Futility & Change: A Response to Bro. Jake

By: hawkgrrrl
January 14, 2014

Come as you are, so long as you’re a dude.

In keeping with the spirit of Jake’s post this Sunday, I wanted to add another perspective and expound on what may be happening behind the scenes.  In December, I published a post at By Common Consent, “Don’t Let’s Ask for the Moon.  We Have the Stars,” explaining why I didn’t participate in Ordain Women, although I agree that the sexist norms and rhetoric in the church need to be addressed.  As I said in that post:

“specific to the role of women in the church, I don’t see much reason to believe there will be significant progress.  I see baby steps and retrenchment; I don’t see evidence that women are truly being heard.”

I mentioned a lunch I had with one of the leaders of WAVE.  She and I talked about the limited place of women in the church as well as the fact that the majority of feminists who are also activists (people we know and respect) ultimately leave the church.  She felt that the church would ultimately have to address the exodus of women.  I, on the other hand, said at the time that I believe it’s more likely that some church leaders are glad when these women leave because they can be dismissed as apostate and they become less influential and less of an irritant.

The tolerance trap

In a 1993 address to CES, Boyd K. Packer labelled three enemies of the church:  homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals.  In light of the September Six excommunications, this talk seemed a clear articulation of the war being waged by the leadership of that time against these “apostate” groups.  From that address:

“Those who are hurting think they are not understood. They are looking for a champion, an advocate, someone with office and influence from whom they can receive comfort. They ask us to speak about their troubles in general conference, to put something in the curriculum, or to provide a special program to support them in their problems or with their activism. “When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected.”

The reasons given for not advocating for these “enemy groups” are three-fold:  1) they are considered exceptions, 2) they are viewed as less committed (the reference to a softening of the commandments), and 3) according to Pres. Packer, this is allowing those who should be acted upon to be the actors; rather than change coming through hierarchical channels, this is change coming through the rank and file.  He specifically mentions the “line” they as the Church Education System are assigned to protect; however, his subsequent examples and description refer to upholding the historical stance of statements made by preceding prophets, not an open ongoing revelatory process that subjects the church to change through divine revelation.  I encourage you to read his address (which I’ve linked above) to see what other insights you glean. I couldn’t help but notice that the first two assertions are the same ones traditionally used to defend white male privilege in corporate America:  1) there aren’t as many women, so a male privileged environment isn’t a problem – women (as the exceptions, the minority in the workplace) should learn to adapt, and 2) women are less qualified than men (also trotted out as the argument against Affirmative Action) or if they weren’t, sure we’d let them in.  All three of the beliefs given in the address are somewhat self-fulfilling, but not otherwise inherently correct.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

They are exceptions.

Those lost sheep who seek change, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This is the core argument Bro. Jake is making, although with a hint of bitterness [1].  From his post:  “We are an unbelievably small minority in the Church, and our views/beliefs will never, ever be institutionally recognized or accepted.”   In fact, the church has likewise repeatedly marginalized advocates for change with similar claims of their minority status, seemingly unnecessary given that we don’t get a vote anyway (remember, change is top down only!).  Pres. Hinckley did when he claimed our women aren’t agitating for the Priesthood (ironically inceptioning the women of the church to agitate for it).  Even when agitation was used to ask that women be admitted to the Priesthood session, Ruth Todd (church’s PR spokesperson) stated that the women who wanted to attend the Priesthood session were in the minority:  “In a statement to reporters, Todd noted that millions of Mormon women do not share the views of those who want ordination.”  To marginalize people, it’s clearly important to keep them on the fringe. It’s impossible to argue that the majority of people at church read the Bloggernacle [2] or have given these issues as much thought as those who regularly read and write about them.  But that is far from saying that the majority are across-the-board content.  There are many changes church members would welcome.  Without these changes, they may or may not leave, but the same can be said for activists.  Here are just a few changes that most TBMs would welcome:  better financial disclosure, more humanitarian giving, shorter meetings, better church  manuals, more open disavowal of polygamy, a less strident stance on gay marriage (this one is happening, little by little anyway, because people don’t want to be seen as bigots or homophobes), equal treatment (and budgeting) for our YW and YM, less objectification of women through modesty standards, more female voices on councils and in meetings, less politically-driven arguments and lessons, less of a check-the-box culture, fewer talks on obedience and changes to garment design.  These are issues I hear routinely from active LDS church members, stated openly in our meetings, not hobby horse topics of the bloggernacle. Going back to the address by Pres. Packer, even if we just look at the three groups described, homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals, these are increasing in number as time goes by, particularly if you remember that it’s not just those individuals but also their allies, their friends and family members who support them.  That’s a much bigger group already, and as gay rights and equal opportunity for women become expected norms that are a natural part of people’s lived experience, these numbers are only growing.

They are less committed.

This one is at least partly a chicken and egg argument, like saying people who leave wanted to sin because after they leave they no longer follow Mormon behavior codes.  Obviously if you quit the Mormon church you might drink coffee, but people aren’t leaving just because there’s a new neighborhood Starbucks that was too tempting. This belief is aimed partly at homosexuals whose sexual orientation comes pre-loaded with lifelong celibacy or lifelong sin as the two unpalatable alternatives.  Setting that problem aside, though, intellectuals are usually the ones seen as less committed; these are well-informed people who aren’t content with white-washed history or with inadequate rationale for our actions as a group or our behavior codes.  When something doesn’t make sense, these are the folks who research it and point it out, and that knowledge certainly can decrease commitment to things that lack a valid rationale. And of course, it begs the question, committed to what?  Those who seek improvements are obviously less committed to the way things are, and our human nature makes it difficult to disentangle cultural assumptions from universal truths.  Additionally, those who oppose change are usually the ones with unexamined privilege under the status quo:  those whose families or choices fit the “ideal,” those in leadership positions, those with pioneer heritage, the wealthy, heterosexuals, and of course, white male Americans.

Whether you want it to or not.

Change is a one-way street.

This has been demonstrated repeatedly to be untrue.  When changes are made, they almost always follow societal norms changing, and we employ one or more of the following strategies:  1) ret-conning the past, proof-texting leader statements aligned with the change while burying those that don’t align, or most recently coming as close as we dare to disavowing statements made by previous leaders with regard to the revoked priesthood ban, 2) celebrating the change as evidence of ongoing revelation, 3) placing changes in historical time-bound context as opposed to a “God is the same today, tomorrow, and forever” context, 4) downgrading concepts from “doctrine” to “policy.” I have often observed that there are some in the church focused on creating purity among the membership, purging out those in the fringes through ostracism or judgment.  There are others who have a “big tent” philosophy and are more missionary-minded, wanting to appeal to as many as possible, to welcome all to Christ, to sit at the table with the sinners.  I see these as two of the three missions of the church:  perfecting the saints, and preaching the gospel.  While they don’t have to be at odds, they often are.  Certainly, they create a natural tension between two extremes. A recent article in the Washington Post called “Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard” illustrated this tension:

“Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult. . . “Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity’s brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live. Instead, we celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry. We fight against the very transformation that God seeks.”

Likewise, the members are the spouse of the church. We are there by choice. Our opinions should matter.

Mr. Ehrich (the author) is simply pointing out a common pitfall experienced in Christian faiths.  We owe activists a debt of gratitude for their courageous overreaching which expands the Overton window and opens the rational discussion of previously taboo subjects:

The Overton window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable. Other formulations . . . add the concept of moving the window, such as deliberately promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas, with the intention of making the current fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. [wikipedia]

Here’s my advice to those seeking change, and it comes straight from Pres. Packer’s address:

  1. Critical mass is needed.  There’s a tipping point at which change is inevitable.  If you are seeking for “exceptional” changes, I agree with Jake and Pres. Packer that those one-off changes aren’t going to happen.  Let’s face facts; the 99 are more important than the 1 in the institutional church, especially since the “1″ is often cold, hungry, and lost.  The hunting ground for critical mass is always the same:  those directly affected, their allies (friends and relatives), intellectuals & experts, and lastly, social pressure (it has to be more painful to be on the other side of the argument).
  2. Toe the line.  This is a super tough one, but I’ll put it as simply as I can.  To be an insider critic, you have to be on the inside. Firmly.  You have to (for the most part) pay tithing, attend church, give talks, follow the Word of Wisdom, hold a temple recommend, fulfill your callings.  The more of these things you continue to do, the more church cred you have.  Drop the ball, and you’re out.  I’ll still listen to you, but nobody cares what I think anyway. [3]
  3. Allow for face-saving in the change process.  One of the ingenious parts of the Ordain Women movement is that they are asking for leaders to seek revelation on this topic, not making the case that it should change because the church is headed by a backwards-thinking, mired-in-the-past gerontocracy and they (Ordain Women) know better.  Even the most believing members do not consider everything the church says and does to be 100% inspired of God.  There’s plenty of wiggle room in there for change.  But here’s the rub:  you can’t ask for change, then claim the church isn’t inspired when the change you sought happens.  That’s just bad manners.

Given these parameters, the path forward to those who desire change, at least from the perspective of those who are hardliners, sounds a lot like the dilemma posed to homosexuals:  live a joyless life of self-denial or a profligate life cast off from the body of saints. Good thing most people aren’t hardliners. [4] What do you think?

  • Are the three groups (homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals) a danger to the church or are these strawman enemies?  Can the church find a way to survive with the gospel intact and be compatible with the needs of these groups?
  • What changes are at or near critical mass, ready for a change?
  • Is it more effective for agitation to come from committed members or for those people to leave en masse for their issues to be addressed?  Which group is more easily dismissed and ignored (existing members or those who have left)?  At which point is change that addresses their interests more likely to increase our membership numbers?  Is it too late if they’ve already left the church?
  • How does the church protect its image and ability to compel people to live the gospel when it acknowledges flaws and makes improvements?  Are the flaws the bigger issue or the unwillingness or slowness to change?

Discuss.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] one I share at times, I hasten to add.

[2] although I’m continually surprised at how many people do read the blogs, quote them in talks, and recognize authors around the church.  It’s not as “fringe” as you might think.  Also bear in mind that the address by Pres. Packer was written before the internet.  Since then, anyone teaching a class who even attempts to magnify his or her calling and has a modicum of curiosity (beyond lds.org) is likely to stumble across LDS blogs.

[3] This isn’t to say that attrition doesn’t have a voice; it does matter if a critical mass vote with their feet and tithing dollars by leaving the church.  It’s just a voice that those who are most privileged insiders will have difficulty hearing and understanding.  Additionally, people leave for so many different reasons that it’s difficult to be distinguished among all those other reasons. And lastly, once you leave the church, your desire to change the church often changes.  It’s like being fed up with American politics to the point that you move to Canada; you’ll be too busy enjoying all the free health care and clean air to worry about Congress.  Or maybe you’ll be distracted by the frozen tundra and higher tax rate.

[4] I still believe that the most impactful aspect of our church experience is at the local ward level.  I’ve been fortunate to live in wards where people are generally open minded and not afraid of change.  Not all have been so fortunate.

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17 Responses to Futility & Change: A Response to Bro. Jake

  1. ji on January 14, 2014 at 4:47 AM

    “One of the ingenious parts of the Ordain Women movement is that they are asking for leaders to seek revelation on this topic, not making the case that it should change because the church is headed by a backwards-thinking, mired-in-the-past gerontocracy and they (Ordain Women) know better. “

    Really? I haven’t discerned this in my readings on the internet.

    I suppose I look at church differently than others. I don’t look at it like a community club or social club in the tradition of American democracy and congregationalism, where everything is voted on. I see the church as a wonderful gift, of men and women trying to support each other as we try to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, and of a priesthood offering me the ordinances of salvation. I don’t expect to apply my American democratic ideals to the church and change the church to my liking. I’m happy. And I trust the brethren enough to sustain them in their callings. Yes, I’d like a shorter Sunday block, but I won’t agitate for it. And I’d like better teaching materials for our classes, but I won’t agitate for it. My desires in these things have to be balanced with other more important principles. I want church leaders to be mindful of the membership (I believe they already are) but I would never want the church to become a democratic institution in the sense of American community and social clubs.

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  2. MB on January 14, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    I like “man the lines on board” rather than “toe the line”.

    Big ships change course slowly. It’s the ones that stay on board that make that slow change of course possible, not the ones who have felt compelled, for whatever good and necessary reason, to disembark.

    I’ve seen many, many decades of course change. It continues apace. Faster than the most conservative would like, slower than the most liberal would like, but it goes on in good ways and, I believe, will continue do so.

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  3. Howard on January 14, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    Brava hawkgrrl! Excellent! I loved the clarity and conciseness of the revisionist apologetic process: ret-conning the past…proof-texting leader statements…burying those that don’t align…celebrating the change as evidence of ongoing revelation… Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! As a new LDS reality is born and reborn. “I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes.” Resurrection not introspection!

    Are the three groups (homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals) a danger to the church… Not really, they are a threat to the status quo and to the celebrity status of the brethren but not to the church’s existence or it’s ability to provide the gospel to it’s members. The issue is rooted in tribal psychology, tribes need an enemy to bring them together in solidarity, in unity because they are founded on us vs them thinking. Who would the LDS Mormon tribe be if they weren’t significantly different than and of course much better than the other choices?

    Is it more effective for agitation… There is considerable evidence that agitation IS effective no matter where it is coming from particularly if it can be logically be defended in some Christian context. As you point out a tipping point must be met before a policy or doctrine is actually changed. But short of that we do see attitude change usually in the form of softening occasioned by simply exposing the old attitudes to the light of day! The LDS church is mired in OT enforcement of behavior thinking which plays out as conditional acceptance (which the orthodox tend to love!) and until they finally progress to the now 2,000 year old Christian beatitude thinking and begin to express love unconditionally they will be vulnerable to criticism from both within and without. It is only recently that the official church message regarding homosexuality prominently states Love One Another. Many orthodox Mormons secretly and perhaps subconsciously love to hate and Mormonism gives them (they believe) an officially sanctioned target for that hate although of late it is being morphed into the sin rather than the sinner.

    The church depends on illogical and unexamined belief from it’s orthodox members as their base, “a Mormon just believes”. This and “sacred not secret” and “it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true” and “we don’t have lesson time for that” kinds of muting is how and why they can get away with not addressing their inconsistencies and controversies for so long and this is why they fear intellectuals because intellectuals tend to more easily speak truth to power! Power doesn’t want to hear truth because from power’s perspective they ARE truth or in this case they are the expression of truth. This is a blinding perspective and can easily result in errors like the ban on Blacks fiasco. But the internet has given voice to it’s outspoken members producing a power shift reminiscent of the power shift caused by printing Bibles and the church’s top down monopoly will never be the same.

    Toe the line.? I think it’s good to remain in the church if you believe and you are getting something out of attending. But the church can be changed via agitation coming both from within and without so it’s up to you. I visualize the church as the narrow part of an hour glass, a temporary place to get your saving ordinances and observe our common faith together. But since religion is the mortalization of spirituality it is clear that the mortal LDS church cannot exist in the same form in the next life so it is temporary experience for all even if you intend it to be eternal.

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  4. KT on January 14, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    You identify and expound on some fundamental truths of the current situation. Good points!

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  5. The Other Clark on January 14, 2014 at 12:02 PM

    Had to google the term ret-con. I think it’s the favored way to deal with change.

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  6. IDIAT on January 14, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    Thanks for the link to Elder Packer’s talk. Without reading his talk I would have taken your interpretation of his position at face value, which would have been a mistake. I take his words very differently than the way you use them in your post. I don’t believe he termed the three groups “enemies,” and I don’t think his position was to wage war on groups that find themselves struggling, for whatever reason.

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  7. forwardjoe on January 14, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    You took the words right out of my mouth IDIAT. President Packer doesn’t call these people enemies. He says that they are hurting and that they need our help. The difference of opinion comes in what type of help is best and most appropriate.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on January 14, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    IDIAT – you are right that his language is softer. Subsequent references to this talk use the term “the three enemies of the church,” so while it has been used in that way, it isn’t a quote from the talk.

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  9. European Saint on January 14, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    I believe President Packer was inspired in his talk cited above. He understands that true charity entails embracing Truth — even when the Truth is deemed hard by some.

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  10. wreddyornot on January 14, 2014 at 11:55 PM

    For believers who assert there *is* ongoing revelation (Isn’t belief the rub now with Bro Jake?), I see no futility to imminent change. Asking, seeking, and knocking result in being answered, in finding out, and in being opened up unto.

    Being an intellectual, a feminist, or a homosexual (or all three or something else altogether) is irrelevant if you’re a person who seeks revelation by asking, seeking, and knocking.

    What is at critical mass from me should be heavenly father
    (a) answering his kids who sincerely and with real intent want to know where their mother in heaven is and why she’s not given a place similar to his in our mortal upbringing;
    (b) explaining to many of heavenly father’s kids who want to know and to whom it seems so incredibly unfair for men to always possess ultimate authority in the church and never women why such is and has been the case and if it must remain so, and
    (c) answering how he has and can continue to justify us his children in allowing the scapegoating of people whose natural sexuality lies outside a so-called “acceptable” norm to continue and not wanting them to have happy, secure, and fulfilled family lives.

    Asking, seeking, and knocking — i.e., agitation — done with sincerity and with real intent is effective whether it’s from members, ex-members, or nonmembers and is likely to result in revelations that increase conversion and faith.

    The church of Jesus Christ doesn’t need protection as to its image. Its members simply need to live up to its exemplar. Its people need to ask, to seek, and to knock — to “compel” is “to force: and of course is an anathema in such a context — despite their flaws, present and past, and be willing to repent and be better.

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  11. Trev on January 15, 2014 at 4:51 AM

    Wait… most TBMs would welcome fewer changes in garment design? How did you come to that conclusion?

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  12. Trev on January 15, 2014 at 5:07 AM

    And… I actually followed up with a substantive comment along with the requisite (and certainly deserved!) praise of the post, but the stupid software ate it, and I do not have the energy to reconstruct it. :(

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  13. Hedgehog on January 15, 2014 at 5:13 AM

    ES #9, those would the useful truths then?

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  14. hawkgrrrl on January 15, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    Trev – most TBMs would welcome change to garment design, not fewer changes.

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  15. Alex P. on January 15, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    This and your related BCC post are both excellent. I’m a pragmatist, too, and pragmatism tends to drain the will out of activism. Even so, there is no question in my mind that activism motivates decision-making in the church. But it’s trapped in a paradox. The more vigorous it is, the more threatening it becomes, and that generates resistance.

    The church is highly resistant to outside and even inside-outside critique (it may even be read as validating), but internal distress is not something church leadership is apt to ignore. It’s a vote of no confidence, and given the dynamics of our lay ministry, church leaders are very sensitive to that, at least when concerns exhibit a broader demography. When intellectuals complained about dishonest history, they could be dismissed as intellectuals. But when non-intellectuals became distressed about it, then it was validated as a problem and addressed.

    I know activism has in its bones the impulse to organize, but in the church that is probably counter-productive. Constituencies have no real ground for influence in the church. Worse, organization allows you to be easily categorized as a motivated dissenter and therefore dismissed. I think the institutional church is quite sensitive to members in distress, but members is dissent are another matter. I think, as you describe, OW is trying very hard not to cross that line, but I do not know how organized distress cannot be interpreted as dissent.

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  16. Martin on January 17, 2014 at 7:07 PM

    I don’t think homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals are generally considered enemies of the church, even by Elder Packer. I think they’re just considered “at risk”, and in many cases, likely to take someone down with them. I also don’t think the attrition of these individuals will influence the church, even if the church starts to shrink.

    We’ve preached the gospel of prosperity improperly, I think. Everybody seems to think that joining the church and living the gospel is supposed to make one’s life easier by the metric of their own choice, and it’s just not true. Of the early members who joined the church, other than the very poor from England, it appears to me that by normal metrics almost all of them experienced harder lives than they would have had they not joined the church. This appears true of the saints in the days of Christ as well. Near as I can tell, God has always asked very hard things of his people. Yet very many claim they’ve been truly blessed.

    When it comes to homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals, I see no harm in them making their case and pleading before the Lord. The problem comes when they’ve already concluded the “right” answer and predicate their happiness on things working the direction they believe things must go — essentially just waiting for God to vindicate them. What if God doesn’t agree?

    So much has been made of the 1978 revelation. There were many who knew, just knew, the policy against blacks was wrong and had to change. Yet, the only ones who were eventually blessed by the change were those who were willing to submit to the Lord’s will and wait for further light and knowledge. Those who fell away probably remained fallen.

    When the Savior told the woman that it wasn’t meet to give the children’s meat to the dogs, she didn’t reply “A real man of God would never judge me based on my ethnic background!” (though it might have been intriguing to know the outcome if she had).

    Elder Soares’ talk from the Saturday session of last conference was exceptional. http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/be-meek-and-lowly-of-heart?lang=eng#watch=video

    I believe it is possible that the Lord may sanction homosexual marriage or grant men and women equivalency, but I think it’s just as likely he won’t. If that’s true, and I believe God is truly good, then I also believe that it is possible for these people to be happy even if God doesn’t grant them homosexual marriage or priesthood authority. I ache for them if they feel they can’t, but I also feel they must be wrong. I also have to believe that setting one’s own wisdom against God’s can only result in long-term unhappiness, and I believe homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals face this temptation more than the general church membership.

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  17. Joseph M on January 21, 2014 at 2:08 AM

    For anyone desiring to improve their ability to understand and influence others regarding deeply held beliefs I recommend you check out Dr Jon Haidt’s work on Moral foundations(http://righteousmind.com/) he has developed some very valuable insight into why good people can be on totally opposite sides of an issue. Studying his research has made the whole world make a LOT more sense.

    For a quick intro check out his first TED talk.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/view/lang///id/341

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