Doug Fabrizio and his colleagues at KUER News’ RadioWest produce an excellent news talk show, and they have done the world of American Mormonism a solid service by interviewing a Church representative. They deserve, individually and collectively, all the accolades they’ve received for excellence in the profession of journalism, itself always a daunting and risky profession. Mr. Fabrizio has my respect and admiration.
His interview this week with Ally Isom, a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discussed the dynamics of loyalty and discipline within the Church. It was a masterstroke of emergent journalistic summary. It made it possible for a non-Mormon to build a true picture of the way Mormons think about and resolve our internal controversies. It is also possible for Mormons to understand why Mormon approaches are incomprehensible to non-Mormons. Ally Isom has my respect and admiration.
They appeared to be on either side of deep controversy, maybe even a conceptual chasm of sorts, between the imperatives of secular American sensibilities and the loyalties and imperatives of the Mormon people toward their leaders and each other. It was evident in the different perspectives between the journalist and the spokeswoman, as the one claimed one definition for the ex-communicant, and the other used his questions to disagree, acknowledging the tacit shunning and rejection the first claimed could not exist in an LDS council of disciplinary love.
These are confounding differences of perspective, descriptive of all the fracture points becoming visible between American and Mormon-American sensibilities. LDS history includes stories of persecution and atrocity which many Mormons feel deeply. This is especially true of multi-generational descendants of Mormonism’s founders. We cultivate unity, loyalty, and fidelity among ourselves much more strongly than I think any non-Mormon can understand. It is a factor in our uncharitable impulses toward viewpoints which appear to threaten us. It is behind our knee-jerk reactions, wondering why this or that Mormon dissident doesn’t “just leave” if they’re dissatisfied with the status quo.
Mormon canon demands a level of unity: “If ye are not one, ye are not mine,” a warning Joseph Smith gave before declaring the Church’s first gathering in Ohio. The Ohio era had some unity, but ended badly when scandals broke it. Mormon narratives go on from there to include depictions of the bad reactions frontier Americans had when we gathered destitute Abolitionists to Missouri in the 1830s, instituted plural marriage in the 1840s. As an American minority we struggled for 100 years with the ways in which wider American culture worked to reject our ways of life, saying so by imprisoning leaders, imposing unwanted laws, propagating lies. To survive it, we had to be unified. Because we study those decades together and give them the power of founding myths, they loom very large and inform our reactions to forces of change both within and outside our Church. It is part of why we wait for leaders to change the Church.
Today, those external forces upon Mormonism are largely gone. Virtually all Americans are content to let us Mormons be who we are. They shake their heads and disagree with our institutional stances to support or oppose this or that law, all while acknowledging the basic civility and goodness of this or that individual Mormon whom they know. Most Americans are not aware of John Dehlin or Kate Kelly, except as news items which affirm our strangeness and incomprehensibility to them.
Of those Americans, I ask only the tolerance we all demand of one another in a pluralistic society. We’re strange to you, but we can stay together in that society. We ought to; American morality has goodness and generosity in it. Tolerance, charity, heroism, and brotherly kindness. We hold those more fundamental values in common. Our history contains the calamities and suffering which have shaped us. Compared to 20th Century calamities, they’re pretty small, but they loom large because they happened to our families. We are working through the contradictions which arise when two histories collide.
Find a way to keep us together with you; we are a part of you.