Q&A with Charles Randall Paul for Converting the Saints: A Study of Religious Rivalry in America July 06 2018
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Q: Give us some insight into your background, how you chose to write about this topic, and your involvement with religious diplomacy.
A: I was raised in northern New Jersey where my high school of 400 kids consisted of three major cliques: Jewish, Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant. There were four Mormons. I was surprised to find how solid and happy my friends’ families were. How could they be so good without The Truth? In mid life I became interested in how religious and secular societies faced unresolvable conflicts over truth and authority and right values. It seemed God had set up the world for pluralistic contestation, and I tried to figure out why. These issues led me to develop interreligious diplomacy as a mode of interaction that included persuasive contestation between trustworthy advocates.
Q: Tell us briefly about the three case studies in this book. Who are these individuals and how did they differ in their tactics from one another?
A: In the early twentieth century after Utah had been accepted as a state, the major Protestant churches wanted to assure that Mormonism was not accepted as another Christian denomination. John Nutting, a freelance pastor, evangelical/preacher came to Utah with young college age missionaries to save souls that, after hearing his revival teaching or door-to-door witnessing, simply confessed the true Jesus and stopped attending the Mormon church. William Paden, a Presbyterian, educator/activist, helped set up 1–12 grade schools that taught LDS students “true” Christianity along with math and English. He also tried to discredit the LDS leadership, close down the Mormon Church, and educate its youth in the right way. Franklin Spaulding was an Episcopal Bishop intellectual/diplomat that aimed to educate LDS college students in the inconsistences of some of the Mormon Church claims. He hoped to convert the Saints in their pews—urging church leaders that he befriended to change just a few doctrines and join the mainline churches.
Q: You state that ongoing debate between religious ideology is at the heart of what it means to be a pluralistic society. Can you elaborate on this?
A: Humans in societies live by stories that order their lives. Ideological or religious traditions provide the comprehensive order and hope for a better world. These religious stories can seriously challenge the veracity of their rival claimants to truth and authority—making for conflict. Contemporary social conflict theorists have focused almost exclusively on conflicting economic and security interests as the engines for conflict, neglecting the cultural driver that religious tradition provides. I am bringing into focus the potency of conflicting formational stories in any society.
Q: Why isn’t tolerance always the desired outcome? How can two opposing people or groups find meaningful ways of collaboration?
A: Tolerance is a weak social virtue (devoid of trust or good will) that collapses when economic and security crises lead societies to seek for scapegoats. We have found that ideological opponents who engage honestly by means of persuasion actually can come to trust and “enjoy” each other’s bothersome presence. People engage in collaborative co-resistance n many forms—sports being the most obvious—legal, legislative, scientific and commercial realms also absorb non-violent conflict managing procedures. When religion is involved, there is no room for compromise solutions, so some form of sustaining the ideological contest in a mode of persuasion is needed. This is healthy intolerance because it allows critics and rivals to be authentic and to have conversations that matter.
Q: For Latter-day Saints, contention is a particularly discomforting word. In your book, you say that you prefer the term “contestation.” Can you explain what you mean?
A: This is a key to understanding how the LDS can lead in the goal of peace-building in split families or societies. We rightly learn that Jesus and Joseph thought contention—a term based on a root of forcing, twisting, coercing others—was the devil’s work. It includes anger and contempt and resentment and revenge. On the other hand, those who stand for something as witnesses need to elevate the term contestation that means to witness with, for or against something—the root being the testimony of a witness. The design of heaven and Earth seems to include many intelligences with different experiences to which they can respectfully testify without fear or anger. They have different viewpoints and experiences that bring them to conflicting contestants; honestly speaking the truth they see. This is what the Holy Spirit prompts us to do. It is the opposite of contentiousness even though the conflict of interpretation and ultimate concern or story remains. Peaceful tension results from contestation—and that is enough for Zion to thrive. Oneness cannot be identical interpretation and understanding of everything that would make individual existence redundant.
Q: We live in an age of intense ideological polarization. What are you hoping that readers will learn from the case-studies presented in this book?
A: I want them to read the book in the broad context of the problem of pluralism that began, narratively speaking, when Eve was different than Adam. I trace the American system of managing religious conflict as a living aspect of society. As long as it remains in the persuasive mode, it allows free expression in the balancing of ideological drives for hegemony. America is based on a foundation of continually contested foundations. Our culture can thrive on pluralism, not because we follow laws of procedural conflict management, but because we have a deep belief in the value of a worthy rival in religion as well as any other aspect of life. The case studies I show will hopefully move a reader to understand how the desire for a trustworthy opponent is a precious thing that does not come naturally but is essential to the success of a pluralistic society.