Here in Provo we know how to celebrate the Fourth of July. We have fireworks, a parade, family barbeques, a street fair, even hot air balloons. It’s a rollicking good time to be in the happiest of valleys! With such a high concentration of Mormons in Utah valley, it goes without saying that this super patriotism is part and parcel of Mormonism. It is hard to argue that Mormonism, an American-born religion, has become one of the nation’s most patriotic religions. I see this as a result of the importance Mormon theology places on individual moral agency. In a discourse delivered on April 1843, Joseph Smith stated, “I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled” (DHC 5:340). A few months later, Smith stated that “it is love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused in to my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees” (July 9, 1843, HC 5:498–99). That sentiment has persisted to this day, and, agency is something we Mormons believe we have been fighting for since the premortal war in heaven.
Yet there is another strain in Mormon thought that resists this pull of individual agency: conformity to Church authority. In a Church where we believe we have continuing revelation, obedience becomes the hallmark of commitment. In his book on Mormon culture, People of Paradox, Terryl Givens notes the irony “that the church Joseph founded is one of the most centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian churches in America to come out of the era famous for the ‘democratization of religion’ (8). This creates in Mormon culture an “ever-present tension” as Givens calls it, “between submission to an ecclesiastical authoritarianism without parallel in modern Christianity and an emphasis on and veneration for the principle of individual moral agency” (15). Givens continues: “Without moral independence, says the LDS scripture, ‘there is no existence.’ ‘When our leaders speak,’ the thinking has been done, says the (officially disavowed but widely accepted) LDS saw” (15).
Richard Poll once posited two types of Mormons based on this tension: the “Iron Rod” and the “Liahona,” the one emphasizing obedience, the other defending agency. A historian by profession, Poll seemed to privilege the Liahonas as the more authentic voices of Mormonism. However, Givens sees these two poles as paradoxical and inherent in the individual Mormon. He also sees them as essentially productive for Mormon literary and artistic expression. I like this idea, as I constantly find myself pulled between cultural conformity and the desire for personal individuality.
As an undergraduate in college, I was deeply affected by Thomas Rogers’ plays Huebner and Fire In The Bones (a play about the Mountain Meadows Massacre), which so starkly portray the perils of blind conformity and radical independence. I was likewise moved by Eugene England’s “Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood” and Hugh Nibley’s commencement address “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift.” I saw how this struggle for individual identity played out in a Church culture that values sameness in works like Levi Peterson’s “Christianizing of Coburn Heights” and Neal Chandler’s “Benediction.” So discussion of this tension was part and parcel of my education.
I wonder, however, if Mormon culture continues to recognize this central tension. We often take for granted ideals of preserving individual agency in the political sphere, but we seem to value a rigid conformity in Church culture. We also seem to distrust any act of civil disobedience, despite our own history of resisting an oppressive, often cruel, government. I take some comfort in the fact that the conformity-loving Mormon people received so warmly Greg Whiteley’s New York Doll, a documentary about the wildly eccentric Arthur “Killer” Kane. Yet I am troubled that we found little room for the multi-cultural, multi-religious depiction of characters in Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace. So I wonder where we, as a culture, are headed. Are we expecting more conformity or tolerating more diversity? Are we more or less comfortable with disagreement. Can we value diverse voices within our culture?
On this Independence Day, it seems appropriate to consider what works explore this central tension in Mormon thought. And I’m interested to hear how that tension continues to foster great literature.