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“Progressivism” is rotting our brains, and souls are never far behind in the process when brains are rotting. Now, if you, reader, are already turning away in outrage and disgust at my blasphemy against “Progress” (a.k.a. “Social Change” or simply “Society”), the chief idol of our age, then I’m afraid I have to warn you that you are exhibiting a symptom of the very disease against which I was hoping to warn you.

In case it might help, let me reassure you that I fully recognize that “progress” is by definition a good thing, assuming we define it as “change for the better.” But the problem with the rampant ideology of progressivism is that it refuses to take responsibility for the moral judgment inherent in the term. To judge some change to constitute progress, we have to be ready to affirm that it makes things better and thus to stand behind some understanding of what is good.

But the rotting power of progressivism consists precisely in its dazzling power to make apparently intelligent people think that they can advance a moral cause, and thus of course advance themselves as enlightened leaders in this moral cause, without taking responsibility for an actual moral judgment. In fact they propel their cause forward and themselves upward in status by castigating the moral “judgmentalism” or “narrowness” of those with whom they disagree. They brandish the virtue of intellectual humility – as something that obviously needs to be applied to those who lack their full faith and confidence in the progressive cause. It is this purely logical or intellectual dimension of the Progressive rot that concerns me here – I leave it to God to search souls.

Only Good Change is Good 

The intellectual problem is at bottom extremely simple, but apparently very elusive for those already caught up in the dynamics of Progress: only good change is good, and society does not always change for the better; but “Progress” provides a cover for evading the question of goodness.

This evasion is at the heart of the spiritual-intellectual rot of “Progressivism” that continues to work its way throughout our Western Societies, and the membership of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to my great disappointment and indeed alarm, is proving to be no exception. To be more precise, one would have to suppose that the rot has been working its way for a generation or more, hollowing out the cognitive fiber of citizens and believers, until a moment of decision arises in which the individual’s supposedly independent moral structure collapses in the face of popular pressure (or intellectual-media elite pressure so disguised), because the heretofore invisible process of decomposition has undermined all sources of resistance.

One might momentarily be inclined, by some ancient inclination or dimly remembered promise, to stand up for some substantive understanding of the good or some moral principle, but one finds no conceptual legs of support, no bones and no sinews.

How the Mormons Conquered America

A recent and particularly lamentable example of effects of this insidious cognitive decomposition, with its all-to-familiar moral-spiritual effects, is an article published at “Nautilus,” a serious and substantive online journal (as far I can tell) that addresses “the sciences, culture and philosophy.”

Under the heading, “Mutation Creates the Most Successful Religions,” we find the article “How the Mormons Conquered America.” And if you will excuse my going straight to the punch line, the answer is: By Letting America Conquer Mormonism.

The keynote is taken from the Broadway version of The Book of Mormon, which offers this distillation of the Mormon genius: “We are still Latter day Saints, all of us / Even if we change some things, or we break the rules.” The subtitle states the bracing (if not original) thesis more academically: “The success of the Mormon religion is a study in social adaptation.” Any backward readers who might “associate the church with the squeaky clean image of the Osmond family and Mitt Romney” are invited to chill and have a sense of humor, to join the Broadway laughter about Joseph Smith having sex with a frog to rid himself of AIDS.

The article’s well-worn premise, ultimately, is that “the Mormon story is quintessentially American,” and the resulting imperative, naturally, is that Mormonism should change with Americanism.

Mormonism’s secret (no longer a secret should this article become well known, of course) is this: “being able to change without having practitioners feel like they have changed is a powerful adaptive tool.” (My emphasis) This “fascinating… sleight of hand” (R. Sosis, evolutionary anthropologist) is supposed to be possible, I read further, largely because, according to the University of Virginia’s new Professor of Mormon Studies, Kathleen Flake, Mormonism is built on “a narrative structure rather than a philosophical belief system.”

Professor Flake’s favoring of a “narrative structure” over “a philosophical belief system” is a common intellectual move that seems to allow a member to be faithful to a “story” without becoming too attached to definite beliefs, since such an attachment might be socially and historically inconvenient. 

But I must point out that, from the point of view of an actual “practitioner” of Mormonism, it is hard to see how the great story of Mormonism, the “great plan of happiness,” which of course includes the need for a Savior, for commandments, for covenants, for repentance and forgiveness – it is hard to see how such a “narrative” can be separated from definite beliefs, such as the belief in the eternal significance of the difference between male and female, for example, and in the sacred laws that surround sexual activity. 

Of course there are some beliefs, some elements of the Grand Narrative, that must be considered more fundamental than others, and we know that some less essential beliefs have changed under the guidance of continuing revelation.  But in general the attempt to separate “narrative” from “belief system” seems to be an example of the “fascinating sleight of hand” by designed to facilitate “adaptation” or “mutation” by separating ordinary “practitioners” from their “belief system.”

The key “changes” in question in this article will surprise no one. In the past, there were (1) polygamy and (2) extending the priesthood to male members of black-African descent. The (3) prospective or presumably ongoing changes can be reduced to one word – one powerful word, the keystone, I would say, of our secular religion of Progress: Equality. As Professor Flake notes (paraphrased in the article), “two of the three major social movements in America and much of the world in the last 100 years include equal status for women and gays and lesbians. The Mormons are among many religions that do not give full equality to women, gays, and lesbians.”

Patient “Progress”

So the agenda seems pretty clear.

  Careful and gradual as Mormon Progress might be, the direction of progress could not be more evident and, apparently, ineluctable. We’ll catch up, Prof. Flake is reassuring us, and thanks to the need for concurrence among the leading councils of the Church, we will even do so more gradually and successfully than most. 

This Mormonism of slow-but-steady progress towards ideals embraced by feminists and homosexual rights advocates is a Mormonism progressive intellectuals can be proud of, or at least identify with without too much embarrassment.  For Mormons who adopt this progressive point of view, it is possible to appreciate the progress of one’s fellow Latter-day Saints while enjoying the superiority of a standpoint that comprehends in advance the direction in which the ordinary membership is being moved.   

Just a little social theory allows the progressive intellectual Mormon  to live comfortably and diplomatically among more slowly progressing members, and even  regard with indulgence the plodding, unconscious progress of well-meaning but decidedly non-scientific Church Authorities, while effectively living already in the sunlit uplands of Equality.   

The author of the article, Michael Fitzgerald, thought that he had found a very prestigious voice of Mormon Progressivism in the person of Clayton M.

Christensen, noted local and regional LDS Church leader, Professor at the Harvard Business School, and best-selling author precisely on the subject of innovation. Mr Fitzgerald misquotes Brother Christensen as believing that Church authorities are wrong on the homosexual rights question, and as seeing himself as out ahead of them on such matters. It must be noted that Prof. Christensen has since distanced himself very emphatically from the point of view of the article’s author. In particular, he has affirmed his support for the Church’s Proclamation on the Family and denied that he believes he is “farther along” than Church leaders on questions relating to marriage, family and sexuality. And Mr. Fitzgerald, to his credit, has acknowledged his mistakes in reporting the Christensen interview. 

What interests me here is not so much the question of Clayton Christensen’s true views (which I was very happy to see him clarify), but rather the use that the author wished to make of the interview, the spin by which Christensen’s theme of “innovation” was made to serve the “progressive” cause of certain Mormon intellectuals.  Fitzgerald presents us with a  business professor who, like Professor Flake, does not confine himself to observing the Church’s capacity for change and the role played by “a faith of continuous revelation.” No – and here we see a key symptom of the intellectual decomposition that concerns me – Fitzgerald’s professor of change is a prophet of Progress. Like Professor Flake, the Professor of Progressive Mormonism is pretty sure he knows just how revelation should continue.

“I can’t announce to mankind that I’m right and the church is wrong” concerning the prohibition of sex (homosexual or otherwise) outside real marriage, Fitzgerald’s Progressive Professor demurs – but then, in good Progressive fashion, he goes right ahead and announces it:   “I think I’m farther along than the church is on this one.” The author thus provides us a perfect example of the seductive incoherence of Progressivism: I’m humble, and so I don’t know what is good – and therefore I’m very sure I know how we should change the very structure of our lives.

Mr. Fitzgerald rightly observes that, given this understanding of the LDS Church as just slightly lagging behind the rest of society in its social progress, one hundred years from now Latter-day Saints may not recognize the Church of our times. He of course accepts this practical conclusion with equanimity, since after all he really cares nothing for the Church in itself or for its teaching, but is only interested in the general question of institutional “mutation” – which, one should note, he seems rather uncritically to favor. (But is “mutation” always for the better?)

An “Unrecognizable” Faith?

Whether Flake and other Progressive Mormons share this same equanimity regarding the radical (if gradual) transformation of Mormonism is harder to say. It is hard to say, in effect, whether they do not understand the logical implications of their putting “Equality” and “Society” above religious beliefs and commitments, or whether, in fact, presented with the explicit choice, they would be ready finally to choose open-ended “social progress” over religious beliefs and commitments. Thus one does not know whether to blame our Mormon Progressives for being intellectually clueless, or simply plain old-fashioned faithless and indeed disloyal. I cannot tell which interpretation would be the most charitable, but I can’t see any third alternative.

Finally, then, in seeking a path that combines charity with sober and rigorous understanding of what is at stake in our thinking, let me put the question to Progressive or Innovative Mormons as plainly as possible.

If you have no trouble accepting a view of the Restored Gospel according to which the gospel your grandchildren will see their grandchildren being taught will be unrecognizable to you, then how can you now recognize anything in the Gospel that you consider essential, that is, not subject to the erosive, homogenizing forces of Society. Or, if there is something you consider essential, some good you are willing to defend, or at least not attack, something that is not subject to the March of History, and therefore something that might provide a standard by which we might judge and even attempt to influence History, then why don’t you just tell us what this essential, trans-historical truth is? What is the fundamental truth that you would hope to recognize in the Gospel as it will be taught to your grandchildren’s grandchildren? It would be good to know what this essence is, since we might not only live by it faithfully today, but also, by our very talk and action, by our engagement with the Society in which we are embedded, we might in fact do something to preserve this essence of the faith for our posterity.

In a word: is there anything non-negotiable in the gospel, or is there not? Or is the Progress of Equality the only non-negotiable commitment?

One obvious possibility, of course, is that Progressives see Equality itself as the essential Truth that guides both the March of History and the development (with a little, understandable temporal lag) of LDS teaching. I would want to question at length the coherence and the stability of sheer “Equality” as an understanding of the good, But for now I must simply ask: if Equality is our only star and compass, then just why do we need LDS teaching, or more generally, Christ’s gospel? Why not just take the religion of Equality straight?

The great value of Fitzgerald’s article is that is reveals the answer to this question: why the Progressive Church of Equality even bothers with us other churches.

  The point is that we need to appreciate the “sleight of hand” by which a slow-moving religion can serve as a feeder-system for the faster mainstream of Progress, thus minimizing the number of people who miss the boat entirely (and who might cause trouble, raising untimely questions, along the way). The LDS Gospel as the patient teacher of the slower students in the school of Equality – yes, explains a lot, doesn’t it?

To conclude, let me acknowledge in advance what will be noticed by others, and that is that my discourse here is characterized, shall we say, more by candor, and, I hope clarity, than by my usually decorous efforts at diplomacy and bridge-building. My choice of rhetorical registers is deliberate. First, my virtual interlocutors are grown-ups, either non-LDS or very well-established scholars at non-LDS institutions, and so have no material reason to feel personally vulnerable to the most challenging of questions. But more substantively: it is good that there should be signs on bridges, especially on a bridge that leads to an unrecognizable terrain.

Progressives should tells us as plainly as possible where they would lead us (since there can be no question they are trying to lead us, however “fascinating” the sleight of hand), or they should acknowledge that they are perhaps not the most qualified leaders.

The Sleight of Hand of Selective Fallibility 

Finally, I hope it is clear that I have make no claims to anyone’s infallibility, and certainly respect doubts anyone may have about the teaching of the LDS or any other religion. Matters of faith and testimony are personal matters, and I am happy to respect them as such. But reasoning is inherently public and subject to the scrutiny of other reasoners, and such scrutiny is what I would wish to contribute.

To note the human fallibility of LDS Church leaders is one thing, and perfectly respectable as far as it goes. To doubt our own religious convictions is, for most of us at least, a natural and inescapable part of our existence as imperfectly rational, as well as spiritual, beings.

We should indeed expect to be surprised by what the Lord will reveal to us. A certain humility regarding the adequacy and finality of our present knowledge is indeed central to the Mormon view of continuing revelation. But such intellectual humility should apply at least as much to secular dogmas such as Equality or the Progressive March of Society as to the teachings of the current Church authorities whom we have promised to sustain.  

It is just too easy to level the weapon of humility at religious teachings that others hold fundamental while clinging unquestioningly to a secular fundamentalism. Mormon Progressives move without missing a beat from counseling humility to Church leaders to proclaiming their “absolute” conviction that History will prove them right, that “Justice” as they unquestioningly understand it will carry the day and memorialize their heroic efforts. Again, I have no interest in searching souls. But I can search reasons. And this is thoughtless and puerile ideology. This is just dumb.

In a word, I can respect (1) those who are skeptical regarding any ultimate and essential truths. And I can respect (2) those who have sufficient confidence in some understanding of the good that they are willing openly to take responsibility for leading society toward it. What I cannot respect is (3) the dogmatic skepticism of those who would arrogate to themselves the status of leadership while refusing responsibility for truth. This incoherence is the root of the intellectual rot I mentioned at the beginning, the hollowing out of our reasoning that leaves us conceptually disarmed. To lead us somehow “forward” or “farther along” under the supposed banner of skepticism (or open-ended “mutation,” “innovation,” etc.) is the fascinating sleight of hand of Progressives, and Mormon Progressives are not immune to its charm. I thought it important to say that I noticed the trick.