Random Thoughts on the Princeton Conference

November 15, 2007 | 15 comments
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The recent conference on Mormonism and American Politics at Princeton University, organized by former Times and Seasons blogger Melissa Proctor, was–from the perspective of this participant at least–a resounding success: plenty of exchanges, ideas, and arguments, some presented formally through papers and many others emerging informally through conversations after and between sessions, all packed into a little more than a single cold, grey Saturday in New Jersey. Reports on the conference are already making the rounds (see Matt B.’s excellent summary here, for example); those seriously obsessed with Mormon studies will be happy to here that the entire conference was recorded and will be made available online, for viewing or downloading. I can’t provide anything so nearly comprehensive, as I missed some of the presentations; but herewith are some random impressions of my own:

1) Richard Bushman, after carefully summarizing all the information we have about Joseph Smith’s thinking regarding politics and the Constitution, the needs of the Saints, and the situation in Illinois in the 1840s, came to the reluctant conclusion that Joseph Smith overreacted in ordering the Nauvoo Expositor’s press destroyed. Legally, given the state of the law regarding “public nuisances” at the time, he probably had a good case for taking the action he did; the persecutions in Missouri were at least in partly the result of rampant invective against the Mormons which in time simply snowballed, and Smith was desperate to prevent at repeat of those events. But that doesn’t change the fact that, politically at least, it was unwarranted and unwise action. From which conclusion Bushman drew a final, challenging question (though he did not voice it in the same way I am here): does the Mormon experience teach us anything about the negative implications of “free speech” when confronted by such phenomena as ripe for misinterpretation and overreaction (on both sides) as religion? Might we all be better off–as in a very real sense the early saints would have been–in an environment in which speech was less of a free-for-all? Those American Mormons today who almost instinctively adopt a libertarian line when confronted by “tolerance” and “hate speech” and “political correctness” might have something to answer for here.

2) Speaking of stereotypical American Mormon political leanings, David Campbell and John Green both gave data-heavy presentations which provided probably the clearest and most detailed picture I’ve yet seen of typical American Mormon voting and social behavior. Much of that the discussed was to a degree common knowledge (the morally and politically conservative voting preferences of the majority of American Mormons), even if the specifics were still surprising (that Mormons tend to socialize mainly with one another and have a lot of affection for their in-group networks should shock no one, but the degree of involvement with and preference for such networks was rather astonishing; as far as community-building goes, we put Catholics, Protestants of every strip, and Jews all to shame). But there were also some real eye-openers in that data. American Mormons have, at least in comparison to members of similarly conservative religious denominations, a much higher level of acceptance for multiculturalism and immigration (perhaps partly a function of the great number of Mormons who have lived for years in foreign countries, doing missionary work amongst people who often would risk a great deal to get to live in the U.S.), as well as a significantly higher level of support for civil rights protections (though whether this reflects a libertarian streak, a historical memory of our years as a persecuted, minority sect, or a theologically grounded appreciation the U.S. Constitution is debatable). Some of this same deviation from the American social conservative line can be observed in the higher-than-expected level of agreement American Mormons seem to have with civil unions legislation for gays, while remaining firmly opposed to gay marriage; as well as being somewhat more tolerant of limited abortion freedoms than others from a similarly relgiously conseravtive background.

3) Perhaps the most surprising presentation, or at least the one which included some of the least expected material, was Marci Hamilton’s. A law professor and expert on church-state relations, she was rather dismissive of attempts to develop a theory of church and state that would be appropriate for the Mormon case, and instead spent her time reflecting on her involvement in child abuse cases with an ecclesiastical angle, which has involved her in fights with Catholic parishes, Presbyterian churches, and the Mormons. She had rather harsh things to say about how Mormons have responded to, and how the Mormon church has attempted to deal with, instances of alleged and proven child abuse in various wards and branches. As a far more unified and financially centralized church body than any of the others mentioned, the Mormon church can potentially be subject to very costly legislation, and thus has, in Hamilton’s view, engaged in a fair amount of at least ethically questionable behind-the-scenes negotiation and lobbying to pass state laws that would prevent successful lawsuits from being to make the church itself liable for damages too far up the ecclesiastical chain. Utah itself, in Hamilton’s view, is a “dead zone” when it comes to such legislation; the recent successes in prosecuting polygamists who have committed acts of child abuse has only come, she alleged, because of the involvement of the federal government, as local reluctance to pursue these cases is simply too strong. Frankly, I would have liked to have heard a pack of experts dealing with this subject alone, rather than her (very negative) voice being to dominate in regards to this provocative issue.

4) Damon Linker’s old TNR article on Mitt Romney’s campaign for president, “The Big Test”, came up not once, not twice, but three times during the conference, mentioned by Alan Wolfe and Richarld Lamb, and discussed at length by Francis Beckwith. (For those who care to remember, Times and Seasons weighed in on Damon’s article twice, here and here. As both a friend of Damon’s and as someone who, while frustrated with parts of his piece, nonetheless considered it a mostly thoughtful challenge to our political theology (or the lack thereof), I was gratified to realize that a year later, that essay remains just about the only truly serious treatment out there of what the meaning of Mormons in politics may be.) Beckwith’s challenge of Damon, for those who want to play inter-denominational hardball, was particularly interesting, as he has recently converted to Catholicism after having long advocated a rigorously evangelical Christian position. Basically, whereas at one time Beckwith strongly criticized Mormon theology for lacking any grounding for a sense of moral obligation and duty (something that a less contingent and more classical idea of God would provide), he now believes–though he did not publicly discuss the reasons for his change of views–that Mormonism does, in fact, have a fairly clear sense of the moral law; it simply fails to adequately understand the kind of “lawgiver” who needs to stand behind that law. Insofar as Romney’s candidacy is concerned, Beckwith thought that the kind of Kennedyesque speech that Damon believed he needed to make would be both wholly unnecessary and counterproductive; Mormons, in his view having been cowed by their historical experiences, are already dangerously willing to accept a diluting of their faith in order to seem like conventional American conservative Protestants. Perhaps flexing his new Catholic muscles, Beckwith insisted that Romney’s faith had more than enough theological resources to engage America’s civic religion in a beneficial way, if only he happens to have willingness to use them.

5) Speaking for dilution and doctrine, probably the single most interesting discussion all weekend involved Beckwith (mostly just listening in), Kathleen Flake, Nate Oman, and Thomas Griffith, and dealt with the question of what the long-term public-relations impact of Romney’s candidacy will be for the church. The consensus was that marriage was already a messed-up enough institution in American public life that no one was going to seriously expect anything from a high profile Mormon regarding polygamy expect maybe a couple of good jokes; Romney seems to be playing by those rules already. A formal apology for the racism of the priesthood ban, by contrast, was judged by several of those present as a real inevitability; certainly more likely than an apology for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As more and more average Mormons become familiar with this part of church history, it’ll become common for Brigham Young to (with some historical justice) end up in the rhetorical doghouse, rather than Joseph Smith. And then there’s the King Follet Discourse. Settled doctrine, you say? To some, no doubt. But there were other participants who argued that there was no way such an unconventional teaching was going to help take the church to China, or India; the experience of traditional Christianity, and what works and what doesn’t in those parts of the world, is going to be far more relevant to missionary work than defending the latest “what-makes-Mormonism-unique” doctrine. I kept my opinions to myself throughout this conversation, as I’m already fairly heterodox on this point. (Or fairly orthodox, depending on how you look at it.)

6) Yes, I gave a presentation too. I really think I was the least qualified person to speak there; I’m no authority on religion or church-state issues, and the only stuff I’ve done on Mormonism has been here on the blog. In fact, that’s partly why I was invited: because I’d already gave a presentation on Mormonism and blogging at Sunstone. But that was to an overwhelmingly in-crowd group; we practically invited everyone who spoke during the Q&A to shout out their website, and I didn’t think such an approach would go over well at Princeton. Ultimately, what I came up with was an argument that I had neither the time nor the brains to develop particularly well, but I think there’s something to the argument nonetheless. Basically, I looked at the internet as a way of understanding Mormons’ (and Mitt Romney’s) approach to issues of church authority and unity. It’s not an original claim to suggest that Mormonism is far more authoritarian in terms of action and outward appearance and performance (do you attend church? do you do your home teaching? do you have tattoos? do you keep your language clean? do you pay your tithing?) than in terms of inward commitment and belief. That’s not to say doctrine isn’t important to Mormons; it’s just that, if we really mean it when we say that this is not a church of creeds (and we genuinely seem to, for better or worse), then that has genuine consequences for what can be authoritatively commanded of us. (President Hinckley can and does tell the young women to toss all but one pair of earrings, and he’s pretty uniformly obeyed; he is far more careful, and anticipates far more discussion and debate, when he weighs in on the Iraq War.) Even the Articles of Faith, as fundamental as they are, get contested regularly as to their actual meaning (try to discuss the 10th Article of Faith in elders’ quorum sometime). So Mormonism is an authoritarian church insofar as practice is concerned, not so much as with belief. And that’s kind of how the internet operates; very few people truly operate in unregulated, truly “free” internet environments; mostly follow a host of links and search engines that are structured by patterns of use or outright regulation (can BYU students still not access Youtube?). So while the debates and arguments and content of the internet is fluid and contentious, the larger context of most internet environments is not; it’s actually rather stable and predictable. This is what Mormonism is like…which perhaps is part of the reason why so many Mormons have found the web to be something of a second home, very amenable to the sort of faith life they’re used to.

Ok, so not exactly a brilliant paper. Like I said, it wasn’t fully fleshed out anyway. Go argue about David Campbell’s portrait of Mormon voters instead.

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15 Responses to Random Thoughts on the Princeton Conference

  1. Kaimi Wenger on November 15, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks for this write-up, Russell. The conference reports have been really interesting reads so far, and after reading them, I find myself in the very unusual position of wishing I had (briefly) been able to be in New Jersey.

  2. Jim F. on November 16, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Wish I could have been there, but I’m conferenced out this month. Thanks for a good summary and for pointing toward another.

    Yes, computers on the BYU campus network cannot access YouTube.

  3. Ray on November 16, 2007 at 12:46 am

    Thanks for the summary, Russell. I also wish I could have been there.

  4. Jeremiah J on November 16, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Russell,
    I thought your talk was great. It was easy to understand as well, but you went quickly through a number of fairly meaty arguments and claims, such that the non-LDS in the audience didn\’t seem to digest these points properly.

    Unfortunately, the questions were quite bad. You had in one room some of the most important scholars of Mormonism and politics, and yet there was very little discussion after the talks. Part of it was unwillingness of participants to go up to the mic, but also the fact that there was very little time. Of course there was the reception after, but many or most of us weren\’t invited.

    I was fascinated by Helen Whitney’s talk.

  5. Nate Oman on November 16, 2007 at 11:02 am

    RAF: Great summary. I would be less charitable to Marci Hamilton than you are. Child abuse is a serious topic, and as a problem in the church it ought to be discussed. On the other hand, as near as I can tell the sum total of Marci’s research on Mormonism consisted of: 1. A few press reports on modern polygamists; 2. Rumors she once heard from a journalist of church lobbying in Colorado; 3. emails forwarded to her from plaintiffs attorneys who specialize in suing churches; and, 4. an aquaintance with Von Kietch, whom she inaccurately identified as the Church’s general counsel. (He isn’t. The Church’s general counsel is Elder Wickman. Kietch is the Church’s chief outside counsel.) Given that Marci wanted to come into the conference guns blazing, insisting that we look at facts on the ground it is not too much to ask that we get more than gossip from the ambulence chaser circuit. It is too bad, really. I disagree quite strongly with Marci about the proper interpretation of the first amendment, but she is an extremely smart and talented scholar. It would have been nice to have benefited more from that at the conference.

  6. Rob on November 16, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Nice report, Russell. Great to see you and Nate and Heather and Melissa and others there in Princeton. And for a taste of behind the scenes action, I can report on something that perhaps few here at T&S have been able to see–Russell, Heather, and Nate trying to catch Japanese chef-tossed pieces sautéed zucchini in their mouth. Lots of fun.

    Let me report on something interesting that Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land (watch YouTube video of Land on Romney) said. First of all, Land is an impressive person with an over-sized presence. I really enjoyed his comments, and they made me pine for the many years I spent down in Texas. At any rate, in his comments on the Romney campaign, he point blank stated that the real issue between evangelicals and Mormonism is competition for converts. He than said that there are more people that more people leave evangelical churches to join the LDS church than any other congregation. Then he said that there are more former Mormons that have joined evangelical churches than any other religion. I have no idea where he gets that from, and have to say I was a bit puzzled by at least the latter statement. But there you go. When the video of the conference is up, be sure not to miss his comments from the last session on Saturday afternoon.

    And despite his self-depreciating comments (both here and at the conference), Russell more than held his own on a panel that included Helen Whitney, director of The Mormons on PBS. Whitney had a lot of fine things to say about the LDS members she interacted with in making her documentary.

  7. Nate Oman on November 16, 2007 at 11:12 am

    It was fun to meet you in person Rob, although you disappointed my previous image of wild-eyed eco-radical; far too intelligent, pleasant, funny and soft-spoken.

    Land was wonderful. He made me think of our ward’s assigned high councilor when I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. I think that he used to be a lay Baptist preacher, and he had this wonderful presence at the pulpit where rather than giving a “talk,” we got a real sermon, complete with the fiery call to repentence. I loved it.

  8. Adam Greenwood on November 16, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Basically, whereas at one time Beckwith strongly criticized Mormon theology for lacking any grounding for a sense of moral obligation and duty (something that a less contingent and more classical idea of God would provide), he now believes–though he did not publicly discuss the reasons for his change of views–that Mormonism does, in fact, have a fairly clear sense of the moral law; it simply fails to adequately understand the kind of “lawgiver” who needs to stand behind that law.

    I’d love to hear more about this.

    Insofar as Romney’s candidacy is concerned, Beckwith thought that the kind of Kennedyesque speech that Damon believed he needed to make would be both wholly unnecessary and counterproductive; Mormons, in his view having been cowed by their historical experiences, are already dangerously willing to accept a diluting of their faith in order to seem like conventional American conservative Protestants. Perhaps flexing his new Catholic muscles, Beckwith insisted that Romney’s faith had more than enough theological resources to engage America’s civic religion in a beneficial way, if only he happens to have willingness to use them.

    Totally agree, though how and if Romney should do this would be another question.

  9. Jeremiah J on November 16, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    “Then he said that there are more former Mormons that have joined evangelical churches than any other religion.”

    I think his statement was actually about Mormons and Southern Baptists rather than between Mormons and evangelical churches. If it was evagelicals, then I’d wonder where they are getting detailed data like conversion rates and conversion “destination” for such a disparate, somewhat ill-defined, non-institutional religious grouping. But perhaps a large scale study has been done.

    I was also skeptical of that second part. More Mormons than, say Catholics, are joining Southern baptist churches? Not likely, given that Catholics are 20 times more numerous than Mormons in the U.S.. Even the first part is a bit strange–the rate of conversion for Southern baptists would have to be quite high to outstrip Catholic converts to Mormonism. Catholics are several times more numerous that Southern baptists

  10. Mark Ashurst-McGee on November 16, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    Can anyone point me to a previous rebuttle of Linker by Beckwith?

  11. Adam Greenwood on November 17, 2007 at 12:48 am

    I don’t think there’s been one, sir, not on the Mormonism topic. That’s why I’m interested in more details.

  12. AHLDuke on November 17, 2007 at 2:14 am

    What is the word on when and where this stuff is going to become available online?

  13. Rob on November 17, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Jeremiah J (#9), I think you are right–I was in a hurry and careless with my quotation. But even if he was talking about the USA, or even the American South, I have to wonder if his claim about the success of the Southern Baptists to convert former Mormons is more rhetorical than substantive.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on November 17, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    Jeremiah: I have to go on record as someone who strenuously doubts the validity of Lamb’s numbers. As someone who has lived in Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and now Kansas, I can say I never heard of a single convert from Mormonism to Southern Baptism. Catholicism, yes; Methodism, yes; Lutheranism, yes. But not Southern Baptism. I really would have liked some elaboration of that point.

    Mark and Adam: there isn’t anything published regarding Linker and Beckwith; it was all an e-mail debate. But let me see if I can milk some more information out of Damon in the near future.

    AHLDuke: check the website for the conference; there should be links to online video recordings of the conference up there soon enough. If not, I’ll try to hunt them down for you.

  15. Jeremiah J on November 17, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    “Mark and Adam: there isn’t anything published regarding Linker and Beckwith; it was all an e-mail debate. But let me see if I can milk some more information out of Damon in the near future.”

    I liked Beckwith’s talk. He clearly knows more about LDS theology than Linker does. Linker is not completely ignorant, but he seems to base his view on what BYU students were like, rather than actual doctrinal statements.

    The very interesting thing about Beckwith’s argument is that many LDS people may embrace it, though it clearly tries to draw the LDS tradition toward something like natural law. I’m not really against the idea, but most of the LDS commetators of record that I know of on this subject have so far been skeptical of natural law. The danger was and is that Louis Migdley, as well as those who now embrace Beckwith’s critique of Linker’s critique of us, are doing theology by defining ourselves *against* some view that we feel we’re against (the alleged excessive moral rationalism of the Christian tradition, and now the charge of Mormon antinomianism by Linker). I’m one who sees a legitimate connection between aplogetics and political theology, but once we’ve been through these alternatives we should figure out that they’re not all compatible and decide which one(s) we like best.