Monday, November 21, 2011

Mormonism and Progressive Utopian Politics

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I don't mean to make a habit of responding to Matt Bowman's essays in The New Republic, if for no other reason than that the man's scholarly chops and writing skills are both impressive and intimidating. Both those talents are fully on display in his latest piece, which thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney's technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism's history of progressive-style responses to social problems. But there's a problem with Bowman's essay: what he identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon "classical American progressivism" isn't really, or at least isn't at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance--one which, I'm sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all.

Bowman presents this affinity as emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, "when the [progressive] movement itself began," which in a way tips his hand. He is presumably assuming--not without a good deal of historical warrant, to be sure--that progressivism's genesis was concomitant with the collision of several particular forces and transformations in American thought and practice a little over a century ago: the rise of the Social Gospel; the example of European (particularly German) models of scholarly research, public administration, and technical expertise; the increasing complexity of the industrial economy; and the many political controversies resulting from the ethnically and racially fraught corruption which characterized political parties and governing bodies throughout America's immigrant-packed cities. This is a good story to tell about progressivism--but it ignores the enormous historical influence which the many populist and communitarian movements of the previous century, particularly the last thirty years of it, had on the progressive movement's moment in the sun. Bowman unknowingly acknowledges this debt with this early progressive agenda owed to the Populists when he talks about "influential progressive leaders like William Jennings Bryan" visiting Salt Lake City--Bryan being, of course, more generally and accurately known as a progressive only by accident and association, as the agrarian populist movement he'd helped to lead into the Democratic Party in the 1896 and 1900 elections slowly adapted both itself and its titular leader to more urban constituencies and priorities. 19th-century American populism--with its borderline utopian insistence upon economic sovereignty and the virtuous potential of the "plain people" organizing themselves without the assistance of monied and corporate elites--is too often wrongly understood as a kind of primitive dry-run at the more successful political reforms of the later progressive era, and Bowman's piece unfortunately perpetuates that understanding, by eliding the deeply communitarian roots of those Mormon practices which supposedly make Romney into something of a progressive himself. The story is more complicated than that.

It is true that throughout the first half of the 20th century the Mormon church built (or, in the case of the Boy Scouts, borrowed) a large number of social organizations for its membership, culminating in the construction of the extensive Church Welfare Program, which enlists the time, effort, and financial support of both the church itself as well as its individual members to provide basic necessities and opportunities for productive work to all whom local church leaders reach out to as potential recipients of aid. But to what extent were these organizational and charitable reforming institutions and practices "progressive," in the sense of seeing a grand alignment between emerging standards of economic and technological efficiency and the moral goal of charity and general human uplift? The actual history suggests that the connection was negligible. The ideal of the "Mormon beehive"--which to this day remains the symbol of the state of Utah--wasn't associated with the competent management of the Social Gospel, but rather with the kind of cooperative organization that presumably would characterize a devout, consecrated, and sovereign community of equals, of the sort that we Mormons attempted to build repeatedly in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally Utah, stymied at every juncture by our own failings and the relentless hostility of state and national governments to Mormon separateness and communitarianism. This old egalitarian Mormon attitude--mostly abandoned long ago in the face of legal challenges over plural marriage, but echoes of which remain in Mormon culture and practice today--isn't progressive, but utopian. And moreover, not utopian in the way Matt stretches to associate that idea with the early progressives' tendency to conflate good administration with moral virtue; rather, it was utopian in the way most of the radical and populist experiments of 19th century were utopian--that is, it aimed challenge the inequities and ugliness of capitalism and competition, and replace that system with one more cooperative and divine. Indeed, the Church Welfare Program itself was not understood by those who created it as solely some kind of work-centered charity program designed to "cultivate habits of thrift and industry"; on the contrary, as longtime church leader J. Reuben Clark (ironically, a man who considered himself a strong conservative opponent of any kind of socialism) put it, "the Welfare Plan has [within it]...the broad essentials of the United Order," in which all would contribute to, and may, as needed, be "given portions from the common fund." The organizational world we Mormons move through, and which Romney spent years administrating on various local and regional levels, is a world haunted by something much grander, much more populist and egalitarian and community-minded, than the progressivism that Bowman points to.

This is not to say that the progressive perspective in America, as it flourished and developed into a technocratic, generally (if not deeply) egalitarian, and regulation-friendly liberalism through the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, and up through Romney's youth in the 1960s, didn't maintain an important hold on the Mormon mind. It absolutely did, and Bowman's essay makes important points in its second half as he observes how typical Romney's "white collar, well-educated" leadership style is of the American Mormon elite today. It is indisputable that, to whatever extent we wish to look at Romney's Mormon inheritance as a way to understand the manner in which he will likely frame in his mind the social problems, fiscal dilemmas, or moral controversies that he'd encounter as president, he will probably exhibit "a profound faith in the efficacy of organizations." (A common Mormon joke, riffing on both the thirteen "Articles of Faith" originally penned by Joseph Smith and the language of Paul from the Letter to the Corinthians, is to speak of a fourteenth Article: "We believe in all meetings, have endured many meetings, and hope to be able to endure all meetings.") But it is wrong to suppose that the tangential, historically vitiated moral connection between utopian populism and technocratic progressivism, as important as it may be for appreciating the development of liberalism in the 20th century, provides a legitimate story for seeing parallels between progressives "who fought for workers’ rights and organized private charities" and the political priorities of Mitt Romney. The egalitarian aspects Mormon politics have deeper, more radical, more communitarian and utopian roots (and potential!) than that...and for better or worse, they play a far smaller role in the majority of contemporary American Mormon political discourse than any circumstantial progressivism might happen to. Mitt Romney is definitely a moderate, but to make him out as influenced by progressivism is, I think, to leverage Mormon history towards the wrong target.

5 comments:

matt b said...

I think part of the problem here is that we're defining words like "progressive" in different ways. I think you've bought into a common misunderstanding about the social gospel being basically the Red Cross with a veneer of religious language and not the profoundly transformative movement that it in fact was, that you've bought into the romanticized notion of the Populists being noble anti-capitalist agrarians assimilated by lukewarm progressive compromisers, and most of all, I think that progressivism only barely and glancingly resembles the New Deal and the later regulatory state, because it imagined a new form of American life. It was not, perhaps, the agrarian ideal of the Populists but it was, surely, not the society World War I left us with. This is why progressives like Jane Addams found the New Deal profoundly disappointing.

Suffice to say, you're taking me to task for arguing that the progressives were utopian by saying "no they weren't;" I think they deeply and profoundly were. Now, of course this has to do with what we define "progressivism" as being, and of course there's entire books devoted to that. So perhaps you're defining progressives to include mostly boring politicians like Hiram Johnson while I'm including visionary reformers like George Herron and Florence Kelley - or even somebody like Frances Willard or Richard Ely, people who surely believed that all Americans could be remade into virtuous and conscientious citizens and that we could have 100% voter turnout and no child would be left unable to recite Plato. Of course, that's not your utopia, and it may not have been that of Brigham Young. But it surely became that of Joseph F. Smith, and Reed Smoot, and particularly Heber J. Grant. This is why you take issue with me calling William Jennings Bryan a progressive - because you like Bryan and do not want to see his ideals sullied by association with men like Theodore Roosevelt. The movement's borders were fuzzy, surely.

Of course, we've not even begun to talk about the reams of historical evidence in which Mormons speak highly of progressive movements and progressive associations and endorse things like Prohibition and the NWSA - all in the end of building the Kingdom of God on earth.

I'm surely sympathetic with your elegiac tone; the vision of Zion is a deeply seductive one, but I'm also tempered, as are you, I think, with a sort of Lutheran pessimism, and the visions of the progressives strike me as a bit naive. None the less noble, though, for how radically different they thought society could be.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt,

I think you’ve bought into a common misunderstanding about the social gospel being basically the Red Cross with a veneer of religious language and not the profoundly transformative movement that it in fact was, that you’ve bought into the romanticized notion of the Populists being noble anti-capitalist agrarians assimilated by lukewarm progressive compromisers, and most of all, I think that progressivism only barely and glancingly resembles the New Deal and the later regulatory state, because it imagined a new form of American life.

I’ll possibly grant you the first charge, strongly dissent from the second charge, and more mildly dissent from the third. Your essay has but me in an interesting position, Matt, because as I’ve gotten into arguments about populism, progressivism, and American utopian and anti-capitalist movements with others over the years, I’m usually the one arguing that a certain conceptual continuity, in terms of moral (both religious and civic) fervor and a bottom-line insistence upon being able to govern oneself and one’s community in a context of equality, may be seen as extending from the People’s Party all the way up through the era of progressive reforms and even into the New Deal (thanks to the influence of thinkers like John Ryan). So generally, I’d be one to strongly agree that progressivism was a “transformative” movement, in the sense that I think it conveyed, in a different and more technical language, the same community-building goals of 19th century utopians (whether articulated by Henry George or Edward Bellamy or the Farmer’s Alliance) to a more urbanized, industrialized, and individualistic audience. Now I suspect that something vital was lost to this movement as the social gospel of the early 20th century replaced the often very literal “groundedness” of the populist argument for the rights and power of a community to sustain its members and command respect (an analog to the specificity of Zion here, perhaps?), but the visionary core concept endured through the decades, or so I believe. The problem, as I read it, with your treatment is that you’re postulating that a parallel conceptual continuity tells us something about Mormonism, and thus something about Mitt Romney’s leadership style and organizational vision. But the parallel doesn’t hold, because the chain of continuity isn’t there; Mormonism is missing the second step, where utopianism was translated into a different, organizational language. I don’t see it–I see your evidence about the Boy Scouts and Sunday School, and I’ll accept under advisement your claim about Mormon support for Prohibition (under advisement not because you’re incorrect, but because that doesn’t seem on my reading to support your claims for a Mormon embrace of the reforming moral power of efficient organizations either, seeing Prohibition was a cause very much shaped by the utopian fervor of 19th-century temperance movements), but overall what I see is a difficult, contested break from utopian equality and community, and its gradual replacement with a highly spiritualized but not in any way “progressive” trust in the righteousness and decency of the correlated programs of the modern church. Our welfare program, and other elements of our organization practices, often hint at or even directly partake of those older communitarian understandings, but I’m unaware of any concerted attempt to mold those understandings into an ideology of effectively administered moral renewal. Sure, I suppose that kind of justification can be grafted onto Sunday School and the like, and I’m not opposed to that–I like civil religion as much as the next guy–but as I understand it, for example, Sunday School was about making children into Saints and enlisting them into a community of such, not improving the race.

matt b said...

I don't think it's simply a "parallel." In fact, it strikes me that you're the one making an argument based on ideal typology rather than on historical evidence. I think there are precise correlations of influence here. The language that men like George Reynolds, who was an early organizer of Mormon Sunday schools, uses to describe what the Mormon Sunday schools want to accomplish mirrors precisely the language that people like Jane Addams and other advocates of the settlement houses and institutional church movements of 1880s and 1890s: that is, the inculcation of a particularly consistent set of virtues into their charges through methods that increasing numbers of experts in education and psychology endorsed. Mormon leaders are reading and citing the same people - John Dewey, say, as well as the progressive educators Kristine cites - that progressives are. The arguments that Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant make for the reorganization of the auxiliaries and the embrace of Prohibition and the importance of Mormonism's voluntary organizations - it's Smith, of course, who makes participation in Relief Society and Sunday school and all the rest mandatory - echo precisely the arguments that other progressive reformers were making about the virtues of community activism and its contribution to moral uplift. Heber J. Grant and Nephi Morris and other Mormon leaders explicitly in various places discuss their endorsement of the Prohibition movement the leaders of the temperance movement favorably. Meanwhile, the great Mormon thinkers of the age - Widtsoe, Roberts, et al - are devouring progressive thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Henry Cope and so on, and making very similar arguments about the perfectability of human society and the unlimited capacities of rational thought and so on and so forth. To say the evidence isn't there is sort of a boggling claim.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt,

I think there are precise correlations of influence here. The language that men like George Reynolds, who was an early organizer of Mormon Sunday schools, uses to describe what the Mormon Sunday schools want to accomplish mirrors precisely the language that people like Jane Addams and other advocates of the settlement houses and institutional church movements of 1880s and 1890s...Meanwhile, the great Mormon thinkers of the age – Widtsoe, Roberts, et al – are devouring progressive thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Henry Cope and so on, and making very similar arguments about the perfectability of human society and the unlimited capacities of rational thought and so on and so forth. To say the evidence isn’t there is sort of a boggling claim.

But I'm not saying there is no evidence of a correspondence between how early 20th-century Mormons talked about their institutions and practices, and how progressives educators and scientists of the era were talking, am I? Have I misspoken here? I think what I've been saying is that it seems to me that you want to go beyond correspondence; you want to argue that there is something fundamentally progressive about these Mormon institutions and practices, because that will enable to you to make a claim about the likely (hidden?) progressivism of Mitt Romney. Perhaps I'm not seeing what's obvious to you, but I look at those same institutions and practices, and I see the attempt to shore up a lost vision with another, later, borrowed one, making the correspondence merely circumstantial. Consequently I think the fact that Romney may use language similar to that of an early 20th-century progressive it doesn't necessarily tell us anything, because there doesn't necessarily appear to be anything to those institutions and practices tied to the progressive moral vision, or the sort which led to, as you put it, "workers’ rights and organized private charities."

Note that none of this is an argument against the likelihood that Romney may view organizations and good administration in the way you suggest; it's a challenge to the genealogy by which you present it as coming into Romney's worldview.

matt said...

When all you're concerned about is symbols, grand narratives and far-fetched historical connections, "progressive" and "crony capitalist" are interchangable terms. I guess.