At one time or another we’ve all heard some form of the familiar adage: “Nothing is as constant as change.”
—Thomas S. Monson (President of the Latter-day Saint Church, October 2008)
No religion escapes the problem of “doctrine.”
What this means is that every good religion must wrestle with the relationship between authoritative creeds, or setting up “stakes,” and the need for continuing revelation, which, in the case of Mormonism, raises some challenging questions that are not altogether easy to answer.
For example, what exactly is “doctrine”? Is it absolute and immune to change? What about the words of prophets and apostles? Are we to always take their words to be axiomatically true, free of human input? If doctrine does not represent the final, inalterable word of God—or ultimate reality itself—but instead refers to our current finite and fallible beliefs about God, and by extension ultimate reality, how do we anchor ourselves in a religious institution that seems built upon evolving, flexible narratives?
I’d like to think about a few of these questions while drawing upon the methodology of Michel Foucault, a Twentieth Century intellectual who uses the existential concept of “power” (what we may, in LDS terms, call “Church hierarchy”) to elucidate the nature and significance of “discourse” (or “doctrine”). I am interested in using Foucault to primarily reflect upon the discursive traces and origins of our LDS past, to get “genealogical,” if you will, and to specifically deconstruct some of the grand narratives that have been framed in Mormonism that once were thought to represent the infallible word of God. Doing so, I believe, will help us locate not only the sites where power produces discourse, or where church hierarchy produces doctrine; it will also help us better understand one of the great paradoxes of LDS thought—the need for “stakes” yet “continued revelation”—captured nicely here by BYU professor James Faulconer:
“Since Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation.”
While “dogmatic theology” certainly has no place in LDS discourse, “stakes,” to the contrary, are needed, and their purpose is to ensure the survival of the institution, to circumscribe truth, to define and exclude, to set bounds for what is morally permissible, and, ultimately, to build walls that separate the sacred from the profane.
Michel Foucault: Power and Discourse
Part of what makes his methodology so influential is how he views various cultural, intellectual and economic structures at play within a given society. These structures, located in a certain social “space,” are what give scaffolding to various “power discourses,” which are a set of patterns, beliefs and ideas—not necessarily homogenous—used to sustain relations of dominance.
One example Foucault cites is when leprosy vanished from the Western world at the end of the Middle Ages. While leprosy disappeared, the structures that surrounded it remained. A new “space” opened which replaced the concern with diseased bodies with a concern with abnormal, diseased minds. This cultural shift, or creation of a new social space where certain people could be defined and excluded, represents the sites where power produces discourse. Those in power produce these discourses, which are specifically produced for the benefit of those in power. What Foucault attempts to demonstrate is how when one discourse dies out, another steps in to take its place. And so on and so forth.
Looking at how discourses are produced, Foucault is specifically interested in who produces them, why they produce them, and when discourses are replaced, transformed, and who replaces, transforms them, when, and why. This is the power of his method—it looks for the gaps, silences, and ruptures in historiography when new cultural “spaces” emerge—to better identify ideological conceits.
Blacks and the Priesthood
There are hundreds if not thousands of discourses, some more prominent than others, and many, many within the LDS Church as well. One example of this production of discourse pertains to the priesthood ban for blacks. President Brigham Young stated in 1854 that blacks would never hold the priesthood until “all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood…and have received their resurrection from the dead.” President Joseph Fielding Smith, many years later, similarly stated that this curse would continue “while time endures.” Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his book “Mormon Doctrine,” called blacks the biological descendants of Ham (descendants of Cain) and thus “essentially” a lesser race unworthy of the priesthood.
However, when the revelation opening the doors for blacks to receive the priesthood in 1978 occurred, McConkie recanted his former position saying: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”
Another example of LDS “doctrine” gone awry that fiercely defined and excluded apostate members, but later was abolished, is found in the infamous belief of “blood atonement.” During the great migration West, Brigham Young and other LDS leaders repeatedly preached about specific sins for which it was necessary to shed the blood of men and women. In his book “Doctrines of Salvation,” Joseph Fielding Smith affirmed that after committing “certain grievous sins,” a person “must make sacrifice of his own life to atone—so far as in his power lies—for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail.”
In locating the sites of power for this particular “doctrine,” D. Michael Quinn argues that some LDS historians have claimed that blood atonement sermons were simply Brigham Young’s use of “rhetorical devices designed to frighten wayward individuals into conformity with Latter-day Saint principles.” While this might be true, other LDS historians like Paul H. Peterson counter this by arguing, “Obviously there were those who could not easily make a distinction between rhetoric and reality,” thus lending credence to the position that the LDS hierarchy during this time was at least responsibility instigative for the “violent acts of zealous Mormons who accepted their instructions literally and carried out various forms of blood atonement.”
Foucault Applied to LDS Discourse
If Foucault’s methodology is taken seriously, it would seem very much to call into question these types of LDS discourses (or “doctrines”) as following the same pattern of evolving discourses that were once believed to be “essential,” but in time were replaced, transformed from old, outdated cultural “spaces” meant to justify the superiority of the dominant group. Part of this production of power (as evident from past prophetic and apostolic views on blacks and violence) is to systematically and sometimes idiosyncratically create “otherness”—that is, how particular groups of people are marginalized, defined, and excluded for the benefit of those in power.
More recent examples of otherness, which for some calls into question the Church’s current essentialist claims, include the role of women in the church, in addition to gender and sexual orientation issues. Foucault, for example, would challenge the Church’s stance towards biological essentialism—the belief, as stated in the Proclamation to the Family, that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…” If this were true, the criticism goes, and gender is not socially constructed, then it would hold that throughout all generations of time and throughout all eternity that there have never been things like hermaphrodites or androgynous dispositions.
The Church, however, incidentally more aligned with Foucault on this next point, has not taken an “official” stance towards human sexuality, or sexual preference, even while condemning homosexual behavior. Perhaps this is because there has recently been ample scientific backing given to the role that genetics plays in human sexual identity, informing us that sexual orientation isn’t merely about social construction as it was once thought to be by past LDS leaders. Ironically, homosexual behavior is still marginalized, defined and excluded as being separate from “normal” behavior in the Church, and this reality represents what Foucault calls the power of “confinement”—the power used by the state (or in this case, Church hierarchy) to separate what is abnormal from what is normal in order to define itself; only by controlling what is abnormal can the “normal” exist.
One challenge that Foucault’s ideas present to conservative Latter-day Saints relates to their assumption that doctrine represents indiscriminately the final, inalterable word of God—the final, essential discourse!—when in reality probably represents something closer to their own cultural narration. Liberal Latter-day Saints, to the contrary, do not typically suffer from this compunction. They do not find the notion of theological change, or doctrinal discontinuity, unsettling. Instead, they welcome doctrinal alterations as, what Charles Harrell calls, “a natural consequence of having a living, dynamic church guided by continuing revelation.”
For Foucault, part of what continuing revelation implies operates under the dictates of the current power structure, which merely a previous social system produced and believed to be “final” or “absolute,” only later to be replaced, transformed in order to make room for a newer, more dominant narrative. If true, this would seem to underscore a major challenge to understanding current revelation: it masks itself as “fixed” reality when in fact represents a cultural synthesis of newer power, newer knowledge; it is like a plot on the matrix, where as soon as you get out of one system you’re tossed into another.
While it seems that power is impossible to escape, there lies in the fracas of this assumption a series of questions, which, if unresolved, seems to cast Foucault’s entire project to the existential winds of moral relativism: Does it matter at all which set of moral discourses we should respect, given that each is socially constructed to benefit those in power? Why would it matter which ones we respected, if morality, like discourse, is organized around key shifts in the status of power within a society?
The Paradoxical Need for “Stakes”
If answers are available to these questions, we probably should first consider one of the great paradoxes of the LDS faith, expressed implicitly here in Joseph Smith’s uneasy feeling towards the nature of creeds: “The creeds set up stakes,” he said, “and say hitherto shalt thou come, and no further—which I cannot subscribe to…I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled.” Joseph believed the creeds fixed limits on human ingenuity and closed the doors for truth to spring from any source. Paradoxically, notes Richard Bushman, Joseph’s “desire for order balanced the freeing impulse.” He knew that by licensing his followers to speak freely by the Holy Ghost would risk the whole religion to spin out of control, as it almost did under Hiram Page. Joseph was thus torn between the impulse to obliterate the creeds yet sanction them within a legalistic vocabulary: As Terryl Givens observes, “Authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances, were everything.” “There is no salvation,” Joseph declared, “without a legal administrator.”
Though the “creeds set up stakes” in Joseph’s mind, he would soon come to learn that the need for stakes was imperative to contend against the centrifugal force of individual, undisciplined revelations. This is where the power of the conservative institution comes alive in the LDS religion: The need for stakes, made manifest through the power of sociocentric rituals, laws and constraints, are meant to socialize, reshape, and care for individuals, who, if left to their own private revelations, divorced from the institution, might pursue extravagant, uncontrolled behavior, whereby they become laws unto themselves. It is this institutional conservative power, in other words, that was founded to diametrically organize and regulate the winds of moral relativism.
Turning to Foucault, it seems plausible to concede that a “confinement” of revelations was introduced into Joseph’s theology in order to realign moral relativism to its proper branded social “space,” thus creating a kind of safe haven where the Church hierarchy, and only the Church hierarchy, could produce the authoritative moral “discourses,” while sentencing those who breached them. The creation of this new space involved a series of measures—keys, orders, authorities, priesthoods, ordinances, etc.—which sought to circumscribe rebels and rebellious tendencies to places of judgment, while equally rewarding those who learned to demarcate the bounds between sacred and profane discourses.
In an almost inexplicable contradiction, however, when polygamy was introduced into the Church, Joseph had to justify this apparent breach of the revealed discourse, which before had already established marriage to be monogamous, by teaching what is probably the most unnerving principle of the government of God: “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heavens is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is…”
With Foucault in mind, such an enigmatic, relativistic attitude towards defining morality may be viewed as nothing more than confirming what Bushman reports as “the fears that rational Christians had for centuries about the social chaos inherent in revealed religion”—that is, the fear of power gone awry, power misused, power that must inevitably be renewed, recycled, and transformed from socially produced revelations into newer, braver, more responsible discourses.
Even though Joseph would qualify his revelations, believing they functioned like law, and not relegating them to what Stephen Smoot calls “the same category as current moral relativists who preach the popular laissez faire morality of today,” Joseph did preach that morality arbitrary determined “without law, without revelation, without commandment…would prove [to be a set of] cursings and vexations in the end.” He left us with a profound, albeit divine puzzle to solve on how to balance freedom and control, choice and obedience, whether to be authoritarian or anarchic, legalistic or romantic, disciplined or unbounded, etc.
Drawing a Line
From the bohemian rock musical, “Rent,” a story about struggling artists trying to survive in New York City during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, there emerges a question with such profound existential weight that the answer given seems too sensible to ever deny as the obvious response: “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” to which Benny, the artists’ landlord, fearlessly responds: “Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand.”
From the hundreds if not thousands of moral discourses there are in the evolving world, it would seem that this response does answer the importance of selecting and then respecting a given moral discourse. However, it still leaves us with the nagging question of which one to choose, and even harder, why we should choose it. One way to interpret this choice is to concede that everyone is to uphold the sacred and ongoing responsibility to draw a line somewhere—a line separating good from evil, virtue from vice, pleasure from pain—and then take a stand, even in the face of our most merciless critics.
For Foucault, it is clear that drawing this line is immensely problematic due to the complex nature of discourse and how people often become trapped and blinded to their own moral matrix. This happens especially in religions where believers assign important adjudicating power to a select group of men whose teachings are not always reliable. This certainly does not have to be the case in Mormonism, though I’m afraid those who are more literally-inclined in the Church suffer from this compunction more so than the margin of liberals in their congregation.
There is even sufficient support from past leaders of the Church that members can still sustain the prophets and apostles without believing them to be perfect or that whatever they say comes directly from celestial spheres. Brigham Young, for example, warned against those who “have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him,” while Hugh B. Brown pleaded with us “not to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit.”Brown continued: “While all Mormons should respect, support, and heed the teachings of the authorities of the Church, no one should accept a statement and base his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it, until he or she has, under mature examination, found it to be true and worthwhile.”
In the light of the long history of theological change within Mormonism, such history should surely reveal the struggles, discontinuities and the role of the individual within the institution. It also should reveal enough precedents in the Church to warrant a more flexible posture towards doctrinal discourse. As Harrell argues: “It would be naïve to suppose that all the major doctrinal kinks have been worked out, and that we now have the final word of God on all important doctrinal matters.” Indeed, has it not been suggested that the very “notion of continuing revelation resists theological finality[?]”
In drawing my own line, I believe there is such a thing as doctrine, which refers to our beliefs about ultimate reality, but that these beliefs or narratives we tell in Church are often limited, shortsighted, and subject to further amendment. Doctrine, from our vantage, to use Kantian categories, is “phenomenally” relevant but “noumenally” distant. This isn’t to become discouraged over, only to admit that there are, to borrow Bruce McConkie’s ironic statement, “more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.”
I close now with a quote my brother Trevor recently shared with me by Frances Menlove, one that I think, if its content were ever shown to be untrue, would, as Joseph himself put it, “lay a foundation that [would] revolutionize the whole world.”
“One of the factors which sometimes impede private honesty is ‘the myth of the unruffled Mormon.’ This myth is simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the knottiest problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.
In reality, the Mormon is also subject to uncertainties and doubts. This fact derives inevitably from his understanding of free agency, his freedom to love or turn away, his freedom to choose this path or another one. ‘Lord, I believe … help thou my unbelief’ expresses simply the profound experience of those who seek God. The man who blots out internal awareness in order to maintain to himself and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuses to examine his inner life, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality. No one should doubt that in some way, or for some reason, he is also a doubter.”
 While some LDS apologetics may argue that these past unenlightened views about blacks and violence merely represented a cultural derivation, that the brethren were mere “products of their times,” it still does not excuse the gross abuse of power in the Church hierarchy, and seems even to support the deistic position that God seldom involves himself in the affairs of men but instead lets them wallow in the evil of their own creation.
 This reality of confining the “abnormal” raises the immensely difficult question for homosexual Latter-day Saints: They must choose to remain committed to the church hierarchy and its current, believed-to-be eternal discourse, and thereby lead a life of celibacy and loneliness, or, they must leave those constructs and pursue a life in accordance with their own spiritual conscience.
 The myths of doctrinal inerrancy and scriptural uniformity have given rise to a public, bristling fury of anti-Mormon literature written to undermine the fallacious assumption of prophetic infallibility, and those who base their faith on this assumption are typically more likely to go apostate than those who are more liberal in their doctrinal thinking. Harrell cites the entry on “apostate” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which states: “Apostasy may be accelerated by a faulty assumption that scripture or Church leaders are infallible…Neither the Church nor its leaders claim infallibility.”
 The authority to bridle unfounded revelation is actually inherent in the calling of the Church prophet. J. Reuben Clark told Church members that “only the President of the Church…has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scripture that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.” Harrell observes here that “to state that the president has the right to “change” Church doctrines implies they are not necessarily fixed.”
 Interestingly, Joseph’s theology already took into account the potential dangers associated with these fears and warned against those who used power unethically:
“The powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon principles of righteousness…When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.”