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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