The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a column written by Grant Palmer arguing that Christian salvation turns not on the performance of ordinances but rather on an ethical life. Theologically speaking, the article (as Dave has pointed out nicely) is a pretty pedestrian, anti-sacramental, and essentially Protestant reading of the New Testament. The really interesting question raised by the article is not its theology, but rather what it is doing on the editorial page of an mainstream, secular newspaper.
I think that we can safely dismiss the notion that the column was published because the Trib has taken it upon itself to launch a public discussion of Christian soteriology and New Testament hermeneutics. Perhaps the folks at the Trib editorial page think that a decent interest in the eternal salvation of their readers is part of their public function, but I doubt it. So what gives?
Let me make what I hope are two very obvious claims. First, no mainstream newspaper outside of Utah would have any interest whatsoever in publishing this column. Second, if the piece was not overtly critical of LDS theology it would not have been published. (The fact that Grant Palmer’s public notoriety, such as it is, comes mainly from publishing revisionist history and getting — unwisely in my view, incidentally — sanctioned by his Stake President probably didn’t hurt his publication chances either.)
Now, my point is not to launch into a diatribe about how anti-Mormon the Trib is, nor do I invite you to do so in the comments. Rather, my point is that the rules of public discourse in Utah are different. Normally speaking, I think that it is safe to say that most newspapers would regard theology as of little concern, except in so far as it is seen to have secular, political implications. The idea is that such religious beliefs are matters of personal conscience — or perhaps simply personal taste — that are best banished to the feature section or the religion page (if it exists). The editorial page, on the other hand, is to be a forum for serious — and more importantly public — matters of social and political concern. Normally, soteriology doesn’t fall into this category.
In Utah, however, the rules are different for the simple reason that Mormons make up the overwhelming majority of the state’s population and the Church is undoubtedly the most powerful institution in the state (with the possible exception of the federal government, which owns most of the land). Accordingly, the implicit logic of the Trib editorial page seems to be that which relates to Mormonism is of public concern — including it would seem questions of liturgy and ordinances. Note, this doesn’t mean that they necessarily agree with Palmer’s soteriology, or even cares that much on the theological merits. All it means is that they think that the criticism of LDS theology is a matter of public concern. That is interesting.
Frankly, I think that there is probably some merit to their (entirely implicit) argument. There is something a little surreal about philosophical liberalism’s insistence that the public sphere can be purged of “private” beliefs, particularly when those beliefs become manifested as important corporate — in the broad philosophical sense rather than the narrow commercial sense — actors. To be sure, there is a certain asymmetry here — I take it, for example, that Unitarian theology probably doesn’t count as a matter of serious public concern in Utah. On the other hand, I don’t think that Utah Mormons should get too huffy about this. Mormon theology is probably not a matter of public concern in south-eastern Virginia, where I live, but Baptist theology might be. Being big means that you matter in ways that those who are small do not.
Yet even if we concede that at some point sheer size means that we re-draw the rules of liberal public discourse, does it mean that any and all theological questions are on the table? In Utah I think that a person might legitmately take the position that the LDS Church is too powerful and therefore anything that undermines its power is good for the commonweal. To be sure, religious bigotry might lie behind such a belief, but it would be religious bigotry of a complicated kind. Permanent residents of a college town might regard the local university as too powerful and think that anything limiting its power is in the public interest. This might or might not be the result of rank anti-intellectualism. Hence, can the Trib editorial board reason that Palmer’s attack on LDS theology is a legitimate topic of public debate precisely solely because it could help or hurt the state’s dominant institution? Or must they also believe that the underlying theological merits are matters of public importance?
These are the sorts of questions that make watching Utah politics and culture from a safe distance so much fun!