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This episode is a rebroadcast from the 1995 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium. Entitled, “The Church Years: Michael Quinn, History, and the Mormon World View,” it includes Dr. Martha Sonntag Bradley interviewing D. Michael Quinn about his life as a Mormon church historian.
Thank you for adding this rebroadcast. Michael Quinn has become one of my heroes and I appreciate his Christ-like attitude as well as his great intellect and work.
Even though I enjoyed this interview, I can’t resist making a comment about it. Michael Quinn suffers from what I call the liberal paradox. The liberal paradox is when a liberal professes great support for a diversity of cultures, people, and personalities; but then turns around and contradicts himself by criticizing certain cultures, people, and personalities. For example, at around 1:09 Quinn says that if he was president of the church, he would have missionaries “forget that they are Americans. They are to dress like the local people. They are to submerge themselves into the local culture and do their best to neither think nor act like Americans. And the last thing they should think of is that somehow they are representing America or American values or Utah or Utah values as missionaries of the lord Jesus Christ.” So these missionaries should suppress their culture, suppress their values, suppress even their personalities for 2 years during their mission! This is unreasonable and hypocritical.
The person who suffers from the liberal paradox loves to speak warmly of other cultures and value systems, but then criticizes harshly western culture and values. This type of liberal loves to speak expansively of all the varieties of human personalities and experiences, but then speaks ill of “close-minded people” or “authoritarian personalities” or people who are “prejudiced” and “biased”. The fact is, many liberals are just as critical and judgmental as conservatives–just in a different way.
I enjoyed this post. I love Michael Quinn’s work, but Evan nailed it. This post could not have come at a better time for me as I was beginning to think that I was the only conservative listener.
I agree that Quinn is being unrealistic when he expects missionaries to suppress themselves completely. But the exercise of doing one’s best to get outside the self and into the other is a good one (even if success is impossible). This is what I take Jesus to be recommending with the second great commandment (loving the neighbor as the self means doing all that one can to eliminate the gap between the two), and it occurs elsewhere in religions whose histories include a lot of cross-cultural experiences.
I think the fundamental problem here is a human one, not unique to liberals or conservatives. All of us need community. We need to reach out to others. And we all eventually (mis)use that need to bully others into being like us (whether intentionally or not). The best we can do is to recognize this tendency in humanity (ourselves and other people) and own it. We have to admit our tendency to misinterpret and manipulate others. We have to look for ways of being true to our innermost selves (as we must be) that are minimally harmful to others. In other words, we will always do one another harm: still, there is a significant difference between a respectful quarrel (which does real harm) and an all-out brawl (which likewise does harm); the difference between a successful marriage and a failed one is one of degree rather than kind, with the successful couple finding positive, useful, creative ways to channel the inevitable reality of conflict. Savvy people consciously use conflict to build themselves and others into better people. Fools pretend that conflict can be utterly avoided and/or engage in the most destructive kinds of conflict (often by ignoring small quarrels until they erupt into all-out war). The best people get on well with those who really know them in spite of significant differences. They know how to have empathy (feeling what someone else feels and validating those feelings) without rolling over (just because I see where you are coming from does not mean that we agree on all points, now or ever).
It actually takes a high degree of self-awareness and moral courage to admit that other people can have a valid human perspective on life that is not yours (and may never be). It is hard, yes. It is easy to blame others for lacking it. But that does not mean that we should not strive to develop it in ourselves. The best people I know are those who take everyone they meet (liberal, conservative, wise, foolish, old, young, male, female, foreign, native, whatever) seriously — making more than a token effort to “walk a mile in the moccasins of the other.” I say this as someone who used to be rather fiercely conservative. I really appreciate people (including many “liberal” friends over the years) reaching out to me, sharing themselves with me and accepting what I had to offer in return (even when they did not have any immediate use for it). Today I don’t like to call myself conservative or liberal, religious or secular. I am a human being. I strive to be open to all other human beings, to take them seriously. The best that we are capable of as a species inspires me to act, as the worst that is in us (all of us) tempers my action (helping me avoid getting too enthusiastic about my personal plans for saving the world). The world needs all of us, not just “the good guys” (whoever they are: most of the time, they seem to be the same as the bad guys). From where I sit, it seems that Quinn was just wishing more people could see this.
The root difference between you and me is clearly one of personality differences. Your personality leads you to focus on conciliation and harmony between people and my personality leads me to focus on accuracy and problem solving. That is why you overgeneralize and omit certain details in your post–you are trying to bring people together. If that means glossing over certain details (or even occasionally contradicting yourself), then you feel justified in doing so. In contrast, I don’t mind getting into an argument in order to hammer out the details of an issue because I’m focused on the truth–even if that means disturbing the peace. Your personality leads you to focus on one thing; my personality leads me to focus on something different. It’s really as simple as that. And by the way, not all liberals have your personality, and not all conservatives have my personality; but certainly many do.
Well, what do you think? Is my diagnosis correct?
I think you are right about there being a liberal paradox. I don’t think the answer to every problem in the world is pretending that it is all your own (or your culture’s) fault and that other people are magically better than you. I think people are more similar than different, generally speaking. I think I am a lot closer to being a terrorist than I would like to acknowledge. On the flip side, I think the terrorist is a lot closer to being the Dalai Lama than he (or even I) might think.
Finally, as to where Quinn fits in all of this: I don’t know. All he does is express (with liberal wistfulness) the desire that we might see the best in others (which can require us to dim our own brilliance a bit). What he doesn’t really notice is that we are human (and so more similar than different: all of us mistreat others, and justice is only ever relative). We need some kind of concrete methods for developing rapport between ourselves and others, methods which go beyond rhetoric (which is ultimately all he can offer here). I think the whole “us vs. them” paradigm (which Quinn is relying on here) is ultimately a mistake, but I don’t like to condemn people for using it (even when they use it to evade tough questions). So I guess you are right about me, too.
As for the whole conservative vs. liberal thing, I think I may agree with you. From my perspective, “conservative” and “liberal” are just words we use to describe generic groups of people who are concretely often very different. I would not call myself a liberal (a palaeo-liberal, perhaps, but “liberal” today often means something like “statist who believes in forcing other people support his favorite charity” — a definition which works for a lot of conservatives too, I think — and that is not what I am). I would not call myself a conservative either. I have referred to myself as a libertarian, an anarchist, a minarchist, and many other things, but the only consistent values informing my personal and political persona are (1) personal integrity and (2) a commitment to enabling non-authoritarian approaches to concrete problems (such as environmental degradation, poor schooling, warfare, economic recession, etc.). I don’t really care what people call themselves: when they speak to my values, I hear them. (Alas, almost no politicians of either party speak to me these days. I don’t vote that much.)
I must say, I really enjoyed this broadcast. I appreciate Quinn’s honesty and decorum. I am excited for Friday.
I don’t think professor Quinn is saying one should forget his/her identity. He is probably refering here to what some of us would consider/call cultural imperialism. In the case of the Church missionary program it means presenting WASP cultural values as part of the gospel. As a Brazilian serving in Japan with American missionaries and under an American mission president I saw things that made me feel ashamed as they sometimes behaved as if they were representing the American culture.
I guess I don’t understand why missionaries can’t retain their culture, values, and personalities with pride–but still be considerate of other people and cultures (assuming those cultures are not unethical (e.g., endemic abuse of women)). And if natives see the missionaries and decide to emulate them, then that’s their choice. The missionaries or the church should not be blamed for that.
There is no reason why adopting arbitrary aspects of the contemporary Utah/American culture should be a prerequisite to living the gospel. As Quinn eloquently pointed out, that’s cultural imperialism.
This interpretation of his comments seems off-base to me, “The person who suffers from the liberal paradox loves to speak warmly of other cultures and value systems, but then criticizes harshly western culture and values.” Please tell me when he harshly criticizes western culture and values (I may have missed it), unless you consider cultural imperialism (and regular-old imperialism) to be a core western value (which it certainly has been in the past). How is it a paradox to respect other cultures and recommend that when someone seeks to live within in a new culture, they should attempt to actually learn about and immerse themselves in that culture?
And when it comes to the missionaries themselves, I thought their core goal was to teach other people about the gospel (the gospel is not arbitrary contemporary Utah/American culture). And he uses the example of not letting drums be used in the place of the piano (which is an example of an arbitrary cultural dictate). He doesn’t say that the piano is an evil western contraption.
“The fact is, many liberals are just as critical and judgmental as conservatives–just in a different way.” That’s true, but I’m not seeing how it relates to any part of the podcast you are commenting on.
I was defining “liberal paradox” in a general way with that sentence that you quoted. However, if memory serves me, I recall Quinn…
1) Criticizing how the West has dealt with Africa
2) Criticizing how the LDS church has dealt with Africa
3) Criticizing how the LDS church deals with other cultures in general
3) Criticizing the current LDS culture–and how it was better in the past
4) Criticizing the LDS general authorities
5) Criticizing “intolerant people” who are “judgmental” about historical characters
6) Criticizing the BYU culture (particularly in the humanities)
7) And, as I mentioned earlier, wanting missionaries to “forget that they are Americans” and to “neither think nor act like Americans”
And to clarify, I’m not opposed to being critical or judgmental about other people and cultures (or cultural elements). What I oppose is when someone (usually a liberal) SAYS that he is all-inclusive and non-judgmental and then contradicts himself in the next sentence. I mean, one has to be judgmental to some degree if one wants progress in this world. If we were to be completely non-critical and non-judgmental, then we might as well have been born a neutrino.
Regarding missionaries, it’s one thing to have the missionaries learn another culture, it is a completely different thing to have them “forget that they are Americans” and to have them “neither think nor act like Americans”. The former is justified, the latter is not.
As an aside, I’m not convinced that African drum music is appropriate in African Sacrament meetings. I’m not an expert in this area but perhaps the rhythmic, energetic beat of African drum music is objectively not conducive to solemn reflection and prayer by Africans or anybody else. Imagine a talk in Sacrament meeting where the topic is Jesus’s great sacrifice and atonement, and the pain and suffering that he went through. And then the speaker sits down and the drummers start a rollicking beat with chants and dancing. That may not be a good idea.
I don’t remember Quinn claiming to be (entirely) non-judgmental. His position is fundamentally the same as Gordon B. Hinckley’s (“bring what good you have and let us add to it”), only he sees more of what others have as being good. (We let the Pacific Islanders do raunchy dances more than half nude at our Polynesian Cultural Center, and find these inspiring, so what the heck is wrong with a little drumbeat for meetings in Africa?)
Between 1:01:50 to about 1:06 Quinn extols the virtues of being tolerant of diversity, tolerant of errors, not limited in scope, and not judging others. I believe he says similar things elsewhere in the interview as well.
Do Pacific Islanders perform these dances regularly in Sacrament meetings? Or are they only done during special events?
I concede that (so far) Islanders don’t dance for sacrament meetings.
Regarding the withholding of judgment, I think Quinn is just channeling Jesus (and the Universalist strain in Mormonism).
Regarding the drums, I think Quinn is pointing up something that anyone with significant cross-cultural experience knows. People who grew up outside your culture (radically outside it, not just down the street or in a colony from the old country) have different ways of relating to the sacred. Their ways often strike you as “bad” not because they are (for them), but because they would not work for you (at your place, in your culture). From my point of view, there is nothing inherently wonderful or superior in any particular kind of music: what matters is not the instruments used but the experience had by the players (and their audience). Having been around a few Africans in my time, I can say that drumbeats can be very sacred for them (as organ music can be for us cultural Europeans). God looketh not on the outward appearance (the clothes we happen to wear, the musical instruments we happen to play), but on the heart (why we dress the way we do, what we feel when we play music). Now that I have listened to the podcast all the way through, I agree with Quinn: let the Africans express the sacred in a way that is meaningful to them. (If they can relate to God effectively in their non-European language, then why should they have to use European music?)
Well, that is the question: Can they relate to God (that is, the Mormon God) with their drum music? Can African drum music, in fact, help them be spiritual in a Sacrament meeting? Perhaps the general authorities have looked into this issue and think that it wouldn’t work. And perhaps the general authorities are right–I’m not an expert in music and in people’s emotional reactions to it.
Most of the Japanese Mormons I know have had to go through a kind of ‘breaking out in Westernization’ before they feel comfortable in the church. I’ve had people tell me they have a testimony, but they don’t feel Christian. The sad thing is when General Authorities tell members that they don’t want people to give up the good things of their culture, only to add on the goodness of the gospel. Many Japanese have no example of what a Japanese style Mormon could be, and therefore mimic the American missionaries… an effort fraught with the promise of frustration. Who in their right mind would sing ‘Firm as the Mountains Around Us’ after the disastrous earthquakes we’ve experienced. Cultures are very important… they color our relationships with God and our Brothers and Sisters, values, and faith. After 300 years of persecution, and a half million Christian martyrs, the hesitancy to be open about one’s faith here is understandable.
The conservative paradox is that no matter how few converts LDS missionaries are actually finding (esp. compared to other much faster-growing faiths in many regions of Africa) the current (losing) formula will be defended against any innovation.
And in this particular instance, the silliest aspect of this “liberal paradox” accusation is that Quinn happens to be someone who is thinking out loud of ways to better promote a highly specific set of beliefs and practices, i.e., Mormonism. As Quinn rightly notes (has it already been 15 years?), the current generation is mostly skipping right out of the Mormon faith and not even bothering to linger in places with names like Bloggernacle and Sunstone and Dialogue … Absent a little innovation, the conservative paradox is gonna keep producing more exmormons than converts. It’s that process that’s gonna finally result in the undifferentiated mass of wishy-washy secular liberal types that folks like Evan wake up in a cold sweat about (apparently).
First, there are some conservatives who are not religious and are not interested in converting people into a religion (think Alan Greenspan). So perhaps your “conservative paradox” should be renamed the “LDS orthodox paradox” (or something to that effect).
Second, I don’t disagree with most of what Quinn says. Just because I criticize him about one issue, does not mean I’m not in agreement with him about many other things. And I should mention that I’m not a TBM (I became disaffected from the church when I was 13 for intellectual reasons). So I’m not trying to defend the church or its missionary program. Furthermore, I’m not a conservative either (I’m closer to a libertarian).
My only objective in my original post was to point out an error that I see many liberals making in their rhetoric. They say one thing, and then they turn around and say something contradictory (thus it’s a paradox).
Wow…What an enjoyable hour and a half spent with Dr. Quinn. Thanks so much for posting this, John so that we are able to get to know this important man better. If there is anyway to live broadcast your interview with him I would surely pay!! I would love to know more about his belief in the Book of Mormon and how he makes that work. Maybe you could squeeze a question like that into your interview! Thanks again to all involved!
The conservative paradox is that no matter how few converts LDS
missionaries are actually finding (esp. compared to other much
faster-growing faiths in many regions of Africa) the current (losing)
formula will be defended against any innovation.
And in this particular instance, the silliest aspect of this “liberal
paradox” accusation is that Quinn happens to be someone who is thinking
out loud of ways to better promote a highly specific set of beliefs and
practices, i.e., Mormonism. As Quinn rightly notes (has it already been
15 years?), the current generation is mostly skipping right out of the
Mormon faith and not even bothering to linger in places with names like
Bloggernacle and Sunstone and Dialogue … Absent a little innovation,
the conservative paradox is gonna keep producing more exmormons than
converts. It’s that process that’s gonna finally result in the
undifferentiated mass of wishy-washy secular liberal types that folks
like Evan wake up in a cold sweat about (apparently).
P.S. Second posting. First wound up in the spam filter (apparently).
I rarely believe it when someone portrays themselves as a harmless victim and I didn’t believe it here either. As a true historian, Michael Quinn could have admitted some of his fault.
The problem is, people believe the side of history where their opinions lead them.
What are some of the things that you are referring to that he omitted?
I know that Dr. Coe’s expertise is in Mayan culture but I wish you would have pursued his comments on the Hopewell Indians where a miriad of iron objects (including axes) have been found between 400 BC and 400 AD.
See link https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/4817/V61N06_341.pdf?sequence=1
The argument between Evan and Hermes ultimately rests on a paradox of logic, not an inconsistency of character on the part of Michael Quinn, liberals in general, or conservatives, for that matter.
It’s sort of like the old atheist canard: If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big he cannot lift it?
Evan presupposes that someone who places a high value on “tolerance” and “diversity” –in order to be consistent– must therefore refrain from criticizing those who may be (at worst) self-avowedly ethnocentric (= imperialist?) , or (at best) naively ethnocentric (= someone who has never really learned to appreciate other cultures as equivalent in value to their own).
This may make a good talking point (“those who claim to be so tolerant are really intolerant”), but the logic is ultimately self-devouring.
An argument for “consistency” cannot be made to apply to premises that are themselves inconsistent.
Why can’t folks use qualifiers in their speech? For example, they could say something like this…
“We should not be intolerant of other cultures and peoples *just because they are different from us*.”
“We should not look down upon other cultures and peoples because of *arbitrary differences between us and them*.”
Perhaps qualifiers such as these are implied in the liberal’s speech, and I’m just being overly pedantic. But with the kind of sweeping general statements that I hear many liberals use, they are sort of inviting such criticism.
But putting that aside, I’ve heard many liberals who really do seem to have it out against the west and/or science–even when it doesn’t involve ethnocentrism. Also, many liberals love to criticize the millions of people out there who are not intellectuals, who are not interested in art or culture studies, who enjoy a routinized lifestyle, and who even prefer to live in homogeneous communities. These people are not intrinsically bad. And I think personality characteristics largely explain these people’s preferences. But as long as they are not hurting anyone else, I say let them be.
So I think there is more going on here than just semantics.
Evan, I think the reason the West comes under so much criticism is because it is imperialistic. The same people criticize China for taking over smaller less powerful natures and cultures.
If African cultures were imperialistic then they’d be criticized.
When one culture overtakes another the culture that is taken over is lost forever. It is akin to murder, it cannot be reversed or undone.
Your argument is basically saying, you can’t believe in freedom if you don’t allow people who have urges to murder to be themselves and murder other people.
It is a matter of respecting a different way of life as long as it doesn’t bring harm to others.
In cases where the West has been imperialistic, I fully agree that criticism is justified. Keep in mind though that many third world countries have voluntarily adopted elements of the Western culture without coercion. The West should not be blamed for this.
In my post I was referring to aspects of the West and/or science that liberals love to criticize that are NOT related to ethnocentrism or imperialism. Below is a short list of examples.
1) Western capitalism
2) Western materialism
3) Western technology
4) Western automation
6) scientific “exclusivity” (the claim that scientists purposefully exclude certain demographics from the scientific discourse)
7) scientific “hegemony” (the idea that scientists purposefully use their positions for broader “power”)
8) science as narrative (the post-modern idea that science is just one arbitrary “narrative” equal to any cultural narrative)
I really enjoyed this podcast, and then read his post-manifesto polygamy piece for the first time. It was fascinating and inspiring!
interview. I was particularly struck by Quinn’s very brief discussion of class
antagonisms between blue collar members of the Church and general authorities
(perceived as “white collar” workers according to Quinn). I grew up
in Arizona in a blue collar home (and in a ward with lots of blue collar
workers–miners actually) and I did not get that sense at all. Granted my notions
of class were at a minimum growing up… Did Quinn mean that this sentiment was
felt only by blue collar members in Utah—in and around Salt Lake perhaps? Is
this due to the close proximity between hard-working paycheck-to-paycheck
members of the Church and well-off general authorities? (I have a relative who
is a general authority and was very uncomfortable to visit him at the luxurious
house provided to him by the Church…) Are these class antagonisms still felt
by blue collar members (in Utah or elsewhere)?
I will admit that I used to have a bad taste in my mouth when Michael Quinn has been mentioned, mostly due to those who have denigrated his name in regards to him being kicked out of the church. Based on this interview, I would be happy to say that I have been mistaken. He really comes across as a humble guy. I can’t imagine going through what he did and retaining such a positive view of the church. I can see why some think of him as a hero. The argument below about liberal vs conservative is a useless one in my book. What I found far more controversial and interesting was his view on African polygamous marriage.
I hope if you guys get to interview Dr. Quinn, you focus on his research and publications. I know you didn’t do this interview, but some of your interviews have been guilty of the same thing. Too much focus on personality, personal history, personal experience and not enough focus on the actual work these people have done. Hearing Dr. Quinn discuss his research in mystical foundations of LDS history–extremely interesting. Hearing Dr. Quinn discuss his personal journey, not so much.
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