Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Presentism Fallacy Fallacy

Lately, I've been noticing that a number of rebuttals to criticisms of the church seem to revolve around presentism—the idea that it's neither fair nor honest to examine yesterday's events through the lens of modern biases. FAIR seems to like to point this out, and it was an LDS blog post about why people leave the church that made me start to think a little bit more about it.  And it's important to mention, before I dive too far into this, that presentism is also used as an excuse in official church settings, such as Elder Cook's devotional last year, in which church historian Matt Grow said
It is really easy to play gotcha with the past.  To pull an incident or a quotation out of its context and make it look alarming.  As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist—and I love this—he said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."  And to me, that means that when we visit the past, we don't want to be an ugly tourist.
Presentism, of course, is a real thing. Imposing our 21st-century values on the historical record can lead to a twisting or misinterpretation of the historical narrative. This is why we shouldn't hold it against MLK for calling people Negroes—it wasn't offensive then, but it can be very offensive today.

Presentism isn't a magic eraser of personal or cultural culpability, however. It doesn't mean that anything in the past is on untouchable moral ground. Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee nation on the Trail of Tears during the same decade that saw the rise of Mormonism, but you don't see a public backlash against people who condemn his actions.  Sure, a lot of people in the 19th century "didn't know any better" when it came to the treatment of Native Americans. Sure, there were probably people who would have been even more brutal if they'd been in Jackson's position. But there were also people who knew better and who raised their voices in protest. The fact that it happened two centuries ago doesn't absolve its perpetrators of moral responsibility—what it does mean, however, is that we should be willing to admit from our modern perspective that, had we been part of that culture and that environment, we may not have made the right decisions either.

This is why I think that, in a discussion of presentism, a distinction needs to be made between custom and morality. Let's apply that couplet our church historians love to quote: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." If you visit a foreign country and the people there find a gesture to be offensive even though it's innocuous in your culture, that's fine. If you visit a foreign country and they execute children for disobeying their parents, that's not fine.

Similarly, if we apply a presentist approach to the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor (as I have in the past), we may miss the fact that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Bill of Rights was generally applied to federal law only.  This meant that the legality of the Nauvoo City Council's actions was more dependent on Illinois state law than on the First Amendment.  Though today's Americans tend to see the Bill of Rights as something so sacrosanct that state governments are explicitly bound to uphold it, this wasn't legally codified until 20th-century Supreme Courts began ruling on what is now the widely accepted interpretation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment.  All of this means that presentism can exaggerate the egregiousness of the Nauvoo Expositor incident by overplaying its illegality. In contrast, a presentist approach to the priesthood ban doesn't change whether it was wrong. It may merely confirm that racist prophets were in step with the bigoted zeitgeists of their time. Oh, wait, except the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, so everything's cool, right?

What we should learn from being aware of our presentism is not that things were different then and therefore the church is still true—it's that because things were so different then, we shouldn't necessarily kid ourselves into thinking we would have stood against problematic policies if we'd been 19th-century Mormons. The wrong things that past church leaders did are still wrong.  But we probably shouldn't be so quick to get on our high horses and decide we would have done better.  

Society has evolved and some of our moral sensibilities have improved, so it's a lot easier for us to make better decisions on certain issues because we were born into a culture that already believes that black people aren't property and that women aren't property and that using divining rods to find hidden treasure is an absolute absurdity.  We should also hope that our grandchildren will grant us similar latitude when the things that our society handles poorly are examined through a lens of possible future biases.

And regardless of all that noise, there's a certain cross-section of Mormonism that should, theoretically, be insusceptible to presentist attacks: divinely revealed doctrine. It's one thing to say Joseph Smith did bad things but doesn't deserve judgment from modern standards, but it's a completely different thing to give God a free pass.  Why did God do or permit so many things that don't line up with modern standards—including standards that the church has raised in order to catch up with the broader culture? You can say a church leader's actions were reflective of the culture he inhabited, but  that doesn't explain why would God allow his chosen mouthpiece to preach what is clearly reprehensible. Prophets can, arguably, be vulnerable to presentist criticism, but God should be immune. The God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever should behave in a way that would be impervious to presentist accusations. You can't character assassinate someone who by definition has no character flaws, right?

But instead, we have a God who permits prophet after prophet to be products of their times. We have a God who allows their awful sayings to be canonized in official church materials and promulgated as official church doctrine. This should be, from both a historical and a presentist perspective, a grievous sin of omission. He could have made sure that the horrible things Brigham Young said about black people were only in his personal interactions, not spoken in general conference or parroted by future apostles or distributed in the church's publications. But he didn't—even though, as God, he should have known better.  We can write off Brigham Young's mistakes as human failings in a deeply racist historical culture. God doesn't get that excuse because he isn't human, he's not supposed to have failings, and he wasn't a product of that culture.

Is presentism a real problem for us when we analyze church history? Of course. Does it absolve the church from every ugly thing in its past?

Not even close.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Survey Says...Bad Idea

The LDS church has just made some more waves by sending out a questionnaire that appears to be testing the waters for shifting the starting age for periodic bishop interviews from 12 to 8.  This is a baffling step that I'd like to approach from a few different angles.

The Official Church Explanation is Problematic
Here's what the church had to say in response:
On an on-going basis, the Church sends surveys to leaders and members to seek their opinion and experience regarding activities, perceptions, and participation in Church programs. The Church also looks for ways to assist parents in the spiritual growth and development of their children. Periodic interviews with a parent or trusted adult present is one of many considerations to help children remember the baptismal covenants they have made and follow Jesus Christ. This survey is designed to simply gain information and is not an announcement of any change in practice.
Okay, first of all, LDS Spokesman Daniel Woodruff, "ongoing" is a real word, so you don't need to throw a hyphen in there.  But more importantly, this statement is a little misleading.

The way it stresses that the surveys seek opinions about church programs and later reiterates that this particular survey was designed merely to gain information seems like an attempt to imply that the church only wants to take the membership's temperature and does not use these kinds of methods to steer its policies.  This, of course, kind of flies in the face of what Quentin Cook said last year about the implementation of the Come, Follow Me curriculum:
In pilot test stakes across the world, there was a highly favorable response to the new Come, Follow Me home resource. Many reported that they progressed from reading scriptures to actually studying the scriptures. It was also commonly felt the experience was faith promoting and had a wonderful impact on the ward.
Why would you do pilot programs and mass surveys if they don't affect your decisions?  Why would you tout the responses to your testing if it wasn't a factor in the rollout of the new policy?  The church absolutely uses these methods as a way to gain information about changes they're planning to implement.  While Daniel Woodruff is obviously right that this is not an announcement of a change, I think the statement's wording is trying to downplay how seriously the church is considering this change.

It's also muddying the church's institutional role in the spiritual development of young members.  Let's review Nelson's announcement of the new "home-centered, church-supported" gospel curriculum last year:
This morning we will announce a new balance and connection between gospel instruction in the home and in the Church. We are each responsible for our individual spiritual growth. And scriptures make it clear that parents have the primary responsibility to teach the doctrine to their children. It is the responsibility of the Church to assist each member in the divinely defined goal of increasing his or her gospel knowledge.
It seems kind of disingenuous to talk about how the church looks to assist parents in their children's spiritual development when there's been a recent major policy that shifts responsibility for that development away from the church and toward the parents.  The church is trying to assist less and  trying to relinquish some of its responsibility when it comes to teaching the gospel.  But when it comes to bringing children in to meet with authority figures to discuss personal testimonies and personal worthiness, the church is apparently happy to step up and look for ways to "assist."

Also it's a little weird that the argument is that periodic bishop interviews will help the children remember their baptismal covenants.  We're taught in primary classes that we renew our baptismal covenants with the sacrament.  The prayers over the bread and water make reference to those covenants.  Why is an interview with the bishop every few months going to make children remember something that they're reminded of every Sunday?

From a Public Relations Approach, This is Problematic
I think Sam Young has demonstrated he's not interested in stopping in his pursuit of his cause to protect children from the relatively rare but individually devastating risks that a policy like this would increase.  It seems like the wisest route for the church in the interest of avoiding bad press is to leave Sam Young's arena alone for a while.  They clearly have no interest in complying with his demands, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to move in the opposite direction.  Tons of church critics are going to jump on it, Sam is going to organize more events, and the church is going to have more fun New York Times headlines that vault its more embarrassing controversies into the national press.

And even though Mormonism hasn't been hit as hard with abuse scandal as the Catholic church has, Catholicism has struggled with the issue so much that the international profile for ecclesiastical abuse has become huge.  For a religion so obsessed with its public image, you'd think it would make more sense for the church to err on the side of caution and institute preventative policies lest it produces the next big national scandal of clerical sexual misconduct.  Not only are they leaving children vulnerable and considering amplifying that vulnerability, but they're leaving their public image vulnerable and considering amplifying that vulnerability.

Implications Regarding Revelation are Problematic
Revelation implies divine communication.  And within the context of Mormonism, it's not an implication—it's the direct definition of the word.  It means that God is introducing information that is beyond human ability to learn or to generate.  The will of God doesn't require surveys or pilot programs—when God said to study it out in your mind, he didn't mean to ask for popular opinion.  I don't recall hearing any scriptural story or any church history anecdote in which a prophet or a member was required to acquire a large sample of opinions in order to receive revelation.  If you need to send out mass emails to collect responses and analyze them in bulk before determining your course of action, you're not receiving supernatural assistance for your policy decisions.

Furthermore, the clinical, corporate way this data collection was conducted doesn't seem indicative of an organization with a direct line to Heaven:
This survey is being conducted by the Correlation Research Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church is considering having Primary children ages 8 to 11 receive periodic individual interviews, similar to the current practice of interviewing young men and young women. 
Your honest feedback will provide valuable information on this proposed change. Your individual answers will be kept confidential. Your participation in this survey is important but voluntary. Your responses will be combined with those received from other participants, and they will be used only to identify broad statistical trends and not any individual information.
Revelation now runs on broad statistical trends culled by the Correlation Research Division from feedback provided on proposed changes.  That's not very inspired or inspiring.

From a Practical Standpoint, This is...You Guessed it...Problematic
What kind of organization doesn't take the risk of sexual abuse seriously—especially when it applies to children?  Sam Young has been persistent enough and confrontational enough and public enough that the church leadership cannot claim plausible deniability.  They have been made aware of the risk their policies present.  So why would a policy that can increase that risk even be proposed?

Disregarding any doctrine, any moral or legal questions, and stripping the issue down to just humans making a decision that affects other humans, this makes absolutely zero sense to me.  Different sections of society disregard the needs of others all the time.  Some people want bad things for certain genders, orientations, ethnic groups, nationalities, political parties, corporations, or socioeconomic groups.  But one thing that just about everyone agrees on is that we need to protect children from sexual abuse.  Children are, perhaps, the most universally protected class of people.  So why, when someone publicly provides evidence that ecclesiastical interviews are normalizing sexual discussions with non-relative authority figures and making children susceptible to grooming, is a policy that begins those same interviews even earlier in a child's life even under consideration?  And let's be honest—if they're sending out an official survey on it, it's under serious consideration.  It still may not happen, but it's gotten far enough through the vetting process for someone in the Church Office Building to request statistical data on it.

It should never have gotten this far.  It should have been brought up in one meeting by one moron and then been immediately shouted down by the wiser people in the room.