Make the Sanctity of Dissent Great Again

It was evident early in the days of my questioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I would not be able to speak about my questions with my family and friends. The advice I received was the same as the advice given to the famous Mormon critic Fawn Brodie by her father, “You’ve got to believe.”1 After enduring an isolated transition in faith over the course of a year, I often think about the reasons why these conversations are not only difficult to have, but are virtually non-existent in most cases. I personally, for example, have not talked to my sister about my disaffection, though she knows. I have had maybe three short conversations with my father about it. Why is it so difficult to have an honest and authentic conversation about differing opinions on religion? It is obvious right? Fear. Fear of the emotional fallout that is certain to come. Fear of questioning deeply held beliefs about who you are and why life matters. Fear of confronting uncomfortable information that may uproot your stable and predictable life. Fear of changing the dynamics of your relationships. This is why we understandably avoid these conversations. I wish it wasn’t this way, there is so much more growth, love, and satisfaction to be had.

A Case for Dissent

I recently finished James Paul Tuscano’s book The Sanctity of Dissent in which he discusses the importance of creating a culture in which various diverse opinions are welcomed and respected. An essential way of obtaining this is through positive dissent, or expressing opinions that differ with those commonly or officially held. Dissent can be an uncomfortable word. It implies a difference in opinion, especially with the majority. It goes without mention that I have found myself a dissenter of the Mormon church and am deeply interested in this topic. I’ve been fascinated at the absolute silence I have received from my friends, family, and church family. Tuscano attempts to make the case that “dissent should be embraced by the church as holy—that is, inspired and ordained of God as necessary to the spiritual well-being of the church.”(2, pg133) Dissent in all of its forms should not be embraced. But in the values we hold dear, and the lifestyles we choose to live, we should embrace the “sublimely noble” essence of dissent which is “the fundamental right to disagree and express that disagreement.”

World history is replete with noble dissenters. From Siddhartha Gautama, Martin Luther, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King Jr., the founding fathers of America, Joseph Smith, and even Jesus Christ himself. “Think not,” Jesus said, “that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Jesus challenged the status quo and cut through the complacent Jewish community, challenging what was believed to be wise unalterable traditions. Joseph Smith found himself dissenting from the common religions of his youth and was told by God that all churches “were an abomination.” God counseled that through Him and His divine command to dissent, Joseph Smith would re-establish His church on the earth again. From these perspectives, dissent is viewed as a disruptive but essential method of correcting error or levelling up cultural norms, or better yet, establishing God’s true kingdom on earth.

Religious dissent can be complicated and come from a variety of avenues. There may be intellectual disagreements, social differences, misunderstandings over power, influence, or participation. In the book Differing Visions – Dissenters in Mormon History there is a sweet irony that is manifest in the relationship between the modern Mormon stance on dissent compared to its origins:

The Mormon movement itself arose in the midst of a crisis of authority and sought to identify, support, and establish a new authority to resolve both the unanswered and unsatisfactorily answered religious questions of the early nineteenth century3

Since the days of Joseph Smith, the Mormon culture has shifted from embracing dissent to rejecting it as heresy and devilish. In Joseph’s day there were plenty of members that promoted controversial ideas that caused conflict. Those dissensions that were positive in nature (there were plenty that were negative and ill conceived) were an essential stepping stone to progress and revelation. Think: questioning the mode of Baptism, Word of Wisdom, the Relief Society, etc. But in our modern day correlated understanding of church history we are not told that dissention led to revelation and progress, but instead progress was dictated from the top down, from God to Joseph Smith through a process of revelation. Today think of dissenters such as James Paul Tuscano, D. Michael Quinn, Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, Jeremy Runnells, Sam Young, and Bill Reel. Today dissenters are treated with excommunication, banishment, exile, and with a shiny apostate scarlet letter.

What Happened to Dissent?

We often hear that those that left the church in the early days only did so because of personal weaknesses that caused them to lose their testimony. From my experience, this description is the extent of it. As I came to value positive dissent more, I began to ask myself why did the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon leave the cause? Why, during 1837-38, did the church lose so many members, including these witnesses and over half of the apostles to apostasy? This disaffection was so severe that Heber C Kimball is to have said, “here were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.” Did they have good reasons? In the common circles of modern day Mormonism we do not know the reasons why so many people left because it is not faith promoting, and as such shunned, misrepresented, or purposefully obfuscated.

Understandably the spiritual power and manifestations of pluralism (valuing the spiritual manifestations of a plurality of religious interpretations) that accompanied the beginning days of the church caused confusion around authority, structure, and doctrine. This confusion naturally began to subside as the identity of the church shifted to a more centralized hierarchical and ecclesiastical structure in which the authority flowed from Smith at the top to subordinates in the organization. Doing this resulted in less confusion but it came at a price, the price of the individual’s sovereignty over a their own spirituality.

This culture of conformity, and of the negatively viewing of dissent as apostasy began to build after the days of Kirtland when Joseph went to Missouri and consolidated the leadership there. Many of the dissenters left the church because of the concern over the consolidation of power of Joseph Smith. This authoritarianism trajectory has continued to progress with time. Now I ask myself, is it possible to freely disagree with the prevailing views of the church today without negative consequence? Growing up, I never found myself questioning the truth claims of the church. It was clear to me that those questions were not to be discussed. I learned early that putting forth a dissenting opinion, even for conversation sake, is not welcome at church. It is viewed as heretical, not having the Spirit with you, a slippery slope, or taboo. Conformity and order is valued over skepticism and liberty.

I would argue that only those that are “free to disagree” with the church can “learn the full implications of their personal views.”(2, pg137) Otherwise you are only taking upon yourself the mask of Mormonism. “Only those free to dissent can full take part in the decision-making process that shape their lives and destinies.”(2, pg137) I have come to understand these ideas more fully as I have woken up from my Mormon belief system and began to question my choices. Tuscano says of this idea of fully embracing dissent:

Dissent is an indispensable component of every moral organization dedicated to the empowerment and salvation of the individual. A system that punishes dissent thwarts personal growth and perpetuates childishness, and promotes arrested adolescence. It will come, eventually, to value compliance and obedience above the personal sanctity of its members. In such a system individuals will be valued only if they repress their personal spiritual insights in the interest of conformity.(2, pg137)

As this ideology of order and conformity gains ground and establishes itself, the people who do not conform are vilified or risk losing important relationships at the altar of blind obedience, willful ignorance, whispers of apostasy, and maintaining the perception of order. This type of system will “urge or even compel its members to live by principles they do not truly value and to submit to values they do not truly accept. Inevitably such a system will become joyless and unforgiving in its denial of the truth. It will become evil.”(2, pg137) I suspect many members of the Church are living this way without realizing it. Are you truly able to realize your true self under the current culture of the Church? What does your authentic self even mean? What do you do with thoughts and ideas of disagreement? From my experience the message is, “doubt your doubts,” “you just have to believe,” and “choose to have faith.” This abruptly stops healthy questions and promotes mindless compliance.

Humans long for certainty. There are limitless paths that promise certainty, security, and safety. We are often fearful of the chaos of opinions and ideas that appear as a non-ending torrential storm throughout our life. Though we hate to admit it, most of us want to be told what to do so we do not have to deal the wretched weight of the world. In Mormonism, the institutional church is all too willing to assume the burden of providing a path of certainty. In another paradox, investigators of the church are taught to rely on the spirit to become familiar with the conversion and personal revelation process of the Holy Ghost. But once converted, and a part of “the fold”, they are told to “follow the Brethren.” In this way personal revelation is retarded and the personal freedom of conscience is shifted to an institution. Doing this unwittingly contradicts the warnings of “[trusting] not in the arm of flesh” (D&C 1:19) and “I am the Lord thy God…thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3) The church and the brethren become an idol to be worshipped, and the power of personal growth that can be found on the border of chaos and order is snuffed out.

I can certainly understand how the church has arrived at this path. There is a long history of persecution and abuse that causes the church to not only embrace a defensive posture but in a pre-emptive strike posture. Mormon leadership fear that they will not live up to their callings. They fear that they will be accountable for their actions. This fear is very real. This fear causes a reaction to “objectify others, treating them as categories of evil rather than as individual persons with hopes and fears.” This is the heart of this post. The decades long narrative of apostasy has lead to the striping of “personhood” from those that are suffering through a crises of faith. Once the church “nullifies [dissenters] as people” they “do not have to be influenced by them.”

This reminds me of the “unperson” in the book 1984. The unperson is someone that has been vaporized from society by “The Party” for offensives against it. This is done by removing the person (by killing them first) from books, photographs, and articles, so that no record of them is found anywhere. It is a crime to say an unpersons name or to even think of an unperson. Within Mormonism there are stories of parents or grandparents of those that have left the church who wish the dissenter would have died before their disbelief. Others often decide to disconnect completely from their disbelieving child in an effort to show loyalty to the Church. They do this because they objectify the person (often their own child) as [insert apostate-like word here], and do not see them as individuals with hopes, fears, and a yearning for understanding and emotional connection. Moving up the spectrum of unhealthy responses to dissent, read this text from my dad to my brother. It may not be as extreme as those described above, but you get the idea of the type of treatment of dissenters.

This is the ugly underbelly of relationships that involve dissent in some way or another within Mormonism. Not all members respond this way. To those that value their relationships first over the religious beliefs, they often do so in spite of the signals of Church leadership. Unfortunately though, those reaction signals have been taught since the beginning of the Church. And because of those signals, believing members often do not offer sympathy or encouragement to those that positively dissent. But instead do as Tuscano describes:

We do not have to consider what they say, or if they are in pain, or if we have caused that pain. We can just banish them from our world view altogether. We can make them nonpersons. As the Book of Mormon says, “we notice them not” (Morm 8:39)(2, pg128)

Authority: Decentralize and Individualize

“Dissent is holy,” as Tuscano puts it, “because it is essential to continuing personal revelation.” Personal revelation, in essence, is to invite change, correction, and readjustment, “not to reinforce the status quo.” We must be able to dissent in order to consent to any form of teaching or idea. If we are not able to truly dissent we cannot truly embrace both sides of an argument and thus may be eliminating the “still small voice” of the spirit or own inner authentic conscience that is telling us we should follow a certain path. If the consent (or assent to a certain principle) is without a form of dissent then the consent is “without substance and pointless.” Although Mormonism is based on personal revelation there is a paradox of determinism. The church itself is a theocracy in which the government is appointed by God and is often called “the brethren.” When we sustain them, we give our consent, we agree to obey, because they “speak to God.” In what way is there a degree of personal revelation, dissent, or wrestling with the spirit in such a structure? There is no personal growth when there is no consent or ability to experiment on the entire word, but must instead obey the dictates of a so-called “divinely inspired” government body. This method is centralizing or automating your religious thinking. In order to break the theocratic spell we must decentralize the religious authority and give it back to the individual.

I see this tension of thought from active members in the way that the church approaches LGBT issues, women’s rights issues, the history of polygamy, the racism, the elitism, the lack of financial transparency, etc. If individual members were allowed to play in the arena of dissention and free thought, they would come to understand the immoral practice of denying blacks the priesthood and what those implications mean. They would observe with clarity the damaging positions that the church has taken against the LGBT community, intellectuals, feminists, closed door interviews, etc. They would realize that the leadership of the church is sometimes wrong in its interpretation or application of doctrines and principles. Doing this would create incredible growth for the individual regardless of their believing status. Instead of embracing this reality, the leadership relies on the credulity of its members through teachings like, “it is wrong to criticize the church, even if the criticism is true.”4 And “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith”5 For more examples of the culture of fear of questioning that the church promote read this post here.

From my experience, if you sit with a believing close friend or family member and have a heart to heart discussion about these things, you will often hear them say that they do not agree with the way the church approaches some of these topics but they feel like they cannot capitulate to a dissenting spirit, but must reaffirm their testimony. They may attempt to “wrestle with the spirit” until they get a satisfactory answer, but without the dissenter or skeptical attitude, the wrestling match is helplessly unfair. If these believing members do not get an answer, they often decide to wait until they die and have faith that their beliefs are indeed true. I often hear people say, “if it turns out that this is all made up, I feel like I have lived a happy life and my family is better for it, so win-win” or “if you go looking for bad things you are going to find it” or “Satan is the author of confusion.” This line of thought stunts the critical thinking process, and a possibly stronger relationship with God. On an individual level, you often get members to concede that they are uncomfortable with the way the church treats LGBT people, or the lack of historical transparency, or the fallibility of prophets, but as soon as they turn to see the collective of the church they do not see the value in dissenting because the costs of dissent are too high.

These costs of dissent come in many forms. Too often, differences of opinion are treated as disobedience or a lack of faith. This eventually leads to a loyalty test that completely sidesteps the actual issues under question. I’m reminded of my Stake President asking me in our one and only conversation, “You know what, you do not really have a problem with Church history you have a problem with Jesus Christ, are there any sins you wish to confess?” How disrespectful, how deceptive, how invalidating, how abusive. What is so surprising to me is these ugly practices go on invisible to most members. Most members refuse to believe there are actually good reasons to not believe, because to them the Church is God-ordained and God-directed through not only prophets but all the way down to their local church leaders whom they believe are called by God. This continues to centralize order and obedience to the institution and does not validate the individual.

God’s Plan vs Satan’s Plan

I am the youngest of four siblings. My parents readily admit, as do many, that they made mistakes along the path of raising their children. Though I was young at the time I observed a distinct shift in the methods my parents used in managing religious teaching in the home when I was about 11 or 12 years old. The prevailing view in my household before this time was that the church provided that which was good in life and that the children were going to follow the guidance of the prophets, because “why be free, when you can be right?” This method did not bode well (understatement of the year) for my older siblings, who endured obedience with exactness over a positive and healthy parent/child relationship. My parents eventually agreed with Tuscano when he describes this parenting method as “the most succinct summation of the salvation plan of compulsion scripturally attributed to Satan as I ever expected to hear.” He went on to say:

Goodness, does not result from obedience, even obedience to someone good. It results from spiritual transformation, a change of heart, a rebirth. Goodness is personal spiritual maturity. We cannot mature spiritually if we are under compulsion.(2, pg135)

Spiritual transformation is God’s plan. One where we decide for ourselves our spiritual journey. One where we wrestle with God (or the universe, or our own consciousness) and His divine role for us in order to find our authentic self. Marcus Aurelius said the following on the spiritual journey:

He lives with the gods who consistently shows them his soul content with its lot, and performing the wishes of that divinity, that fragment of himself which Zeus has given each person to guard and guide him. In each of us this divinity is our mind and reason.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations 5.27

The Church’s Role

The Church can and does fulfill a divine role of “encouraging repentance and forgiveness, to mitigate fear, foster faith, raise hope, and promote charity.” This is the very real and tangible power of many religions. One that invites people to be better today than they were yesterday. One that promotes goodness, charity, and forgiveness. “But,” as Tuscano continues, “it can only do this if it permits dissent.” If there is no allowance for dissent the church “undercuts this divine role” and relegates itself to the superficiality that so adorns our modern day Mormon culture. Look at the “Mormon moms” of Instagram. See the posts on Facebook that implicitly portray a “proper” Mormon. Look at the types of things that are being promoted.

Look at how happy they are! It doesn’t take long to see the constant stream of business like, self-improvement, and material success schemes that are a prominent hallmark of Mormonism. Without the role personal development that comes with holy dissent the church will “be limited to the production of respectable citizens who make good employees rather than Saints, and fine family members rather than friends of God.”(2, pg139)  Honestly, the accusation of superficiality does not apply to everyone and probably is an unfair overgeneralization. However, the feelings of progress, individualism, and personal growth are more often a result of individual liberty chosen in spite of the institution that calls for conformity over self.

The Danger of the Current Path

How did it get this way? When did the love of order and unity transform into tyranny, power to dominate, control, or manipulate? When was attitude of personal spirituality substituted for arrogance and self-importance that led to justifiable spiritual abuse? The two camps of tyranny and arrogance suffer from the same symptom of not being able to “articulate the limitations of their powers”(2, pg25) and because of this, most people aren’t able to spot it when it is happening. Even worse, when the leaders are a part of a religious hierarchy it is easy to be seduced by this power because “hey, they are the good guys right?” Lord Acton has a point when he said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

How are we to perceive the destructive path of tyranny and arrogance in a church that is supposed to be the one and only true church on earth? Do you believe that the Nephites in the Book of Mormon ever believed during the prosperous and believing years that there was anything wrong with the institution? When they “were lifted up in pride, even to the persecution of many of their brethren.”(Helaman 3:34) Do you believe they realized that wickedness and destruction were just around the corner? It is quite possibly the same today inside Mormonism.

These extremes of tyranny and arrogance are on the negative end of the spectrum. On the other end we see order and liberty. Order in the church is often related to D&C 132:8 when God says, “mine house is a house of order, and not a house of confusion.” This ideal is often adhered to by using words like “preside” and “responsibility” and “obedience.” This mode of thinking materializes in pronouncements like:

  • Your greatest safety lies in strictly following the word of the Lord given through His prophets.”6
  • The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord” to give us scripture.7
  • If you will not be loyal in the small things, you will not be loyal in the large things.8
  • If we only knew, it is through obedience that we gain freedom.8
  • If you are called to an assignment by one that has authority there is but one answer. …Any assignment that comes under call from your Bishop is a call that comes from the Lord.8
  • What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (D&C 1:38)

This camp is where you get those that are considered “iron-rodders” as reference to the iron rod story in 1 Nephi 8 in the Book of Mormon. Those that embrace the importance of order and authority over the liberty of the individual. This ideology has a tendency to slip into totalitarianism in which the sovereignty of the conscience individual is subsumed by the molevelant desire to control by a governing elite (aka “the brethren”), even (ironically) in the name of righteousness. This is where you get the over-protective mother and servial tendencies of the father as they differ their liberty of choice to those in charge, infantilizing themselves and paternalizing the church. These mainstreamers value the maintenance of order and expectations over personal revelation and liberty.

The other camp is known as the Liahonas as referenced in 1 Nephi 16 in the Book of Mormon. The Liahona was a device in the Book of Mormon that acted more as a compass than an iron rod. This type of member uses commitment to individual spiritual values to develop intellectual and spiritual growth within the church. Contrary to the iron-rodders, the Liahona followers place more value on liberty, freedom of expression, and personal revelation. The negative side of the Liahona ideology is arrogance. Once you believe you have found the “path” and are maturing in spiritual knowledge (notice I did not say spirituality), then, if pride and self-aggrandizement take hold, you have a tendency to place yourself at the top of a hierarchy of spirituality.

Each of these camps have their good side. Iron-rodders value the church community, the rituals, and “in the love and affection that can be found in its members.”(2, pg24) Liahonas value personal revelation, Christlike attributes, and inclusivity. The fear that Tuscano had, of which I see this very wave crashing on the culture this very minute is:

As the mainstreamers and the independent camps become more defined, there will be, I am afraid, a continuing tendency on the part of each to alienate itself more and more from any truth or good which the other camp has to offer. And, as each side retreats more deeply into its own prejudices, there is an increasing likelihood that tyranny and arrogance will arise in both camps.(2, pg24)

Pathway Toward Light

In the beginning I outlined my frustration with not being able to have a healthy conversation with the closest people in my life about religion and belief, more specifically my disbelief in Mormonism. I laid out the case for what the problems are and how the problems developed and solidified. I think the fundamental issue is the value we place on our relationships. Seneca said:

There is no enjoying a possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with. Personal converse, and daily intimacy with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse.

Seneca, Letters to a Stoic, Letter 6

In the end we all want to be heard, valued, and validated. The fulfilling relationships that we believed we once had with some of the most important people in our lives may now be in ruin or hanging on by a thread because of differing religious opinions. Mormonism has morphed to become totalitarianistic in its abhorrence of dissenting ideas and voices. The people have taken on this role to the detriment of familial and other important relationships, turning things into a black and white, us vs them mentality.

If we want to move forward as a community and as a culture, we need to stop the tactics of old that included the common caricaturization of anti-mormons, the invalidation, birating, disrespecting, denouncing, demeaning, and the holier-than-thou postering. The loyalty tests and the compulsion to conform come at a cost. It stops personal growth, it stops personal revelation, it stops continued development of healthy relationships, and it stops free thinking. Let us all, the iron-rodders, the Liahonas, those on the edges, those that disbelieve but still value the culture, come back together and cause healthy positive dissent. Let us stop objectifying each other, and restructure our value system to include the recognition of the individual voice.

I’ll cop out of a succinct closing paragraph and instead put in what Tuscano finished with on this topic:

The sword is the cruciform symbol of dissent against cruelty, corruption, unhallowed control, against denial, false peace, and forced silence. Jesus spoke the discourse of divine dissent against such evils in history. The Holy Ghost continues in the present to speak this same discourse in the hearts of many of us. Those who hear that voice, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, must give up all hope of banal material success, must take up-not the sword-but the cross and, like the Joan of Arc, find sanctuary in the sanctity of dissent.(2, pg152)


Sources

  1. No man knows my history: the life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, Brodie – Knopf – 1971
  2. Toscano, Paul James. The Sanctity of Dissent. Signature Books, 1994
  3. Launis, Roger D. Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, 1998
  4. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/elder-oaks-interview-transcript-from-pbs-documentary
  5. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng
  6. https://www.lds.org/manual/true-to-the-faith/prophets?lang=eng&_r=1
  7. https://www.lds.org/study/liahona/1981/06/fourteen-fundamentals-in-following-the-prophet?lang=eng
  8. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/boyd-k-packer_follow-brethren/

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