Responding to Heresy and Apostasy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about diversity. We believe that we can celebrate diversity, and that there is room in this Church for everyone. And we mean that when we say it. President Uchtdorf, for two conferences in a row, has talked about the importance of diversity in the Church. He highlighted the fact that we need everyone, no matter their differences. I love his remarks and think that he is absolutely, one-hundred percent right.

As wonderful as diversity is, I think that we sometimes misuse President Uchtdorf’s remarks in ways that he did not intend. President Uchtdorf, for example, was certainly not saying that the Church should celebrate all diversities in opinion and belief amongst its members. This past General Conference, for example, made it quite clear that Latter-day Saints should not and indeed cannot condone same-sex relationships as moral. Yet I’ve seen bloggers use President Uchtdorf’s remarks as if they somehow vindicated those who clearly contradict established Church teachings in just these sorts of ways. That is, I’ve seen people act as if President Uchtdorf just signed off on their errant views on sexuality. This is just one example. Continue reading

Monastic vs. Pragmatic Doctrines and Practices

There is a distinction I often hear people make between pragmatic and monastic doctrines and practices. I was introduced to the distinction by a frequent commenter on this site, and I have seen it elsewhere since.

The Distinction

Pragmatic doctrines and practices are those that we think we ought to believe and enact in civil affairs and community traditions, as well as our private worship. Example: most of us would see honesty as a pragmatic doctrine. Our government, community traditions, and civil affairs should be guided and informed by basic principles of honesty. We think this holds true regardless of the religious persuasion of all participants. We are genuinely bothered when our neighbors lie or deceive others, regardless of religious differences. This makes honesty a pragmatic doctrine.

Monastic doctrines and practices are those that we personally believe and adhere to, but make no pretension of holding others to. Some of us see the Word of Wisdom as a monastic doctrine. While society generally sees social drinking, coffee, tea, etc., as acceptable behaviors, we don’t. But few Latter-day Saints today would ever insist that community traditions mold themselves to these values — we see living the Word of Wisdom as a private decision based on personal and unique religious beliefs. We hardly raise an eyebrow when we see our neighbor drinking coffee on their front porch. This makes the Word of Wisdom (or, at lest, parts of it) a monastic doctrine. “Live and let live” is the de facto motto of monastic religious practices. We choose our own way, and can sincerely believe in it, but we aren’t bothered when the traditions of the community we live in differ from our beliefs. Continue reading

Why I Support Traditional Marriage

The ongoing conversation about same-sex marriage has largely adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are denying basic human rights to same-sex couples. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are not just wrong, their views are illegitimate and should not even be admitted into the conversation, on par with the racism of prior generations.

I think the tone of the discussion fails to capture what this is really about, though. This is not a matter of rights — it is a matter of definition. I support traditional marriage because I believe the family — with a father and a mother — is the fundamental unit of society. I believe that the rise in divorce, fatherless (or motherless) children, and single parents has contributed to a whole swathe of social ills, including an expansion of government social programs. This is not meant to be demeaning to hardworking single parents out there — they are doing the best they can in a hard situation. And I believe that divorce is sometimes justified. But I believe that children, on the whole, thrive best when they live in an intact home with their biological father and mother. And I believe that the number of divorces and broken families will continue to rise if we adopt same-sex marriage as the policy of the state.

You may initially dismiss this as fearmongering. But please be patient, and allow me to explain. Continue reading

On Norms and Expectations

I’ve been thinking a lot about norms, customs, and traditions. Basically, a norm can be compared to a default template for behavior.

Norms can have two forms: descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive norms merely describe what most people do. For example, most people sleep at night, and work during the day. This is a statement of fact — it is a norm in our community. But this norm doesn’t really describe what ought to take place. Some might argue that there are prudential reasons for adhering to this norm, but few people would describe this custom as an ought, or consider a bad person for violating it. It’s just the default for people to sleep at night and work during the day, and because it’s the default, there are good, prudential reasons for going along with it. This would be a good example of a descriptive norm.

Prescriptive norms describe what ought to be the case. Now, some norms lay claim on everyone — for example, everyone should wash their hands after using the restroom. This is a custom, tradition, or norm that is definitely prescriptive. You should do this. That’s the essence of a prescriptive norm.

Other prescriptive norms are more flexible — they don’t lay claim on individuals, but merely lay claim on the aggregate. For example, I don’t think that everyone couple should be a stay at home mother. I don’t think this norm should prescribe behavior for every individual couple. There should be give and take on this norm, and I think even in communities where this is a norm, there is give and take. Few people want to hold this as a template that every individual should adhere to. Rather, we recognize that in the aggregate, when this ceases to be a norm, there are drastic changes and consequences in society. Our very understanding, for example, of the purposes of marriage can change.

I think it is possible to lament the changing norms of society without judging or scrutinizing the choices of individuals. For example, I think we see far too many mothers dividing their attention between children and a career — it is no longer a norm for a mother to dedicate her time to child raising. But I can say that without judging any particular mother with a career. Because I see think this norm should be binding on the aggregate, but not necessarily on the granular level of the individual. Individuals can and should be free to make decisions based on individual inspiration and the needs of their family, while a community on a whole can try to normalize — that is, enforce a norm — committed stay-at-home mothers in the aggregate.

For that reason, I think it’s sad that it’s hard to lament changing norms without offending everyone who makes a different choice. I think it really is possible to hold a norm as ideal without demeaning the choices of individuals.

Yet at the same time, I don’t think it’s possible for us to have norms without individuals feeling pressured by society, in some way, to follow them. That’s what norms do. Even descriptive norms do this to some extent. When the majority of people act a certain way, we anticipate that an individual we meet will act that way. And when we know that others anticipate that we will act a certain way, and when we know that they know that we know that they anticipate that we act a certain way, we feel as if we are somehow committing a wrong by violating their expectations. There’s no way around that — it’s a social fact. We feel twinges of guilt when we defy the expectations of others, even when we feel we have made the right decision.

This is ok. This is how communities work. This is how communities normalize values that it believes should be practiced on the aggregate, even if individuals here and there deviate from the practice. And so it makes perfect sense that those don’t fit the mold, who don’t follow the templates, will feel out of place or that they don’t belong. It’s natural to feel that way. And, whenever norms are in place, it will be almost inevitable. It’s hard to have norms without those who violate them — even if they have good reason to — feeling alienated or judged for doing so.

It seems to me that many people complain because they feel pressured into following a norm that they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are an exception to. For example, some couples elect not to have children. Other couples decide that both of them need to work, rather than stay at home and raise children. Some individuals decide not to get married at all. And in each of these cases, there may be very good reasons for making those decisions. But we as a society should, nonetheless, preserve norms that make these behaviors minority behaviors — that is, it shouldn’t be normal (in the sense that most people do it that way). And that means that the couple who chooses not to have children may very well be asked, more often than they would like, when or if they plan to have children, and the individual who elects not to marry may be asked, more often that he or she might like, how his or her dating life is going, or if they want to be set up on a blind date, or whatever.

And in that context, those who make decisions to violate those norms are going to feel judged, even if they aren’t. They’re going to feel scrutinized, even if they aren’t. And the solution is not to dismantle the norms. The solution is for those individuals to reflect and confirm that they are making the right choices, and press forward regardless of the feared scrutiny — and for the rest of us to be careful to always treat others with warmth, respect, and friendship, even if they violate our expectations. But it is not incumbent on us to simply never expect anything at all of others, since holding generalized expectations — even if we recognize that not everyone will meet those expectations — is pretty much the essence of a norm in the first place.

My conclusion: righteous norms are a good and necessary thing — even if individuals who have good reason to violate them feel judged for doing so. Being expected by others to behave in certain ways comes with the territory of being a member of a community. Let’s not bash norms merely because there exists exceptions. Let’s do reach out to those exceptions with warmth and friendship, but little we do will help them not feel slightly (socially) uneasy about their decisions, so long as a sturdy norm remains in place. But I think that’s probably ok, and preferable to a society with no prescriptive norms at all (which is likely impossible anyways).

The New Boy Scout Admissions Policy

The Boy Scouts have recently changed their admissions policy. If you haven’t heard about this, and the firestorm of controversy surrounding it, you’ve probably had your head in the sand. And you can consider yourself lucky. Basically, here’s the scoop:

The prior BSA policy explicitly prohibited “openly gay” young men and boys from participating in the Boy Scout program. The new BSA policy states that sexual orientation is not a factor in the admission of young men and boys into the program.

That’s the long and the short of it. I’ve been reading online, and there are a lot of members of the Church who are irate over this policy. They feel that the BSA has abandoned its commitment to moral teachings. Some LDS scouters in various parts of Utah have already made websites where they claim to be starting their own version of Boy Scouts. Here’s why I think this is absolutely ridiculous, and completely unbecoming of Latter-day Saints. Most of the ire is due to one of two reasons: (1) a misunderstanding of Church teachings, or (2) a misunderstanding of the new BSA policy. Continue reading