One meme that is constantly bandied about the bloggernacle is the idea that people leave the church because they are too black and white in their thinking. That if people could just see more shades of gray then they wouldn’t be so disappointed in the shadier aspects of Mormon history. In fact, I think this view is very common amongst liberal leaning Mormons. I also think that this idea does more harm than good and ignores the issues and people it is meant to help. It is the liberal equivalent of the conservative Mormon’s “get your mind right by reading the scriptures and praying more.” And it is just as helpful. I see at least three problems with this idea.
Problem #1: It ignores the issues. Liberal Mormons are much better than conservative Mormons at hearing people out and showing sympathy for the doubts of others. This is to be commended. Conservatives tend to ignore the issues with knee jerk apologetics and calls for greater personal righteousness, prayer, fasting, etc. They don’t want to deal with the issues, in fact many of them don’t even want to hear about the issues, preferring to treat hard history like hard-core pornography, something to be avoided. Liberal Mormons listen, sympathize, and attempt to help. However, once liberals invoke the shades of gray argument, they are avoiding the issues just like conservative Mormons. The shades of gray argument basically amounts to telling someone that for whatever reason the issue just isn’t enough to make one lose their faith, and that the doubter just needs to see the issue as gray and move on. Notice what has happened, the issue has been taken off of the table and replaced by something wrong with the doubter. It’s the doubter’s fault that they wanted an answer when they should have been happy with gray. The tactic is different from conservative Mormons but the end result is the same.
Problem #2: It is condescending. It basically amounts to saying that people leave the church because they were a bunch of simple minded fundamentalists. Those who are sophisticated can navigate the waters of doubt because of their ability to see gray. How is this different than a conservative saying that people leave the church because of their pride and desire to sin? I don’t think it is very different at all. In fact, each reason plays to the biases of the group that spouts it. For conservatives, personal righteousness is seen as a great strength, so labeling those who leave as unrighteous strengthens them as a group and allows them to ignore those who leave. Likewise, liberal Mormons value open mindedness and intellectual agility. By labeling those who leave as black and white thinking rubes they strengthen their own group’s biases and ignore those who leave.
Problem #3: It is self refuting for a liberal Mormon to say this. Lowering expectations is a tool to conserve current social, political, and intellectual groups and ideas. Lowered expectations preserve the status quo, thus are inherently conservative, not liberal. A perfectly valid response by an Aristotelean to a Newtonian in the 17th century would be that Aristotle is just fine, so long as you have lower expectations of what a scientific theory can do. Horrible marriages are more likely to last provided that spouses have low expectations. And the worst dictatorship in the world will last as long as it’s citizens have low enough expectations. Now, I am not comparing the church to Aristotelean physics, bad marriages, or dictatorships, I am just pointing out that low expectations can lead to profound and sometimes dangerous conservatism. And don’t liberals reject this kind of conservatism?
Of course a liberal Mormon might retort that they advocate no such thing, that they do not suggest that expectations be that low. If so, then you have to make explicit just how low expectations should be allowed to go. However, I have never seen this spelled out by a liberal Mormon, at least in any detail. I think this may be avoided because of fear. If the liberal Mormon sets expectations too high, a critic might be able to hit them hard enough to push them over the edge. If they set the expectations too low, they and others may begin to wonder what’s the point of even bothering if one expects so little.
So, what’s my point? I think liberal leaning Mormons need to think very carefully about advancing a shades of gray point of view (EDIT: was agenda). They need to set clear boundaries as to what can be gray and what cannot. It can’t all be gray, not in a religion that makes as many truth claims like Mormonism. They also need to very clearly delineate just how low expectations can be set and honestly stick to them. However at that point, if they are honest, they may have their world shattered when they discover their expectations weren’t low enough and black and white becomes gray. Then perhaps a well intentioned even-more-liberal-Mormon will tell them their expectations were too high and they need to see in shades of gray. Turnabout is fair play.