Change and Power: A Response to Nate Oman

The analysis of power seems to be something that I care about. Whether it is D. Smith or Ralph Hancock, who in my view accord too much power to LDS leadership, I seem to get riled up about this issue. While Nate Oman takes a view very similar to my own to how power operates (perhaps to his chagrin), there are some points that I want to further push with respect to his analysis.

Oman has the enviable knack of frequently saying really interesting and provocative things about Mormonism. Most recently, Oman blogged about how power operates in Mormonism. He argued that we have two historical models of change. In 1978, the priesthood ban was lifted and was embraced widely by the leadership and membership alike. In contrast, in 1890-1911, the church abandoned polygamy, which, Oman notes, “literally tore the Church apart.”

The implications of this analysis for Oman is that there is wisdom in waiting for the church membership and leadership to arrive at certain views of what the church should do before instituting change. Had the racial ban been eliminated too early, it may have had the same kinds of disastrous consequences that the end of polygamy brought. Too radical of changes can undermine the power and unity of leaders’ authority. This view of power suggests that power must be wielded in fundamentally conservative ways. Power is resistant to change because power seeks primarily to reproduce itself.  Were the church’s power to not reproduce itself, the church could fracture. Schism and mass excommunications are the potential “ecclesiastical costs” of keeping up with broader American attitudes.

Oman offers two pieces of advice to “Mormon liberals.” The first is patience, a good virtue for anyone. Such advice is fundamentally optimistic, suggesting that the Church will eventually embrace the changes it needs…eventually.

The second bit of advice is more controversial. While optimistic about the changes that the Church will make, Oman suggests that, “most passionate voices for political and social change belong to cranks.” Here, Oman adopts a conservative position to change more generally, and seems to suggest that it is wise to be skeptical of change because change is often a bad idea.

Let us set aside the issue of who these “liberal Mormons” are, and whether or not Oman accurately accounts for their views.  Rather, I want to discuss the implications of what Oman has suggested.

Ecclesiastical Costs and Ethical Considerations

Oman implicitly praises the late-date for the reversal of the racial ban, while suggesting that the change in polygamy was ill-timed. One could multiply examples of change that occurs too quickly in other churches. The Episcopalian controversy over homosexuality is one contemporary extreme, though others have navigated this more successfully.  Oman suggests that “ecclesiastical costs” are the decision calculus for when change and which changes should occur. Measured in schism and excommunication, the church must consider its own existence above all when considering change. Oman’s preference for slow change as a model for how change should occur is certainly one that holds some wisdom, but it is not without its costs. But these costs define the “costs” in rather narrow ways.

Those who are hurt by these policies are casualties, as well as the members who become disaffected. “Unity” of the church is selective, not a neutral category, one that excludes some in order to manufacture unity.   That is, even the choice to “preserve” unity comes with costs measured in exclusion. Should white unity of the church be advocated at the expense of black Mormons? What other kinds of costs does such slow change entail? For instance, the costs of regressive policies to missionary work or even the costs to those who bear the burdens of non-progressive policies most directly are excluded in this analysis which tends to favor the status quo in the way the decision calculus is structured.

While Oman is skeptical of the prophets of change, whom he says are mostly “blessedly irrelevant in the sweep of history,” the prophets of the status quo are perhaps more often damned by history. There is no doubt that some liberal changes are bad ideas, but this is not cause for a bias of inaction. Perhaps most significantly this slow change model leaves deep and lasting scars. While it may not have led to a fracture in the church, the racial ban is still painful in part because of this slow change.

Finally, what is notably missing is an ethical dimension to evaluating change. There is no question that from a practical matter, moral decisions are always constrained by political considerations. At the same time, practical and moral calculations are not distinct in an absolute sense. The opportunity costs of alienating present and future members over the behind the times feelings of others represents a moral decision, not just a practical one.  Sacrificing some people on the altar of “unity” or the preservation of the power of church leadership must entail an ethical dimension that constrains such decisions.

Why Slower Change?

Oman argues that church leaders lag behind the Mormon populace as a practical matter, but this model does not account for the reasons why the church populace is resistant to change, often long after their non-Mormon peers. Why doesn’t the church track with broader social change more closely, rather than lag behind, if Oman’s thesis is correct? That is, why 1978 instead of 1968, after the acceptance of the Civil Rights Act?  Such an explanation for change essentially highlights the conservatism of not only the membership but also the leadership. Perhaps an account of power that sees the attitudes of leaders and laypeople as mutually interdependent, rather than the kind of bottom up notion of power that Oman attributes to the membership, or the kind of top-down view of power that Oman attributes to Mormon liberals, can help explain how Mormon conservatism is self-reproducing.

Oman’s model assumes that the leadership tends to be more progressive that the average member, attributing to them the role of “patient husbandmen, slowly cultivating new attitudes among their flock.” This may be true with respect to some issues, such as immigration, and perhaps even homosexuality, but it is not the case that these leaders generally embrace more progressive, if incrementally so, views than the average member. Indeed, they often perpetuate the conservative views of the membership, not least by not changing. The failure to change serves to reinforce the correctness of the status quo. Rather than cultivating a more progressive populace slowly, slow change often cultivates the exact opposite result by providing the status quo with a de facto legitimacy. It also does not account for the feedback loop, wherein conservative positions actually produce conservative members.  Why not moderate or liberal positions that produce moderate or liberal members?

It is worth addressing a point that Oman does not raise, but which is nevertheless a subtext of many of these debates. For many conservatives, the perceived inspiration of Mormonism derives from its difference from “the world.” That is, if Mormonism were to keep pace with the times, Mormonism would relinquish its claims to difference by becoming a follower of cultural trends. For many, retrograde positions, either in the service of nostalgia for a mythical harmonious past, or for the social and psychological need to be “different” from one’s neighbors, function as part of what makes Mormonism legitimate. The problem is that Mormon difference has come to be marked by regressive politics. Why not mark Mormon difference from others by progressive, forward thinking policies? Authority does not only reproduce itself by means of preservation of the status quo, but is often bolstered by change as the vehicle to reproduce authority.

Finally, Oman makes some counterfactual analysis here. What he does not consider is whether the end of polygamy had happened earlier, rather than letting it get entrenched with the cumulation of history and the linking of Mormon identity to the practice, would have produced a less disastrous result for the Church. What if polygamy had ended in the 1860‘s instead, during the first generation of its practitioners, rather than let it proliferate? Further, what if polygamy had ended even later, awaiting for the membership to come to reject it more fully? Would that have happened, or was fracture an inevitability that had to happen? Perhaps the membership would have come around, but it is not clear that the church would have persisted or succeed. Polygamy needed to end for the survival of the church, and the costs of fracture need to be paid for the sake of a greater dividend. The argument for more rapid change can just as easily be made counterfactually.

What Should Members Do?

What then is the solution? It seems that those who desire change should indeed adopt the patience Oman advocates, and even express the power that Oman affords them to enable change. But this account of power does not confirm a conservative approach to change. If anything, it calls it into question in serious ways. While I largely agree with Oman’s analysis of how and why change occurs, I am not sure I can follow his recommendations for how to interpret it. As I explain above, the selective evaluation of the “costs” of change privileges some costs over others, often in ways that I am not comfortable. Second, Oman’s view of ecclesiastical power seems too impoverished, even if it provides a basis for advocacy for change by members. It is not the case that LDS leadership follows the lead of the membership, where the “hierarchy simply waits until the – often unexpressed – feelings of ordinary members shift to the point where they are longing for change.” The hierarchy also sets those trends, and it is the more progressive membership who most accurately feels the pressure imposed by the hierarchy.

Oman seems to advocate for a particular kind of politics of change among the membership, one that is “often unexpressed.” But is there a value in liberal politics of expressed desire for change? If Oman’s analysis of power and change is correct, then it suggests that Mormons should be even more active in advocating for change. If church leadership is the tail that follows the membership, rather than the other way around, then the membership should seek more progressive policies. This provides the leaders with the incentives to change as well as the needed shift in attitudes among the membership as the prerequisite to change.

What liberal politics does is illuminate the instability of the status quo by showing that it has not always been so and need not always be so.  Liberals have not misunderstood power, in my view, but rather exercised it in non-conservative ways. I am with Oman that I put my covenants first, but I don’t think that those who do not have misunderstood power, simply used it differently. That different use of power may be understood as an asset, even where I disagree with it. Resignation, protest, and reimagining are all political acts, acts that use power, what power is available.  Working to expand those borders of what kind of change is acceptable is part of how Mormons should think with their leaders, past and present, for envisioning alternatives.

  • http://withoutend.org Christopher Smith

    “For many, retrograde positions, either in the service of nostalgia for a mythical harmonious past, or for the social and psychological need to be ‘different’ from one’s neighbors, function as part of what makes Mormonism legitimate. The problem is that Mormon difference has come to be marked by regressive politics. Why not mark Mormon difference from others by progressive, forward thinking policies? Authority does not only reproduce itself by means of preservation of the status quo, but is often bolstered by change as the vehicle to reproduce authority.”

    Well said!

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  • DavidH

    If the “Church” (i.e., Joseph Smith) had followed the counsel of what is now section 107 that decisions of the leading quorums of the Church be made by their unanimous voice, perhaps plural marriage would never have been implemented. Or if the leaders waited until the principle was accepted by the unanimous voice of the councils and the common consent of the Church, plural marriage (its beginning and subsequent ending) might not have torn the Church apart as it did. For example, given the LDS emphasis on following the law, perhaps plural marriage would only have been sanctioned and encouraged in countries where it was fully legal and acceptable by the population at large. That of course would have made the Church less radical for the time. But if the principle were really from God, and given God’s teaching that we should render unto Caesar and abide by the law, had the leadership of the Church been as cautious as they are today, perhaps the “principle” would not have been implemented until much later after considerable study, perhaps only by a few, and (assuming it was from God) still be lived by LDS in countries where it is legal and acceptable today. Who knows, maybe the Church would be headquartered in such a country.

  • RT

    So many good points TT!

    As a “liberal” member myself (ie someone who would like to see greater intellectual and cultural diversity in the church and more progressive policies) and having known other “liberal” members, I can attest to the kinds of costs that TT is speaking of. There are so many costs that go way beyond the simple “liberal embarrassment” that Oman speaks of, such as inner psychological and spiritual conflict, depression, tension and conflict among families, intellectual damage to human souls, and missed opportunities to help people flourish and reach their full potential.

    I think for many liberals it is not the practical necessity of slow change that is the enemy (I would be fine with slow change if it actually occurred), but the fact that on so many issues, when incremental change has been possible in the past, the church has tended to come out with explicitly regressive rhetoric and policies. If the church was only able to tolerate more diversity in its rhetoric and thought, with GA’s setting the example, there might not be a need for such monumental shifts such as the 78 revelation on priesthood.

    I can look back on my own life and experiences of listening to countless gen conf addresses and see thousands of missed opportunities for doing the kind of slow cultivation that would eventually lead to real progress (e.g. speaking about evolution in a Mormon theological framework or translation issues when dealing with the Bible and how they affect our interpretation of certain doctrines, etc).

    Too often, we haven’t been trying to change slowly, we have been doing our best to insulate ourselves from dealing with the issues that would lead to change.

  • Nate Oman

    RT: A couple of responses. First, I agree with you that the pace of change in the church or its absence causes real spiritual pain and emotional trauma for a lot of liberal Mormons. These are real costs that ought to be considered in any kind judgement about church policy. Second, I agree with you that incremental change would be better than big shifts and this is what I thought the normative take away of my original post was. To the extent that such organic evolution does not happen when it could and instead we have abrupt shifts or no shifts when shifts are needed, I think it’s sad. Finally, within my framework the very pain and frustration felt by liberals is itself one of the agents that causes the church to evolve and change. Remember my point is that the hierarchy is in some important sense beholden to the members. I think, for example, the Church’s actions on homosexuality since Prop 8 can in part be explained in these terms. This is no doubt far too little shift from a certain progressive point of view, but it is a shift and I think it represents the kind of incremental evolution that I actually like.

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  • fbisti

    Nate Oman reiterates many of the key issues in his comment: “First, I agree with you that the pace of change in the church or its absence causes real spiritual pain and emotional trauma for a lot of liberal Mormons.” [And for conservative Mormons also] “These are real costs that ought to be considered… Second, I agree with you that incremental change would be better than big shifts … Finally, within my framework the very pain and frustration felt by liberals is itself one of the agents that causes the church to evolve and change. Remember my point is that the hierarchy is in some important sense beholden to the members. I think, for example, the Church’s actions on homosexuality since Prop 8 can in part be explained in these terms. This is no doubt far too little shift from a certain progressive point of view, but it is a shift and I think it represents the kind of incremental evolution that I actually like.”

    I agree with much of this. I am a flaming “liberal,” life-long, still “active” (60+ and counting) Mormon who places a great deal of emphasis/value on strengthening the “community” even at the expense of so-called doctrine, policy, reverence, hierarchy, etc. But, I am also a semi-intellectual (no academic training or credentials) that wants badly, with regard to this pace and process of change issue, to talk about the elephant in the room. That elephant is the never-ceasing claim that the Prophet speaks to God (and vice versa), that the Church and it’s leaders–even the highly inconsistent, local SPs and bishops, are inspired by God in ALL that they do regarding their callings. This drumbeat of propaganda is repeated constantly in general conference, Ensign articles, talks given in local meetings, and in testimonies on Fast Sunday.

    I have difficulty finding anyone who will help me address/debate/understand and articulate this (intellectually, not by way of apostacy). I need other perspectives. I understand the obedience and unquestioning followership objective that can potentially justify this (call it what it is) lie. However, my—by experience and logic–conclusion is that not everything they say and do, in fact not even most, is inspired by God. Their actions and decisions are man-made (nearly all trying their best to do what they think is right).

    In that context, how are we to think about the slow rate of change? Does it mean God is still learning? Does it mean it is God’s will that we were taught all those many years that racism was just, as well as sexism, homophobia and its concomitant condemnation and abhorrence? Also, given that we now correctly understand (if not fully implement in our culture) the eternal equal value of men and women and their ability to bond as one (not literally), did God decide that the ancient and ignorant cultural practice of viewing women as chattel and primarily progeny producers should be brought back–at the expense of so many thousands of women, or did a man?

    There are many beliefs, doctrines, practices, and procedures in the present, the near past, and the distant past that can (if one is looking objectively) be seen as wrong or at least sub-optimal. Are we supposed to believe that all those are from the close guidance of our church leaders by God? If so, it would seem that “truth” is not defined by God as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” It is rather something like “a version of the truth that accomplishes the objective.” Think about all the soaring, inspirational scriptures and quotes about “the one true church” and the value of the truth, further light and knowledge, etc.

    I don’t think we can have it both ways. If as claimed and continues to be taught, God is in charge of his “one true church,” how do we explain EVER being out of step with truth—as discovered later. If the argument is that such delays in progress and allowance of missteps (withholding the priesthood, polygamy) were for our own good, then let’s start admitting that instead of being handed changes, new procedures, new social equality enlightenment, etc. as if they came directly from God.

  • Darren

    I just read Nate Oman’s piece on LDS hiearchy and change and overall I was positively impressed with what he wrote. Oman succesfully narrates his argument and threads it into a clear and logical package where one may be effectively pursuaded to conclude with him that the LDS leadership learned itsl esson from the past and does not implement change quickly that would didivde the church membership. Comparing the Manisfesto of 1890 and the schisms whic resulted and the 1978 revelation giving all worthy males of the world the priesthood of God and its subsequent unity is a superb point of contrast to build his point upon. However, I do think there are some key omissions in regard to the 1890 (and 1911) schisms and 1978 unity.

    Polygamy was, point blank, a commandment of God. Joseph Smith did not practice it until after a messenger ofthe Lord explicitly told him to practice it. Brigham Young whished for the grave when he first learned of polygamy. While there is clear record of God directly commanding man to practice polygamy, there is no such record to which I am aware of the blacks being denying the priesthood. My understanding is that Brigham Young held the position that Joseph Smith had rescinded the priesthood from blacks which he (Joseph Smith) had already given the priesthood to. But, frankly, there is no record of any such event taken place. Also, if Joseph Smith rescinded the priesthood, it makes no sense why those which he ordained into the priesthood kept it. But after Brigham Young there was confusion as to whether or not blacks should receive the priesthood. This confusion is in stark contrast to polygamy where essentially God said, “PRACTICE IT!!!”.

    Polygamy is also directly connected to clear doctrine regarding spiritual progress and even exaltation. According to doctrines unique to LDS theology, one *must* enter into the “new and everlasting covenant” of martial sealings which are considered eternal. In contrast, despite not having the priesthood, it was never tasught in LDS doctrines that as a consequence of not having the priesthood, that God would somehow hold back eternal blessings for blacks. In fact, the LDS were on the forefront in american society to preach the equality of blacks. That hey had a soul and that soul will be saved just as much as a white person’s soul constituted that these (and all) souls obey God’s commandments.

    Further complicating the denouncement of polygamy, amany in the LDS membersdhip had already entered into polygamous relationships. The LDS Church tasked itself in nullifying these polygamous marriages. Imagine telling a man his wife is no longer his wife. Imagine telling a woman a man is no longer her husband. And what of prental obligations to care for children born in polygamous marriages. Both the spiritual power as well as the earthly familial creations of polygamy would be reason for many to reject the abolition of polygamy. This cannot be said in allowing blacks to receive the priesthood. This latter change in LDS position resulted in expanding the Lord’s practices, not retracting them. It is natuarally easier to expand offerings than to take them back.

    Now, as for liberal Mormons, while I personally view modern-day liberalism as very destructive, vile, partisan, and frankly, opressive, I know that tghe LDS Church’s position of neutrality is the correct one to take. I will NEVER hold one’s political view of a brother or sister in the gospel to divide myself from him or her. I will NEVER do as Harry Reid did and denounce a political candidate’s political beliefs as a means to decare how they are incompatible with the teacings of the Church . I have, admitedly, reacted in the past to those who have taken said positions in a maner to show how my political beliefs do indeed live up to LDS standards but it is inherently volatile to argue and even vulgar to denounce a fellow LDS member’s standing in the Church for political reasons.

  • http://themormonworker.wordpress.com J. Madson

    “First, I agree with you that the pace of change in the church or its absence causes real spiritual pain and emotional trauma for a lot of liberal Mormons.”

    Im much less worried about what liberal Mormons feel and more about the victims of such policies and lack of change: blacks, women, gay men and women, etc.


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