Purity, Power, and Principled Pragmatism

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.

We've seen this show before.

Fifty years ago the status quo was challenged by a large group of moderates pressing for real changes that in retrospect it seems ridiculous that anyone actually had to ask for. At the same time, a smaller but vocal and headline-grabbing group was making more radical demands of the establishment, which labeled their provocative actions as extreme, disloyal, and counterproductive to real progress.

The establishment was genuinely terrified by the radicals—despite the overwhelming imbalance in power between the two. They conjured up fearful scenarios that the entire structure they had taken generations to build would be brought down if the radicals' hostile demands were acceded to in any way. The establishment was not unwilling to listen to "reasonable" requests and work with respectful partners, but such things had their proper time and place and way, and should be done through (rather than subverting) official channels. Harmony, comity, and unity were the prevailing values that must be preserved.

For their part, it's not entirely clear if the radicals knew that their demands were completely impractical, and that any number of intervening steps needed to be addressed and achieved before their ultimate ends could even be seriously considered. At the same time, there is some evidence that they maintained their radical demands precisely to make room for the moderates to work in, shrewdly wagering that if given the option between the moderates and the radicals, the establishment would be forced to choose the former. Regardless of their tactical considerations, the fact is that the radicals' demands were sincere, and in their minds completely justified. Anything less that the full achievement of what they called for would be a dilution and betrayal of what was rightfully, even divinely, theirs. The establishment's refusal to engage the radicals seriously was simply further evidence of its failure to act in good faith and of its leaders' desire to retain their own privileges rather than living up to the best of their own stated values and serving the needs of all.

The moderate change-seekers were divided on what to think of the radicals, and whether to champion them or keep them at arm's length. On the one hand, they appreciated the purity of the radicals' position and accepted much of the logic of their arguments. They knew that the establishment's surveillance of and repressive measures against the radicals was different only in degree, not kind, from their own relationship to the powers-that-be. On the other hand, while sympathetic to some of the stated goals of the radicals, the moderates knew their demands to be presently impractical, and they were far more interested in what could be realistically accomplished in the here-and-now, incrementally perhaps but not simply in token allowances. They would no longer tolerate the present state of affairs, nor would they wait for time to heal all wounds. Progress would come through a combination of concerted action and principled compromise.

The moderates had suffered for too long, and they knew that the entire community, including the established powers, suffered because it failed to fully include all its members. They recognized that their own relatively modest demands—to be treated with full respect, to have their voices valued and heeded, to be afforded the dignities and rights that many of their ancestors had enjoyed but that had been stripped away after brilliant flashes of historical promise—would be interpreted by some conservatives as unduly rocking the boat, and they knew they would be shunned (and worse) by some in their community for questioning the wisdom of the community's leaders. Willing to spark what they deemed as necessary tension to unmask some of the community's shortcomings, they were nevertheless wary of the deeper divisiveness sparked by the radicals' demands. They would sincerely mourn the loss of certain radical leaders, even if they didn't always agree with what they said. Yet they couldn't help but wonder if the radical leadership's fateful end was in some ways predictable if genuinely tragic.

Of course, analogies are only that, and they inevitably break down under scrutiny. But perhaps we gain some wisdom by placing the recent debates over feminism, gender roles and equality, and women's ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a broader historical context. As we consider the struggle for African American civil rights in mid-20th-century America, we recognize that progress required the tireless efforts of radicals, moderates, and establishment figures alike.