Cover Image: Peter Vidmar courtesy of the Orange County Register.
“…and your mind doth begin to expand.” – Alma 32:34
While many set faith at odds with critical thinking, Meridian’s “Expand” page promotes an alternative model of the life of the mind. It engages current moral, political and cultural issues with intellectual rigor from a faithful LDS standpoint.
We live in trying times. To be sure, every era has its challenges, and ours is highly blessed in many ways. But it surely is not getting any easier to find our way as Latter-day Saints through a world where fundamental moral and social changes seem to come at an ever-accelerating pace, and where fundamental shifts are now measured in months rather than decades. Views on the family and sexuality that were openly espoused by a very progressive Democratic President just six years ago are now widely held, by intellectual and media elites in particular, to be symptoms of the most obnoxious “bigotry.”
We Latter-day Saints now find ourselves in an ambivalent attitude toward “the world.” We are certainly not to be of the world, but we are “sent into” the world. (John 17:14-19) And just what it means to be “sent into” seems to be getting harder and harder to work out, at least in North America. Those of us who have some memories of mid-twentieth century America experienced a period marked by a hope for reconciliation between the Mormon and American worlds. The trials and conflicts surrounding polygamy were definitively behind us, and the dignified and amiable President McKay marvelously represented the Church in making peace with an America then experiencing a boom in the formation of families and the bearing of children – and in very rightfully opposing atheistic Communism.
Troubles over the race issue and then the counter-cultural revolution of the 60s-70s (still ongoing, of course, though no longer “counter”) troubled this concord between the Church and the American world; but in a way the hope for reconciliation between the Church and our host culture, for a lasting and substantial peace, endured into the new century and even experienced a kind of frenetic revival in the recent “Mormon Moment” surrounding the candidacies of Mitt Romney, a very good Mormon and a very good American.
Apart from the historical ebb and flow of Latter-day Saints’ relation to social and political trends, Mormon ambivalence towards the world has a deeper theological root. We are not an ascetic religion that despises all things temporal and material, but on the contrary a faith that embraces the challenges of this “second estate” as integral to the unfolding of eternity and that understands the soul as union of spirit and body. Accordingly we do not sever humanity from divinity, but see godliness in all humankind’s works that are “virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy.” We are not given to narrow distrust of ways other than our own, but seek after all good things wherever they can be found.
“Liberality” in the sense of a generous openness to truth and beauty in all its manifestations is congenital to Mormonism, and so we have welcomed opportunities to benefit from and to contribute to the larger communities in which we find ourselves, economically, politically, artistically, and in many other ways. Our well-founded distrust of “the world” in the sense of Satan’s dominion has been balanced – perhaps of late even overshadowed – by our confidence that we could partner with friends who do not (yet) share our belief in the Restoration to help make the world better.
Now, however, the social and political conditions that allowed for such confidence have definitively passed. While many Americans, indeed probably a majority, still honor basic moral principles that support the family – that is, the real, natural marriage of man and woman in view as essentially ordered towards the procreation and education of children, the views of media and intellectual elites have turned against these principles swiftly and dramatically. The traditional and natural understanding of marriage that was still publicly supported by leading political figures across the spectrum, including Democratic presidents and presidential candidates, less than a decade ago is now widely vilified as a product of sheer irrational “animus” fit to be hounded out of respectable society.
Consider the following examples:
“I have dedicated my life to the Olympic movement and the ideals of excellence, friendship and respect. I wish that my personal religious beliefs would not have become a distraction.”
—Peter Vidmar, as he was forced out of the Chef de Mission position for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, 2011
“I have decided to resign as CEO effective today, and leave Mozilla,” Eich said in a statement provided by Mozilla. “Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader. I will be taking time before I decide what to do next.”
—Brendan Eich, as he was forced to resign after just 11 days as CEO of Mozilla, 2014
“He’s brought a level of sophistication and professionalism to their communications,” says Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign. “He’s a smart operative and a good hire for Heritage — but at the end of the day, he’s on the wrong side of history.”
—Fred Sainz regarding scholar and traditional marriage proponent Ryan Anderson, 2015
“All of us, including our university president Matthew Holland, have the right to speak publicly as private citizens on controversial issues. However, as the public face of UVU to the larger community, Holland has a special responsibility to avoid public pronouncements that would harm his ability to carry out his duties as president of a state university officially committed to ‘diversity and inclusion.'”
—UVU Professors regarding UVU President Matthew Holland, and in response to his signing of the pro-traditional marriage amicus brief destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, 2015
Four voices silenced. Four years (2011-2015). Each of these men dared to make public what strong forces in our contemporary American society increasingly seek to silence: a deep conviction that mothers and fathers (1) are not the same and (2) are complementary in a way that provides for both the means of procreation and the optimal conditions for raising the procreated.
This conviction of the soundness of the male-female partnership as the cornerstone of the family and thus of society, a commitment grounded in reason and experience as well as religious belief, has, within the space of but a few years, become viewed by large swaths of American society not only as misguided but also as “discriminatory,” “hurtful,” and even “unconstitutional.” As a result, judges have imposed a redefinition of marriage in a large number of states — with, to date, no federal backlash — and more and more of our nation’s champions of “diversity” and “inclusiveness” simply will not tolerate dissent on this point.
If this trajectory is followed to its logical conclusion, Latter-day Saints who follow the teachings of scripture and of modern prophets, along with roughly half their fellow citizens in the United States, will be considered fit to exclude from public debate owing to their supposedly “bigoted” views on human sexuality and the ideal make-up of the basic unit of society. And it will be considered – it is already considered by a critical mass of powerful figures – a matter of simple justice to impose appropriate financial and social disadvantages on people who are so benighted as to support the man-woman understanding of marriage that was universal until so recently.
How did we arrive at this stage? It was, among other developments, thanks to the perfect storm of decreasing religiosity across portions of the country, a degree of apathy among some who profess Christian and other monotheistic beliefs, incredibly vocal LGBT activists, the adoption of powerful language and slogans that many found difficult to contest or resist (“marriage equality,” “tolerance,” “love is love,” etc.) and, yes, fear on the part of the majority of traditional family advocates to make their voices heard. (With the aforementioned examples, who wouldn’t be afraid? In the cases of Vidmar, Eich, and others, the real-life consequences of voicing belief in the man-woman marriage paradigm have proven both swift and severe. Hence the pronouncement by Lance Wickman, general counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that “a new closet is being constructed for those with traditional religious values on sexuality.”)
Most surprising and disappointing for me, as a Latter-day Saint (LDS), has been witnessing friends and family from within the faith jump on board the “marriage equality” bandwagon, despite the fact that their increasingly vocal advocacy for redefining marriage flies in the face of repeated, consensus views shared at LDS worldwide conferences by church authorities (to say nothing of Holy Writ). Furthermore, this advocacy risks ostracizing the very church leaders these members claim to sustain by fueling the fires of opposition to the traditional and natural understanding of marriage, and therefore painting those who cling to such outdated as “bigots,” that is, as persons whose views deserve no respect.
The possible repercussions are not pretty: the tax exempt status of faith groups could be increasingly called into question; the chastity standards of even private universities (think BYU) could be deemed beyond the pale of respectability in an “inclusive” society; and individual members who choose to uphold and proclaim what they deeply believe regarding marriage and the family could be subject to increasingly detrimental societal sanctions.
Secular Religion and Book of Mormon Prophecies
This alarmingly rapid shift in public opinion surely would not have been possible if deeply held principles had not already been weakened over a longer period. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, in an address (“Stand as Witnesses of God) published in the March 2015 Ensign, helps us to situate the recent transformation in a timeframe that goes back to the origins of modern rationalism, or secular humanism.
“The denial of God or the downplaying of His role in human affairs that began in the Renaissance has become pervasive today.” While “the glorifying of human reasoning has had good and bad effects,” Elder Oaks explains, “prophecies of the last days foretell great opposition to inspired truth and action. Some of these prophecies concern the anti-Christ, and others speak of the great and abominable church.” And he links the core teaching of this “great and abominable church,” which “must be something far more pervasive and widespread than a single “church,” as we understand that term today” with the assertions of Korihor in the Book of Mormon:
Korihor … declared “that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men.” His description of the consequence of his rejection of the idea of sin and a Savior is strikingly similar to the belief of many in our time: “Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and … every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17).
Today we call Korihor’s philosophy moral relativism. This is the belief applied by many in the popular media and in response to peer pressure. “Break free of the old rules. Do what feels good to you. There is no accountability beyond what man’s laws or public disapproval impose on those who are caught.” Behind such ideas is the assumption that there is no God or, if there is, He has given no commandments that apply to us today.
Elder Oaks continues:
The rejection of an unprovable God and the denial of right and wrong are most influential in the world of higher education. Secular humanism, a branch of humanism probably so labeled because of its strong alignment with secularism, is deliberately or inadvertently embodied in the teachings of faculty members in many colleges and universities.
…As former BYU philosophy professor Chauncey Riddle has written, “Humanism makes a man to be god, the supreme being, and the educated human mind becomes the arbiter of all that is true, good and beautiful.” He also reminds us that humanism “enjoys good press in the world today because most of the writers, publishers, scholars and media people are of this persuasion.”4
…Book of Mormon prophecies describe the “great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil” (1 Nephi 14:17). This “church” is prophesied to have “dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people” (1 Nephi 14:11). Called “most abominable above all other churches,” this church is also said to act “for the praise of the world” in bringing “the saints of God … down into captivity” (1 Nephi 13:5, 9).
Given the prophesied rise of a “church” dominant throughout the world, we ought not to be surprised as Latter-day Saints to find ourselves on the losing end of political and legal battles and on the low end of the ladder of social esteem. Elder Oaks continues: “Many people who believe in God and the right and wrong that exist because of His commandments experience scorn and mocking from worldly teachings and denial of God that occur in many organizations, including educational institutions and media.”
Compromise and Conviction
How should Latter-day Saints respond to the increasing sway of a Church committed to the power of human beings to redefine morality according to their wishes? “In conclusion,” Elder Oaks says, “I suggest to all believers everywhere that we have a solemn religious duty to be witnesses of God. We must affirm our religious faiths, unite to insist upon our right to the free exercise of our religions, and honor their vital roles in establishing and preserving and prospering nations.”
Note that Elder Oaks asks us, not only to hold firm to a godly morality in private, but to join with other religious believers (other dissenters from the increasingly dominant secular “church”) in the public defense of religious freedom and in seeking the common good of our nations according to our best understanding. The ascendancy of the Great and Abominable is not so great, it seems, as to excuse us Latter-day Saints from our duty as citizens to seek and defend what is best for the larger community.
So we are left with the challenge of seeking the good of a community in which dominant opinion is increasingly under the sway of the church of secularism thus hostile to our very understanding of what makes a virtuous and good life. In the compromise between advocates of “LGBT rights” and religious freedom reached earlier in the state of Utah with strong and public support from the Church, LDS leaders have provide an important example of public action under these challenging circumstances.
This is an example that bears careful examination (I have attempted such an examination in an earlier article here at Meridian/Expand). In the news conference that presented the compromise, Elder Holland and other Church leaders advocated “fairness and compassion” towards those claiming legal protections for LGBT individuals, while re-affirming the Church’s stance on sexual morality and on marriage in the clearest possible terms. And they suggested that there is no final and perfect solution to the problem of holding this political fairness and true moral commitments together, but rather that we would continue to confront this challenge.
The management of deep moral and religious commitments along with the demands of political fairness is not only a practical challenge, but an intellectual and spiritual one as well. Not only courage but clear and careful thinking will be required as we seek out the best possible compromises under current political circumstances while giving no ground on fundamental truths.
Such careful thinking might begin with the question: just why do we tolerate and accommodate in the political realm certain “moral” viewpoints that we know are in fact immoral? An obvious example is the notion that there is no problem with sexual activity outside real marriage. One reason for such tolerance is intrinsically moral and religious: we are convinced others are wrong to advocate and practice sexual immorality, but we understand that people must exercise their own agency and be held responsible for their own decisions.
Obviously this reasoning has limits, because all law is based on some basic purposes and some moral foundation, just as there is no agency without some understanding of the reality in which agency operates, and thus of the real consequences (eternal and temporal) for both the individual and the community. Both from a political and from a theological point of view, then, there are limits to the claims of individual freedom or agency against a shared understanding of the common good. But within those limits, tolerance is an important, even an essential principle, both politically and theologically.
Another reason for tolerance is simple political necessity or expedience: we cannot avoid living among people with whom we disagree, sometimes even on quite fundamental moral questions. We are not free to organize our communities according to our fundamental religious beliefs (even if we LDS agreed in every particular on the practical implications of these beliefs), and so we must negotiate compromises with others who share governing power in our society. Our Church leaders have made it very clear that there is nothing wrong with such political compromise; indeed, using compromise to make our communities as good as they can possibly be under existing circumstances is essential to the duties of the Christian who is also the citizen of a non-Christian, or only partly Christian, country.
But there is a risk inherent in this Christian citizenship, and it is a deep and subtle danger. For the language of tolerance and compromise tends to take on a life of its own, and to shade into some fuller, more idealistic commitment to “fairness,” “diversity,” “inclusiveness.” And of course there is the noble idea of equality itself that tends to transform itself into the relativistic idea of the equal “dignity” of all “lifestyles” – which of course means that the most “equal” and therefore truly worthy lifestyle is that which is “freest” in the sense of most liberated from any moral consequences, temporal or eternal.
Tolerance goes along with political “respect,” and such “respect” easily dissolves, under the pressure of a purely secular idea of human “dignity,” into “recognition” of the moral worth of lifestyles liberated from all traditional moral and religious restraints. And once this moral recognition of “diverse” lifestyles is established, well, it is the traditional moral way of life that necessarily appears to be prejudiced, “judgmental,” and irrational.
We begin with the simple necessity of compromise or “reciprocity” in political negotiation, and we tend to move to affirming morally and theologically the right of people to lead a dignified life, and then we are at least very close to affirming an idea of “dignity” very different from the more traditional, moral and religious idea we started out with. And, however great our distaste for the strident conflict of “culture wars” as these intrude on the political arena, there is no denying the fact that these two ideas of dignity are incompatible and cannot both serve ultimately as touchstones of law and public policy.
The New “Dignity”
This new idea of “dignity” as implying an unlimited right to “sexual expression” now holds such authority for certain influential segments of our society that its adherents cannot even imagine an older and sounder understanding of human worth. Attempts to explain the traditional understanding of human meaning, which accords with the natural or traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, are rejected out of hand as obviously irrational and motivated only by hatred.
The key argument — or, rather, rhetorical strategy — of the “marriage equality” movement was conceived more than two hundred years ago by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. When the aggressively secular philosophers of the 18th century realized that simple logic could not actually refute traditional ideas of God or of a Higher Good, they settled on a strategy that did not depend too much on reason: the public would have to be moved by passions and appetites to reject traditional authority, and the rational appeal of transcendent goods would have to be neutralized by a relentless campaign of ridicule conducted by a unified army of prominent writers. Haughty contempt, aided by wit and literary talent, would suffice to intimidate traditionalists and thus supply the defect of truly conclusive reasoning.
Today, it hardly occurs to advocates of “gay marriage” or “marriage equality” actually to examine the strongest arguments of their opponents and to seek to answer them. In fact, the progressive strategy of the massive deployment of ridicule has succeeded so well that exceptional wit and talent are hardly needed; the prejudice in favor of dismantling of tradition is so well established among intellectual, academic and media elites that “reason” is simply identified with such “progress.”
Any actual reasoning on the fundamental question of the natural foundations and human purposes of marriage is commonly buried under an onslaught of ridicule that protects the general public from being exposed to subversive thoughts that might favor traditional restraints. Today’s enlightened champions of “progress” beyond traditional or natural marriage have discovered the power of a unified front that admits of no argument concerning fundamentals: by simply stipulating in advance that defenders of traditional moral and legal norms are determined by “prejudice” and moved by nothing but irrational “animus”[i] all opposition can be subjected to ridicule and any interest in rational deliberation about actual goods for the individual and the community can be discredited before it finds a voice.
To be sure, the progressive constitutional argument for “marriage equality” does not depend solely on the negative strategy of ridicule and dismissal of its opponents. Clearly the movement to liquidate traditional structures draws upon some emotional appeal, some normative substance animated by a certain vision of humanity. Every moral and political argument depends ultimately upon some “animus” or spirit that cannot be derived from pure logic or formal “reason.” In this sense the progressive argument is no less dependent than the traditionalist on a kind of “religious” conviction.
The animating spiritual core of the progressive argument is a certain notion of human “dignity.” Justice Kennedy has famously enshrined this notion within the case law of the Supreme Court: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey).
Of course no one in the marriage debate disputes human dignity as a bedrock principle; but when “dignity” takes on a radically new meaning when it is divorced from any shared moral understanding. When tied to the equal right of every individual to define absolutely for herself the meaning of all things, “dignity” implies a radical version of the original Enlightenment project to secure the autonomy of humanity. The new dignity intends to liberate claims of human worth from all dependence on traditional and religious authority.
The appeal to “dignity” as a kind of freestanding absolute of humanistic morality is thus by no means neutral as between traditionalist believers and defenders of new rights of sexual expression. This radically individualist and egalitarian “dignity” is the progressive religion. For believers in this religion, it is obvious that fairness, or simple justice, urgently requires the universal public recognition of the moral dignity of any and all sexual choices, or identities, or chosen identities.
Anything short of this enforceable public recognition must be considered a blasphemy to be suppressed, often in the name of “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” As we learned in Indiana, even the hypothetical suggestion that some benighted individual business owner might choose not to cater pizza for a celebration of homosexual union is an offense against the new dignity not to be tolerated. For the ideologues of the Sexual Left, “fair” can only mean the public recognition of the moral dignity of any and all sexual choices, or identities, or chosen identities. But LDS leaders, in their embrace of “fair” compromise, have obviously offered something very different from this moral “recognition” of immorality.
Marriage vs. the Religion of Secularism
There is a coherent argument against “gay marriage” (which no amount of progressive ridicule can eradicate), and this argument naturally has its own spirit or “animus.” At the core of this “institutional” (and thus not radically individualistic and selfishly adult-centered) view is another understanding of human dignity, one that embeds individual dignity within shared communal goods and responsibilities. It is this more traditional understanding of dignity, and not an absolute power of human self-definition, that still resonates in the idea of liberty under “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
This, then, is the momentous decision we have somehow delegated to our sovereign Supreme Court: What is human dignity? Will we as a people honor liberty under God, or will we put the full force of law behind the worship of the new dignity of absolute human autonomy?
This should be an easy question for Latter-day Saints, no matter how the Supreme Court decides the marriage question. But we will retain a firm grasp of the grounding of human dignity in God’s laws and purposes only if we resist the subtle slippage from compromise to respect to embrace of the new “dignity” of the limitless secular self. Religious people may indeed have to compromise with secularists, even extreme secularists, but we must not indulge the temptation to confuse true religion and the religion of secularism under the appealing but misleading notion of “dignity.”
Under these conditions, any space we as Christian citizens manage to carve out for religious and moral freedom will necessarily be limited and fragile. In striving to preserve such space, we can count on the opposition of a much less tolerant religion. If I suggest that we might regard this secular religion as the Great and Abominable Church prophesied in the Book of Mormon, I hope it is clear from Elder Oaks’ remarks, reviewed above, that I do not do so on my own authority.[ii]
[i] A key term introduced into Supreme Court case law through Romer v. Evans (1996) and addressed in U.S. v. Windsor (2013)
[ii] Portions of this article were first published as an opinion piece in the Deseret News.