When Progressive Mormonism Becomes a Secular Religion

When Progressive Mormonism Becomes a Secular Religion September 18, 2017

man standing on soap box
image obtained via creative commons

Author’s note: in my last post, I discussed similarities between Christianity and progressive social media, more specifically Mormon progressive social media. In this post I discuss what these similarities mean for Mormon progressives.


How religious strategies can undermine progressive efforts

As a progressive and a person of faith, I don’t see the similarities between religion and progressivism as inherently bad or good. What I’d say is that many of these overlaps can strengthen progressive movements, while others should be approached with caution. However, as a progressive writing to other progressives, I’m going to focus on the areas where we can do better, before covering some strengths we can pull from religious strategies. Here are some areas that should give us pause:

1.  Ideas that should be debated become dogmatic

In this 2014 article, “Everything is Problematic,” Trent, who was then a student at McGill, describes their experience with an extreme form of Leftist politics. In pointing out the tendency for dogma to sometimes take over in progressive circles, here’s how Trent defines sacred beliefs:
“One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred                 beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs,                 they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a               puppy.”

The problem is, there are very, very few beliefs in this world that should be treated as so sacred that we don’t need to question them. I’d argue that “It’s wrong to sexually abuse children” is in that category, along with “killing people for the sheer fun of it is wrong.” Certainly there are others that most people could agree on as well. And I’d say that it’s not a bad thing for a movement to hold a few ideas sacred.

But in progressive spaces, a particular policy about a sacred belief sometimes becomes conflated with the belief itself. For instance (and this is a hypothetical but one I can easily see happening), a person who argued for reforming the sex offender registry might face the same push back as someone arguing that sexual assault isn’t morally wrong, despite how different those arguments are. Especially if sexual assault survivors present in the group were to state that the conversation about reforming the sex offender registry was harming them. In a group dedicated solely to supporting sexual assault survivors, it would probably make sense to ban conversations about being more lenient toward offenders. But in a group with broad social justice aims, critiques of the current justice system should be welcome.

And in communities where every proscribed belief becomes sacred, communication breaks down. Someone fumbles with their words because they’re new, or because they’re tired, or simply because they haven’t kept up with the very latest conversation and are using language that was acceptable five years ago. If that person is publicly called out for “harming people” with those fumbled words, without anyone giving them a chance to at least clarify their meaning, here’s the result: a few progressives walk away proud of themselves for having “saved” someone from those harmful words, when all they’ve done is shout down a person who agreed with them in the first place but didn’t find the right words.

For example, in one group that I used to belong to, a longtime group member made a joke that did not go over as he intended. The joke referenced a General Conference talk that had asked for members of the Church to stop criticizing Joseph Smith, and which had asked, “Isn’t it time we gave Joseph a break?” On Columbus Day, this person joked, “Isn’t it time we gave Christopher Columbus a break?” Taking it literally (you can’t hear tone on facebook, after all) several people responded angrily that no, it was not time to give Columbus a break for committing genocide. The joker quickly clarified that he’d intended it as a joke at the expense of Columbus. Instead of everyone saying, “Phew! Thanks for clarifying – but you should know that the joke is really unclear,” several people piled on to tell him why his joke was “harming oppressed people.” Then, for the crime of continuing to defend and explain his joke, rather than silently taking the correction, he was banned. Keep in mind, this was a long-time group member, who was attempting (if ineffectively) to point out the flaw in expecting historical figures who are still celebrated to be free from criticism.

But in dogmatic spaces, it’s not acceptable to joke about sacred topics or to defend your intentions when you’re called to repentance for heresy.

2.  Conflicts between two oppressed groups are brushed over or dismissed

My biggest concern about the direction progressive spaces are headed right now is that, from what I’ve seen, they’re often ill-equipped to address legitimate conflicts between two oppressed groups. Part of this problem likely comes down to dogma – if two beliefs are both sacred and are not to be questioned, how do you resolve a conflict between them? And when the world is described in oversimplified terms, where people in any given scenario are either oppressed or privileged, how do you address nuance?

For example, the prevailing belief in feminist circles is that we should always trust what a victim/survivor of sexual assault says happened. And some feminists take that idea to the extreme by expecting law enforcement, judges, campus officials, etc. to assume the report is accurate. According to the data, it’s no more common for someone to misreport sexual assault than it is for someone to misreport other crimes, and many sexual assaults go unreported due to a fear of social retaliation. So, as far as social activism goes, there’s a lot of benefit to be had from trusting a victim/survivor to tell their story. But there’s a difference between automatically supporting what a survivor tells you in private in order to validate their experience, and demanding that the justice system convict every alleged rapist. Sometimes the crime was committed but the wrong suspect has been brought in. Sometimes one party has experienced a traumatic sexual encounter, without the other party even realizing it due to miscommunication – and that can be a gray area, depending on the nature of the miscommunication. Sometimes a crime has been committed, and it’s the correct suspect, but the evidence is too unclear to support a conviction.

And sometimes men of color, particularly black men, get caught up in a justice system that has historically been more likely to punish black men accused of assaulting white women than to punish white men accused of the same crime. For many lynching victims, “rape of a white woman” was the trumped up charge. Progressive spaces should be the spaces best equipped to tackle these incredibly difficult conflicts, but too often we progressives retreat behind the easy tactic of assuming guilt as soon as an accusation is leveled. And as this article discusses, well-meant policies can have heart-breaking consequences for individuals who are falsely accused.

3.  Regional/national customs may become conflated with the group’s message

Many progressive Mormon bloggers have pointed out ways in which Mormon culture becomes a Utah transplant in other countries (or even just in other regions of the US). In a similar way, US progressives often dominate international discussions and interpret issues in other countries through a narrow lens, whether by expecting all countries to view cultural appropriation in the same way, or by refusing to admit that Western privilege or passport privilege exist. This article by an Asian-European woman critiques the arguments against cultural appropriation that dominate the US view of the topic, and she makes a compelling case for how an overly-broad attack can hurt or degrade the people that well-meaning white US allies are trying to defend.

Here’s one particularly salient point:

“Protests against cultural appropriation, such as the one at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono event last year, do not consider that by complaining that trying on kimonos should be off-limits to non-Japanese visitors, they are depriving skilled craftsmen and women in Japan of a potential market to keep their techniques alive (the protestors were largely not Japanese themselves, incidentally).”

4.  Personal introspection becomes the goal, rather than political results

In most churches, the primary goal is to perfect individuals and families. The gradual changes that come to communities through the ripple effect of perfecting oneself are secondary benefits, not the primary goal. So for churches, that personal focus works. For political movements, however, that focus can create the illusion that a movement is winning, only for elections to deliver a harsh dose of reality. It’s not bad to talk about microaggressions – microaggressions do hurt people. But at the end of the day, a stranger online mansplaining a topic, or a cis person accidentally using the wrong pronoun for a gender-nonbinary person isn’t going to hurt those individuals nearly as much as policies that put them in danger in their daily life. So as activists and allies, we need to carefully consider where we are exerting our energy.

And as the above example from the Boston MFA illustrates, allies who focus exclusively on the ethics of individual participation in something problematic risk unintentionally hurting the people in the group they claim to protect, such as by depriving them of a welcome business opportunity.

5.  Combining identity politics with a rigid hierarchy discourages critical thinking and encourages essentialism

The Left has been much maligned over identity politics, but I’m not saying identity politics is inherently bad, or that the Left has a monopoly – identity politics is alive and well on the Right (just look at how Trump falls over himself to pray when cameras are rolling, despite previously making it clear he doesn’t even think he needs ask God for forgiveness).  What I am saying is that we run into problems when we insist that any individual from a minority group represents the final word on the topic. I’m echoing some of Trent‘s argument here, so I’ll summarize an example from that article: a gay person can say “being homosexual is wrong” and still be incorrect about the ethics of homosexuality. And as a feminist, I know that Sarah Palin can try to claim she’s the real feminist and still be wrong.

For most identity groups in this world, there will be disagreement. There will be the Bill Cosby’s of the world telling black men, “pull up your pants,” and unlike Cosby, most of the black men saying that will not be discredited as serial rapists. There will be homosexual and bisexual folks insisting that they’ve been cured and that everyone else could be made straight too. In response to those examples, I imagine most progressives would say, “Yes, but they’ve just internalized racism/heteronormativity/sexism.” But that just proves that we already know identity isn’t the end-all answer for ethical reasoning. And when individuals from within the same identity group disagree about a topic with more nuance than in the examples I’ve listed, progressives from outside that group can’t cop out by choosing one perspective at random and insisting every ally who doesn’t agree with that perspective is doing something that’s morally wrong. We need to truly listen to both perspectives and engage thoughtfully.

I would say as well that the type of arguments we make will invite the same exact type of rebuttal. So if you’re a white ally and you don’t want your white friends to defend a comedy sketch by saying, “but my black friends like it and think it’s hilarious,” don’t rest your criticism of that sketch on the fact that your black friends hated it. Yeah, it’s worth mentioning their reaction, but give an actual explanation too. If my husband told a male colleague that something was sexist and backed it up with little more than, “my wife says so,” it would be no surprise for the colleague to respond, “but my wife thinks it’s hilarious.” So yes, we need to stick to the principle of “nothing about us without us” and magnify the voices within a minority group, but that doesn’t mean we get to set aside our own critical thinking or expect everyone we know to automatically agree with the individuals we’re quoting, on the basis of their identity alone.

6.  Internet anonymity makes it impossible to know what privileges an individual experiences

In my last post, I discussed how privilege functions similarly to the Christian concept of sin that infects the individual through interactions with a sinful world and then needs to be removed through a repentance-like process, with individual progressives often calling each other to repentance (“calling out” or “calling in”). Here’s a scenario that plays out pretty frequently in progressive social media: person A makes an argument about gender, and person B responds with a different argument. Person A assumes from person B’s profile pic and/or name that Person B is a straight cis man. Person A “calls out” Person B on their male privilege, and Person B then reveals that they are a trans man or a trans woman or a lesbian who identifies as butch. In some cases, Person A will turn out to be an ally, not even a member of the community they were attempting to defend. So a straight person just called out a lesbian for straight privilege, or a white woman just called out a fair-skinned woman of color on their alleged white privilege. When someone assumes privilege and gets it right, the assumption in a lot of progressive spaces is that they were correct to call it out. When someone assumes privilege and gets it wrong, they are accused of having committed a microaggression.

Well, progressives, we can’t have our cake and eat it too when it comes to call-out / call-in culture. Either we should discourage progressives from assuming someone else’s identity, or if we are going to encourage that assumption, we should cut folks some slack when they get it wrong. And I haven’t even gotten into the fact that we don’t know how much an individual has benefited from privilege, even if we get their identity right.

So why rest our argument on how their individual privilege is warping their perspective, rather than making an argument about systems of oppression and privilege? We’re often quick to tell other progressives “this statement about white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, etc. isn’t necessarily about you – some people benefit from this privilege more than others.” So why make it about that individual’s assumed level of privilege as soon as they share an opinion we disagree with? Why tell someone they’re responding with male fragility when they question your claim, instead of simply responding to their words?

7.  Progressive spaces can foster self-righteousness through both call-out and call-in culture

People of faith are often caricatured as self-righteous, and Mormon progressives know from first-hand experience how true that can be. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had plenty of self-righteous moments, especially when I was younger and tended to view the world in binary terms. So for Mormon progressives in particular, we should actively avoid recreating the same systems of us-vs-them self righteousness that we’re so quick to point out when we see it at church. Along those lines, when we attempt to persuade a person that they’ve erred, we can’t start from the assumption that we have the high moral ground. Will there be times when it’s 100% clear they’re wrong? Yeah – I once saw a woman in a feminist space refer to someone as a n***** c***. That was clearly racist and sexist. But most of the time it will not be that cut and dry – that’s just not how communication works.

8.  Concepts and words can become specialized to the point of inaccessibility – or even become shibboleths

I graduated college with a minor in Women’s studies, back in 2009. Eight years later, even I have a hard time keeping up with how much the terminology has changed, and some of the changes are quite subtle. For instance, I unknowingly stumbled into an anti-trans space when I joined a “gender critical” group online and was alarmed to find that all their conversations about “the difference between gender and sex” were actually conversations about why they wanted to exclude transwomen from women’s spaces. I got out of there fast. (Honestly, I had to wonder how many of these self-identified radical feminists were trolls pretending to be feminists. But I digress!) When I was in college, “gender” was usually discussed as a social construct that we all perform, while today’s progressives are generally referring to internal gender identity. Performed gender is still a concept in progressive circles – it’s just not the first meaning people go to. Well, that and a lot of feminists now use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, which I do see as a problem. But I can get into that topic another time. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about with those terms, don’t worry about it. That just underlines my point!

Now, I don’t think the solution is for progressives to return to the old meanings of these words. What I would really like to see, though, is more willingness to define terms. When I write about Mormonism for an audience that isn’t familiar with all the jargon, I know that I have to take the time to define words like “ward,” stake,” and even “ordinance” or “Atonement” because we use those words in such specialized ways. And when I went from living 8 years in Provo, Utah, aka Mormonville, to living in places where Mormons are a tiny fraction of the population, I had to re-learn how to explain concepts and terminology that I’d come to take for granted.

As progressives, we need to be willing to go through the same process of translation when we communicate with a mixed audience. Part of that translation process also means accepting that there are multiple meanings to words. For instance, it’s confusing to most people if we argue that a POC is incapable of racism toward white people, unless we first clarify that we’re talking about institutional racism, rather than individual racism. Same goes for discussing institutional sexism. But again, this is why it’s important to actually listen during a call-in session. Maybe you’ve had an honest to goodness miscommunication with this person.


How religious strategies can help progressives

I’ve focused pretty heavily on the problems that can come from treating progressive movements like a secular religion. Why have I focused so much on the negative? Honestly, it’s because I’m a progressive writing to other progressives, so I wanted to keep the focus on the areas that we can improve in order to make our efforts more effective. We already know that are are incredible strengths in the progressive movement and don’t need to hear it again and again from one another. But I see a few areas where the parallels to religion can be helpful:

1.  It takes passion and unified purpose to fuel a movement

And people get passionate about beliefs that they hold to be sacred. So when a movement can agree on a few central ideas that are sacred, that brings a powerful common purpose.  If a progressive group can agree on a few key principles, then that group is a lot more likely to weather disagreements on other topics. This principle is not unlike Mormons who who disagree about topics like modesty or how literally to interpret various passages of scripture but come together over their shared love of the Savior’s teachings.

2.  Missionary techniques apply in other contexts

Progressives who hope to persuade friends and family can be more effective by using strategies that are effective for proselytizing missionaries. For instance, Mormon missionaries know it works better to first acknowledge the strengths and commonalities between the teachings they want to share and the beliefs the investigator already holds. So as progressives we can build understanding and gain even more support for causes we believe in by applying the same principle. Let’s say your aunt hates Roe v. Wade – can you still work together to talk about ways to reduce abortion that don’t involve restricting women’s access to it?

Some other techniques that carry over include engaging privately on sensitive topics, sharing stories about personal experiences with an issue, and inviting friends and family to events or to participate in specific actions

3.  Large groups benefit from some form of hierarchical structure

As lovely as it would be for a group of 5,000 Mormon progressives to all happily get along without any sort of hierarchy or management structure, sometimes there need to be people who can intervene. Sometimes it’s a matter of safety, such as when a group member intentionally or unintentionally doxxes a person in a screenshot.

Other times the conversation needs to be redirected. For instance, several years ago I participated in a progressive group where someone shared a newspaper article about a teenager who had just reported an older man for statutory rape. This older man had begun grooming the victim back when she was 13 and he was 30 and had first kissed her when she was 14, but this progressive group was so large that only a small pocket of group members commented on the thread, and among those who commented, the prevailing attitude was that the victim must have simply felt guilty for consensual sex and so had made up the story about being sexually abused.

Once this group made some reforms, that kind of thread would have been unheard of. A moderator would have stepped in and, with the authority that comes from being a moderator, would have encouraged the commenters to read up on rape culture and grooming and why a minor can’t legally consent to sex with someone in their 30’s.  In other groups, moderators have simply turned off commenting when a thread became too heated, in order to protect the group’s ability to focus on actions for those few core issues that everyone already agrees on.


What do you think? What are some other solutions to the problems that dogmatism brings to progressive spaces? What are some other strategies that progressive Mormons can pull from Mormon culture?

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