Editor’s Note: The following is part two of a two-part series on secularism from Ralph C. Hancock. To read part one, click here.
In Part One I asked whether students of Mormonism should set methodological boundaries on our search for the truth in order to play the scholarly game on the field already defined by … well, by those who get to define the field. Now I want to show how the New Mormon Studies’ embrace of “secularism” has implications for one’s understanding of morality. Secularism, it seems, is a package deal, all of a piece, and so the scholarly agenda and the moral-political agenda stand or fall together. One of the most interesting features of recent discussion of “secularism” is a seamless movement from defending a certain “secular” scholarship to the defense of “the moral convictions” that are taken to be associated somehow with such scholarship.
My critique of secularism applies even more strongly and urgently, I think, where the Church’s moral teaching is concerned. The progressive argument is this: Just as we must confront certain facts about the history of the Restoration that some may find uncomfortable, so we must show respect to “the moral convictions they’ve gained through secular studies…” Now this is extremely interesting — extremely illustrative, I think, of a mindset common among Mormon writers who take pride in their openness towards “secularism,” that is, towards views dominant in the non-Mormon “mainstream.”
To be intellectually respectable is to accept the “moral convictions” of intellectual and media elites. This especially concerns matters of sexual morality. On this view, we must expect critical thinkers with open minds among our LDS youth to adopt or at least to sympathize with the “moral convictions” of those who take for granted the legitimacy, even the “dignity” of non-marital sex and who argue for a radical redefinition of marriage to include homosexual coupling (and perhaps more).
This is all very familiar, of course, but the question that many fail to ask is, just what is it about “secular studies” that is supposed to produce these progressive “moral convictions”? Has a system of secular reason been developed somewhere that demonstrates the superiority of the “new morality” to the old? Or is it not rather the case that these “moral convictions” – at bottom the belief in a kind of progressive liberationism, a commitment to emancipation from all traditional moral restraints on sexual expression – are not so much conclusions drawn from some objective and rational study as they are the premises driving the movement of secularism?
The progressive linkage between secular historical study and new “moral convictions” is not accidental: there indeed seems to be a link between (1) the premise that all truth is historical construction (made by human beings) and (2) the rejection of moral restraints on sexual expression. Secular historicism and secular morality are both at bottom historically relativist: the take it as given that there is no moral or religious reality above human construction in History. And once we see that this relativism is a moral (or immoral) assertion and not the product of some objective evidence, then perhaps we are in a better position to evaluate the former premise as well. In any case, it is telling that progressives perceive a kind of seamless unity between the pose of scholarly objectivity and that of moral liberation.
Those “progressives” who accept this linkage between a supposed intellectual enlightenment and a new “moral” framework will obviously give different advice to youth struggling with moral and intellectual questions than someone less inclined to rely on the “arm of flesh.” Many progressive voices would try to reassure younger Church members struggling with the influence of secular “morality” by stressing the fallibility of prophets and cultivating hope that Church leaders will eventually fall in with the new “moral convictions.” In this way, our progressive counselors argue, we can avoid “painting young members into a corner” where they have to choose between the Church and Progress.
I have to say that the naïveté of this style of advice is charming. For on what view of the matter is the youth supposed to act while he or she is humbly and patiently waiting for either the prophet or himself to “come around”? Let us imagine, for example, that the youth in question is powerfully moved by sexual passions (as youth tend to be, if memory serves). The youth is in effect asking us grown-up scholars or intellectuals whether the passion should be indulged or the Prophet heeded. Our answer: well, the Prophet could be right, or wrong; and your passion could be right, or wrong. So you make the call. I have to say I don’t like the Prophet’s chances under these decision rules.
We do our youth no service by inviting them to keep their options open and thus avoiding “putting them in a corner” where they have to decide. Morality always puts us in a corner, and morality backed by the authority of revelation all the more so. We need moral guidance in our lives, especially our sexual lives – not only, but perhaps especially, in our youth – and to remove the “corner” of choice between Mormon faith and the “moral” convictions of progressivism is necessarily to remove this guidance. We are doing youth no service if to send youth out on some supposed “spiritual journey” without such authoritative moral guidance. And if we attempt to retain youth by helping them “feel connected” while removing all definite and authoritative moral content from that connection, then we are just facilitating their very risking wandering. Moral guidance is a perquisite to any serious spiritual journey.
The corner of moral choice is a necessary condition of our spiritual progress, and any who tend explicitly or implicitly to relieve our youth of this “corner” are doing them no favors. We owe it to our youth to warn against the false prestige of progressive “moral convictions” insofar as these detract from moral clarity in essential matters.
Progressives think it naïve and reactionary to believe that we are living in a “hostile” world. But I would think in fact that it would suffice to let your scriptures fall open to just about any page to find support for the proposition that we are living in a hostile world. But since the role of the BYU Institute named for Elder Neal A. Maxwell has been in question in these discussions, let us consider a statement by Elder Maxwell that bears directly on the question of “secularism”:
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. [C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), p. 19; emphasis in original]
It is a profound quote.
I readily recognize that you will be living in an increasingly secularized society in which people simply don’t see other humans in this true light. Many don’t even believe in an individualized resurrection. I grant, too, that some also assume that there is an absence of immortal truths and absolute principles. As a result, these people prefer to view humans as being without real behavioral boundaries. Given such disbelieving views, it is no wonder that the ways of the natural man quickly prevail. Whether by giving way to materialism or to the things of the flesh, these individuals live without a knowledge of and a commitment to Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation.
Do not, my young friends, expect the world to esteem the seventh commandment—chastity before marriage and fidelity after. Some people in the world will fret genuinely over the consequences of its violation, such as staggering and unprecedented illegitimacy and marital breakdowns. However, sexual immorality per se will still not be condemned by the secular world as long as the violators have any commendable qualities at all or as long as they are, in some respect, politically correct. We will have to keep the seventh commandment because it is spiritually correct, not because we will get much support from society’s other institutions.
And this more recent statement by Elder Chistofferson shows strikingly little “progress,” it must be said, beyond Elder Maxwell’s distrustful view of secularism. Here Elder Chistofferson addresses quite directly the concern for counseling those loved ones whose commitment to the Gospel and the Commandments is at risk (my emphasis added):
…Saying that He came not to send peace, but rather a sword, seems at first impression a contradiction to the scriptures that refer to Christ as the “Prince of Peace,”22and the proclamation at His birth—“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,”23—and other well-known references, such as, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”24 “It is true that Christ came to bring peace—peace between the believer and God, and peace among men. Yet the inevitable result of Christ’s coming is conflict—between Christ and the antichrist, between light and darkness, between Christ’s children and the devil’s children. This conflict can occur even between members of the same family.”25
Yes, the cost of joining the Church of Jesus Christ can be very high, but the admonition to prefer Christ above all others, even our closest family members, applies also to those who may have been born in the covenant. Many of us became members of the Church without opposition, perhaps as children. The challenge we may confront is remaining loyal to the Savior and His Church in the face of parents, in-laws, brothers or sisters, or even our children whose conduct, beliefs, or choices make it impossible to support both Him and them. It is not a question of love. We can and must love one another as Jesus loves us. As He said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”26 But, the Lord reminds us, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”27 So although familial love continues, relationships may be interrupted and, according to the circumstances, even support or tolerance at times suspended for the sake of our higher love.
In reality, the best way to help those we love—the best way to love them—is to continue to put the Savior first. If we cast ourselves adrift from the Lord out of sympathy for loved ones who are suffering or distressed, then we lose the means by which we might have helped them. If, however, we remain firmly rooted in faith in Christ, we are in a position both to receive and to offer divine help. If (or I should say when) the moment comes that a beloved family member wants desperately to turn to the only true and lasting source of help, he or she will know whom to trust as a guide and a companion. In the meantime, with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide, we can perform a steady ministry to lessen the pain of poor choices and bind up the wounds insofar as we are permitted. Otherwise, we serve neither those we love nor ourselves.
To say that forsaking the world in favor of receiving “him … whom God hath ordained” is countercultural in today’s world is certainly an understatement. The priorities and interests we most often see on display around us (and sometimes in us) are intensely selfish: a hunger to be recognized; the insistent demand that one’s rights be respected (including a supposed right never to be offended); a consuming desire for money, things, and power; a sense of entitlement to a life of comfort and pleasure; a goal to minimize responsibility and avoid altogether any personal sacrifice for the good of another; to name a few.
Certainly, worthwhile achievements are laudable, but if we are to save our lives, we must always remember that such attainments are not ends in themselves, but means to a higher end. With our faith in Christ, we must see political, business, academic, and similar forms of success not as defining us but as making possible our service to God and fellowman—beginning at home and extending as far as possible in the world. Personal development has value as it contributes to development of a Christlike character. In measuring success, we recognize the profound truth underlying all else—that our lives belong to God, our Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Success means living in harmony with Their will.
Rather than flattering the “progressive” prejudices of our secular age and offering to relieve our youth of the moral and spiritual choices they face, we Mormon scholars, writers, and internet “intellectuals” would serve our youth and our communities much better by supporting such apostolic advice, and by using our intellectual gifts to question, not the wisdom of Church authorities, but the rationality of the secular “moral convictions” that now invade us from every quarter.
Who is more afraid of “secularism,” after all? Is it he who engages non-Mormon authors in a friendly but frank way, willing to learn but not willing to be ashamed of the Restored gospel? Or is it he who is so eager to be included in an academic guild that he praises as “breadth” the suppression of the very question of truth?
Who is really afraid of secularism? Those who trust in the arm of flesh and are thus too afraid to question the very questionable premises of our secular age.