Another Brick in the Wall

August 25, 2010

Recently I’ve been fascinated in reading a defense of Mormonism that asserts that the LDS church, being a “thing,” cannot be said to harm anyone or anything. It is what we choose to do with the church that can cause harm or benefit to ourselves and others. Things of themselves don’t do anything, so they can’t be “good” or “bad.”

Think of a brick. It’s just sitting there, not hurting anyone, and then one person picks it up and hits someone over the head with it. Is the brick harmful? Someone else might pick up the same brick and use it to build a bridge that will benefit society. Is the brick good? The brick derives value only from its human use; therefore, logically, it is the human action that is good or bad, not the lump of baked earth.

The writer then suggests that the LDS church is like the brick: value-neutral, it does good or harm only when humans choose to do good or harm with it. Rather than “blaming” the church for the good or bad it does in our lives, we should take responsibility for our choices and “own” them.

But the church isn’t a brick. It isn’t some object to be picked up and used as we wish. It is a worldview, an ideology. Here I’ll use Martin Seliger’s definition:

An ideology is a group of beliefs and disbeliefs (rejections) expressed in value sentences, appeal sentences and explanatory statements. … [It is] designed to serve on a relatively permanent basis a group of people to justify in reliance on moral norms and a modicum of factual evidence and self-consciously rational coherence the legitimacy of the implementation and technical prescriptions which are to ensure concerted action for the preservation, reform, destruction or reconstruction of a given order. (Ideology and Politics, London: George Allen & Unwig, 1976, pp. 119-20.)

Unlike the brick, an ideology prescribes in advance its uses, its limitations, the acceptable forms of discourse about it–long before anyone “picks it up.” Imagine, for example, an ideological system that asserts that a brick can only be used as a weapon to hit someone who doesn’t adhere to the ideology, and that use is always “good.” If a child taught such an ideology from birth then hits an outsider with a brick, is the brick bad? Or is the child? Or the ideology? Just that quickly the notion of a belief system as an inanimate object breaks down, precisely because such a system is already bound up in action and motivation and consequences. A church, then, is at the same time the institution, the people who make up its members, the “things” (property and buildings, for example), and also the motivations, the actions, and the consequences of all of these. It isn’t value-neutral because the ideology itself defines and asserts what is good and right and moral. As Louis Althusser puts is, “An ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.”

Ideology does not spring up within a vacuum, and we do not exist outside of ideology. Ideology precedes the individual, as we are born into an existing belief structure, with its attendant apparatus, practices, and morality. Our belief that we see reality, or “things as they really are,” affirms our submission to ideology while simultaneously making us believe that we are free from ideology. As Althusser continues, “Those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denial of the ideological character of ideology by ideology.” We are so immersed in ideology that we do not even recognize we are in it. At what age, for example, do children born into Mormonism “pick up the brick” of Mormon ideology? They don’t: they were born with it in their hands, figuratively speaking, and they know what to do with it.

But our writer argues that, being autonomous individuals with absolute free will, we choose what to make of the institution of the LDS church, whether to use it for good or for evil. The church as a thing does nothing to benefit or hurt us, only so far as we choose to do beneficial or hurtful things ourselves. This argument, of course, is a familiar one to most Mormons: if we don’t benefit from participation in the LDS church, it’s our fault. Mindnumbing lessons and meetings depend not on those who organize and present them but on those who attend them. We get out of Mormonism what we put into it and have only ourselves to blame if we aren’t edified. According to our writer, then, any organization, no matter its ideology, is potentially beneficial, as long as one puts in the effort to gain something from the experience. After all, organizations, religions, belief systems, are merely bricks to be put to use by autonomous individuals either for good or bad. Don’t blame the brick, we are told, for the choice of hitting someone. By this notion, all ideologies, from radical Islamism to the Sendero Luminoso to western bourgeois capitalism and everything in between and beyond, are equally devoid of benefit or harm. So, it doesn’t really matter which ideology you choose: if it feels good and works for you, it is good and beneficial, period.

But, giving our writer the benefit of the doubt, let’s try to imagine a value-free ideology or religion, one that we could pick up at will and use for good or evil, entirely by our own choice. What would such an ideology look like? First, it would involve a system devoid of moral assertions, as such assertions inherently place the ideology within a value system. Has there ever been such a religion? Some have joked that Unitarian Universalism is the “church of whatever,” but its ideology is driven by what it sees as universal human values. Again, as Seliger stated, a system without “value sentences, appeal sentences, and explanatory statements” is not an ideology. Can a highly moralistic and prescriptive religious system such as Mormonism really be considered value-neutral? Obviously not.

Moreover, ideology has a purpose, and it masks that purpose behind its morals, assertions, and practices. It is quite difficult to imagine a purposeless ideology, but that is what our writer is asking us to imagine. But all ideologies have a common purpose: to legitimize social power structures. As Terry Eagleton puts it:

The process of legitimation would seem to involve at least six different strategies. A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself. Such ‘mystification,’ as it is commonly known, frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts, from which arises the conception of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. In any actual ideological formation, all six of these strategies are likely to interact in complex ways.

These six strategies certainly apply to religion in general, and to Mormonism in particular.

1. The LDS obviously promotes beliefs and values that support its worldview, such as notions of eternal families and the threat posed by untraditional family structures.

2. The church universalizes those beliefs such that they are self-evident; what LDS church member, for example, would ever argue that the tradtional two-parent family may not be an optimal arrangement?

3. Obviously, the LDS church has for a long time denigrated apostates and challenging ideas, such as, in turn, evolution, feminism, and same-sex marriage.

4. All of us have met Mormons who say that if they didn’t believe in the church, they would not be able to believe in another religion because no other religions make sense.

5. The notion of Mormons as a peculiar yet united people obscures social reality; many Wasatch Front Mormons, for example, are stunned to find out just how small and insignificant a religion it really is (after all, it was the building of a Mormon temple that was the “pivot point” around which the Iron Curtain fell).

6. Obviously, conflict is minimized and suppressed in favor of the unity of Zion. Years ago I remember some believing friends expressing shock and disbelief that there could possibly be any arguing or compromise or even dissent among the leadership of the church. One person expressed the belief that the Brethren were of one mind and will, and thus the idea of disagreement was unthinkable.

It is this complex interaction of strategies, then, that makes up the brick of Mormonism, which is not inanimate at all but infused with meaning, motivation, and action long before anyone ever picks it up (as if they are even aware of picking it up).

But the writer is correct in one respect: Mormonism works for a lot of people. Someone once said that Mormonism was the only corporation they knew of whose principal product was of no value whatsoever to its customers. That is obviously not true, as no one would adhere to a religion that does not benefit them at all, particularly one as demanding as Mormonism. But the benefits some derive do not cancel out the harm that others have experienced. And the effects, good or bad, cannot be divorced from the ideology that produced them.

Duped or not, Mormonism affects the lives of its members and those who associate with them. Maybe my father is right that the trick is to embrace the good without getting stuck in the bad. I haven’t figured out how to do that, yet. I think I dropped the brick as a weapon a long time ago. That’s a start.