As promised, here are thoughts on the interesting but sensitive topic "dissent within the Church." It came up yesterday in the comments to my post Gender Roles, which made some noise but didn't really say much. It did, however, inspire an interesting discussion over at T&S, but I will resist the temptation to weigh in on literary versus legal criticism. I'll stay the course with dissent!
First, a useful quote from George Q. Cannon (hat tip: Ben S.) in a Nov. 3, 1869, Deseret News editorial endorsing the concept of "permissible dissent":
A friend . . . wished to know whether we had said that we considered an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities of the church was apostasy, as he said, we had been credited with having made a statement to this effect. We replied that we had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate; for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.
I would like to purge the term "dissent" of its negative connotations and simply use it as a synonym for "an honest difference of opinion" discussed by Cannon, which he contrasted to "apostasy." The difference, according to Cannon, is that apostates seek "to enforce" differences of opinion on others and "to produce division and strife." Yes, I know there are Mormons who think any shred of disagreement with leaders is equivalent to apostasy. These are the same people who question how one can be both a Democrat and a Mormon. No one takes these people seriously; of course one can disagree. The LDS Church has not adopted the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, and even there it is limited to official statements of faith and morals. The question is how much disagreement is permissible, or how much dissent will be tolerated by LDS officials? This seems like an especially timely question as the Church becomes increasingly active politically.
Attributes of Dissent
As I recall, the CHI prescribes disciplinary action against members who persistently show open and deliberate public opposition to the Church and LDS leaders or who knowingly teach false doctrine despite direction to the contrary. That officially defines impermissible dissent or apostasy, but the definition is very general. We need to think in terms of attributes that help refine our understanding of the concept.
I think there are four attributes to consider:
- Person (P) - what is the position or status of the person speaking?
- Content (C) - historical, doctrinal, political, or personal statements?
- Audience (A) - to what group or audience were the statements directed?
- Location (L) - in what forum or publication were the statements made?
Specifying attributes is useful because the charge of "apostasy" is raised idiosyncratically when some LDS speaker hits a hot-button issue or topic, but some persons (e.g., BYU faculty) get heightened scrutiny, some content (e.g., plural marriage) is watched carefully, and some locations (e.g., a classroom) are more likely to generate complaints. A general form for specifying a range of "permissible dissent" or disagreement is: P can talk about C with A at L. So, for example, if the Church comes out in favor of an initiative prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol in my state, I think it's fair to say: Rank-and-file Mormons can talk about their opposition to the initiative with their friends and neighbors across the fence or at work. That's disagreement or dissent of sorts, but it's permissible. If you bought air time on a local television station to run an ad saying "Boycott Mormons because they support the dry initiative," that starts to sound like public oppostion to the Church that might be considered impermissible dissent or apostasy.
How about blogging, you ask? Sure, there is some disagreement -- no one sets up a blog just so they can say "I agree with my leaders" once a day. Here's my "permissible dissent" P, C, A, and L formulation of blogging: Regular Mormons can talk about alternative views of Mormon doctrine, history, and culture with fellow bloggers online. Of course, I recognize that most LDS bloggers talk about and support orthodox views of Mormon doctrine, etc., but there is no concern about those statements. We're delving into disagreement here, so that's where the focus is. I see dissenting statements around the Bloggernacle regularly, but none I would think of as "impermissible dissent," none that amount to public opposition to the Church or its leaders. Only those who hold to some form of Mormon infallibility think that even the suggestion that errors might be lurking in orthodox doctrine or history constitutes apostasy.
High Risk Professions
We can identify some P, C, A, and L values that trigger the "impermissible dissent" response from the Church by considering recent actions taken against LDS scholars: the September Six, Thomas Murphy, and Grant Palmer. In terms of persons, scholars and authors are at risk; Palmer was the target of particular animus for having been a career CES employee. For content, "feminist" topics are quite sensitive when the speaker is female. Risky audience and location boils down to published articles and books, I think.
So, turning these hot-button categories around, if you're not a scholar or author formally publishing books or articles on sensitive Mormon Studies topics, you are not really a candidate for an "impermissible dissent" award. If I'm wrong, I'm sure you will be notified. I am not, of course, encouraging dissent of any kind -- this is just an interesting inquiry expanding on the useful distinctions made by George Q. Cannon and general definitions given in the CHI. But it is a timely and relevant inquiry, I believe. Meaningful discussion generally requires a range of opinion and some disagreement. Shut down or censor disagreement and the discussion often loses its meaning. The potential harm from tolerating dissent is typically exaggerated.
Isn't Dissent a Negative Thing?
Some people think of dissent in entirely negative terms. I think that's a mistake. Academics and democratic politics teem with dissent and mutual criticism, and the result is better government and better scholarship. In legal proceedings, contrasting adversarial arguments serve to guide the judge or jury to a just outcome (or the most just outcome that can be achieved under the circumstances). Dissent in religion serves similar beneficial purposes -- consider what Vatican II did for the Catholic Church. Stifling dissent serves short-term goals and protects people or programs who deserve criticism, but is damaging to any institution, discipline, or country in the long run. To put it bluntly, the LDS Church could use more permissible dissent.
You, of course, may have a different opinion. This post practically begs for opposing views in the comments, but it would be nice to hear a few supporting voices as well.