Once again, a new generation of modernists falls prey to recycled arguments. Such philosophies regularly find friendly homes in the halls of academia, amidst media voices and in popular entertainment.
A collection of thoughts recently published by various local media recommends that the LDS Church should discard core beliefs and accept “modern reality.” It is yet another example of classical modernist assertions that religion needs to be retired, the family needs reform, and traditional morals are outdated.
Let me offer four points that reframe this philosophical shortfall.
1) Modernism is not new
The core doctrine of today’s modernists is that traditional ideals should be dismantled in favor of a “new” philosophy that aligns with the fluid desires of its followers. As a result, its followers tend to equate anything challenging traditional institutions or pressing boundaries of time-honored principles as “sophisticated and forward thinking.”
This naïve quest for modern sophisticates can be seen in Millie Dillmount, the central figure of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Set in the roaring 20s, the young girl “escapes” the confining influence of Kansas to pursue her dreams in “modern” New York only to find its promises empty altogether. In the parody, audiences delight in the ridiculousness of Millie and her peers who are repeatedly whipped about by fleeting modernist trends, fashion and popularity.
This folly is mirrored in a bevy of recent calls for faith-based institutions to catch up with the times. For instance, one local columnist recently called for the LDS Church to “modernize” its Word of Wisdom, which teaches abstinence from harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco. But what is modern about addiction?
The Centers for Disease Control reports that tobacco and alcohol abuse combine to cause more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. per year but also cost society $197 billion and $224 billion in economic losses per year, respectively. While tobacco abuse results in more deaths, alcohol maims the living in alarming ways — where its use accounts for two-thirds of violence toward “intimate partners,” addiction of babies and horrific traffic accidents.
For the life of me, I can’t find anything particularly “modern” about such tragedies. It is also ironic that modern scientific insight actually validates the LDS Church’s historic code of health.
Modernists have argued for excess in every society throughout history. There is nothing new or modern about relaxing social mores.
2) New isn’t always better
A student of history can easily identify recurring fads that draw followers into believing new is somehow better simply from its novelty.
Some seek to remove the moorings of societies’ most resilient organizations and replace them with new programs and standards for personal conduct, with either unknown benefit or likely negative consequences.
Modernism preaches excess as a fundamental doctrine, which runs headlong into traditional principles of self-governance and civic virtue. As we know, Rome famously feted the modernists of its day with lavish feasts and decadent parties. So, what is so new about indulgence and permissiveness, and where is the proof of its value to society?
Modernists purvey sexual permissiveness, all while ignoring the tsunami of sexually transmitted diseases infecting 10 million of our youths per year.
Some institutions should have our respect for their tenure and their resilience. Among the oldest are the family and religion. They have outlasted kingdoms, empires, states, collectives and fashions. They have weathered wars, epidemics, natural disasters and financial crisis. Yet they remain.
3) Reality versus aspiration
In contrast to those who suggest we embrace everything new, some declare the status quo must simply be accepted as “reality.” I refuse. So have people of conscience throughout history. The great and heroic do not simply capitulate when a self-declared consensus wills it. With such an attitude, would the Pilgrims have sailed, Ghandi fasted, or Lincoln persisted? Why should current circumstances become the master of our future?
The great human saga is full of people aspiring to something higher. Trying to shame others into simply accepting some “new reality” defies not only the course of human events, but ignores the soul’s yearning for greatness.
So much of what man builds and creates and does and says and sings and writes elevates and inspires. Yet modernists argue that we lower expectations and accept the reality of man’s depravity. But why must we accept societal slouching as inevitable?
Labels sting. Labels silence. Which is why they are used as blow horns to shout down and shame opposition. Proponents and opponents on sensitive topics magnify the pain by using rhetoric to frame judgment before dialogue even begins.
As a graduate student, I recall leveling a diverging argument surrounding abortion in an ethics class at Harvard. Rather than others engaging in dialogue, I was simply met with a retort of being “close-minded.” Amazed, several classmates approached me later and explained that they hadn’t previously heard a compelling argument for pro-life throughout their education. The irony made me chuckle.
Modernists and traditionalists use labels with equal chilling effect on dialogue. “Radical” and “extremist” are bandied about by both sides. Modernists seem to favor “sophisticated” when describing anything edgy, “bigot” for anyone who disagrees, and “hateful” for anyone who believes differently.
The latter two are viciously and regularly used to shout down dialogue on the role of the traditional family, which marginalizes substantiated concerns over the safety of children, the sanctity of marriage as an institution, and the threat to religious liberty itself. To ignore these concerns as legitimate dissent is both narrow and presumptuous.
Still, modernists revert to age-old, bully tactics to silence opposition by labeling anyone who disagrees with their own declared consensus as “out of touch” or “behind the times.” Such intolerance threatens free expression of conscience in the public square.
For generations, secularists and modernists have prophesied the demise of faith, to both their disappointment and to the discredit of their would be soothsayers. The human soul is resilient in its yearning for something beyond this life. And while the preaching of excessiveness is well within the rights of the modernist creed, their arguments are neither sophisticated nor new, and some are downright silly.
Matthew Sanders studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a general manager of publisher solutions at Deseret Digital Media. firstname.lastname@example.org or @Sanders_Matt