Site icon Times & Seasons

When is Somebody’s Belief a Valid Question?

Jack Dempsey Having Some Fun with Harry Houdini

The term “Jack Mormon” was popularized by world champion boxer Jack Dempsey who, while born in the Church and remaining friendly towards it, wasn’t a practicing Latter-day Saint (sidebar, while a certain segment of Mormondom gets super excited every time one of us makes it into the A-list, relatively few people know that the Michael Jordan of the 1920s was a Latter-day Saint). 

Whether Jack Dempsey actually believed in golden plates, I don’t know, and besides being an interesting piece of trivia, I don’t particularly care. He was a boxer first, and his Church membership was very much a minor appendage to everything else in his life. 

However, people who are involved in Church-y things is a more complicated question. Occasionally some controversy will arise when a claim is made about what some visible figure in the Mormon space–not just somebody in the public space who happens to be Mormon–actually believes. Some people say it’s nobody’s business, while some people say that we all have our own biases and we should be transparent about them. 

While thinking through this question recently I came across a heuristic one of my friends posted that seemed to make sense: if you yourself invoke your Latter-day Saint status (or, I would add, you appeal to in-group frameworks), then the consumers of your opinions have the right to know what that means.  

How many times do we see something along the lines of “as a Latter-day Saint…” [insert criticism of the Church]”? The very fact that they are invoking their in-group status (often to leverage against the Church) means that they themselves think that it adds something to their argument, so it is disingenuous to cry foul when people critique or interrogate their use of the in-group markers that they are relying on. This is especially germane since I, along with others, sometimes suspect that the coyness about whether they actually believe is simply a transparent ploy to grant their opinions more cachet with the orthodox TBMs who constitute the primary fuel line for the Church. 

For point two about frameworks, I could in theory learn enough about Catholic canon law or Muslim theology to make an internally coherent, self-consistent argument about this or that particular of Catholic or Muslim theology, and while that’s fine as an exercise, if I’m trying to convince true believers of that point the fact that I don’t accept the underlying premises is not irrelevant, and if I don’t do it carefully it could come off as patronizing (although there may be a way to inoffensively do it as long as I’m upfront of my premises). Instead, since my actual belief about the issue is clearly grounded in something external to Catholic or Muslim theology, why don’t we have the discussion there? This is doubly true in the Latter-day Saint case because we don’t have anything nearly as systematic as, say, Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic law, so the line between internal law and outside ideological influences is more fuzzy, so non-believers can play the game for longer and be more Schroedinger’s Cat-like about where their arguments are coming from when discoursing with TBMs. 

Conversely, if you’re making a technical, empirical argument in, say, an academic forum, then it does seem in poor taste to make a point about the religious beliefs or lack thereof of the person you’re arguing with. This sword cuts both ways though. In my admittedly anecdotal experience it seems like independent scholars are more prone to fall into the habit of slandering people as “apologists” instead of addressing their arguments on their own merits (the fact that Robert Ritner at University of Chicago did so in a peer-reviewed journal was very off-kilter for that kind of publication). 

There’s a school of thought of “nothing about us without us.” For more narrowly tailored, empirically based research I’m not a fan of the sentiment. If I’m a population geneticist writing a paper arguing for a particular ancient migration pattern based on a new DNA technology, I don’t think it matters at all whether I’m part of the group I’m writing about. However, if we take several large steps back and start talking about, say, what the future of the Navajo Nation should look like, then yes, I do think an opinion on the subject coming from a Navajo is a different thing than one coming from a non-Navajo, and I would extend the same sentiment to communities predominantly formed by beliefs as much as to those predominantly formed by ancestry.

Once people start trying to influence a body of believers using internal language or identifiers, where they are actually coming from is a legitimate question, and when such people exhibit extreme sensitivity about their actual beliefs it sometimes leads me and others to assume that it’s so sensitive precisely because if they were fully open it would hurt their ability to influence the people they’re trying to influence.


Exit mobile version