Michel Foucault traces the West’s shift in concern from sexual acts to sexual desires to second-century Greek thought, a shift which was fully embraced and completed by Christianity, in his series, The History of Sexuality. This transition to concern for desires, the interrogation of desires, the confession of desires, and the hermeneutics of desire inform the modern conceptualization of the self, specifically the idea that our desires, when they are properly known to us through the act of interpreting them, reveal the “truth” about ourselves. While the ancients had developed a system of regulating desires, the specific contribution of Christianity was the hermeneutics of the self.
Foucault suggested that psychoanalysis was simply an extension of Christian morality, an incorporation of the same values of “truth” told from the interrogation of desires into medical discourse. In psychoanalysis, this interrogation moved from the confessional booth to the couch. This medicalization and the categorization of desires marks a shift to modernity. In this new discursive moment, desires were not just the root cause of the Fall as in Christianity, but also of neurosis, and now of our sexual identity.
Latter-day Saints belong to this same intellectual tradition of the investigation, regulation, and interpretation of desire that forms the modern subject. The paradigmatic example of this tradition is Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, which offers an unrelenting program of self-examination, cataloguing of sins, and regulation of desires.
In my view, the LDS emphasis has shifted away from desires, primarily with regards to its treatment of homosexual desires, back toward actions. While there was a time when “homosexual” desires themselves could be the cause for discipline (though the same was not true for “heterosexual” desires), there has been a recent trend to distinguish between desires and actions, placing great emphasis on actions as truth-telling about the self. This two-tiered conceptualization of confession, separating desires from actions, seems to suggest that actions are more important and therefore need to be confessed to another person. Yet, at the same time, confession of desires remains central, not in the bishop’s office, but in the hermeneutics of the self. Our desires still are meant to reveal something about ourselves to ourselves, our innermost truth, even if this truth need not be confessed. This deciphering of desire still remains central to LDS discourse, a tribute and attribute to its Christian heritage, and its participation in modern discourses of the self.
So what is the significance of this shared discourse of confession and desires in Mormonism, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and sexual identity movements? For one thing, it contextualizes and historicizes Mormon thought on these issues and belonging to larger cultural discourse. Secondly, I’m not sure.