In Part 1 of this series, I showed that the secular-Christian hybrid “Love Wins” ideology wields amazing dogmatic authority in our supposedly free-thinking age. In this part, I present examples of the presence of this ideology among prominent and influential LDS scholars and writers.
The counterfeiting of “love,” the central ideal of Christianity, for purposes directly contrary to basic Christian morality is a beguiling argument because it seems to allow an individual to avoid the hard choice between the Church and the world, the Tree of Life and the Great and Spacious Building. If “love” can be reduced to “non-discrimination,” then one can be a true Christian by abandoning the burden of traditional Christian morality and embracing the ethics of a relativist society. Unfortunately, this debasing of the idea of Christian love has proved attractive even among Latter-day Saints, including prominent voices in LDS higher education, who have every reason to know better.
“Love Wins” – Mormon Style
One way of separating love from morality that is popular among LDS critics of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the family is to use the language of humility to set aside our moral principles while elevating “love” (now severed from definite moral principles) as the whole substance of religion. This move relativizes all moral viewpoints – it puts them all at the same level as questionable and optional and elevates in their place an idea of love untethered from commandments and from the Plan of Salvation.
For example, when Elder Anderson praised a young woman for standing up for her belief in marriage between a man and a woman in the face of sharp verbal persecution, one prominent LDS blogger turned the tables on Elder Anderson and proposed a case in which the teenager being persecuted was defending “marriage equality.” The premise underlying this move is the equivalence of these two experiences – as if it were arbitrary or accidental that Elder Anderson was offering support to the girl defending a specific LDS teaching. Of course Elder Anderson would counsel, as Church leaders have often counseled, that we treat those who contradict church teachings with courtesy, respect, and love. But this takes nothing away from the Apostle’s clear intention to contribute to the defense of true teachings and not to compromise with a significant and dangerous error.
When “love” is separated from morality, however, there is no significant difference between standing up for truth and standing up for the politically correct notion that marriage can be redefined as we may find convenient. Love, the argument goes, is the essence of Christian discipleship, but as regards all the rest (commandments, Plan of Salvation), we should be humble and recognize the limits of our knowledge. If we can embrace “love” as the one thing that ultimately matters, then all mere opinions we may have about such things as gay marriage and abortion can be considered secondary concerns that should not trouble our relationships. Is it not an expression of humility, after all, to acknowledge that we would be wrong about anything? And how could we attach more importance to standing up for a controversial truth than to the “love” we show by not making assertions that might wound or offend another?
Thus the counsel of Church Leaders is turned on its head: rather than standing up for an unpopular truth, we are urged, in the name of “humility” and of a “love” severed from commandments and eternal purposes, to consider all opinions as equally uncertain. Now, to be sure, if the argument is that that all our dealings with other human beings, especially fellow saints, should be informed by love, then no Latter-day Saint should disagree. But the argument that severs love from its moral and theological context goes way beyond this.
In the “Love Wins” style of argument, the common ground of “pain,” the equality of grievance, displaces the common ground of truth. If, like Elder Anderson, we take the truth of the Restored Gospel as common ground, then our loving response to a person feeling pain as a result of separating herself from the truth would include, not only loving sympathy, but some effort to restore her to the truth. But this effort is excluded if humility is understood to cancel out all confidence in truth. In fact, although the elevation of love above truth seems to give equal respect to all “opinions” about morality and eternal purposes, it in fact decisively favors the politically correct opinion of relativism: if we have no reliable access to truth, then all views are mere individual “preferences” – and so why should any preference for one lifestyle or another be favored? Love severed from morality is not a morally neutral teaching, but rather in effect a religious dressing-up of the secular teaching of moral relativism and the liberation of individual preferences from any higher law.
The severing of Love from definite moral principles is an attractive move to many, because it seems to make possible an accommodation with the world’s extreme individualism and relativism without forsaking what is taken to be the essential principle of religion. But this move does not stand up to simple rational scrutiny: either you believe, with Elder Anderson, that affirming a definite truth (without thereby claiming to be absolutely in possession of the whole truth) is a key presupposition of showing love; or you believe, with the “Love Wins” camp, that our knowledge is so slight or uncertain that we must love others without respect to the content of any supposed truth.
Another strategy for severing love from commandments and eternal purposes is to exploit the teachings of the Apostle Paul. In this argument, Paul’s expansion of early Christian missionary work to the gentiles is taken to be a precedent for abandoning moral teachings of the Church in order to make the gospel more appealing to people who do not accept those teachings.
In this perspective, Paul is elevated far above the other apostles and his teachings regarding the optional status of the Jewish ritual law is applied to fundamental Christian moral teachings. The point of Paul’s vision, we are told, was simply to change religious teaching so that it is attractive to those you are teaching: “if you’re going to go to people you think are strangers and invite them to join you and stay with you, then you have to really go to them, instead of expecting them to do things just the way you do.”
The essence of the Love Wins strategy is contained in this formula: the imperative to spread the message trumps any content of the message. The spreading is the content; love as universalization is the essence of the gospel, and all troublesome details such as those involved in “the way you do things” must be considered wholly negotiable in the pursuit of a broader membership. The good news has no content, finally, but the spread-ability (universalizability) of the good news: if you can share it – that is, have it accepted –, it must be good. Acceptability to a target audience, popularity, always trumps any supposed truth about beliefs or practices. And this popular acceptability is what we mean by “love.”
On this Pauline “Love Wins” view, the Apostle rejected of any understanding of “purity” that would prevent us from “tweaking … our ways a little here and even make a wholesale change there.” This view of universalizing loves means that everything must be considered “negotiable” in the interest of accommodation or popularity, since Jesus’s “love” has nothing to do with any definite commandments or beliefs regarding a plan of salvation. To love is contained wholly in loving our neighbor, and loving our neighbor translates as making all doctrines, teachings, rituals and traditions optional in the interest of pleasing our neighbor.
So, once again: “Love” wins; the actual moral and religious content of Christian love loses.
The moral implications of a new enthusiasm for Paul among LDS intellectuals are not always obvious. In the subtlest and most philosophically sophisticated version of the use of Paul to downplay inconvenient teachings regarding commandments and eternal purposes, obedience to law is seen as a distraction, even a dead-end compulsion that prevents our openness to the gracious gift of love. Love is the end of the law, and obedience is generally a distraction, even a strategy for avoiding openness to God’s grace. Any attempt to connect obedience to specific commandments with the pursuit of eternal goods that depend upon our agency, any judgment we make between what is eternally good and desirable and what is not, is equated with the denial of grace and seen as an attempt to put God in our debt, even to make ourselves lords of the universe. No distinction is admitted between desires for good eternal outcomes and bad ones, because any deliberate pursuit of goals is considered a denial of God’s grace. We are supposed to let go of what we think we want and simply be open to whatever God gives. There is no room in such a radical philosophy of grace for a plan of salvation or a “great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) – since planning itself is inherently sinful.
This radical philosophy of grace does not explicitly embrace the “Love Wins” campaign, but it tends to strip the Restored Gospel of its most distinctive and beautiful promises and to thus to disarm moral effort and opposition to the relativistic distortion of “love.” The levelling of all desires to the sheer gratuity of what God has given implies the equality of all natural desires and indeed the sinfulness of any effort to attain righteousness, that is, to govern lower desires in view of a higher hope. Gratitude for the world just as it is, here understood as the central principle of the Gospel, is hard to distinguish, in practice, from worldliness.
What is at Stake
The application of the “Love Wins” viewpoint to difficult moral and religious challenges is clear in a recent book review in a prominent LDS publication. In the book under review, a young man, a Mormon convert, struggles with what he considers his homosexual identity in its tension with his own Mormonism, which he chooses to abandon, and also with his parent’s evangelical faith.
Fortunately, from both the author’s and the reviewer’s point of view, the apparent conflict between being Evangelical and being Mormon, as well as that between being Mormon and being a proudly practicing homosexual (and so, it seems to follow, the tension between being Evangelical and being homosexual) can be happily resolved. According to the reviewer, the alliance of enlightened, postmodern Diversity with the new Love produces a miracle of reconciliation, reducing the Gospel to wide-open toleration or “a willing embrace of the Other” and thus dismissing all moral demands and the need for repentance.
Love Wins. There is nothing to see here, no essential conflict between the Gospel and the world. Can’t we just let go of our troublesome and outdated moral beliefs and move on?
The “Love Wins” viewpoint is steadily gaining ground among LDS intellectuals and educators and those they teach and influence. Sometimes this position is held deliberately and openly, at other times it is implicitly accepted as a convenient way to avoid confronting the increasing opposition between the Church and the world. But the problem cannot be avoided; by indulging the “Love Wins” position LDS thinkers and writers contribute to the erosion of moral convictions that we need more than ever.