T&S Review: Saints, Slaves, & Blacks

I have a review of Newell Bringhurst’s 2nd edition of Saints, Slaves, & Blacks at Times & Seasons. Some highlights:

Image result for saints slaves and blacksAccording to Paul Reeve, “one of [the book’s] most significant contributions…is…its exploration and thorough documentation of the racial universalism inherent in the first two decades of Mormonism” (pg. 193). As Bringhurst explains, “Initially, however, the status of blacks did not differ from that of any other ethnic group. As objects for probable Mormon salvation, black people fell within the purview of Mormon universalism. The Book of Mormon proclaimed a basic desire to preach the Gospel among all peoples, blacks as well as whites. “All men are privileged the one like unto the other and none are forbidden” (2 Ne. 26:28). Joseph Smith expressed this same universalism throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Smith, the voice of the Lord was “unto all men” and he was “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:2, 38:16).3 As for the gospel, it was “free unto all” regardless of “nation, kindred, [or] tongue” (D&C 10:51).4 “All those who humble themselves before God” would “be received by baptism into his Church,” including the “heathen nations” (D&C 20:37, 45:54). The Mormon Prophet instructed missionaries to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel “unto every creature . . . both old and young, both bond and free” (D&C 43:20). Finally, the Mormon gathering to Zion would include the righteous from “every nation under heaven” brought together “from the ends of the earth” (D&C 45:69, 58:9, 45)” (pgs. 32-33).

Another insight:

[W]hile I was already convinced of the theologically bogus nature of the temple/priesthood ban, I came across yet another reason to question its veracity: the whole notion of a temple/priesthood ban based on “lineage” is undermined by another teaching put forth by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that the Holy Ghost purges Gentiles of impurities and makes them the literal seed of Abraham. Bringhurst writes, “In fact, the Saints were anxious to “purge out . . . impure elements” not just from the larger Mormon community but also from the bodies of individual church members. This could be done, Young said, “through the Holy Ghost,” which could act upon individual Saints tainted with impure “Gentile blood.” These impurities would actually be purged “out of their veins” and replaced with the pure blood of Abraham. This process would remove impure “blood out” of the bodies of Mormons of varied ethnic backgrounds, including those who had the “blood of Judah”” (pg. 124).

I conclude,

I was admittedly hesitant when I was asked to reviewSaints, Slaves, & Blacks. Having read a good amount of the recent scholarship on the topic and knowing the book was a largely unchanged 2nd edition, I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Fortunately, my worries were put to rest in the first chapter. Despite originally being published nearly 40 years ago, the scholarship still feels fresh and relevant. Bringhurst’s book simultaneously plays the role of both the foundation of and a contributor to modern scholarship on Mormonism and race. And we should be thankful to Greg Kofford Books for making it available once more.

Check it out.

Abolishing Prisons

Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries: blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more. Advise your legislators when they make laws for larceny, burglary or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue; and become more enlightened. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of man, as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism: Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates with all his ferocity. “Amor vincit omnia.” Love conquers all. – Joseph Smith, 7 Feb. 1844[ref]Hat-tip to Russell Stevenson for pointing this out.[/ref]

As reported by Vox,

Image result for prison reformAmerica should abolish prisons. Perhaps not all of them, but very close to it.

That’s the argument in a recent, provocative paper by Peter Salib, a judicial clerk to Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.

According to Salib, the idea behind the criminal justice system should be to punish and deter crimes. But prisons are arguably a very inefficient way to do that. The research shows that long prison sentences have little impact on crime, and a stint in prison can actually make someone more likely to commit crime — by further exposing them to all sorts of criminal elements. At the same time, prisons are incredibly costly, eating up funds that could go to other government programs that are more effective at fighting crime.

So why not, Salib suggests, consider alternative approaches to punishment that can let someone actually pay their debt back to society without forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for his full confinement?

Salib gave the example of an accountant who burned down an office building. Instead of locking him up for potentially decades, Salib suggests keeping an eye on him through other means, such as GPS monitoring, and forcing him to work as an accountant to pay back the cost of the office building. This would, he argues, be much better for everyone involved; the office building owner gets paid back for the damage, and society has to pay much less to confine this person.

…Salib makes one of the clearer cases for how this change would be better not just for prisoners, but for society as a whole. You should read the full paper for more detail. 

Check it out

Career, Community, Cause

That’s what most employees want out of their place of work, according to a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. The authors write,

If [Abraham] Maslow were designing his pyramid from scratch today to explain what motivates people at work, beyond the basics, what would it look like? That’s a question we set out to answer at Facebook, in collaboration with our people analytics team.

We survey our workforce twice a year, asking what employees value most. After examining hundreds of thousands of answers over and over again, we identified three big buckets of motivators: career, community, and cause.

Career is about work: having a job that provides autonomy, allows you to use your strengths, and promotes your learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation.

Community is about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.

Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a source of pride.

These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

Here are a few interesting bits from their survey:

  • “Contrary to the belief that Millennials are more concerned with meaning and purpose, we found that younger people cared slightly less about cause — and slightly more about career — than older people. In fact, people ages 55 and above are the only group at Facebook who care significantly more about cause than about career and community. This tracks with evidence that around mid-life, people become more concerned about contributing to society and less focused on individual career enhancement.”
  • “Our engineers care a lot about community, giving it an average rating of 4.18 on a 1-5 scale. And just as we saw with age and location, across functions people rated career, community, and cause as similarly important.”
  • Career ekes out ahead in virtually every group, except among Latin Americans (just barely), Western Europeans (career and community are almost identical), and those 55 and above.




Researchers claimed conservatives are more hostile and socially withdrawn; turns out they read the data exactly backwards.

In 2012 the American Journal of Political Science published a study that, in part, measured correlations between political attitutes and personality traits such as being “uncooperative, hostile, troublesome, and socially withdrawn.” The original article stated upfront that the authors expected such traits to correlate to conservative political attitudes, and that was the result the study found. I remember when the study came out and several of my friends reposted it as evidence of how backward and problematic conservatives can be.

But it turns out the article had interpreted the data incorrectly. In 2015 the journal published an erratum to correct the mistake, stating:

The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal; and where the original manuscript reports those higher in neuroticism and social desirability are more liberal, they are, in fact, more conservative.

[Emphasis added.]

According to The Washington Times:

The error was first spotted by Dr. Steven Ludeke, a researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, who said it is significant, pointing to the frequency at which the study was cited.

“The erroneous results represented some of the larger correlations between personality and politics ever reported; they were reported and interpreted, repeatedly, in the wrong direction; and then cited at rates that are (for this field) extremely high,” Dr. Ludeke told Retraction Watch.

Given social science’s apparent pattern of pathologizing conservatives, this kind of mistake is unfortunate but not particularly surprising.

Are Asylum Seekers Economically Beneficial?

From Reason:


Migrants and asylum seekers provide big net benefits to their host countries reports a new study in Science Advances by three French economists. The researchers used 30 years of data on migrant and asylum seeker flows into 15 western European countries. They were seeking to find what effect permanent migrants including refugees who sought and obtained asylum between 1985 and 2015 have had on subsequent GDP per capita, unemployment rates, government spending and tax collections in those countries.

Flows of asylum seekers and migrants varied between countries. For example, Austria received 2.35 asylum seekers and 4.06 migrants per 1,000 residents; Germany 1.51 and 3.79; France 0.68 and 1.14; Italy 0.27 and 2.56; and the United Kingdom 0.63 and 2.36 respectively. Portugal received the lowest of both at 0.03 and 0.47 per 1,000 residents. Over all, the flow of asylum seekers and migrants into the 15 countries averaged 1.13 and 2.57 per 1,000 residents respectively.

Once the economists crunched the numbers they found that migrant flows during the past 30 years have had substantial positive effects on European economies. Specifically, the researchers report that migrants “significantly increase per capita GDP, reduce unemployment, and improve the balance of public finances; the additional public expenditures, which is usually referred to as the ‘refugee burden’, is more than outweighed by the increase in tax revenues.”

…This new study bolsters the results of similar research on refugees and migrants in this country, including a review reportedly suppressed by the Trump administration last year, that finds that they increase incomes and are a net fiscal benefit.

The evidence stacks up.

Can Americans Distinguish Factual Statements From Opinions?

From Pew Research Center:

In today’s fast-paced and complex information environment, news consumers must make rapid-fire judgments about how to internalize news-related statements – statements that often come in snippets and through pathways that provide little context. A new Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults examines a basic step in that process: whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.

The findings from the survey, conducted between Feb. 22 and March 8, 2018, reveal that even this basic task presents a challenge. The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion.

…Trust in those who do the reporting also matters in how that statement is interpreted. Almost four-in-ten Americans who have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations (39%) correctly identified all five factual statements, compared with 18% of those who have not much or no trust. However, one other trait related to news habits – the public’s level of interest in news – does not show much difference.

In addition to political awareness, party identification plays a role in how Americans differentiate between factual and opinion news statements. Both Republicans and Democrats show a propensity to be influenced by which side of the aisle a statement appeals to most. For example, members of each political party were more likely to label both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed more to their political side.

Political awareness, digital savviness and trust in the media all play large roles in the ability to distinguish between factual and opinion news statements

No comment.

UPDATE: I lied. Here’s a comment from Jason Brennan, who has some pointed and insightful critiques of the study’s design:

First, this trades on a questionable and controversial view about whether normative statements are objective and provable. American K-12 schools dogmatically teach the view that all normative statements are subjective and mere opinion, but that’s in fact (and this is not mere opinion) a highly controversial philosophical claim. See this NY Times blog complaining about this: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/

Second, the normative statements in the bottom are what we might call “thick” rather than “thin” normative claims. A thin claim simply offers an evaluation, e.g., “Crooked Timber is bad.” A thick claim contains both normative components but also encapsulates, presupposes, encompasses, or in some way contains background descriptive claims. For example, “Corey Robin is intellectually dishonest” or “Michael Huemer is brave.”

Most of these statements are “thick” in that sense.

Is government wasteful and inefficient? I’m not sure if that is to be interpreted entirely as an opinion claim, or whether it is not entirely provable. “Efficiency” has multiple descriptive meanings in economics. “Wasteful” can be seen as a slightly normatively loaded version of “inefficient”; e.g., “This engine is less efficient than that engine, so it’s wasteful.” Economists regularly make claims like this when studying various institutions, and they see themselves as doing descriptive, positive work.

Are immigrants a big problem? Again, this question presupposes some normative commitments. However, we also tend to summarize descriptive claims in normative ways when the background normative commitments are shared. Someone reading this might think the statement is–as it often would be in conversational English–a way of summarizing a longer statement: “Immigrants cause crime, undermine social cohesion, and strain government budgets by consuming public goods, schooling, and social insurance.” (Note that I do not endorse these descriptive claims.) Similarly, if a medical doctor said, “Jason, your cancer is a aggressive and is going to be a big problem,” I wouldn’t think to respond, “Just give me the facts, doc.” Instead, it’s a way of summarizing such things as “The cancer has metastasized and is unlikely to respond to common treatments.”

Similar comments apply to the other opinion statements. Yes, they contain normative components, but nevertheless, the study both A) presupposes a problematic view about the objectivity of normative statements and B) seems to ignore or have questionable views about the pragmatics of thick normative statements.

Men, Religion, and Hormones

Related imageWomen worldwide tend to be more religious than men. In the United States, for example, self-identified Christian women are more religious than self-identified Christian men.[ref]However, it’s the opposite in Israel among Jews.[/ref] Numerous possible reasons have been offered, from the social to the genetic. Last year, I highlighted a study that found religion to be less analytical and more pro-social: “In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious. That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.” As noted by economist Bryan Caplan, “Stereotypes about personality and gender turn out to be fairly accurate: on both Myers–Briggs thinking–feeling and FFM agreeableness, there are large male–female gaps in the expected directions. Women are about half a standard deviation more agreeable than men; on the binary Myers–Briggs measure, the thinking–feeling breakdown is about 30/70 for women versus 60/40 for men.”[ref]Caplan, “Stigler Becker versus Myers-Briggs: Why Preference-Based Explanations Are Scientifically Meaningful and Empirically Important,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 50 (2003): 400.[/ref] According to Pew,

Under the “nature” umbrella are theories that variously attribute gender differences in religious commitment to physical or physiological causes such as hormones, genes or biological predispositions.

For example, Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark postulates that men’s physiology – specifically their generally higher levels of testosterone – accounts for gender differences in religion. His argument rests on what he views as increasing evidence that testosterone is associated with men’s greater propensity to take risks, which he argues is why men are less religious than women. By inference, women are more religious because they have less risk-promoting testosterone.

A new study offers some evidence for the testosterone theory:

From the analysis of over 1000 men, [Aniruddha] Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in their bodies had weaker religious ties.

“Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” says Das. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”

He believes that more studies should be done to better understand how hormones, in particular, shape a person’s religious patterns in later life. This is of importance, as religion has been shown to have a positive influence on how people age and ultimately experience their later years. According to Das, the findings further point to biological reasons behind the particular personal networks and social affiliations that people form during the course of their lives.

Testosterone has been shown to reduce empathy, perhaps explaining why women tend to be more empathetic–and therefore, more religious–than men. As Steven Pinker explains, “Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, and feel more empathy toward their friends, though not toward strangers.”[ref]The Blank Slate, pg. 345. This is why men suffer more from loneliness. See Thomas Joiner, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011).[/ref]

It’ll be interesting to see what future research finds.

DR Editor in Deseret News: The LDS Church and Immigration

Back when I published my immigration article in BYU Studies Quarterly, I was asked to write a condensed version for Deseret News as part of their “Faith & Thought” column. It was initially meant to provide more publicity for the latest issue of the journal. However, the article apparently ran into a few hiccups along the way. But with the LDS Church’s latest statement on immigration policy in the US, it looks like the article was able to be pushed through. Though my critical tone was muted a bit by the editors (I come off as far more moderate than I actually am on the matter), I’m happy to see it in print. A few highlights:

A cursory acquaintance with LDS history and scripture shakes up caricatures of migrants by reminding the faithful that many revered prophets in LDS scriptures were themselves migrants. It’s easy to forget that the story of migration is the story of holy writ. God’s biblical people were often displaced and migrating, often due to persecution or war. Consider the exile of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s overland journeys, Jacob and his family’s famine-driven journey into Egypt, the Exodus, the deportations under the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jewish dispersions under the Greeks and Romans, Christ’s status as a refugee in Egypt and the early Christian scatterings.

The Book of Mormon contains similar accounts, detailing numerous mass migrations, including the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem to the New World and that of the Jaredites from Babel to the promised land. Even the early years of the LDS Church started with several interstate migrations (often due to local persecution and governmental hostility), from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois until the Saints’ eventual settlement in what was then Mexican territory (Utah). As recent events have revealed, it can be easy to assume the worst about migrants from a comfortable, settled position. However, the scriptures and Mormon people’s own history disturb any negative, simplistic ideas about the worth and dignity of migrants in God’s eyes.

Furthermore, one of the most prominent and consistent themes throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptural canon is the obligation to care for those in need. Included among the list of the disadvantaged classes in need of provisions and protection — widows, orphans and the poor — are also “strangers” and “sojourners.”

The biblical tradition warns God’s people against “vexing” or “oppressing” the stranger. The book of Exodus reminds, “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As many scholars have noted, hospitality was considered one of the highest virtues in antiquity, and the violation of this virtue through the mistreatment of the stranger seeking refuge is given in the Bible as one reason for the destruction of Sodom.

…Beyond religious and scriptural commitments, LDS statements acknowledge the positive economic impact of immigrants. The Utah Compact underscores the contributions immigrants make to their communities.

2011 meta-analysis by economist Michael Clemens found that dropping all current immigration restrictions would result in a doubling of world GDP. A more recent analysiscorroborated these findings, concluding that lifting all migration restrictions would increase world output by 126 percent. Similarly, a 2013 study found that dropping all immigration barriers would result in an additional income of $10,798 per worker (migrant and non-migrant alike); doubling the income of the world’s most deprived.

Despite these economic benefits, many rich country natives worry that an overabundance of immigrants will make things worse. Some accuse immigrants of stealing native jobs, depressing native wages, undermining native culture and institutions, bloating the welfare state, and/or being criminals and terrorists. The vast majority of empirical studies, however, contradicts these arguments. Several large literature reviews — including two from the National Academy of Sciences and one from Oxford University — find that the long-term effects of immigration on jobs, wages and the fiscal budget tend to be neutral to slightly positive. Immigrants also assimilate rather well into their host countries and even appear to boost the economic freedom of their institutions.

…In 2011 the church stated that “The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved.” The church called for “immigration reform” that adopts a “balanced and civil approach to a challenging problem, fully consistent with its tradition of compassion, its reverence for family, and its commitment to law.” Seven years later, perhaps the United States is now ready to listen.

Read the whole thing here.

Building a Life Story

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The first time I wrote in my journal was in the days immediately after my baptism when I was 8 years old. I still have the pages somewhere in a box, including the hand-drawn map of the different routes I could take when I walked back and forth from school.

I have started and stopped journals countless times since then because it’s one of those things that, as Elder Groberg reminded us in Writing Your Personal and Family History, good Mormons are supposed to do.

As much as I enjoy writing, there’s always been one big thing inhibiting me from keeping a journal more reliably, and it is this: I don’t know what the real story is. This isn’t some weird post-modern hang-up, so much as it is (as far as I can tell) a weird psychological hang-up. I never know how I feel about things. Interrogating my true feelings about the things that are going on in my life is like collecting mist with a butterfly net. I can record the brute facts of my life—I can draw the map and label the streets—but I can’t tell you what those facts mean. Not even, and perhaps most especially, to me.

My inner life is an optical illusion. It is a collection of lines that looks like the inside of a cube one moment or the outside of a cube the next. It is a picture of a rabbit for a blink, and then it is a picture of a duck. It is two faces; it is a chalice. It is an old lady; it is a young woman.

This is why I spend almost no time at all thinking about my past. My friends and family all remember so much more of the things that I’ve been through than I do. For me, the past is like a crime scene, and I am afraid to contaminate the evidence. I have a superstitious belief that there is a true story, an objective reality, and I’m afraid that if I try to hard to find it then I will only erase it.

I have a couple of binders somewhere that contain all the letters that I sent home while I was serving my mission in Hungary and all of the letters that people sent to me. I think the binders were a gift when I got home, but I’m not sure. I’ve never opened them. I’m not sure where they are. I don’t even like to look at the binders, let alone consider reading the pages inside. Because my mission was the one time in my life when I acted like I knew what was going on and when I told everyone how I felt about things, and I’m afraid that it was all lies. It was the hardest time of my young life, and I have vague recollections of writing relentlessly optimistic and happy letters despite feeling so depressed that it felt like physical pain on most days. The whole thing is wildly embarrassing to me. I acted like I knew what was going on. I had no idea. I have lived almost as many years after my mission as I lived before it, and I still have no idea what was going on or why it was so hard for me.

If writing a journal is about writing the real story of my feelings, then I can’t write a journal for the simple reason that I don’t know my own story.

And yet, I should. Write a journal, that is. Like Elder Groberg says, writing a journal “helps immeasurably in gaining a true, eternal perspective of life” and “should be a great motivation to do what is right.” I know that’s accurate: the reflection of writing about my life has helped me put things into perspective.

Maybe that’s the point?

I’m teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year, and it’s a mess. We just made the transition from Joshua to Judges, and I taught about how all the mass slaughter that supposedly happened in Joshua is pretty flatly contradicted by Judges. On the bright side: you don’t have to believe in a genocidal God.  On the downside: it’s hard to make sense of all the contradictions. In Deuteronomy, we’re told a Moabite will never enter the assembly of the Lord until the 10th generation. Ruth, the hero of the Book of Ruth, is Moabite and that makes King David 1/8th Moabite. And, while we’re on the topic, how do we reconcile the apparent gap between the miracle-laden Exodus story and the miracle-free story of Ruth and Boaz?

The one encouraging thing is that, as I read Elder Groberg’s talk, I realize that the Old Testament is a mess in a lot of the same ways that my own life story is a mess.

There may be one, true, ultimate truth about everything. Not just the objective facts of life, but the subjective ones as well. Maybe there is an absolutely true narrative. But if there is, we will never know it in this life. In this life, stories are things we make up. Fictional stories are based on imaginary facts. And real stories—including history—is made up based on true facts. But they are both made up.

I’m not sure if I have that right or not, but it sounds promising. At the very least, it’s worth giving a shot. I’m going to try writing in my journal again, and this time I’m not going to try and find a life story. I’m going to use the raw materials of my experiences to build one.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!