Op-ed: LDS Church shouldn’t assume “modern” is better

By Kelly D. Patterson

Published: January 18, 2014 01:01AM
Updated: March 24, 2014 11:34PM
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BYU political science prof; op-ed writer

By kelly d. patterson

In “LDS Church needs to adjust to modern realities” (Opinion, Jan. 11), Don Gale employs the word “modern” to argue that the LDS Church should modify its attitudes and practices. However, several assumptions surrounding the use of the word “modern” go unstated.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the problem of characterizing an entire church and its membership as thinking in a particular way. I suspect much of Gale’s observations merely result from observations of politics in Utah. If that is the case, then any inferences about a large and complex culture may be a misrepresentation.

Gale assumes that a church must somehow conform to a political agenda in order to maintain some legitimacy. However, churches normally have specific doctrines about the soul and the way in which it should develop. Therefore, churches take stands on issues that enrich or diminish the soul’s development. They do not ordinarily leave those questions to the impulses of political fashion.

Those religions may indeed suffer in the court of public opinion, but many would not believe they derive their legitimacy from that opinion anyway.

Not conforming to public opinion has its downside. The word “modern” can certainly be used as a rhetorical device to isolate or neutralize those individuals who may think differently than the prevailing dogmas.

If the person can somehow claim the “modern” high ground, any argument offered by the other side must be “primitive,” “ancient” or some other antonym of “modern.” Claiming the “modern” position allows the individual to cast himself as up-to-date and the other as behind the times.

What strikes me as odd is the consistent bias to cast “modern” thought as superior to thinking or practices from the past. Examples of modern ways of doing things exist and do receive approbation from the majority of society. However, the bias towards always casting the modern as the most favorable rests on two assumptions that seldom receive the scrutiny they deserve.

First, that which is modern is viewed as an improvement upon the past. Practices popular today are necessarily seen as better from the past by virtue of the fact that they occur in the modern world. Such a stance simply places its faith in the idea of modernity without paying much, if any, attention to the standards by which progress can be judged.

Second, implied in the idea of modernity is the worship of the abstract individual. The abstraction of the individual leads to a view of freedom and liberty that denies any entity outside of the individual the possibility of establishing and maintaining any standards by which moral progress can be judged.

Consequently, institutions standing in the way of moral individualism are necessarily ancient, primitive or retrograde. Gale seems to assume away the need for any institutions that would challenge the current consensus on progress.

Perhaps the most puzzling claim involves the use of the word “reality.” Gale invokes “reality” but never defines it. It seems to have some relationship to the current modes and fads of thinking in society, but those modes and fads are never made explicit nor are they justified in any other way than through the assertion that they happen to be what is currently fashionable.

There are certainly good reasons for the LDS community to undertake some reflection about the changes taking place in society. But that reflection needs to be part of an exercise that understands what is truly at stake for the faith and not simply what is a reaction to the whims of modern opinion or political exigencies.

Kelly D. Patterson is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of BYU or its sponsoring institution.