What Does It Mean to Be ‘Friend’

Yesterday morning, readers of the New York Times opened their Sunday papers to find John Turner’s op-ed, “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” Turner, an assistant professor at George Mason University and the author of the soon to be released, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, provides a careful and concise history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) often troubling relationship with people of African descent. Turner also argues why the contemporary church (and its membership—especially those running for high elected office) could benefit from more frank talk from the “brethren” about why the LDS Church abandoned its race-based exclusionary policies, and how Mormons should understand this past.

Turner’s piece came just days after another hot-button revelation from the always expanding “Mormon beat.” Last Thursday, The Huffington Post’s Andrea Stone reported a new Helen Radkey discovery, unearthed in the electronic archives of the LDS Church’s Family Search database: the names of some deceased family members of the newly selected GOP vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan—whom Mitt Romney himself pointed out is a “faithful Catholic”—appear on a list for future posthumous baptisms. And some of Ryan’s kin, including Ryan’s beloved father, might have already been baptized by proxy.

There are some superficial parallels between these two stories. Both touch on two of the most sensitive topics in Mormonism (namely, race and proxy baptisms for the dead). And for that reason, both stories worked some Mormons—and perhaps even more Mormon detractors—into a lather.

But I want to explain it is vital to describe the differences in method and motivation between these two stories. This is vital because—and I’m mostly addressing Latter-day Saint readers—in these differences what emerges is an answer to the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘friend,’” and specifically, “What does it mean for a scholar of Mormonism to be a ‘friend’ to the Latter-day Saints?”

My totally unscientific survey of responses to these two stories comes from reading my Facebook friends’ (or more often, friends of friends’) comments, which appeared after these two stories were posted and shared over the weekend. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me that a Peculiar People post on ‘friends’ is largely inspired by the social network that has, in many ways, redefined what the word ‘friend’ means).

Let me summarize (and sanitize) many of the hundreds of comments these two stories received. From a certain segment of Mormon readers, the response was more or less this: “How dare those ‘Antis’ lecture us about who we are and what we do!” (To be sure, there is some justification for such response, due to the long history of Mormon persecution). And from those “Antis,” (real “Antis” I mean) a noxious chorus, “Look at those Mormons being cultish and racist!” erupted.

Yet, at least for me, this is where the similarities end.

First, there is the question of method.

In his article, Turner makes the point that the “priesthood ban” (the shorthand for the racial exclusion of black Mormons, though the restrictions also affected African American women too) did not begin at the founding of the church. Instead, the ban has a human history: It was an evolving practice, then policy, then doctrinal fixture, articulated and defended by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith well into the twentieth century.

Turner then contextualizes the ban, placing it in the history of American religion. “Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions,” Turner writes. “Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.” It is perhaps only the priesthood ban’s “duration,” Turner argues, that is unusual, and perhaps, yes, shameful.

What Turner does—contextualize and historicize—Radkey does not. She digs and then dumps, leaving the analysis to others (however, it should be acknowledged that with the church watching her so carefully—after all, Radkey is responsible for many of the muckraking discoveries of proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, Gandhi and a myriad of celebrities—this is quite a feat in itself).

Second, motivations. I don’t claim to know what motivates Radkey (I’ve never met her). My understanding is that she considers herself a whistleblower, who, at best, works to hold the LDS Church accountable to its own policies about who is eligible to submit certain names for temple work, and what names should never be submitted for such rituals (e.g. Holocaust victims). [1]

I believe whistleblowing is often a brave and important act. Uncovering misdeeds in governments, industries, and churches can serve to protect the public, the consumer, and the believer from abuse, which is often protected, or covered up by bureaucracies.

But what if your goal is to critique the institution itself, not to tear it down, but to better it, so it can more effectively serve its own constituencies?

This is, I believe, what Prof. Turner, and many other non-Mormon scholars, myself included, intend to do, especially when we write about Mormonism for the popular media.

I would guess that for most readers of Peculiar People, Turner provides little new historical insight into the troubling history of race and Mormonism. But breaking new ground isn’t what the op-ed page of The New York Times is for. Instead, Turner offers a cautious challenge to the LDS leadership (and its membership) to more seriously grapple with the moral as well as historical reasons why the ban was ever instituted in the first place, and why it came to be removed.

I believe that Prof. Turner—and a growing number of non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism like him—have earned the right to make such challenges. After all, such scholars have dedicated, hours, days, even careers to the careful study of Mormon history.

What we find in these lifetimes spent in the archives is sometimes troubling, sometimes heartwarming, but most often mundane. Yet what we always find is human. And it’s our duty as scholars to capture this comprehensive humanity.

What also happens in the archives (at the Church History Library, in particular) or in more virtual communities like this one, is that non-Mormons become friends with Mormons. We grow to respect Mormons as thinkers, scholars, and believers (and hopefully this is reciprocated).

Friends stand up for their friends against bullies (non-Mormon scholars are more often called Mormon apologists by Mormon haters, than anti-Mormons). But friends are more than sycophants, too. As Mormon Studies continues to grow past its sectarian origins, this hopefully will become more apparent, and also more recognized.

[1]. I too have investigated troubling findings in the Family Search databases. I leave it to the readers of my article at Slate to determine what, if anything, separates my work from that of Radkey’s.

Doubting at Zion’s Gate
Resolutions and Desires
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
“The Prophecy of This Book”
  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    One last comment; I promise it is the last. I’ve been told that my participation here sounds angry. If so, that is unintentional and directly contrary to my efforts. If I write without the warmth of friendship, I also write without the heat of anger. I labored over both of my comments, striving for clarity and communication, and to be as emotionally neutral as was possible for me on a subject that is as close to my feelings as this one is. Please read my comments with that in mind. There is no anger. There is bluntness and an effort to communicate without the obscuring that can come from using too many softening qualifiers. I do not write in anger.

  • Ryan Tobler

    This is a sensitive, difficult, and important topic, and one that is also deeply personal. I welcome friendly interactions with scholars of any persuasion working on Mormonism as much as any topic. With mentors and peers, I have seen profound things happen as people with deeply divergent views on momentous issues come together in mutual exchange. My views of my own tradition have been very much enriched and my moral vision has been expanded through this kind of process, and I see the same potential in discussions of race and the Church. Turner’s NYT piece is, I think, respectful and cogent. I am glad to have scholars like he and Max as part of the scholarly conversation surrounding the Mormon faith and its history.

    I don’t believe, however, that social criticism and friendship are the same thing or that they very easily go together. Here’s the hard fact of why: most social critics (whether journalists, scholars, or both) don’t have the leisure to simply advocate their moral vision. They also have to sell their ideas and trade on the controversies they create. But friends—at least true friends—don’t do anything of the sort. What motivates them is exclusively the interest of those they befriend, and their betterment. Friends engage and help independent of any external factors, even their own seething sense of moral outrage. That’s the basis of trust. Without it, it would be disingenuous to call the work of the critic full friendship. Unfortunately, the impulses of the contemporary critic and the friend take each in different very directions.

    That’s not to say it’s not possible to be critical and friendly; it’s just to say that actual friendship runs deep and it is earned. It takes not only an investment of time, obligatory efforts at outreach, and a working knowledge of essential concepts and terms. It also takes humility and genuine interest. I think most people would agree that friendships have at least as much reassurance and affirmation in them as they do correction. And a friend is as much open to receiving correction as he or she is to giving it. It’s a noble thing, and one that shouldn’t be tossed around lightly.

  • Rachael

    Ardis, I think you bring up very valuable points, and you articulate them extremely well and with great care and great feeling. I think you show that serious misunderstandings or problems can arise when academic institutions or individuals transpose their methods of criticism directly to a religious institution. Not only is this an inappropriate collapse of fundamentally different institutions, but it is simply not their prerogative. I can fully understand, and share, the intentions of the historian to “capture this comprehensive humanity” of the institutions or stories they study– but that is a far leap from “issuing challenges” and “caution[ary]” warnings and advice to that institution; a leap I agree is not only out of keeping with the Mormon nature of revelation, progress, etc., but with the professional parameters of the historian.

  • http://www.religionandpolitics.org Max Mueller

    Well this has certainly been a spirited conversation!
    Thanks Rachael for your input here (I don’t think we’ve every met: Hello!).

    I think your point is well taken (one made by Ardis and Ryan, too–thanks to both of them) that there are different modes of rhetoric and, as you say “prerogatives” in play in both history and faith.
    My point is that there is a growing segment of non-Mormon historians personally invested in the lives of Mormons. They gain knowledge from years of study (and years of building relationships with Mormons, many of whom they care for on a personal level) (Richard Mouw and Bob Millet are great examples of the type of friendship I’m speaking of here). And I don’t draw iron-clad boundaries between history and, for a lack of a better word, advocacy. I see them as more permeable (I want the people who study history to share their knowledge–even their advice–about issues they know well).

    The question I still have is (and it’s a sincere one, not meant at all rhetorical): Should these (non-Mormon) historians ever speak publicly to the issues that affect people they care about within the church? This isn’t just important for Mormonism, but for all historians and scholars who study faiths not their own. And even within Mormonism, I think a very live question is: who gets to speak for Mormonism? Is it just the prophets? Or can others speak publicly about issues that are important to them (for example, issues around homosexuality come to mind)?

    But I think if we move away from the heat of race, proxy baptisms, and homosexuality and ask this question more in the abstract, this could be a very fruitful and important issue for us all to consider. Who gets to speak about Mormonism in public?
    Thanks again for all of your important input. It’s been very enlightening.

  • Craig M.

    Max, I think you’ve raised some interesting questions. Count me as one who greatly appreciates scholars outside of Mormonism who help us look at the faith from new perspectives. I think you’d find that many who criticize scholarly non-Mormon commentary on Mormonism as “anti-Mormon” would also do the same of scholarly Mormon commentary. Some just have a hard time participating in dispassionate discussions about church history, culture, and beliefs.

    The question of whether some can somehow “earn” the right to criticize the church, however, is an issue apart. I think it’s fair to say that no one ever earns a the right to criticize anything – it’s simply something you do or don’t do. Furthermore, no matter how many hours you (speaking to the non-Mormon scholar in general) spend in the archives, you will never have as much of an investment in Mormonism as the newest member of the church. While I understand you may very well wish for the best for the church and may have very helpful insights, you probably shouldn’t forget that no number of hours of research will add up to the vested interest of believing.

    Should those “outside” criticisms bother Mormons, though? Perhaps. For me it is all an issue of framing. I think that most LDS would agree that newspaper editorials urging the church to change its positions are highly unlikely to be successful. If scholars are truly familiar with Mormonism, they would know as much, and thus the feigned position of “offering a helping hand” is revealed to be merely a different way of presenting whatever topic they’re addressing. How that’s done can make a difference. I wasn’t bothered by Turner’s piece because I thought it was quite fair. I can certainly imagine, though, an editorial on the same topic from someone else (just as likely from the inside) that I would have felt much less kindly about.

    As for your article on Slate months ago, I said on BCC and will say again that I found it to be along the lines of Radkey. I’m sure you’re a great guy, I’ve been impressed with things I’ve read from you elsewhere, and I believe you that your intention was not merely to get attention, but I think you went about things the wrong way. There is quite a difference between sharing such commentary in a scholarly forum and on an internet news site. It seemed to me to be expose at the center and some scholarly commentary as window dressing. But live and learn – I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of navigating those waters and deciding how to present your work. I wish you all the best!

    • Matthew Bowman

      The problem with comparing somebody like Max or John to “the newest member of the church” is that the two people have thoroughly different perspectives. Max does not see the church the way a convert does, and nor should he. He and John approach Mormonism, using distinctive intellectual tools, with particular goals. Believers approach Mormonism from entirely different perspectives, and have a different set of intellectual tools and a different set of goals. The two things aren’t even on the same continuum, and so there’s very little use in comparing them in terms of better or worse. It’s like saying that because we have the toaster we don’t need Shakespeare, to borrow an apt comparison from Terry Eagleton. “Fairness” seems a largely empty term to me, then, when applied here.

      The sort of social criticism Max and John have done is certainly not part of the theological conversation that happens within Mormonism, and nor should it be. I doubt either author would expect it to be. Neither of them are speaking the language of theology, and nor are they speaking the language of faith that governs discourse within the church. Rather, they’re speaking the language of, well, social critics, scholars, and historians. This may be useful information for Mormons – and I rather hope it is, because it’s always valuable to see one’s self from another perspective, and I think both Max and John (and folks like Jan Shipps) have provided invaluable vantage points for their Mormon friends. But ultimately, it’s for Mormons to do with what these people say what they will; reject, ponder, use it to consider new possibilities. Ultimately. I think castigating them for not understanding Mormonism as insiders do is to miss the point. Simply that they don’t should not – and I can’t emphasize that enough – allow Mormons to feel that their perspectives are worthless.

      • Craig M.

        Matt, I must have been unclear in what I wrote, or you are responding to a sentiment that I did not express. My mention of the “investment” of faith was not referring to whether non-Mormons could have very helpful insights into Mormonism (as I tried to make clear in my first paragraph, I feel quite to the contrary). Rather, it was in response to what I read as Max’s suggestion that an amount of study and effort could essentially justify criticism. (The original post said, “I believe that Prof. Turner—and a growing number of non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism like him—have earned the right to make such challenges. After all, such scholars have dedicated, hours, days, even careers to the careful study of Mormon history.”) As I stated, “I think it’s fair to say that no one ever earns a the right to criticize anything – it’s simply something you do or don’t do” (of course, with more effort the criticism could become more pointed or noteworthy). In other words, just because an individual put forth the effort to learn a great deal about Mormon history, culture, etc. (undoubtedly in many cases more so than the great majority of church members) does not mean that they should be given a free pass on their critiques – I don’t think such free passes should exist for anyone, but that the critique should be judged on its merits. I was trying to suggest that scholars might temper that sentiment of “earning” by remembering that no matter how much effort they put into their work, their interest in the well being of Mormonism will always be much less than someone who believes in its truth claims. I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that disbelief is a “disqualifier” for study and critique.

  • Nate Oman

    Max: I appreciate commentary and criticism from friendly and knowledgable non-Mormons. I agree with more or less everything in John Turner’s op-ed piece. What I find interesting about your post is the way in which you articulate the basis of your authority as a critic. If I understand you correctly, you claim some special status as a critic based on knowledge and intellectual investment; relationships with individual Mormons; and good will toward the church as an institution. These all strike me as good reasons one might claim greater attention. It is important, however, to understand that there are major limitations on these sources of authority. They are not the same as — and are less weighty than — the authority that one acquires by being a believer, making sacred covenants, and living a faithful life. They are not the same as the kind of authority that one acquires by “being called of God and set apart by the laying on hands by those who are in authority.” Friendship confers a kind of authority to speak on behalf of the friend, but it is a very limited kind of authority.

    Part of the reason why you are likely to get a push back from a lot of Mormons is because you construct the case for your authority largely in terms of scholarly expertise. Mormonism, as you well know, has a strong tradition of rejecting scholarly expertise as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for acquiring religious authority. Indeed, there is a strong strand of Mormon thought that sees religious authority based on intellectual attainments as positively pernicious. (See, e.g., Hugh Nibley’s The World and the Prophets) It is always possible to to just dismiss this as rank anti-intellectualism, but there is some real spiritual content to this suspicion: it can also express humility about human reason and a faith and hope that God will in fact interrupt the flow of human history and reveal himself in his own way.

    All of which is my way of saying that I welcome friendly critics, but as a Latter-day Saint they lack the peculiar kind of moral authority as critics of the Church that can only be acquired through religious participation in Mormonism. Furthermore, their moral authority, in my view, is not simply different from that of internal critics. It is also lesser than.

    • http://www.religionandpolitics.org Max Mueller

      Thanks for weighing in. As you note, I think non-Mormon scholars locate an authority to speak on these issues based on relationships and scholarship. You’re right to note that within Mormonism (or at least for many church members), this authority is “lesser than” the authority of faith, priesthood, revelation. But again, non-Mormon scholars working in Mormonism don’t claim access to that authority, nor do they need to operate within those constraints.

      You might think these tools are “lesser than.” But that’s what we got. And I think what we got can lead to a better understanding of such troubling histories as the “priesthood restriction” itself. I’ve seen many, many posts in which members assert “we just don’t know when and why the restriction began.” This might be the official line from the church. But historically, it’s not true. Historians (and in this case) Mormon historians have answered this important questions.

      Let’s boil this down to the archive. What if one discovers something there that is interesting or enlightening (not even necessarily troubling). Because non-Mormon scholars don’t have testimonies of faith (a “religious participation in Mormonism” as you call it), it seems you’re dismissing their ability to offer much that is meaningful to the fuller understanding of the “comprehensive humanity” of the LDS historical experience. This saddens me.

      But more importantly, I very much welcome your input and think you’re right to bring in the different kind of “authorities” in operation and in contention here.

      Thanks for adding this discussion. As I’ve said before, it’s been enlightening.

      • Nate Oman

        Max: Don’t be sad. Nothing I have said was meant to imply that it is somehow impossible for non-Mormons to say something meaningful about Mormon history. Such a position would clearly be absurd. Likewise, nothing I have said is meant to imply that non-Mormons should keep quiet about their historical discoveries or that Mormons should ignore those discoveries. Such a position would be very wrong-headed in my opinion. I read a lot of Mormon history and even have done a little myself. To the extent that I have a mentor in the field as a cross-over academic from another discipline, it is Sally Gordon, a non-Mormon scholar for whom I have enormous respect and who I regard as hands down the best scholar of Mormon legal history. I think that her interpretations of the Mormon legal past are better than any that have yet been offered. I owe her very large professional and intellectual debts that I am happy to acknowledge.

        However, I thought that you were talking about something more than simply offering historical analysis or social criticism. I thought you were also talking about non-Mormon scholars articulating what Mormons should be doing about their own religion and their own church, not only from the point of view of Mormonism’s interactions with non-Mormons but also crucially what Mormons ought to be doing about their own religion FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MORMONS THEMSELVES. If I am a neighbor and your marriage is imploding, leading to loud and angry arguments in the night, I might — as a neighbor — argue that you should keep it down so you don’t disturb the peace. If I am a friend, however, I might give you advice not only on how to avoid disturbing the peace but also how to reconcile with your wife. This second kind of advice is much more intimate and difficult, but if I understand you and your wife well and actually care for the two of you, then I think such advice could be appropriate, if sensitively and humbly given. On the other hand, you should pay a lot more attention to what your wife says than to what I say because of the promises you have made to her and the relationship that you have with her. Her authority is greater than mine even though it is conceivable that my epistemic position may be superior. After all, sometimes a bit of distance allows one to see events more clearly than those that are caught in the midst of them. There are, however, reasons for attention and concern that trump the epistemic. (And, of course, it is also frequently the case that distance DOES NOT confer epistemic advantage. Sometimes the person who has lived an experience knows it much better than the person who has merely observed it.)

        I take it that you are arguing that scholars like John Turner or yourself have reached a point where you have the knowledge and intimacy to offer such advice to Mormons. Unlike Rachel or Ardis (if I am understanding them correctly), I actually think that there are non-Mormons who could give such advice without being gauche or inappropriate. My only point is that there are others from whom such advice will command greater attention precisely because of their religious commitments and my covenant relationship with them.

        Both you and Christopher Jones, for example, might express concerns about some aspect of Mormon belief and practice. You are both smart guys pursuing graduate education in religious history. On some aspects of Mormon history you may be in a better epistemic position than is Christopher Jones. After all you are specializing in Mormonism and he is specializing in Methodism. On the other hand, I sit in bishopric meetings every week with Chris Jones and that matters in terms of the level of attention that his concerns regarding the Church command of me relative to yours. This isn’t meant a personal attack on you or John Turner or any other knowledgeable non-Mormon. It certainly isn’t meant as a reason for ignoring what you have to say. It just means that Mormons have a greater stake in Mormonism than do non-Mormons and for that reason their concerns are entitled to greater respect from other Mormons.

        • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.r.marsh Stephen R. Marsh

          However, I thought that you were talking about something more than simply offering historical analysis or social criticism. I thought you were also talking about non-Mormon scholars articulating what Mormons should be doing about their own religion and their own church, not only from the point of view of Mormonism’s interactions with non-Mormons but also crucially what Mormons ought to be doing about their own religion FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MORMONS THEMSELVES.

          That is the issue. The claim to that type of authority without, it seems, a basis (or an approach to the audience) that validates the claim.

          I used to discuss ADR professionals who were certain of their own value — if they could not sell their value, they lacked the skill to have value.

          The same is true of many critics.

  • http://www.religionnews.com/blogs/jana-riess Jana

    Thank you for this thought-provoking discussion. I clearly don’t know all the history that preceded this post, so allow me just to speak to the important general question Ardis and Max have raised. If I have understood Ardis correctly, she does not feel that it is the place of non-Mormon scholars to critique LDS leaders or members in the public square. I have to disagree; I welcome the outstanding scholarship that non-Mormon historians and social scientists have brought to bear on Mormonism.

    Moreover, as a religion blogger, I have done precisely the same thing myself when writing about other religious traditions. For example, I criticized Roman Catholic leaders when they cracked down earlier this year on the autonomy and financial independence of nuns. Last month I wrote about my displeasure when a group of Hasidic Jews attempted to ban certain kinds of women’s clothing (e.g., bicycle shorts) from a Brooklyn neighborhood, and then tried to prohibit bicyclists in the neighborhood at all for modesty reasons.

    Did I have the right to say these things? I felt that both of those issues had an impact beyond the narrow reach of their origins: e.g., that the question of whether Hasidic men had a religious right to dictate what non-Hasidic women wear in a public neighborhood is important for all of us. A strong point could be made that, in the case of John Turner’s thought-provoking and entirely reasonable post in the NYT, lingering questions of Mormonism’s racial past have an impact in circles far beyond Mormonism. Mormonism has become an important part of larger national discussions, which is both a delight and a challenge for all of us who study it, whether we are LDS or not. Attempting to restrict any critical discussion of this vibrant religious tradition to more insular intra-Mormon forums is a step in the wrong direction, and accusing those non-Mormon scholars who write in prestigious publications of being primarily concerned with career-building is unworthy. Mormonism is part of a national (and increasingly, a global) conversation. National and international publications are a natural place for the conversation to occur.