Another Brick in the Wall

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.


20 Responses to Another Brick in the Wall

  1. Chris says:

    Good post. Yeah his analogy doesn’t make sense. Ideologies are a lot more complex and may have unwanted and inadvertent side-effects.

  2. shematwater says:

    You make a valid point, but I think you missed the point of the defender you are commenting about.

    For instance: The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Was this caused by the church? Now, the evidence does not support that the general authorities had anything to do with it.
    However, it can be argued that the people who commited these murders did so because of the “Blood Atonement” that was taught by these leaders. Does this make the church a bad church?
    I would say no, because the doctrine, though used, was misused. So, while it was done in the name of the church, it would not have been sactioned by the church.

    So, in a sense, it depends on what people do with their religion that makes it good or bad. These people made the religion into something evil through their actions, but many others have made it into something truly good by theirs.

    Even in the examples you give, it can be effectively argued that it is the choice of the person that makes the religion harmful. A good example is the mention of the “Iron Curtain” and the temple. These people are chosing to take their religion and apply it in a way it was not intended to be applied (I never heard any leader say the temple caused the curtain to fall) and so make it into something harmful to them, and thus wrong.

    I do also agree with you, however, that when a religion is followed as it was meant to be it cannot be neutral. It either teaches good or it teaches bad, and is thus the influence that drives people to either side. But, as so many religions are not used as they are intended to be used, they become that inanimate brick that for the individual person.

    • runtu says:

      No, I didn’t miss his point. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a pretty good example. Is there conclusive evidence that church leadership ordered the attack? No. But would those people have died had the ideological system not been in place by which such acts could not only be justified but encouraged? Definitely not. The decision to kill those people was not made in a vacuum but was the product of individual choices made within an ideology that validated those choices.

      Oh, and it was Russell Nelson who said that the building of the East German temple was the “pivot point” that brought about the fall of the Iron Curtain.

      • shematwater says:

        When properly understood the ideology condemns the actions of these men who acted in this massacre, and that was my point.

        A person can take one teaching of a religion, and by that one do things that the ideology as a whole condemns. In this way they make the religion bad.

        It is like taking a drug intended to cure cancer and using it to poison a child. Does it make the drug bad? No. Does it make the proper use of the drug by those who understand it bad? No. But it has been made bad in the context of the murder, as it is the tool that was used.

      • runtu says:

        I suppose it depends on what you mean by “properly understood.” Who properly understands Mormonism? Was Mormonism properly understood when a prophet vilified a woman who had rejected him as a “whore from birth,” or when he had that same woman sealed to him posthumously? Which prophet properly understood the doctrine: the one who condemned the MMM, or the one who ordered the memorial torn down, as the same massacre had merely been the Lord taking a little vengeance?

        Things are never that simple because all of the accumulated teachings and practices are part of Mormon ideology, good and bad. It is a huge cop-out to suggest that the good is just Mormonism misunderstood.

      • Odell says:

        Cherry picking – that is was shematwater is doing.

      • shematwater says:

        References are always helpful when claiming people did things.

  3. Odell says:

    If a church didn’t affect its parishioner’s it wouldn’t need to exist. “It’s the effect stupid” might be an apt reminder to the apologist of why the LDS church so much of its resources indoctrinating its members from the cradle to the grave.

    Some teachings are harmful. Here is a non-exclusive list of a few that cause harm:

    1. “Follow the prophet he knows the way” coupled with the prophet will never lead the church astray. How much can a toddler do to understand that following the directions of an old man in Salt Lake is choice when that is pounded in her head from early on?

    2. Obedience is the first law of heaven. This teaching endorses obedience over questioning thus defeating the apologist’s ill conceived defense.

    3. God curses people with skin color. No need to elaborate on this.

    4. Only men can have the priesthood and preside at church and at home. No child taught this will ever fully recover an innate ability to act no-biasedly

    Not to over compare, but if the apologist’s reasoning is correct, the blames for the Holocaust rests solely with the individual soldier/executions rather than the NAZI party. If the apologists is right, then the NAZI party was benign since trains ran on schedule (good), factories employed workers (good – unless its tanks), people ate; citizens developed a nationalist pride in their nation, etc. So the NAZI party should not be blamed for the Holocaust and other crimes because it merely taught and propagandized Germans.

    Although I am not Buddhist, I understand that one if its tenants is that before there is evil in the world, there is evil in the mind. But how does evil enter the mind? It is taught. And those institutions, be them religions or political movements, who teach evil are responsible for the evilness that enters both the mind and the world.

    I should not be surprised at the desperate arguments apologists must make to keep safe their church, but the one you comment upon really irritates me at is patent stupidity.

    • shematwater says:

      This is a common expression, but only by those who do not understand the true doctrine.

      • Odell says:

        What true doctrine is that? I appreciate it if you could itemize for me because my nearly 40 years of membership, church mission, temple worker assignments, priesthood leadership experience, bishoprics tenures, scripture study failed to educate me about “true doctrine.”

  4. shematwater says:


    One simple one. We are taught to question. From the time I was a child I was always taught that I should seek the truth for myself. We are given the assurance of personal revelation so that we will not have to rely on blindly following the prophet, as you suggest. We are to pray about everything he said, read all rescourses he references, and study it out until we know.
    It is common for people to accuse the church of teaching this blind faith, as you do in your first “harmful” teaching. I do not deny that some people do hold to this, but it is not the teaching of the church.
    I have never accepted anything from the President of the Church, or any leader (past or present) that I did not know was true.
    (And while I’m on the subject I would like to know how trusting a living prophet is any different than trusting the dead ones.)

    Another point: You say that obedience is the first law of Heaven. If you were a member you should know that the first principle (or law) is Faith, as true obedience cannot come without it. It is all nicely spelled out in the Fourth Article of Faith.

    Your other points are also non-harmful when properly understood.

    • Odell says:

      You contended that the LDS church was like a brick – incapable or either good or bad acts. You defended the notion that it is the members who are at fault when they misconstrue doctrine. Those two premises are inconsistent. If a church is a brick, it cannot do good or bad. If the church is capable of evoking good, it is equally capable of evoking bad (Just re-read the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi, chapter 2).

      You can’t have it both ways. And in typical LDS fashion, you blame back acts on members and good on the LDS church. That record is getting old!

      • shematwater says:

        I blame nothing on the church as a theology. It is the members who either do good or bad in the name of that theology.

        My point was that both ideas are accurate to a certain extent. The doctrine of a religion is meant to inspire certain behavior in its followers, and in this sense it is either good or bad, depending on the intention of the doctrine.
        However, regardless of what the intention is we all are free agents, and thus the credit (or blame) for any action we take must be ours and not our religions. Thus, in this sense, it is neither good or bad.

        I do not like the analogy of the brick, which is why I used the analogy of the drug. It fits better to what I believe to be a more accurate description of religion.

        I used the example of the MMM because it is part of my faith. I could just as easily used the Inquisitions in Spain to show how the Catholic religion was wrongfully used. There are examples for every religion of how individuals used the doctrine in a false way to justify their behavior.

  5. Runtu, one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read on ideology and LDS thinking.

    It is sickening to hear people say that “the church is perfect” but the members, well, not so much.

    Parents that kick out their gay or lesbian teens onto the street? 40% of shelters in Utah filled with gay and lesbian teens? Utah is the #1 depressed state in the USA for the past 25+ years they’ve measured the stats? Highest rates of adult male suicides? Don’t blame the brick.

    Lay membership doing their mental cog-dis gymnastics will say that none of these ‘issues’ are a result of the “perfect church” or it’s implied “perfect ideology” (tis after all the great plan of happiness )… instead they (say it with me now) blame the members who follow the ideology imperfectly, but they can’t blame the ideology itself (which is of course: “perfect”).

    Again, great post, as always. With your ok-so, I’d like to perhaps link to it from my blog when I get around to writing again.

    • shematwater says:

      I wonder if anyone ever stopped to consider that the reason the is high levels of depression in Utah is not because of the church but because of the constant vilification that comes from the so-called “Christian World.”
      Is it not possible that if religious bigots would simply shut up and let people believe how they want without calling them devil worshipers and such a good deal of that depression would be lifted?
      OF course this can’t be the case. It has to be our religion causing it, not the violent hatred that is spewed out by the Christ loving people of the Country.

      • openminded says:

        Could also be Mormon apostates driven by the sudden loss of everything and being shun by the so-called “Christians” of SLC.

        Can’t forget the “violent”ly hateful attitude Mormons have toward exMo’s.

  6. Rick says:

    Yes, cherry picking. But that is what Mormons do to defend their beliefs…because there is always an answer that barely justifies the evil and harmful actions committed. Where one “leader” says obedience is the first law of heaven, another says faith (yes, I know the Articles of Faith).

    Where one says the “negro” will always be inferior to the whites, another says they are equal. To justify this inconsistency, there is the statement “he was speaking as a man, not a prophet.”

    The point it, when looked at the entirety, the church has done, and said, some extremely hateful and bigotous things through its brief history. If they are justified as being committed by the “weaknesses of men,” then what is the purpose of the church to begin with, unless at least the leaders behave better than the average human?

  7. Kameron says:

    To discount destructive elements of any ideology while simultaneously lauding the creditworthy elements of the ideology strikes me as disingenuous in the extreme.

    By way of comparison (and because I’ve been reading a lot about Marxism and Communism lately — apropo given your mention of Eagleton and Althuser), there’s often a strong denial of the negative effects of Marxism. Marxism is, to many, the perfect ideology; and there was, for many years, steadfast denial of the atrocities under Stalin. When journalist Malcolm Muggeridge reported that millions of Ukrainians were starving to death (being deliberately starved, as it turns out, to quash their nationalist independence movement), he was vilified by True Believers. Even when Khrushchev confirmed the worst stories about Stalin in ’56, many of the True Believers denied reality. Kinda like how many modern-day Mormon True Believers do their best to deny the unpleasant or embarrassing aspects of their preferred ideology.

  8. sarah says:

    I think the whole church is full of people who are suffering for no reason because of some of the following: one of their family members left the church or is against the church, they have too many requirements and responsibilities because of the church, they have too many kids, they wear garments, they spend their weekends at the temple, they do callings, geneology work,etc.

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