Interfaces of modernity: proselytizing, universities, politics

Avoiding controversy would make our lives easier, but it would not be good for the church.

The church, as you may have noticed, has a message it wants to share with the world. Because the world is constantly changing, modernity is a moving target. So to make its message legible, the church has to remain engaged with the contemporary world. But the conversation, as it must, goes both ways.

Not all aspects of the church are similarly engaged. Our Sunday curriculum, as just one of many possible examples, is a largely internal affair. For our tradition of scriptural interpretation that is reflected in our manuals, developments outside the church are all but irrelevant. A church concerned primarily with inward-directed curriculum would be a recipe for stasis. The church is instead highly engaged with the contemporary world, but in specific ways. There are undoubtedly many I’m overlooking, but these three seem particularly important.

Missions. Missionaries are quite literally the church’s first line of engagement with the contemporary world. With every new conversation, a missionary has to figure out what the church might mean to people of other faiths or no faith at all, for people of every kind of educational and occupational and ethnic background imaginable, and to forms of family organization that are beyond what have been previously imagined—and what those people, in turn, might mean for the church. (Seeing the church’s proselytizing efforts as a modernizing force isn’t an original idea; I’m borrowing it from a highly compelling presentation given by Philip Lockley, now of Durham University, at a conference in 2014.)

BYU. Running a university system forces the church (and many of its college-age members along with it) to present itself at an institutional level within a broad range of academic frameworks while at the same time maintaining its identity. Student aid has to meet federal guidelines, credit hours have to transfer, and research has to follow disciplinary norms. The church has something to say about earlier times and how people should live; running a university forces it to think about what history and sociology and other disciplines might have to say on these subjects. Apologetics is the other sphere where this kind of intellectual interchange occurs, and that work is vitally important. People need examples of what their faith means in a world shaped by science and scholarship. Institutional-level organs like the Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies help to create an apologetics that is also versed in academic and disciplinary norms.

Politics. On a number of occasions, the church has made its stance known on various issues of present controversy. Its input, it seems, has not always been well received. And yet continuing to identify how the church might be affected by a changing world and engaging with that world are critically important to the church. The world will do as it will, but if the church wants to continue to have something to say, it has to remain interfaced with the world as it exists. To remain silent on politics is to admit that the church has nothing relevant to say. Even worse, it would let the church avoid internal conversations about issues it needs to discuss and neglect perspectives it needs to consider.

The church could avoid controversy, of course. It could withdraw from missionary work—not just at the cost of rejecting the Great Commission, but also of losing a key site of conversation with the outside world. The church could secularize BYU and never have to trouble itself with any of the academic disciplines again, which would also be a disaster for anyone hoping for the church to grapple with the implications of Title IX and faculty gender balance and academic freedom. The church could have avoided political entanglements over a century ago by giving up on Utah statehood, retreating to the deserts and mountains and colonies, and waiting out the centuries until attitudes toward polygamy became more enlightened. It could avoid controversy today by retreating into uncertainty and metaphor, so that the Book of Mormon would be just a story about faith instead of an assertion about history, and Jesus would be just a reminder to be kind instead of the strait gate and narrow path to salvation from sin and death.

Other churches have certainly made those choices and been satisfied with the outcomes. But I’m glad we didn’t. For one, I don’t want to wear homespun in a compound in the Uintah foothills, and I’m glad we decided that other things were more valuable to us than plural marriage. For another, I don’t want to live in a metaphorical Zion, but in a Zion of concrete and steel and rituals and customs, and I need the church to keep trying to figure out how to build that Zion in the world I live in as it exists right now.

22 comments for “Interfaces of modernity: proselytizing, universities, politics

  1. After my having read this post, the next time I listen to the Killers’ “The World We Live In” will be a bit different from the last listen. (Maybe I am mistaken.)

  2. Jonathan, I personally think the Church is not that far (a few decades) from giving up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon (or at least “taking no position” on the issue). The latest Gospel Topic essays on historicity and DNA certainly have cut back on the traditional understanding of Book of Mormon history and the previously huge scope of the term “Lamanite.” The pivot I see coming is that the Church embraces the concept of non-historical scripture and points to the Bible as evidence that the Word of God need not be a newspaper to nonetheless be true. How that plays out with regard to other truth claims such as the restoration of priesthood authority and exclusivity of salvation remain to be seen, but I suspect the Church will be willing to shutter every temple before it gives up on exclusivity.

    That said, I do strongly believe that passing on ritual, custom, and tradition to the next generation are absolute requirements to keep the faith alive.

  3. I think the problem, relative to politics, is that even if the Church were to remain silent those with political views often want the Church to change. In which case how on earth can they not be changed. Not everything political affects the Church of course. But in these culture war eras a lot does.

    Geoff, the Church’s stance on immigration is definitely a break with the Trumpish far right. So I think it’s more complicated than you suggest. I recognize that for some people gay marriage is all that matters (and clearly it’s an important issue for Millennials) but there’s a lot more to politics out there.

    Not a Cougar, I don’t see that. It’s a position that dominated part of the 20th century but always had detractors. To say it was “the traditional understanding” seems a bit misleading without acknowledging how old limited geography as a significant position is now. Basically circa 1980 when it became popularized – hate to say it but that’s 40 years ago. I know those who don’t accept historicity keep hoping their positions become mainstream, but I just don’t see much evidence for it. To add, the “principle ancestors” phrase in the Book of Mormon introduction was Bruce R. McConkie and was only added in 1981. It was removed in 2007. So that’s 26 years.

  4. Echoing Clark, while the church tries to minimize direct commentary on political figures, it is hard not to see its (our) efforts like “I Was A Stranger” as engagement with the political life of the nation, particularly given the timing.

    Of course, most of the church’s political engagement will come in the form of members engaging in their own names (not on direct orders from the church leadership), but in line with their beliefs. On this front there is a lot going on!

  5. John M., thanks for the opportunity to look up a new (to me) Killers song.

    Geoff, typically missionaries do actually talk to real people. Who are they talking to down in Australia? Mannequins? NPCs? It seems like you leaped for the chance to write something negative about the church without really thinking things through.

    Not A., personally, I don’t see the church opting to treat the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction any time soon. At least, that’s not how I read the long-standing reminder that the proof of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity is the witness of the spirit. But there are plenty of other things that the church treats as real, including eternal marriages and the Resurrection and a living God. Retreating from reality to metaphor would involve far more than the Book of Mormon.

    Clark, my argument is that if someone wants the church to change, they should want the church to be involved in politics. See, for example, the Twitter feed a few inches over to the left on your screen. A church isolated from politics isn’t forced to think about hate crimes legislation and who should be protected. By being involved in politics, the church has to think about issues it can otherwise avoid.

    Ben, yes, that’s a good example. Quiescence is not part of our heritage.

  6. Throughout my life in the Church, I was taught over and over that the truth of the Book of Mormon was the keystone keeping the Church from falling. If they formally give up on its historicity (as I have, so I merely consider myself to be an outside observer any more, but still curious to see the Church evolve), will they be wrong about the Church’s ability to continue to stand? I guess time will tell.

  7. Clark, it’s possible President Kimball had such an outsized influence on how we thought of Lamanites in the 70s, that we’ve just forgotten about the limited geography model, but I doubt it. I don’t dispute how old the limited geograpahy model is (even B.H. Roberts argued for it), but I also think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that the hemispherical theory is of relatively recent vintage or suggest that it was not the dominant understanding among members of the Church for most of Church history (whether or not the theory is sound).

    Thomas Ferguson’s expeditions to Mexico and Central America were sponsored by the Church in the 1950s (I’m not defending Ferguson’s methods or his training, just the fact that the Church went looking for evidence to support the Book of Mormon). Indeed, some of the first missions in Church history were to “the Lamanites.” D&C 28:8 Joseph F. Smith certainly identified Polynesians as descendants of Hagoth in the early 20th century. In 1842, the Times and Seasons ran an article on Mayan ruins, tying them to Book of Mormon Peoples. Finally, Joseph Smith stated that he found the bones of Zelph (a “white Lamanite”) in a mound in Illinois and later writing to Emma about traveling through the “plains of the Nephites” while marching in Zion’s Camp. None of these alone require a hemispherical theory, but they do suggest a belief in it.

  8. Not A Cougar: I don’t think giving up on the hemispheric model is any indication on giving up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon; it’s giving up on the historicity of the hemispheric model. I think what you see is not so much a giving up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon as a realization that proving such from a scientific standpoint is both unlikely and insufficient to fulfill the Church’s mission. Unlikely because without wider historical context, it would be impossible to identify pottery, houses, etc. as “Nephite”, and insufficient because the types of discoveries we could hope for can and are regularly waved away as coincidence.

  9. Yeah, I guess my point is just that those who want the church out of politics really just want the church out of politics when they disagree with the church. To the degree they want the church (and members) to change they want the church in politics.

    My perspective, perhaps false, is that the Church will go into politics on big issues but tends to be more vague about implementations. But that the Church’s real concern is not picking who should be elected however they will push principles. That doesn’t always happen as we’ve seen on gambling and gay marriage issues in the past where the Church will endorse particular proposition movements.

    Faith, if Joseph wasn’t the author of the Book of Mormon but merely a means through which it was translated, we shouldn’t assume he has insights on who the lamanites were or weren’t. So I’m not convinced Joseph’s interpretations are a guide for the meaning of the Book of Mormon particularly how he interpreted the mound builders that Dan Vogel brings up. Indeed as many have noted there are many reasons why the mound builders couldn’t be the figures of the Book of Mormon based upon what’s in the text itself.

    Geoff, I don’t think you can say conservative members ignore the Church on immigration. Some do, but clearly Utah’s conservatives treat immigration differently than we see nationally.

    Not, I think it undeniable that Pres. Kimball’s views had an outsized effect although his views were characteristic of many of that era. I should also note that the issue is the hemisphere model and whether there were others here. That’s quite different from asking whether indigenous peoples in Canada and US might have ancestors in say mesoamerica related to the Lehites.

    There’s no doubt that early Mormons viewed all indigenous peoples in the north east US as lamanites and heirs to their promises. There’s two ways of looking at those scriptures. The first (and to my mind most correct) is just to acknowledge that God speaks to us in our language. The second (which I also think correct) is that the natives of the US are heirs to the promises made to Nephi. I don’t see any of those scriptures really having a bearing on the hemisphere model which is a pretty specific set of claims.

  10. Since the conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere useful, I decided to remove a bunch of comments where the writers didn’t seem willing or capable of discussing the actual post. I’ll leave the comments open for now in case anyone has something relevant to add.

  11. Jonathan, I understand what your saying and to a certain extent I agree. I just wish the Church’s engagement with the outside world was so much more. For example, in the case of missionaries, I would recommend two improvements. First, more engagement with the local culture. Second, more humanitarian work. The latter would help young missionaries further development their empathy toward those in dire straights. And enhance the global image of the Church.

    With BYU, I see a mediocre university that could be so much more. In it’s current state it seems like more of an embarrassment than an asset. They are constantly in the news over something stupid. And their continued inability to make things like the honor code work remains a problem. The Church has members who are brilliant academics, most of whom have no interest in working at BYU. The culture is too controlling. The religion departments continue to be problematic and should be moved off campus. And religion classes should not be required.

    I disagree with Clark that “those who want the church out of politics really just want the church out of politics when they disagree with the church.” This is not always the case. Many see money wasted on the Church’s disastrous efforts. The Church needs to stay out of liquor laws, medical marijuana issues, gay rights, etc. They always muck it up. They get poor legal advise, bad service from lobbyists, and their PR department make one faux pas after the next. In fact, the Church’s abortive attempts at messing with politics has severely hobbled missionary efforts in the US, Canada, and Western Europe.

    Engagement is great, but let’s do it right.

  12. Roger, what you’re describing is a church that is much less engaged with the world, not more. Service is wonderful, but it doesn’t require a missionary to think about what the church might mean for someone else, or what that person might mean for the church. Replacing required religion classes with an optional institute program is a step toward divorcing religious and academic life. The church remaining silent about liquor laws and other issues would represent political disengagement. It would be more accurate to say that you want the church to engage less with the world. That’s a reasonable position, but I’m arguing that the price of that disengagement would be a more insular, inward-focused church.

    I also think your actual disagreement is not with PR effectiveness, but with the substance of the church’s positions. Supporting a lower blood alcohol limit of .05 in Utah, for example, may look like bad PR to social drinkers, but it’s genius PR for people who are more concerned about traffic safety. (And anyone who thinks the church is oppressing them because Utah lowered it’s blood alcohol limit to the level recommended by the NTSB, and the level that prevails in most nations around the world, really needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.)

    I can’t imagine anyone with much experience of the US university system thinking of BYU as a mediocre institution and an embarrassment. You might want to reconsider the sources you’re relying on for information.

  13. “The Church needs to stay out of liquor laws, medical marijuana issues, gay rights, etc. They always muck it up”

    Really, it’s like you’re using the post as a tangent to launch into your litany of complaints against the church.

    As an aside, the only thing that would be terrible to me is if the church lines up with *your* position on the above issues you cited. I’m perfectly content with the positions and advocacy. I can see the spiritual and rational sociological reasons for it.

    It might make you angry to realize, but we vote and have elections because people have real, deep differences of opinions. That means that often, large groups of influential people will have very different views than you.

    Telling those people to “stay out” just because you find their views terrible is not democratic. It reflects poorly on you.

  14. Interesting that the University of Notre Dame is covering up murals of Christopher Columbus, as reported in the news this week.

  15. Jonathan, I concur with your stance about the Church’s interactions with politics. I may agree or disagree with Church leadership on which issues to take a stance on and the stance they take, but I don’t seriously disagree with the leadership’s decision to engage on topics of moral and political significance. That said, I do wish leadership was a bit smarter in the way it went about its defense of traditional marriage (had I been in the Q12 back in 2007, I wouldn’t have supported the Prop 8 campaign). Post-Prop 8 (especially the last few years), at least in my circles (professionals in the greater D.C. area), the Church is almost as well known for its anti-LGBTQ stance as it is for its polygamous past. I don’t think being branded as anti-LGBTQ is what the leadership intended, but here we are.

    As to your comment about missionaries as the “first line of engagement with the contemporary world,” my gut just disagrees. Sure, the people the missionaries teach are part of the contemporary world in the most basic sense of the word, but the interactions they have are pretty specific and directed towards proselytizing. Missionaries are there “to teach, not to be taught” (regardless of whether I agree with that approach). Further, my long experience with missionary work in the United States indicates that the people most likely to interact with missionaries for any length of time (i.e., to have the missionaries teach them) tend to be on the margins of society when it comes to income, education, race, national origin, and/or mental/physical well-being. I say that not because those on the margins are unimportant or that they don’t need the Gospel and the love and support of brother and sisters in Christ (Jesus’s teachings and example make clear the need to minister to the poor and poor in spirit), but those on the margins are the least likely to be at heart of community discussion and interaction. I just don’t think that missionaries are engaging with the contemporary world, at least in the way that I understand the concept of the “contemporary world.”

    Instead, I believe that first line of engagement usually is and should be members of the Church. My grandmother and great-grandmother joined the Church not because they had a spiritual witness that the Book of Mormon was true or that Joseph Smith saw God or that Heber J. Grant was God’s prophet then on the earth. They joined because a Mormon family up the road showed great love and compassion to them for the 2+ years my great-grandfather was doing his best to avoid Japanese anti-tank mines while operating a bulldozer in the Pacific. My great-grandmother believed in God and saw that that family walked the walk when it came to following Christ. It is those kinds of actions that I think truly help us to engage with the contemporary world and break down barriers to talking about our faith.

    I do recognize a disconnect here, though. At least in the United States, how often do members from (let’s face it) overwhelmingly white and (usually) middle class wards find opportunities to interact with those on the margins? Not often enough, in my experience (and I’m just as guilty as everyone else on this point). One example of a half-hearted swing and a miss for the Church to grow its outreach to the marginalized was the “I was a Stranger” campaign which, as I understood it, was an outgrowth of President Monson’s formalizing Care for the Poor and Needy as the fourth mission of the Church. Yes, “I was a Stranger” is still listed on the LDS website and the website was updated as recently as a few months ago, but my I know my stake (and several other stakes in other states where I have friends) never took the campaign seriously (and I don’t recall much support at the top after the initial announcement). What if that had become a signature program for the Church? What an opportunity that could have been.

  16. The Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies are known to maybe 0.1% of the people who have heard of BYU, even within the Church. My guess is that they have very little impact on the mission of BYU or the billions the Church spends on it.

  17. BYU is considered by virtually every employer as a top-notch university that trains undergraduates well. The only embarrassment is its two most high-profile sports programs.

  18. Not A and Queno, those are good points. Maybe it would help to differentiate what direction the influences run. With the Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies, for instance, I agree that the outward-facing impact on society is modest, but they have considerable potential to mediate ideas and norms from broader academic fields to educated readers inside the church, not entirely unlike what Deseret Book can accomplish for a broader readership among church members.

    In the same way, it’s reasonable to wonder how much influence a missionary can have on society, when most long-term interactions are with people who are in some way on the margins – at the very least and almost by definition, not tightly bound to the religious mainstream. I think this is another case where the modernizing impact runs in the other direction as missionaries try to figure out how the church might adapt to people whose needs they hadn’t considered before.

  19. Jonathan, I’m not sure what you mean by “… as missionaries try to figure out how the church might adapt to people whose needs they hadn’t considered before.” The Church as currently administered is one size fits all, by and large, and expects people to adapt to “the Gospel Culture” not the other way around (See President Oaks’ talk from the mid 2000s). My weekly experience with missionaries today is that they ask us to help fellowship (exchanges, transport, host, visit, etc.), but not once have I had a missionary ask us to make any programmatic changes to assist an investigator or new member. If anyone has had that experience, I’d love to hear about it.

  20. Not a Cougar: I guess what I’m thinking of are the questions that are posed by people who aren’t acculturated to the church, and so you have to think about clarifying the boundary between what’s essential and what isn’t, or what’s possible and what’s not. Can someone be baptized if they drink green tea or decaf, vape to control nicotine urges, wear a cross when they visit church, vote for socialists, belong to an insurgent group, live together with a common-law spouse, don’t speak the national language, can only come to church four times a year, show no interest in wearing a white shirt or a dress, take all of Genesis as a metaphor, believe in UFOs, or any number of other things like this? In some cases, you’d say, yes, certainly, that’s not essential; and in others, no, absolutely not, that’s core doctrine or incompatible with the gospel. Then there are a lot of things where the answer isn’t obvious, and people have to think about how the church may or may not be able to accommodate some unexpected new element of the modern world. Does that help?

  21. Jonathan, much clearer, thanks. Those are all reasons why I very much dislike the model of having not-really-adults making decisions about who is and who isn’t ready for baptism. I would leave the interviews to local bishops and branch presidents in areas of the world where the Church is well-established (and I’m not just talking about the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe). Far too often, I see missionaries make very poor decisions about readiness, especially where the ward is unlikely to provide much support to the prospective member. I believe it’s a huge reason our retention rates are so abysmal.

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