by Onli A. Pawne
So I was reading Noam Chomsky the other day. And first let me just say that he’s the most beautiful person ever to grace this earth with his presence, and you should add him to your list of inspirational people on Facebook or whatever right now (if you’re one of the few who hasn’t done so already). Anyway, in the 1976 interview I read, Chomsky suggests the exaggerated praise heaped on Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (famous as author of the Gulag Archipelago) in the American press arose out of a desire to “‘export’ … moral issues to others”, “to make people believe that the United States doesn’t confront any real moral problems”, that “[s]uch problems only arise in the Soviet Union, and the ‘moral giants’ are there to respond to them”. And this to avoid “too many embarrassing questions”, “to conceal their own role as people who remained silent for so many years”, to refuse “to admit the existence of a courageous and principled resistance, largely on the part of the youth, to the atrocities which they themselves readily tolerated”.
While Chomsky is speaking of the Vietnam War, I believe a similar process or discourse–an attempt to “export” morality to hide internal conflicts and avoid confronting ourselves as a nation/church in the mirror–circulates in Mormondom. In Church magazines and manuals, in General Conference, in all the lay-member talks and testimonies I’ve ever heard, morality is presented in three principal ways: the institutional Church or some of its members resisting “the World” / its alleged (and allegedly monolithic) standards, Book of Mormon heroes confronting Laman(ites), and people acting out Boy Scout virtues (thriftiness, service, homophobia, etc.). Very occasionally stories of overzealous Mormons make the rounds (“Did you hear the one about the seminary teacher who sacrificed his baby on the kitchen table–with his wife’s consent?”), but their problematic behavior is inevitably interpreted as an interdiction of Church doctrine, rather than as a direct result of it. Moral courage is not and can never be standing up to the Church itself (or any of its … “subsidiaries”–i.e., lay leaders and the BYUs/LDSBC).
At least Orthodox Mormons (in my opinion a moniker infinitely preferable to “TBM”) have a better reason than 1960s middle-class, middle-aged Americans for their antipathy towards internal dissent: They believe God guides the Church at all levels, that God himself always already approves local leaders for service; because of these suppositions a strong aura of seemingly shatterproof authority surrounds anyone invested with a “stewardship” by Salt Lake. (It doesn’t help that we stand now at the tail end of a generation of General Authorities who worked to stamp out dissent and build a virtual cult of infallibility around the Church’s institutions and its prophet-president [I really should provide more sources for that claim, but just start here and here].) Although actually … considering Elder B.K. Packer was one of the Americans denouncing draft dodgers during the Vietnam conflict, maybe Mormons deride dissenters for exactly the same reason bougie Americans hated and continue to hate on war protesters: because they consider breaking with tradition and refusing reflexive obedience to authority to be always irresponsible and immoral. In fact, I think the connection between general American apathy towards thorny social justice issues and similar Mormon qualms about addressing unfounded and unscientific Church policies and practices (such as the soft prohibition on masturbation and the hard one on homosexuality) is a topic that merits an exploration of its own.
Regardless of the reasons for it, though, it’s important to realize the devastating effect of this desire for homogeneity on those who, whether by identitarian fact (e.g., sexual orientation) or by well-considered opinion (e.g., support gay marriage), don’t fit the Church’s mold or accept some of its claims. Usually at this point someone would throw out “the Church is as true as the Gospel” (a Eugene Englandism), “the Church isn’t defined by its members”, “follow the prophet–even if he’s wrong, you’ll be blessed” or some such platitude to move on as quickly as possible from any discussion that begins with the premise “bad shit goes down in Mormondom”. Often personal worthiness or moral authority is questioned (”How often are you reading your scriptures/praying/etc.?” “Are you perfect? Well, then don’t judge.”). It’s in that approach that I think is revealed the really fundamental way this philosophy stems from an individualistic mainstream Mormon understanding of community (which, once again, is undoubtedly connected to their and other Americans’ political beliefs). It’s an approach that delimits the extent of the individual’s responsibility to leaving the feathers of the flock unruffled, to “stay[ing] in the mainstream” (as my stake president recently told me to do), to resolving his/her own sins in private. And maintains, further, that if it is necessary to “stuff” one’s deep-seated qualms about local, area, or general authorities or structures or messages to achieve this desired assimilation–then so be it. This rather than acknowledge any community responsibility to reach out to individuals who don’t feel included–whether that’s because they have unorthodox views or unorthodox lives/families, whether they live on the margins of its political (in the broad sense) or sexual (again, in the broad sense) norms.
And all that was only to outline the contours of the ideological apparatus which stymies the Mormon malcontent, the would-be whistleblower, and founds the firm resistance to social justice shared by a pants-ton of the faithful (all credit to fellow blogger Hannah Wheelwright for that delightful little neologism). Almost regardless of the issue involved, the community will not hear out any criticism or complaint–to quote Dallin Oaks, “that it is true does not matter”. It (the community) will not recognize a failed obligation, for it recognizes no obligations at all. Thus to critique the place of gender among the Saints, it has become essential to establish one’s right to criticize anything. Now, happily, issues like same-sex marriage are getting more and more people to fight for that right to dissent.
My hope is that someday soon we will all be willing to break the silence and acknowledge that, borrowing from Foucault, “It is a duty of the [Church] citizenship to always bring the testimony of people’s suffering to the eyes and ears of [Church] government, sufferings for which it’s untrue that they are not responsible. The suffering of men must never be a silent residue of policy. It grounds an absolute right to stand up and speak to those who hold power.”
We must realize that it is not enough to be only disillusioned, for when we retreat into that safe, non-confrontational corner to nurse our wounded souls, individualism wins. Doubts become like sins, questions transgressions, curses to be cured in the (“)privacy(“) of sympathetic Facebook groups or in the confessional of the bishop’s office. No; rather, we must practice the courage to speak the truth within us; we must learn to tell the emperor He’s naked.