Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Adlai Stevenson vs. Alma, Son of Alma?

This month-old post got me thinking about the role of diplomacy in missionary work. As Natalie points out, we often see ourselves, when engaged in missionary work, as representatives of the church. This is natural enough. We’re putting ourselves out there to tell people what we believe, so they would assume that we’d be qualified to talk about it. We are necessarily placed in the role of representatives.

We even call ourselves representatives. How many times did I tell people in Phoenix “somos representantes de La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días”? We tell our missionaries that they are representatives not just of the church, but of Jesus Christ himself. That’s huge.

But as representatives, we often cast ourselves as diplomats. When someone asks us about the church and its doctrines, we want to give an appealing, diplomatic answer; we try to reveal as little as possible of what might be problematic or difficult to understand (milk before meat, after all). And to the extent that we do reveal any such thing, we turn apologists to give some very reasonable sounding explanation (anyone ever heard the tannic acid Word of Wisdom apologia?).

One problem that arises is that each diplomatic attempt to produce the “official position” results in a different official position. Recently, I visited a couple with the missionaries who had a lot of questions about Mormon doctrine and beliefs. They had also gotten a lot of answers that seemed official from the missionaries and from another couple in the ward. I thought many of these answers were right, I thought many of them were flat out wrong, and I thought many were technically correct statements of what many Mormons believe, but were misstatements of what Mormon doctrine actually says.

Diplomatic answers are probably appropriate if you're being interviewed by Larry King or Mike Wallace. But in a missionary setting, it can cause problems. A big part of the art of diplomacy is the art of negotiation, which is to a large extent the art of concealing information and strategy while pretending to reveal it. It’s not about communicating truth, but about getting the other side to do what you want. The diplomat-negotiator always wants to maintain control over the situation.

I suspect that to the extent that we let the rhetorical posture of diplomacy creep into missionary work, we undermine ourselves and ignore our mission to “proclaim the gospel.” That call requires us to do just the opposite of what a seasoned negotiator would do: to communicate the truth as precisely as we can, seeking understanding and leaving the decision in the hands of the other party.

So I see at least four problems with the diplomat-negotiator approach to missionary work: 1) The attempt to create a well-reasoned answer creates unauthorized dogma. 2) Diplomacy conceals the truth, and to the extent that it does, it is not fully honest. 3) Diplomacy tries to exercise control or influence over the other party, and in doing so, its goal is not understanding, but compliance. 4) Because the goal is compliance, rather than understanding, diplomacy relies on superficial rational explanations to explain away and dismiss doubts rather than honest discussion to resolve them.

I think we can represent the church and the Savior without taking on the role of the diplomat-negotiator. But not it if we insist on having a rational answer for every question---a line that plays, a well-reasoned response that we can utter, smooth as oil, and then smile into the camera from under a well-combed coif. The kind of representation that invites the spirit comes not from the well-prepared answers that we repeat, but from the sincere saints that we actually are. The true representative does not have to repeat the official party line; he is himself a representation of his Master. The force of our testimony comes not from our well-composed diplomatic responses, but is, as Paul says, “written in the fleshy tables of the heart."

While I visited with the couple I mentioned, I felt myself falling into the posture of the diplomat. But after answering a few questions beginning with “the church’s official position is” or “most Mormons read that to mean” or something like that, I felt a bit frustrated. I stopped attempting to present myself as a diplomat on behalf of “most Mormons.”

Instead I told them that in Mormonism there are no creeds. While there is plenty that a Mormon must do, there is, in comparison with creedal Christianity, very little that you must believe to be a Mormon. It requires a belief in God, in the Atonement of Christ (i.e. Grace), acceptance of the Book of Mormon and the other revelations as scripture, and a willingness to sustain church leadership.

I told them that the lack of creedal definitions places significant responsibility on the individual, and that this is why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is so important to us. I said that some Mormons, just like human beings in any religion, are uncomfortable with the responsibility and risk that come with this freedom of thought and belief, and so they try to define the doctrines, pin them down, parse them, taxonomize them and codify them. Some even want to regulate and enforce them. But the reality is that from the moment Joseph Smith experienced his first vision, creeds were declared an abomination. God wants his people to come to him for answers. He wants us free.

Having explained this, I told them my own personal thoughts on the questions they asked, but told them also that my opinions were no more valid than any other member of the church, and that in most cases, they would have to decide for themselves how to interpret the doctrines of the church. I told them that if they would seek the spirit, they would find the right answers.

It felt so good to not be locked into a sales pitch.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ever notice that Romney ryhmes with OMNI?

And by OMNI I mean spanish UFO's, not Book of Mormon prophets or defunct provo dance clubs.

This rich guy newspaper that apparently can't afford to pay for real photos and instead uses old-timey drawings ran a pretty good story on Mitt Romney.

Honestly, I'm getting a little tired of the Romney-Mormonism discussion. How many ways can we say "Kennedy already settled the issue, religion doesn't matter"? And how many ways can we say "Mormons are a wierd, scary, quaint, and ridiculous cult"? It pretty much boils down to those two sides.

But it got me thinking. What kind of effect would a Romney nomination have on the Republican party? What kind of effect would a Romney victory have on the United States. What kind of effect would both have on the church?

My view is that a Romney nomination would bring a fantastic change to the Republican party. It would show that the majority of Republicans are not paranoid anti-science fundamentalists, but decent people who hold conservative values but are reasonable and willing to compromise. It would re-enthrone religious tolerance as a conservative virtue. It would have the effect of banishing the extreme evangelicals (not most evangelicals, just the extreme ones) to the outer wings of the party. This would be a much better Republican party.

On the other hand, I have my doubts about Romney. He seems very willing to shift his views depending on the audience and the race. He is too willing, in my opinion, to embrace people like Ann Coulter, and to identify with them. But he is bright, he is competent, and in the past he has demonstrated the ability to see both sides and be moderate. I have also heard by hearsay from people who know Romney personally, that he is not nearly as right-wing as he is now appearing to be. One man in particular said that he had no idea why Romney was acting this way. I know its a campaign strategy, but it smacks of dishonesty. Romney's support for Bush's foreign policy decisions is probably the thing that mystifies me the most. I would have a difficult time voting for anyone who supports the recent accretion of executive power and wants to "double Guantanamo." Bottom line: I think the old Romney, the one that ran against Teddy Kennedy, or even the one that ran for Governor of Mass. would be a pretty decent president. The new Romney worries me. I suspect that an elected Romney might shed the new Romney, but I'm not sure I'd want to bet on it.

A Romney nomination would have a mixed impact on the Church. On the one hand, it would signal that the church is more acceptable to Republicans as a group. This could also mean that traditionally very conservative religious groups may soften up on their anti-mormon bent. Or they might just leave the Republican party. The point is, it would force a choice: stop hating Mormons so much, or give up your political clout. Either option would be good, either for the church or for the GOP. On the other hand, a Romney nomination may strengthen the already too-strong tie between Mormons (note: not the Church) and Republicans and embolden and seemingly legitimize Mormons who believe that GOP stands for God's Own Party. These folks are rare, but there's usually one or two in every ward who think that the UN is the Gadianton Robbers, that the civil rights movement was an attempted Communist takeover, that the First Presidency and all the Apostles are closet republicans, that the church's political neutrality is only a PR front, and/or that the temple recommend interview is designed to ferret out liberals. A Romney nomination might add fuel to their fire. On the other hand, this very possibility might prompt the institutional church to emphasize neutrality even more, and could clarify it for many.

A Romney presidency would, in my opinion have terrible effects on the international church. It's no secret that the U.S. is not so well liked in the world these days. If President Romney did indeed continue to push Bush's foreign policy ideals, these horrible ideas would be connected in the minds of many with the church. Not such a good missionary tool. I also wonder about even the physical safety of missionaries in places like Latin America if the world at large began to see U.S. foreign policy as Mormon-inspired in some way. I don't think it would be entirely disastrous, or that it would kill the missionary program. After all, no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing. But it would be a significant and substantial challenge for the church.

What it all comes down to for me is that I want Romney to get the nomination. But I don't want him to win unless perhaps Clinton is the alternative.

Buffalo Ghosts: A poem in one part.

Here's a short poem I recently composed. What sort of feedback might the blogosphere yield?

After a thunderstorm on the prairie,
great herds of clouds amble across the plains,
obscuring the sun without darkening it.
Their massive bellies ride low
in the heightening immensity.

They fill the infinite sky
—from east to west
and north to south,
three-hundred-sixty degrees
with no end
and no beginning—
casting numberless shadows
on the emerald waves of grain,
and eternal rows of sugar beets and corn.

I wonder if they’re the ghosts of the buffalo.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Book Revue: John Brown, Abolitionist

A few weeks ago I finished David S. Reynolds' biography of one of the oddest figures of American history, John Brown. I am by no means an expert on John Brown, so I'm probably not qualified to make a substantive judgment of the book. I will say this, however, it is engagingly written for the most part, and seems to reflect a wealth of background knowledge on the subject. However, my biggest criticism is that it is not as well referenced as it should be. Reynolds uses endnotes, not footnotes, which makes is hard to see the source for a particular fact or assertion. Even worse, some facts are not referenced at all, leaving the reader to wonder if they are mere conjecture or if the author simply forget to source them. Despite this flaw, the book is well-written and paints a vivid (albeit perhaps a little too positive) picture of its subject.

One of the book's major contributions is the picture it paints of violence in ante-bellum frontier America and the South. I mentioned this in an older post. When we decry contemporary acts of savagery, we hardly remember bleeding Kansas.

With a name as common-sounding as Joe Smith, John Brown is a bundle of paradox and contradiction. On the one hand, he was religious in the extreme. A strict calvinist of the strictest conservative puritan mold, he refused to receive guests on the Sabbath. On the other hand, he was extremely progressive in his attitudes on race. Brown claimed that he did nothing more than take the Bible seriously, but in a time when even abolitionists believed as a matter of scientific fact in white supremacy, Brown believed in absolute equality. Despite his conservative religious attitudes, he was not exclusionary. His closest followers and confidants included religious men as well as atheists. He did not question their beliefs, only their commitment to kill slavery. He refused to entertain guests on the Sabbath, but his most violent campaigns took place on Sunday.

Understanding religion is key to understanding John Brown. Perhaps it is impossible to comprehend a man who felt called of God if one has not had spiritual experiences oneself. Unlike most other abolitionists, Brown felt that abolition was a heavenly mandate, not just a social good. This is probably the source of his urgency. He hated complacent abolitionists who did nothing but talk almost as much as he hated slaveholders. But faith can be dangerous as well. With a heavenly mandate, Brown felt that any means were justified to end slavery. Killingunarmed men and boys in the middle of night and hacking off their limbs was no crime to Brown. Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. John Brown seems to suggest the opposite: that with God, (to paraphrase Gabriel) nothing is impossible, even murder is justified by those who believe that it is the will of God. I don't think that a belief in God itself leads one to commit violence, but people use their belief to justify the worst atrocities. Perhaps one of the lessons of John Brown is that faith is a two-edged sword.

But even so, John Brown shouldn't be dismissed as nothing more than a violent fanatic. In many ways, he was the first to take seriously what has become enshrined as the creed of our nation, that legal distinctions based on race are anathema to our national goodness. And he was the first to actually expect that this country would live up to the challenge. In fact, Brown was unique among abolitionists because he believed that the constitution was good. Most abolitionists, turned off by the 3/5 compromise and the guarantee that the slave trade would continue, called the constitution a "covenant with Hell." Brown on the other hand, believed that the constiution was essentially good, and that these flaws should be excised through the amendment process.

I grew up thinking that John Brown was insane to think that his small band of abolitionists could end slavery with an attack on Harper's Ferry. In reality, this is a vast oversimplification of his plan. His plan was not to kill slavery with one blow, but to strike at Harper's Ferry, commandeer the U.S. arsenal there, and flee into the Appalachians where he and his men would at random times conduct night-time raids, freeing slaves and bringing them back to their mountain hideout. Eventually, their small military camp would become a substantial racially integrated community. As this community grew larger, terrorized southerners would see the inevitable end of slavery and would give in to political pressure to end the "peculiar institution." What's more, Brown had historical precedent in Haiti to believe that such a plan would work.

Reynolds' denoument is too literary and too long. After telling an engaging story of Brown's life and death, Reynolds then engages in a survey of literature and popular songs that mention Brown, and attempts to draw a conclusion from all this. While this activity yields some interesting insights and historical trivia, it drags. Despite this, it is a good book. If only for the presentation of ante-bellum American violence, this book is worth reading.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Ancient of Days

No, this post is not about Adam, pre-Adamites, or the origin of the Nodites. Nor is it about Mormonism except perhaps in a very tangential and attenuated way. I've been asked to explain the image in my profile. It is a painting by an English poet, painter, printer, engraver, and some say, prophet, William Blake. The painting is entitled "The Acnient of Days" and represents a creator figure, framing the earth with a compass.

Recognized as one of the "big six" canonical romantic poets (Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats), Blake is one of the most perplexing figures in Romanticism. He is a poet, like the others, but he is more than a poet because he often created his words with visual art that intertwines with its meaning. And he is more than an artist because he was also a creator of mythology. Volumes could be written (and have) about him, so I won't attempt to make a complete statement about the man.

I will say only that he was intensely religious, but hated the established church. He often had visions of heavenly visitors, beleived that he conversed with Old Testament prophets, and when he saw a sunset he claimed to behold "an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty." He was also an intense beleiver in equality, humanity, charity, and love, often speaking against slavery and expounding on the wrongness of racism.

Many of his poems (I don't pretend to understand what are called his propetic books) appear deceptively simple. With a nursery-rhyme rhythm you might think you're reading kids stuff, but the themes are complex and sometimes dark, and he packs a lot of meaning into a few simple lines. Consider this indictment of London's booming prostitution industry at the turn of the century and its effect on young poor women:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The Invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Blake is one of my favorite writers. His art is also high on my list. One of his most underappreciated works is the set of illustrations he did for the book of Job. His visionary and mystical esctasies lead many to conclude that he was insane. For example, he once looked up and saw "God's head upon the window" and launched into a screaming fit. Indeed, as you read his life, it is hard to escape this conclusion. Even so, he ought not to be dismissed. Wordsworth said of him:

There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott

1) What band got their name from a Blake writing?
2) Which U2 song is taken from a Blake poem?
3) Name one novelist and one additional artist who identify Blake as an influence.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Taking Requests

You may have noticed that my "what I'm reading" banner has changed, and a new "what I've read" has been added. I should add that "what I've read" is only as of May 2007.

But when "what I'm reading" runs out, what should I read next? I have contemplated Don Quixote as a possibility, but what good suggestions might the blogosphere yield?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

In 1844, the democrats were split...

Bjorn recently left a comment on one of my old posts about Mitt Romney reminding us that "Romney wasn't the only Mormon candidate for president" and including an excerpt on Joseph Smith's political platform. (You can read Joseph Smith's platform unabridged, here. It is titled "Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the U.S.) Indeed Bjorn is right. Most recently, Utah's Senator Orrin Hatch (taking some time off from his bizarre music career, apparently) made an embarrassingly short-lived bid for president in 2000. Before that, Romney's own father put himself in the race for the republican nomination in 1968. A strong supporter of civil rights, Romney was a moderate republican, and as such was a bit of a dying breed. The general consensus is that his strong anti-war stance cost him the nomination. A Romney nomination (in 1964, that is) would have raised interesting constitutional questions because Romney was a U.S. citizen by birth, having been born to U.S. citizens living in Colonia Dublan, Chihuahua, Mexico. The fact that he was born outside of the U.S., some argued, made him a U.S. citizen, but not a "natural born citizen" as the constitution requires.

The excerpt Bjorn included comes from 1902 book written by William Linn called "The Story of the Mormons, From the Date of their Origin to the Year 1902. Though I have seen Linn's name mentioned in other Mormon history texts, I am unfamiliar with him and his work. Just cursorily skimming his preface I saw what seemed like a fairly unabashed anti-Mormon agenda with a moderate dose of sarcasm. But having not read the book, I am probably unqualified to make a an informed judgment. (You can read it, among other places, here.) My knowledge of Joseph Smith's candidacy comes mostly from Richard Bushman's and Donna Hill's work. Linn's final assessment of Joseph Smith's candidacy (in the part that Bjorn excerpted anyway) is that "there was nothing modest about Mormon political ambition."

It is this final comment that interests me. In some ways, he's absolutely right. Joseph Smith did have a vast amount of political clout in local politics and was a considerable force in state politics as well. While he always preserved the forms and the procedures of democracy, his concurrent positions in political and ecclesiastical leadership blurred the line for many people. The Nauvoo charter gave the city government considerable (though not unheard-of) independence from state government. Nauvoo itself was bigger than Chicago in its heyday. Fears of a Mormon bloc vote and the substantial political power of the Mormon community (along with dislike of the fact that most Mormons opposed slavery) were in large part what fueled anti-Mormon sentiment and politics years before in Missouri.

But on the other hand, Linn's comment makes it seem like Joseph Smith was not just a political force to be reckoned with, but that he was delusionally ambitious as well, which I'm not sure is accurate. It is true that when Joseph declared his candidacy, the whole church got involved. Missionaries became campaign canvassers, church papers took up the call, and amid the frenzy of hyperbole that characterized 19th-century politics, many Mormons probably believed that their prophet would actually win. Joseph himself postured and strutted in earnest like any candidate worth his salt. But did he actually think he had a chance of winning?

I don't think he did. That would have been so quixotic as to make Ralph Nader a paragon of pragmatism by comparison. Bare political ambition is too simplistic a motive. Early in the election, Joseph wrote each of the candidates then running asking what would be his policy toward the saints. The candidates essentially dismissed the question. Most notably, John Calhoun and Martin Van Buren cited concerns of federalism and state sovereignty to say that the "Mormon question" did not fall under federal jurisdiction. Joseph thought it was unreasonable that the President could call out the militia to suppress an insurrection at any time, but not to protect the lives and property of the citizens of a state unless requested by the governor. Unsatisfied, Joseph ran for president not because he expected to win, but to deprive unworthy candidates of the Mormon vote.

That's my take on it anyway. What do you think? Why did Joseph Smith run for president in 1844?