For many, the word “manifesto” calls to mind “The Communist Manifesto,” a political pamphlet penned by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1848.
Closer to home, Latter-day Saints have their own history with a momentous manifesto, the 1890 edict that marked the beginning of the end of polygamy in the faith.
Now, three Latter-day Saint bloggers have declared a new manifesto, and it has nothing to do with Marxism or multiple wives. Indeed, “Radical Orthodoxy: A Manifesto” is about theology and is staking a claim to the middle ground in Mormon intellectualism — neither extreme right nor left.
Radical orthodoxy “is radical because it promotes bold exploration beyond what is familiar, and therefore rejects the obstinateness of fundamentalism,” the declaration says. “It is willing to revisit many facets of our received paradigm in order to apply the revealed doctrines and principles of the gospel to the unique challenges of today. That includes — under the tutelage of modern prophets — a revolutionary reconsideration of traditions, paradigms, and applications of the gospel inherited from prior generations.”
There was no single catalyst for this effort, just the observation that the online discussion of Mormonism is “slanted heavily toward progressivism,” says Nathaniel Givens, one of the three writers, while the “growing right-wing response to that has seemed too reactionary and too negative.”
These “radical orthodox” believers want to be defined “by what we are for, not what we are against,” Givens says. “We see ourselves as kind of ‘third way centrists’ — faithful to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while interested in theological exploration.”
They reached out to others who shared their perspective and assembled a veritable who’s who among conservative Latter-day Saint intellectuals.
Theirs is not a movement per se, Givens says, but the organizers hope their manifesto might serve “as a rallying point to spur conversations, new friendships and maybe new projects.”
The key is not to “pick a fight with anybody, but to find new things to talk about, and to emphasize positivity,” he says. “We are not interested in labeling apostates,” but rather standing “for truth.”
When they feel compelled to speak up for church principles, practices and prophets, Givens says, they hope their style will be “kind,” not “contentious.”
“Our argument is that once you dismiss, critique, or undermine the core teachings found in [these documents], you’ve left the tent of radical orthodoxy (as we understand it),” Thayne writes. “For example, if someone argues that the Book of Mormon is a modern midrash, argues that no unique divine authority was given to Joseph Smith, questions the historical Jesus as the sole anchor of our salvation, celebrates gender transitions as compatible with the gospel, or promotes the expectation that same-sex couples will someday be sealed in the temple, they are no longer operating within the paradigm laid out by radical orthodoxy.”
Being silent in the face of such statements, Thayne says, “can be as damaging as the critiques themselves. Radical orthodoxy, we argue, requires a willingness to speak out in defense of the divine truths in these documents, when the occasion calls for it.”
Because the family proclamation addresses gender roles and the eternal importance of marriage between a man and a woman — and fails to mention never-married, divorced, childless or LGBTQ members — it often has been embroiled in controversy and overlapped with political debate.
To J. Daniel Crawford, a blogger on the By Common Consent website, the manifesto amounts to little more than “question whatever you want, so long as you agree with the Brethren in the end.”
Thayne has an answer for that — a “steel man” approach to pronouncements from top church leaders.
“A straw man treatment finds and attacks the weakest interpretations of an argument. A steel man strives to find the strongest interpretations of an argument,” he writes. “It requires that we be generous with the prophets, not immediately dismissing them because we don’t agree or don’t understand. It means striving to step into a worldview (even if only provisionally) where we both understand and can embrace their warnings.”
That does not mean that those who embrace radical orthodoxy agree with everything church President Russell M. Nelson or his colleagues and predecessors have said, Thayne explains. “We have a duty to ‘steel man’ their teachings before rushing to conclusion — to strive to see the world through their eyes before dismissing what they have to say.”
Kathleen Flake, who teaches Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, has no issue with what the manifesto says. She just questions why it even exists.
“No one needs more ‘-ites,’ or divisiveness,” she says. “You don’t need the Book of Mormon to tell you that anymore. The wisdom of it is manifest everywhere today.”
Besides, Flake says, it is always “a little spiritually dangerous to set oneself up as a public defender of the faith, any faith, and even for the best of reasons.”
Gathering the like-minded
Givens’ parents, Terryl and Fiona Givens, are listed among the manifesto signers and share their son’s vision. The two are known for their popular books on Mormon beliefs and for creative thinking about Latter-day Saint theology.
“The American church is bipolar,” says Fiona Givens, “with histrionics on both sides and nobody in the middle.”
Others signers include Daniel Peterson, who was ousted from the Maxwell Institute (formerly the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies) in 2012 after 23 years as editor of the Mormon Studies Review; Ralph Hancock, who has argued that professors at church-owned BYU have become too secular in their approach; Jacob Hess, a leading contributor to Public Square Magazine who has written on LGBTQ issues; Jennifer Roach, a therapist who has defended the church’s one-on-one bishop interviews; and Hanna Seariac, a BYU student who led a petition drive urging the Provo school to “emphasize Christ-centered education.”
Valerie Hudson, another signee, was delighted to embrace the document.
“That is exactly the space we’ve tried to carve out with SquareTwo [an online journal] all these years,” exults Hudson, who teaches at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “The statement sums up our mission, which is to build constructively and soundly off square one, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Hudson agrees that “those in the church who have intellectual or political or influence aspirations in our faith community too often feel that either 1) they must oppose certain core doctrines of the church, or 2) they must never, ever question anything about the church, including current teachings,” Hudson says. “Both of these standpoints are injurious.”
There is a path “between the Charybdis of nonorthodoxy and the Scylla of super-rigid, or Mosaic, orthodoxy,” she says, “and that others are successfully treading that path even now is helpful and hopeful for many members to know.”
A ‘pretty banal’ document
In his 1981 satirical dictionary, “Saintspeak,” novelist Orson Scott Card used the term “radically orthodox Mormon” to describe a member who, among other values and behaviors, “believes without question only those doctrines that are clearly set forth in the standard works or that have been accepted as revelation by the uplifted hands of the Saints in General Conference.”
Givens and his manifesto co-authors found this usage after they had already adopted it. They say that Card’s take, though it was meant to be humorous, isn’t far off from what they are doing.
The term “radical orthodoxy” has been identified for more than a decade by a school of Protestant theology coined by John Milbank, an Anglican theologian in England.
In their manifesto, the drafters praise “fidelity to the leadership of the church,” he says, “rather than a set of philosophically worked-out ideas and creeds.”
There is nothing to disagree with in this manifesto, unless “you want to read specific ideas into it,” Miller says. “Overall, it’s pretty banal.”
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University in Logan, agrees that “radical orthodoxy” is hardly unique to Latter-day Saint theology. It has been used by Catholic and Protestant writers.
Many religions feel “besieged on all sides,” Mason says. “And they all are open to new arguments and conversations, trying to balance tradition while retaining a sense of relevance for the 21st century.”
Like Miller, Mason says “radical orthodoxy looks different in these other traditions.”
Still, the USU scholar applauds the attempt to thread “a middle path between what they see as the errors of unbridled progressivism and recalcitrant fundamentalism.”
It is a “goodwill effort to put a stake in the ground,” he says, and, could be especially beneficial “if they provide a hedge against the far right, including some websites and groups like #DezNat.” That’s short for Deseret Nation, a “very conservative subgroup of church members,” according to an article in The Daily Beast, who sometimes harass those they see as apostates.
The backers of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto — who seem to have the ear of some church leaders — “care deeply about the Latter-day Saint community and fear any fracture,” Mason says. “They want to hold the center.”
The historian understands why others might be wary, given that some of the document’s devotees are well-known conservatives, he says. They worry that the manifesto might be “a Trojan horse for doubling down on traditionalist views on gender and sexuality.”
In the end, Mason is unsure what will come of the manifesto and the radical orthodoxy rhetoric.
“It might be a nothing-burger,” he says, “or the beginning of something big.”