In the days following white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, many progressive activists in the US took to social media not only to express dismay, but also to suggest actions and strategies for peacefully dismantling white supremacy. In my own social media feed, a friend shared a post that had been making the rounds, a list of actions for white allies to take. Most items on the list seemed like smart moves, but one surprised me: “get your friends on their own anti-racism journey, or cut them off.”
In other words, the post called for allies to convert their friends to the movement or cut ties. A move straight from the playbook of fundamentalist religions. To be fair, I don’t know what exactly the original writer meant by “anti-racism journey,” and thus whom he wants cut off. Perhaps he just wants people to cut ties with actual white supremacists who refuse to leave white supremacism behind, or perhaps he has much more stringent standards. But whatever his standard for sifting friends, the strategy remains the same. The call to convert friends to the movement reminds me of my Mormon childhood, which included constant encouragement to invite my friends to church. But even in my (arguably conservative) Mormon faith, nobody ever suggested that I cut off friends who refused to get on their own journey to Christ. From what I hear, that advice is more common in fundamentalist sects of Christianity.
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed similarities between progressive social media and religious structures. And to be clear, I am both a person of faith and a progressive, so I don’t find these similarities inherently bad (though similarities to fundamentalism fit in their own, worrying, category). But progressive spaces tend to criticize religious zealots, so similarities to religion are something we progressives, especially Mormon progressives, need to interrogate and come to terms with. If we criticize the same tactics within conservative religious groups, do we criticize them because the tactics are wrong, or because we want the tactics applied to a different set of values? To get started, here are a few similarities
- An ideology where people are born into a sinful world and become sinful by extension
Like most sects of Christianity, Mormon theology argues that humans need to be redeemed of their sins, and that all humans are sinful, aside from Jesus. Where Mormonism differs from some sects is in its belief that people are born innocent but commit sins because we live in a sinful world. The concept of sin may seem far from a progressive movement that generally embraces secularism, but a similar concept is at play in many social media discussions about privilege. In progressivism, people are not born sexist, racist, transphobic, etc. But our interactions with an imperfect world shape our perspective from a young age. In other words, virtually all people are born into varying degrees of privilege.
In both groups, the world of inequality or sin becomes worrying for parents. In Christianity, parents are often highly concerned with how to prepare their children for interactions in a sinful world. For instance, just a couple days ago my Relief Society class was devoted to a lesson on how mothers could protect their children from young exposure to pornography – or prepare their children to stand up for their values in the event that a friend introduces them to pornography. In a similar vein, my progressive friends worry about how to protect their children from damaging stereotypes about gender, how to prepare them to stand up to homophobia and racism when they encounter it at school. In both groups, parents may go to extreme lengths to protect their children from damaging influence. While growing up, I knew a Mormon family who decided to home school all their children when a teenage daughter started swearing. I also have friends who have chosen to raise their children as gender-neutrally as possible, and some parents go so far as to not reveal their child’s sex. In both cases, the parents face significant push back from a mainstream culture that does not share their views.
2. Individuals are admonished to leave sin/ hurtful behavior behind through confession and a constant refining process
In secular progressive spaces, the term “repentance” isn’t used, but the process is similar. In social media spaces it’s not uncommon for allies to make public apologies on behalf of themselves and other allies, though self-prostration is not always welcomed by those in the front lines of activism. For example, I’ve seen many white, or cis, or straight allies make public statements with a general apology along the lines of, “We white allies really suck sometimes,” followed by a commitment to do better in the future. The pattern of confessing to wrong behavior and pledging to leave the behavior behind follows a pattern similar to confession and repentance. In Mormon progressive spaces in particular, it’s not uncommon for activists to use the term “repent” while discussing their personal commitment to change, and/or while calling out others who have deviated from group standards.
3. Adherents to the belief structure have an obligation to enlist others
Like the writer who called for white allies to guide their friends toward “their anti-racism journey,” calls to bring the less enlightened to the truth proliferate progressive circles, and it’s not unheard of for those calls to be paired with criticism of anyone who remains friends with racist/sexist/homophobic people. In some secular circles, missionary work is inherently considered harmful, but missionary work bears striking resemblance to efforts to enlist others in a political movement. In Mormon progressive circles, the overlap is often more direct, or even intentional. One recent example is the website shouldertothewheel.org, which includes a challenge to both sign up and also invite several friends to do the same, but without any call to cut off friends who don’t get on board. Shoulder to the Wheel has deliberate Momon undertones, so it’s no surprise that it bears similarity to stake Book of Mormon challenges, or challenges to seek out people who are not Mormon and share a specific message. Of course, there are fundamental differences between conversion efforts in the two movements: while Mormon missionary work generally focuses on the positive change that an individual or a family can experience after converting, progressive proselytizing emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to a community, especially communities with less power.
4. A strict hierarchy governs communication
I have a feeling this point may get the most push back, so before describing the similarities, I want to establish a few ways in which the hierarchy in Mormonism is unlike the hierarchy in Mormon progressive spaces. In the Mormon hierarchy, men hold the top positions, at all levels. Generally white, straight, US men, especially wealthy or upper middle class men. In the top Church leadership, there is little movement – apostle, for instance, is a lifetime calling, and authority is generally distributed based on the level in the hierarchy, with the authority attributed to divinity. In progressive spaces, distribution of authority shifts frequently, depending on the topic at hand, though moderators in a social media group hold extra authority in any conversation. In a conversation about racism, the voices of POC are given the most authority, while in conversations about ableism a person with a disability will be given more authority than the able-bodied. Someone who was instructed to step back and just listen in one conversation may be given the spotlight in the next.
5. The belief system demands orthodoxy, and communities discipline heretical speech
In both progressive and religious spaces, it’s often not enough to be orthoprax* and take the same actions. Community members are expected to also be orthodox and internalize the group’s belief system. In Mormonism, these internalized beliefs are referred to as a testimony, and both leaders and local members devote a significant portion of church meetings to teaching the importance of a testimony and how to gain one. In addition to sermons and lessons on this subject, once each month an entire service is set aside for members to declare their testimonies over the pulpit. While progressive spaces lack a formal process for declaring beliefs, it’s not uncommon for Mormon progressive spaces to invite community members to share stories about feminist awakenings. In the broader progressive community, actions that support progressive causes are considered insufficient without internalized convictions. For instance, even among the progressives who supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, there was criticism that her newfound support of LGBTQ rights was inauthentic.
Discipline for heresy (called apostasy in Mormon circles) varies widely in Christianity, so I’ll focus on Mormonism, the faith I belong to and know best. When Mormons publicly declare opinions that deviate from core Church teachings (i.e. arguing that the Church is in a state of Apostasy), they may become vulnerable to disciplinary action, such as a suspended temple recommend or even a gag order in weekly meetings. When Mormons reject leaders’ instructions and continue expressing views deemed apostate, leaders sometimes escalate the discipline and excommunicate them, an action which fully ejects the member from the community as a spiritual member and severs many ties to the local congregation. An excommunication is intended to be a temporary measure, provided the member acknowledges their prior words as wrong and sinful.
In progressive circles, forms of boundary policing are also common, and internet anonymity both makes it easier to eject an individual and also makes it more necessary (trolling is par for the course on social media, and it’s not uncommon for a long term group member to accuse someone they don’t know of being a troll). In progressive circles, sometimes a long-term group member will be banned for an infraction as simple as continuing to explain what they meant, rather than silently accepting the correction, as the group has instructed.
6. Calls for gentler engagement with unorthodox group members generally still assume that the individual being called out has erred
Just as boundary policing within Mormonism can be controversial even among the orthodox, public call outs and sudden bannings in progressive circles elicit mixed reactions. Some progressive spaces have moved away from public confrontations and “call outs” and instead encourage members to “call in” by privately explaining why a person’s words are ableist, sexist, racist, etc. In Mormonism, the equivalent of calling in might be for a bishop to privately meet with a member he thinks is moving toward apostasy and offer a gentle call to repentance. Even so, the call-in strategy supports the group’s demand for orthodoxy. Those who instruct progressives to “call in” start from the assumption that the person issuing the call in has correctly assessed the situation. The caller is assumed to hold the truth, which the called party is expected to accept and embrace. For instance, in a recent conversation, a thoughtful progressive friend of mine argued for calling in by stating that calling a person out often elicits defensiveness and “justification.” In orthodox Mormon circles, “justification” of unorthodox opinions is a common accusation as well.
With these similarities between progressive circles and orthodox communities in mind, is the overlap positive or a negative? Stay tuned for part 2.
*Here I use Orthopraxy to refer to sameness in action, the definition Karen Armstrong uses when discussing her experiences as a Catholic nun, though my theologian friends have informed me that this meaning is not how they would use the term.
Another note: progressive social media groups usually require members to refrain from taking screenshots of conversations, which limits how many examples I can share. Even if I no longer belong to some of these communities, this post honors that call for privacy.