As I was reading this excellent discussion on the “Bigots and Fanatics” post about how to have a tolerant and polite (and possibly even Christ-like) discussion about Church teachings, I had one of my posts come to mind.
A while back I wrote a post about how the parable of the lost sheep is often abused and often even reversed by the person using this meme so as to claim that the Church needs to accommodate the lost sheep in some specified way or else the church isn’t being Christ-like. I mentioned John Dehlin and Richard Dutcher as examples of people that misused this parable in this way and also mentioned that I felt the same tactic was being subtly used in a popular Bloggernacle post called “Our Sisters or Leaving.”
Through the grapevine I heard that one person that frequents Mormon blogs (I don’t know who) really hated my post and even thought it sick and wrong because I was (in this person’s opinion) claiming that I knew who the lost sheep were and was unilaterally deciding that the group of people mentioned in the “Our Sister are Leaving” post were not the lost sheep.
I think this “Bigot and Fanatics” thread, my post, and this unknown person’s reaction to my post are a good example of why it is so dang hard to be tolerant of each other’s views and ideas and why I have little hope of even reaching the ideal of “tolerance” much less “Christ-like love” in any sort of ideologically motivated discussion. Of course, the point is the journey, not the destination. The point is to strive, never really reaching our ideals. But it couldn’t hurt to at least acknowledge why this is such a difficult — indeed, currently impossible — problem to solve.
I think we all honestly believe (even me most of the time) that its easy to differentiate between polite conversation and personal attacks. And given that it is easy (or so we believe) when someone makes a personal attack of necessity they must be doing it on purpose and knowingly, and therefore are in need of some moral correction.
Our biological morality sense is just like this. It functions as a conversation stopper. It is not rational. In fact it specifically circumvents rationality. One of the main survival advantages of evolving a biological moral sense is to cut off certain lines of rational consideration, like say murder, as a way or resolving one’s problems.  So if someone says something morally reprehensible, we just feel it that we need to morally correct the person because the only possible reason they could have violated what we perceive as objective morality — for all morality is felt to be both objective and absolute or else we do not perceive it as morality in the first place — is that they are being a jerk. Although there are a few people that do intellectually buy into the idea that morality is really just a human construct, and therefore really just a personal preference, even those people ignore their own beliefs the moment someone behaves in a way they feel is immoral. And thank goodness, because societies would not function properly if people started thinking of morality as just a personal preference, or even as just a societal preference.
Moral Correction and the Upside of Gossip
Unfortunately years of scientific study on this subject assure us that when dealing with two different moral paradigms, both think it’s ‘obvious’ that the other is wrong and thus they must be violating morality on purpose. In other words, morality isn’t obvious. But try to tell your brain that.
Reading Jonathan Haidt I came across what science has really discovered about our moral psychology. Haidt makes the following points that have bearing on what I am saying:
- Society functions in part precisely because we fear being branded as immoral and gaining an immoral reputation. We care about our good name and it hurts deeply to have our good name soiled.
- Studies show that we both universally hate gossip and also universally engage in it. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 52-55)
- This is because gossip is the biological means we use to keep people in moral line according to our cultural definition of morality. Gossip is therefore underrated because keeping people in-line morally via branding someone as immoral via gossip is a much nicer solution than using violence on them. Society could not function without gossip. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 55)
- But biologically speaking, what matters is not that you are moral but that you have a moral reputation. Therefore, if evolution (which always takes the least costly path) is true, science predicts — and studies confirm — that we should care far less about being moral than being considered moral, as it is far more cost effective to build a moral reputation than to be moral in all circumstances. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 4)
- Evolution and biology are therefore the source of widespread human hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites due to our biology because we are quite literally born this way. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 60)
- Biology pulls this off through a series of mind tricks. We simply do not hold ourselves to the same moral standards we try to hold other people because we easily make excuses for ourselves via ‘what our intentions are’ but don’t for others. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 4.)
- In addition, the conscious part of our brain (what Haidt calls the rider) evolved to serve the subconscious part (what Haidt calls the Elephant) and not the other way around. Split brain studies have very convincingly demonstrated  that the conscious part of our mind will — on the spot — make up post facto excuses for the actions of the Elephant. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 1)
The Evolutionary Basis for Self Deceit
The conclusions above are scary, I admit. But Haidt lays out considerable evidence that it is the case. His other book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion even goes further into the problems of morality and the human condition.
In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us much at all, really, because we happen to be Christians and already believe in the concept of us being “fallen man.” This is really just science finally confirming what we Christians have known for forever — we are not very moral creatures. We are sometimes, but we are extremely inconsistent and hypocritical about it. Being moral is hard and we constantly rationalize our immoral behavior as moral rather than bother to correct it. We are all hypocrites because we are biologically fallen in our nature. We constantly fail to practice what we preach and universally hold others morally accountable for that which we ourselves do not do. This is just simply true of every one. Period. 
What makes this idea of our fallen nature / biological evolutionary hypocrisy so difficult is — and this is Haidt’s main point — that we are only barely conscious creatures. As mentioned above, the conscious part of our mind exists to serve the subconscious part, and not the other way around.
This means that we are literally not consciously aware of our true motives, so we can convincingly lie about them because we believe our own lies completely. Evolution and biology saddled us with the perfect way to tell a lie — but honestly believing it is the truth. This is what we call self-deception. We literally and routinely lie to ourselves about our own true motives. Haidt points out that this is what we should expect of evolution (or of a fallen nature for us Christians — or both) because the best lie is the one that is believed.
But that’s a contradiction isn’t it? If you honestly believe an untruth, isn’t it not a lie? A lie is very specifically an intentional untruth. But here is the rub. The vast majority of the time, when we ‘lie’ we deceive ourselves. Therefore human lying, in the strict sense of knowing untruths, is actually quite rare. Most of the time when we ‘lie’ we aren’t lying at all — we are rationalizing on the spot to post facto justify our “elephant’s” behavior.
The Paradox — Moral Correction is a Personal Attack
Which brings me to my main point — there is a difficult, perhaps even impossible, to break paradox here. Society does not function without us morally correcting each other and building moral reputations of each other. But moral correction is quite literally, almost by definition, not rational, and is therefore actually really just a personal attack that is self-justified by its moral need. When someone says “you’re really being a jerk” what they mean is you’ve done something that they feel is in need of moral correction and they have a moral duty to point it out.
But since we’re biologically programmed to react strongly to attacks on our moral character, degrading someone’s moral’s is one of the worst possible personal attacks imaginable.
Honestly, stop here and think about moral correction you’ve given. Is it even possible to give moral correction that isn’t personal? For morality to function biologically in the first place it had to make us deeply profoundly care about our moral reputation. A moral correction is by definition an attack on that moral reputation that we care so much about.
You can make it more polite or less polite. You can call someone a ‘jerk’ which is clearly more rude, but you can also call their post ‘sick and wrong’ which arguably is addressing an idea and not a person, but we all know is actually calling the person in some sense also sick and wrong morally. So it too is a personal attack. So is calling someone a troll. Or even telling someone, “hey, you’re acting too much like a troll.”
What makes this all worse is that because we rationalize our own bad motives (and by this what I really mean is that we are not consciously aware of our bad motives), we rarely feel we are in need of moral correction — even when we are.
I talked about this same paradox at more length, but in a different light, in my post on morality and coercion, where I pointed out that morality is in fact a form of coercion but we feel a justified form of coercion given the fundamental necessity of forming a moral society.
But we also feel coercion is immoral, too. So not surprisingly, we differentiate between appropriate coercion and immoral coercion based on our cultural moral standards. Which leads to the question: what if two cultures — say a liberal Mormon and “TBM” Mormon culture — have differing moral standards? What then? 
I believe the ‘what then?’ is known as the Bloggernacle.
Moral Correction and the Oppression of Women Through Modesty
I have no real history with liberal Mormon blog called By Common Consent. I’ve been asked about my opinion of them and I have so little to go on that its hard to form an opinion. That is probably a deficiency of me that needs to be corrected, I admit. I’ve probably read a total of 20 or so BCC posts in my life and I’ve commented on probably 3 or 4 at the most.
And frankly, its not that shocking that I just haven’t spent much time there. After my time on Mormon Matters I was fairly burnt out over being morally corrected — remember that’s the same as a personal attack — for standing up in favor of the teachings of the Church while rarely was there ever moral correction of those that attacked the teachings of the Church.
So not surprisingly, on one of the very few occasions where I commented on BCC, the reaction I got to my comment pretty much reassured me I’d be facing the same problems there as I did at Mormon Matters — though over many different issues, of course. 
My Adventures at BCC
Let’s take a look at what happened back when I tried to comment on BCC in 2011, as its relevant to the case I’m making.
The post was called Short Skirt, Long Jacket and thus was one of BCCs famous “modesty” posts — a flash point of moral outrage within Mormon liberal communities, even believing ones.
In the discussion I asked Kristine about her hostility towards the Church encouraging women towards modesty as a compassionate way of helping their brethren with their own temptations. Clearly the Church has never taught this as the purpose of modesty and I doubt its ever been some officially sanctioned doctrine. But I have heard Bishops mention this as one possible reason in favor of modesty before and there was a recent case of a general authority stating this in a talk in the Ensign.
And many will laugh at me, but I honestly had never heard of someone objecting to this before that day. Today liberals hate this so much they actually call it ‘rape culture’ (a term that I still have no idea what it means, but that a pretty provocative thing to call something.) So I honestly and sincerely asked Kristine about this and why she had issues with it.
Kristine’s response was a moral correction to me for even asking, albeit a relatively gentle one correction:
Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts about their bodies. Full stop.
This short response said, without a doubt: Bruce, you’re a moral idiot for asking this question. It is morally obvious that encouraging girls to be modest because boys are visually stimulated is morally equivalent to saying women are responsible for men’s thoughts.
To avoid derailing this post into a modesty fight, let me just say that given I had never heard this before, no, it was not at the time at all morally obvious to me. And, yes, I felt some level of personal attack in this moral correction being offered to me for what to me at the time was nothing more than asking a sincere question.
Kristine then immediately sent me a link to one of her posts where she discusses the pain she felt growing up being told what was or wasn’t modest and how she should dress and how it would affect others, etc. While I’m quite certain (having now asked other Mormon women) that Kristine’s experience here is far from universal, it is nonetheless her honest sincere experience and she is not alone in feeling this way.
Now remember, this is the very first time in my life I’m hearing this. But Kristine’s moral correction to me just wasn’t enough for the BCC commenters. I was also told by one commenter that I was trying to hedge the law, thereby likening me to the Pharisees. This wasn’t even a gentle moral correction like Kristine’s. It was, to be blunt, shocking in how similar it was to being on Mormon Matters.
So what did I do? Why I morally corrected them back — also in a gentle way:
No reason to get mean guys. It was an honest question.
So now I’ve called them mean. It is certainly a personal attack of sorts. In my opinion at the time, a factually accurate one given that (in my opinion at the time at least) all I had done was make an honest and sincere inquiry.
Kristine then encouraged me to read her post, which I did. And I come back with a far more sympathetic response now because I can really feel that she is sincerely pained by how modest was handled growing up in the Church. However, at that point in time I still did not entirely agree with her — not at all surprising given my more conservative background and that this is literally the first time I’ve heard this:
I read your post. It looks like you are agreeing with me [that the church does in some small part encourage modesty to create a better environment for the men in the church out of compassion towards their struggles], but you’re adding several other reasons as well.
I feel your pain, Kristine. I hope my daughters will have very different experiences with modesty. But I think a hard fast rule of “Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts about their bodies” is probably going too far the other way, since clearly it *is* possible for a women to be intentionally provocative as well. No man or woman is an island in this manner and it’s a mistake to avoid the truth. But I am sympathetic to the pains you talk about. I would not like to be treated in that way either. Thanks for the food for thought.
Let’s face it, this is about as polite as a disagreement gets. And Kristine, despite her initially moral correction, has by this point backed way off the moral correction and was really starting to speak to me now and share her honest feelings without trying to make me feel stupid.
So what happens next? Why I am morally corrected for the above show of sympathy of course — this time by Steve Evans, one of BBCs founders:
Bruce, I don’t think there’s any way for you to possibly know Kristine’s pain. That’s a pretty condescending little pat on the head you just gave her. Have you considered the possibility that as an empowered male, you have absolutely no way of really knowing what a woman has to endure when she’s told that she is a potential trap for men, that she must continually cover herself and make herself unattractive so that men might not be tempted?
Seriously, you’re just being insulting at this point, though I am sure you feel you are justified in your views and have what seems to you to be a clear line of logic in your thoughts.
This was, to me (at least at the time), a shockingly mean response from Steve. I had literally just admitted I felt compassion for her point of view and made several agreements with her. But Steve had decided I needed moral correction for that because in his mind it was condescending for me to acknowledge her pain by saying “I feel it.” Steve must have figured it was morally obvious that I can’t possibly feel a woman’s pain, being a man, so it is morally obvious that I should never say that. In fact, to him I clearly came across as a real jerk (isn’t that the word for someone that is being ‘insulting’ like Steve says I am being?) for even implying I can, as a man, feel a woman’s point of view at all.
Now to me it’s morally obvious (or so I think) that there is nothing wrong with me telling Kristine she’s managed to write a good post that helped me feel her pain. In fact that seems rather compassionate to me. So I almost did what my biological drive was telling me to do — morally correct Steve. Turns out I didn’t have to because Adam Greenwood did so in his own satirical way:
OK, Steve E. Bruce N. is being insulting by trying to be sympathetic, but some guy saying he’s sorry for James N.’s kids isn’t? You need to recalibrate your orwellometer.
Satisfied that Steve had been “appropriately morally corrected” — and frankly sick of being treated this way by fellow Mormons over what to me was a sincere and honest question and a show of compassion, I left the conversation and have rarely returned to BCC.
BCC Comment Policy: Don’t be a Jerk
One point of contention between BCC and M* that I hear all the time is over the difference between our comment policies. M* boils down to “we’ll edit as we please to create the community we want — you’ve been warned” and BCC’s has often been summarized as “You can say what you want as long as you’re not a jerk about it.”
BCC contends then that M* is oppressive in their comment policy — and perhaps we are — while BCC is itself an “open forum” for all sides of debate.
Now I want you to ask yourself a question. Was there in fact any way I could have disagreed with Kristine that wouldn’t have been taken by Steve and the other BCCers as equivalent to me being insulting? (and thus a ‘jerk’)
Really ask yourself that question honestly, because its the crux of the problem. Maybe you feel I could, maybe you feel I couldn’t. I think this is THE key question required to ask if you want to understand of the problems of the Bloggernacle. At a minimum, I think its fair to say that even if you think I could have made my response to Kristine nicer or more compassionate while still disagreeing with her, I hope you can at least see that the level of diplomacy required of me (as a “TBM”) is a drastically different level than BCCers are holding themselves to. In fact the level of diplomacy skill being required of me is a level most human beings simply do not have after a life time of training themselves and trying to bridle their passions.
There is No Such Thing as an “Open Forums” for Dialogue
Now it’s well known that I do not believe there exist any open forums at all (though I do believe there may be various levels of closed-ness) and now you can probably see why I feel that way. Because at BCC, “being a jerk” from a liberal Mormon viewpoint may literally be nothing more than (from a “TBM” viewpoint) asking sincere questions and showing compassion. And further, liberal Mormons will literally allow personal attacks (which they sincerely see as moral correction of course, and thus morally necessary) towards “TBMs” for nothing more than a sincere question or a show of compassion — which they sincerely interpret as ‘insulting’ and thus being a jerk.
Given this reality — no, BCC is nothing even remotely close to an open forum. In so far as they think they are, they are fooling themselves. But so what?
I believe all successful blog communities (or any type of community, for that matter) must of necessity have what I call “value-boundaries.” Steve and Kristine and others could not let my statements go without personally attacking me (or from their point of view, morally correcting me) because my statements violated the BCC value-boundaries on the subject of feminism and the Church leaders current views on modesty.
How BCC Enforces Their Value-Boundaries
BCC knows they have a large community that will vocally enforce this value-boundary via moral correction — i.e. personal attacks from a “TBM” point of view. And if I were to insist on morally correcting the BCCers back insistently (which would of course also be a personal attack from a certain point of view) I’d be labeled as a jerk and banned.
From a “TBM” point of view, I would have been banned for merely disagreeing. But from a BCCer’s viewpoint it would sincerely look to them like I was only banned for being a jerk and that had I just not been a jerk I could have disagreed to my heart’s content without being banned.
And thus we see how it is that the illusion of being an open forum can be maintained within the minds of one community while actually being nothing like unto an open forum; or at least is not an open forum in the sense of being a place where all can share their thoughts from positions of equality.
This enforcement of value-boundaries via moral corrections (I.e. group dog piling and personal attacks) is how BCC can enforce their value-boundary on me without needing to ever explicitly state in their comment policy: “if you disagree too strongly with us too often, we’ll ban you.” Yet that is the end result nonetheless.
But again, so what? This only matters if you believed you deserved some sort of moral approbation for being able to freely participate in an ‘open forum.’ If this is something you believe then, yes, me pointing out a strong example that demonstrates you are not an open forum is going to sting. You may feel a strong urge this very moment to whip out your nastiest moral corrections (i.e. personal attacks) at me, or at a minimum you are ‘holding your tongue’ right now.
But why? Because loss of that moral approbation is a personal attack from your point of view. I am calling your moral character into question, in a sense (i.e. you don’t deserve a moral approbation you thought you deserved), and you deeply care about that moral character. Therefore your “elephant” may already be asking your “rider” to come up with reasons to dismiss my point of view, without having to consider it any further, to save that moral approbation you think you deserve. Your “elephant” insists on dismissing me on moral grounds because morality is a “conversation stopper.” If you can dismiss me on moral ground you needn’t even consider my arguments. Even if I said nothing whatsoever that can be thought of as a reason to dismiss me on moral grounds, your “elephant” will get your “rider” to make up a false reason to do so. Such reasons may already be flitting through your head.
Commenting Policies and Value-Boundaries
I’ve had years now to reflect on the above exchange and what it really all means for us as human beings and as members of the same Church, but with some vastly different moral cultures.
This is a more conservative site, so I think the vast majority here are simply going to side with me on the above. You’ll say “Bruce was totally nice, asked a sincere question, and was acting polite and compassionate, therefore the BCCers were being jerks.”
But I want you to hold that judgment for the moment. The key point here I’m making is that moral corrections are equivalent to personal attacks. The reason you think the BCCers are being jerks is precisely because you have different cultural moral standards than they do and therefore you see their moral corrections of me as unnecessary, unjustified, and therefore mean-spirited.
It is also abundantly clear that BCC strongly disagrees with “TBMs” on what constitutes a proper moral judgment. That is precisely why their moral corrections aimed at me do not come across to them as being mean-spirited. To them, I really was in some sense ‘being a jerk’ and really did need moral correction. And given that it was moral correction they were giving me, it was by definition morally necessary and thus not at all mean-spirited — and moreover not a personal attack from their point of view, merely a statement of fact.
To Kristine, it is just morally obvious that caring about modesty for the sake of a male is totally completely equivalent to telling a female she is responsible for a male’s thoughts. And since morality is literally a cutting off of rational thought, we should find that it would be biologically difficult (maybe even impossible) for her to stop and spend time (at least at this point with her current cultural understanding of what is moral) considering the possibility that the two are not exactly equivalent. So of course she felt the need to morally correct me. She wanted to wake me up to my moral lack and make sure I ‘got it’ that I was tolerating and maybe even accepting something that was clearly immoral. For her to not stop and morally correct such an obvious moral gap would be immoral for her. She honestly felt like she had no real choice because if she didn’t morally correct me it would be in some way legitimizing an obviously immoral point of view.
And to Steve Evan, it is just obvious that part of the moral problems we have in our world is that men think they understand women’s point of view. That’s “mansplaining’ of course! For me to say I ‘feel your pain’ had to be morally corrected because its an outright example of what’s wrong with the world. To let it go without comment would be to in some way consent to the idea that men ‘get’ where women are coming from and so they know what is best for women based on their empowered male point of view.
And even the fact that I was not condemning the Church’s past use of strict modesty guidelines was morally obvious to the BCC commenter that I was falling into the same trap the Pharisees fell into of hedging moral law with overt moral guidelines. So of course he needed to correct me or else he would be in some way consenting that what the Pharisees did was morally legitimate in some way.
Value-Boundaries Are Required for Online Communities to Exist
Let me sum up what I am saying: At BCC they (like all blog communities) have moral value-boundaries that they feel they need to enforce through moral correction when someone crosses that boundary — just like we do here at M*. In fact, without these moral value boundaries, it would be impossible to have a ‘site culture’ and therefore a ‘site community’ at all. This is what in the past I’ve called a blog’s “safe zone.” And it’s why I have no issue at all with BCC’s choice of enforcement of their liberal Mormon value-boundaries — at least on their own site. I frankly think “TBM” cries that BCC should stop “being jerks” to those they disagree with are really just a demand that BCC disband as a community. Because if they were to stop morally correcting us on things that matter to them, that issue would no longer be a value-boundary for their community, and so the community could not survive.
And when BCC makes these “moral corrections” they do not in their minds count as inappropriate personal attacks. The same can be said of us here at M* in reverse. We feel the need to make moral corrections too, but over very different things.
We certainly won’t morally correct any opinion at all about the Church’s current views on modesty (though we might over someone supporting immodesty — particularly pornography) but we do feel the need to speak up and morally correct someone that, say, disagrees with the Brethren’s teachings — perhaps even their teachings on modesty. And how do we morally correct such people? Well, honestly probably by either quoting or paraphrase the Brethren morally correcting their view point. General Conference is a veritable playing ground for quotes to use against liberals views.
Read my responses in the above exchange a bit closer now. That is in fact what I seem to be doing, though subtly. I was only really satisfied after I got Kristine to admit she was at odds with the Brethren’s current views. Had you asked me to admit that was what I was doing at the time, I’d have told you “no way” and it would not have been a lie. But I was and it seems sort of obvious to me now.
“The Prophet’s Make Mistakes”
But think for a moment how quoting the Brethren at a liberal must feel to them. Let’s take a hypothetical liberal Mormon who did the John Dehlin-thing and studied Mormon history and had a faith crisis. But then, unlike John Dehlin, they found a way to keep believing in the Church by deciding that “the Prophets make mistakes” that all purpose way to reduce cognitive dissonance when the Church teaches or does something you can’t morally agree with.
Now we all — even everyone here at M* — believe that ‘the prophets make mistakes.’ None of us believe in infallible prophets. Indeed, Mormons have never believed in infallible prophets. Joseph Smith reportedly said:
I have my failings and passions to contend with the same as has the greatest stranger to God. I am tempted the same as you are, my brethren. I am not infallible. (John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, 111)
So in and of itself, this isn’t a false view even to a “TBM.”
But it seems to me that if one decides to use “prophets are fallible” to simply disagree with a teaching, doctrine, or revelation from the past that was causing them trouble, then one (perhaps unintended) consequence of that choice is that that gives said “liberal Mormon” rational wiggle room to cut out anything he/she does not agree with as part of that ‘prophetic fallibility.’
The “TBM” approach of “coming to grips” or “learning to accept” what at first seems like God commanding something immoral, becomes no longer at all necessary. Never mind putting things on a shelf until you understand them — just assume its all part of prophetic fallibility. When prophetic fallibility is used in this way, it saves the person’s testimony by allowing them to believe in some LDS Church teachings while disbelieving whatever it was that bothered them morally in the LDS Church’s past — say polygamy perhaps. And let’s face it, polygamy is no easy pill to swallow for anyone. This approach literally eliminates all issues one has with the LDS Church.
It is also precisely what the concept of a “Menu Mormon” was derived from.
By simply deciding that polygamy was one of the ‘mistakes the prophet made’ one has an instant solution to the moral cognitive dissonance that reading a book like Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History creates in them. They simply decide polygamy was not from God and a mistake, but that some of the rest was true.
All Beliefs Have Rational Consequences
This ‘easy out’ in fact isn’t easy at all. Historian Todd Compton gives us a good example of how this one little tweak quickly becomes a massive change. His book In Sacred Loneliness multiple times makes the claim that Mormons believed Joseph Smith to be infallible. 
Why does Compton make this claim when there is overwhelming evidence that from the very outset Joseph Smith, as first prophet, taught that he was fallible? (As given as an example in the quote above.)
Mormon defenders have taken Compton to task over his claim, easily pointing out that Mormons have never taught prophetic infallibility. But the Mormon Defenders are wasting their time on the wrong issue here.
To understand where Compton is coming from you have to realize that he is fully aware that Mormons have always taught that prophets are fallible. He’s not claiming otherwise. He’s claiming that despite the Church always teaching that prophets are fallible that they mistakenly thought Joseph Smith infallible anyhow.
And what historical basis does Compton have for believing this? Why the fact that Joseph Smith taught polygamy of course. Because Todd Compton is taking as a starting assumption that is morally obvious that polygamy is immoral. And given that polygamy is obviously immoral, it is obvious that God would never reveal it or command it. And given that God would not command it, then when someone was approached by Joseph Smith to practice polygamy and they went away and prayed about it and felt God was commanding them to practice it, it must be the case that they were mistaken; for Compton is assuming that it is morally obvious that God would not do this.
And given that said historical figure was mistaken it must be the case that the reason they thought God commanded them to do it was not because they prayed and God answered their prayers — as they believed was the case — but was because they thought Joseph Smith to be infallible. (A common liberal view here is that their internal moral sense that caused their initial bad reaction was God’s revelation to them.) What other conclusion is available given the starting assumption that it is morally obvious that God would never command polygamy? Compton is rationally forced to this position because its the only rational possibility left once you’ve decided that plural marriage should fall under “prophetic fallibility.”
So now we’ve started with that little bit of wiggle room that all agree upon — prophets are fallible — and we’ve been rationally forced to conclude that all early Mormons were mistaken.
And not only that, but we are now also forced to conclude that all Mormons today that believe Joseph Smith’s polygamy was actually commanded of God (i.e. all the Brethren and probably the vast majority of believing active members) are also mistaken and are making the same grave mistake of believing their prophets and leaders are infallible.
That is to say, the whole church has gone astray and is in need of correction — or so “TBMs” are likely to see it. And furthermore, it is now rationally obvious that these Mormons that believe plural marriage came from God — you know, pretty much all active Mormons — need to be taught God’s true will on this subject. 
And what started out as a single exception based on prophetic mistakes soon becomes, at some level, a rational necessity to correct the entire Church. While at the same time the “TBMs” instantly see that this person is taking it upon themselves to (in their view) correct the whole church — and to them it is morally obvious that this is a moral problem in need of correction — you see where this is going right?
The “TBM” Charge of Liberals Being Apostates?
Now the “TBM” may never call such a person an apostate or a heretic at all. But the very fact that the “TBM” tells (or even just implies) the “liberal Mormon” that they are trying to correct the Church and the Brethren implies within Mormon culture at least a tacit call to repentance and therefore a charge of drifting towards apostasy. In any case, it’s a moral correction which is a personal attack on the liberal Mormon’s religious and spiritual beliefs.
Now remember that the liberal Mormon honestly feels like they won’t be able to continue to believe in the Church if they are forced to (for our example) believe God commanded polygamy. So naturally the liberal Mormon is incensed that he/she has been made to feel like an outsider and “charged with apostasy” (if only by implication) when they know in their hearts they believe in the Church. (I am here assuming we’re talking about believing liberal Mormons.)
The logic of this seems inevitable to me. The liberal becomes angry for being ‘called an apostate’ and gets mad and feels like the “TBM” is being a jerk — and this is just one more example of ‘prophetic mistakes’ where the Brethren have just not been ‘open enough’ and ‘compassionate enough.’ And even that quote from the Brethren being quoted to the liberal Mormon, to “call them to repentance”, is just one of those many ‘prophetic mistakes’ anyhow and yet another example of how the Church needs to stop teaching ‘that prophets are infallible.”
In turn, the “TBM” gets angry that the liberal got mad when they know they never actually called the liberal Mormon an apostate and were merely quoting or paraphrasing the Brethren — which is what we do in this Church since we believe we’re led by prophets of God! The “TBM” feels the liberal Mormon is being a ‘jerk’ because the liberal Mormon is blowing up over nothing but a factual statement. And besides, the liberal Mormon is in the moral wrong anyhow given that they are trying to correct the church — which mind you is in fact the case from a certain point of view. “Those liberal Mormons are just trying to steady the ark!” cries the “TBM”.
And in turn, having now been called a “jerk” for doing nothing more than defending morality (i.e. God’s will!) against a ‘prophetic mistake’ the liberal Mormon feels the “TBM” is being a jerk and is an example of all that is wrong with Mormon culture. “See,” cries the liberal, “Mormon Culture (all the way up to the Brethren!) just isn’t ‘inclusive’ enough or ‘compassionate’ enough to ‘include me’ without making me feel like a pariah.”
And in fact, the liberal Mormon is correct about Mormon culture on this — we do quote the Brethren as a source of moral authority and this will often cause the liberal Mormon to feel like a pariah. So the liberal Mormon feels the need to give moral correction right on back and does not feel like they are being a jerk in the slightest when they do so.
And thus starts an never ending battle that is the Bloggernacle that has no solution even in principle save to convert the entire Church to your point of view — which ever view you happen to hold.
On Being the 99 and the 1
Which brings me back to my post on being the lost sheep and the liberal reaction to it.
From within a “TBM” viewpoint, the idea of using a scripture to call out “TBM” church members as “un-Christ-like” because people are “leaving the church” — rather than as a way to motivate individual church members to not give up on those leaving the Church — is a totally alien concept. To a “TBM” this seems like “weaponizing” the scriptures rather than learning from them. Furthermore, a “TBM” simply could never accept the idea that a doctrine (in this case, let’s say women not receiving the priesthood) they believe in — remember they believe in it, which means they sincerely believe its from God not from themselves! — must be changed just to keep someone from leaving the Church. For one thing, that undermines the entire purpose of the Church from a “TBM” viewpoint. Church membership is not an end, its a means. The desired “end” is always “belief” which in this case means either believing the doctrine or at least accepting it. To a “TBM” this scripture is about going out and assisting the liberal Mormon who is thinking of leaving the church for disagreement with a doctrine — which they believe comes from God! — to instead choose to accept the doctrine enough to stay. Therefore to the “TBM” this scripture is about doing home teaching, reaching out to the less active, reaching out to those falling away, and doing their best to help them come back into belief.
Once you realize how a “TBM” reads this scripture, you realize immediately that a “TBM” calling out what they see as a “misuse of the scripture” could never consciously be a case of deciding who is or isn’t the lost sheep.
But does it then follow that this critic of mine was wrong? At the time I would have answered, yes, to that question. But I’m no longer so sure.
At a minimum, this critic is right to point out that it is possible to read my post that way, even if I didn’t intend it. So his criticism is valid in at least that sense.
But let’s be honest given all that I’ve written above — can I even know my own “elephant’s” true motives? Is it possible that at some subconscious level he/she is right? If I could open up my full mind and make myself aware of my subconscious’ motives, might I not find that there is some truth to his moral rebuke to me? Do I not sometimes treat the liberal Mormon — even the believing ones — as an enemy?
Let’s be honest here, given my own background with liberal Mormons it seems to me very likely that there is a deeper truth that this critic expresses about me. No, it’s not the whole of me nor maybe even the primary motivation. We can easily have good and bad motivations at the same time. But I’m not so sure any more that he (or she) is entirely wrong about me.
Is there Hope?
I think “TBMs” are probably correct that liberal changes would destroy the church. There is good scientific reason now to believe that is probably the case. (More on this in a future post.) But I also think Liberals Believers are correct that TBM policies are causing people to leave. They are both right. Could we be both right?
Many know I am a fan of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science. One of the things he believed is that criticism and therefore often conflict are good things in many cases. While its easy to see how this must be true for the sciences, perhaps it’s even true for the Bloggernacle. Perhaps its even the case that simultaneously I was right to right to rebuke FMHW for their misuse of scripture and it was right for the liberal Mormon community to criticize me back as “deciding who the lost sheep are.” Perhaps, in the end, due to our dual good and bad motives, that is actually the ideal.
This is also why I think trying to shut down criticism by calling it “mean-spirited” or “unnecessary” is the wrong direction. What we need is more conflict, not less.
It is too bad, in a way, that my critic can’t see that my original post should not be dismissed solely on the moral grounds that I am “deciding who the lost sheep are” though truth be told, whether or not liberals come to see it that way, they may nonetheless learn to stop using this meme if it just gets them in trouble because “TBMs” learn to call it out as a ‘tactic’. There may be some benefit to the liberal community from my post even if it was mean-spirited and easily dismissed. Its also too bad that I was unable to see that the criticism was probably valid and also that I need to learn yet more diplomacy. But even if I had never come to admit there was some truth to it, might I not have even still learned to be more careful with my words if only to make future criticism harder? Popper points out that criticism is like that — it works even when you don’t intend it to. But we were both too dismissive and not listening well in our own different ways.
Could some liberal Mormons some day learn to see a post like mine and say ‘Whoa! That was a sincere and honest view point expressed. And I can now see why this is coming across really bad to ‘them other guys’… I should improve my discourse.” And perhaps someday there will be some “TBMs” that will say “You know, I can totally see why being in the church as a liberal Mormon is so difficult. And I’m not sure I really see a good answer here. Perhaps we’re going to have to learn to combine doctrine and compassion in ways we have yet to even think of. And maybe that Bloggernacle isn’t such a bad thing, after all, for the right group of people that truly need it.”
 One of the main advantages of evolving a biological moral sense is to cut off certain lines of rational consideration, like say murder as a way or resolving one’s problems. An obvious example is if you have disagreement with your father over something, if you are a normal well adjusted member of society without mental illness, you never even consider the rational possibility of murdering your father to get your way even though that does in fact make rational sense. It is this ‘cutting off’ of certain rational options because they are immoral that allows us to build cultures and societies. It also frees us up all the time that we would have to spend if we were simply rational creatures that considered all possible rational options, like planning out the perfect murder ‘just in case’ you decide that’s the best way to get what you want.
I know this might sound like I’m being humorous to some, but I am not. This is an important function of our biological moral sense — I’m sure it has many functions — and since evolution functions purely on utility, there had to be some sort of utility to an organism for the moral sense to evolve in the first place. In a Theistic world, God would know this and would arrange for the environment to form us in this way via utility.
 Split brain studies have very convincingly demonstrated…
For those not familiar with the experiments with split-brain patients, this is a bit shocking perhaps. Essentially the two halves of the brain are connected by a large neural net that runs between them. For certain epilepsy patients it is necessary to cut the cord between the two halves of the brain. Now we all know that the right side of the brain controls the left half of the body, and vice versa. (Actually, it’s more complicated than this, but this is approximately correct.) So what happens to a person who no longer has the right and left side of their brain communicating?
Well, for the most part, they can live a normal life. But they effectively have two minds from then on. This is quite literal. For example, the two hands might get into a fight over who gets to button up the shirt, knocking each other away, or (in one case) trying to chocked the neck of the person for not doing what it wants. There was even one case that Roger Penrose mentions of teaching both sides of the brain to communicate (normally the left side has the language and the right side does not) and finding out that each half of the brain had different ideal careers and life goals. (Though if you think about it, don’t you have multiple competing career desires and life goals too?)
Experiments included putting up a sign for one half of the brain to read while the other half doesn’t know what was said and then watching the reaction of the person. For example, one might give a message to the right half to “get up and walk across the room” while the left half (which has the language and is therefore the conscious part) has no idea why they just got up and walked across the room. So of course they then ask the person “why did you just get up and walk across the room?” Now the surprising thing was that the person didn’t say “oh, I don’t know why.” Instead they made up on the spot a rational justification for why they had behaved as they did, e.g. “I wanted to get a coke.” This led to increasing experiments into what degree the “elephant” (the subconscious) controls the “rider” (the conscious mind) and basically the answer is “almost total.” The “rider’s” job is to be a press agent for the subconscious elephant’s desire and activities. The conscious mind exists to deploy all reason and rationality it can in defense of whatever the elephant already wants. This is why our reasoning is so completely post facto — we make up our reasons after we already did what we wanted to do.
There is hope here, I might add. The conscious “rider” can be deployed to train the “elephant” to want something different. But that usually takes considerable persistent effort. This is why pursuit of “virtue” is a skill, not an intellectual understanding.
 We are all hypocrites, yes, but not all equally so. So there is hope.
 What is a TBM? So here is the problem as I see it. Liberal Mormons and Ex-Mormons made up the term “TBM” — which is supposed to stand for, depending on who you ask, “True Blue Mormon” or “True Believing Mormon.” This term was intended as a pejorative to differentiate one’s self (i.e. the liberal or ex-Mormon) from what they saw as the unthinking naïve masses of Mormons that believe more or less what the Brethren teach. So in the past I’ve refused to use “TBM” given that I don’t like to perpetuate pejorative labels like this and find them to be undermining to discussion and dialogue.
However, I have since bumped into another problem. Liberal Mormons (not ex-Mormons) do not like it when I refer to “Believing Mormons” instead of “TBMs” because they often either are Believing Mormons (like my friend John C from BCC) or they are using the term “Believing Mormon” in a misleading way so as to position their criticisms on LDS beliefs as coming from a “Faithful and Believing Mormon” even though they have long since abandoned belief of all the defining truth claims of the LDS Church.
The issue here is that I want to talk about two specific groups of people here that exist as noticeable groups in real life and that nobody denies exists. Specifically this article is about Believing Liberal Mormons and about Believing Mormons that we do not perceive as liberal. What am I to call that second group?
I can’t in good conscience call this group “Conservative Mormons” or even “Orthodox Mormons” because those terms (as John C hints at in this post) can refer to people that are at odds with the Brethren’s teachings or policies on some issues. For example, Denver Snuffer is arguably a very “conservative Mormon” to the point of being wholly at odds with the current teachings of the Brethren because he wants to (in his mind) go back to the way things were in Joseph Smith’s time. But Snuffer is clearly not part of either group I’m discussing.
I can’t even call them “mainstream Mormons” as it’s not that clear who that is. Aren’t most Mormons (as with all churches) not active? So aren’t the non-active ones arguably the “mainstream” of Mormonism?
So who are the two groups I am talking about and how do I refer to them? “Liberal Mormon” works pretty well, other than the fact that it refers to both a John C and a John Dehlin. So I feel the question that must be asked is “What defines a Liberal Mormon?”
Well, to be honest, I think it comes down the LDS magisterium — those that we call “The Brethren.” It is a huge part — defining part — of LDS Doctrine that there are 15 Apostles and Prophets through whom Jesus Christ leads the LDS Church. If someone goes to church and believes in the defining truth claims of the LDS Church and mostly just agrees with the teachings of the Brethren we do not call them “Liberal Mormons”. I believe therefore “liberalness” in a religious context like this — completely separate from political liberalness — is a term meant to imply a departure of some sort in some significant way from the officially accepted doctrines of said religion — which for the LDS Church means some sort of significant departure from the Brethren’s teachings on some subject.
I know some people cringe when I say this because — within the LDS Church — this is branded such in some circles as to be the same as calling someone a heretic or whatnot. But the problem is that we do not call someone that doesn’t significantly differ from the Brethren on some subject liberal — ever. That’s what we mean when we say so-and-so is a “liberal Mormon.” If you spend even the very short time I’ve spent at BCC, you immediately see where they do depart from current church teachings on a few key subjects. The most obvious case is on homosexuality and gay marriage.
Now I want to point out that the above statement is not a value statement. If the Church is destined to eventually embrace homosexuality and gay marriage — as many liberal Mormons believe — then this departure from the current teachings of the Brethren is a good thing. These are they that saw further. But that doesn’t change the fact that currently such a person departs from the teachings of the Brethren on that subject.
So if a “liberal Mormon” is someone that departs from at least some of the unanimous teachings of the Brethren, what is someone that doesn’t?
So “TBM” for now means (for lack of a better acronym) “The Brethren-aligned Mormons.” That’s who the TBM group is that I’m referring to. That is a very approximate label that is ‘sufficiently precise’ to allow the necessary discussion and not a ounce more so. Decide for yourself where you fall on the scale. Perhaps you can even relate to both sides of this discussion if you are really lucky or unlucky.
 …though over many different issues, of course. I am not here saying BCC and Mormon Matters are the same. They are not. Mormon Matters was really a non-believing liberal site that included believers and BCC is a liberal and usually believing Mormon site. They are culturally similar in some ways, but also culturally drastically different in others, as Andrew S assures us. And I believe this./
 Todd Compton’s teaches that early Mormons saw Joseph Smith as infallible.
I found at least 7 such quotes:
- p.79 – Nevertheless, Zina accepted Joseph as a prophet whose words were infallible revelations direct from God.
- p. 253 – She undoubtedly had to deal with the tensions of two men in her life at the same time – one a prophet viewed as infallible…
- p.262 – Even those unsympathetic to Joseph will understand that Elizabeth, like all Mormon women, had accepted him as an infallible leader and that it was the intensity of her religiosity that led her to influence other women to enter polygamy.
- p. 296 – But since many early Mormons viewed Smith as infallible, it is understandable that there was often, as here, a conversion to the doctrine that originally caused shocked horror.
- p. 455 – Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Smith’s widows, looking back on their brief experience of secret polygamy, could idealize it, especially since Smith himself had become larger than life in Mormon folk memory – a nearly infallible figure who ranked just below Jesus Christ and higher than Old Testament prophets.
- p. 456 – If they accepted him as an infallible prophet, and if they wanted full exaltation, they had no recourse but to marry many plural wives.
- p. 456 – But it is worth noting that the women who suffered so much under polygamy gave it their unqualified support in public rallies and wrote impassioned defenses of it. They too were devoted to the idea that their church was led by practically infallible, authoritative prophets, especially Joseph Smith.
 On correcting the church.
p. 629, note 1:
I am a practicing Mormon who considers himself believing but who rejects absolutists elements of the fundamentalist world view, e.g. the view of Joseph Smith as omniscient or morally perfect or receiving revelation unmixed with human and cultural limitations. However, I do accept non-absolutist incursions of the supernatural into human experience.
and from p. 456:
This was the reason why missionaries could teach that only Latter-day Saint baptism was recognized by God. If nineteenth-century Mormons had concluded that Smith had been wrong in what he taught was the crowning revelation of his life [polygamy] , they would have been left with a very different Mormonism than the faith they followed. Neither Mormon men nor women were willing to jettison that much of their religion.
It is useless to judge nineteenth-century Mormons by late twentieth-century standards [Not that Todd doesn’t do this throughout, I’m afraid] Both men and women were given an impossible task and failed at it. All we can do today is sympathize with them in their tragedies and marvel at their heroism as they suffered.
On his website, this is the front and center banner quote:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Todd here shows a solid understanding of why most LDS people do not and cannot buy into his views of polygamy as not from God, but also calls people today who believe polygamy was a revelation from God “fundamentalist” for believing in an “omniscient or morally perfect” Joseph Smith. (See also note 6 above.) I also suspect that Todd, Angelou’s quote not withstanding, has little fear that polygamy will one day return to the LDS Church. But fear of belief in current leaders being “infallible” seems like a fair concern that he’d see as easily repeatable today. His book arguably therefore represent an attempt to correct any modern LDS view of (from his viewpoint) Joseph Smith and successors as “fundamentalist”, “morally perfect”, and “omniscient” from how he understands those terms. No “TBM” would argue with Todd if all he did was claim he wants to correct “fundamentalist” from believing church leaders are “morally perfect” and “omniscient.” Indeed, no church leader would argue it either. But given that he considers anyone that believes that polygamy is a revelation from God falls into those exact categories, there is an obvious ‘talking past each other’ going on here. That is to say, from within a “TBM” view point, Todd is arguing considerably more than that LDS people should not view their leaders as “morally perfect” and “omniscient”, though within his own liberal view point, that is how he probably sincerely sees it.