It was night, and the menoronu (age class of initiated young men) were sleeping in ngobe (meeting place for the men in the center of the village). One of them did not have a wife. He lay there, looking up at the sky. He looked at a beautiful star and thought: "I want a pretty wife; I wonder if she'll marry me?" He fell asleep.The star came down to earth and took the menoronu by the hand."Who's that?""It's me, I came down from up there. Didn't you call me?"She lay down on the ground with him. She was very beautiful. When the day dawned she went back up. The next day she descended again.Early in the morning he gave her something to eat, and then he hid her in a large gourd so that no one would see her.
miércoles, 4 de noviembre de 2009
domingo, 1 de noviembre de 2009
If I understand, you are asking about the sentimentalism that perfuses Mormon story telling. The question asks about the role of sentiment in narrative and what it does, because of the strong difference you see between Mormon narratives, especially popular narratives, and those in mainstream society.
Absolutely. However, to answer the question I have to bring part of my past and present, which is about growing up in a Latin world where feeling is often expressed in art and music in ways that challenge formal training in literature and art. Although celebrated now, I think of a Garcia Lorca with his open reliance on feeling, often very raw feeling, to make his art as he drew from the naked vein of emotion that haunts flamenco song. It is not always in the words, but in the nuance of sound.
In other words, I want to point out that maybe the odd man here is the formal distance from sentiment and what it is expected to accomplish. While that may be taken for granted by your audience, I do not think it wise to leave it so natural lest I over exoticize people who feel differently about the role of feeling and emotion in life.
Mormons are not Latins, just as flamenco performers are not upper middle class madrileños and much less Argentines. Of course I could have described the role of nostalgia and emotionalism in tango or of the same in Portuguese fado with its saudades, a word that absolutely cannot be translated simply in English, in part because of the rawness and yet beauty in the emotion laden term.
So, Mormons. Compared with the Latins I mentioned above, Anglo Mormons, I could say ethnic Mormons, tend to be quite stoical and phlegmatic in so many ways in daily life. However, the emotions are very important. Instead of a part of the self seen as ripe for manipulation, the emotions are seen as the purist and most genuine place of the self, particularly if a person is righteous and pure. Through the emotions a person can connect with God since it is in the emotions that one feels God’s movement and notices his hand.
It is often in the rawest and most naked of moments when a Latter-day Saint will feel God and rely on God. That emotion goes deep. It also means that the difficult and emotion laden moments are those that witness of God, as a result they become a testimony to people.
Let me use an example. Three years ago I attended a flamenco competition in the amazing city of Cordoba, Spain. The song really struck me for many reasons. One song lasted maybe seven or eight minutes. Yet its words were very simple. The performer played them out over the course of the song, little by little with heart rendering nuance and wails.
They were “It is late. My son is not home. I wonder where he is. So many things can happen to a young man at night. What can I do?”
To Latter-day Saints, many of whom have had those very same concerns, this would not be a moment expressing the basic human frailty and insecurity before life, it would be one of faith. They would still worry, oh my would they worry, but they would be worrying with God and pleading with God. They would be asking where there child was and begging for insight. They would hope for the calm of the Spirit to enter into their hearts. But they would know that, no matter what, even if things go terribly wrong and their child is hurt or even dies, that all is in God’s hands. He knows best, His wisdom is not our wisdom.
I write in words, but for a believer this would happen over a period of time. There would be words, but much more would be feeling from worry, to fear, to concern, maybe panic, and faith as they connect with the Spirit; calm and confidence.
Emotions, therefore are also the spaces of morality where righteousness wins out over baser feelings and drives as one rises to the Lord.
Another story, this one personal from when I was a young and believing Mormon.
So, I was maybe ten years old. I had “borrowed” my father’s pocket knife, even though I was specifically told not to touch it. I took it with me to play among the pecan trees and tumble weeds on the banks of the big ditch that sliced through our neighborhood.
I had been trying out the knife on all kinds of sticks, and it was sharp, before putting it in my pocket and getting involved in exploring the hidden world beneath giant tumbleweeds.
Suddenly I could no longer feel the knife in my pocket and had no idea where it had gone. I panicked, afraid of facing my father and his wrath. No doubt in those days it was worth a solid spanking.
I looked and looked, trying to retrace my oath to no avail. I did not know what to do and was crying. Then what I had been told in church appeared in my mind. Pray to God in your moment of need. So I knelt among the tumbleweeds, beneath the pecan trees. I prayed. I confessed my bad behavior and begged forgiveness from God with all my heart, driven by fear of my real father’s wrath. And I pleaded for help to find the knife even though I was not worthy.
A calmness came over me, and suddenly I knew where to look for the knife. It was there and I avoided a spanking, but also learned a big Mormon lesson. For right now the lesson is about feelings and God and narratives, although I could have told it with different, religious ends though those are not where I am at these days.
Sentiment, is a privileged space of the self for Mormonism, where the transcendent is made evident. It brings truth, when reason can twist you into knots.
As it says in the Book of Mormon, words that I memorized while young and still serve as a warning to this intellectual and scholar: “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they thing they are wise, and they hearken not to the counsel of God [...]”
In this is a structure of feelings, to use Raymond Williams term. Sentiment is organized and has purpose in ways that make structural sense. They do serious work in organizing the community and its system of power.
Mormons just simply do not trust reason to the same degree they trust feeling. People with formal training do not trust sentiment to the degree they trust reason, because reason is subject to formal rules that allow you to evaluate it while emotion is dangerous. I think of the Philosopher Kaufmann making a post Nietzschean call for intellectuals to bring emotion and feeling back into their analyses. But there is a rubicon that separates the formal thinker from trust in sentiment, just as there is one between a Latter-day Saint and trust in reason. Even Latter-day Saints who are formally trained thinkers vacillate between the two structures of feelings, often without realizing quite why they are doing so or its meaning.
God, after all is love, or so they are taught with the LDS nuance that love means sentiment, discipline, morality, and righteousness.
These kinds of root theological and phenomenological issues find themselves played out in the ways narrative is structured. This is especially true in religious stories, but it is also found in other kinds of Mormon story telling, including popular, published fiction.
As Raymond Williams brings to the fore, these ways in which feelings are structured make barriers of understanding between people and mark cultural experience. Mormonism definitely has its own ways of being and doing.
lunes, 26 de octubre de 2009
I like that idea, that its movement, its flexibility, its shifts, make it worth studying.
For decades now, the category has troubled me. I have not been a fan of Geertz' efforts, nor those of many other scholars. I have never been convinced by the idea that somehow religion was different from other areas of human endeavor and, as a result, required its own concepts such as belief, symbolism, ritual, magic, liturgy, conversion, supernatural, god, spirits, evil, demons, transcendent, and so on. Other than marking something as religious and, despite the hearty efforts of scholars to work those concepts, I have never been convinced they had much to offer that was exclusive to religion. Furthermore, it has always seemed to me that the ordinary tools of social science should be applied to religion, that scholars should not take it as a special kind of thing, just because it said it was.
Nevertheless, not all that is defined as religion sees itself as special and unique. That may well be particularly the case where religion originally developed as a term and took utility, the West. I have long been a proponent that the only meaningful use of the term was as a self-descriptor that arose historically in a particular time and place with which it is inherently connected. At the same time, I had to recognize the importance of the category for marketing one's studies and for finding a niche in the academy and society, although it really was not all that useful in anthropology for most of my career. But it was elsewhere.
However, that marketing thing has spread and makes religion a social category to be dealt with. I mean that it is a jurisprudential category that establishes a field of behavior as different. Religion has become a space excluded from ordinary private and public law, and ordinary social behavior. Not only is this the case in the United States where religion as an exception--and yes I do mean to refer to Agamben and Schmitt--is established in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is also the case throughout the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human rights establishes religion as a protected difference, just as it removes it from the ordinary particularity we anthropologists often demand, especially following Boas. It is declared a universal and made a right.
This is further made the case in other UN documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. It has, as a result, become the matter of politics among nations, the actions of multilateral agencies, and cases brought before international and national tribunals on the basis these documents provide.
Therefore, religion now has a substance, as an exclusion. The problem, for jurists, is determining what qualifies an aspect of human life or an institution to qualify for that exclusion. Here they wrestle. And in their wrestling and decisions they will define religion. And the result may not be what Churches and other religious bodies of many sorts expect and use for their own self definition and action. But these decision will impact them, like a form of procrustean bed, and over time force them to fit whatever the issues come to be to qualify as a religion and thus be part of a universal exclusion, a human right.
No matter how we academics define and work the category, although we can expect our work to be drawn into the legal conflicts where useful, it has taken a substance as an absence whose boundaries must be defined.
Oh well. It will be lots of fun to observe this process and study its details. There is work to be done. Damn you Agamben anyway.
miércoles, 21 de octubre de 2009
It seems to me that this setback is an important part of what LDS Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks’ spoke of as a war over religious liberty in his speech at Brigham University Idaho. As a result, I want to look at the issues to comprehend Elder Oaks’ position.
However, I am an anthropologist and not an attorney. My interest, therefore, is not the legal one of weighing the arguments in terms of precedents and possible courses of future argument, rather it is about understanding the social reality and operations of religions, particularly the LDS Church, and the ways law as social institution constrains and enables religious action.
One way of comprehending Elder Oaks’ concerns is to see him discussing what he feels is a noticeably constrained field of religious action, specifically in the United States, but perhaps around the world as well. He mentions efforts to “silence” the voice of religions in the public sphere as well as conflicts between religious rights and civil rights.
On the first issue first. The bulk of sociological argument over the last century held that the exclusion of religion from the public sphere was a sign of modernity. The surprise more recently was that religion did not stay in that constrained space.
In the United States the Moral Majority of the eighties and the strength of the religious right as an electoral and public force up until the last presidential election, as well as the power of religion as a political and publicly aggregating force in other countries, led sociologists, such as Robert Bellah, to proclaim that they had been wrong. They said we are living through a time of renewed religious activity in the public sphere. Even Jürgen Habermas, the great philosopher of reason and the public sphere welcomed religion to civic society.
It is in terms of these arguments that Oaks’ comments must be situated for anthropological analysis. Or, to paraphrase Benjamin, they “arise at a time of danger,” which in Oaks’ position might be a time of increasing constraint on the public voice LDS leaders and others had won a generation and a half ago, in a massive turn to the public sphere.
In the LDS case this turn would include, of course, LDS mobilization and action agains the Equal Rights Amendment (documented in historian Martha Bradley’s book Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women,Religious Authority,and Equal Rights) and its actions in behalf of various Defense of Marriage acts (documented by anthropologist Richley Crapo). But it must also include the massive movements of Latter-day Saints as a group to the right, the development of powerful LDS legislators in Washington and in the states, the growth of an influential group of LDS jurists well trained in constitutional struggles, such as the late Rex E. Lee.
As a result I would include the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the Deseret News, LDS Senator for Utah, Orrin Hatch wrote the Act as a sign of Mormon influence and power and as a key moment in an opening of the space of religious action in American society
These social struggles spawned hordes of political action groups and non-governmental organizations. We can legitimately speak of a social movement or movements here. However, when social scientists look at social movements, they normally look at them as spawned by the movement of individuals.
Here we have that- - certainly the LDS gay rights movement that arises with its multitude of organizations, and aspects of the LDS Feminist movement (see Charles Perry’s thesis at the U of U, “Let he who is without sin cast the first orange: Anita Bryant and the making of the gay rights movement in Salt Lake City”)-- though the feminists have suffered greatly due to social change and direct action against them by the brethren.
But we also have elite actions and elite movements. In the case of Latter-day Saints these connect deeply with ideas of how the Church is organized. They also build on a metaphysics of the Church as a body greater than individuals and norms of personhood and inner-life which favor that transcendent whole. In other words, the particular ways in which believers are mobilized by elite actions need to also be taken into account, particularly in this case, given the specific ways in which Mormonism as a religion is constructed.
However, those analyses are not my point right now and so I will return to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In it we see Elder Oaks' two issues come together. Given both its brevity and its importance for the current discussion, it is worth quoting this act in some length, although I shall reformat it.
(1) the framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution; (2) laws 'neutral' toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise; (3) governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification; (4) in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) the Supreme Court virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion; and (5) the compelling interest test as set forth in prior Federal court rulings is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests. [...]
Purposes: The purposes of this Act are--(1) to restore the compelling interest test [...] and to guarantee its application in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened; and (2) to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government. [...]
Free Exercise of Religion Protected. (a) In General: Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b). (b) Exception: Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person--(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
These are precisely the concerns raised by Elder Oaks in his speech to the students at BYU Idaho, although here they are raised in greater technical language. Oaks is worried that government is valuing the civil rights of citizens, in its concern for equal protection, over the rights and importance of religion, given its protection in the US Constitution.
As a result, let us look at the arguments the Church made, through its attorneys, in its Amicus Brief.
In this brief, the church joined with a list of religious-right bodies, though only those which were religions and not those of a more specifically political character. These included : The California Catholic Conference, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. The brief was presented by a leading right wing attorney and celebrity, former special prosecutor Kenneth Star, and Alexander Dusku from the Church’s firm of Kirton and McConkie. As a result, of Dusku’s prominent place, there can be little doubt the brief represents approved opinion from within the Church’s hierarchy which probably includes Dallin Oaks as an attorney and former member of Utah’s Supreme Court.
The brief argues that “Marriage is society’s most important institution and not merely a vehicle for advancing the interests of adults,” which is what they claim their opponents attempt to accomplish by making marriage a private institution between any two adults. Accepting that change will fundamentally alter the nature of marriage and, therefore, have a negative effect on society, it holds. It claims, as a result that the state has a compelling interest in maintaining the “traditional” regulation of marriage.
Along the way, it argues, not surprisingly that the courts are the wrong place in which to determine issues, such as marriage, that have a broad social impact. The proper place, they feel, would be in the legislature, or in the direct hands of the democracy.
However, the brief makes a specific argument along the way that is very interesting about the place of religion in society and under the law. It claims that one of the ways marriage would be damaged by accepting same sex unions would be in diminishing its status (p. 43) It has this status in part because of a broad social consensus around marriage that depends on religion and its place in society.
Marriage is nourished and supported by a deeply ingrained social consensus that creates a web of meanings, practices and expectations. The push for same-sex marriage threatens that consensus. [...] The existing social consensus reflects, in part, a powerful agreement among virtually all faith communities on the meaning and importance of marriage. More than all other institutions, faith communities foster and nourish the marriage ethic as the ideal institution for family life. Marriage is often associated with powerful religious symbolism and traditions that anchor a couple’s commitment to the institution. Faith communities are an essential pillar in the social infrastructure that sustains the uniquely elevated status of marriage. They give marriage spiritual meaning that fortifies the social consensus that marriage is the best venue for bearing and raising children. Notably, while marriages can be celebrated by various secular functionaries, the overwhelming majority of people choose to be married by a religious official. [...] Even for many people who are not religious, the religious imprimatur on marriage is highly valued culturally. In effect, the State and religious institutions informally cooperate in maintaining and fostering a social institution vital to vouchsafing both secular and religious interests. [...] The creation of a genderless definition would fracture the centuries-old consensus about the meaning of marriage, spawning deep tensions between civil and religious understandings of that institution. What is now a point of social unity would inexorably become a point of social conflict, to the great detriment of marriage. [p. 43-44]
Here is the key, I believe, to what Elder Oaks sees as the battle over religious freedom. Arguably, he feels that religion deserves a special place in US society, as in the consensus they argue would be broken if gay marriage were allowed. Without this entanglement, what Jakobsen and Pellegrini (Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance) note is a kind of establishment of religion in US society.
Oaks fears that the resulting social conflict, from removing this establishment, would marginalize religion and take away one its strongest bases of legitimacy and support. He fears the neutral application of a law on marriage that only takes account of individual adults private interest in an equitable way will be to the detriment of religion.
And, he may be right, whatever ones politics are about marriage. One of the strong arguments about why the US is different from Europe points precisely to the separation of Church and State, while at the same time religion is deeply supported and entangled in governmental and societal functions. Religion maintains relevance and social purpose, as a result, which it probably would not be able to maintain if it were simply a matter of individual conscience and personal, private belief.
As an aside this is a different argument than that made by the market theorists who feel that it is the strong, competitive religious market that keeps religion alive. But they make a mistake in economics by not taking into account the role of the institutions that prop up the regime of values that forms a market. If Oaks is right, we may be on the verge of seeing an experiment in social theory, not to forget an important shift in the ways religion, and in particular the LDS Church, relates to society.
The Court only mentioned the brief in a footnote and contrasted it with the arguments of religions in favor of gay marriage. These latter argued their religious freedom was violated by the entanglement of the state in a theologically driven notion of marriage which compromised the state in debates that really pertained to the [private] space of religion. It was not the state’s role, they felt, to resolve religious debates.
In its discussion, the state did not discuss the issue of religion at length. It simply found in favor of Gay marriage and equal protection. The argument the LDS Church and friends raised was decimated as a result. And, the reality of the way judicial decisons impact social process may change the social basis for religion in American society. Even though the Church won the Proposition 8 battle, this decision was fundamentally upheld in the subsequent case before the court about the constitutionality of Proposition 8. It was a pyrrhic victory. At its end, the LDS Church finds itself in a much weaker place than before this battle, to its consternation and Elder Oaks’ public complaint.
martes, 20 de octubre de 2009
The great Latter-day Saint humanitarian and example, Lowell Bennion, was also a brilliant sociologist. The LDS Church took him from academics, but he left an important book which was one of the first introductions of the sociologist Max Weber, to a English speaking audience.
Printed in only 100 copies by Le Presses Modernes in Paris, this quantity was reduced by the war and chaos in Europe, Bennion’s Max Weber’s Methodology almost sank into oblivion. But his student Laurie DiPadova has published a chapter from it as well as an article on Bennion’s interpretation of Weber. Mary Bradford, Bennion’s Biographer, also discusses the book in her Lowell L. Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian.
Not only is Bennion’s sociology important for what he has to say about Mormonism in his analyses, he brings new light to the study of Weber. Bennion’s work developed independently from that of Talcott Parsons, who I believe was a student of Weber’s and used the master’s writings to bolster his own structural functionalist approach. For many Americans, Parson’s Weber was Weber until with the collapse of Parson’s school, other approaches, including interpretive approaches could be published.
Still sloganeering often passes for reading Weber, as most students probably only learn the five to ten sentence version composed of just a few ideas. Yet Weber is one of the most original and important sociologists and his work, even though a century old, still has enormous importance for those of us who study societies and deserves careful study. For me he is even more important because of his thoughtful approach to religion.
While many people will see symbols and models of and for reality as important keys to understanding religion, and others will look at beliefs and rituals as structures of meaning, Bennion deftly says “Weber considers religions [...] as a type of authoritative group (“Herrschaftsverband”). They represent authoritative associations which enjoy a monopoly of authority supported by the ability to give or withhold salvation (“Heilsgüter”). All religions and political groups are based in the last analysis on authority or power.” (Bennion 1992, p 40).
This approach shifts the focus from notions of the transcendent and supernatural, aka God, and rituals and symbols as means of representing it, to the social process by which power and authority are exercised.
Bennion takes us then to Weber’s types of authority, and here just a simple usage of Bennion’s as he referred to Weber stopped me in my reading tracks.
In discussing Weber’s “charismatic form of authority” Bennion uses the German word ausseralltaegliche, which he then translates as magical or supernatural. The German word stopped me. I have been reading and teaching Weber’s charismatic form of authority for three decades yet a nuance in the German had never been available to me. The word außeralltägliche, as it is found in Weber, and not in the conventions of English typography, is a composite made of of täglich, or daily, and außer, which means beyond or outside of. No problem, charisma is easily something outside or beyond the daily. A charismatic person does seem invested with some extraordinary quality, to use the more idiomatic English.
However, the shift from this sense to magical and supernatural left me thinking.
Bennion is right in his choice of words, they do come from Weber. The sacred easily comes to mind when we speak of the supernatural. Yet the word sacred is generally more attached to the work of Durkheim or Eliade, than Weber. As DiPadova notes, one of Bennion’s strengths is how he brings the two into conversation.
Bennion wrote: “Important for the understanding of Weber [...] is his distinction between the sacred and the profane. Profane is that which is of everyday occurrence; sacred are those unusual (ausseralltaeglicche) happenings which are easily adaptable to magical and supernatural attributes.“ Bennion 1992, p 43-44)
It seems to me there is a nuance here that separates this thinking from Durkheim’s (and Lord knows Eliade’s). Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life uses the distinction between the sacred and the profane as a defining characteristic of religion and sees important social life in the setting apart that which is defined as sacred from that which is taken as profane.
In Durkheim’s way of describing this, it is all too easy to forget the Latin meaning of profane as the ordinary, the normal. Weber’s täglich forces us to see this simple meaning of the every day, the ordinary.
Though potentially present, this meaning of the everyday is also lost in the English translation of Weber’s Economy and Society, on which, in the German, Bennion draws. The English version says “The term “charisma” will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman,or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” It is the shift from extra-ordinary, in order not to lose the notion of the daily, to the supernatural and superhuman that I find an interesting analytical opening, if we keep in mind these are in relationship to the ordinary, rather than things in and of themselves.
But how is it said in German? Here we start seeing some differences. Not that the English is wrong, it is not. Rather that the translators picked and chose among nuances, leaving out some I think are important.
The first section of what in German is a long and complex sentence the translators broke up and reformulated says “»Charisma« soll eine als außeralltäglich (ursprünglich, sowohl bei Propheten wie bei therapeutischen wie bei Rechts-Weisen wie bei Jagdführern wie bei Kriegshelden: als magisch bedingt) geltende Qualität einer Persönlichkeit heißen, [...]”
In a more literal translation, this passage says “‘charisma’ should be called one who shows an extra-ordinary, golden [or valuable] quality of personality.” The parenthetical part speaks of something that springs from the point of origins, such as in a prophet, a therapist, something that points to the transcendent, a hunting leader, a war hero, deemed magical.”
This set of ideas removes the sacred from the transcendent, per se, and takes it, instead, into the domain of leadership in times of difficulty, healing, claims to the origin point, and so on to speak of the relationship between them and followers which makes them seem transcendent and magical. In other words, it refers to the relational and power dynamics that create the separation of the sacred from the profane, rather than seeing them as a structure of classifications that generate relationship.
Although it would seem that this simple change should be something obvious to social scientists, in my experience it is generally not. Bennion’s usage of Weber’s original German, after his insistence on religion being an organization built on power and coercion, emphasizes to me that the sacred needs to be thought of in these relational terms, rather than in the absolute terms it normally wears. Thank you, Lowell Bennion, who unfortunately I only met in passing. I look forward to learning more from your work.
Lowell L. Bennion, “The Business Ethic of the World Religions and the Spirit of Capitalism”, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. 6:1:39-74, 1992
Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der Verstehende Soziologie (1922) http://www.textlog.de/weber_wirtschaft.html
Max Weber (Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds.), Economy and Society, (University of California Press, 1978)
viernes, 16 de octubre de 2009
Elder Oaks' speech to Brigham Young University Idaho, this last Tuesday, has raised a firestorm of critique and support. But there are some arguments that need parsing, despite all the brouhaha, if we wish to understand Elder Oaks, and perhaps the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they take political action.
Elder Oaks is very careful. He writes in ways that make his points and yet avoid some buried mines, even if some exploded around his words in this case in ways that obscure his logic and broader meaning.
As a result reading him with care is required. In this post we shall read his speech entitled “Religious Freedom” for the meaning found in some of his very cautious wording.
While most conservatives on the issue of Gay marriage would write that a marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm for thousands of years, Elder Oaks writes “The marriage union of a man and a woman has been the teaching of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the core legal definition and practice of marriage in Western culture for thousands of years.”
His observation sounds the same to many, but his restrictions are important. He limits the observation to “Western culture”, to “core legal definition and practice”, and to “Judeo-Christian scripture”.
By limiting the argument in this way he hopes to avoid the explosive mine of all the scholarship that shows that marriage between a man and a woman is not and has not been the only human way of building family and of coupling. Nevertheless, he does not avoid debates about how scripture should be read and understood on the issue or debates about the nature of law and practice from the ancient to the modern world in relationship with families, gender, and sexuality.
Though this latter might be seen as an Achilles heel of sorts, Oaks appears to rely here on an unwritten norm of authority held by religious leaders to articulate what the proper reading of scripture should be and that of legal officials to articulate the law. But that is troubled by the next very careful distinction he makes.
Elder Oaks states “the free “exercise” of religion obviously involves both the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and the right to “exercise” or practice those beliefs.” He is discussing the first amendment to the US Constitution which he affirms is divinely inspired and which is a model for the rest of the world in its support of religious freedom and its support of “popular sovereignty”, “the principle that the people are the source of government power”.
As if recognizing that the notion of popular sovereignty can undercut not just government officials but also other leaders who claim authority, such as religious leaders, Oaks opens a potential limit on popular sovereignty when he writes in the very next paragraph “Along with many other religious people, we affirm that God is the ultimate source of power and that, under Him, it is the people’s inherent right to decide their form of government.”
He has now named the classic set of oppositions that articulate Western structures of authority: Rulers, People, and God. One can hold any of the three as the root of sovereignty, and thinkers do, or one can argue for some sort of balance and relatedness among them. Here, Elder Oaks finds himself in paradox.
His exegesis depends on the right of religious leaders to state what they feel God has said; yet his notions of government depend on the people. God may be the root, but that root is only there for some of the people, the religious ones. As a result, God is in a delimited place. He has no direct sovereignty here and cannot speak openly and directly, other than through leaders or people.
This latter is important. If God is behind the movement of popular sovereignty, such as in the US Constitution, then he can be argued to be present in the acts of history due to the movement of people which overturn established norms and values, even if religious authorities disagree with them.
Curiously, despite his rigor, Elder Oaks has apparently undercut the authority of religious leaders. Yet he seems to wish to sustain that precise authority. How he does so is an example of how constricted a space of argument he finds himself in.
He does not argue for religious authority directly. Instead he builds his case from the “right” (he says right, he does not say freedom) “to choose religious beliefs”, what is often called the freedom of conscience. Elder Oaks cast doubt on the idea that people could, under this guarantee, choose unbelief. Instead of focusing here on people’s choice he shifts to the strong actions of non-believers to take away religious freedom. “Atheism has always been hostile to religion, such as in its arguments that freedom of or for religion should include freedom fromreligion. Atheism’s threat rises as its proponents grow in numbers and aggressiveness.”
Elder Oakes seems to claim a limit in the protection of choice here to religious beliefs, and not allow that choice for non-religious belief. This is because:
“[U]nless the guarantee of free exercise of religion gives a religious actor greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to all actors by other provisions of the constitution (like freedom of speech), what is the special value of religious freedom? Surely the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion was intended to grant more freedom to religious action than to other kinds of action. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief should not be enough to satisfy the special place of religion in the United States Constitution”
Elder Oakes here seems to be arguing that religion is so important to the body public that it must be protected and that protection means some kind of special rights not grated to beliefs not deemed as religious.
Yet the bulk of Elder Oaks’ talk is about what he feels is an increasing hostility to religion in the public sphere and to attempts to limit religious action, despite the evident importance granted it by the framers of the Constitution when they made religion the subject of the first amendment.
Suddenly we are forced back to the issue of religious authorities that we left hanging earlier.Elder Oaks carefully defines the right of religion as one of belief and affiliation. Ostensibly, these two, belief and affiliation depend on people to take action, i.e. to actively believe and to actively belong. What they believe he has circumscribed, by identifying it and limiting it to religion, however what they affiliate with and the nature of that affiliation is a problem.
Elder Oaks seems to wish for some notion of dual sovereignty, whereby religious organizations can be argued to depend on the right of people to affiliate with them for their legal existence, while their authority depends on God being behind them, although he never quite says this. But without a statement like this, his talk leaves a big hole in the movement from a right of affiliation to the authority of religious leaders. As a result, it is the place of religious authorit(y/ies) that Elder Oaks feels threatened.
I would argue that part of the threat comes from the very logical structure of ideas that Elder Oaks lays forth. I paraphrase his argument as follows religious authorities only have authority if people listen to them, and in the current state of affairs, people are less and less willing to accept that authority in the public arena, and they use religious affiliation to discredit public candidates for office. This is dangerous and runs against the freedom of religion in the constitution, which can be turned to argue freedom to protect religion and grant it a special place, against the popular sovereignty of the people who have chosen to not believe. We feel threatened and need this special rights to protect ourselves and the rights of people who follow us.