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Patterson: The unbearable lightness of questions
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What is "Mormon" culture? That question, raised by Ed Firmage Jr., is an interesting one. ("Norman Rockwell and the LDS ideal," Opinion, July 28) However, his assumptions and reasoning deserve scrutiny and raise serious questions.

First, Firmage picks an iconic monument that has stood for centuries and compares it to a temporary art exhibit. When seeking answers from comparisons, a good rule of thumb is to compare "apples to apples" and "oranges to oranges" so as to be able to draw the correct conclusions.

Perhaps a better comparison would be between the Chartres Cathedral and the Salt Lake Temple. Each building's architecture depicts a thoughtful understanding of the universe and how it is ordered.

Comparing Chartres to the art exhibit merely serves as a stylistic device to paint the former as high brow and the latter as low brow.

Second, Firmage uses the breathtakingly beautiful West Portal at Chartres to make a point about the assortment of views in society. However, that conclusion would strike the creators of those windows as somewhat odd.

Firmage sums it up as an "all-encompassing truth." He claims, "All belonged in her cosmos. In her temple, all were welcome."

Medieval thought emphasized the organic nature of society and the ways in which the arts, sciences, and philosophy all expressed a harmonious and rational whole.

That ideal of wholeness though requires a different understanding of freedom. It stands in stark contrast to the idea of difference and moral individualism touted today. Neither the artistry nor that worldview would support the kind of freedom that Firmage seems to be defending.

Third, Firmage is correct that Zion aspires to be a "just" society. However, what is contestable here is the meaning of "just."

Does Firmage believe that the notion of justice achieved by a Zion society mimics 21st century notions currently in vogue?

Justice in Zion flows from an understanding of God and his expectations for how we live. That notion of justice stands outside of and judges the political debate. It is neither an outcome of that political debate nor reducible to the preferences of its contestants.

Individuals can contest a notion of justice derived from theology. But that notion of justice should not be twisted to serve an end explicitly at odds with that notion.

Finally, Firmage makes the leap from a discussion of family values to the failure of those values. We can leave aside for a moment what he actually means by family values because such a broad concept necessarily contains many parts. But to argue that those same values have failed society is simply a hasty generalization.

Study after study indicates that children and society fare better when families remain intact. If you want society and children to prosper, find ways to keep families together.

If Firmage cannot accept those conclusions, he should at least be open to the possibility that the causal arrow could run in the opposite direction.

It is easy to deride a system of beliefs when you misunderstand or ignore the assumptions that your own argument makes. Perhaps for that reason, we should all be a bit more careful about when and whom we mock.

Kelly D. Patterson is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. The views expressed represent his alone and not those of BYU.

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