Does Progressive Teaching Represent a Higher Embrace of Jesus’s Gospel or a Misunderstanding of It?

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the fifth installment of a seven-part series that first launched on Millennial Star, now updated on Meridian Magazine, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself). 

Time for a pop-quiz: Please answer yes or no depending on what most closely represents your own personal views (or that of a loved one).

1. Do you believe, generally, that women are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

2. When you see another sad example of sexual assault reported in the news, do you first think of the influence of patriarchy, sexism or misogyny (compared with the influence of endemic, increasingly violent pornography)?

3. Do you believe, generally, that people of ethnic backgrounds other than Caucasian are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ? 

4. Do you believe that prophet leaders, generally, haven’t done enough to show they truly “love LGBT+ people.” 

5. Are you confident that the words “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender” represent something fundamental about who someone is – even in an eternal sense? 

6. Do you believe the gay rights movement represents a natural continuation of the inspired efforts to expand civil rights that galvanized in the 1960’s?

7. When considering a heart-breaking instance of a gay teenager taking his/her life in our faith community, do you believe this largely has to do with this individual not feeling accepted enough by family, friends and the Church as a whole (compared with the influence of many other common factors)? 

8. Generally speaking, would you say you’re more concerned with changes you believe Church members and leadership need to make (compared with changes in the lives of those who might receive the restored gospel)?   

Last two questions: 

9. Would you consider yourself an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ?

10. If so, would you say you are happy and at peace in your participation as a member? 

Now, let’s score it up:  How many times did you answer yes in the first 8 questions?  Once, twice – 7 or 8 times? 

If I can venture a prediction about your answers, it would be this: The more “yes’s” you answered on 1-8, the more likely you are to have answered “no” on 9-10. And likewise, the more “no’s” you answered on 1-8, the more likely you are to have answered “yes” on 9-10. 

It that true for you? Obviously, it won’t be for everyone.[1] But when it is, where is that correlation coming from? 

Making sense of the pattern. There seem to be three possible ways of making sense of the correlation:

  • A Sean Hannity-style explanation goes something like this: Shouldn’t it be obvious, Jacob? These people on the left hate Christianity – just like they hate America. When they say otherwise, they’re lying to you. These guys are all about power, control, and taking your rights away. So, no – it shouldn’t surprise you in the least that people embracing progressive ideas don’t want to show up at your worship services anymore – or struggle to enjoy it when they do.
  • A Rachel Maddow-style explanation goes something like this: Shouldn’t it be obvious, Jacob? These people are done with bigotry, exclusion, intolerance, injustice, and systemic constraints on equality. Why would they show up at a place that seems to question so many of these ideals? Especially in this political climate today, it’s crucial that we stand up for those who feel left out and marginalized. So, no – it shouldn’t surprise anyone that these people newly attuned to societal injustice don’t want to show up at your worship services anymore – or struggle to enjoy it when they do.

Maybe one of those explanations does it for you. Not for me. Both seem not only a little off – but a lot.[2]

So, here’s another option, by way of explaining the pattern: Since tangible relief was offered during the Great Depression to many under the FDR administration, there have been a great many faithful Latter-day Saints in the U.S. who have also been faithful members of the Democratic Party. Over the years, these members have continued to support many policies on the left for a variety of reasons[3] – including their own faith in Christ and the church that bears His name.[4]

Things have clearly been changing, however. Even as the right undergoes a populist, anti-immigrant shift, the left has moved towards a rapid embrace of an ideology – a doctrine – that characterizes most challenges in our day as driven by, and arising from fundamental racial, gender, sexual and class conflict. 

Returning to the main point, now – what happens when this kind of a combative, quasi-revolutionaryFor Us or Against Us rhetoric (on either side of the political spectrum) becomes the lens through which you see the world? 

It changes everything.

The invisible influence of ideas. In a new series exploring underdiscussed contributors to faith struggles, Dr. Ed Gantt proposes:

Many of the questions and doubts that constitute the essential “stuff” out of which so many faith crises spring do so from a common (though often hidden) source….the real problem we face is to be found in the taken-for-granted secular assumptions that lie at the root of so many of our doubts and questions, and which subtly but profoundly frame how we think about such things as God, sexuality, agency, science, reason, history, culture, and the nature and meaning of faith and truth.

Without thinking consciously about any of this, we can “unwittingly absorb” these assumptions “from our larger, secular world through our everyday engagement with and immersion in it” he cautions – later underscoring how, “typically without ever fully realizing that we have done so,” we can thus embrace ideas and assumptions that are “hostile and corrosive to our most cherished religious beliefs and aspirations.” This can happen, he points out, “despite our sincerest efforts to live our lives in harmony with what we take to be gospel teachings.” Even then, “we may nonetheless take on certain ways of thinking, certain ideas, certain values and perspectives, which are actually quite insidiously toxic to a vibrant and coherent Christian faith.”[5]

Over time, then, “a sort of educational and cultural osmosis” can take place “through which an entire worldview slowly accretes over time like sediment in a river delta, both taking shape in and giving shape to [one’s] mind, desires, and aspirations.” On this basis, Dr. Gantt goes on to warn about “dangerous consequences” that will “almost surely attend the attempt to understand our religious commitments and traditions against a backdrop of unrecognized secular assumptions, especially when those assumptions masquerade as confirmed certainties, received wisdom, and common knowledge about things as they just happen to be.”

I think Ed is right.

And if he is, we need to spend a great deal more time carefully considering the mind-bending power of ideas so popular they’re no longer even seen as “ideas” anymore (but instead, as simply “reality”).[6] In what follows, I’d like to summarize three such ideas, widely associated with progressive thought, that I will argue make it mighty hard to be a (happy) disciple of Jesus Christ.   

One important disclaimer: I like liberals – a lot. I’m not one of those conservative thinkers who see progressives as “trying to destroy America” or as puppets of an unremitting evil.  On the contrary, the thoughtfulness and goodness of my liberal friends has been life-changing for me (see here and here). And it’s not infrequent that I wish some of my right-leaning loved ones might be a little more open to adopting the liberal penchant for critical inquiry (sometimes it really is good to question the way things are, you know?) Many of my dearest friends are also hard-core progressives. So, what I’m about to say cannot – and should not – be read as some screed against liberals.

That being said, critical thinking isn’t salvation – and sometimes my progressive friends seem to think their way into a place where it’s remarkably hard to find the deeper peace and joy of Jesus’s gospel.[7] How exactly I see progressive ideas obscuring the power and sweetness of His message will be my focus below, a theme I’ve touched on only briefly once before.[8] 

I do so, as in all my work, hoping to encourage a more thoughtful public discussion across these differences. But in line with the focus of this series, I’m also openly, admittedly, unapologetically aiming to persuade my left-leaning friends to reconsider some of these tightly-held, cherished assumptions.

Three ideas largely unquestioned on the left. The basis and rationale behind existing institutions of our society – marriage, family, religion, business, law enforcement – are questioned on the left with remarkable intensity. By comparison, there are several ideas progressives typically do not question, especially the following three convictions:   

1. Who you fundamentally are is obvious. Questions about who we are have been debated for millennia of human history, given the inherent complexity and mystery involved. Not dissimilar to religious communities, progressives have advanced their own narrative of identity – a highly-defined story about who human beings really are.

During one diversity workshop in graduate school, we were asked to write down the identities that “most resonated with us personally.” I wrote down, “brother, son, child of God, Latter-day Saint, disciple of Christ, American.”

None of these things on my list felt so unusual, until I heard my classmates’ chosen identifiers: “Latina, bisexual, woman”… “biracial, gay, immigrant”… “cisgender, Philippino, man.”

I remember wondering, “cisgender – what does that even mean?” Of course, my obliviousness to this, like my white identity, were taken by some of my classmates as a lamentable sign of my privileged status – one not requiring me to give sustained attention to these other potential elements of my own identity.

And no doubt, they’re partly right about that too. I’ve never had to worry walking down a dark street like women or gay friends of mine often do – or deal with the extra scrutiny black men frequently do while engaged in normal things.  It makes sense, then, why these aspects of identity become more prominent for other people.

That added attention isn’t necessarily problematic. I’m not the only one, though, who has noticed how these kinds of racial, gender, and sexual elements of identity can start to become a hinge-point around which virtually everything else starts to center – even to the exclusion of other meaningful aspects of who we are: e.g., “now that you’ve realized you are transgender, you definitely can’t be Latter-day Saint.”[9]

In striking contrast, Paul taught the Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul was clearly not denying the meaning of “male” and “female” categories – nor the sad reality of “bond” and “free” statuses at that time in the world (and sadly enough, even today). Instead, he seems to have been pointing beyond these important definers to a deeper, higher identity Christ offers his followers – something that could bring us together as one united people: His people.   

As one relief society leader recently taught in our stake, “the words we commonly use in the gospel to identify ourselves unite us:  brothers and sisters, disciples and fellow servants, children of God (all of us) – whereas the identifiers most often referenced in the world tend to do the opposite, dividing us – e.g.,  rich v. poor, men v. women, black v. white, gay v. straight.”

It’s worth asking, then: What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when racial, gender, sexual and other cultural identifiers become centrally and personally defining above all else? 

2. How to be loving is obvious. Similar to this discussion on identity, progressive teaching on love is often presented as self-evident: “love is love is love” = shouldn’t this be obvious to you all?

Compared with the popular notion of “you are perfect exactly as you are,” any alternative expression of love seems increasingly hard to fathom in society today – with one progressive-leaning friend admitting to me recently he couldn’t see any plausible alternative to that view of love.   

Let me try: Love in its fullest sense must center around more than the warmth of immediate validation (however wonderful that can feel for any of us) – looking out, as well, towards the larger developmental pathway someone is on. There are an endless variety of things that can feel really nice in the moment, that can nonetheless lead to very dark places in the future, or even just less happy days to come.     

Just as this is true for many other areas of life, we believe it’s true for our closest relationships in marriage and family life. And however exciting it might have felt to him initially when a friend of mine walked away from his covenants to live with his boyfriend, I see little indication that he is experiencing the peace and joy he would have if he had chosen to continue on the covenant pathway. On the contrary, like many who follow a similar path, he pointedly avoids most communication with his formerly beloved family of faith – and demonstrates a level of emotional hardness that is far from his previous nature.

So, my dear progressive friends, if it’s the deepest of happiness that we’re aiming for, then at the very least, we’ve got a competition on our hands!

In place of the wearisome accusations that abound, how lovely it would be to experience a more transparent “contest of ideas” between the great visions of a healthy, happy society from the left and right, and between secular and religious Americans. Perhaps then we could openly compare the hoped-for trajectories we envision for loved ones and society as a whole – with progressive plans to promote happiness juxtaposed with conservative ones in a scrutiny that is both rigorous and open-hearted (without so much insidious suspicion, ala “while they say they want others to be happy, I’m going to tell you what they really want…”).   

Rather than resolving differences, that kind of conversation might confirm even deeper differences than we realized. For instance, it’s by no mean obvious to many on the right that, however culturally popular, prevailing progressive visions for the poor, for women, for the gay community, and for ethnic minorities in America will promote the highest happiness of these communities in the long view. 

Furthermore, popular teaching on the left often departs sharply from what we understand scriptural doctrine to be, as epitomized by this clip from Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle, appearing on the Megyn Kelly show last year.  Reflecting on her Latter-day Saint upbringing, she shares with Megyn near the end: “I grew up learning that that’s the #1 thing Christ wants us to do – is to love others. So, I think if we put that first, all the other problems fall out of the way” (5:30).

Is that what Christ taught as the most important thing? No, it’s not. 

Stephenie conspicuously leaves out something Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment” – to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-40).

In its place, she argues for love between human beings as the top priority around which everything else depends – not a small change.

When the first and second great commandments are “swapped out” in this way, the very nature of love between human beings can potentially get misunderstood in profound ways – to the point that someone starts to find the vision of love and happiness taught by ancient and modern prophets hard to fathom – or even “hateful.”   

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

Ask yourself, again: What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they have embraced a progressive vision of love, care and compassion as wholly obvious and reflecting a higher level of enlightenment?

3. What equality and fairness looks like is obvious.  Is it?

Not if you’re paying attention to the ongoing debates about equality and fairness spanning the National Review (thoughtful conservativism) and the Atlantic (thoughtful progressivism). But to listen to the more common, predominant rhetoric on the left, you would think there was only one way to advance equality for women, African Americans, or the gay community. 

If that’s what you believe as well (having embraced some of the many detailed plans for equity advanced on the left), it’s really little wonder that you may find yourself in a state of continual shock-and-awe interacting with a community of believers, many of whom simply haven’t embraced these same plans. 

But why not? While acknowledging some welcome steps our own faith community has taken towards adjusting some outdated practices and language, why have religious conservatives generally continued to resist larger proposals to make everything equal?

“Well, probably because they don’t care enough for poor people, gay people, black people, women.” 


Please stop lying about religious conservatives. I’m not the only one who has argued that it’s precisely this kind of accusatory rhetoric that has led us to this presidential administration and the heightened political animosities of our day. 

A more intellectually honest way to make sense of conservative resistance to progressive policy would be to draw attention to how very differently these two communities are attempting (each sincerely) to show care and foster different kinds of opportunity– justified and guided by diverging worldviews. On one hand, for instance, religious conservatives talk about personal responsibility to seek God’s help to overcome the corrosive influence of a “fallen world” that drags us so often into a state of betrayal of God’s will (aka, “sin”). And on the other hand, progressives talk about needing to face up to the endemic influence of racism, sexism, class, etc. that they see operating in a similarly corrosive way.

Maybe then, we could reflect with some curiosity on the interesting parallels and overlaps (along with meaningful differences) between these problem narratives, as well as between Marxist hopes for a societal rebirth without so much financial disparity and the Zion society Saints yearn for with “no poor among us” (Moses 7:18).  

And at the same time, maybe we could also seriously consider the kinds of concerns that exist on both sides – the excesses that unrestrained capitalism has engendered, on one hand. And the sincere concerns of thoughtful conservatives with proposals on the left that often seem to require heavy handed efforts to “compel equality of outcome to come to pass,” as Maurine Proctor once put it – adding caution that equity mandates lead so many to be unable to “tolerate hierarchy in any of its forms, so leadership and even excellence will be attacked.” In this way, demands for equality-now-in-this-way can ironically help expedite a more divided, tribal society. 

All in all, then, ask yourself again:  What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they fully embrace a progressive vision of equality and fairness? 

The great wedge. To that thrice-asked question, I’m suggesting here that these three popular teachings about identity, love and equality – especially in combination –effectively act as a wedge gradually prying people away from their fellowship with the Saints.

If you came to believe – in your heart of hearts – that the Church of Jesus Christ was a bastion of sexism, racism, heterosexism – and largely causing harm in the world by judging and “shaming” people….how could you not distance yourself? And maybe even fight it outright?   

That’s why I say: Once you’re personally convinced that these modern progressive doctrines are not only true – but obviously true… you might well be setting yourself up for the beginning of the end of your covenantal faith.

“Yes, Jacob, but that’s because these people have outgrown the restrictiveness of the faith…that’s because they see more clearly the beauty of diversity…that’s because they’re more open-minded now than they used to be – and not scared of having new experiences…that’s because they don’t need certainty as much as you do…and because they know what true love actually means now.”

Until Jesus touches down on the earth, no doubt we’ll have wildly different explanations for all of these questions as a human family. And maybe that’s okay – as long as we’re conscious of the differences and making space for people to decide for themselves which doctrine they want to shape their lives.  

And in this case, I’ve made another argument for the almost linear effect that seems to exist between embracing this particular set of fashionable teachings and relinquishing the teachings of modern and ancient prophets. In this way, with all due respect to my left-leaning friends, it’s not your enlightenment that I see leading you away.  It’s a new story of reality that leaves you convinced of having attained a more enlightened state. 

This new story is also threaded throughout with assumptions that pose fundamental, even irreconcilable conflicts with the prevailing teachings in the Church of Jesus Christ: challenges that seem to be pushing you and so many others away like a magnet.  In all these ways, then, a progressive worldview can end up shredding covenantal faith – or better put, it can place a new barrier between precious souls and the faith they once loved.

Another kind of faith injury. Compared to the more obvious faith injuries reviewed earlier, I would call this one above far easier to miss – or even recognize at all. Paul warned the people of Corinth that minds can be “blinded” (2 Cor. 3:14) – teaching that “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4).

Rather than a metaphoric blindness alone, I believe Paul was referring to a way our vision can become constrained by the ideological air we breathe in a secular world, similar to what Ed was pointing out earlier.  There even seems to be some relevant empirical evidence on this point.   

Dr. Jonathan Haidt (a self-identified progressive) has proposed from his own extensive survey data that liberals operate from a tighter set of moral foundations – centered primarily on “care” and “fairness.”

Because of that, Haidt notes that progressives can experience what he has called a kind of “moral blindness” when it comes to appreciating “the full range of moral capital” (that is, values such as sanctity, loyalty and authority that provide a moral basis for a great deal of other ethical teachings).  This is what he has called “the fundamental blind spot of the left.”[10]

I’ve experienced this blind spot over and over when I’ve tried to convey rationales for various convictions our faith community holds around marriage, sexuality and identity (often, yes, in reference to scriptural or prophetic teaching) – and am met with empty, blank responses. “They can’t hear you Jacob,” my progressive colleague Liz Joyner once told me: “they’re blind to what you are saying.” 

But why? Here’s my own take, extrapolating off Haidt’s work: once you reject the idea that a Being external to you has laws, teachings and commandments to which you are beholden (by sacred obligation or birthright), the very next thing that happens is that you come to center your life on something else.  So, in other words, if an active member of the Church were to walk away from everything gospel-related tomorrow, I’m suggesting that immediately his or her own feelings would take on a new, almost sacred level of priority.[11] From that place, it becomes very difficult to comprehend and empathize with arguments from authority (especially those authorities you may have already decided to reject in your life).    

If any of this is true, what it means practically speaking is that once you’ve adopted a modern-day progressive moral vision (distinct from the progressive vision of earlier eras): (1) conservative arguments may quickly become wholly implausible, in that you tend to see little to no rational or moral basis for them; and (2) one’s own progressive arguments may simultaneously become so consummately obvious, that you are blinded to any moral/rational critique or concern against them. 

Ideas that blind. Let’s be fair in acknowledging that people on the right can and do experience plenty of their own moral blindness– including an inability to see any goodness or rationality on the left, along with any fault on their side too (as evident in our news cycle today). Spiritual blindness is not a partisan issue! Nor is hardness against the full picture of goodness. 

Thus, just as I have loved ones consumed with anger towards prophetic leaders for failing to embrace social justice dogma sufficiently, I have other loved ones equally consumed with anger towards the same leaders for supposedly “caving in” to feminists, gay activists, etc.[12]

For any of us, anger can obscure our visions in profound ways – and get in the way of the sweet whisperings of our God.    

In the highly discussed book, Visions of Glory, the main character, Spencer sees a time when the political culture in America changes in a way that it becomes increasingly hostile to Christian values and teaching. Rather than being seen as an “attack,” however, the ideology he foresaw as threatening people of faith was “recolored to equal compassion, fairness, acceptance, tolerance, and equality.”

As pleasant as that list of words sounds, Spencer sees these in combination acting as a vehicle to essentially make things that are very good, come to seem very bad (and vice versa):  “From there it evolved into a power with the ability to take any truth and repaint it as a lie, to take any lie and relabel it as truth.” 

But here’s the most interesting point: according to Spencer, once an individual subscribed to this way of thinking, it meant he or she was effectively “tuning out to the Holy Spirit” – and becoming noticeably, spiritually darkened: “It was not visible to another human, but those who had marked themselves in this way could not discern the Holy Spirit.”[13]

The notion that a particular way of thinking can blind us is not a new idea for the Saints. “Hardness of heart, and blindness of mind,” according to Moroni, were “caused” by what he called a “veil of unbelief” (Ether 4:15).

And at a time of great distress for the Church, Joseph Smith wrote from prison about what he saw as the source and primary driver of aggression against the Saints: namely, the “creeds” and “lies” that had “filled the world with confusion.” More than just mistaken ideas or unfortunate philosophies, Joseph described these false ideas and doctrines as “an iron yoke…a strong band….the very handcuffs, and chains, and shackles, and fetters of hell” (D&C 123:7-8).

That’s strong language.  But it’s not just poetic. 

It’s descriptive – at least, for those seeing as Joseph did, the full spiritual reality of what’s going on.   

Ideas really do matter. They can help redeem us, if true.[14]  And free us from the heartache of years. 

Or they can blind us. And bind us – preventing all the best stuff in the universe from happening in our lives. 

Spencer went on to foresee that when more tribulation came to pass in America, “it was nearly impossible” for those who had received this darkened veil over their minds “to see God’s hand reaching out to them to safety. They were blinded to the only thing that could redeem them.”

That’s my honest concern, speaking now to brothers and sisters who have embraced modern teaching about who you are, and who you should become.  Out of that lens, I wonder if you will be able to see anymore – really see – the One that promises you the deepest peace, the greatest joy, and the sweetest deliverance from the many flavors of secular bondage. 

But, here’s the thing: if you can’t see any of this right now, that can change.  We believe in a Lord that knows how to make the blind to see.

Could that happen in your own life?  If so, what would the process of receiving “new sight” look like for you?    

Rending the veil of unbelief.  As I’ve tried to hint above, paying more attention to the ideas and stories we have in our heads is a really great start for any of us (since we’re all blind, in some way).  As progressive writer Cornel West once suggested, genuine understanding begins when we “interrogate [our] assumptions.” How well do your own assumptions line up with the “mind of Christ”?  

If and when any of us discover something deforming our connection with Christ (from whatever side of the political spectrum that comes), it’s time to take mighty Moroni’s advice and “rend that veil of unbelief” which causes so much confusion and heartache for so many, to the point that we can once again “call upon the Father in [His] name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (Ether 4:15)

You can do that too! However much courage and humility that will take, what it could mean for you makes it worth whatever that might require of your heart – no matter what that is.   

After grappling in a state of emotional paralysis for some time, Alma finally found it within himself to “cry within my heart”:  “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness…”

And that’s when everything changed for Alma.

It was precisely when “the dark veil of unbelief” was “cast away” from the mind of Alma the Younger that, in that moment, light did “light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul” (Alma 19:6)

Just imagine, please – that happening for you. 

That’s my great hope for all you, amazing candidates for a future Alma the Younger.

You may think that impossible right now. But trust me: you still have it in you! 

That’s not just my personal bias – but a direct result of studying the insidious influence of misshapen narratives (of history, of politics, of sexuality, of internal pain, and of the Church itself) on otherwise wonderful people. C.S. Lewis felt similar confidence, perhaps for a similar reason, as he once taught: “The sources of unbelief among young people today do not lie in those young people. The outlook which they have . . . is a backwash from an earlier period. It is nothing intrinsic to themselves which holds them back from the Faith.”

Like Alma, Lewis knew something about the unspeakable sweetness of returning back to a living faith in Christ, after many years of his own rejection of the same. Furthermore, it was not despite, but because of their experiences of previous betrayal and personal confusion that they ultimately became mighty forces for good. 

Could that be true of you – and your future as well? 

While visions of sugar-plums dance in the heads of my sleeping children this Christmas time, this will be my dream and vision.  And my prayer…joining so many others who share similarly bright hopes for your future. 

Brighter, and more exciting, than you can even imagine.


[1] Faith journeys are complex, with so many potential influences. And clearly, there are lots of instances where estrangement from the Church has been influenced by factors that have little or nothing to do with socio-political ideology. But for many (even perhaps most) people in our day, I would argue this pattern has some relevance.

[2] The fact that hostility blinds us to the goodness in others (or any nuance in their views) should be obvious by the ubiquity of it happening today; but instead, people on both sides of the political spectrum increasingly see their political opposite as benighted sub-humans who “hate America” or “hate gay people,” etc.  These kinds of accusations both ignore  the reality of (a) rampant goodness of heart and thoughtfulness of mind across the political spectrum, amidst (b) honest, sincere differences of opinion, worldview, faith, etc. 

[3] Differing views of the proper role of government and a desire to have a balance of power in Utah – with robust differences in perspective – have been among those reinforcers of people, like my own beloved Grandpa Hess, to vote Democratic (Grandpa thought President Bill Clinton was brilliant, much to the chagrin of his sons; I’ve written favorably about at least one aspect of President Clinton too).

[4] That’s why the First Presidency has consistently issued a statement before elections (including in the most recent President election) saying: “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.” The Church says that, because it’s true: No political party is the bastion of all truth and goodness – even if both seem to be veering away from solid principles very fast.

[5] He illustrates this through an anecdote from C. S. Lewis’s  book The Abolition of Man where he described a schoolboy learning something early in a textbook “which ten years hence, its origins forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”

Implicit in this conflict is a deeper appreciation (as Gantt also points out) of the degree to which, as historian Robert Louis Wilken puts it, Christianity also provides a distinctive “way of thinking” about not only God – but also “about human beings, about the world and history.” President Dallin H. Oaks has similarly taught, “on many important subjects our assumptions—our starting points or major premises—are different from many of our friends and associates.”

[6] Gantt goes on to suggest that the seductive power of many popular ideas is partly tied to how taken for grantedthey are in society today: “One reason that such ways of thinking are so easily and smoothly absorbed is, by and large, because they tend to seem so commonsensical to us, so ordinary and reasonable – just unquestionably the way things really are. And, they can seem to be so precisely because no one ever really questions them or encourages them to be seriously questioned.” He goes on to quote James Faulconer in his essay The Overlooked Bondage of Our Common Sense, as saying:

“The tightest cords of bondage are those we are unaware of. The most willing slave does not recognize that she is a slave, thinking that what she does is what she has chosen to do though she has been manipulated into doing it. We are most in danger of this particular bondage when what we think or do seems ‘perfectly natural’ or ‘perfectly reasonable.’  The things that we think are beyond question are the very things that can most easily deceive us to the point of bondage.” Once again, progressives would very much see conservatives in different kinds of intellectual bondage of our own (not entirely fair when you look at what’s happening on America’s political right). 

[7] Of course, if you ask my dear progressive friends, they’ll tell you the opposite:  that their unique insights into compassion, inclusivity and equality provide a kind of special access to the enlightenment at the heart of Christianity.  Rather than distance themselves from the salvation of God, they are offering it to the world!

[8] See Does Taking a Progressive View of Identity Make It Difficult to Be a (Happy) Latter-day Saint

[9] As one teenager I know was convinced of before he walked away from the faith community that had loved him since his childhood. 

[10] Haidt also calls out constraints and limitations across the political spectrum. As he has written, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

[11] However important civil rights are to people across the political spectrum, as one progressive friend admitted to me, “minority groups and civil rights have become a kind of sacred object of worship on the left.”

[12] In which case, the same kind of blinding, darkening influence and wedging barrier to an intimate embrace of the restored gospel are equally apparent. 

[13] John Pontius, Visions of Glory, (2012, Cedar Fort), 135.

[14] As Jesus Himself taught, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32)

10 thoughts on “Does Progressive Teaching Represent a Higher Embrace of Jesus’s Gospel or a Misunderstanding of It?

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful words, but I think there are other possible conclusions. One can be a faithful latter-day saint, but be discontent with the way some things are in the world and in the church. As you said, the world is fallen, so I would expect to see fallen pieces in everything, even in the conduct of other church members. I have definitely seen sexism in the church and the world – and no, not all due to pornography! My husband has felt racism as an Asian both in and out of the church. I knew black people (in the South) who were explicitly told by church members that black people did not belong there (and this was recently – not 50 years ago). I have seen schools in the same school district – predominantly black students did not have working heaters in their school, while the more wealthy and white elementary schools had enormous technology and resources. Perhaps some can answer to these questions based more on personal experience. And will this cause dissonance in their experiences at church? Well, yes, obviously, if they experiences these at church. Does this mean they are blinded? Or does this mean that others are being blinded to these effects because they literally do not see them? I lean more to the left, but I agree that some identity politics seems to be too far-reaching. However, I feel that you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and just because some chose to ignore or simply do not see or experience sexism, racism, etc. in their daily lives, does not mean that it does not exist and that it is not a problem.

  2. Although you and I don’t agree on much topically, I see the effort you have put into this series (I imagine your hour count is rather high!) as a reflection of your caring and concern for your fellow man.

  3. “Does Progressive Teaching Represent a Higher Embrace of Jesus’s Gospel or a Misunderstanding of It?

    Jesus’s Gospel calls on me to change myself; to build my own faith, hope, and charity; to be a example of good works to my fellowman; and to testify to others and invite them to join us — and in all this, to save my own soul. It is not “social justice warrior”-ing. To whatever degree progressive teaching is “social justice warrior”-ing, it is a misunderstanding of Jesus’s Gospel.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking post. I read the Bloggernacle a lot and almost never comment, but you really got my attention.

    I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything you said. I think you have shone a much needed spot light on the danger of unwittingly absorbing certain assumptions and values from our culture and then failing to recognize that these assumptions and values are driving us to beliefs and actions that are inconsistent with true Christianity. I also appreciate that you were careful to point out that all of us, whether we self-identify as progressives, conservatives or moderates can fall victim to this kind of thinking. Indeed, I believe it is almost impossible not to.
    I would never be mistaken for a progressive, and I have always described myself as fairly conservative until relatively recently when that term has become unrecognizable to me. However, you still left me wondering whether you have fairly presented the position of your left leaning friends to whom you are reaching out. I will try to illustrate my point by referring to the convictions which you say they seldom question.

    1. “What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when racial, gender, sexual and other cultural identifiers become centrally and personally defining above all else?”

    Like you, I have some friends for whom these are critical issues. I count some of these people as my closest loved ones. However, I don’t think you state their position fairly. I think they would say that these identifiers are not personally defining above all else, as you suggest. Instead, I think they would say something like this:

    “Above all else, I want to define myself as a loved son or daughter of God, and as a loved brother, sister and friend. But I am often not accepted as such. Instead, I am often seen as “other” and am met with some combination of fear, hostility or just indifference or ignorance. I too often hear demeaning comments directed toward me, and endure racist or sexist treatment that suggest to me that I am not welcome as a brother, sister, or friend. It is not me identifying myself this way, but others who have identified me in a way that denies my essential humanity.”
    I think they would have a point by rephrasing the question this way.

    2. What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they have embraced a progressive vision of love, care and compassion as wholly obvious and reflecting a higher level of enlightenment?
    I suspect you might already anticipate how such a person might respond. Perhaps something like this:

    “What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they have embraced a conservative vision of love, care and compassion as wholly obvious and reflecting a higher level of enlightenment?”

    I think it is a big mistake to even try to frame the question as progressive versus conservative visions of love. I really don’t know what those terms would mean in this context. I certainly agree that there are any number of ideas that are often promoted in our society by many self-described progressives that I believe will lead to misery, and certainly would not want to be accused of defending them. However, I think you need to deal with issues separately, without suggesting that all ideas of progressives are somehow to be condemned.

    I also think it is a mistake to suggest that we can resolve the contest of these ideas by reminding progressives that they must put love of God before love of neighbor rather than the other way around. In fact, I think that is a particularly dangerous road to go down. During the time of Jesus, the Jewish establishment were the conservatives of his time. I am quite sure that they would have pointed out that their rigid observance of the Sabbath evidenced their love of God first and foremost. Jesus told them that they had it all wrong—healing on the Sabbath was good, and it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. When Jesus reminded them of the statement in Hosea that God wanted mercy, and not sacrifice, he was teaching a valuable lesson that mercy, and justice to the downtrodden was a paramount virtue. “By this shall men know that you are my disciples . . . “ It is simply not fair to dismiss progressives by suggesting that they get the order of the first two commandments wrong, any more than it is fair to accuse conservatives of being unfeeling Pharisees who don’t care about their neighbors.

    3. What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they fully embrace a progressive vision of equality and fairness?

    I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question any more than I can pretend to know the answer to the question: What does it mean for someone’s relationship to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, when they fully embrace a conservative vision of equality and fairness?

    Most of your discussion of this topic was excellent, so this concluding question in this section was all the more mystifying. There are indeed outrageous accusation hurled at conservatives by some on the left. But there are just as many outrageous accusations hurled at progressives by conservatives. Questions of equality and justice are hard. They have challenged thoughtful people for millennia. And even when we can agree on what justice and equality should look like, it is extremely difficult to agree on the best way of getting those results. But that is why I found your posing of this question so jarring after seemingly acknowledging these points.

    I am not one of those who has come to believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is “a bastion of sexism, racism, heterosexism – and largely causing harm in the world by judging and “shaming” people”. But I do believe that those corrosive “isms” have too often been found in the Church. I grew up during the 60’s during the civil rights movement. It was led by progressives. Racism was indeed a stain on America and a true evil. Their cause was and is just, and we as a church were laggards in that movement, slow to take any kind of leadership role and far too tolerant or racist ideologies taught within the Church. We should be grateful for progressives who shone the spotlight on that sin.

    We have indeed been guilty of sexism which has caused significant damage to far too many of our members. It was progressives who led the way in making some much needed improvements. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

    Your post makes some excellent points. However, I think you will find that the left leaning friends whom you hope to persuade might be more persuaded if you demonstrate that you are just as willing to shine the spotlight on the unrecognized implicit assumptions that sometimes lead conservatives into the very same errors you have identified, and to recognize that some progressives ideas have made the church a much better place.

  5. My take on the matter is that much of the controversy between the left and right is about the means of delivering love and compassion. I was raised in a liberal environment. However when I brought home a suitor of another race all the professions of equality and unity went out the window. I began to see the cracks in the foundation I had accepted. For me it is the individual who is responsible for exercising the qualities of love and compassion, but for many of my ‘liberal’ family and acquaintances it must be a societal response, best enacted by government. I am an imperfect person surrounded by other imperfect people. My best hope is to rely on the impressions of the Spirit and take individual action. Are there attitudes held by members of the Church on either end of the spectrum that I find troubling? Certainly, because I live among fallible humans. My race, sexual orientation, age, and nationality are seldom of any importance in my daily activities. My greatest earthly love; my descendants, represent a diverse variety of all the characteristics mentioned and have no effect on my yearning to hold them close to me and want the best for them.

  6. Well done. Too often to some, the Second Great Commandment trumps the Law of Chastity. And there was a recent Sacrament Meeting speaker in my ward who devoted half his talk to #8 and complains that the “Church is persecuting homosexuals”.

  7. When a conservative explains what is wrong with how progressives understand and that they are mislead/blind, and inferring that conservatives may have problems too, but its the progressives problems/motivation that need pointing out, might there be a problem? You seem to attribute motives and even hate to those who understand differently.
    Not one of the commenters seem to think you have it right.
    I would say yes to all 10 original questions, but probably not for the reasons you think. I was married in 1970, at the time there were conference talks about getting married as quickly as possible after your mission (4 weeks) but also that birth control was satan attacking the family, the church and the teaching to multiply. Because of obedience to these teachings we lived in poverty and had we not chosen to ignore the birth control one my wife would be dead. Now of course the church no longer teach either of these, which says they were the conservative understanding of the leaders of the time, as was racism. But moral credibility was expended by the leadership, and a different understanding required.

    We now insist with equal conviction that gay marriage is not acceptable, or equality for women. In the preamble to dec 2 we quote “all are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, gay and straight”. When the church leaders come into line with God, by overcoming their conservative ideology the dissonance will be improved.

    Nothing to do with the world from my side, but conservative ideology has a lot to answer for.

  8. Progressivism is fundamentally anti-religious in nature. It’s implementation in society is uniformly corrosive to every form of religion. Virtually every progressive voice in culture is openly hostile to the idea of God and relentlessly ridicule believers. People within churches who support progressive agendas are a fifth column who want their church to be indistinguishable from an outside world that aggressively hates God.

    What members most need to recognize is that the current situation is one of spiritual warfare in which the stakes are ideological extermination.

  9. “Now of course the church no longer teach either of these, which says they were the conservative understanding of the leaders of the time,…”

    There are other, perhaps more faithful, ways of parsing or interpreting the discontinuance of such non-core teachings.

    1. What I quoted above: The GA’s teach the rules, not the exceptions. You, and others, always had the right and privilege to check with the Lord to see whether you were an exception. Example: abortion and ectopic pregnancies. I hope that’s an obvious exception. But do they mention it at General Conference?

    2. The “that was then, this is now” explanation. We no longer do Law of Consecration or polygamy, but they were still valid commandments in their time. And at least the Law of Consecration is coming back at some point in time.

    3. The “now we get the lesser law” explanation. Because so many were having a hard time living up to the higher expectation, the Lord withdrew the teaching. The Lord had Moses teach the higher law at first, but when the majority balked, the Lord withdrew the Melchizedek priesthood, and they got just the Aaronic, and the Levitical Law. So maybe the change on contraception was indicative of mercy and condescension on the Lord’s part, not previous error on the Brethren’s part.

    The more I look back on the modern church, say the last 40 years, the more correct or “in line with God” the brethren look. The brethren, wisely, do not over-correct, or try to change the ship too much too fast. They teach correct _principles_, and if I/we would just be more in tune, we’d change ourselves, and implement the principles, and be more obedient, and be more merciful to those who are or have exceptions.

    And it swings in both extremes: sometimes we fail to see the obvious exceptions and try too hard to be literal (too many young men were pressured by family to go on missions who obviously shouldn’t have), and sometimes we are too quick to excuse ourselves and claim exceptions, or read too much into a loophole, choosing a higher lifestyle versus having more than two children.

    The “every young man should serve a mission” may have been erroneously used as a crutch or an excuse for some parents to not teach their children, thinking their children would learn the gospel and get a testimony on their mission. But that excuse making, if it happened, would have been a false tradition that ignored the commandment to teach your children the gospel, and provide opportunities for spiritual experiences where they could get a testimony.

    If we’re going to “nuance” the brethren’s teachings, I would hope we nuance and parse things in a way that leads to increased alignment with the Lord’s will for every one of us — whether it’s more children or less children, to go on a mission or not to go.

    There are core doctrines and commandments that apply literally universally. But there are also commandments and teachings which have exceptions, according to both Pres Nelson and Pres Oaks, as cited above,

  10. Oops. I quoted Pres Nelson and Pres Oaks on the following post, “Come Back, Come Back.”

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