Editor’s note: This article from commentator Paul Mero is a response to Taylor G. Petrey’s recent piece “The failures of Mormon conservativism.” These opinion articles are part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
Taylor G. Petrey is a progressive provocateur who dares tell Latter-day Saints what to believe about politics, sex and gender. Petrey tempts members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to think that it's time for “a revitalization of Mormonism’s past and potential.”
Evidently, we, conservative Latter-day Saints, betray our “past and potential,” which includes an earlier era when we were “more politically diverse.”
Petrey gets lots of things wrong.
Many conservative Latter-day Saints are not anti-immigration. Before it was even cool, we set the example for the nation in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Public opinion was 70 percent in favor of the Utah Compact and our legislative approach. I argued the conservative case for comprehensive immigration reform in Utah.
He is wrong that “conservative political approaches have little impact on strengthening families.” Fact: Utah is No. 1 in family prosperity. Fact: Utah has the largest middle class in the nation. In progressive speak, that means Utah has the highest income equality in America.
Petrey also gets his religious demographics incorrect. As Stuart Reid wrote for the Deseret News recently, conservative religions grow. Not unexpectedly, the more acceptable Mormonism has become in the eyes of progressives, the less it has grown. In the “radical right” years of President Ezra Taft Benson, in times no less culturally contentious as these, LDS Church annual growth hit a high of 8 percent. This year? One and a half percent. There is no progressive case for LDS Church growth. Petrey gets his cause and effect wrong.
But where Petrey really goes wrong is in his definition of conservatism. Like a Bible-thumper lecturing Latter-day Saints about what their faith really means, progressive Petrey thinks he knows what conservatism means. As a lifelong conservative and #NeverTrump voter, who accordingly formally dissociated with the Republican Party, let me set the record straight: Mormonism is inherently conservative.
There is an undeniably strong relationship between Mormonism and conservative intellectual thought. Our worldviews are the same. The godfather of modern conservatism, the late Russell Kirk, wrote, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of [moral] character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” False conservatism (i.e., embodied by ideological and entertainment types) is a progressive caricature made even easier to accept by money-grubbing, very unconservative demagogues. Authentic conservatism, on the other hand, is anything but ideological, entertaining or money-grubbing.
Taking this case one level higher, Kirk wrote that the first principle of conservatism is the belief that “there exists an enduring moral order.” Progressives do not believe this. The worldview of progressives was summed up nicely by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That sentiment is far from an enduring moral order and the LDS understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Both conservatism and the fundamental doctrines of faith in the LDS Church are based on the knowledge of what it means to be a human being. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Sound familiar? We do not define our own existence. We came defined. We are children of God.
Both conservatism and the LDS Church understand the world on the basis of an inherent moral ecology — the inherent condition of human existence into which our moral decisions are formed, chosen and brought into compliance: the inherent universality of the human person (i.e., a reasonable understanding of what it means to be a human being).
Let’s quickly measure the broad moral ecology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against both conservatism and progressivism: Human life is defined, purposeful and ordered; justification for any human action — is a human action right or wrong or good or evil? — is based on that action’s accurate reflection of the human identity (i.e., outward expressions of inherited traits as a literal child of God) and judged through the terms of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and man’s happiness — the joys and sorrows of mortality, as well as his ultimate redemption — is largely dependent upon free-will choices that either conform to God’s will or not.
What is hard to understand about that forthright teleological understanding? It’s clear, and surely Petrey is intelligent enough to get the point. But I do need to punctuate that point, especially in light of Petrey’s claimed expertise on sex, gender and Mormonism.
Consider the LDS Church’s “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” The first sentence of that doctrinal statement covers a lot of helpful ground in a few words. First, it speaks to “all human beings” and, in so stating, prepares the reader for a thorough description of what it means to be a human being. Second, we read that a human being is either male or female and, just words away, that “gender is an essential characteristic” of eternal “identity and purpose.” And third, still in the same introductory sentence, we are told that all human beings are “created in the image of God.” Evidently, the human body is something more than a home for the “real you,” something more than an object independent of your essence. In fact, the human body is part and parcel of the human being. It is integral.
Given the explicit and detailed explanation of the nature of our mortal existence, there is no room for misunderstanding, let alone avoidance of, who we are. Even death, we are told, does not change the fundamental characteristics of our identity or purpose. Petrey can say Latter-day Saints are wrong, but he cannot justifiably tell us what we believe. In that, he is wrong. In fact, he could not be more wrong.
As the LDS Church has slowed its growth, Petrey thinks its members are seeing the saving light of progressivism more clearly. As his devout follower insists, he really is the Michel Foucault of Mormonism — atheistic to our beliefs, antithetical to our worldview and in love with man made in this own image.
Paul Mero is founder of ptmstrategies LLC.