I recently argued that the doctrine of “continuing revelation” held by Latter-Day Saints tends to be read through a progressive lens. In response, many asked whether this view really has significant influence and is worth talking about. This question perplexes me, since anyone at all attentive to the “bloggernacle,” that is, the LDS internet, or to press coverage of LDS affairs, either in the Salt Lake Tribune or in national organs, cannot help but notice the persistent progressive narrative surrounding questions of homosexuality and the status or role of women. You could put me in the bloggernacle and spin me around till dizzy and let me point in whatever direction I might point, and I would have a good chance of pointing to a progressive narrative. Go look and tell me what you find: The prophets were wrong about blacks and the priesthood; they might be wrong about women and the priesthood or homosexual marriage; obviously it would be a good thing if they were wrong, because (need it even be stated, much less argued?) more equality (progressively defined) is always better. This much would pass for the “moderate” position on the Mormon internet.
The more aggressively left position would simply add the practical inference: therefore let us mobilize “thoughtful” opinion, with the help of the reliably leftish press, to put pressure on Church leaders and thereby put them in the right frame of mind to pray (as if they hadn’t thought of that) and get the right (i.e. left) kind of revelation from God.
I trust you noticed I disagree with this view. I believe, rather simply no doubt, that Jesus Christ in fact guides his Church, and that, although he certainly guides it with a view to the current facts on the ground and practical needs of the membership, there is no reason to think he guides it in a “progressive” direction. In fact, the last two General Conferences in particular have been as clear as can be in acknowledging complaints voiced by LDS progressives and saying, in effect: Yes, we’re aware of the questions and concerns, but no, your idea of Progress is not the Lord’s way. Just to take one example, from Elder Cook’s talk in which he compared our contemporary society to the Jerusalem that was the subject of Jeremiah’s lamentations: “This is emblematic of our own day, where gospel truths are often rejected or distorted to make them intellectually more appealing or compatible with current cultural trends and intellectual philosophies.” (I found it particularly bracing that Elder Cook described such “philosophies” as “addictions.” What do you think he’s referring to as “current cultural trends and intellectual philosophies”? Neo-Thomism, maybe? Or the Straussian conspiracy? Or something else?)
Thus, if the progressives’ intent, as they have often said, was simply to put Church leaders in mind of questions so that they could ask the Lord, then, it seems to me, they have received their answer (disappointing, to be sure), and their work is done. But somehow I doubt they will stop pressing the questions. The self-styled “thoughtful” Mormons know what answer Progress dictates, and they cannot conceive that the Lord’s way might not be dictated by their understanding of personal freedom (we say “agency”) and equality. I appreciate the firmness and clarity of these recent statements by Church authorities, because they in fact clarify the choice that members must make, and thus facilitate meaningful agency. (For some, I must say, this choice is complicated by financial and social incentives that may contribute to the addiction Elder Cook named. The building in Lehi’s dream is, after all, pretty great and spacious. And the other path is pretty strait.)
In another sense, though, I am grateful to those who believe I exaggerate the problem of LDS progressivism for providing me the opportunity of a clarification. I wrote my little piece on the distortion of “Continuing Revelation” with a certain audience in mind: precisely Latter-day Saints conversant with the claims and demands of the progressives. I was pleasantly surprised by First Things’ interest, and gladly took the opportunity to reach a wider audience on a question that I believe to be of application well beyond the Mormon sphere. Still, I should have been clearer, for a non-LDS audience, that this progressive sensibility is much less influential among Mormons than, I imagine, in practically any other American Christian community. As Gavin Jensen confirmed in his comment on my post, this sensibility is influential enough to cause problems for a significant number of American Mormons who are involved in higher education or otherwise mix with media and cultural elites. But there are vast areas of the Mormon Church where congregations would scarcely be aware of the progressives’ grievances (unless, for example, they noticed the inevitable media reports of the Ordain Women activists organizing to seek admission to our most recent Priesthood session of General Conference).
Mormon progressivism is still quite a marginal movement, and I would not want to exaggerate its importance. And certainly within the progressive tendency there are as many versions as there are souls, including many sincere believers with sincere questions. To these, and in fact to all readers, I would conclude by sharing this plea from our recent Conference, echoing Peter’s poignant, “to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” President Uchtdorf called out to all who would hear: “If you have left the faith you once embraced: Come back again. Join with us! If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here . . . Come, join with us! For here you will find what is precious beyond price.”
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.