Last week I wrote about Joanna Brooks’s then-upcoming appearance on The Daily Show, arguing that the increasing prominence of liberal Mormons is good for the institutional church, even if the mainstream doesn’t realize it.
She appeared Thursday night, and the next morning the Bloggernacle, and particularly the Bloggernacle-adjacent forums, were a-chatter. It’s hard to distill the flurry of opinion into a single statement other than to say something that isn’t news: Joanna is controversial, yo. Her interview re-ignited debates about authenticity, honesty, and loyalty to the institutional church that have been raging ever since she and other liberal Mormons arrived on the national scene.
So this week I want to address a different, and to my mind more important, question. Forget about the institution; is the rise of liberal Mormons helping individuals, or is it doing them harm?
I want to look at this question from a purely utilitarian perspective. I don’t care if you think liberal Mormonism isn’t real Mormonism, or if you find liberal Mormonism no more tenable evidentiarily than mainstream Mormonism. Beliefs, true or false, are not harmful or helpful per se. I also don’t care what you think of Brooks and the others personally — whether you think they are exploiting the “Mormon Moment” for professional or pecuniary gain. I only want to examine how liberal Mormonism impacts the well-being of those who encounter it.
Let’s start with where we are most likely to agree: Mormonism, as an institution, causes harm to individuals. In particular, this harm is rooted in the institution’s reactionary policies. Women are marginalized, intellectuals and skeptics are subject to pressure, and LGBT individuals are rejected outright. If Mormonism weren’t a reactionary institution — if it liberalized at the same rate as the rest of society — it wouldn’t be the specific cause of this type of suffering. (Of course this isn’t all Mormonism does, and it isn’t even primarily what it does. Mormonism does plenty of good. And I’ll even concede that there are aspects of conservative Mormonism that do good — albeit mostly for white, heterosexual, middle-to-upper-class men.)
Given the above, the question can be rephrased this way: To what extent does the increasing prominence of liberal Mormonism check the institution’s reactionary tendencies, and to what extent does it enable them?
I’ve heard plenty of people, mostly disaffected and former Mormons, argue the latter. I have to confess that I have plenty of respect for Brooks and other liberal Mormons; I don’t share their beliefs, but I almost invariably find them to be intelligent, authentic, and honest. So it’s tempting to write off their criticisms as nothing more than the knee-jerk anger of those who have concluded that Mormonism is Categorically Bad, and that anything that benefits the institution is also Bad.
However, many of the criticisms have merit, and arguments motivated by anger aren’t necessarily unsound, so I’ve summarized the ones I find most compelling. (I encountered most of these on forums with privacy agreements; it wouldn’t be Kosher for me to quote verbatim. I’ve also reworded the arguments to make them more convincing.)
- Liberal Mormons misrepresent Mormonism to the public. Listening to Brooks on The Daily Show, you’d get the impression that it’s unremarkable for Mormons to question the institution, to espouse feminism, or to support LGBT rights. But most Mormons, and certainly most Mormons of influence, do not believe this way. She minimizes the extent to which lived Mormonism is reactionary, which gives the church cover to persist in being reactionary without suffering the PR consequences.
- Liberal Mormonism isn’t going to affect the institution’s policy. Take the rescinding of the priesthood ban as an example. The church didn’t change its mind because liberal Mormons were able to exert their influence. It did so because it suffered a decade of devastating external pressure. The institution tolerates its liberal members as much as it has to, but it doesn’t embrace them, and it certainly doesn’t heed them on policy.
- Even if liberals do manage to influence church policy, all they accomplish is to help the church survive. Institutional Mormonism is inherently conservative, and all its liberalization has ever done — from ending polygamy to rescinding the priesthood ban — is make the church just liberal enough to fit within the political mainstream. Upon liberalization, Mormonism remains reactionary, but it lives to fight another day. On balance it would be better to let the institution languish in its radicalism, suffer a major loss in membership and influence, and no longer have the power to hurt so many people.
These are fair criticisms, but I don’t think they bear scrutiny. Said scrutiny is therefore applied:
Misrepresentation: In her interview, Brooks makes it clear that she’s among a 20 percent minority of (politically) liberal Mormons, and she’s explicit about the tension between liberals — whose goal is simply to “get along” — and the conservative mainstream. I suspect that her increasing prominence mostly alerts the public to the existence of liberal Mormons. Before, if they ever bothered to think about it, the average member of the public might assume that Mormons are lockstep in their social and political conservatism. Now — again, if they bother to think about it! — they realize that there’s a minority who dissent from the mainstream.
But even if the public overestimates the degree to which liberal Mormons represent the mainstream, it puts the institution in a bind. If Mormonism is perceived publicly as tolerant, every reactionary move costs the institution more political capital than it otherwise would. Liberal Mormons give the institution cred that it has to give up explicitly in order to take a stridently conservative stance. I visualize Liberal Mormons staring the institution down, saying, “Look at the goodwill we’ve brought your way. We dare you to retrench now.”
- Affecting policy: I do consider it unlikely that liberal Mormonism will ever have much success changing policy. The closest thing to a counter-example is Lester Bush’s celebrated 1973 Dialogue article, but, given how long the leadership had already been agonizing over the issue, I consider it more likely that Bush’s article facilitated the rescinding of the priesthood ban than effected it. The leadership already wanted to rescind the ban, and Bush’s article provided a way for them to do so while saving face. That’s not a seat at the decision-making table, to be sure, but it’s a necessary role. If Mormonism ever recognizes same-sex unions or grants women the priesthood, it likely will brandish similar justifications provided by its liberal intellectuals. In the meantime, individual members liberalize, and the harm of the institution’s reactionary nature is diluted in the tolerance of its members.
- Survival: Again I agree in part with the critics. Mormonism isn’t likely to stop being conservative anytime soon, and as long it’s a powerful institution it’s likely to do some harm. However, it isn’t clear to me that the liberalization of policy has all that much impact on the numerical success of the church. The 1970s saw the church at its most reactionary, and yet it was a fantastically successful time for Mormon missionaries. My in-laws — recovering hippies starting a family and looking for stability — joined the church in the late 70s in spite of the priesthood ban, and they certainly weren’t alone. Leaving it to its own reactionary devices won’t give the institution enough rope to hang itself; it’ll just mean that only the lynch mob is making decisions.
Mormonism isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not going to stop being a conservative institution. But Brooks and other liberal Mormons aren’t enabling Mormonism’s reactionary side. They give the church PR cover only to the extent that it tolerates their liberalism, showing the membership — and leadership — that one can get away with (measured) dissent from the orthodoxy. It’s not as much as one might hope for, but it helps far more than it harms.