Does Taking a Progressive View of Identity Make It Difficult to Be a (Happy) Latter-day Saint?

During graduate school, two new classmates arrived in the program and announced, “He, we’re looking for a church to attend – anyone have ideas?”

At the time, I was the President of the Latter-day Saint Student Association at the University of Illinois, and so I naturally let them know about the LDS branch that met each Sunday. In that moment, I expected they would actually consider the invitation (among other options they had)…and who knows, maybe even come and try our our little congregation sometime?

But the look on their faces told me otherwise.  Immediately, there was a visible, almost visceral reaction to an invitation that I had assumed was, well, one reasonable answer to the question they had just asked?

I was, of course, not unfamiliar with how other Christians perceive Latter-day Saints generally.  All of our missionaries come home knowing well how many layers of misconception-and-resentment can exist for some Christian communities in relation to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I knew what that looked like. This felt different, though:  some kind of tangible filter through which my classmates appeared to be relating to the Church of Jesus Christ. Over the ensuing years of graduate school, it became increasingly clear to me what was going on, with the contours of this largely invisible mental filter growing more and more apparent.

Diversity training. Each Friday, we met as a group of faculty and students for an hour to discuss the centrality of different identity categories in human psychology, including: race/ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Presentations were made on the various ways these different identifiers mattered for psychological well-being, how they played out in people’s lives….and how they made us all very, very different.

In the beginning, I really didn’t think a whole lot about it: “Great – okay.  Just more to learn in graduate school, right?”  But after a while, I started to get curious about the intense focus on these interesting differences, and began to wonder: in addition to talking about diversity, why not spend a day sometime talking about possible commonalities too?

That never really came up, though – nor did there seem to be much space to go there in general.  Rather than an oversight or accident, this kind of acknowledgment of common heritage (as Americans, or lovers of learning, or members of families, or fellow human beings, or children of God) really didn’t seem to figure into the terms of our conversations about human self-identity.

Instead, overarching all of our diversity conversations were specific, interesting assumptions about who we were – and who human beings are, generally.  In particular, it seemed to be most often taken for granted that the basis of our identity as human beings arises out of different structural categorizations and affiliations (with different demographic identifiers) – and that these were fundamental to who we all are.

David Brooks has been writing a lot lately about this same topic, saying recently, “Once, I seem to recall, we had philosophical and ideological differences. Once, politics was a debate between liberals and conservatives, between different views of government, different views on values and America’s role in the world. But this year, it seems, everything has been stripped down to the bone. Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider?”  He continues, “Identity politics, as practiced by Trump, but also by others on the left and the right, distracts from the reality that we are one nation. It corrodes the sense of solidarity. It breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust.”

If that’s true, why would that corrosion and widening suspicion be happening? Isn’t this all reflecting simply one other way to think about identity?

Not quite.  There’s something unique about this approach to identity, and it’s why it has come to feel increasingly alarming to some of us. From this approach to identity, for instance, we seem to be constantly emphasizing an underlying conviction that we are fundamentally different kinds of human beings.  For instance, when someone shares, “I’m a bisexual Latina woman,” that person is most often making a profound statement about what she understands to be fundamental realities and incontrovertible differences.

For my classmates, these different identifiers were certainly taken to be a basic, objective, unquestioned reflection of reality itself.  For me, however, I began to also see them as reflecting fundamental differences in how we were interpreting our life experiences.  This started to crystallize for me on the day we were asked to list out the “personal identities” that we felt were “most central to who we were.” After some reflection, I listed, “son, brother, follower of Christ.”  When I realized how sharply different my list was from my classmates, I hesitated to even share it out-loud.[1]

All in all, I came away from these and other experiences, amazed at the sharp discrepancy in narratives or stories about identity:  interpretive contrasts that seem to play out and influence in many ways how we see and relate to the world (including, in relation to all things Latter-day Saint). Here’s an example.

President Monson’s obituary. When the New York Times published an obituary for President Monson focusing on his policy decisions around gender and sexual orientation, there was a small furor from Latter-day Saints who found it dismissive and disrespectful.

And no wonder: for members who had listened to President Monson’s counsel about life and love for decades, the obituary seemed more like a deformed political caricature – akin to a fun-house mirror portrayal of a deeply beloved leader.

While I also wished the obituary had highlighted more of the sweetness of President Monson’s well-known (by Latter-day Saints) one-on-one personal ministry, another part of me was not confused at all.  After all, how could they not see President Monson’s life through their own philosophical lens (about identity, in particular)?

In other words, if you believe sexual orientation is a fundamental reflection of core identity, then naturally you’re going to (at least, in part) evaluate President Monson’s life according to how well it aligned with and affirmed the gay rights movement, right? And if perfect uniformity of gender-based roles and opportunities is a centrally organizing principle in your worldview, it also makes sense that you’ll naturally experience and filter President Monson’s life through those lenses too.

How could it be otherwise?

A Latter-day Saint Rorschach test. Here’s another example. From wherever you currently find yourself, check out this most recent photo of the LDS Quorum of the 12 Apostles below.  What do you see?  How do you respond?  What comes up?

For many people, the response is almost automatic:

Well…(a) Old people…(b) men…and (c) all white, right?!

Translation – UNFORGIVEABLE.

To have a group of people sharing these three demographics all in one place, all in one leadership body, all making the final decisions?!!…Can you imagine what public scorn would be heaped on Facebook or a public university or any other organization with a similar leadership demographic?

But why is that?  Is it because of who these people are, OR might it also be because of the interpretive frame through which we’re seeing them?

And if that frame is a progressive identity narrative, how can you not see this picture with some degree of disgust or disdain?

During a dialogue at the recent Utah Citizen Summit, one woman spoke of her experiences living in Utah and seeing the general leadership of the Church in the news.  She admitted that for years, “all I could see was that they were all white men.”

This is pretty much how you have to see this group of people, once you adopt a progressive view of identity, right?  

From this vantage point, there seems to be little possibility of seeing these men as other disciples of Christ, fellow servants of God and maybe even, brothers?

That kind of seeing is no longer on the table when you’ve got the progressive lens on.  Am I wrong?

Like the famous Rorschach test that tells us something about ourselves by the way we respond – our reaction to this picture says a lot – or at least this much:  Have you adopted a progressive identity view…or not?

President Nelson’s press conference.  Here’s a final Latter-day Saint-specific example – this one, from the press conference announcing the ordination of President Nelson as the next prophet leader of the Church.

At one point, questions from different journalists were taken. Peggy Fletcher-Stack, from the Salt Lake Tribune, mentioned her observations of “advances towards gender equity” in President Monson’s tenure before asking, “But the Church leadership is still white, male, American. What will you do in your presidency to bring women, people of color, and international members into decision-making for the Church?”

President Nelson’s initial response is worth watching to get a felt sense of the moment:

Here’s a transcript: “That’s a good question, Peggy. I hope I can be forgiven if I say I have a special place in my heart for you. I know your mother. I know your father. I know all four of your grandparents. And I know your family — your missionary children who’ve distinguished themselves with wonderful service — so Peggy is special to me. Um, now what was your question? [laugh]  Oh now, I remember what it was…”

President Nelson went on to share thoughts on racial diversity and gender equality in the Church.  Laying those other comments aside, here’s my question:  how does someone interpret this single, seemingly benign moment from a progressive lens?

Well, we can find out by reading a piece entitled, “Patriarch is Alive and Well in the Mormon Church” written the next day.  In a sardonic tone, journalist Mark Silk posed what he phrased as a “question for the class” about this moment in the press conference, saying, “Nelson’s response was (a) unprofessional; (b) patronizing; (c) sexist; (d) creepy; (e) all of the above.”

I wanted to add, “how about (f) cordial; (g) sweet; (h) personal; (i) non-conforming to regimented, stuffy professional standards?”

But as this multiple choice question makes clear, those are simply not options from a progressive lens!

Grappling with what is real.  My father once met President Nelson in person, and so did my second mission president.  Both said the same thing:  He was one of the most loving man they had ever met, manifesting a tangible sweetness – “just emanating love,” President Junot said about taking his hand and receiving his embrace.

So which is it, then?  Creepy…or Christ-like?

We’ll all have to be the judge of that ourselves. As we do that, let’s just be aware that our personal evaluations (including my own) are inevitably shaped by the stories we carry around in our heads. If so,  then maybe we can bring some greater awareness to those competing stories, and maybe even talk about them together?

That’s what I’m going for here.  This is not simply an academic inquiry, however.  I believe these questions matters a whole lot, with practical implications for many other scenarios, for instance:

  • Does an African-American member of the LDS Church stepping into a typical Latter-day Saint temple, feel truly at home among “brothers and sisters”or see himself/herself as being uncomfortably among “white strangers”?
  • Do individuals who experience same sex attraction see the gospel path (as taught by Latter-day Saint prophets) as applicable only to one group of human beings – and incompatible with their own true identity – or is this path seen as open to all of God’s children?

Many other examples could be shared of the real-life implications of competing ideas we carry around in our heads.

Brothers and sisters, or enemies at war?  Speaking of Martin Luther King’s work, Brooks has also pointed out how “He appealed to universal principles and our common humanity as ways to heal prejudice and unite the nation. He appealed to common religious principles, the creed of our founding fathers and a common language of love to drive out prejudice.”

That’s very different than the public conversation we’re having today – informed, as it inevitably is, by these larger assumptions about who we are. While other facets of identity still matter and make a difference, the Christian view is that they dissolve and evaporate in importance before another sense of who we are. Thus, Paul once wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And after Nephi asks, “Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness?” he answers, “Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.” He adds at the end:

He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

I believe in this more encompassing and unifying view of identity – no matter how conflicted it may feel with the predominant narrative today. I would also add that I have felt a personal assurance and consistent peace that Russell M. Nelson (and the 11 other “white, older, men”) in that picture are not only thoughtful and good-hearted; they are prophets of God seeking to give voice to His will in our day.

But don’t worry: Passion and conviction (for all of us) are not only allowed in dialogue, they are given a legitimate hearing that is hard to find anywhere else.  In order for those of us with different strong convictions to have productive conversations like this, however, I remain convinced that we need to be (more) aware of the narratives influencing the space between us.

Final thoughts.  Overall, my argument here is that it once you’ve adopted this progressive view of identity, it seems pretty darn hard to (a) not be bugged all the time about leadership in the Church and (b) to enjoy it as a faith or community.  Indeed, at times I’ve wondered if the progressive narrative of identity effectively makes it culturally criminal to say the kinds of things Saints say, and act in that ways that Saints act.

Of course, we could have a robust conversation about the degree to which these perceived wrong-doings are, in fact, an objective reflection of reality – OR significantly influenced by the unique interpretive filters dominant among progressive Americans.

And yes, we conservatives also clearly have our own unique interpretive filters.  Let’s compare them, contrast them, and talk about them!  If we could have that kind of honest conversation, I’d be delighted.

But of course, we cannot.  Because progressive (and conservative) Americans will both likely resist considering their worldview as competing interpretations to discuss.  It’s much easier to just declare your views and conclude someone is “ignorant” or “bigoted” (or fill-in-the-blank) for believing differently, right?

Maybe easier….but definitely not as fun!

Are you game?

I hope so…because heaven (and angels) know our country is dying for honest conversation about our actual disagreements. 



[1] Within this same narrative, this example would be seen as a reflection of “white privilege” from within the progressive narrative – a sense of entitlement where I didn’t have to worry much about other identifiers of “white” or “male” or “straight” because of the lack of oppression for the groups that were mine.

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