Development of Dougherty Doctrine

The Dougherty Doctrine is a rhetorical trick that makes many political debates much easier to understand. It was accidentally coined by journalist and former roommate Michael Brendan Dougherty in an article for the Washington Monthly. Dougherty took in an intra-Republican debate and wrote, “the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.”

The Doctrine has broader application than Republicans. All political parties engage in it from time to time as its members try to tug it in one direction or other. And pundits practice it constantly, usually without much evidence. (The “radical right” is costing Republicans with swing voters; Dems are losing because they’re “too centrist” or “too liberal.”) Sometimes that’s understandable: television is not the most thoughtful medium and the usual length of op-eds forces writers to use a lot of shortcuts. Still, it’s worth pointing out how identity-driven such politics actually tend to be.

Does the Dougherty Doctrine apply to religion as well? That possibility occurred to me when I read this piece by Carrie Sheffield in USA Today. It’s not a bad piece. Indeed, I led with it on Real Clear Religion this afternoon. But the biographical angle raises certain large questions.

Sheffield is a former Mormon whose work I’ve published in the past, when she was still Mormon. She writes in USA Today that she left the LDS church in 2010 and positions her exit as part of a larger rush out the door that the Utah hierarchy really needs to address.

“Church leaders can crack down and continue to see members, especially young people, leave,” Sheffield writes. “Or they can allow churchwide dialogue and changes relating to the church’s historical and doctrinal claims, financial dealings, proselytizing and treatment of women, skeptics and outsiders.”

Just how large is the problem? Sheffield writes, “This year, Elder Marlin Jensen, the Mormon Church’s outgoing official historian, acknowledged that members are defecting from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘in droves’ and that the pace is increasing.”

That sounds alarming, but without the relevant numbers, it’s not terribly helpful. Just how many Mormons are calling it quits and how does that stack up against Mormon births and conversions? She doesn’t grapple with that question. Instead we get a lot of anecdotes about some former Mormon protest groups, a YouTube video with half a million views, and “hundreds” of pro-gay Mormons that marched in something or other.

Nor does Sheffield consider what a sort of Vatican 2 for Mormonism would do to the faith and practice of the large mass of faithful Mormons. Maybe most Mormons would be fine with it, or maybe you’d see LDS participation plummet much like Mass attendance did in the 1970s. I’d guess the latter but it’s only a guess, because I’d like to avoid the temptations of the Dougherty Doctrine on this fine Monday.

UPDATE: Carrie Sheffield has replied here.

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  • Doug Gibson

    Although it’s not always fair, the influence of a former Mormon is virtually nil. It’s a reality in a religion that is very authority-oriented and young enough to where active members identify with the hardships faced by members who lived 170 years ago. “Rejecting” the church has a durable taint. When change occurs in today’s LDS Church it is subtle and quiet. There is no chance of an LDS “Vatican 2″-type gathering that would include participants who could actually effect change.

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  • Seth R.

    It’s also worth taking a hard look at the motives of those trying to define the narrative about a religion.

    People who leave the LDS Church would naturally like to feel like they made the correct moral decision – so they look for evidence that they did, in fact, make the correct decision. Everyone wants history to be on their side.

  • TElden

    Jeremy, you raise the right question about Carrie Sheffield’s article. In fact, young Mormons are departing Mormonism in far fewer numbers than young Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Jews. Teh complete quotation that Carrie should have given is as follows: “Jensen, the church’s official historian, would not provide any figures on the rate of defections, but he told Reuters that attrition has accelerated in the last five or 10 years, reflecting greater secularization of society. Many religions have been suffering similarly, he noted, arguing that Mormonism has never been more vibrant. “Those leaving the church are a fraction of 1 percent each year and it is a trend that is decreasing rather than increasing,” said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.