The Progressive Adventist and the Surveilled Mind

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”—Walter Cronkite cited by former U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray, 2010

“What is to save our schools from control of this kind [religious control]? Will constitutional provisions do it? They are at the mercy of the people. Nothing will do it but the belief in the minds of the American people that the State has no concern with things spiritual, and when they do believe that, there is no danger. There is no safety except in an enlightened public opinion, based on individual intelligence. When we have that, we have all we ever can get.” —George Hoadly in Minor et al. vs Board of Education of Cincinnati et al. (1870), cited by Alonzo T. Jones,1889

This year’s news has included several stories on political surveillance including two United States surveillance programs (the National Security Agency’s PRISM and X-Keyscore) and the US’ sponsorship of the United Kingdom’s signal intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). Inspired by these stories and the recurring conundrum of academic freedom in faith-based institutions, I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy, secrecy, censorship, contemporary or retrospective surveillance, and how each of these operate in interpersonal relationships, religious and professional organizations, and the national security conversation.

One of my current reads is Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003). First released in 1997, five years before the US’ domestic terrorism watershed, Private Matters explores the evolution of the personal realm and Western concepts of privacy; the still-shifting impacts of talk, tabloid, and reality television on our expectations of privacy, and how privacy violations affect people psychologically and relationally in the moment and over time.

Four States of Privacy

Citing Alan Westin’s Privacy and Freedom, Malamud Smith describes privacy’s four constituent states: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy (pp. 37-55). Solitude, she says, permits complete relaxation and self-exploration apart from others. It’s a state in which one can engage one’s own body and psyche without translating either into forms that others can apprehend or evaluate.

Anonymity creates a bubble of free expression in the context of a group—such as “a walker in a city, a member in a crowd.” Thanks to internet comments and the modern phenomenon of trolling, we have come to associate anonymity with “expression without consequence” or sociopathic efforts to goad or control others in a given space. However, as Westin and Malamud Smith describe it, anonymity allows people to temporarily retreat from conventional norms and the restrictions and/or shame that may be linked to them. Anonymity can thus shelter the abused as well as their abusers: while an anonymous abuser may be free to cause others pain, an anonymous survivor may use their invisibility to vent anger or grief that their community would otherwise discourage.

Reserve is a state of restraint that a person exercises when around others who know him or her. It creates some distance between who people are, what they perceive of each other, and what they mutually consent to discuss: “Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. Reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it” (p. 47, emphasis supplied). Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s den or using headphones or reading materials to block out other passengers on public transportation. What counts as “reserve” varies by culture and era, and in excess it can lead to isolation and uncertainty. Malamud Smith describes reserve as a necessary field for the ground of intimacy, the fourth privacy state.

Photo: Two male lions lie next to each other. Their foreheads touch.Intimacy provides for relaxation and mutual knowing with others. It is a state of engagement, interaction, and explicit revelation: “The heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person… [This] expression is inevitably limited and incomplete” (p. 53). Malamud Smith argues that this “chosen closeness” is also lessened by publicity.

Writing Beyond the Private

The productive acts of teaching, presenting, and writing all push communicators out from private spaces, through an intimate zone in which peers speak only to peers, and into the public arena. Public communication and less private communication thus expand the reach and potential influence of new ideas and emerging conversations: they allow people who would otherwise be separated from each other to connect and access mutual conversation. Creating and participating in less private or public communication spaces is especially valuable for demographics that can’t easily find each other through pre-existing networks offline or face-to-face.

For example, I was once a member of a large public internet forum aimed at Black Seventh-day Adventists. (The site closed about 4 years ago.) Most active members were African-American or Latin@, some were Black and from the Caribbean or United Kingdom, and a few members were White and from North America or Europe. We ranged in age from early 20s through late 50s, and spanned the full family life spectrum during our time together. Most of us were also still active in local Adventist congregations but had found them cool or hostile to questions and stifling of curiosity. Even though the majority of members only knew each other through the forum, we co-created a space of respectful free association and bonded over conversations about our families, faith, beliefs, church life, current affairs, and experiences with the denomination. Eventually, some members also met up offline, during vacations, at regional conferences, or at General Conference sessions.

The forum I shared with my friends was an indeterminate, semi-public space beyond Westin and Malamud Smith’s intimate zone. Such a space might take shape around people who know each other enough to reveal and invite conversation about their inner thoughts—more conversation, certainly, than they would invite in an average Sabbath School class. So a less private space has features of intimacy’s “chosen closeness.” But it is also public in that it takes place in physical or virtual territory that anyone could access, monitor, bookmark, or lurk in. In that kind of space, the four states of privacy may be intermingled or absent. In addition, content consumers often assume a public-sphere level of entitlement to respond whether they’ve established a relationship with the writer or demonstrated understanding of what’s been shared. It’s an odd admixture of norms and expectations.

I wouldn’t have found or entered that Adventist forum at all had it not been publicly accessible. Other members have since said that they wouldn’t have shared so freely had the site required them to use their legal names rather than pseudonyms. By insisting on a censure-free space and allowing for the reserve of a pseudonym, we built a zone in which members could thoroughly dialogue about beliefs and religio-socio-political concerns, building trust through conversation and debate until their pseudonyms became nicknames or were no longer needed. By contrast, on other sites where people are required to use their legal names and mix their social and professional circles in artificially flat ways, I’ve heard users cite two feelings as reasons for speaking a certain way or not speaking at all: surveillance and inhibition.

Surveillance Culture Explored

The internet and our information/revelation culture combine to make more content more public, and once-private-now-publicized content exposes creators to personal or professional consequences that private content never would have. I’ve wondered how these shifts impact how people know themselves, how they evaluate their relationships with others, and how they determine how they’ll participate in public conversation, and how they cope with the fact that increasing visibility means increasing the possibility of others watching and taking action against them.

That possibility has significant effects. Neuroscientists and psychologists note that mass surveillance heightens stress and anxiety; reduces mental well-being, productivity/performance, and creativity; promotes distrust between an “us” that’s distinguished from “them”; and undermines authority influence. If these impacts scale from individual monitoring up through institutional and social surveillance, what does a climate that surveils members and punishes non-conformity cost our religious community?

As an Adventist, I reflected on some of the major church community stories I’ve seen unfold in just the last four years: Science teachers coming under conference observation and armchair review because constituency members complain about their curriculum… University professors and administrators being fired after a recording of their off-duty socializing is distributed to supervisors without their knowledge or consent… A minister losing his church membership and credentials when named as a sexual abuser on another continent, his local congregation and conference struggle to manage the spotlight and expectations about new information for a year afterwards… Another pastor asked to resign because of his interfaith community work and service to sexual minorities… School and college teachers being told not to patronize a documentary screening after hours while at a national conference… Church administrators discouraged from attending a different screening near denominational headquarters—and the palpable repression among those who did quietly attend generated the weirdest “question, answer, awkward silence” post-screening session I’ve ever participated in.

As I recalled these recent stories, I was reluctant to characterize surveillance and threatened punishment as native to or consistent with Adventism. Yet there they are in our recent community record. Some of Ellen White’s “I was shown” material from the late 19th and early 20th Century features references to “Brother ____,” “Sister ____,” and “Elder ______”; comments on individuals’ thoughts, lifestyle habits, relationships, and conversations publicized in White’s letters are now part of the 9-volume Testimonies to the Church series and other compiled White books. Tales told about dominant leaders and doctrinal dissenters during the church messenger’s lifetime were folded into her council and presented as evidence for or against the perspectives under discussion.

At the same time, Ellen White grasped how surveillance could harm the Adventist movement and wrote about that too. In 1888, for instance, a US Senator tried and failed to pass a federal Sunday sacredness law; Adventists, of course, were concerned and sent a conference president to testify against the bill. A few years later, White advised then-GC president O.A. Olsen to tell Adventists in the Southern states not to work on Sundays. White hoped to minimize social opposition to Adventism: were Adventists to be seen working on Sundays, she wrote, “the colored people [sic] everywhere would be placed in a position of surveillance and under cruel treatment to the white people that would be no less than slavery… If the colored people are in any way educated to work on Sunday, there will be unsparing, merciless oppression brought upon them.”

White and the church leaders she wrote to could see how societal surveillance and suspicion of Adventists would degrade relationships between local believers and their neighbors: it would focus an intense disapproval and disproportionate harm on those deemed “outsiders.” Well, at least church leaders had this sensitivity when the church’s external reputation was at stake: their record of relating to individuals within the church was not so clean.

Surveillance Culture and Intellectual Freedom

Xkcd cartoon of 6 views of privacy: philosopher, crypto nut, conspiracist, nihilist, exhibitionist, sage.

“Privacy Opinions” (c) xkcd.com

Where does this leave a progressive Adventist today? What kind of spiritual, political, and intellectual context does she have to work in? How can a progressive think, write, and explore freely in an culture that accommodates top-down monitoring, suspicion, restriction, informants, and backlash for unpopular or contrarian material, all in the name of preserving church unity?

The Adventist statement on Theological and Academic Freedom and Accountability (1987) governs staff at denominational schools and influences the academic freedom statements that institutions develop for themselves.1 The statement defines academic freedom as “freedom to pursue knowledge and truth in the area of the individuals [sic] specialty” and states that “the right to private opinion is a part of the human heritage as creatures of God” (emphasis supplied). It further establishes “certain limits” on public expression, and makes clear that freedom of conscience is (a) to be subjected to denominational loyalty and “the harmony of the church community,” and (b) to be judged by denominational consensus. According to the statement, those who vary from “the historic doctrinal position of the Church [defined by the General Conference in session]” are expected to “exercise discretion in presenting concepts which might threaten church unity and the effectiveness of church action.” Researchers are required to conduct their work with reference to their “faith” and “Christian ethics,” and teachers must advance “the worldview described in the opening paragraph of this document.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t the only religious group to operate a private educational system. Nor is it the only academic system that has to negotiate responsibilities to enrolled students, professional staff, denominational sponsors, private donors, and occasionally disgruntled petition-signing stakeholders. Like its peer religions, Adventism holds the right to organize its system exactly as it pleases, and United States religious liberty law recognizes that right.

Stipulating these institutional rights, I question whether the church’s Theological and Academic Freedom statement provides a context that supports the range of information-developing and knowledge-making that progressive members are motivated to do. How can a progressive Adventist expend energy on pushing beyond the known if his environment is designed to bottleneck new ideas, judge them by their potential to be controversial, and accept them (only?) if consonant with the administrative “unity” of an international faith group?

In such a climate, progressives may feel compelled to withdraw from the public spaces of writing, teaching, and speaking, and to exercise a great deal of prudence, reserve, and caution when they venture out at all. As noted earlier, prudence, reserve, and caution are traits native to the third state of privacy that Malamud Smith described in Private Matters. But they aren’t traits naturally paired with progressive energy: they don’t advance a spirit of curiosity or discovery. Again, I’m not arguing that progressive individuals can’t work or teach in a conservative context; of course they can and do and have. I’m only wondering if that context is ideal for them or allows them to fully exercise the progressive gift.

I’d love to hear more from self-identified progressives about the contexts they feel would elicit their best work. I expect some disagreement within this community on how to move ahead, but I don’t believe that freedom to agree with what has already been decided is worth setting off the firecrackers for: as Cronkite said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom.”

Increasing Support for Progressive Minds

A Harvard Business Review column recently argued that it’s the context around an individual that catalyzes or represses his or her baseline abilities: plucking successful people out of environments that helped them thrive doesn’t mean transplanting the successes they were able to create there.

In this article I’ve suggested that Adventism’s knowledge-making culture isn’t a supportive environment for progressives. Given the denomination’s belief structure and history, we might say this is a reasonable conclusion, but the big question for young progressives deciding how to serve their church or if they’ll stay with their church is whether the current context of surveillance and inhibition is inevitable. After all, what’s especially Adventist about introducing private conversations as evidence against members in church or university board meetings? What’s Adventist about reading and evaluating writers in terms of their apparent orthodoxy or supposed satanic deception? Such responses to conversation or scholarship may be authentic expressions of who we are, but I don’t think they’re essential to who we are.

In the last decade, I’ve gone beyond Adventism to learn how to approach progressive thought and scholarship because I didn’t find strong models at work within the borders of the denomination. I found models among Friends (Quakers) so committed to “the light that enlightens every man” and “that of God in everyone” that their bible studies invite participants to assess our personal experience of the bible’s stories and the insights they inspire in us. I also found other models among post-Adventists and never-been-Adventists who were practiced in listening, not merely hearing to formulate rebuttal, and who could therefore create powerfully supportive growth and innovation spaces for me and others like me. These approaches may not be Adventist, but I am still Adventist because of them.

Riffing on the now-clichéd “Be the change you want to see,” director Vikram Gandhi (in character as Sri Kumaré) has said, “Be the strange you want to see.” Progressive Adventism’s strange is not only in the structural or interpretive changes that progressives suggest to the mainstream church. 2 The strange of Progressive Adventism also lies in the fact that progressivism really is foreign to the reactive fundamentalism that has dominated Adventism in 30-year cycles since the 1920s (1920s-1950s, 1980s-present). 3 Many of us like to say “I don’t worship the book; I worship the God of the book!” In practice, however, we are slow to explore territory that the book has not mapped and did not anticipate. An inhibited progressivism cannot teach us how to explore well, and perhaps exploring is something that we progressives need to relearn before we can teach it or share it with others. I don’t know for sure that it’s possible for us to expand the Adventist status quo meaningfully across those boundaries where it’s now constricted. But I am willing to experiment with other progressive minds so we can find out.


1. The statement does not apply to lay members or non-employees as such, but because much Adventist scholarship is tied to denominations paid ministers, teachers, ministry departments, colleges, and universities, this statement and its companion “affirmation” at the Adventist Theological Society both influence the denomination’s scholarship culture.

2. Progressive initiatives may include substantively reviewing all of the contemporary church’s spiritual gifts, how we recognize them through ordination, and how we deploy them in congregations and other local contexts; developing a fact-based and humane approach to sex, gender, sexuality, marriage, and family; generating new epistemologies, modes of inquiry, and wisdom-building tools; resuming and extending Richard Rice’s 1980s work on open theism; evaluating how our bias toward literacy and linear argument influence both how we read the ancients’ oral narratives and render our own; and exploring what Adventism might learn from integral or holist philosophy as we re-associate science and faith and restore coherence to our emphasis on individual health and piety, our contributions to the societies we’re members of, and our stewardship of Earth.

3. I broadly agree with Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart’s reading of this timeline; see their 2006 study of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Seeking a Sanctuary.

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