Eons ago in blog time, I did a post called “An Open Letter to the Dialogue Editorial Board.” In the fullness of time, the blog post was republished as a short piece in Dialogue. Now, some months later, Robert A. Rees, a former Dialogue editor has published “An Open Letter to Nathan Oman.”
On initially reading it, I thought that basically Rees was peeved at me for being such a presumptuous young ingrate, and my first reaction was — litigator like — to provide a point-by-point rebuttal. On the other hand, my remaining days as a litigator can now — blessedly — be counted on the fingers of one hand, and on reading the letter for a second time I found that I agreed with most of what Rees said. (I certainly agree whole heartedly with the sentiments in his 1974 editorial reprinted in the same issue.) Still, for what they are worth, here are some of my reactions on our points of disagreement.
Over all, Rees’s reaction struck me as what one ought to expect from a person who sees a beloved institution for which he has worked and sacrificed attacked: He gets a little defensive. Rees writes:
I do think you contribute to the problem rather than help solve it when you speak of the rising generation of young Mormon scholars as “loyal and faithful Latter-day Saints” and suggest that there is some truth to the perception that Dialogue is “an in-house journal for the disaffected Mormon community” (228). It might surprise you to know that many of not most of those who contribute to the journal also consider themselves “loyal and faithful Latter-day Saints.” . . . [T]he average Dialogue reader has a profile of faith . . . .
I actually suspect that Rees is largely right about the demographics of Dialogue subscribers and authors. I recently particpated in a survey of Dialogue subscribers. You can check out the results here. They largely bear Rees’s claims out. On the other hand, they also suggest that my own claims are not entirely outrageous. For example, 47 percent of the respondents of to the most recent Dialogue survey reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon, while only 33 percent accept it. More important than the demographics of subscribers is the content of the journal itself. When Dialogue publishes an intemperate article by D. Michael Quinn accusing Boyd K. Packer of moral complicity in the murder of Matthew Shepherd, it is hardly unreasonable to pause for a moment and ask precisely what sort of an enterprise Dialogue is engaged in. I hasten to add, however, that I do not think that these sorts articles should define Dialogue, and I applaud the editors for publishing a response by Armand Mauss to the Quinn essay that I referred to. Still, it is not too much to suppose that Dialogue‘s admitted branding problem is not entirely the result of conservative brethren unwilling to engage in the journal’s noble tradition of honest discussion. It is also possible that there have been a few lapses of editorial judgment over the years. After 40 years, I think that Dialogue has reached the level of maturity where it can admit such things without shaking the testimonies of the faithful. Certainly, labeling one’s critics as part of the problem for raising concerns doesn’t strike me as an especially fruitful response.
In my open letter, I suggested that as a rough-and-ready indicator of balance, Dialogue editors ought to “publish articles that are going to make aging liberal cultural Mormons who have been loyal Dialogue subscribers since the 1960s absolutely furious.” Rees takes this suggestion as a evidence “a fundamental misunderstanding of Dialogue‘s mission.” He goes on to point out that its true mission is “to be honestly and openly engaged with our minds, hearts, and sprits with our religion and its multiple intersections with history and with the world.” This is, to be sure, a fine sentiment. On the other hand, I worry that it lacks the ability to point editors toward content that is likely to help the revitalization of the Dialogue brand. Hyperbolic as my own statements are, I think that they point toward an important fact: public perceptions of a journal have much more to do with its content than with the demographics of its readership. My point was not that Dialogue ought to become some sort of an intellectual fight club, like the FARMS Review in some of its occasional and unfortunate lapses. I was not calling for polemics, but rather a realization that the boundaries of important discourse are not exhausted by the ideological space between Dan Vogel and Lowell Bennion.
Rees claims that “they have been trying for many years to persuade their more conservative brothers and sisters to join the dialogue without much success.” To the extent that what Rees means is that invitations to conservative scholars to publish are declined, this is sad. They ought to be accepted. Oddly, Rees attributes this in part to the fact that there is a “prohibition against . . . BYU faculty publishing in Dialogue . . . (the only such prohibition in American higher education, as far as I know.” I say “oddly” because I have been told by members of the Dialogue Board and BYU faculty that no such prohibition exists. To the extent that fears about taking oneself out of the running for a job at BYU motivate the reluctance of some of the grad students I have talked with, I can’t find it in myself to blame them. The academic job market is a brutal place, and one must make certain compromises to survive. For the record, I think that it would be wrong for BYU to refuse to consider someone for a job simply on the basis of publishing in Dialogue. To the extent that there is no such policy, it would be nice for Mormon grad students if it was more explicit. This, obviously, is not something that the Dialogue Board has any control over. On the other hand, if (as I was told) no such policy exists, Rees’s statements might be thought of as being part of the problem rather than the solution.
The most poignant (and interesting) part of Rees’s response was his personal invitation to me to:
Help some of your young friends understand that, even though they may not be aware of it, they owe a debt of gratitude to those who have kept Dialogue alive over the years. You and they enjoy a religious culture that no longer withholds priesthood ordination to blacks, that has seen greater respect for the rights or women, that is not as homophobic as it once was (even though there is still a long way to go), that enjoys amicable relations with the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church) that has revised some of its teachings about the decedents of Lehi, that discusses real problems (divorce, child abuse, mental illness, etc.) more opening that it did a generation ago, that has removed some offensive publications from circulations, that is more respectful of scientific discovery, that is more balanced politically (though still imbalanced toward the right), that is vigorously engaged in interfaith work, and perhaps especially that is more open about its history and more honest about its institutional failings. Dialogue is not responsible for all these progressive changes, but I believe that history will show that it has played a role in all of them.
It is always striking to me when I talk with older Dialogue-ers the extent to which they see a large part of the value of what they are doing in terms of changing Mormon practices and Mormon culture. I think that the ur-story for this attitude is the 1978 rejection of the priesthood ban. They point to the work of Armand Mauss and Lester Bush, who decisively demonstrated that virtually all of the historical arguments offered for the ban were mistaken. They rightly point out that this work — particularly Bush’s historical work — had an important impact on how the Brethren thought about the issue. In this, I think that the older Dialogue-ers are right and all Mormons do owe Mauss, Bush, and the Dialogue editors who — with fear and trembling — published their work a debt of gratitude. The lion’s share of praise for this change still rightly lies with the Lord and his servant Spencer W. Kimball, but I am very glad that there was a Lester Bush.
Yet Rees’s understandable call for gratitude underscores what makes Dialogue — or at least Rees’s vision of it — problematic. Rees sees the important social and cultural work of Dialogue as being part of a movement for “progressive changes.” At this point, however, the hermeneutics of political suspicion become inevitable for me. I would no doubt like many of the progressive changes that Rees hopes for. I suspect that I would find some of them less palatable. Does this matter? Not if Rees and I are simply having a conversation. But given Rees’s vision of Dialogue is it supposed to be a forum for discussion or the cockpit for the progressive vanguard? Is Dialogue a conversation or an agent of History?
Rees ends his open letter with a peroration about his experience in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where he learned that “questions unite us and answers divide us.” Yet, as I read Rees’s list of questions, he seemed to have a clear answer on the direction that the Church should go: to the left. The uniting questions were to be questions of implementation. The problem is that while there are “liberal” changes that I would like to see in the Church, there are many that I would abhor. Rees wants to be a force for progress and questions against the reactionary force of dogma and answers. Yet he has his own answers on certain questions. This, of course, is just fine. Questions and answers are what makes conversation possible — despite what the homilies of the fine liberal Episcopal dean of Grace Cathedral might say. I also have some questions and some answers and am interested in talking about both of them. Reading Dialogue I can’t help but feeling that it is at its best when it is most modest. Dialogue is quite enough.