Membership in the Church is a covenant relationship. We repeat this to ourselves a great deal but generally aren’t clear exactly what we mean by it. Often, we imagine a covenant as a contract, a set of reciprocal promises. Given what the scriptures say about covenants, this isn’t a false way of thinking about it, but it is seriously incomplete. The most powerful image of covenant in the scriptures for me is the image of marriage. Israel, we are told, is like the (often faithless) spouse of God.
A marriage is a relationship that is defined by reciprocal promises, but it isn’t just defined by reciprocal promises. It is also defined by love, passion, and what I think of as habits of affection. We often think of love as a kind of Dionysian force that assaults us, but married love is more than simply Dionysian. It is also agricultural, something that one treasures, cultivates, and seeks to protect. I think it suggestive that in English “husband” can denote both a spouse and a farmer.
If we take the metaphor of marriage seriously as a model for covenants, then it should have an impact on how one speaks and thinks about the Church. Imagine that I subjected my wife to a constant stream of public criticism. It is easy to see how such criticism could be corrosive to one’s marriage, even if it was all entirely merited. My wife might be hurt by such criticism, but even if she was not, the speech could well change my own attitude toward her. Indeed, even if I did not vocalize the criticisms, a mental habit of constantly dwelling on her faults and misdeeds could be equally corrosive of our relationship. Rather, in a healthy marriage, I think that one cultivates a habitual tendency to accentuate the virtues of one’s spouse and treat their failings with charity and – as often as not – discrete silence.
Marriage as a model of proper speech is diametrically opposed to the dominant model provided by our society, namely the marketplace of ideas in a liberal democracy. This is a model that also imposes obligations on how we are to speak. In a democracy, we are to speak truthfully, fearlessly, and critically. Norms that seeks to circumscribe speech are inherently suspect, associated as they are with tyranny and authoritarianism. From the vigorous give-and-take of ideas emerges a world of greater truth and greater accountability for those who wield power, in short a better world. Notice that in this model, habits of affection play no role. Indeed, such habits are generally conceptualized as prejudices and condemned. The failure to vocalize one’s criticisms out of affection is to be a bad citizen, to undermine the social process of the intellectual marketplace.
Within the Church we often grasp towards something like a covenantal account of speech by saying things like “Don’t criticize the Brethren” or “Sustain leaders and others in their callings.” Viewed from within the framework of liberal democracy, such admonitions can only be seen as pathological or childish. They are either a troubling effort to insulate power from accountability or else a naïve effort to insulate one’s simple beliefs from the acids of adult thought. This, however, strikes me as a rather uncharitable way of understanding what these slogans are getting at.
Our covenant relationship with the Church depends on not only mutual fidelity to promises but also on habits of affection and charity. Such habits can be maintained or undermined by how we speak. The liberal democratic model of speech is inadequate for understanding proper norms of speech within the Church precisely because there is no place within that model to acknowledge the role of love and the emotional and linguistic habits that sustain love. The marketplace of ideas is not ultimately about love.
The metaphor of marriage, however, is only a metaphor. Like any other metaphor it both illuminates a truth and breaks down if relied upon too much. Hence, while I think that our speech about the Church should be governed by norms like those that govern speech about a spouse, I think that those norms should only be like one another. They should not be identical with one another. Hence, I think that it can be acceptable to speak critically of the Church or of the Brethren or of our fellow saints. The marketplace of ideas has many virtues and we would do well to cultivate some of them. However, the marketplace of ideas will always be an inadequate model because it is indifferent about that toward which covenants can never be indifferent.
I confess that I am not quite sure how to balance things out once one rejects the adequacy of liberal democracy as a model for speech within the Church. I do think that a useful rule of thumb is to be aware of our speech, and to realize that we are never only communicating or analyzing ideas. We are always cultivating habits of affection. One cannot continually berate one’s spouse and expect a marriage to be happy and fruitful. Ideally, the routine of worship and devotion generate sufficient positive speech to maintain habits of affection. The very routinization of such speech can, however, ironically diminish its power to maintain the habits of affection on which covenant depends. If one, as a covenanted Latter-day Saint, is going to embark on the experiment of critical speech – a project that can have a great deal of value – then it seems to me that one must consciously cultivate other, non-routinized modes of speech that maintain the habits that criticism erodes.