The False Dichotomies of Membership

One thing I’ve noticed a lot is people creating simple divisions of people within the church. I’m sure you’ve heard many of them. Liahona Members vs. Iron Rod Members. Chapel Mormons vs. Internet Mormons. Intellectuals vs. Fundamentalists. I’m sure there’s some out there that I somehow missed. I’ll confess these have always bothered me for a lot of reasons.
First off it just seems unreasonable to try and explicate a large diverse group of people with only two categories. Even five or six categories would likely be misleading. But two?

Second off, even if the taxonomies have some explanatory power, what I notice happening is that one of the categories gets treated as the “good one” while the other categories is less authentic, less representative, or just intellectually or morally suspect. So for instance most of the people I see raising the Internet vs. Chapel Mormon category sees Chapel Mormonism as real Mormonism. Further as used it all too often is a way of dismissing the arguments or beliefs of those who don’t believe what they think they ought to believe.

While a lot more people defend the Liahona vs. Iron Rod distinction as a matter of faith versus commitment to clear ideas, the problem is that this breaks down when you look at the metaphors. The Liahona gave a pretty overwhelmingly clear direction of travel and even had some sort of printout at times when you exercised faith. So the answers seemed just as clear as they were with the Iron Rod, undermining the distinction. The iron rod worked because you couldn’t see what was coming or even most of what was going on around you. The holding or not holding was the act of faith and had as immediate consequences as the Liahona did.

Again though my biggest problem, even ignoring the problem of the chosen metaphor, was that people weren’t in one side or the other but were almost always a mixture of both. Some rules, assertions or related things I follow in a fairly clear fashion. Some things I admit doubts on and I follow by faith, trusting on the basis of what I do know that things will work out. I can’t imagine I’m alone.

Mostly though, when I hear these categories I always think to 4 Nephi 1:17.

neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.

While not everyone using these divisions is doing so for polemic reasons, I think many are. Yet ultimately such divisions hurt far more than help.

29 comments for “The False Dichotomies of Membership

  1. charlene
    April 19, 2017 at 11:21 am

    Clark. Are you railing against the divisiveness of the labels or the fact that there are only two categories? In either case, I agree with your discomfort. Labeling people is a shorthand to allow others to think they know all about them without bothering to know them; thus divisiveness. Whenever anyone gives me just two options, I immediately request that they think of at least three other options. It’s an exercise in creativity besides diffusing the absoluteness of the categorization.

    I agree heartily with your concluding sentence.

  2. Clark Goble
    April 19, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Both. I find the categories problematic on their own terms but also divisive and largely used for polemic purposes where one of the categories is privileged. Either to make a convenient target for attack or to make ones group the rational moral ones.

  3. Anonymous
    April 19, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    “The Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind.”

    We have a ways to go yet.

  4. April 19, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Robert Kirby has five categories. But his are for fun. There are three degrees of glory, I guess that’s better than two (heaven and hell). Categories will always be with us. Members can categorize me any way they want. I don’t care.

  5. April 19, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    When terms harden into categories, then yeah, they can be harmful. Until they become weapons, though, they’re useful to help us recognize different gifts and tools and aspects. Even something like “of one heart and one mind” identifies two ways of valid response to our fellows. “Glory like that of the sun, or the moon, or the stars” is another analytical division that helps clarify important ideas better than an undifferentiated mass of “glory” possibly could.

    I like labels like “Iron-Rod” and “Liahona” because of their help in recognizing different approaches to life or the gospel. I don’t put value judgments on them, though, any more than “introvert” and “extrovert” have moral dimensions. We all ought to be conservative in some ways and liberal in others, and I don’t even want to know anybody who is so intellectual they can’t feel emotion, or vice versa. So I don’t mind labels and label-makers that help me realize the composite nature of life — but do agree with you that when the division become unbridgeable, or when people take sides so firmly that they deny the mix of approaches that any individual ought to have, it’s a serious problem.

  6. April 19, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Is it really so unreasonable to try and explicate a large diverse group of people with only two categories? Perhaps not. For example, consider male and female.

  7. April 19, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I do not share your general discomfort with labels when used to describe, in very general terms, differences of viewpoint or background. I do agree that there is a danger in trying to oversimplify a particular person by giving them a label. Continuing your example, although I’ve never used these labels, you could explain that a “Liahona member” views a doctrine one way, while an “iron rod member” views the doctrine another way. Both are striving to understand the same doctrine, but they have different points of view. The labels give context as to why people who approach our faith differently may have different specific beliefs. Sure, analogies are not perfect, and sure trying to oversimplify CAN BE harmful. But it can also aid in communication to convey, generally, how different people have different points of view.

  8. Kristine A
    April 19, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    I agree with Ardis. I don’t like how labels are used as weapons or put downs, but find them valuable as descriptors if we can avoid black and white thinking.

    For example after the LGBT+ policy was released a year and a half ago it took every ounce of faith I had to show up in the pew. I was physically affected, leaning on my husband’s shoulder. In my Rexburg ward there were people who were ambivalent, grappling, vociferous, etc about the policy. Someone in my ward announced in SS that every member who did not agree with the policy were modern day equivalents of those who stoned the prophets. I was lucky I was able to set foot inside the building again, although escaping into primary helped.

    If I can continue seeing that person’s humanity, I don’t find a problem with using a label to describe that outlook on the gospel. I don’t think the real problem is labels, it’s not seeing each other as complex, infinitely valuable fellow saints. And this happens with or without labels.

  9. Darren
    April 19, 2017 at 3:44 pm


    You are not alone in your observations. This post describes my feelings on our self-characterizing divisions more accurately than anything I’ve ever read in the Mormon internet-y world. My sense is that many others share that feeling. Thank you for putting this out there.

  10. Tb
    April 19, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Discovering the liahona/iron rod dichotomy in my 20s did a huge amount of good for me. Helped me feel I belonged, even though I saw some things differently to those around me. But as you say, it can be a problem if it leads to division rather than just being descriptive.

  11. Clark Goble
    April 19, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    TB, I think most of these ideas have useful applications even if I ultimately disagree with the categories. As you note it’s useful to know there’s more variety in Mormon thought than say the Bruce R. McConkie view of theology. (As much as I admire him his outsized place for several decades was perhaps counterproductive) I’m just not sure they’re necessary for that and they bring their own problems with them.

    Kristine, I definitely think we should be aware that there’s a wider range of views among members than many assume. Often people assume their own views are more dominant than they are. I’ll confess I’m not sure these labels necessarily help with that. But I completely understand many disagree with me there. I’d much rather have the range of views expressed and acknowledged.

    Adam, I think my problem particularly with the liahona and iron rod dichotomy is that it tends to distort how people see the problems. That is my experience was that people who self-identified as liahonas almost always distorted the iron rod view and vice versa. Plus just my pedantic dislike because the metaphor is so horribly abused. LOL.

    Jim, I think there’s a difference between taxonomies where there are natural kinds and those that are more of a continuum. Although even with biological sex I think hermaphrodites might disagree that it’s as simple as you suggest.

    Ardis, I’ll confess I really hate that psychological division of categories like extrovert and introvert and so forth too. Although at least it offers far more nuance than a simple dichotomy.

  12. April 20, 2017 at 4:51 am

    I think of the labels as tools which may be used for good (to build understanding, empathy and unity) or ill (to sow divisiveness, to ostracize the other). The real challenge to me is to realize in practice how we can be of one heart and mind and still individual, with all of our idiosyncratic views. I believe there is space for all of us so long as we don’t insist that there is only one right way to be be LDS, with only one correct understanding of doctrine.

  13. April 20, 2017 at 5:08 am

    exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

  14. Kevin Christensen
    April 20, 2017 at 9:37 am

    I found that when I first heard about the Iron Rod/Liahona dicotomy, I rather liked it. Until I read the actual essay which demonstrated in spades the problems that Clark describes. I find that I very much prefer the Myers-Briggs Type distinctions, and even once presented at Sunstone in SLC in 1994 on how such a 16 Type model helped make sense of social conflicts in Mormon circles. A few years later, Veda Hale introduced me to the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth, with 9 Positions, and I find that profoundly helpful in doing what Brigham Young calls “understanding people as they are, and not as you are.” Veda had used the Perry Scheme as a means of navigating character development in Levi Peterson’s LDS novels for a Sunstone Presentation. I’m surprised it never caught on as well as the Fowler Stages of Faith model. Where Fowler’s model emphasizes the conclusions a person comes to, Perry focuses on how people process information in dealing with complexity and ambiguity. So with 16 types (Gifts Differing) and 9 developmental positions leading to enlightenment of mind, enlargement of the soul towards improved understanding, and an overall deliciousness, I find the binary dichotomies to be oversimplified and ideologically saturated in comparison. And the Isabel Myers titled her book on type Gifts Differing, to emphasize our need for the differences in light of the weaknesses and strengths of each type. And Perry emphasizes the notion that human development in a process that cannot be forced, and that can involve moving backward as well as forward. I’ve made the case in some Interpreter essays that Joseph Smith models Position 9 of the Perry Scheme for Mormons, whereas the usual cliched picture of an Iron Rodder is Position 2.

  15. sch
    April 20, 2017 at 10:13 am

    So, what I’m understanding here is this: You have found some Mormons like categorizing people into two (or more) groups, and others do not. You believe that not-categorizing people is better. Right? :)

  16. sch
    April 20, 2017 at 10:19 am

    On a more serious note, let me agree with those who find that using categories as ways of describing behavior can sometimes be helpful. For example, when I first read Richard Poll’s sacrament meeting talk about Iron rod vs Liahona members published many years ago, I found it to be refreshing and enjoyable. It helped me understand myself better, and maybe others better as well. Over years of experience and reflection it is clear to me that a clear line separating all of us broadly into these two categories doesn’t make sense for many reasons. Still the dichotomy helps me remember that different people form testimonies and experience life differently. Thus I can’t expect directly extrapolate my spiritual experiences directly onto others. So his dichotomy is not strictly “true” but it is very helpful.

  17. Clark Goble
    April 20, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Myers-Briggs has really fallen out of favor (and I’m not sure it ever was in favor among specialists). It has a lot of problems. There was a good Psychology Today rant on it from a few years back I often quote. A lot of the criticisms apply to the taxonomies I’ve mentioned here about Mormons only moreso given the limited categories. To be fair though last year they published an editorial defending it. Although it’s interesting that in the defense the author notes it has been the “target of extremely harsh criticism from the community of professional personality psychologists.” He also links to a Vox critique of it I’d not seen before.

    I’ve ranted on Fowler a lot – probably too much in the past – so I’ll restrain myself. I do think it’s even worse than the categories I’ve mentioned in that it almost always ends up privileging the higher levels as the correct and enlightened ones. (Which of course always end up rejecting religious truths as actual events)

    But I think these things can be useful, as I mentioned, if used cautiously and acknowledging their flaws. I just find I usually encounter them with people using them as a way to subtly indicate their position in them is best.

  18. April 20, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    I tend to view from this lens from the other end. Minor exceptions can occasionally be instructive, if used cautiously, and acknowledging that any conclusions we derive from them are probably fatally skewed. But for the most part, we as aspiring disciples are walking on safe ground when we adhere to standards promoted by inspired Church leaders, rather than the popular worldly dictates of the day. We’d like not to take care of the exception first. We’ll see to the rule first, and then we’ll take care of the exceptions.

    From one perspective this means almost all of us are well served. On the other hand, it also means that under the reality of the constraints of time and common sense, some exceptions are neglected and will never become a consideration of the mainstream curriculum. We will always gather separately as men and women in Relief Society and Priesthood meetings. I have confidence that there will never ever be a exceptional class in the Church designated for hermaphrodites.

  19. April 20, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    I think it’s dangerous to put someone in one category, and then never expect them to leave that category. Perhaps people grow when spending some time as a Liahona for a while, then grow as an Iron rodder, and then back and forth as they grow and learn line upon line. Teaching them that there’s only one way might make them feel guilty that they’re doing it wrong.

  20. p
    April 20, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Clark, we seek a unity of opposites as BKP achieved with his “so-called scholars and intellectuals” construction. Obviously, within LDS-world. “real” scholarship and intellectual endeavor is valued, standing in stark contrast with “so-called” which is a euphemism for “fake.” However, no matter how sound or fact-base this scholarship may be, if it’s not faith-promoting, it is only “so-called.” This way everybody loses, both the hard-working scholars & intellectuals who are either excoriated or ignored, and the membership, whose relationship with the fact-based world grows ever more tenuous. There is an awful symmetry here that I, for one, find beautiful. Allow me to elucidate with a quote from Lacan: Castration means that that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire.


  21. Clark Goble
    April 20, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    P, I confess I’m not quite sure what you’re arguing. Packer certainly emphasized practical benefits over historical accuracy. While I respect him a great deal and think he was an important figure who did a great deal of good, I just can’t ultimately agree with him to the degree he pushed that idea. Of course having once had a security clearance and was working in Los Alamos on nuclear secrets I can appreciate the idea that not all truths should be shared in the open. While I disagree with say the Intersectionality groups who’ve come to dominate parts of campus regarding truth, I do think we have to worry about the consequences of what we say.

    That is truth is not the only important thing when we communicate. We also have to worry about the effects of what we say. In that regard Pres. Packer was undoubtedly ahead of the curve relative to what both side of the political aisle now say.

    As for Lacan, I fear he bought into Freud just a little too much. And of course even Freud noticed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes saying cut it out just means cutting it out.

  22. Peter
    April 21, 2017 at 2:57 am

    I am finding the most useful and relevant categories to be ‘Christian’ and ‘Pharisee’ because Jesus personally had a lot to say about exactly what attributes each has so it is easy to be clear about exactly what the definitions are. They are very relevant to the internal conflicts in behaviour, strategies, leadership methods, ideas and expectations we all experience and disagree about in the Church. People can be a mixture of both but there is a helpful clarity using these definitions regarding which is clearly the ideal to aspire to and has Jesus’ approval.

    D and C 58 regarding having permission from God to act creatively on inspiration, and grudgingly only doing what leaders tell you to being a path to damnation, and D and C 121, are very powerful anti- Pharisee scriptures which hold the key to getting this right and solving a lot of our problems with pharisaical reactionary traditionalist control freaks in
    my opinion. We got taught that in Seminary as teenagers – the answers have been there all along and it is so sad how few have really understood or tried to lead in the Church following those liberating and empowering principles.

  23. April 21, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I’m just coming to this, and do not intend these thoughts as responsive to any comments but only to the OP.
    1. It seems to me that a dichotomy is almost always problematic. If there are only two options, most people can’t help but make one better or preferred or desirable. More labels than two have the potential of being useful. If described as a hierarchy (e.g., Maslow, Fowler) ranking is inevitable. But if described as a multiplicity of options or variables or ways of being, there is the possibility of usefulness.
    2. The positive use of categories is improved when it is recognized that any one individual may be both/all/many, and when the discussion turns to balance rather than either/or.
    3. Interestingly (to me), the most obvious dichotomy for many–male/female–is being challenged. From a recent article in Nature: “These discoveries have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules (such as WNT4) in the networks can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it’s a balance,” says Eric Vilain, a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s more of a systems-biology view of the world of sex.”

  24. larryco_
    April 21, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    7 Other Divisions In Mormonism:
    1) Actives vs. Inactives
    2) 24/7 Mormons vs. 1 to 3 hours a week on Sunday Mormons
    3) Temple-going vs.Temple-avoiding
    4) Accept any calling vs. “I’ll get back to you…”
    5) “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” vs. plenty of shadow in my doubt
    6) Lime jello/shaved carrots and funeral potatoes vs.Crown double cheeseburger with fries
    7) Extreme ultra-right conservatives vs. run-of-the-mill ultra-right conservatives

  25. Clark Goble
    April 21, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    Peter, while Jesus condemned many things Pharisees did, I don’t think he treated them like a category. They were a self-identifying group within Judaism. There was actually a pretty big divide among the Pharisees over zealotry (more or less meaning opposition to Rome with violence) Also Jesus quoted and followed many of the teachings of major figures in the Pharisaic tradition like Rabbi Gamaliel. There’s some hints Jesus was more tied to the Essenes – an other well known group at the time but oddly not mentioned in the NT.

    It’s true people use pharisee as a kind of label, but I think that’s a bit different from a taxonomy. Especially today.

    Larry, I really don’t like the active vs inactive distinction although I use it more than I should. For one there’s people who come to church but don’t believe and don’t keep the commandments and people who don’t go to church as much who do keep most of the commandments and believe.

    Those who accept or reject callings I’m more willing to go to, although even there I’ll cut some people a break. Say if they have special needs kids or are pregnant and get asked to take on a big calling. Someone we know had major cancer surgery and just a month or two later was asked to be a handcart leader. She accepted it but I think it should never have been offered and she should have refused for her own health.

    So maybe it’s not a dichotomy but the categories those who accept callings they could do, those who reject callings they could do, and those who accept callings they should know they can’t do.

  26. p
    April 21, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    ChristianKimball your #3 signifying biological gradations of gender and sexuality, and thus of identity – yet another monkey wrench tossed into the heavenly machinery cranking out nothing but girls and boys. It won’t take long for something like this to percolate through LDS culture, w/ results I am not able to imagine,

  27. Q
    May 7, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    I think the Iron Rod/Liahona dichotomy captures, or at least used to, an actual difference in tendencies among church-going LDS. When I first read the dichotomy, it helped me make sense out of Mormonism to a good degree and many others I have talked to accept this categorization and make sense out of the community. It isn’t a scientific categorization based on hard research, I’ll concede. Nonetheless, categorizing is part and parcel of the social sciences. It is important to at least try to identify trends in behavior and put them into categories. To say that Mormons are too complex to categorize just comes off as intellectually lazy. If you’re going to challenge common categorizations, you owe it to put forward alternative ways of categorizing Mormon society in relation to its attachments and attitudes to the LDS church institution. Or are you afraid that you might offend someone, or even worse that someone could point out a flaw in your categorization (oh the horror)? It is easy to sit on the sidelines and take potshots at ideas you don’t like. It is much harder to come up with a framework for understanding social trends in Mormonism.

  28. RW
    May 7, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    To be fair about Myers-Briggs. Myers did lots of research is developing her preference test. Note that it is a simple test for behavioral preferences. It was never meant as a serious diagnostic tool. It was meant as a way of understanding ourselves and others in a easy-to-understand way. In her development of the test she went to great lengths to find orthogonal, that is to say, independent, axes on which to base personality assessment.

    Beyond that, because it is a preference test, people tend to exhibit those traits, generally, on an either/or basis. It is as if I am offered a choice between ice cream or cabbage. I will almost always choose ice cream. I am sure there are people who will almost always choose cabbage.

    You are very dismissive of the MB personality profile. As one who has used this tool for a long time to help me understand personality and differences, I can definitely assure you that it is helpful and, for most normal people, accurate. What people misunderstand about this tool is that it is somehow predictive. It is not, it is just a test of preference, and for the 70% or 80% of the population which are “average”.

    At one point in my career I did statistical modeling. The basis of statistical modeling is that there are only 3 or 4 variables which contribute to most, 80% or 90%, of the variability of the system. We were modeling a very complex manufacturing process. MB analysis basically does this with personality: most of the variability of us, as individuals, can be captured by just four variables, in this case the MB type indicators.

    In the early 90’s I presented at the Sunstone Symposium in Washington, DC on this subject. I had many of my Church friends take the MB type indicator as they perceived the Church, and I reported on the outcome. Hands down, the Church came out STJ. There was a little uncertainty about whether it was I or E. For me this was a great comfort because my MB type is the exact opposite, NFP, which explained much of my discomfort level in the Church.

    Just because the professionals cannot use the MB type indicator for diagnosis and treatment does not take away its power to explain social relationships. For example my spouse is a strong Introvert and I am a violent Extrovert, all other things the same. We get along fabulously except when the I/E axis is involved, It has helped us a lot to understand these things.

    So, personally, I find the MB types, NF, NT, SF, and ST to be strong indicators of religious needs and requirements, substantially more than your dichotomy of two. But even if you take the two types, N and S, these generally map into your Liahonas and your Iron-Rodders.

  29. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2017 at 12:13 am

    RW, I was primarily quoting how psychologists view it. That is how is it as science.

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