Christopher Lasch and the Mormon declension narrative: thoughts on Eric Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: a life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans, 2010)
I discovered Christopher Lasch in the fall of my first year in a PhD program, when I picked up The World of Nations while standing at a booksale table in front of Georgetown’s library. When I saw a chapter on Mormonism in the table of contents I did a double-take; it seemed odd to me still when I ran into my people in foreign venues. Nonetheless, I took the thing home.
Here is what Christopher Lasch wrote about Mormonism, in what turned out to be a rather scathing review of Robert Flanders’s Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi and a Mormon-corporate-empire hack expose by Wallace Turner: “The Mormons are so clearly a pathological symptom that a historian could not address himself to the Mormons, it would seem, without asking himself what sort of society could have produced them.” (Quoted in Miller, 117-118) This is enjoyably snarky, on one level; Lasch was, or came to be later in his life deeply sympathetic with the self-critical mood of Christianity at its best, but always had little use for angels and miracles and certainly golden plates. But on another level, it’s a criticism of how Flanders and Turner have chosen to understand the past. Flanders was dull while Turner appeared to think that he was Ida Tarbell and the Mormons were Standard Oil. Flanders’s careful tracking of lease records and port shipments, while undeniably important, seemed to Lasch to misunderstand the purpose of historical discipline, which was to use the past to call the present to self-awareness and repentance. Turner’s muckraking conspiracy theories, on the other hand, make the same mistake – in Lasch’s memorable formulation, they do not “distinguish between Mormonism as a religion and the Mormons as the dominant social class in the state of Utah.” The trouble was, Lasch seemed to think, very few Mormons made the distinction either.
To most Mormon intellectuals this is a somewhat familiar – and pretty tired – critique: the fun and zany world of nineteenth century Mormonism befouled by boring committee work. Put more seriously, the exuberant inventiveness of Joseph Smith, his familiar “it feels so good to not be trammeled,” given way to correlation, conformity, and bureaucratic flow-chart-ism.
This is of course wildly oversimplified and often wrong. What Lasch offers us is a new way to understand why that is so.
Christopher Lasch was from the beginning a child of the American left, a product of the liberal tradition, which he why he was capable of putting his finger on precisely where late twentieth century American liberalism went wrong. His early historical works scored the first generation of modern American liberals for excessive preening and self-consciousness, which hindered their ability to effect actual change. He was impatient with liberalism’s orthodoxies, most of all its growing attachment to identity politics, individual rights, and personal expressiveness, which he considered an extraordinarily unhealthy fixation for any society that wanted a healthy community. After his 1975 book Haven in a Heartless World sounded a prophetic cry against the slow decay of the American family, and met with sometimes bitter and sometimes patronizing criticism from liberals, he wrote with frustration that “If you talk about growing tensions that so often seem to characterize relations between men and women it’s assumed that you want women to return to the kitchen . . . If you take the position that children should be raised by their parents instead of by professional experts you’re participating in a sentimental cult of the home.” (219) Lasch was quite willing to go to the rhetorical mattresses with feminists and partisans, merrily lambasting divorce and the nanny industry with equal glee.
As Lasch wrote, in the sort of vivid jeremiad that he was particularly talented at, “The left believes in progress, technology, education, enlightenment. It believes that people ought to be uprooted from tradition and liberated from provincial superstitions and constraints. [But] the left hasn’t come to terms with the critique of bureaucracy, centralization, technology, science, progress, modernity, feminism, androgyny. It hasn’t listened, since it already knows that criticism of these ideas is reactionary. To label a position reactionary naturally settles the issue.” (302) He generally despaired that the American political left was capable of solving the problems he saw in American life, since it intransigently denied that these were problems to begin with.
But Lasch came to the cultural conservatism of his middle years by way of Marx, who had shaped his intellectual youth. He had little sympathy for conservatives who pinned the cultural decay he so despised on an overweening state that sapped Americans of the moral fiber. Rather Lasch pointed out that American conservatism had itself become another bastion of the very faults that were ravaging the nation. American conservatives’ staunch – and classically liberal – defense of the market economy was every bit as crippling as the worst excesses of identity politics, and perhaps more so. Indeed, following Adorno and Gramsci and other Marxist thinkers, Lasch believed that a society’s visible culture rested in large measure on the deep superstructure created of its economics, and idolatry of the market and shrill defense of “freedom” was profoundly damaging to robust and vital community. Families broke under the growing strain of unfettered capitalism. The cult of self-help manuals and getting-aheadism tore apart the social fabric. If liberals encouraged moral degeneracy in the name of self-actualization, conservatives set people up for it and blamed them when they fell.
Early on in his career, Lasch hoped that American liberalism could be reformed, made to acknowledge its flaws and thereby be brought perhaps to a place where it might save a robust democracy. He looked to nineteenth century populism, a grassroots movement born of small communities, strong kinship ties, producerism rather than consumerism, civic engagement, and locally controlled economies. He valued attachment to place, and despised the confusion of atomism with freedom. But later in his career he drank more and more deeply of the Calvinist tradition (which puzzled his lifelong secularist parents) and drifted toward a more tragic view of American life. Lasch came to the belief that the limits he saw in both liberalism and conservatism were in fact simple expressions of self-contradictory human nature, and began to call – particularly in his magnum opus, the 1991 book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics – for what Miller calls “the painful awareness of the gulf between human aspirations and limitations.” The myth of progress, confidence that if only we pursue greater education/enlightenment/science/morality/capitalism our lives can be made better and our societies perfected, is perhaps the source of our greatest pain. This is true prophecy: a calling to account, a determined distance from the corruption with which we make unconscious compromise.
Though Lasch does not say it explicitly, the traditional story of Mormon declension is in large measure premised on terms that would, perhaps, have been unfamiliar to that first generation of bearded sectarians. Viewing Joseph Smith as a radical individualist in pursuit of personal truth and blasting the contemporary church for abrogation of individual self-expression reads the deeply liberal culture of modern America into the past, and makes an improbable demon of the very paternalist hierarchy that Joseph Smith helped create. Joseph Smith, it must be remembered, was far more an advocate for absolute truths and supernatural authority than he was for self-actualization, and criticisms of his church in the language of rights-talk misses the point Lasch came to argue late in his life: that religion rarely coincides with liberal conceptions of the nature and aims of the self.
By the same token, Lasch wondered precisely to what extent the Mormons themselves realized this. Happily tootling around Salt Lake City in their late model sedans and Mr. Mac suits, they rarely imagined that there might be any tension whatsoever between their faith and their politics. For Lasch, this was unfortunate, even if merely theoretically. The Mormons, after all, believed weird things – but the community they had built resisted the centrifugal decay of American liberalism for two generations, until America could tolerate such a thing no more. The tragedy of the Mormons, then, was not that they were illiberal – that they resisted talk of civil rights and natural equality and the rest – but that they became too liberal. To what extent this is a practicable critique is certainly debatable. But it nonetheless draws us toward a deeper debate: we should not simply argue about policy, but about premises, and take seriously what it means to claim prophecy.