A Post to Aid Conversation and Understanding

November 6, 2015    By: DavidF @ 3:13 pm   Category: Life

There’s been a lot of conversation over the Church’s policy decision regarding children of LGBT couples. What I have seen as I’ve looked through blogs is a lot of people grasping for ideas to explain their position on this issue, getting misinterpreted or saying something unintentionally hurtful, and causing more pain all around. This troubles me. There’s a difference between hurting feelings because of genuine disagreement and hurting feelings as a byproduct of failing to frame a difficult issue in constructive ways. I can’t do anything about the former, but this post might help with the latter.

In this post, I present three cognitive frameworks that might help people understand their own position and the position of others, one political, one moral, and one psychological. I hope that those reading this will come to a better appreciation for the views of people with whom they disagree, that they will see the good that motivates those with whom they disagree, and that they will reflect upon the flaws in the views that they currently subscribe to. As with all great moral debates, the three ones I describe below are probably irreconcilable. That’s why these Facebook, forum, and blog debates don’t seem to persuade anyone. So long as I operate in a different moral framework than you, our chances of agreeing with each other will be at best accidental (and for different reasons). And competing moral frameworks can’t disprove the validity of their competitors. I urge anyone reading this to consider that before they embark on a debate with people they care about (or should care about). As a final point, my hope is that I can summarize each of the positions below to show why they hold a lot of intuitive appeal. If I have failed to do that, I hope I’ll be able to rectify it in the comments section, but in the meantime, I ask readers on both sides to be sympathetic to positions they otherwise find disagreeable.

Liberalism and Communitarianism – Political Framework

Liberalism is often associated with political liberals, but that is a mistake because political liberals—who I’ll call progressives—aren’t always liberal. Liberalism is the belief that in any political society, the rights, freedom, and security of its individuals are the most important thing that a society can, and should, protect. Liberalism correlates with the Enlightenment values of individual autonomy, political freedom, and the right to moral self-determination (described more below). Progressives are often associated with these ideas, but it would be more accurate to associate libertarians with them. In fact, progressives and libertarians divided in the early 20th century over the question of how involved the government should be in ensuring that these values are protected. Nevertheless, you’ll see liberals and libertarians often join forces on issues such as same-sex marriage (and their rights as equal citizens in all respects). But just as progressives tend to believe that individual liberties are best protected by government involvement, they are also likely to believe that private organizations ought to protect and promote individual liberties as well (libertarians often disagree on this point—which might be why there are a lot of libertarians in the Church). In other words, for a promoter of liberalism, and particularly for progressive liberalists, the Church’s decision to limit the opportunities for children of same-sex couples clashes with one of the most critical values that we are raised to believe: that protecting individual autonomy is fundamental among other values.

As important as liberalism is, it has its problems. One of them is that most humans aren’t wired to be purely liberal thinkers. Even progressives, who tend to be associated with liberalism, do not vote that way in some political issues, such as gun-control or certain protections for racial minorities (there’s a liberal argument to be made for both of those issues, but progressives don’t always make it). Those that find liberalism unsatisfactory marshal out the positions used by its opposing framework, communitarianism.

Just as progressives are often associated with liberalism, conservatives are often associated with communitarianism, although that too is overly simplistic. Communitarianism is the belief that the community’s interests as a whole should take precedence over any of its individual’s. The classic position of a communitarian is this: If a small business owner wants to open a pornography store in a small town, should the town be allowed to prohibit that if most people don’t want it? The idea has a lot of appeal, especially among political conservatives. There’s no question that humans are born with a kind of “hive mentality,” where we recognize that a united community can do much greater things than a group of individuals (think Aristotle). There’s a great deal of research backing up the commonly held view, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and a lot of people can remember a day when it felt safe to leave the house of children and wander the streets because the community was there to protect them. If political liberalism is fundamental to our political system, it seems that communitarianism is the best framework in which it can thrive.

However, there are problems with communitarian thinking. One is the danger of moral authoritarianism. If the community is ultimately more important than the individual, than the community ought to set its own standards. If individuals don’t like it, they should go to a different community. Astute readers will recognize this argument among many a faithful Mormon in this debate: there is no right to be a member of the Church, and those who disagree with it do not have to stay.

That’s a frustrating argument for liberals to hear because it seems so intuitively wrong…from a liberal perspective. Moreover, when it comes to a religion debate such as this, communitarians can excuse the problem of moral authoritarianism by simply saying, “Hey, I don’t make up the rules, God does.” The veracity of the communitarian position then moves from a political one to a metaphysical one. Those who aren’t persuaded by the metaphysical arguments (i.e. those without at testimony) leave, and those that are stay, albeit often begrudgingly. Yet, and this is a bit tangental, those communitarians who tend towards a guardian-of-the-community role, often find the begrudging liberals to still be intolerable, since even if they agree to stay in the community, they nevertheless weaken it by staying. The message liberals get is typically this: conform or leave. The danger of such a message is, and liberals often point this out, that there’s a difference between the Church and the Gospel. While some people might try to separate those too much, communitarians run the risk of agreeing with that position in principle but in practice allowing their biases to make the distinction effectively irrelevant.

Harm Principle and Virtue Theory – Moral Framework

Moving on, another classic moral debate is the harm principle v. virtue theory. The harm principle was most clearly developed by John Stuart Mill. Mill characterized it this way: I should be allowed to do whatever I want up to the point that it violates the liberty of another to do what she wants. The harm principle may not tell me what *I* should do, but it does tell me how far I’m allowed to go before I need to stop and limit my actions for the sake of others. The harm principle helps those who follow liberalism to know where to draw the line on individual freedom, although it’s worth stressing that the harm *principle* is not the harm *rule*; there are times when even most liberals would agree that it ought to be set aside such as in at least some instances of statuary rape even when both parties fully consent. However, the harm principle might cause us to question whether other acts ought to be considered morally wrong, such as polygamy. Mill, in fact, wrote favorably about Mormons practicing polygamy.

The harm principle has its advocates in this debate. What harm is there in allowing children of LGBT parents to receive various Church ordinance? And if there is no harm, or at least no closely related harm (there’s almost always some harm out there for anything if one abstracts enough), then the policy is morally wrong. Or at least, if the harm principle is the foundational standard for moral thinking, then that is probably the necessary conclusion to be drawn. One answer Ivan Wolfe at Millennial Star gave to this is that the harm is to the Church. This policy, Wolfe explains, is about the “struggle for soul of the Church,” meaning whether the Church can keep out people who would try to enter it and try to change it to openly tolerate the same-sex lifestyle. Perhaps that is a potential harm, but couched in communitarian thinking as it is, it is not entirely persuasive, since it really just swaps the harm principle out for the core philosophy of communitarianism. In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage can be seen as a debate about the harm principle, where the side that lost tried to do exactly this.

Another response to the harm principle is to adopt an alternative moral framework, that of virtue theory. Virtue theory isn’t easy to explain, particularly because it is so easy to misrepresent. The notion that we should follow the virtues, some more than others, and eschew the vices, some more than others, is not central to virtue theory; that notion is merely its outgrowth. Virtue theory is about finding one’s role in society or in a particular situation and then following what is expected of that role to excel at it. Farmers should be patient, warriors should be courageous, scholars should be wise, and al of us should try to emulate the virtues of these various roles in the roles that we find ourselves in order to excel at what we are supposed to do. One virtue theorist, Alisdair MacIntyre, gives the example of a hockey player racing to the net of the opposing team in the final seconds of the game. The player sees that she must pass it to her teammate to have any chance of winning the game. What should the player do? If she’s a good player then she immediately knows what is the appropriate thing to do, because she knows that her role is to excel as a hockey player at her sport in conjunction with her team. By passing the puck, she acts virtuously. Compare the hockey player with another blogger discussing the LGBT issue.

Geoff B. at Millennial Star gives the analogy of a orchestra concert, which he uses to explain why the Church’s recent policy addition is just. Imagine being at a concert. If you were there, you’d intuitive recognize that certain things would be wrong to do. It would be wrong as an audience member to stand up and heckle the orchestra. It would be wrong for a violin player to sit in the percussion section. It would be wrong for a viola player to play an oboe’s part, etc. What would be appropriate to do if you neither wanted to listen to the orchestra or take part in it is to go somewhere else and do something else.

The analogy draws the communitarian conclusion that I discussed above, but its point on roles is particularly salient to what I’m describing here. A good church member has a role to support the decisions of church leadership. Harm principle folk might find that repugnant, but that is because they do not ascribe to virtue theory. If they did, then not only would the conclusion be entirely fine, it would be the clearly and morally right thing to do. Not only are harm principle folk wrong about to criticize the church’s policy (see communitarianism above), but church members who criticize it are acting according to the wrong moral framework when they criticize it too.

There are problems with virtue theory. As I see the length of this post increasing much more than I initially anticipated, I’ll set those aside for right now. What I think probably makes virtue theory seem so clearly wrong to certain people, and why the harm principle seems so clearly wrong to virtue theory people boils down to another paradigm, the last one I’ll discuss.

Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degredation – Psychological Framework

Jonathan Haidt was a progressive, atheist, Jew living on the east coast who found the moral views of conservatives absolutely repugnant. However, as Haidt began to study the underlying psychology of why people are drawn to progressive or conservative ideologies, he discovered that conservatives weren’t morally repugnant as he previously thought, they just set moral priorities differently than progressives do. Haidt later went on to discover six moral-value foundations that guide both conservatives and progressives, and depending on how you prioritize one foundation over the other you are more likely to vote one way or the other. I’ll highlight two of those foundations, which are probably the most salient ones here: care/harm, sanctity/degradation.

Progressives tend to be highly sensitive to acts that result in harming other, and are motivated strongly to care for others, including those they do not know. That helps explain why progressives are much more likely than conservatives to stress the needs of the poor, racial minorities, single mothers, and even criminals. Conservatives are sometimes baffled when progressives come to the defense of Islamic extremists who hold particularly non-progressive views (conservatives, as communitarians, are very hesitant defend someone who doesn’t share in their community values), but progressives are so strongly motivated by the promotion of care and avoidance of harm, that it matters to them on an intuitive level to protect even someone they vehemently disagree with on other issues. That is not to say that Conservatives don’t feel this way some of the time, but they are more likely to put a lower priority on this care/harm need than progressives.

Just the opposite, conservatives are much more likely to promote values, laws, and institutions that promote sanctity and condemn acts that degrade what they find holy. Conservatives tend to be highly critical of flag burning, of criticizing heroic people (military, police), and are closely watchful of any attempt to limit Christianity’s influence on America (at least those conservatives that are Christians). Given the hypothetical—is it morally permissible for a woman who doesn’t have any clean rags to cut up an American flag and use it to wash the toilet bowl—conservatives are much more likely than progressives to answer that question with a no. Progressives might find that baffling. After all, the woman has done nothing to mitigate individual liberty or violate the harm principle. Why is she doing anything wrong? For conservatives, it has nothing to do with care/harm, and in fact, there are a lot of things in this world that are morally right or wrong that don’t have anything to do with care/harm.

Haidt goes on to show that even most progressives probably agree with that statement to at least some extent. Haidt gives two scenarios to show this. Imagine the family dog gets run over accidentally by a neighbor. The family who owned the dog loved it so much, and they decide to eat it. They cook it correctly, nobody else sees any of this happen, and they enjoy the meal. Was that morally wrong? Most people say so. Some don’t. But consider an alternative: imagine a man who buys a chicken from the supermarket each week. He prepares it for dinner, has sexual intercourse with it, cooks it, eats it alone, and nobody sees this happen. Is that morally wrong? Almost everyone  agrees that the man in the second scenario crossed a line, even though the man did not violate the harm principle. Haidt uses these stories to illustrate that virtually everyone recognizes that some acts are morally degrading even though no harm resulted from it. Likewise, some things are just sacred, even if there is no better way to explain it than that.

Progressives often find the sacred/degradation moral foundation frustrating because they can’t argue with it. And in fact, there is a danger for conservatives to treat some things as sacred that really ought not to be, such as racially pure marriages (and progressives never let them forget it). So who is right about the new policy? Again, I won’t weigh into that. But I do hope that the faithful who engage in this debate will not be angry with those who question the moral rightness of the new policy. Hopefully they will see that behind those criticisms is a concern for the individual who will feel out-of-step as a result of it. And I hope that critics will realize that the faithful are not being morally obtuse or grossly indifferent to the emotional (and spiritual) needs of the individual, but that the faithful simply believe that there are times when sanctity outweighs care, and regrettable as it might be, this is one of those times.

I similarly hope that progressives will not fault Church members for believing that the harm principle is not necessarily an appropriate way to resolve moral quandaries such as this one. And hopefully, members will recognize that their virtue theory may be so exclusive that it alienates those who want to believe but can’t (yet?) fully commit to a radically different moral framework than what they intuitively believe to be correct—I add as a caveat that I’m not sure that one must be a virtue theorist to be a good Mormon. Finally, I hope that liberally minded individuals will see that the desire to protect community and enact seemingly harsh policies is driven out of a wholesome desire for good, even if it can be excluding. And I hope that communitarians will think carefully before they engage in boundary maintenance, recognizing the risk that their wholesome desire may be unnecessarily alienating to those that need not be so readily excluded. At least, those are my hopes.

Biking for Beards and BYU’s Beard Ban

September 26, 2014    By: DavidF @ 11:45 am   Category: Life

BYU is about to be the focus of a new protest.  It’s called Bike for Beards.  Students, and perhaps some alumni, will bike from Provo City Library on over to the administration building and ask to have the beard ban removed by presenting a list of printed comments from their website to the administration.  While I am not affiliated in any way with this group, I did submit my own argument for changing the policy.  Since this is an issue that virtually every BYU alumnus/alumna could have an opinion on, I’ve reproduced my submission here.  Most of what I wrote actually came from a memo I intended to send the administration while I was a student, but alas procrastination won out.


The BYU honor code standard against beards deserves critical review as it has outlasted its purpose. As a recent alumni, I am still troubled by this outmoded and unchanged policy.

As others have undoubtedly noted, wearing beards was not an honor code violation in BYU’s early history. When Elder Oaks became president of the university in 1971, he discussed the reason for the no-beard policy in his commencement address (on the topic of the honor code generally):

In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent.

The beard wasn’t just a beard in the 60s and 70s; it was a symbol of political and cultural dissent closely associated with the hippie culture and deteriorating social norms. In light of that culture, a beard ban made perfect sense. Elder Oaks even recognized that the ban was not meant to outlast its intended purpose:

Unlike modesty, which is an eternal value in the sense of rightness or wrongness in the eyes of God, our rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic. They are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area. The rules are subject to change, and I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.

Elder Oaks explained that the ban could outlast its intended purpose, which I and many others would argue is exactly what has now happened.

The beard has lost its political symbolism. It has no lasting stigma among white-collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers. Liberals are no more likely to wear beards than are conservatives. Only in the business world are beards still stigmatized. And while that should weigh as an important consideration, one professional sector’s preferences should not dictate the dress code where other professional sectors are indifferent.

In the spirit of Elder Oaks’ remarks, tattoos, multiple piercings, and outrageous hair color should all still remain suspect violations of the honor code. These symbols remain part of America’s anti-professional counterculture. The beard has moved on.

Naturally, some beards are outrageous and certainly taboo in the professional world. Brigham Young’s beard would simply have no place among white-color professionals. The honor code should not open the door to all facial hair. Just as the honor code allows hair without permitting outrageous hairstyles, so too should it allow for beards without outrageous beard styles. A possible modification could read: “Beards should be well kempt and decorous,” with some latitude in enforcement of this standard. Such a standard would be keeping up with the times and capture the spirit of Elder Oaks’ policy reasons for the beard ban.

Finally, as a note about the need for occasional policy changes: In Elder Oaks address, he reiterated the then-current prohibition on women wearing jeans or sweatshirts as appropriate enforcements of the honor code. Those prohibitions have since been dropped. The honor code has always followed what society recognizes as reasonable dress and grooming standards. Far from prohibiting women’s sweatshirts, the campus store sells women’s sweatshirts to students! Occasional modifications to the honor code have always been appropriate. In that vein, the beard has gone from social pariah to a reasonable grooming standard among professionals. The honor code should reflect that change.


Contraception, Healthcare, and the Legal Limits of Religious Expression on Businesses

March 26, 2014    By: DavidF @ 11:43 am   Category: Life

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on whether for-profit businesses have religious freedom.  More specifically, whether two corporations run by Christian families could be exempt of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that businesses that insure their employees provide free contraceptive to female workers.  Importantly, religious groups already have the exemption, but what about businesses directed and influenced by their religiously minded bosses or shareholders?  Should they be forced to run their businesses in ways that go against their religious values?

The two companies are Hobby Lobby, and Conestoga Wood Specialties (ran by a family of Mennonite Christians).  The family that runs Hobby Lobby opposes the obligation to give their female employees any contraceptives that prematurely end a possible life, such as the morning after pill.  The family that runs Conestoga oppose any medical procedures that prevent a possible life, and thus all contraceptives.

So who will win, the government or the businesses?  Importantly, the Supreme Court doesn’t just weigh both sides equally and decides which deserves a win more.  The Court relies on longstanding judicial procedure to determine outcomes.  Most know that in criminal cases, an accused can only be convicted if the are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  In civil cases generally, the the plaintiff wins if they have a preponderance of the evidence on their side; that is, there’s better reason to believe they should win than reason for them to lose.  However, when a person sues the federal government claiming that the government has infringed upon his or her rights, the Court goes through a more complicated procedure.

Leading up to the 1930s, the Supreme Court regularly struck down laws that regulated how business owners can run their businesses.  These decisions allowed employers to set harmfully long work weeks with extremely low wages.  In one case, the court passively allowed the continuation of child labor.  In 1938, after the Court had struck down several New Deal laws, the court flipped.  Decades of judicial activism ended.  The new standard that developed out of 1938 was this: if the government wants to achieve a legitimate government interest–that is, seeks to protect public health, safety, welfare or morals/criminal laws–then its action/regulation need only be rationally related to achieving that goal.  So if a business owner wants to set his employees’ 40 hour workweek wages below minimum wage claiming that the government law against that hurts his business (more specifically, claiming that the government infringes upon his rights of due process or just compensation), the government need only show that the hour/wage laws rationally protect the employees health or safety, which they can of course do.  In other words, as long as Congress acts within its constitutional limitations, any law that protects the government objectives I mentioned above will get upheld. (more…)

Laban’s Execution and the Manifesto on Plural Marriage

January 21, 2014    By: DavidF @ 6:31 pm   Category: Ethics,Personal Revelation,Theology

Laban’s execution ranks among the most troubling stories in Mormonism.  It’s often used as a story to show that obeying God is more important than what we think is right.  Alternatively, it’s used as an example to show how we should question commandments.  It’s been explained away as a justifiable action under Jewish law.  It’s been entertained as a possible example of Satan’s power to deceive (Nephi in this instance).  Nephi and Laban have been compared to Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath.  Critics cite it to discredit Mormonism, and apologists use it to bolster Mormonism.  What makes Laban’s execution so interesting is not only what it tells us about Nephi, but what it tells us about God.

Laban’s execution takes us through three stages in Nephi’s mind.  When Nephi discovers Laban stumbling through the dark Jerusalem streets, God prompts him to kill the defenseless drunk.[1]  Nephi refuses to obey God because killing, ironically enough, is against God’s commandments.  God again commands Nephi to kill Laban.  The second time, Nephi pauses to come up with a reason to justify what God has asked him to do.  Nephi contemplates Laban’s offenses.  Just earlier that night Laban took all of Nephi’s family’s possessions and tried to kill Nephi and his brothers; he had disobeyed God.  The rationalization may be compelling for some, but Nephi evidently couldn’t convince himself.  So God commands Nephi a third time to take Laban’s life.  But this time, God explains why Nephi should obey his commandment.  God points out “It is better that [Laban] should perish than that [the future Nephite civilization] should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”  God has Nephi weigh the literal death of one man against the spiritual death of a whole nation.  Put in modern parlance, God gives Nephi a utilitarian reason for executing Laban.  Nephi then obeys.

It would be easy to draw some harmful lessons from this story.  Presumably, Nephi did the right thing by refusing to obey until God gave him a reason to obey.  Should we adopt Nephi’s unwillingness when we face tough commandments?  Probably not.  The Book of Mormon itself contains other stories where people took the leap of faith before knowing fully what would happen.  Nephi had just declared, one chapter earlier, that he’d obey whatever God told him to do.  Laban’s execution gives us the rare look at how a prophet, and how God, works through a situation where two commandments clearly contradict each other.  And while Nephi tries to obey the more newest one, he waits for God’s approval before acting.  There was simply no third way for Nephi, and I suspect that most people would rarely be put in Nephi’s position.  But at least one modern prophet faced a similar situation.

Wilford Woodruff had a dilemma.  God commanded the Saints to practice plural marriage.  But had they continued, the United States would imprison church leaders, close the temples, and confiscate many of the Saints’ property; the church would, in effect, perish.  Woodruff couldn’t obey one commandment (plural marriage) without failing on the other  (preserving the church).

Woodruff’s decision is sometimes taken as evidence that Mormonism is not what it claims.  If God really was in charge, He would have found a way to allow plural marriage to continue and the church to go on as it had.  Instead, he didn’t intervene, and he made Woodruff and the Saints abandon an immensely important commandment.  Clearly then, the argument goes, God doesn’t lead the Church.

The story of Laban’s execution offers an alternative conclusion.


Wilford Woodruff

Choice 1: Kill Laban, save the church End plural marriage, save the church
Choice 2: Not kill Laban, church perishes Not end plural marriage, church suffers/perishes
Decision: Applies the greater good Applies the greater good

Laban’s execution shows that God will sometimes entertain a utilitarian judgment over directly intervening in some way to avoid the utilitarian solution.  Why?  The answer may be related to the answer to another, similar question: Why does God have imperfect people lead His church?  Perhaps it’s because the greater good is served by having people work together to improve an imperfect church rather than by having God so directly involved.  Sometimes God drops a Liahona in the sand, sometimes he commands his prophet to make do with the best of two bad choices.[2]


[1] As an aside, some people have other problems with Laban’s execution.  Why couldn’t Nephi have just knocked Laban out, or what about all of the blood on Laban’s clothes that Nephi had adorned?  These aren’t criticisms of the story as it is told, but elements that Nephi didn’t explain.  I imagine that if Nephi anticipated these criticisms, he might have offered more detail on how the events unfolded.  For all we know, Nephi stole Laban’s clothes, Laban recognized him, and Nephi just recounted the order of events in reverse.  Stranger things have happened.

[2] The same argument I’ve offered here might also apply to Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden.  However, it’s not entirely clear that Eve was thinking in utilitarian terms about her decision to eat the forbidden fruit and have children.

Extreme Mormon Virtues

October 28, 2013    By: DavidF @ 10:21 am   Category: Ethics,Theology

Psychology Today’s latest issue discusses the double edged nature of virtues.  Sometimes a virtue, either taken to excess or cherished too dearly, warps into a vice.  The article gives several examples.

Fairness is a virtue.  But it’s easy to become obsessive about fairness, especially when it plays in our favor.  The article references a father who told his daughter he would miss her birthday because he had a business opportunity.  “When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister’s birthday, too.”  Of course, the daughter could have been thinking more selfishly than fairly, but even if the father had made this call himself, it’s hard to say he was acting virtuously.  In fact, I imagine with some thought, we could come up with some other reasons why fairness should be tempered (the justice/mercy problem springs to mind).

Another example from the article is agreeableness or niceness, which in more religious terms we could call meekness.  Being really nice is good, but when it overtakes being assertive, we can not only harm ourselves, but others as well.  As the article points out, people who are agreeable tend to have lower salaries and get fewer promotions, and in some cases can strain romantic relationships because they’re too dependent and clingy.

While the virtues listed in the article serve mainly in the corporate context, Mormonism prizes several virtues that didn’t make this list, such as obedience,  faith, and charity.  Perhaps these virtues can also morph into vices.  Can we become obsessively obedient?  Does an excessive reliance on faith corrupt it?  Can the compulsive pursuit of charity become a vice?


A lot of elders on my mission liked saying, “If you’re 99% obedient, you’re disobedient.”  Not only do I worry about the psychological ramifications of this statement (as, apparently, does Elder Holland), but I wonder if the statement excuses obsessive obedience.

The pharisees are the classic example of over-obedient followers.  Not only did they obey the law, but they hedged the law with non-divine rules just to be extra careful.  Ironically, as Jesus pointed out, their law hedging made them disobedient, because they became so focused on superfluous details that they lost sight of the actual law itself.  Furthermore, their obsessive obedience made them intensely judgmental. (more…)

The Mechanics of Priesthood Blessings

September 21, 2013    By: DavidF @ 8:08 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,Personal Revelation,PH/RS Lessons

The first priesthood blessing I gave terrified me.  How does one, exactly, pull inspiration out of the air and give a blessing?  No one ever described this to me; they just said it’ll happen.  But I had no idea of how the words would come to me.

We can divide priesthood blessings into two components: the procedure, and the mechanics.  We’re really good at discussing blessing procedure; that is, the steps to giving a proper blessing.  But how does one pick the words they use?  That’s the mechanics.

Below are some of my observations on priesthood mechanics, including an explanation of how I seek out inspiration in a blessing.

Do the Words Matter?

Firstly, do the words even matter in a blessing?  Elder Oaks pointed out that in healing blessings, the recipients faith and God’s will, not the verbiage used, determine the outcome.  So why should we fret about what to say?  The words serve at least two functions in a blessing.  First, when the priesthood holder echoes God’s will, the words enliven the spiritual environment where the blessing is given.  I think that this can give the recipient confidence in God’s power to heal.  Second, inspired words can help the recipient receive personal revelation.

Recovering Modesty, Old Wisdom for a New Era – New Approach to Modesty Series

September 14, 2013    By: DavidF @ 12:26 pm   Category: Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

This is the fifth post in the New Approach to Modesty series.  Click for post onepost twopost three, and post four.

I’ve noted before that LDS speakers and writers occasionally point out that modesty is much more attitude than dress code, but whether dress code or attitude, today’s modesty probably doesn’t qualify as a virtue.  Based on how they’re constructed, modesty guidelines conflate being modest with appearing modest.  And since appearing modest generally satisfies communal standards, modesty falls short of a quality of character and, subsequently, a real virtue.

The emphasis on appearing modest sets modesty apart from other cherished Mormon values.  Few youth leaders would teach youth that in order to be faithful they have to appear faithful.  Modesty teachers, however, do follow this process.  While I’ve spent a considerable time critiquing current modesty rhetoric, the main goal of this series is to establish an alternative meaning for modesty that avoids the negative elements currently attached to it.  My intent in this post is to lay out a modesty that is primarily a quality of being but also gives some guidelines on appropriate dress.  To do this, let’s return to what modesty meant before the English humanists radically altered its meaning.

An Unveiled History of Modesty in the West – New Approach to Modesty Series

August 3, 2013    By: DavidF @ 10:52 am   Category: Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

This is the fourth post in the New Approach to Modesty series.  Click for post one, post two, and post three.

Barnabe Rich was a pioneer moralist.  In 1613 he wrote a book explaining the roles that men and women should play in the home.  Of make-up wearing, provocatively dressed women Rich said that their appearance provoked:

The first, offence to God, the second, It giveth hope to the vicious, and thirdly, It bringeth destruction to the husbande.

Today, Rich’s list looks unremarkably consistent with current modesty discourse. Yet Rich had been born around the time that modesty had been invented.  While up until this point I have criticized current modesty rhetoric, in the last four posts I’ll advance ideas that may strengthen modesty and chastity.  But to begin with, I will first discuss modesty’s origins.

A few decades before Barnabe Rich wrote moral advice for married couples, Thomas Elyot, a friend of Thomas More and early English humanist, wrote a widely circulated moral manual for youth, The Boke Named the Governour.  Among other things, Elyot’s fame comes from introducing several English words taken from Latin writers.  In The Governour Elyot introduced modesty.  Elyot rendered modesty from the Latin modestus, citing Cicero, which meant something like restraint or moderation (I’ll return to this in greater detail next time).  Elyot’s modesty had no connection to sexual purity, which makes sense given the fact that modestus doesn’t connect to purity either.  When the Romans discussed sexual purity they used pudicitia, an ambiguous word relating to sexual virtue including modest dress for women.

While the Romans held pudicitia in utmost regard, this virtue disappeared sometime before the Middle Ages, as did any idea linking modest dress to sexual purity.  Medieval writers and artists show that the Middle Ages frowned on public nudity, but for reasons unrelated to chastity.


Revealing Themes in Feminine Modesty – A New Approach to Modesty Series

July 12, 2013    By: DavidF @ 7:11 pm   Category: Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

This is the third post in the Modesty and Chastity Series.  Follow these links to post one and two.

Speaking at a Women’s Conference event, Sister Claudia J. Dansie said:

Part of our responsibility as parents is to guide, direct, and warn if necessary…. Some topics must be covered as directly as their consequences are lethal—subjects such as modesty, drugs, pornography, and immorality.

Lethal?  Assumedly, Dansie meant spiritually lethal.  A woman’s bare shoulders expose herself to consequences with eternal implications.  Does modesty really merit this language?

Elaine S. Dalton expressed a similarly solemn message calling modesty “the foundation stone of chastity,” explaining “it is essential to our very safety to be modest.”  Adding to Dansie’s and Dalton’s severe warnings, BYU president Cecil Samuelson explained that dressing immodesty may be as perilous as breaking the Word of Wisdom:

Most of you have no problems concerning the Word of Wisdom….What we may not realize is…that what we put on our bodies may be as equally corrosive and dangerous as what we might ingest into our bodies. (emphasis in original)

It’s hard to imagine that a woman’s uncovered knees could be as dangerous as her drinking alcohol, especially since the latter has temple-worthiness implications.  But because feminine modesty so closely connects to chastity, modesty rhetoric has adopted grave themes.

Uncovering Feminine Modesty – New Approach to Modesty Series

July 3, 2013    By: DavidF @ 9:27 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

This is the second post in the New Approach to Modesty series.  For post one click here.

Getting ready for a Mutual activity, Chelsea Anderson casually put on a pair of short shorts. “It never occurred to me that they were inappropriate.”  She sat down in one of the few remaining seats, prepared for a lesson from the missionaries.  With the last couple of remaining seats to her side, Chelsea overheard the missionaries’ whispered argument over who would have to sit next to her.  Although she didn’t hear why they argued, Chelsea figured her immodest shorts caused the argument.  “I realized that I was making virtuous young men feel uncomfortable.”  Thereafter Chelsea dressed modestly.

While her story is unique, Chelsea didn’t have to look far for council to mirror.

Young women, respect your body and help others, particularly young men, maintain virtuous thoughts and actions. (Dress and Appearance: Let the Holy Spirit Guide)

Not only does this sort of council make young women responsible for young men’s actions, but it signals an even greater problem with current modesty rhetoric.  But before getting there, we first have to establish what modesty means today.  To begin with, modesty rhetoric rarely refers to men.  When it does, speakers implore men to dress appropriately for sacred ordinances and meetings, leaving references to virtue virtually nonexistent.

Part of why male modesty rarely focuses on male sexuality could be because male leaders don’t find men sexually alluring.


If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently:

Do not engage in any activity that might build a visible “six pack.”  As soon as you are able, grow a beard.


A New Approach to Modesty 1/7: The Generation of Modesty Rhetoric

June 25, 2013    By: DavidF @ 11:55 am   Category: Ethics,Modesty

Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently?  Prepare to know.

As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues.  When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem.  On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers.  What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t?  That’s a problem.  Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside).  Men need a guarantee.  So how do we rest their fears?  Hume’s solution is modesty.

Well, chastity really solves the issue.  If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion).  But Hume was a practical man.  People have sex in private.  He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors.  Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste.  As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful.  The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue.  No joke.

Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty.  While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground.  In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight.   They shouldn’t.  Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later.  We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them.  In this series I’ll present how.

This discussion couldn’t be timelier.  Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade.[1]  In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty.  In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one.  The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty.  BYU devotionals show the same trend.  Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively).  There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend.  Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.

Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades.  Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two.  Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote: (more…)

Getting at the Heart of the Female Equality Debate

May 11, 2013    By: DavidF @ 6:05 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

(Authorial Note: This post looks long, but if you ignore the appendix section, it should be a fairly quick read.  )

Women and the priesthood, wearing pants, sexism, the place of Heavenly Mother, and so forth are all major issues on the bloggernacle these days.  The common thread in each issue is whether women are equal to men in the Church.  Some people take the apparent inequality as a given, while their critics argue that these people have the wrong perspective.  Men and women are equal in the church; these folks just need to look at the issue differently.  And so the debate rages.

Generally the discussion goes round in circles because the debaters share an actually unshared assumption: the meaning of equality.  I suggest that there are three forms of equality that this discussion invokes, and since discussion partners are often using one or two different forms of equality, they end up talking past each other.  We need to fix this if we are going to move the discussion forward.

So these are the three forms: equality in terms of responsibility, acknowledgment, and theology.

Responsibility equality: Women give service.  Men lead and give service.  Or, if we count leading as a type of service, men give more kinds of service.  More than that, the priesthood has a special kind of value with no strong female equivalent.  Usually we compare priesthood with motherhood, but a more fitting comparison is fatherhood with motherhood, which leaves priesthood something extra for men, a mark of worthiness, and a special dimension for spirituality in male lives (or also in female lives via worthy men).

Recognition equality: Women get acknowledged for their hard work, but priesthood camaraderie offers a kind of appreciation among men that keeps women feeling on the outside.  We have a very appreciative culture for young men making the next priesthood office and going on missions.  Young women are far less recognized.  And sometimes this starts even in the primary, anticipating the kinds of tracks these two sexes will go on once they reach twelve.  Furthermore, the recognition adult women get for their service is often demeaning or overlooked.  This would probably be much less of a problem if there were more women in leadership roles.

Theology equality: Men and women have equal access to the celestial kingdom.  They both receive revelation.  They are (supposed to be) equal partners in the home.  In this sense, there is a fairly undeniable equality between the sexes.  However, there are also a few theological inequalities.  Some women take issue with wording in the endowment.  Heavenly Mother remains a largely mysterious figure and therefore an ambiguous role model for women.  Nevertheless, on a theological level, the sexes are largely equal.  

So what?  I hope that this discussion shows that if women are equal to men in some ways, in other ways there are stark inequalities.  Does that mean that those inequalities are wrong?  That’s a topic for another time.  But in the meantime, if we accept that these inequalities are real, we can at least know in what ways they are real. (more…)