Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

sec age(Links to Rounds 1 and 2)

These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable.

Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had to be removed for exclusive humanism to emerge. One was the belief that the natural world was divinely orchestrated—part of a semiotic cosmos that pointed beyond to an order and force beyond itself (God). Secondly, society was embedded in a higher time and higher reality: collective rituals, holy days, and other practices brought society into contact with the “higher” dimension of time or existence, as well as protected them from malevolent forces. The “higher reality” —the Kingdom of God— made demands of spiritual transformation that competed with the demands of ordinary human life, generating a perpetual tension that society navigated by creating a hierarchical complementarity of classes—some dedicated to the collective work of transformation (monks praying  behalf of society, for example) and the others dedicated to mundane needs and concerns (ruling class and laborers, for example)—with safety valves like Carnival to temporarily suspend some of those demands and tensions. Thirdly, people inhabited an enchanted and porous world; the existential condition of the early modern westerners was rife with vulnerability and permeability, charged with extra-human forces, moral meaning and divine messages.  These elements of the early modern social imaginary made disbelief and disenchantment difficult and dangerous; the stakes were real, and surrendering the protection of the collective or power-charged “magical” objects or practices (sacramentals and sacraments, etc.), for example, would leave one at the mercy of demonic and destructive forces that continually threatened to breach.

The modern, secular social imaginary did away with these elements, though in the process generating new “construals” or backgrounds for experiencing the world. The enchanted and porous world gave way to a  “bounded” self that was buffered from impersonal forces, with an inner mental world that imposed meanings on an indifferent universe; in turn, that buffered self eroded early modern sociality with its increased interiority and atomism. Notions of ‘higher” or multidimensional time gave way to unilinear, sequential, “empty” time; the semiotic cosmos shifted to a mechanistic universe, shorn of symbols and its normative “micro-order,” instead run by exceptionless laws instrumentalized by human agents. The tension between transformation and flourishing was dissolved, alternatively by trying to raise everyone up to the same level of “higher” living or transformation (i.e. the Protestant Reformation),  or eventually by eradicating the “higher reality” and its demand for “transformation” altogether so that only “flourishing” (in the demands of ordinary life) remained.

Of course, none of these changes happened linearly or inevitably. The driving force behind these changes was religious reform; the eventual birth of secular humanism from theologically-driven, piety-focused changes  demonstrates that more than the “shedding” of God and belief are at play. Why religious reform? Taylor argues that the tensions between the demands of spiritual transformation and the demands of ordinary human life, and the resulting hierarchical compromise, became a major fault line. Various reform movements within Christianity sought to close the gap by converting more people to “higher gear” of religious devotion (Christian humanism, pietistic movements, the rise of mendicant preachers urging more personal, interior devotion, etc.). The Protestant Reformation was a culmination of these reforming movements, but with important differences that paved the way for secular humanism.

For one, the Protestant Reformation was a central figure in the “abolition of the enchanted cosmos”; Luther and others definitively rejected the power of sacramentals, saints, and other salvific mechanisms as encroachments on God’s sovereignty and demonic distractions from recognizing mankind’s hopeless incapacity to “give satisfaction”; while some received  this “incapacity, countered by God’s mercy…as good news” [2]— a release from the enormous burden of orchestrating one’s salvation— new tensions resulted from Reformation’s broadening of the required scope of inner transformation (no longer in terms of sacramental duties, but a transformation and consecration of all parts of life) while limiting its mechanisms to God’s mercy alone. Since God’s saving mercy was supposed to be visible in one’s inner spiritual confidence and external daily life, and facilitate the creation of a pious, ordered society, the temptation to generate that confidence and way of life created new anxieties.  But it also generated a greater sense of empowerment to reorder the life of individuals and, increasingly, civilization writ large, through various mechanisms of “social discipline” (sketched out in chapter two, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society”) which resulted in a “great disembedding” (chapter three), where notions of identity and society became radically reconstituted.

To give a sense of where those chapters will take us, Taylor observes that the desire for order becomes a matter of human flourishing alone, rather than of serving God, and the power for order becomes a matter of human capacity, rather than God’s grace. In other words, people become too good at reform. They begin to feel they can do it without God’s help, and for their own self-sufficient reasons. Ironically, through Christianity’s very attempts to remake the world, “the ‘world’ won after all” [3].

That is the nutshell version of the key differences between the medieval/early modern social imaginary and the modern one. The next several chapters will analyze in more detail the “zigzag” nature of these historical developments and accompanying changes in core construals of identity and social imaginaries, including conceptions of the will, of virtue, of society’s function and purpose, the natural order, and so on.

My commentary on Mormonism is minimal here, since Mormonism doesn’t yet fit in the historical trajectory at this point and direct discussion may introduce anachronisms or jump the gun on later chapters. Generally, though, Mormonism fits uncomfortably in this western Christian trajectory, straddling Protestant and Catholic attitudes, enchanted and secular construals. For example, Mormons do believe in places that connect us to a “higher” time or reality (temples as sites of God’s presence) and objects with “magical” powers (the protection of garments); yet we lack a liturgical calendar that is conventionally used to do this work of connecting to higher time—indeed, our liturgical calendar primarily consists of the cycles of General Conference, which are firmly anchored in “this world” time (prophetic counsel tailored to our historically specific context, “updated” every six months). Mormon sacramentalism is also conflicted; the Book of Mormon’s explanation of the sacrament is very Protestant or symbolic (an ordinance of “remembrance,”) but the colloquial understanding that it cleanses us of the “week’s sins” gestures back towards a “magical” sacramental understanding (as does the belief in sealing ordinances that metaphysically bind family members together, willingly or not). We believe everyone should be living at or striving towards the same “high religious gear” but utilize hierarchical divisions of labor in which men obtain various ranks of priesthood offices and responsibilities (though the slow [re-]infusion of “priesthood” language into Relief Society discourse lately may be a significant direction). The emphasis on signs and tokens in temple ordinances again bespeaks a Protestant “symbolizing” mechanism, but their essentiality points more towards Catholic soteriology. I think explanations of Mormon sacramentalism have yet to be fully fleshed out [4], but doing so could once again complicate Taylor’s narrative–or our own– in interesting ways.

[1] Taylor, 22.
[2] Taylor, 79.
[3] Taylor, 158.
[4] Terryl Givens’s forthcoming second volume of his theological history of Mormonism deals with this topic directly; look out for it when it’s released.

22 comments for “Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

  1. “Notions of ‘higher” or multidimensional time”

    It might be helpful to unpack that. I know people talk about that a lot but it always seemed an odd way to make the point that I think people are making. It’s really much more of the eruption of an other economy we don’t normally see into ours. Again I get the idea, but I’ve long thought there are a lot of problems with talking this way.

    Within traditional Christianity – especially Catholicism – this makes more sense. (Especially when is looking at the eras when Platonic conceptions of God in one degree or an other dominated)

    For Mormonism which typically (although not universally) ends up adopting a materialist conception of God and heaven I think there are big problems with this way of speaking. I recognize you’re just discussing Taylor who definitely is coming from a more Catholic perspective – but I think it important to raise this. While I don’t know if Taylor puts in quite this way, I think that the rise of nominalism starting with Ockham but really becoming dominant in modernism ends up being the big change.

    Regarding the Book of Mormon and whether it has a “disenchanted” view of the sacrament, I think one has to read all of Moroni 6 as tied together. The enchantment in the ordinances is the work of the spirit which is tied to the rebirth. It doesn’t enchant them in the more platonic way that developed within Catholicism. Likewise I think the “low protestant” way most Mormon calendar and ordinances appear has to be balanced with this acting with the spirit. Put an other way, I think the Mormon perspective unlike the Catholic one is that the eruption of divine time should be an ongoing event.

  2. Clark- not sure I understand your question/concern with the notions of higher/multidimensional time, so here’s some more info on how Taylor discusses it. Taylor sketches 3 pre-modern construals of “higher” time– Greek/Platonic with its realm of an unchanging, perfect realm of Ideas, removed from ordinary, imperfect time; Folk tradition and the “Great time of origins” when gods/heroes established the order of things, which can be re-approached through rituals and can affirm the legitimacy of kingdoms who can claim origins in that “Great” time; and Christianity, in which all time is present to God, like a gathered string, melody, or conversation, where the past, present, and future cannot be disassociated because they make sense of each other. I think it refers both to “time” and to “economy.”

    In any case, Occam’s nominalism does play a big role in Taylor’s account once we get to chapter 4. Nominalism, by positing that there are no “essences,” but things that can be freely disposed of according to God’s autonomous purposes, sets the stage for human agents to also relate to such things not in terms of normative patterns determined by their essence, but our own instrumentalizing reason (initially, to serve God’s purposes, and then, our own). This is a part of the “mechanization of the world picture,” of time, of nature, etc. This chapter sketched the before/after very broadly, but the next chapters show how that happened in more historical detail. We’ll see how detailed I can get in the posts…(if I want to finish this series before 2020).

    The association of the spirit with enchantment is interesting, though I’m not sure how that works in Protestant ideas, since they would also be “enchanted” in this sense, right? What do you mean by a platonic Catholic sense of enchantment? That might help me understand what you’re getting at, though I think it’s an important point.

  3. Yes, I’m more going by similar terminology in other figures I’ve encountered in the continental tradition. (Especially Derrida/Heidegger) So I may have Taylor completely wrong here. That’s more or less why I was hoping you could clarify a little. I’m sure I’m not the only one not sure of what this “time” means.

    It sounds from what you say above Taylor is focused on the platonic, the archetypal, and the timeless (which admittedly is closely related to the platonic).

    Tying enchantment to protestantism I think we have to distinguish between typical mainline and those that involve more folk spirituality (say pentecostalism or other charismatic movements). The mainline typically marginalizes divine involvement in the present. The whole “angels in an age of railways” is wrapped up with that. However there was always the countermove with spiritual reawakenings protestantism (which arguably Mormonism is tied to in its origins). Not just with protestantism but remnants of platonism from the renaissance as well. (Arguably the American Transcendentalists are wrapped up with that)

    This differs from Catholicism because first off, despite the rise of Aristotle in Catholicism at the end of the medieval era and early renaissance, it’s still basically platonic. (Indeed at the time of Aquinas there was a very strong anti-aristotelean thrust in Catholicism especially in France) This platonic aspect, even with the changes necessary for them to maintain certain doctrines, means that you always have these aspects at play. The Catholic eurachrist is the obvious example – how Christ’s body is literally in the bread. But it really pops up in all sorts of aspects. There’s a strong sense of an other world always involved in this one.

    In protestantism, partially because there is this strong nominalism alien to most of Catholicism, things shift. Arguably the mainline Christians demythologize more and more until you reach the 20th century where arguably the line between most thinkers and deists is pretty blurry at best. The countermove is always this folk tradition, often disparaged as fundamentalism, but that sees an enchanted world. Albeit not the way Catholics do. (If only because platonism is hard to figure out for most people)

  4. “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”

    As with your last post, Rachael (#2), the way you describe Taylor’s narrative beautifully captures the brilliance and novelty of Mormonism. Your dad made a brief gesture toward the way that Mormonism solves this cluster of deep, disruptive problems with traditional Christianity that the West struggled with for centuries in “Lightning out of Heaven.” Are you consciously following up on the trajectories he alluded that to there?

    I can’t tell how much is just straight Taylor and how much is coming from the way you retell it, but the coincidence between the problems Taylor describes and the ones Mormonism promises to solve is quite stunning.

    Maybe you are just trying to maintain the suspense, but I think it is clearer than you are expressing how Mormonism addresses this tension between the immanent and the transcendent. We have only a lay priesthood. Our leaders, apart from a very few in Salt Lake, participate in ordinary economic and family life like the rest of us. Marriage is not only tolerated but expected and celebrated as a spiritual responsibility and a step towards divinity. Humans are naturally good, and divinity is an expression of what is already in place it within us. The Fall is part of God’s plan. Life in the next world is a continuation of the righteous activities we are called to in this life, merely in a more perfect way and on a grander scale, not a radical discontinuity with the life of faith here and now. The resurrection and judgment are presented as a restoration, where those who are happy will be happy still. Celestial glory is simply receiving a fullness of the spirit of celestial life that we have already embraced and begun to live by in this life. A call for blind faith in priestly authority is replaced by a call for individuals to learn, or at least confirm the truth through direct communication with God, without giving up the need for a socially integrated and spiritually led church. Freedom and responsibility, individuality and authority, are seamlessly integrated in this model.

    I’m not suggesting there aren’t some ambiguities or complexities to be found (plenty) but the depth and thoroughness with which Mormonism addresses the problems Taylor describes is rather remarkable.

  5. Ben H — I like your comment and agree. Here’s one of those alluded to complexities/ambiguities with the Mormon solution to these issues: the way that Mormonism collapses the transcendent and the immanent risks resulting in a church of immanence tout court. If you are a stable, heterosexual family in the church, I’m not sure how your life is all that different than if you were focused solely on living a life of human flourishing. That’s not entirely true — I can think of some obvious ways: the word of wisdom, tithing, meetings and callings. And maybe that’s the answer — those are the Mormon pathways to transcendence. But in other important ways (think career goals, spending and consumption patterns, cultural embeddedness, leisure habits, political ideology), the church doesn’t seem to have much to say (at least based on the conduct of the general membership).

  6. I am keeping my summary of Taylor and my own commentary differentiated, and my summary of Taylor as accurate and representative as I can, so no bending of Taylor here. I don’t have a planned trajectory or agenda– I’m just rereading Taylor with a Mormon lens and seeing what comes up– how Mormonism can speak to Taylor’s narrative, and vice versa. I hope it continues to be fruitful, and that readers such as yourself can suggest alternative interpretations based on further experience with religious studies, history, theology, philosophy, and Mormonism than what I offer.

  7. zjg – that’s precisely the worry I expressed in the last post (round 2). I think Mormonism’s embrace of innate human goodness and our ontological likeness with God has powerful implications, but I am also suspicious of or concerned for the potential lack of transformative/transcendent demands, and what that may mean for our spiritual growth or stagnation, individually and collectively, and how that might hinder us from fully understanding the demands of building the kingdom of God or following Christ’s calls, like taking up our cross and denying ourselves. Christ, it seems, makes demands of us in the NT that are meant to be radical inversions of our nature or immanent structures (politically, socially, etc.), and I’m not sure Mormonism’s immanence fully addresses that.

  8. I’m also skeptical of a Mormon conception of human goodness. In one sense it’s there and we reject Calvin and Augustine. On the other the Book of Mormon in various places presents us as balanced between good and evil due to the atonement. The “natural man” thus represents a pole that is within us balanced with good so we are free. (There are obvious problems with this if one pushes it too far – but it seems an important philosophical position within the text)

  9. Nice post, again, Rachael.

    (FWIW, I still think the notion of “higher purpose,” as discussed in psychology and ethics literature, for example, is a nice way to address the immanence-transcendence that is being further developed in this chapter and in some of the comments above. I think Taylor gets at this fairly nicely at the end of his book when he talks more about verticality–though I remember thinking he didn’t quite zero in on what I think is most important regarding this.

    What I have in mind, that Taylor kind of gets at, but as clearly as I remember wanting him to, is something like the development of a religious culture that pushes back against “flat” secular culture by fostering narratives, practices and norms that make it possible for individuals and groups to find deep meaning and fulfillment in serving each other–in not merely economic ways–and working toward the larger common good of those outside of the religious community. This, to me, would be a very Mormon way of thinking about immanent transcendence….)

  10. zjg, maybe you haven’t noticed, but in a contraceptive culture like ours (basically, throughout the West) the kind of “ordinary” Mormon-style family is now itself a pretty serious transformation! To think of flourishing as making that kind of commitment to a (definitely opposite-gender) spouse at a young-ish age, rather than enjoying an extra ten years or so of extended adolescence and experimentation, and investing that couple’s energy in raising young children rather than amassing wealth, career success, and other creature comforts is itself a radical departure from what flourishing is widely taken to be. Granted, quite a lot of reasonably sane people come around to see how wonderful this approach is by the time they are in their 30s or 40s, in time to have a child or two and put it in day care, but to commit to that path in the bloom of youth is becoming rather unusual apart from a serious spiritual commitment! Add to that the kind of investment in serving a church community (and beyond) that is routine among active Mormons (two years in late teens and early twenties of giving up even dating, let alone sex? Routinely getting up at 6 am Sunday for a ward leadership council?) and you have something quite extraordinary! People looked at Mitt Romney like he was some kind of alien . . .

  11. Ben H. — To be honest with you, I don’t really recognize the Mormon culture that you describe (lots of kids, no contraception, improvised careers), although I’m not saying that it didn’t once exist or that it doesn’t exist currently somewhere (although I would suspect that if it does, it’s limited to relatively small towns in Utah and Idaho). But even if it were an accurate characterization of the religion generally, I’m also not sure that those things count as pathways to Christian transcendence. More generally, I think you’re overstating Mormon weirdness in the culture at large. Your Mitt Romney example is telling. I suspect that for many people in the church, Romney represents the ideal Mormon patriarch. Yet, surely you’re not suggesting that Mitt Romney decided to forego amassing wealth, career success and other creature comforts in order to pursue a religious life characterized by the denial of immanence. I assure you that if the voting public thought Romney was weird, it wasn’t because of his asceticism or his rejection of late capitalism’s idea of “flourishing.” As I mentioned before, I agree with you that the church makes demands of us. No question about that. But those demands at the end of the day strike me as categorically different from the types of transformative demands that Christianity historically required. Maybe Mormonism’s answer to Taylor’s problem is right. But just for the record, I really, really hope that PEC meetings don’t end up being the key to transcendence.

  12. zjg (7) I think Mormon culture still has lots of kids, just not as much as in the past. So the birth rate of Mormons dropped, somewhat later than the national drop, but the number is just higher. So instead of having 8 kids like 50 years ago now 4 – 5 kids is common with many having 2 – 3 kids. Compare this with country in general where having more than 2 kids is less common and having 5 fairly uncommon. While the number of kids is still higher than national trends, clearly the drop entails the ubiquity of contraception among Mormons. Even in Idaho. (grin)

    Ben is right that a transformation is underway, although I think he exaggerates how big of one it is. Even when I was at BYU in the early 90’s from what I could tell everyone used contraception. Maybe in more traditional rural parts of Mormondom that took longer to integrate. But if there was a change, it took place primarily in the 70’s and 80’s and largely just slightly delayed from the country as a whole.

    I do think though that Mormons are far more apt to have their children in their early 20’s rather than their 30’s though. I don’t know of any statistics on that to know for sure. I’m just going by what I see around Utah and with friends.

    I also think Ben’s completely correct that Mormons are unusual in the degree of charitable service we do. (Whether or critics agree with where we focus our efforts, the amount of time and sacrifice required by even regular members is huge – throw in people in leadership and it’s staggering.) That Mormons are often able to do this and still reach a surprising level of attainment in cultural values is pretty surprising. That is there are lots of successful Mormons even if the number is typically exaggerated by Mormons.

  13. Clark — Anecdotally, I can’t disagree that Mormons on average have larger families. And maybe they engage in more charitable service, I don’t really know (although I don’t see how that could possibly be true if by “charitable service” we mean outside of our ward boundaries). But even if both of those things are true, Mormon distinctiveness from the broader culture is just a question of degree. It’s not the radical departure from immanent structures that I think Taylor identifies with pre-Reformation Christianity. Once again, Romney is the perfect example. He’s not just a model Mormon, but he’s also perceived as a model American businessman. My perception is that any criticism directed at Romney was never of the “wow, look at how radically different his life goals are from those of the broader culture” variety.

  14. Yeah by charitable service I just mean anything ranging from political activism to working at the soup kitchen to doing tutoring to volunteering at church. What’s interesting is that at least a significant number of Mormons not only do their church callings but do charitable service on top of that. However while charitable service (broadly defined) isn’t that uncommon nationwide, it definitely is unusual. Especially to the degree Mormons do it. It’s very odd to outsiders to see how much time we spend with Church – especially when much of what we do at church isn’t really that entertaining.

  15. zjg and Clark, I am not suggesting that Mormons don’t use contraception. What I mean by a contraceptive culture is a much broader set of attitudes, priorities, values, and ideas that surround the use of contraception, both driving and driven by it. Mormons believe in having children, don’t apologize for it, and put a huge investment into having and raising children well. They may choose their timing, in part through birth control technology, but they are still having more children younger. Contraception for Mormons is mostly not about avoiding children but choosing when, and definitely not about de-linking sex from marriage and children, as it is in the broader, contraceptive culture. In Catholic contexts this is an established way of speaking about the contraceptive culture (tending to see children as a burden to be avoided, and to disconnect sex from marriage and children); I just used the phrase for the sake of brevity.

    zjg, Romney has had plenty of success and wealth, but didn’t allow these goals to stop him from doing all the standard Mormon things, with an early and long-lasting marriage, a big, beautiful family, lots of church service . . . I certainly have the impression that a lot of people saw him as being from another planet because of his squeaky-clean values and demeanor, like someone who had stepped out of a time warp from a 1950s TV show, but I don’t think we need to debate that further.

    Sure, Mormonism is not the radical departure from immanence that was Christianity before the Reformation (although there was plenty of shady entanglement with immanent structures going on), but I don’t see anyone suggesting it should be. Mormonism implies that faith transforms us without removing us so much from the immanent; it transforms us *within* the immanent. And I think the degree of transformation is pretty dramatic, and will get more so as our culture becomes increasingly secular.

    Mormons are seriously different. Look at the far disproportional involvement (hours and dollars) and effect that Mormons had in the campaign for Prop 8 in CA; Mormons were the tip of the spear there, despite being few in number. Look at Trump’s minuscule 14% of the vote in the Utah primary. Where else has he gotten below 25%? Trump got twice that in Ted Cruz’s home state and 2.5 times that in John Kasich’s home state.

    Mormonism is a radical break from traditional Christianity (and a radical departure from modern secularity); it is supposed to be.

  16. Ben H — I agree that Mormonism signals a radical break with traditional Christianity. I don’t, however, see it as requiring the radical break from modern culture that you suggest. Ironically, I think that the voting data you cite only support this fact. If you were to tell me that Mormons are reluctant Republicans or reluctant Democrats because their cultural distinctiveness arising from their faith tradition yields political commitments that cut across both parties, then I might agree with you. But most Mormons in the United States are not reluctant in the slightest about their loyalty to the Republican party. (Once again, the fact that it is Republican versus Democrat is not the point.) And Utah Mormons’ refusal to support Trump doesn’t change this fact. (In fact, I shudder to think what we’ve become when our peculiarity as a people is based on our refusal to support Donald Trump as president.) My point in all of this is simply that I sense a lot of spiritual malaise in the church. I’m not saying everyone or even most, but I think there is more than there should be. And I wonder why. One possibility is that this attempt to recast immanence as transcendence isn’t actually resulting in the spiritual transformation that you claim is the province of Mormonism.

  17. Hahaha okay, zjg, if you think Christ is not working on Mormons because not enough of them vote Democrat, we can leave the conversation there. But on issues that cut across parties, did you listen to the last General Conference? Or Women’s Conference? The reasons why Mormons reject Trump have quite a lot to do with issues where they take a very different approach than is typical among Republicans. See my post on this and similar analyses in the news since the Utah primary. Forgive me for pointing out how much earlier my post was than most of this stuff, though some of it is quite well done anyway : )

  18. Whoa, Ben, first of all, I’m not saying that “Christ is not working on Mormons.” If that’s what my comment implied, I must have done a terrible job articulating it. And no, I’m not saying that the lack of Mormon Democrats implies something about this debate over immanence and transcendence. My criticism would apply even if the majority of Mormons were Democrats. The reason Mormons didn’t vote for Trump, in my opinion, isn’t because they are conflicted about the platform of the Republican Party. It’s because they don’t think that Trump reflects that platform. American Mormons, again in my experience, tend not to be conflicted at all about their full throated loyalty to a political party. That’s why I feel like evidence of Mormon political participation can’t really be used to argue in favor of Mormon cultural distinctiveness, which is what I understood you to be doing above. Several years ago, Alisdair Macintyre wrote an article expressing the type of reluctance toward the political parties that I would expect of someone whose religion causes them to question the dominance of immanent structures. I don’t see many Mormons doing this type of thing. (And to be clear, I don’t know Catholics on a whole are any better. I only know of Macintyre.).

  19. Well, zjg, I don’t think most Republican voters actually even know what the official Republican platform is. It is hardly ever mentioned in the news. So it kind of looks like you are just looking for a way to make Mormons sound like conformists somehow or other.

    Even if Mormons were strictly following the party platform, you might have noticed that the party platform is only vaguely representative of the Republican electorate as a whole this cycle. There appear to be three different main camps, with very different priorities, different enough that they regard each others’ candidates with contempt. So the relevant question is: Are Mormons just a bunch of typical Republican voters? And the answer is clearly No, because Trump’s numbers everywhere else are pretty strong, and Utah gave him the brush off. My view is that the immigration issue is the biggest point where Mormons differ from other Republicans as a body. Rubio was the most popular among Utah Republicans early this year (defined in voters’ minds as much as anything by his history with the Gang of Eight), well above his typical numbers at the time, and Trump has always been a weak third place. This is not about political participation in general, but about the particular priorities and values expressed in Mormons’ particular approach to political participation.

    I would love to see Mormons be even more independent and distinctive, and I think we have grounds to be. I am pretty sympathetic to MacIntyre’s point in general. But MacIntyre is a recovering Trotskyite, and I don’t think independent thought necessarily means one will come to conclusions as radical or out of step as his. Thinking independently doesn’t mean you can’t agree with any of the ideas that are already out there; it all depends on how sound the ideas already out there are. If it should so happen that one party is a lot closer to the truth than the other on multiple important issues, then independent moral insight might just lead one through an independent train of thought to conclusions that roughly line up with those of a particular party.

    Considering that church attendance is the best predictor of party affiliation these days, one could argue that the fact that Mormons lean pretty strongly toward the party of churchgoers (as messy as that party is right now) is a sign that Christ is having a big impact on their lives after all.

  20. Ben, a couple of things: First, the notion that Mormons are conformist when it comes to politics doesn’t strike me as a controversial claim. Utah has supported what nowadays we might call the “establishment candidate” in every Republican primary and general election since 1968. The fact that they failed to support the front runner this year isn’t in my view inconsistent with this trend because this is clearly not a year for establishment candidates (the fact that Utah went for Cruz and not Kasich probably doesn’t mean much as it seems that Cruz was the announced protest vote, as per Romney). Second, I agree with you that one can reach thoroughly conventional conclusions based for highly non-conventional reasons. Once again, I’m struck not by Mormons’ fairly monolithic support of one particular party but their loyalty to that party. In other words, their support doesn’t seem reluctant or ambiguous in any way. The notion that principles set forth by a radical Jew in Palestine in the first century B.C. would just happen to line up so closely with the views of a political party in a 21st century late capitalistic liberal democracy just strikes me as unlikely. Third, you seem to keep wanting to respond to my suggestion that Mormonism might suffer from an immanence problem by pointing out that Christ is nevertheless influencing the church. I don’t see those two propositions as mutually exclusive. Finally, our discussion seems to have veered fairly widely from Rachael’s original post (apparently the immanence-transcendence collapse point wasn’t even made in this post), so I think I’ll probably end it there, although I’ve enjoyed chatting with you. At the very least, we can certainly agree that Mormons could probably be more independent and distinctive than they currently are.

  21. zjg, given how late the Utah primaries are I’m not sure the significance of who Utah votes is. By the time Utah gets around to voting usually the choices have slimmed a lot. It’d be nice if we replace New Hampshire so our vote matters more but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

    I do think there’s more diversity of thought within Mormon politics than you suggest. Tensions between small government near libertarians and social conservatives are well known for example. Likewise I think breaks over immigration and other issues are reasonably well known. But this is veering from Rachel’s post. (And Rachel, I’ve broke out my Taylor again to give it an other go — so hopefully I can say more next time)

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