoken about the service they have provided to Sandy victims have described it in very spiritual, life-changing ways.

  25. jennifer reuben
    December 10, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    the church does call young people to service mission both within the US and in other countries. There is a large list of service missions for young people including some that state that the missionary will be trained in the desired skill. Service missions are more common outside the US but are becoming more available within the US. If interested you can see a list of those service missions on the church’s missionary web site including those that clearly state they are designed for the young missionary. These missions are especially wonderful for young people who for personal, physical, or emotional reasons would find a prosylating mission difficut or impossible. They can also be a second mission for a young returned missionaries. Sometimes the more experience or a special skill is needed to deal with humanitarian needs, Those needs are best addressed by mature couples. there is a long list of possible missions for mature missionaries. It does all come down to increased willingness to serve however.

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