Another installment of “Toxic Theology”. Some things are just too poisonous to leave alone.
By remarkably effective PR, the LDS church still projects into the very mainstream media that it is The Mormon Church. The LDS church’s size contributes to the illusion that the LDS church constitutes all that is Mormon-dom. A very quick glance at history and the extant field of Mormon institutions gives the lie to LDS messaging on this point. In fact, the LDS church is only one among many institutions that carries on the Mormon tradition of the 1830’s.* The LDS church’s exclusive claim on Mormonism is an effort to claim a unique legitimacy in the public mind.
Worse, perhaps, the LDS church has successfully sustained the illusion that it is not, itself, internally, a composite of sects. A sort-of-quick glance at beliefs, ideologies, allegiances, and practices among LDS-Mormon people reveals that today’s LDS-dom is, actually, an aggregate of distinct groups possessing their own internal cohesion and firm distinctions from the other groups.
As an indicative illustration, one will find hard-core creationists and hard-core evolutionists among LDS-Mormons. Some LDS-Mormons will tell you that the earth is five (or maybe six) thousand years old. Other LDS-Mormons will tell you that the earth is more than four billion years old. Both camps can cite LDS-Mormon scripture, dogma, authority, and tradition to support their position. Though doctrinally irreconcilable, both are perfectly legitimate, perfectly faithful, LDS-Mormon ideologies.** Mutually-exclusive views of earth’s age and of biological evolution that, nevertheless, do not exclude each other are among the many things pointing to LDS-Mormonism’s sectarian composition.
In the way that the LDS church so dominates the field of Mormon institutions as to appear to be The Mormon Church, neo-orthodox LDS-Mormonism so dominates the LDS church that this sect seems indistinguishable from the institution, a conflation that neo-orthodoxy labors to sustain in order to secure unique legitimacy and unique power.
One of the doctrines that the neo-orthodox sect has weaponized in the service of defending its control of the LDS church came over the pulpit of my local congregation, once again, today. “God wants you to learn,” went today’s sermon, “history and science and art.” And then, the neo-orthodox missile: “But not if learning leads to disobedience.”
“O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men!” the sermon continued, quoting Mormon scripture. “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God.”
The message, here, acknowledged a crucial element of Mormonism’s roots in Jacksonian New England. The first Mormons were committed, dedicated, to learning. The whole thing was predicated on a book, after all. In addition, by early-nineteenth-century standards, the early Mormon community invested absurd resources in intellectual pursuits. Within a couple of years of its 1830 founding, the Mormon community had set up what it called The School of the Prophets, in Ohio and in Missouri, imitating already bygone institutions at Harvard and Yale. In this school, the founders of Mormonism not only communed with each other over spiritual matters, they studied perfectly secular subjects like grammar, math, geography, and penmanship. They even hired honest-to-goodness professors to teach them Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. For this early community, education was a spiritual pursuit. At the roots of Mormonism, learning was itself, in itself, divine.
But, Mormonism’s founders were decidedly lower-class. There were merchant-class individuals among them, but, for the most part, the population was composed of frontier farmers and craftspersons, barely educated at all prior to their participation in the School, and decidedly at the margins—geographically, economically, culturally—of a very young nation. Education, for these scions of Jackson, was not only essentially religious, it was a democratic assertion of their equality with the elites who inhabited the centers of the country’s power, including seminary-educated ministers who occupied high-profile places.
You can see this class-anxiety—and the hope that education offered to the disenfranchised—running rife through the foundational Mormon scriptures. The “When they are learned they think they are wise” verse that is so beloved of the neo-orthodox? The verse leads to the following: “Wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.”*** And consider this scriptural note on learning and social class: “And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.”**** As the first Mormons saw it, there was no problem with learning, per se, there was a problem with a stratified social structure that robbed people of opportunity and value. On the contrary, they intuited, learning is surely the most effective tool for undermining that oppressive stratification.
You think you’re better than us? the Mormons’ School of the Prophets barked at Boston’s high-fallutin’ aristocracy. We bumpkin farmers’re reading [some] Hebrew. Put THAT in your mortar board. The first Mormons saw that education empowers.
Neo-orthodox LDS-Mormons mostly ignore that there was no early Mormonism apart from its founders’ devotion to education. Early Mormonism involved other things, too, but, learning to Mormonism was like peanuts to peanut butter: take learning away from early Mormonism and whatever you might still have wouldn’t be Mormonism. Instead, in characteristically authoritarian fashion, the neo-orthodox direct attention to the dangers of education. The learned, bellow defenders of the neo-orthodox faith, set god aside, “supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and profiteth them not.” And, of course, “they shall perish.”
Hearkening to the counsel of god, this new(ish) kind of LDS-Mormonism argues, is the prime directive. Where education defies god’s counsel, education is not only wrong, it’s sinful. In the neo-orthodox version of LDS-Mormonism, counsel, itself, in itself, is sufficient, because it always transcends learning. Education, then, is fine, if that’s how you get your kicks, but education doesn’t make any difference.†
Because of the discourse that decades of neo-orthodoxy has hammered together, a distinction between god, church, and church leaders is impossible in open LDS discussions, nowadays.†† As part of this discourse, the warning that learning inspires some people to set god’s counsel aside is the warning to everyone that an educated person’s conscientious objections to intolerable neo-orthodox practices are, ipso facto, in defiance of god.
Okay, that’s an unhappy situation. But what’s toxic about it?
By dogmatizing the assertion that the content of education can never supersede church authority—no matter how dimwitted or mal-intentioned—neo-orthodox LDS-Mormonism has robbed education of all of its empowering qualities. And this discursive violence creates the conditions in which neo-orthodoxy can exploit and abuse people without constraint.
Science learning is okay, at least insofar as science’s job is to produce artificial organs and more effective ethanol, and not to make metaphysical or moral claims. The chemist’s or the engineer’s learning poses no challenge to the god-church-leadership complex.†††
But those other areas—the “social” sciences, the humanities, the arts—that kind of learning is almost bound to lead a person astray. Or, rather, will almost certainly lead a person into a position of resistance to counsel. Pursuing a better understanding of the concept of race—a pursuit requiring the study of history, literature, and aesthetics—might reveal not only how Europeans constructed and deployed race as a tool of enslavement, but can illuminate the ways in which the discourse continues to justify the oppression of black people in the USA. And, heaven forbid, learning might then illuminate the ways in which this discourse is iterated in the structure and exercise of authority in the LDS church. Pursuing a better understanding of gender—which calls on rhetoric, philosophy, sociology, and performance studies—might reveal the possibility that we made this concept and have wielded it to more effectively exploit half of humanity. This kind of learning—earnestly, honestly, faithfully pursued—can light up the ways in which the LDS church unreflectively iterates this exploitation.
For a not-neo-orthodox LDS-Mormon, who does not recklessly conflate god, church, and leaders, learning does not obscure, but reveals divine counsel. In LDS-Mormon sects apart from neo-orthodoxy, the ethical imperatives that appear in political economy, in poststructuralist literary theory, in existentialism, in liberation theology—and, yes, in scripture and tradition, to the clarity of which education substantively contributes—are the “counsel of God”. For the not-neo-orthodox, learning is the most secure connection to divinity, and neo-orthodoxy’s unreasoned and unreasoning commitment to dogma, actually, constitutes the “philosophies of men” and the illusion of wisdom, from which a person profits nothing.
It probably goes without saying that the neo-orthodox order in the LDS church does not open to this other LDS-Mormonism. But neo-orthodoxy’s hostility to other LDS-Mormonisms is not an index of the sect’s unique legitimacy. Ironically, the hostility to education by which the sect protects itself reveals its sectarian (as opposed to its absolute) character. The neo-orthodox god-church-leadership conflation and nauseating repetition of the dictum that learning doesn’t matter does not glorify divinity in concert with early Mormon scripture, which trips over itself to valorize learning.††††
No, neo-orthodox LDS-Mormonism is a sect. A dominant sect, and one that doesn’t mind excommunicating threats, but a sect, nonetheless, only partly realizing bits of Mormonism’s potential and repudiating the rest. The antipathy to education that the sect dresses up as doctrine characterizes, a priori, any finger of objection to its practices as the consequence of a ‘secular’ education that must always, axiomatically, submit to ordained authority. Thus, neo-orthodoxy protects its privilege by cynically robbing others of the divine power to serve the community without affirming and assenting to this one sect’s autocratic version of the religion.
What is poisonous about neo-orthodox LDS-Mormonism’s anti-education theology is the way it insinuates itself between an LDS-Mormon and god. The theology actively silences the twelve-year-old who has learned something about gender and sexual identity, something self-affirming, and denies her a community of genuine love. The theology keeps women who have learned something about misogyny, something grotesque and pernicious, from contributing to the full extent of their divine potential and changing what is grotesque and perniciously misogynist in the church. The theology stigmatizes, marginalizes, condemns, those who have learned something about race and culture and capital and politics and representation and community and violence and peace, and tells them and everyone that, for what they have labored to understand, god does not know them. The theology damns those who have made hard, anxious, extensive, faith-filled efforts to learn something that matters, but who cannot find that something in a version of LDS-Mormonism, the theology of which damns hard, anxious, extensive, faith-filled efforts to learn something that matters.
Neo-orthodoxy’s anti-education theology condemns all learning that does not affirm neo-orthodoxy. It keeps the powerless powerless and aggrandizes arbitrary authority. Its hostility to learning has no holiness, but serves only to preserve the right of neo-orthodox leaders to continue to act as though no one has ever learned anything.
And that’s toxic.
*The Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Apostolic United Brethren, etc.—all very, very different, but undeniably Mormon, churches.
**No, I don’t, personally, consider “evolutionism”, as I’ve dubbed it here, an ideology.
***2 Nep 9:28-30.
**** 3 Nep 6:12. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon’s concerns about learning are concerns about priests arguing with each other and using the positions that their learning props up to exploit people. 2 Nep 26:20, 2 Nep 28:4.
†Actually spoken, on a regular basis, from the pulpit in my congregation by an ordained leader [I am not making this up]: (1) “Isn’t it wonderful that it doesn’t matter how much you know?”, (2) “How much you know doesn’t matter”, (3) “Learning doesn’t matter”, (4) “It’s not what you know, it’s what you do”. This last item has been the only such assertion accompanied by something resembling a rationale (as opposed to the expectation that authority, itself, makes a statement true). The apocryphal anecdote that Spencer Kimball changed a line in a children’s song so that it now runs “Teach me all that I must do” (rather than know) was trotted out to explain why learning doesn’t matter. What went unrecognized in this rationale—perhaps on account of authority’s unwillingness to do something like learn critical thinking skills—is that the same line has always begun with the word teach. Kimball didn’t see any need to change that. As long as a structuralist reading of song lyrics is going to give us our doctrine, this song still gives education a doctrinal privilege.
††Indeed, on account of neo-orthodoxy’s burly boorishness, an “open discussion” on any topic is no longer possible in many LDS congregations.
†††Evolution divided the LDS church’s topmost leadership, back in the day. There were debates and hand-wringing. Eventually, there were commitments on all sides to stop addressing the issue, altogether. Silence did not resolve the problem, but it did suspend the threat to the factions whose authority would be undermined by the other side’s success in the debate. Bruce McConkie (contrary to counsel) may have been the last LDS general authority to identify openly as a creationist. We can see, here, something of education’s genuine threat to neo-orthodoxy, since it’s almost certainly the education of the LDS-Mormon populace that turned the LDS church, against counsel that was promoted as incontrovertible revelation, into its current evolution-is-legit heading.
††††The first words of the Book of Mormon narrative—the very first words. Add 2 Nep 4:15, Mormon 1:2, D&C 25:8, D&C 88:118, D&C 109:7-8, 14, et al.
†††††Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Library#/media/File:LOC_Main_Reading_Room_Highsmith.jpg