Tactical Morality

RussellMormon 10 Comments

I revisit an old topic that is becoming increasingly relevant, especially in a culture where not only is bad called good and vice versa, but where neither is called anything. Indeed, we see this same element in part within our own theology where, as Joseph taught, “some things that are right under one circumstance might be wrong in another.” Our theology needs (and fortunately, has) a set of “inner controls” to keep its wild force in check and therefore, retain its usefulness to the world.

Being a Latter-day Saint graduate student in liberal arts can make for some interestingly awkward (or awkwardly interesting) conversations. Most of my effort is spent demonstrating to them that I can read WHOLE books and speak in complete sentences, that I don’t care for the Left Behind series, that I find C.S. Lewis to be only occasionally insightful, and that I don’t believe Jesus drives a tank. And yet I am willing to believe that a prophet of God came out of the upstate New York woodwork. Their thoughts probably vacillate between, “Radically intense!” or “Shouldn’t you be fixing moonshine somewhere?” Except that I don’t drink moonshine. Always full of surprises! So then there are all of the classic accounts of awkward moments at pubs, strange looks about the reason I know Hmong (“cultural imperialist,” they mutter under their breath), and various other oddities.

So at the end of the day, I ask: “Why?” The discussions about the reasons for the Word of Wisdom rage ad nauseum. Tit-for-tats continue about why we dress modestly, go to Church on Sunday, or do anything that we do ad absurdium. Is it written in the heavens, my heart crieth out, that one glass of wine a month is worse for you than two gallons of soda a day? Yet one earns sharp talk about health habits whereas the other gets a temple recommend thrown in the batch.

My answer? Postmodernism. Image politics. Divinely-inspired PR. Perhaps it sounds a little too Karl Rove-ish for some folks’ tastes, but it is well founded in scripture and modern revelation. Elder Maxwell taught: “We will find that not only are there strategic signposts of morality, but there are also tactical standards of morality with which we must be concerned if we are to preserve our identity in the way that is most helpful to us and to our fellowmen.” He cites Sampson’s long hair; there was nothing inherently strengthening about hair. He notes Paul’s injunction to the women that they keep their heads covered; there is no theology, Jewish or Christian, that tells us anything about the goodness or evil inherent in womens’ hair. What were these images for? Tactics…and seldom are tactics a reflection of eternal principles. Sampson needed to distinguish himself from the otherwise unrighteous Phillistines. The women, feeling a sense of equality from the Pauline epistles (“Ye are all one in Christ”) felt reasonably inclined to shed a certain aspect of their gender. Paul counseled against it if only to keep them distinct from the ladies of loose morals who were also known by their refusal to wear a head-covering.

How much of what we do is dictated because we want to be “peculiar”? BYU’s honor code? The Word of Wisdom? Modesty? perhaps BYU’s honor code (what’s better looking to the press than 30,000 clean-cut, modestly-dressed 18-25 year olds)? Notice, this possibility should not be used to delegitimize the commandments. After all, Elder Maxwell continued that the “prophet would help us set the tone of tactical morality when such is needed.”

Can image politics be the latest way to articulate the message while staying in touch with the postmodern zeitgeist? What think you?

Comments 10

  1. Ernest L. Wilkinson would be scandalized by the notion that the BYU honor code is about postmodernism. It’s about tribal markers, to be sure, but that’s not exactly a postmodern invention.

    The BYU honor code was about asserting authority and submission.

    Most of the examples that you are invoking are obedience markers. At the time of its origin, the Word of Wisdom was about satisfying Emma’s desire for cleanliness and civilization. Today, it is about demonstrating obedience.

    Otherwise, we would stop eating meat in the summer and provide for all sort of weight loss programs.

    Obedience markers are inherently anti-postmodernist. I suspect that Lyotard had just as much respect for Mormonism as Wilkinson had for diversity.

  2. Post

    In some ways, I agree…Lyotard suggests that postmodernism insists on an “incredulity for metanarratives.” So I too doubt that Lyotard would particularly fond of metaabout God’s interventions with man in upstate New York or even more absurdly, the triumph of death and hell by a the “grand hero,” Jesus.

    However, this same thought gives birth to ambivalence. Even as it would undercut the Mormon metanarraative, it also allows us to see commandments as they relate to identity creation rather than as a causative force . Commandments, then, are imposed not because they necessarily correspond to some kind of reality (supernatural or empirical) but rather a part of one’s identity-construction only meant to exist in contradistinction to other identities.

    Plus, given postmodernism’s utter loathing for essentialism, we can take solace in the allowance it affords for co-opting…even if Lyotard finds my co-opting abhorrent. And yes, Wilkinson would be scandalized. I think orthodoxy (and Wilkinson) could use a little dose of variety to keep it spicy.

    In sum, while I do not suggest that some policymaker read some Derrida in the dark of night, I do believe postmodernism can be highly relevant for Mormon orthodoxy in our belief of the usefulness of a Mormon identity.

  3. Great post, Russ. I’ve been thinking about this very topic lately. Under this model of thinking, many things like the Word of Wisdom are like unto some promotional gimmick, where I’m selling something, and I wear a button that says, “Ask me why I’m wearing this button.”

    Certainly eating Twinkies morning, noon, and night for a year is less healthy than a single glass of wine, yet the former wouldn’t necessarily keep me from the temple. I’m not sure it’s about simple obedience, either. In my experience, the Word of Wisdom has done nothing other than make people question WHY I follow the Word of Wisdom, and gospel discussions always ensue. I think that’s the key to your post here Russ, and I think it can be useful to think of many commandments in this way.

    One would think that seeing of obedience in terms of postmodernism would keep me from taking it seriously, but, on the contrary… after Russ and I began discussing this topic a few months ago, I have actually been motivated to cling more TIGHTLY to those commandments… it’s a badge of honor for all to see. Does that make me a Pharisee? 🙂

  4. “Certainly eating Twinkies morning, noon, and night for a year is less healthy than a single glass of wine, yet the former wouldn’t necessarily keep me from the temple.” It might land you on the other side of the veil, though! 😀

  5. after Russ and I began discussing this topic a few months ago, I have actually been motivated to cling more TIGHTLY to those commandments — which means you’ve learned something about the commandments.


  6. UM. HELLO!

    Does anyone else see the big gaping hole in the middle of this? Where does it end? How do you define the boundaries of the moral and the strategically moral identity politics? It is certainly in the best interest of such politics to state that they are absolutely right, eternally right and always right. At what point do we end up painting the past with the new equivalent our Polygamy Apologist and Institutional Racism Apologist brushes so it’s bright, shiny and strategically moral? Thirty four year olds marrying fourteen year olds isn’t pedophila, it’s a dynastic marriage. Institutionalized racism isn’t a stain on our good name, it was a test of obedience for the church.

    Furthermore, if I accept your argument, we compensate for our uncertainty with these ‘boundary markers’ or ‘strategic morality’ items and give them so much weight as to seriously warp the conception of what is important. Word of Wisdom violations will keep you out of the temple. Dressing inappropriately will do the same. But 35 years of being a mean, cheating SOB who understands and projects the proper markers of ‘strategic morality’ will get you made a Mission President.

    We have phrase that describes this. Whitened Sepulchres.

    Somehow I don’t think post modernism works with revealed religion. I’m just an old apostate, but somtin jest ringz rong heer.

  7. Was somebody advocating tactical morality to the exclusion of everything else? There’s a place for it, that’s all. Also, there’s an honesty question in the temple recommend interview. Yes, you can lie on that one, too. The system isn’t perfect.

    You started your post by warning against preaching these as eternal truths. Point taken. But it’s a straw man, since we obviously don’t understand them that way here, and they’re rarely taught as such. Most Saints wouldn’t regard WoW specifics as eternal truth. We usually get the spirit vs. letter thing, and the current apostles are very careful about making strong doctrinal statements.

    There’s another issue at play besides having the Saints be obviously peculiar. As someone who has often struggled to keep the higher laws, I *thank God for the little commandments*. They give me a way to show that I want to obey when I’m not capable of much else. When you find yourself in that position, you start to see them as acts of mercy.

  8. Post

    Interesting, bloggernacleburner.

    There is more to the temple interview than just drinking coffee and the other “tactical” elements. There’s obviously nothing very tactical about “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” or “Do you sustain your local leaders?” Just by calling it “tactical morality” doesn’t mean I think they’re the end all and be all of the gospel. Even Elder Maxwell would almost certainly agree that those who just keep the tactics of it become “non-smoking humanists,” at best, and blazing hypocrites at worst.

    All we’re talking about is that we don’t need to trouble ourselves with tannic acid, caffeine, and ear piercings. The Lord doesn’t seem particularly concerned with them anyway. Tactical morality helps us keep the important principles in perspective by freeing us from spending our energies on a morality that does not need to cure cancer to be still be a blessing.

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