BY COMMON CONSENT
Volume 12, No. 1 January 2006
Are Mormons Free?
When we ask "are Mormons (or anyone else) free?" we step onto a huge playing field. I will stay in one corner while commenting on three questions: First, what is the Mormon conception of freedom? Second, Where does that concept likely find its roots? And third, Why do questions such as "What is the nature of freedom?" on the one hand cause war (both real and intellectual) while at the same time being assiduously ignored by the vast majority of most human groups?
What Is Mormon Freedom?
None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. --Goethe
It is not the fact of liberty but the way in which liberty is exercised that ultimately determines whether liberty itself survives. --Dorothy Thompson
Orthodox Mormon freedom to choose is largely exhausted by one decision: whether to obey Mormon authority or not. Many Mormons believe that this choice is made on baptism at age eight, and psychologists assure us that the commitment to obey then made is strengthened with each public testimony borne, talk or lesson given, prayer said, and hymn sung thereafter. A further important opportunity to increase dedication is provided by the Mormon temple endowment ceremony, in circumstances only slightly more likely to produce dissent than childhood baptism.
The Mormon endowment is generally received at a tender age and while surrounded by expectant family and friends who have already made their commitment to obey. Other important life events are often made contingent on the successful completion of the endowment. For example, once a young person has decided to marry in a Mormon temple or serve a mission, the endowment becomes a mystery-shrouded step incidental to the achievement of social and personal goals not necessarily related to religious belief. To top things off, the information about Mormonism in general, as well as the nature of Mormon temple covenants provided to those who make this all-important choice, is notoriously inaccurate.
Mormons did not invent the technique of causing commitment to be made early, in public, and repeated as often as possible. This tactic has been an effective belief shaper in religious, political, and many other groups throughout history. It also works to sell cars, Tupperware, knives, financial products, etc.
Regardless of what else they may be, Mormon baptism and endowment are classic initiation rites, the effect of which is to bind members of a social group together. So, the process by which Mormonism extracts its commitment does not facilitate a "free" choice, but rather makes obedience to Mormon authority more likely.
Countless authoritative statements by Mormon leaders show the importance of obedience to Mormon doctrine and social practice. For example, Neal Maxwell, in an attempt to poetically describe the decision to obey, said: "The submission of oneís will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on Godís altar. [Our will] is the only possession which is truly ours to give!. . . Consecration thus constitutes the only unconditional surrender which is also a total victory!" ("Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father," Ensign, Nov. 1995, 22).
The Roots of Mormon Freedom
Where did the Mormon concept of free will come from? During the late 1700s and early 1800s as democratic forces gained strength, many intellectuals (including Rousseau, Fichte, Saint Simon, and Maistre) wrestled with the tension between the importance of individual freedoms and the danger that widespread freedom would tip society into chaos. Rousseau, who was particularly influential, spoke of a "social contract" by which the people would exercise their freedom by agreeing to obey.
Isaiah Berlin summarizes Rousseauís thought on this point as follows: "If your problem is how a man shall be at once free and yet in chains, you say: . . . [I]f the chains are simply rules the very obedience to which is the most free, the strongest, most spontaneous expression of your own inner nature, then the chains no longer bind you--since self-control is not control. Self-control is freedom. In this way, Rousseau gradually progresses toward the peculiar idea that . . . men [should] . . . be connected with each other in the way in which the State forcibly connects them" (Freedom and Its Betrayal, 43-44).
And what if the people need their leaders to deceive them and force them along so that they will do what is best? Rousseau and many others felt that such deception was justifiable, because the leaders have a far clearer view of what is necessary for the greater good than the masses. Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith forward have followed this rule: The end (obedience) justifies the means (deception).
The justification of leadership deception goes back at least as far as Plato and his "philosopher kings." They were the wise few who should, Plato felt, deceive the masses, since the masses were incapable of understanding what was in their best interest. Nietzsche condemned the "pious lie" which was, he said, the foundation of all priesthoods.
Ironically, Joseph Smith issued a similar condemnation. In the Mormon plan of salvation derived from Smithís teachings, Satan beautifully articulated the philosopher-king-and-pious-lie approach and was vilified for it.
Rousseauís idea of the social contract continues to be important to political theory for a variety of reasons. The near-universal human tendency to use deception to amplify power, which he attempted to justify, eventually led to the extensive checks and balances on the exercise of power that have become the keystones of democracy. These checks and balances are notable within Mormonism by their absence. The wish to avoid public accountability and the access to information that they cause partly explains why Mormon leaders resist most forms of government regulation and have turned down the opportunity to receive and spend government funds.
In short, as I see it, early Mormonism adopted a political ideology of its time that, as articulated by Rousseau and others, was useful in organizing a cohesive social unit while paying lip service to the idea of individual freedom. And because Mormons assumed that this organizational form was inspired by God, it was not critiqued and upgraded as its propensity for abuse became apparent. Mormons generally do not consider it possible that their religious leaders could take advantage of them, leading (among other things) to a religious organization whose assets and revenues would rank it at about number 200 on the Fortune 500 list of the worldís largest business organizations.
of This "Freedom"
Why are many explosive, foundationally important social issues ignored? Given this analysis of "freedom," the short answer is: When you stand up in the canoe sometimes people fall out and drown. So, donít get up until it is critical, and then expect lots of others to try to hold you down.
The human capacity to perceive, like all other features of our biology, was designed long ago by evolutionary forces to be "adaptive"-Ėthat is, to maximize our chances of survival and reproduction. In our evolutionary environment the well-being of our dominant, small social group and our security within it were far more important to our survival and reproductive opportunities than is now generally the case. Therefore, when we are confronted with information that might threaten one of our groupís foundational values or our place within the group, we tend to misperceive the information so that it does not endanger us. The concept of the "sacred" is often used for this purpose: Certain ideas are so important that their truth cannot be questioned.
We are more likely to misperceive when under the influence of our emotions. Our emotions tend to flare when our groupís foundational values or our place in the group are threatened. However, we tend to be rational when examining the foundational values of other groups, and so we can spot their irrational nature. The obvious "irrationality" of other groupsí values coupled with our inability to perceive our own irrationality strengthens our group. And particularly powerful emotional experiences, often characterized as "spiritual experiences," are human universals. These are used in most human groups to support the "truth" of foundational beliefs.
Consequently, from an evolutionary point of view it was usually more important to be secure within our social group than "right." As long as most members of a group believe something, the rest of the group will tend to accept it. And the longer a belief has been accepted, the more slowly it will change, even if it is demonstrably silly. A 2004 Gallup poll found that only 35% of U.S. adults believed that evolutionary theory is well supported by the evidence. About the same number believed that the Bible is literally true. And a staggering 20% believe the sun revolves around the earth.
When a foundational value is so out of kilter that it is challenged publicly, the fur really flies as members of the group fight over what they stand to lose or gain if the established order changes. This is what leads to revolutions, suicide bombings, airplanes being flown into buildings, mass migrations, and sometimes seismic shifts in belief and behaviour.
As the internet makes information available in an unprecedented way, there is more pressure for fundamental change than ever. The movement away from the minimalist definition of "freedom" used within Mormonism is a tiny part. Much larger fish are being fried as we begin to clear away the ideological fog around issues such as "How many humans can the Earth support?" "How seriously should we take global warming and other ecological issues?" "How does sexual orientation work?" "To what degree are men and women justified in simply choosing their roles relative to each other and society?" But the issues outlined above are critical in each case.
We have long underestimated the way in which our perspective, which is largely a product of our social group, controls what we can see. Or as Einstein said, "It is the theory [in which we believe that] decides what we can observe."
Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God, and A Short History of Myth.
Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.
Berlin, Isaiah. Freedom and Its Betrayal, and The Power of Ideas.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse, and Guns, Germs and Steel.
Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat.
Gigerenzer, Gerd. Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox.
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature.
Kirkpatrick, Lee A. Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion.
Kruglanski, Arie W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness.
Levine, Robert. The Power of Persuasion.
McCue, Bob. "The Effect of Mormon Temple Ritual," available at http:// mccue. cc/ bob/ documents/temple%20marriage.pdf.
___. "How Denial Works," available at http:// mccue. cc/bob/documents/rs.denial.pdf (esp. p. 78 for the effect of early and public commitment).
___. "The Mormon Conception of Freedom," available at http:// mccue. cc/ bob/ documents /rs.the%20mormon%20concept%20of%20freedom.pdf.
Nietzsche, Frederick. The Will to Power.
Plato. The Republic.
Poll summaries: see http://www.arachnoid. com/ opinion/religion.html and http://www. sfgate. com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/ archive/ 1996/ 05/24/ MN67867. DTL&type=printable.
Rue, Loyal D. Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature.
Sejnowski, Terrence J., and Steven R. Quartz. Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals about How We Become Who We Are.
Wright, Robert. A Short History of Progress.
Van Doren, Charles. A History of Knowledge.
Music and Many Spoken Words
President Gordon B. Hinckleyís address on forgiveness was, according to discussants, the best talk of conference. "He usually gives CEO talks, doing the business of running the Church," summarized one. "But by the second or third sentence, I could tell that he was speaking as a prophet--not in terms of predicting anything, but in terms of giving us an important religious message. I think itíll be one of the great classic talks. Heíll be remembered for it the same way that President Benson is remembered for his talk on pride."
Another enthused, "The prodigal son is a wonderful message," and another participant said, "It made me examine the grudges Iím holding and think about what it would take to be able to give them up."
Close runners-up for best talk were Susan W. Tannerís and Jeffrey R. Hollandís overlapping addresses on body image, health, and a good balance between appearance and obsession, especially for young women. One participant commented, "I think this is a significant problem in our society, and the results havenít even started to kick in of the obsessive dieting and exercising for young women. I foresee problems with skeletal strength and malnutrition that will cause an epidemic of health problems in ten or fifteen years for these girls."
One discussant commented on feeling "relieved that Sister Tanner, even though she quoted the your-body-is-a-temple scripture did not talk about body piercing and tattooing."
The other conference star was the music. "I just love Mack Wilbergís arrangements," enthused one listener. Another added, "Before the new team, it seemed that every conference was in competition with the previous conference to see how slowly the choirs could sing hymns. It was so refreshing to hear the pep as soon as the new team took over." Although the mixture of hymns and Primary songs meant that most numbers were familiar, listeners were encouraged by the appearance of the familiar but non-hymnal Mendelssohnís "O Rest in the Lord." Another participant was cheered by the complex and lively organ duet accompaniments provided Bonnie Goodliffe and Linda Margetts. "They were hot!" he exclaimed.
Listeners were also intrigued by the novelty of the tune resettings, though less decided about their success: "Oh How Lovely Was the Morning" to Beethovenís "Ode to Joy" from the Fifth Symphony, and "The Iron Rod" (the words fit sometimes untidily) to Herbert Parryís famous setting of William Blakeís poem "Jerusalem."
Unanimous kudos went to the stirring rendition of "The Seer! Joseph the Seer," with a text by John Taylor that was sung to commemorate the dedication of the Nauvoo Music Hall in 1845. The lively tune was borrowed from Barry Cornwallís "The sea! the sea! the open sea! / The blue, the fresh, the ever free." One participant noted that it remained in the hymnal up through the 1948 edition (replaced by the 1985 edition), even though long-time Tabernacle Choir conductor Evan Stephens hated it and refused to let the Tabernacle Choir sing it.
Also drawing mixed reviews was the video in the Relief Society session on the founding of the Relief Society. "It was great to see the dramatization and a lot of the details were right," commented one observer, although Willard Richards, not Eliza R. Snow, was shown taking minutes and the "angels cannot be restrained" speech was actually given a month later, not during the founding meeting.
Particular welcome was the fact that "I now turn the key to you," the historically accurate words, had replaced the traditional but inaccurate, "I now turn the key on your behalf" speech, both in President Hinckleyís voice-over narration, in Bonnie Parkinís address, and in President Faustís. (President Faust, however, inexplicably reverted to "in your behalf" in his Sunday afternoon address.)
One participant mentioned noticing for the first time that the meeting was called the "general Relief Society meeting," not the "womenís meeting."
The priesthood session seemed lackluster by comparison with earlier conferences where "the General Authorities gave a state of the Church status report." Although most of the talks seemed to be addressed to young men, there were no stories or personal examples, except for President Monsonís, "nothing that seemed designed to appeal to the audience." President Hinckleyís warnings of calamities to come seemed very somber, but "at least he stressed that the hurricanes were not Godís vengeance on the wicked."
Social issues seemed to receive less attention in this conference. True, President Packer opened his address with a denunciation of attacks on the family that clearly continued his long-standing anti-gay-rights agenda, but he then abruptly switched into a list of items demonstrating modern revelation. Many of them were pet projects of his own such as the LDS edition of the scriptures, changing "Genealogy" to "Family History," and adding the subtitle, "Another Testament of Christ" to the Book of Mormon, leading one observer to wonder if he was positioning himself as the future prophet.
Elder M. Russell Ballard in his celebration of the tenth anniversary of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," also obliquely denounced gay rights efforts and quoted a "friend" on international concern about the "natural family," the phrase that BYU law school faculty member and U.N. lobbyist Richard Wilkins has made popular.
New doctrinal ground was broken by two General Authorities. Elder Dallin H. Oaksís address, enlivened by references to his own widowed mother, drew a sharp distinction between priesthood authority in the family, which is both "patriarchal" and "partnership," and priesthood authority in the Church, which is "hierarchical." One discussant compared it to Elder Dean Larsenís "redefinition" several years ago that "celestial marriage" was temple marriage, thus expunging the long-held understanding that it included polygamy. "What Elder Oaks has done is to tackle that incoherence in the Proclamation on the Family that has assigned the decision-making, the money, and the guns (preside, provide, and protect) to men but still claims that husbands and wives are partners. Heís defined patriarchal to mean partnership. This isnít what patriarchy usually means, of course, but itís one way of solving the problem."
While such an approach stresses the importance of the family and "is a nice indication that the Church leaders may recognize some of the social realities," according to another observer, it also "left many vague areas." One of these was the status of single men, conspicuously omitted when Oaks spent a paragraph recognizing the exclusion of single women from patriarchal priesthood.
Another doctrinal innovation was Elder Merrill J. Batemanís new understanding of Christís experience in Gethsemane, not of accepting a body of undifferentiated sin but of dealing with a "long line" of individuals, accepting their weaknesses, sins, and mistakes and thereby gaining the ability to heal each one individually. One participant commented on the "implication of predestination--how could Christ accept the burden of sins I havenít decided to commit yet?" (a classic conundrum given Mormonismís view of God as not outside time). Still, the individualized and more intimate view of Christís relationship with human beings was something participants had deeply enjoyed.
The new Primary president, Cheryl Lant, drew mixed reviews, some liking her positive "unsimpering" demeanor while others said she still came across as "too sweet, smiling and frowning at the same time." There was general approval, however, that she spoke on a topic of general interest, "not a trivial topic."
Also praised were the sections of President Packerís and Elder Robert D. Halesís talks that honored the reformers and translators who preserved and expanded access to the scriptures. One skeptic noted, "Another way to look at it is that the Church has appropriated them and made them into proto-Mormons," and another identified this device as part of communicating the Mormon version of "sacred history from the preexistence to the present." Still, most discussants greatly enjoyed looking beyond Mormonismís own history to embrace the larger history of Christianity. When one participant had taught the first lesson of the New Testament year on "how we got the Bible, I had the feeling that I was hanging out there pretty far." She hoped that this more inclusive feeling would increase.
The talks by international General Authorities were greatly appreciated. "I had the feeling that Elder Uchtdorf was no longer a tentative new guy, that he had really hit his stride and was speaking with authority," commented one. Although some felt that Elder Won Kong Koís equation of pioneer suffering with the sacrifice of getting up at 4:00 a.m. was "maybe a stretch," there was great enthusiasm for the visuals of the cultural celebration that accompanied his talk. Elder Ulisses Soaresís strong address on "the gospel is people, not programs," was likewise warmly received. These international aspects were a "nice change," observed one discussant, from the total silence with which Elder Oaks and Elder Holland (and now Elder Perry) greeted their year spent abroad. "It was disappointing not to hear anything about what theyíd learned."
Less popular points were:
1. The fatiguing repetition of speakersí testimonies that Gordon B. Hinckley was a prophet, usually attached to the speakerís testimony of Joseph Smith.
2. Despite the stress on missionary work, there was no mention of young women serving missions.
3. The odd intensifier "even" in concluding sentences: "in the name of thy son, even Jesus Christ.
4. "Noble counselors" again appeared along with apparently first-time uses of "singular organization" (the Relief Society). One speaker referred to "this glorious Conference Center," while President Hinckley called it "this spacious Conference Center," but listeners predicted that it wouldnít catch on because of the almost inevitable (and pejorative) echo of "great and spacious."
The conversation was enlivened by emailed reports from conference watchers outside the attendance area. The discussion concluded with an analysis of the functions of general conference. One discussant, a army veteran, talked about it as "a touchstone of home," a reminder of continuity. Another participant from outside Utah remembered fondly its "reunion" aspects: "Members from our farthest wards would drive two hours to get there, share potluck meals, sometimes stay overnight Saturday. We counted on seeing our friends."
The ritual was comforting: "same organ, same place, same subjects." It also was a way to help members feel in touch with the First Presidency and apostles--"probably not the Seventies but we know the faces at least." Another commented, "It gives the year a focus at two points." Still another cited the experience of a relative in an area presidency who had commented that behind the public face of the meetings, an enormous amount of work, training, reminders of policies and procedures goes on.
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