The Moral Psychology of Liahona and Iron-Rod Mormons
Readers and writers of the Bloggernacle are probably very familiar with the idea that there are two kinds of Mormons: liberal or conservative; Fringe or “TBM”; Pants or Skirts; Free-Thinker or “Well-Behaved.” The first popular expression of this idea was Dr. Richard Poll’s 1967 talk to the Palo Alto California Ward, published in Dialogue as “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” [https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/issues/V02N04.pdf, p.107. Dr. Poll proposed that there are two distinct types of Mormons, Iron Rod Mormons, and Liahona Mormons. He said:
The Iron Rod Saint does not look for questions but for answers, and in the gospel – as he understands it – he finds or is confident that he can find the answer to every important question. The Liahona Saint, on the other hand, is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers; he finds in the gospel – as he understands it – answers to enough important questions so that he can function purposefully without answers to the rest.
Both kinds of Mormons, Dr. Poll argues, are needed. Both have a robust historical, theological, and scriptural basis for their beliefs. Both complement the inherent weaknesses of the other: Zion needs both the traditionalist to maintain the structure and identity of Mormonism, and the non-traditionalist to keep the community relevant and adaptable. This idea was popular, especially among liberal-leaning Mormons like my dad, who recently emailed this talk to me again.
Dr. Poll’s talk is now almost 50 years old, but the idea that both traditional orthodox Mormons and non-traditional non-orthodox Mormons are needed among the Saints is still appealing. Terryl Givens highlights this idea in his 2007 book “People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture” [ The tension between paradoxical approaches to Mormonism is the heart of his thesis. He identifies 4 points of tension in Mormonism: “authority and radical freedom,” “searching and certainty,” “the sacred and the banal,” and “election and exile.” The tension and the struggle between these conflicting ideas are what make Mormonism beautiful and alive.
While the “Liahona v. Iron Rod” idea has been criticized as just creating another set of trite labels that divide Mormons, [http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705381013/Liahona-Iron-Rod-Which-LDS-brand--is-best.html], I believe that recent research into the psychological divide between modern “liberals” and “conservatives” regarding politics and religion add scientific merit to this idea. Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s research into the moral psychology of liberals and conservatives in his book “The Righteous Mind” identifies 5 moral values that liberals and conservatives hold to different degrees. He and a collaborator, Dr. Craig Joseph, added a 6th to the menu to the Moral Foundations Theory, and they are as follows (see footnote for more description):
2. Liberty (of which Egalitarianism is a subcategory)
3. Justice (as relating to punishment and proportionality)
The main difference between conservatives and liberals in this framework is that their cocktail of moral values has a slightly different recipe. They have the same ingredients, but in different amounts. While liberals value care, justice, and liberty more than loyalty, authority, or sanctity, conservatives generally rely upon all six [http://cbdr.cmu.edu/seminar/haidt.pdf]. Our personal cocktail of moral values shapes how we view the world and judge right from wrong. It’s worth reading Dr. Haidt’s book for the full picture, including a fascinating backstory about his own research and the evolutionary history of moral development.
In addition to the evidence from the field of moral psychology, there’s growing evidence that liberals and conservatives experience the world differently in a biological, physiological sense. Dr. John Hibbing studies the biology of ideology, and has found that political conservatism or liberalism are tied to hidden biological and physiological reactions. Liberals and conservatives are different in things from food taste preferences, cognitive patterns, physical reactions (the fight or flight reaction), and maybe even our genes. When exposed to the same stimuli, such as facial expressions or yucky photos, liberals and conservatives respond and interpret the information differently.
It would be great if everyone dropped everything to go read The Righteous Mind [http://www.amazon.com/The-Righteous-Mind-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777] or listen to Dr. Hibbing in an interview here [https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/28-john-hibbing-the-biology-of]. But for now, I want to focus on how these psychological (and potentially biological) divides are linked to the Liahona/Iron Rod theory, and how this tension has played out specifically in the Church’s disciplinary actions against Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and Alan Rock Waterman. Dr. Haidt’s and Dr. Hibbing’s research findings have helped me have a better understanding of my friends and loved ones who see the world differently. It is in this spirit of expanding our capacity for empathy for those who disagree that I offer this analysis.
Without access to the time and resources it would require to accurately test it, I will take for granted that Mormon liberals are similar to secular liberals in the way that they relate to Mormon and secular conservatives. Namely, Mormon liberals probably place those first three moral values (Care, Justice, and Liberty) higher than the latter three (Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity) compared to their conservative Mormon peers. Mormon liberals are probably more likely to identify with the more “universalist” theology of Joseph Smith, the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother, and personal revelation over strict obedience. Mormon conservatives are likely to identify with the logical syllogism of Moroni’s Promise: If the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph was a prophet. If Joseph was a prophet, the Church is true. The Book of Mormon is true, therefore the Church is true. They feel comfortable trusting the Church’s stance on social, doctrinal, or other issues, while Mormon liberals are more likely to question the Church’s stance on issues like homosexuality, marriage equality, or gender equality.
Someone could probably do a more careful analysis of tweets, Facebook or Reddit comments, and blogs in response to the current controversy and map which value each appeals to. But I think it’s clear enough from a cursory reading of the blogs and comments in the Bloggernacle that support or criticism of the disciplinary action falls along somewhat established conservative/liberal delineations. Those who defend the Church’s actions against Kate, John, and Rock appeal to values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Those who criticize the move tend to appeal primarily to Care or Liberty.
What follows are some examples of people responding differently to the disciplinary actions against Kate, John, and Rock. In almost every example it was easy to identify the “moral value(s)” appealed to by the author. I found that with a few exceptions, appeals to liberal values were made in known liberal Mormon spaces and in support for Kate, John, and Rock and against the pending disciplinary actions. Appeals to conservative values were made in known conservative Mormon spaces in support for the Church and the pending disciplinary actions.
Loyalty. In these examples, loyalty to the Church means avoiding bringing embarrassment to the Church or its leaders. While public expression of doubts or concerns is a betrayal, the public direct actions taken by Ordain Women are seen as especially disloyal to the Church. Many commenters said it’s fine to believe or think whatever you want, but it is not acceptable to express it publicly and gather support for changes you’d like to see. Instead, doubts and concerns should be dealt with within the approved structure – in private meetings with your local bishop or stake president. Mormon scriptures provide no better example that sowing doubt among the Church membership is unacceptable than the story of Korihor, the Anti-Christ, who took advantage of the land’s laws of freedom of religion and preached against the existence of God (see Alma Chapter 30).
Kathryn Skaggs (Well Behaved Mormon Woman) “For me personally, the issue with the OW sect has never been about members who may struggle with understanding the doctrine of the Church, question it, or might even disagree with parts of Mormonism; certainly some do, in private ways. Rather it's the ongoing, blatant disregard under the guise of faithful membership to advocate publicly and contrary to the official position/doctrine of the Church and its leaders whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. In my opinion, such actions do nothing for the building up of the kingdom of God and instead serve as an attempt to publicly shame the male leadership of the Church in hopes of submission and to create division among members.” [http://wellbehavedmormonwoman.blogspot.com/2014/06/ordain-women-founder-kate-kelly-apostasy.html]
Beau Sorenson. (Millennial Star) “Doubts aren’t the problem. I have listened to Mr. Dehlin and Ms. Kelly say that they are being punished for their doubts. That’s not the case. These Bishops and Stake Presidents who have convened their disciplinary councils have certainly had their own crises of faith. Instead, the problem is the way they have expressed those doubts. They have done so publicly, in a way that demands everyone look at them.” [http://www.millennialstar.org/some-thoughts-on-excommunication/]
Ashley Woolley (in an Op-Ed to the Salt Lake Tribune) “I do not support the creation of any outside organization to publicly agitate on internal Church matters. As a member of the Church, I have committed to sustain its leaders. ‘Sustain’ need not mean ‘always agree with,’ but to my mind, surely it means not creating a publicity-seeking organization in direct opposition to the Church’s position, inviting members to openly oppose both the Church’s policies and its reasonable requests. It is possible to air concerns in a productive, straightforward, and private (rather than divisive, symbolic, and purposefully public) manner.”
Authority. Appeals to authority emphasize the role that priesthood stewardship plays in revelation and dissemination of policy. Kate Kelly and members of Ordain Women seek a specific answer to their requests for revelation, and this goes against the established order of the Church: God speaks through his Prophets, who then share with the world. Scriptural authority to this idea is expressed in Amos 3:7, memorized by Seminary students everywhere: Surely the Lord God will do nothing save he revealeth His secret to His servants the Prophets.
Ashley Woolley (again, in her Op-Ed to the Salt Lake Tribune) “I have neither the divine calling nor the necessary perspective to resolve complicated doctrinal issues for the Church. Intellectual discussion and questioning of doctrine is the privilege of all members. But to claim that my own interpretation is right for the whole Church is beyond the scope of my authority. That is, I believe, what prophets are for.” [http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/58064931-82/church-leaders-members-ordain.html.csp]
J. Max Wilson (Millennial Star) “The last step I want to mention is that you need to reconsider the notion that the living apostles and prophets of the Church are ignorant, uninformed, or insulated from criticism. The highest authorities of the Church are intelligent, strong willed, educated, and experienced. They are aware of the issues. They know the history. They know what is going on. They are familiar with the arguments and criticisms. They have spoken to people just like you. They have friends and family members who have struggled with the same things that you have. They don’t need you to inform them. They already know.” [http://www.millennialstar.org/an-invitation-to-those-lds-members-who-are-wondering-how-did-i-get-here/]
Sanctity/Purity. People appealed to the idea of sanctity or purity in two ways. First is the idea that doctrine is pure, and an important role of Church leaders is to keep doctrine from being warped or changed by the world. Second is the idea that disciplinary action is an effort to keep the members of the Church pure. Both of these ideas have plenty of precedent in scripture, from Jesus throwing the impure moneychangers from the Temple (Matthew 21), and the allegory of separating the wheat from the tares in Matthew 13:24-30.
Neyland McBaine “What is it specifically about [Kate Kelly’s] tactics that separated her participation in the conversation from those many others of us who also care about women in the Church? I believe the answer comes from understanding that our prophet and apostles take very seriously their calling to keep our doctrine pure. The scriptures are rife with examples of what happens to communities when they do not have checks in place to keep their belief systems from modulating in different directions. In one extreme example from the Book of Mormon, the Zoramites, who had once honored the Nephite truth, went so far as to pray on the Rameumpton. Having a centralized body responsible for keeping doctrine pure is at the very heart of what makes us different from so many other denominations today and why saying we have a living prophet on the earth actually means something. Trying to change that doctrine and recruit others to a vision of changed doctrine goes against one of institution’s central purposes.” [http://www.neylanmcbaine.com/2014/06/how-the-conversation-about-women-can-go-on.html]
Laurent Motte (Commenter on Millennial Star) “We have seen the words “inclusive/inclusiveness” and “diversity” so misused lately. There is a difference between corrupting something that is supposed to remain pure, like pure water in an experiment or a covenant based on a clearly outlined doctrine, and being inclusive or accepting racial/cultural diversity in our daily lives. Letting the wolf of genderlessness and sexual impurity into the barn in the name of inclusiveness and diversity is foolish, and in the case of a bad wolf unacceptable.” [http://www.millennialstar.org/some-thoughts-on-excommunication/comment-page-1/]
Neal Larson (Op-Ed to Twin Falls Times-News) “Kelly and Dehlin are not being excommunicated for their genuine doubts and sincere questions, and no member ever should. They are being ousted because they have turned their doubts into causes, developing communities that simply can’t be compatible with a church that’s led by Christ through a prophet of God. We could call it sin, if we wanted. But perhaps it’s more instructive to just call it plain incompatibility. Oil and water. A cancer. Insert your favorite analogy.” [http://magicvalley.com/news/opinion/columns/larson-a-pair-of-lds-apostates/article_ea4527fa-f5dc-11e3-a3e8-0019bb2963f4.html]
Letters sent to John and Kate from their Church leaders appeal to those traditional moral values, as well.
Sanctity/Purity. This time, the implication is that Kate herself is “impure,” and denied the title of “in good standing.”
Scott M. Wheatley (Kate Kelly’s Stake President) “Because of this informal probation, you can no longer represent that you are in good standing in the Church. While you are on informal probation you are encouraged to attend public Church meetings so long as your conduct is orderly, but you may not partake of the sacrament, hold a Church calling, give a talk, offer a public prayer, or participate in the sustaining of Church officers. If you are invited to pray or read a passage or comment in a class or other Church meeting, you must decline. ... It is important that you understand that you are not required to change your thinking or the questions you may have in your own mind regarding the ordination of women, but you need to make it a private matter and work through this issue with your bishop or branch president.” [http://ordainwomen.org/?attachment_id=4989]
Loyalty. John’s stake president questions John’s loyalty to the Church because of John’s own admission that he doubts many of the Church’s truth claims. In addition, he also touches on the idea that John’s public expression of doubt would lead away other, which therefore makes his actions a betrayal.
Brian King (John Dehlin’s Stake President) “Because of the love I have for you I have become concerned about some of your recent statements and actions regarding the Church and your place in it. That includes your recent public posting from earlier this month that you ‘no longer believe many of the fundamental LDS Church truth claims...’ I am greatly concerned about the impact these and other statements and actions are having upon the members of the stake.” [http://www.scribd.com/doc/229280355/Stake-president-letter-to-John-Dehlin]
Meanwhile, people sympathizing with Kate, John, and Rock appealed to liberal values: Care, Justice, and Freedom. Many also de-emphasize the moral value of authority.
Care (Avoiding Harm). Appeals to care and avoiding harm predict that this action will bring harm upon Kate, John, and Rock specifically, but to liberal Mormons and the Church in general. Many of these appeals accuse Church members of unfair judgment and unkindness toward Kate and John and other liberal Mormons. Scriptural precedent for valuing care and avoiding harm are the words of Jesus in 3rd Nephi 12:43-44: And behold it is written also, that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy; But behold I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you. Other beautiful examples of kindness being taught by the Savior are the Parable of the Good Samaritan and His commandment to “Love one another,” a scripture that Primary children sing all around the world.
Cynthia L. (Blogger at By Common Consent) “What kills me is the thought of the thousands upon thousands of microaggressions this will unleash in chapels, foyers, family reunions, carpeted cultural halls, and RS Park Day moms’ groups. It is emboldening those who would divide our wards and wreak havoc on Zion in our in-person, flesh-and-blood religious lives. As Rosalynde perfect stated, “Our worst fears about each other seem to be confirmed — ‘See, they really are dangerous apostates!’ ‘See, the Church really is out to squash independent thought!’” This will infect our meetinghouses with distrust.” [http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/06/13/this-will-have-no-effect-on-internet-mormonism-its-much-worse-than-that/]
Liberty. Appeals to liberty generally assert that Church members should be free to think or believe differently, and do so publicly without fear of retribution. President Oaks speaks often about religious liberty of religious adherents within the United States. But these appeals referred to the liberty of Mormons to believe differently. Many shared this quote by Joseph Smith: “I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their Church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled” (The Words of Joseph Smith, 183-84).
Arctic Rameumptom (Blogger at Feminist Mormon Housewives) “... [The] real message of their disciplinary letters is to tell those who think or believe differently, those who have doubts, and those who anxiously await revelatory changes in the Church that they are not welcome. And that kind of message is directly contrary to what Pres. Uchtdorf told us last October: “Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church.” I want to believe Pres. Uchtdorf’s message.” [http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2014/06/on-members-disagreeing-with-power/]
Liberty (Egalitarianism). Appeals to egalitarianism, which is classified as a subset of Liberty according to Dr. Haidt, speak to the inequality of power and authority in the Church, especially regarding gender. The idea that the Lord is “no respecter of persons” is echoed in 2nd Nephi 26:33 “...he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
From a blogger at Feminist Mormon Housewives. “This is the problem we face in Church. We have a structure of discipline in the Church that does not create a safe environment to bring up concerns. It cannot, because of the inequality in power and authority. I don’t think it has much to do with how well-trained a Bishop is, or how kind/unkind he is, or how willing to listen. It’s simple the nature of the system. And members abusing this system. They abuse it by tattling on their fellow Saints. They do it for Jesus. But it’s something Jesus has spoken out against, asking us instead to resolve conflicts directly with our brothers (and sisters – see Matthew 18:15 ). They tattle, because of the power structure in place. They know who can do something to put another member in place. Which is why they don’t tattle to the Relief Society President usually, or go to the member they find issue with. They turn to the source of power.” [http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2014/06/tattling-for-jesus-or-how-our-structure-of-discpline-creates-a-culture-of-fear/]
Ronan (Blogger at BCC) “If you wanted to somehow prove that women’s voices are not fully appreciated in the Church, you could do nothing better than to have an all-male panel try a woman in absentia. Again, the reverberations of any censure are what concern me, although the personal hurt Kate will experience is of course also a bother. People inclined to sympathise with Ordain Woman will obviously take it as a blow; but the fall-out — in the form of an emboldening of those in the Church who try to stigmatise and marginalise those who waver – will make Mormon life increasingly intolerable for many members, women especially. Once again, where is the benefit here for the body of Christ? I fear that division and protest will only get worse, to everyone’s shame.” [http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/06/12/on-excommunication/]
De-Emphasizing Authority. Many liberal bloggers or commenters explicitly de-valued authority in comparison to liberty, egalitarianism, and care, as Dr. Haidt’s model predicts. Liberal Mormons have basis for this in statements like the following from Brigham Young, “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are being led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give their leaders if they know for themselves by the revelations of Jesus Christ that they are led in the right way” (Eternal Punishment, Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 12 January 1862, Vol. 9, 150.)
DKL, (Blogger at Mormon Mentality) “One thing that the church is clearly “about” is teaching its members to seek inspiration and practice the gospel according to the dictates of their own conscience — not out of deference to authority. Continuing revelation is a lagging moral indicator. Whether it’s Heber J. Grant’s admonition to German Mormons to be loyal to Germany’s Nazis regime or Harold B. Lee’s attempts to keep blacks out of BYU or Ezra Taft Benson’s belief that the civil rights movement was a communist conspiracy or the LDS church’s official stance discouraging interracial marriage, the church leadership has repeatedly relied on courageous members of good conscience to help it come to terms with the need to change church policy, church doctrine, and church activities.” [http://www.mormonmentality.org/2014/06/17/the-argument-against-labeling-kate-kelly-an-apostate.htm]
This event has encapsulated the tension between liberal and conservative approaches to Mormonism. For less eloquent responses on both sides, I encourage you to go to twitter and search the hashtag #ordainwomen.
In a conservative Church, liberal-leaning Mormons will feel some degree of alienation depending on their local ward, their personality, etc. There is some evidence [http://whymormonsleave.com/] that the pervasive conservatism of the Church leads many Mormon liberals to sever ties with the Church completely. It can’t help but be concluded that an action like this to again purge notable liberals from the Church (while ignoring conservative rebels like Cliven Bundy) will further alienate the “Liahonas” within the Church, at least temporarily.
Dr. Haidt and Dr. Poll both agree that a community will benefit from both voices: the liberal and the conservative. This idea that the Church needs both voices, the Iron Rodders and the Liahonas, appeals to me personally. To a certain extent, I think many members and Church leaders believe this too, hence the inclusive and diverse image of the “I Am a Mormon” campaign. Notwithstanding, the Church is undeniably conservative. The Church is unlikely to consider care, justice, or liberty as more important than loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The conservative moral arithmetic implies that the harm this may do to some liberal Mormons generally, and Kate, John, and Rock specifically, is worth the benefits in maintaining the sanctity and authority of the Church, and ensuring loyalty from its members.
I am a liberal Mormon, and I (no doubt selectively) read the mission of Christ as a liberal mission. I think the Church should incorporate and validate the voices and beliefs of people like me, and that this would only help the Church. But it’s important for me to remember that I’m completely biased. Maybe my version of a better Church is anathema to the members and leaders, who are also completely biased toward conservatism. (Of course, I’m assuming that leaders are fallible to this degree, another sign that I’m a Liahona!)
So what do we do, fellow Liahonas? Is it time we give up? Do we try another tactic to foster inclusiveness in our Church, one that explicitly considers the conservative values of sanctity, authority, and loyalty? What would that look like? To the Iron-Rod Mormons reading, do you see faithful agitation for change from rank-and-file members as a good thing in certain circumstances? What would that look like to you? Is promoting positive change an altogether impossible task when we can’t agree what positive looks like?
Care (or avoiding harm). This value is characterized by compassion and kindness. It is triggered by suffering, distress, or neediness. Important to liberals, less so to conservatives.
Liberty. For liberals, liberty is about egalitarianism and protecting those who are vulnerable. For conservatives, liberty is focused on the right to be left alone. Important to liberals, less so to conservatives
Justice. This value is characterized by anger, guilt, or gratitude. Fairness, justice, proportionality, and trustworthiness are related virtues. It is triggered by cheating, cooperation, or deception. Important to conservatives, somewhat less so to liberals
Loyalty. The opposite of betrayal, this value is all about “group pride.” Patriotism, self-sacrifice, and rage at threats or challenges to a group are characteristics of this value. Important to conservatives, not so much to liberals
Authority. Respect for tradition, this is the value that solidifies a hierarchical system. Dominance and submission, obedience and deference are the corresponding virtues of this value. Important to conservatives, not so much to liberals
Sanctity. This value encapsulates the feelings of disgust associated with certain social taboos. Temperance, chastity, piety, and cleanliness are also virtues of sanctity. Important to Conservatives, not so much to Liberals