Society, The World, and Being Not of It

By: hawkgrrrl
February 5, 2013

Daniel faced a serious problem.  Darius the king had been tricked by his princes into outlawing prayer.  But Daniel felt beholden to pray to his God.  The society in which he lived restricted his personal freedoms more than his religious society did.  In fact, his religious community went underground due to the persecutions and restrictions of the larger society.  As to the larger world around Daniel, we don’t know.  People couldn’t travel great distances very easily.  The Bible takes place in a fairly restricted geography.  If Daniel moved to China or Africa or the New World, he might have had a different experience.  To him, as to many people, his local society was the world.  Daniel chose to flaut the rules of society, and as a result he was sentenced to death.  He chose the less restrictive religious law; in this case, the law that gave him more personal freedom to do what he wanted than did the corporal law dictated by the king.

We don’t hear too much about the others who didn’t pray and would have been sentenced to death because this story is really about political intrigues and the princes trying to circumvent Daniel’s influence with the king.  Would you have flauted the king’s rule or obeyed the king?  Would you have seen it as oppressive of your religious society to contradict the laws of the land, requiring you to pray when it meant a death sentence?  I have no doubt that most people would simply obey the king’s law, regarding it as a minor inconvenience.  We like to say that people always take the easy way out, but let me add that the way that is easy to them varies.  We paint Daniel’s action as a great sacrifice, but we don’t take into account that personal temperament plays a role. 

Likewise, those in the early church who practiced polygamy did so contrary to the laws of the US.  This was before statehood.  For those who wanted to continue to stay in the families they had formed, it would have been more difficult to leave their families and obey the laws of the land.  The church’s law allowing them to practice polygamy was less oppressive to them.  For those who had not entered polygamy, it was much easier to obey the laws of the land rather than to enter into  the socially practice of polygamy that were inherently difficult and would greatly restrict where they could live.  Obeying society’s law required less sacrifice for them than entering polygamy would have.

As I think about these examples and contemporary stories I’ve read from other Mormons, I have a few questions about what it means in practical terms when we admonish people to be in the world but not of it (yet we also admonish them to obey the law of the land).  I have concluded that:

  • People perceive the church to be “good” relative to how oppressive they perceive the society to be in which they live.
  • People will eventually choose “the world” (meaning leave the church) if they perceive the church to be more oppressive to personal freedoms and less enlightened than society, especially if the church is oppressive to their own personal freedoms.

What are personal freedoms?  To the person who feels oppressed, they feel like everything:  life, liberty, freedom of speech, and ultimately the freedom to pursue happiness.  But those who don’t feel oppressed will call other people’s freedoms “sins” or “worldliness.”  It’s difficult to separate actual needs (freedoms) from wants, but it seems much easier to judge that in other people – whatever they want that we don’t want is not a need but their own selfishness!  People often will judge those that leave as lacking commitment, being worldly, or having been offended.  But another perspective is that those that stay may simply fit the mold better; they don’t care about the same things.  Their freedoms are not curttailed.

Before I continue, let me lay out a few caveats:

  1. Perceptions are based on personal experience that may not be shared by people living in the same society.  For example, I could talk to two different people living in the same street; one will feel that the church is less enlightened than society, and the other will feel that the church is more enlightened than society.
  2. Freedoms that are curttailed vary by personal situation.  An obvious example is gay marriage.  If you are gay and live in a country that permits gay marriage and extends equal rights to gay couples as to straight couples, but you do not have equal rights with straight couples in your church setting, the church setting feels more oppressive.
  3. Awareness of society beyond our local community is often limited or downplayed as irrelevant.  Members in the US who are accustomed to equality between men and women may chafe at the word “preside” in the Proclamation on the Family, but the focus on male familial responsibility in the church may be very enlightened for someone living in a macho society that oppresses women.  This is also known as unexamined privilege.

Let’s move from the personal to societal.  I often hear two conflicting narratives:

  • The world is getting more and more wicked.  Pornography is ubiquitous and available for free at a key stroke (although for some reasons Utahns prefer to pay for it).  Divorce rates are increasing.  Casual sex is the norm.  Television shows and music our kids listen to are profane.  These truly are the last days.
  • The world keeps getting better and better.  Illiteracy rates are down.  The standard of living is the highest it’s ever been.  Organizations protect human rights.  Infant mortality rates are down.  Horrific acts like infanticide, bride burning, domestic abuse, rape, honor killings, child pornography, and sexual slavery that were the norm of the ancient world have been brought to light and are finally being rooted out.

Which narrative do you find most compelling?  Personally, I think that people haven’t changed much, but society is getting better.  Evil that used to be hidden is now brought to light.  But people are still have great capacity to do both good and evil.  The good has got some momentum, though.  And society in general is getting less oppressive and better at rooting out oppression.  When a government deals with an uprising by cutting off social media, we see the power and freedom that people currently enjoy, globally.  We also see that the ability of a regime to oppress individual freedoms is no longer a given.  Before social media existed, a government could commit acts of genocide that were not discovered for years or even longer.

Is the church getting more and more enlightened in attitudes?  I think so, but not always at the same pace as the society immediately surrounding a person, and this creates conflict and angst for two groups of people:  1) those for whom society is less oppressive than the church, and 2) those who have strong feelings about social justice (often Democrats).  Because the word “oppressive” can also be interpreted as curbing one’s ability to sin (not just freedom), in the following series of questions I’ll simply use the word “enlightened,” and you will have to judge for yourself which viewpoint is more enlightened.  Enlightened in this case means:  informed, edifying, accurate (light has been shed on the matter), or illuminating.  Your response will be your own subjective opinion.

Which has a more enlightened perspective on the role of women?

  • The society in which I live. (67%, 38 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (25%, 14 Votes)
  • The church. (8%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 57

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on homosexuality?

  • The society in which I live. (71%, 37 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (19%, 10 Votes)
  • The church. (10%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 52

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on sex?

  • The church. (39%, 21 Votes)
  • The society in which I live. (35%, 19 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (26%, 14 Votes)

Total Voters: 54

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on families?

  • The church. (53%, 29 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (31%, 17 Votes)
  • The society in which I live. (16%, 9 Votes)

Total Voters: 55

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on how to live a happy life?

  • The church. (49%, 27 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (38%, 21 Votes)
  • The society in which I live. (13%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 55

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on science?

  • The society in which I live. (64%, 34 Votes)
  • Neither / both are roughly equal. (26%, 14 Votes)
  • The church. (10%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 53

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on church history?

  • Neither / can't tell / all are biased. (50%, 27 Votes)
  • Scholarly papers, books, or websites from non-LDS sources. (46%, 25 Votes)
  • Apologetics. (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Official church publications. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 54

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Which has a more enlightened perspective on other religions?

  • All are biased in different ways / none are enlightened. (55%, 30 Votes)
  • The society in which I live. (36%, 20 Votes)
  • The church. (9%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 55

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11 Responses to Society, The World, and Being Not of It

  1. anon on February 5, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    In the rush for US culture to credit any make-up of family as providing equal benefits to children and to label those who question that as bigoted, I believe the perspective on the benefits of being raised by committed biologic parents who are in the same home is being ignored/taken for granted. Not that the benefits conveyed to children raised in other forms of families are unacceptable, but the social science suggesting that benefits could be unequal is unpopular. This leads to the studies being conducted by biased organizations. Those studies will be less acceptable generally because of suspicions that the organizations are trying to promote their own agenda. I wonder when I am double my age or after I am gone whether the impact of changes to society that have been demanded by adults on the children born and raised in the decades to come will be viewed as favorable for their emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical development or whether the children in other nations will score better in these categories.

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  2. Brian on February 5, 2013 at 6:54 PM

    Enlightened isn’t a word that comes to mind when contemplating the church.

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  3. BrotherQ on February 6, 2013 at 3:09 PM

    I think individual members of the church are becoming more enlightened. Eventually, in a generation or two, those people will hopefully be the leaders of the Church. I think Dieter Uchtdorf is especially enlightened.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on February 6, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    As I think about these answers, I would respond differently based on Singapore vs US. For example, on women, I think equality and female freedom of choice is highest in Singapore, second in the US and last in the church. I would say for homosexuality, Singapore and the church are about equal, but the US in general is less oppressive to homosexuals. For how to live a happy life, I’d put US first, then the church, then Singapore. So it differs greatly based on what aspect I consider.

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  5. Geoff - A on February 6, 2013 at 7:53 PM

    There is an English TV series called “Horrible History” It presents history in ways we are familiar with, like a TV interview with a Roman Emperor, or English King, or having a doctor from Ejyptian tomes giving advice to a patioent in a modern setting. For example a dead mouse will cure tooth ache if applied to the tooth.

    The general message I get from looking at history is how much beeter it is now and how much of the misery in history was caused by enequality in power, and wealth.

    When I hear talks in church referring to the ever darkening world, I wonder what they are referring to.

    Do they really ballance open sexual freedom (not a new phenomina but repressed for a while in the 1940 and 50s, and gay marriage against the benifits you mention and not see a more enlightened, freer, more wonderful world. I question the thinking/judgement of those who use those terms.

    You would think the voting above should be disturbing to the leaders of the church.

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  6. Hedgehog on February 7, 2013 at 1:50 AM

    Geoff, # 5 “Do they really ballance open sexual freedom (not a new phenomina but repressed for a while in the 1940 and 50s, and gay marriage against the benifits you mention and not see a more enlightened, freer, more wonderful world. I question the thinking/judgement of those who use those terms.”

    From the patriarchal perspective Geoff, the big difference is *female* sexual freedom. That’s what scares them so much. Men have indeed mostly had enjoyed sexual freedom in the past, in addition to wives (who had to put up with it) and producing families. Women didn’t, for the most part.

    I agree life is a lot less grim, and much more comfortable than in the past. Lots of good horrible histories clips on the cbbc website, and my daughter devoured the books. Last summer Horrible Histories got to perform some of those fun songs at the Proms.

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  7. kd on February 7, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    First off, there is a difference between the church and its membership. I chose to vote based on what I see church doctrine teaching, not necessarily what the membership do about it.

    Secondly, its interesting to see that the post is defining good as freedom. For example, Daniel is portrayed as making a choice to follow the “less restrictive law.” However, what seems to be ignored is if there is something inherently good in the actions that Daniel is taking, not that it just happens to be his inclination. Daniel is courageous not because he chose a “less restrictive” route but that he chose the good despite temporal consequence.

    It is because of the assumption that good is defined as whatever is less oppressive that the conclusion comes that the concept of the good is subjective. However, such an assumption is fundamentally flawed. Lets take for example the word of wisdom (though any number of commandments could be taken under consideration). Under hawkgirl’s model, those outside the church could see the church as bad because it restricts the freedom to drink alcohol. However, those within the church have no problem because they have no desire to drink. Thus since each is having their freedoms affected differently neither of them is wrong.

    This model would ignore the question of alcohol being bad in and of itself. Ignoring the spiritual consequences, there are a number of negative physical, emotional, and mental consequences that are inescapable. The fact of the matter is that there are things that are bad in and of themselves. These things are “sins,” not the arbitrary decisions of people who “don’t feel oppressed.” The reason why our leaders warn against the world getting worse is that what used to be recognized as bad is now not only excused but often promoted as good. Yes there are technological and societal advances, but those are now being used to break down the moral bonds of society.

    Finally, there is something to be said of the tone of this article. While the majority of the people who visit this site may have no problem with it, the article portrays negatively those who would see morality as more than subjective beliefs. Only the person who is judgmental will say that people sin, only the “macho” person would support the language of the Proclamation on the Family. Those who would argue for the subjective view are those who are judged and oppressed. The language of the subjective moral view merely creates a real arbitrary distinction, those who fight for ‘freedom’ and those who ‘oppress.’ Freedom, while it is a good, does not define Good. That distinction is important if we are to ever find that Good.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on February 7, 2013 at 3:16 PM

    kd – interesting perspective. I was more interested in exploring how people perceive their surrounding community and environment, not whether or not they are right about those perceptions. It’s not intended to portray anyone negatively, just to show an important and often hidden aspect of personal motivation.

    People leave the church when they see it as “less enlightened” than society around them. But that depends entirely on 1) how they perceive the society and the church around them, 2) how their surrounding society and the church actually is (to a lesser extent), and 3) what they believe is more enlightened / their personal values. And when either society or the church feels oppressive to them, they are more likely to prefer the environment that feels less oppressive.

    Like your comment, I agree that it doesn’t mean that their choice is right or best. For example, I might find working out at the gym “oppressive” compared to eating Cheetos on the couch. But if I spend the time in the gym there will be benefits through my actions. I will ultimately have more choices and feel better. Yet, there is also something to the idea that some people who are naturally more fit or have a higher metabolism find going to the gym more immediately rewarding and less difficult. Then again, I could pull a hamstring and conclude gyms are dangerous and should be avoided.

    Likewise with the church. Some people are buoyed up by the environment itself. Others persist despite feeling like a fish out of water. And some are damaged by personal experience. I am not equating freedom with “good” or “right,” just with what a person is likely to choose.

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  9. hawkgrrrl on February 7, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    kd – I think you missed this sentence in the OP: “Because the word “oppressive” can also be interpreted as curbing one’s ability to sin (not just freedom), in the following series of questions I’ll simply use the word “enlightened,” and you will have to judge for yourself which viewpoint is more enlightened.” This refers to what you are talking about in considering whether an action is moral or not. This wasn’t the point of the OP, but I acknowledged that it’s another interpretation.

    Of course, we should be careful on both sides of this argument. Just because we prefer something doesn’t make it moral. Just because we don’t like something doesn’t make it immoral. And not everything that’s bad for you is immoral. It might form your character over time if you overeat or drink excessively, but that act isn’t inherently immoral.

    In the Daniel example, he had other options, and there was a lot going on. He would not have flauted the rules of the kingdom if he had prayed in secret, for example. This was a political action on the part of the princes and also his reaction was political. He was behaving very boldly to change the environment around him. There were two possible outcomes: 1) the king sides with him and the environment becomes friendly to him again or 2) the king sides with the princes and he is killed. In this case, he got a 3rd option. But he could have stayed under cover and done the “moral” thing without changing the society around him or losing his life. In fact, that is the more likely course of action someone inside the church would take. They would keep their mouth shut rather than rocking the boat.

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  10. Hedgehog on February 8, 2013 at 1:23 AM

    #9 Hawkgrrrl,
    I like the idea that Daniel was making a political point in being so public about his praying. That hadn’t occured to me before, though I had always wondered at the contrast of Daniel’s actions with those of the people of Alma in Lamanite captivity, who continued praying, but in their hearts, not visibly. Both responses seem to be approved.

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  11. kd on February 8, 2013 at 11:39 PM

    hawkgirl- Thanks for clarifying. I don’t know if i would go so far to say that Daniel is trying to be political. While there is no explicit reference to indicate one way or the other, I wouldn’t say that praying three times a day in your bed chamber is an overt political act. It seems like a daily ritual that he would see as better than following other law. Of course, there is a thread on subjective interpretation on the blog so I’m not going to say mine is final.

    I do see the validity in framing human perception on this freedom or oppression idea. This is useful in perhaps seeing their behavior towards an individual or group. I agree with your comments in #8 that a person first makes a moral judgement and then decides if it is oppressive. However, what i worry about(especially based on the voting)is that people see restrictions as inherently immoral. My point was that restrictions have a morality that needs to be respected and that freedom can’t be a final consideration in deciding what is Good.

    I also agree with you that we have to be careful to judge things good or bad by our own fancy or even our own logic. The point I would make is that we have to go beyond our experience for a final judgement on whats wrong or right. This is easier said than done of course.

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