Saturday, August 13, 2016
Us vs. Them: The Battle to Change Tactics
I’ve done a lot of thinking about my mission in recent months. That happens when you are writing a memoir. I figured forty years should give me enough perspective to take a serious stab at it. One somewhat surprising insight that has come from reminiscing and reading old journals and letters is just how adversarial that mission experience was. We were very much in the “us vs. them” mode. I know that’s ungrammatical. It should be we vs. them, but nobody says that, so I’ll stick with the wounded grammar. It seemed that we battling everyone, but mostly other Christian churches. They were the enemy.
I read a fair quantity of Church history both at work and in my spare time, and it is quite easy to see where this us vs. them posture comes from. Mormons have had “enemies” from the beginning, and most often those enemies were other Christians. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that is very difficult to shed. I’ve heard speakers in general conference in just the past few years refer to “our enemies.”
But things seem to be changing. I’ve seen a concerted effort among Church spokespeople and, especially, LDS scholars to defuse the antagonism. Two or three very significant efforts along these lines came last week at the 2016 FairMormon conference.
On Thursday and Friday, I spent part of each day at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo. BYU Studies is a sponsor of the conference and sells books at the event. So most of the time I sat at our table, but I did manage to listen to a few of the presentations. I was encouraged by what I heard. FairMormon seems to be acknowledging that the old-style apologetics that I haven’t been a big fan of is not very effective in the twenty-first century. The polemical us vs. them mentality is taking some serious body blows. A couple of the presentations in particular were very impressive, and, in my mind, very needed.
Grant Hardy on Friday morning and Patrick Mason later that afternoon gave conference attendees a great deal to think about. Grant discussed “A More Effective Apologetics,” and he gave specific suggestions for four very different types of conversations:
1. with academics (What do you believe and why?)
2. with critics (How can you believe that?)
3. with believers (Aren’t our beliefs great?)
4. with wavering Mormons (What do I believe? or Can I believe?)
The overall message from the first type of conversation is that Mormons are generally unprepared to participate in theological or scriptural conversations with non-LDS scholars. We need to do our homework before we can really contribute to this sort of conversation.
In speaking with critics, Grant suggested that being on the defensive is not an effective strategy anymore. He mentioned that sports or warfare metaphors, where the focus is on winning and losing, are probably inappropriate. What we want is understanding, not contention.
With believers, it is easy to slip into unhealthy partisanship, where we tend to gloss over inconvenient details, cherry-pick evidence, resort to eisegesis, distort the positions of critics, and stretch evidence to support our preconceived conclusions. Grant brought up the Gospel Topics essays, which present a faithful perspective while admitting there are difficult areas and sometimes no easy answers.
In dealing with wavering Mormons, Grant suggested that it may not be productive to talk about crises of faith. Crises of expectations may hit nearer the mark. Some members of the Church have grown up with rigid notions of scriptural inerrancy and prophetic infallibility that create unrealistic expectations, which, in the real world, will certainly be challenged sooner or later. When these challenges come, faith can become fragile, and Grant stressed that if the people we’re talking to do not feel loved, we’re doing it wrong.
For all of these conversations, the Golden Rule is appropriate. And listening is probably much more important than speaking.
Patrick Mason addressed the topic “The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age.” He began by mentioning how many people had contacted him since the publication of his book Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. He asked the audience by show of hand how many of them had a friend or family member who has recently gone inactive or even left the Church over doctrinal, historical, or cultural issues. I wasn’t in the room but was listening from our table, so I couldn’t see the response, but it must have been impressive.
Patrick suggested that one source of this trend is that we have loaded too much in our “truth cart.” We’ve insisted on more certainty than we had a right to. Over the years, we’ve refused to yield even an inch of territory, defending barren outposts that were never worth defending. It’s an all-or-nothing approach to faith that is places unrealistic demands on not just apologists but everyday members too.
He mentioned a work colleague who, with her husband, has been searching for a church. They’d been attending an LDS ward and loved it enough to consider getting baptized. But one day the colleague made a perceptive comment. She couldn’t understand why Mormons were so defensive. Patrick’s observation was that circling the wagons may have worked for pioneers but is probably not a very effective tactic in the twenty-first century. One of his recommendations was that we need to explore what it means to sustain fallible prophets. This is difficult for some of us who simply assume that everything about Mormonism is true and defensible. But careful study of our history and doctrine reveals too many trouble spots and inconsistencies. We need a more realistic approach.
I don’t know when the FairMormon volunteers will get around to posting these presentations on their website, but when they do, you really need to watch them.
Another presentation that you should watch is Ally Isom’s. I plan to. I wasn’t there when she spoke, but I read the Deseret News recap of it. Ally is with Church Public Affairs and talked about how we need more charity in our relationships with those who disagree with us. No more us vs. them. The Church seems to be serious about defusing the adversarial stance it encouraged for so many decades. It’s an approach that doesn’t work well in the twenty-first century. Actually, looking back forty years, it didn’t work very well in the 1970s either.