Sunday, June 24, 2012

Daniel Peterson and the Maxwell Institute

This is not my doctrine--to stir up people's hearts with anger against one another. (3 Nephi 11:30)
Thanks to Peggy Fletcher Stack and William Hamblin, we now know more about Daniel Peterson's removal from the editorship of the Mormon Studies Review, (formerly the FARMS Review, formerly the FARMS Review of Books, formerly the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon).

Eight years ago, I wrote in Sunstone that I thought the new apologetics represented by FARMS and FAIR was a "mixed blessing for the Saints." On the plus side, the apologists were pulling against anti-intellectualism within Mormonism and promoting a relatively more progressive version of LDS orthodoxy. On the other hand, I wished "that the verbally aggressive polemics of some apologists"--including Daniel Peterson, Louis Midgley, and William Hamblin--"would be more roundly denounced by their peers" in the name of rejecting the spirit of contention.

Eight years later, I've kind of gotten my wish. But there are some aspects of how this has happened that are discouraging from the point of view of someone who would like to see less hierarchical authority and more freedom of expression in Mormonism.

It's evident in retrospect--this is how Hamblin characterizes the situation, at least--that FARMS' incorporation into BYU was something of a bargain with the devil. Or to use a less loaded metaphor: there have been unintended consequences. Becoming part of the Maxwell Institute gave FARMS and its work a new level of legitimacy within the Mormon world. But it also meant that FARMS lost its independence. Being part of BYU linked FARMS institutionally to the LDS Church in a way that has made it more liable to scrutiny by church leaders and more vulnerable to their intervention.

Daniel Peterson knew this was a possibility when the merger occurred. A story Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote back in 1997 quoted him as saying, "FARMS has often had a polemical edge and we are curious to see how or whether that will be accommodated . . . The minute I write something offensive, we'll see if I get a call." Apparently the call finally came--from a General Authority acting on behalf of John Dehlin.

Which for me is troubling. In principle, I can't cluck about that kind of intervention-by-hierarchical-fiat when it's used to rein in liberals I like, but then cheer when it's used to rein in orthodox apologists I don't like. As far as I'm concerned, what Dehlin did in appealing for a General Authority's intervention was morally equivalent to the people who back in the 1990s were writing letters to General Authorities to complain about David Knowlton, or Cecilia Konchar Farr, or Brian Evensen. Yes, I'm sure that readers who want to defend Dehlin can point out to me why those cases are different. But the strategy is fundamentally the same: Go to the Brethren, get them to use their weight to silence the voices you don't want people to hear. Not a very liberal thing to do, John.

In fact, I was trying to think: Has there been, on the other side of the aisle, a case where General Authorities intervened to prevent the publication of a liberal or revisionist article? I haven't been able to recollect one, though I can certainly think of cases where General Authorities have intervened to penalize liberals or revisionists after the fact for things they had published. Conversely, I can think of another situation (that is, a situation comparable to Dehlin's) where Mormon liberals pressured publications not to run pieces they thought would be damaging to them: it's been alleged that some historians tried to keep Sunstone--and other Mormon periodicals, if I remember correctly--from allowing Louis Midgley and other conservatives to attack the New Mormon Historians in print during the early 1980s.

Someone, please, correct me if I'm overlooking something. But it looks to me like the lesson here might be: conservatives will punish you for what you publish, but liberals will try to keep your work from going to press in the first place.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all people, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, to immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:39)
On a more purely practical note: I suspect that Gerald Bradford is making an administrative blunder in cutting apologetics out of the Mormon Studies Review, if that is, indeed, what's going on here. It sounds like he wants to make the Mormon Studies Review more academically respectable--the kind of publication that university libraries might be persuaded to subscribe to, like they do Dialogue or Journal of Mormon History. Accomplishing that means trying to talk to larger scholarly audiences, who don't care about the insider issues that preoccupy apologists. But Bradford's goal (if I'm reading it correctly) is rather like dropping the proverbial bird in the hand for the sake of the one in the bush. We'll see what happens, of course, but I have a hunch that lots of people subscribed to the FARMS Review because they valued its apologetic contributions--even enjoyed its "feisty" polemics. Will such subscribers rally to Bradford's vision for the Mormon Studies Review? I'm doubtful. And how will the Mormon Studies Review distinguish itself from BYU Studies? I'm far from a marketing expert, but it seems to me there are potential problems here with lost niches and market saturation. Not that I'm rooting for the success of any initiative of the Maxwell Institute's, but... whatever.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Elegy for an apologist

This is a little something that came to me some months ago. I couldn't have actually posted it on the occasion of anyone's death, devilishly tempting as that would be. But with gossip about the shake-up at FARMS making the electronic rounds, now seems like an apt time.

For the record: I recognize that whatever truth there is in the following coils back to rebuke me as well.



What will you do with yourself
when you have passed the angels who stand as sentinels
to take up your eternal residence
in a realm where no apostates are admitted
and error is no more?

How will you pass the endless hours?

I see you sitting in a white-upholstered parlor
beneath a crystal chandelier,
head cradled in your hand,
staring wretchedly into space,
while all around you
saints converse in quiet whispers,
perfectly orthodox,
perfectly correlated.

How will you endure it?

Will you seek an audience with our Heavenly Parents
(through the proper channels, of course)—
request to be sent as a ministering angel
to some lower world
where you can serve
by waging intellectual battle
against heresies yet untrammeled?

Will Heavenly Mother take off her glasses
smile gently,
and say:
“---, dear,
we know you mean well,
but that isn’t what we had in mind
by ‘ministering.’”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Setback to democracy in Egypt

Egyptian Supreme Court calls for Parliament to be dissolved
Egypt court rules entire parliament illegally elected, orders body to dissolve after unconstitutional vote

I don't know why this particular piece of news is having more of an emotional impact on me that any other ongoing disaster in the world, but it is.

I'm among those who are inclined to be alarmed that this decision stalls the handoff of power from the military. Military culture is always an undemocratic culture; you don't want people steeped in that culture running a country if you want democracy.

If the military and the court are concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood--well, I share that concern, too. But that's the risk you take living in a democracy. Egyptians need to work out that problem in a democratic, constitutional framework.

That's rather arrogant Western of me, isn't it? Pontificating about what Egyptians need to do.

Let's put it this way: my prayers are with those Egyptians who see this latest development as a setback to democracy in Egypt. Even if--grimace--those people include Muslim Brotherhood.
That law of the land which is constitutional,
supporting a principle of freedom that maintains rights and privileges,
belongs to all mankind...
And as pertaining to human law,
whatever is more or less than this comes of evil.

(D&C 98: 5, 7)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The latest on Guantanamo

From today's news at NPR:

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to take a second look at how its 2008 decision on the rights of detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is being carried out.

Monday's move comes almost four years to the day after the court's last significant statement on the war on terrorism, its 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush, which held that detainees have the right to meaningful review of their detentions in U.S. courts. That decision launched a flurry of filings by detainees seeking to have federal trial courts declare their detentions unconstitutional and order their release.

Almost immediately afterward, federal trial judges in Washington, D.C., began detailed reviews of the detainees' legal claims.

In the first two years, detainees won relief in 19 out of 34 cases heard by the trial courts....But in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit began overturning those decisions, eventually declaring that even the government's second- and thirdhand hearsay evidence should be presumed accurate unless there was clear contrary evidence.

The appeals court eventually overturned every single favorable decision that the trial courts had handed down...

I am deeply appalled by this. We're giving the benefit of the doubt to hearsay? Who thinks this is justice?

Guantanamo is a blight on this nation. And I don't have the moral luxury of washing my hands of it because, you know, I didn't vote for Bush. I voted for the administration that appealed those 19 cases in which the courts ruled the detentions unconstitutional and ordered the prisoners freed. That makes me accountable above and beyond my default accountability as a citizen of the country that Obama's administration represents.

I never thought I would say this, but I may have to sit this presidential election out or vote for some hopeless, obscure third candidate. Guantanamo may be non-negotiable for me.

Or I may shrug off the drama and my moral qualms and be a bleeding hypocrite, justifying it with some comment about how you can't be pure in an imperfect world.

You shall appoint magistrates and officials...
in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you,
and they shall govern the people with justice.
You shall not judge unfairly:
you shall show no partiality...
Justice, justice shall you pursue...
(Deuteronomy 16:18-20, JPS)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mormons at Gay Pride

It's the first Sunday of the month, so I was going to write another entry in my more-or-less-monthly series exploring contemporary Dominican society as a way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of my mission. But instead, I want to comment on the recent series of Mormon "It Gets Better" videos and the announcement that groups of straight LDS are planning to march in Gay Pride parades in various places around the country. They're marching today in Salt Lake.

I have on various occasions thrown a wet blanket on liberal Mormon optimism that the LDS Church is progressing toward acceptance of gay/lesbian people. I think that's a classic demonstration of the liberal faith in the myth of progress, and I'm not buying it. Yes, we've seen some dramatic toning down of church rhetoric since the days of Spencer W. Kimball. We've seen the church retreat from its stupid, arguably misogynistic policy of encouraging gay men to marry. We've seen correlated discourse in recent years cautiously leave open the possibility that homosexuality might be immutable (but don't act on it, be celibate), which has meant attenuating the church's prior faith in reparative therapy. And certainly in the wake of Prop 8 we've seen church leaders try to avoid provoking more embarrassing protests by publicly "making nice" with the gay community.

That's all good and well. But as long as the church is run by conservative straight males, with the ones at the very top in their 80s and 90s and living in a self-imposed bubble, a big dose of cynicism is in order. The changes we've seen in church discourse are ultimately about applying better make-up. Or, to use a different metaphor, they are a calculated "falling back" to a position that the church can more easily defend. I don't see evidence that church leadership is anywhere close to reconsidering their position that homosexual relations are contrary to God's will and an eternal dead-end. They're nowhere close to doing the kind of deep rethinking of Mormon doctrine that would be needed to create equality for gay/lesbian people in the LDS Church--along with gender equality, for that matter, since at root they're the same issue.

Cynic that I am, I look at the Mormon "It Gets Better" videos or the groups planning to march in Pride parades, and I wonder: How much do they owe to Mitt Romney? In other words, is church leadership leaving them alone, creating a space for them to operate, because the leaders know that the Romney campaign has heightened media scrutiny and public interest in Mormon controversies? If Romney loses and the media's attention drifts elsewhere, will we see the institution start applying pincers?

I will say this, though: the "It Gets Better" videos and the Pride marches have led me to revise my predictions of how "the gay issue" will unfold in Mormonism. My old prediction (which I voiced in a Sunstone symposium paper, I dunno, back in the late 1990s?) was that church leadership might be persuaded to back away from reparative therapy (happening) and might, at the absolute most, be persuaded to allow partnered gay/lesbian members to be active in the church in a kind of second-class status akin to that experienced by blacks before 1978. (Full church involvement is now allowed to celibate gays, and I've heard of bishops who encourage partnered gays to attend even if they're not calling-worthy.)

My revised prediction is this: The upper-level leadership--those conservative old men living in their bubble, along with all the yes-men who fill the bureaucracy that does their bidding--will continue to dig in their heels on the underlying issues while applying good make-up to try to dissuade the gays from picketing outside their temples. (Okay, okay, mixed metaphors.) But Mormonism will begin to look something like American Catholicism: a conservative hierarchy, but more progressive views among the laity. The clever ones will squeeze into the spaces opened up for them by the church's kinder, gentler rhetoric ("We teach our members to reach out in love to people with same-sex attraction") and then stretch those spaces much wider than the leadership intended. Wide enough to let them march in a Gay Pride parade, for instance. How much they can stretch before the institution starts pushing back remains to be seen.

You know what this means, don't you? If you want to keep the LDS Church under media scrutiny, and therefore under pressure to leave the progressives alone--you need to pray for Romney to win the presidency. If he loses, public interest in Mormons recede, and the church can go back to business as usual. If he becomes president--Mormon controversies stay newsworthy, and the institution has to walk more carefully. How's that for a quandary, O Mormon liberals?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

First-Friday service

Yesterday I led the first-Friday service of contemplative song and prayer. The theme was "Christ, our living water." Instead of placing icons of Jesus at the center of the contemplative environment, I used the little Asian-type fountain Hugo bought for me back when I was working on my dissertation. In other words, running water became our iconic representation of Jesus. Aquatic images recurred throughout the readings and prayers.



O God, my God—
how eagerly I watch for you!
My soul thirsts for you,
 my body is weak for want of you,
as in a dry, barren land without water.

Your loving-kindness is better than life itself!
I will sing your praise.
I will bless you as long as I live.
I will call on your name with uplifted hands.

As I lie in my bed, you are the focus of my thoughts.
Late into the night, I lie awake thinking of you.
For you have been my help:
I rejoice under the shadow of your wings.

My soul clings to you.
Your strong hand holds me close.
Keep me safe! Let me live without fear
of those who would do me harm.


ISAIAH 35:4-7

Say to those whose hearts are sinking,
“Be strong! Do not be afraid!
Here is your God!
God is coming to administer justice.
God is coming to rescue you.”

Then darkened eyes will see.
Closed ears will hear.
Enfeebled legs will leap like the gazelle.
Muted tongues will sing for joy.

Fountains will gush forth in the wasteland.
Streams will flow in the desert.
The burning sands will be transformed into a pool;
the parched ground, into springs of water.
The arid habitat of jackals will become a marsh.
Desert grasses will give way to reeds and rushes.


JOHN 4:6-11, 13-14

As Jesus rested by the well,
a Samaritan woman came to draw water.
Jesus asked her to give him a drink.

The woman replied,
“How is it that you, a Jew,
are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?”
She said this because Jews would not use vessels
that Samaritans had used.

Jesus answered,
“If you knew who I am,
you would have asked me for a drink,
and I would have given you living water.”

The woman said,
“You have no bucket, and the well is deep.
Where do you get this living water?”

Jesus said,
“Water from this well
will quench your thirst for a time.
But the water I give
will quench your thirst forever.”



Jesus Christ—
you are the source of living water.
You alone can satisfy our souls’ thirst.

Refresh all who are weary, sad, or suffering.
Immerse them in your loving-kindness.
Wipe away all tears.

Rain down gifts of grace on every person.
Nourish them in their needs.

Teach us to love others as you love us.
Make compassion well up in us like an overflowing fountain.

Make all that is barren, fruitful.
Make all that has been laid waste, flourish.

Make justice flow like a river.
Sweep away prejudice and oppression as with a flood.

Fill the earth with knowledge of your goodness
like water fills the seas.