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.

A Recent “Anti-Mormon” Essay: Trying to Understand Gee’s Response, Part I
A Recent “Anti-Mormon” Essay: Trying to Understand Gee’s Response, Part II
Doubt is Not Always a Choice
Doubting Our Doubters