Thoughts on the Speed with Which America Changes Her Mind

905 - Americans Change Their Minds

Bloomberg Business has an interesting post about the speed with which Americans change their minds on major social issues, complete with misleading graph above. I say misleading primarily because the graph stops at major milestones (Constitutional amendments or SCOTUS cases), and this gives an unjustified sense of finality to the change of mind, as though–having gone one direction–the transition is ultimately a complete switch.

Calling it misleading might be a little harsh. It does show exactly what it purports to show, and the authors even note that “the movement to legalize abortion is something of an outlier here. It ultimately may have followed the same pattern as other issues—but we’ll never know, because in 1973 the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade cleared the way for legal abortions.” That’s a reasonable characterization, but it s somewhat contradicted in the following paragraph: “By acting before a critical mass of states was in support, the Supreme Court pre-empted what had been a steady popular movement in the states toward abortion rights.”

Just how steady and popular has that movement been in the decades since? I considered that question over a year ago when I contrasted the fate of interracial marriage and abortion (two controversial-at-the-time social issues) up to the present date.

As you can see, support for interracial marriage rose on a more or less steady trajectory from only 4% in 1959 to 87% in 2013. Abortion, on the other hand, has been flatlined (more or less) for the past 40 years. So if the Bloomberg Business chart were really “tracking the pace of social change” they should have picked not state-level support (which is kind of meaningless) but rather polling data, and then they should have carried it forward as far as possible instead of just stopping at the point of legalization. If they had done so, the graph would show two different kinds of rapid social changes. One, like interracial marriage, would show a genuine change in America’s views over time. Others, like abortion, would show that this change has stalled and would instead show lasting controversy.

It seems increasingly likely that same-sex marriage will soon become the law of the land. It is much less clear which of these two categories it will fit into: eventual universal acceptance or long-lasting controversy.

The Paradox of Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom

910 - AntiDiscrimination Religious Freedom

In which law professor (and my good friend) Nate Oman boils down the most depressing aspect of the current culture war. Both religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws are  necessary contingent on the prevailing local culture, but states where there is the greatest need for religious protections are the least likely to enact them, and states where there is the greatest need for antidiscrimination laws are the least likely to enact them. As a result:

I think that in blue states conservative religious objectors will likely be dealt with harshly and punitively. In red states, I think that there is a real danger that in some places homosexuals will lack the ability to fully and meaningfully participate in the market.

Depressing stuff, but Nate has hope. Read the article to see what it is.

On the Mutability of Marriage


There are two naive assumptions for the price of one in David Brooks’ most recent NYT column. Concluding, he writes:

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks’ entire point rests on the idea that marriage is immutably monogamous. This hopelessly naive position is undermined by (just to name one prominent example) Dan Savage’s influential argument that infidelity should be not only tolerated but that it can be embraced within marriage. For example, speaking of the infidelity in his own marriage, he writes:

People have come into our lives as lovers and enriched and enhanced our lives. Taken us into new worlds. And exposed us to new communities. New groups of people, new groups of friends. And that’s been very rewarding, and very rich.

So not only is the monogamy/marriage link not set in stone (that was his first foolish assumption), but furthermore the rhetoric of “equality and rights” was not in some way insulated from the policy of gay marriage. (The idea that policy and and supporting arguments could be so insulated was his second foolish assumption.)

Of course homosexuals didn’t invent infidelity, and there have always been heterosexual proponents of open marriage. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to miss the the extent to which the equality and rights rhetoric–by emphasizing the benefits of marriage to the spouses as opposed to their duties and obligations to each other, to the community, and to children–have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage that Brooks is so excited about.


T&S Post: Privilege and the Family

932 - Dom Viol Chart

I wrote a post for Times and Seasons today: Privilege and the Family. The post borrows heavily from work that Walker Wright has done right here at Difficult Run collecting research and data (like the chart above) on the impact of marriage and family for children’s outcomes, and also seeks to answer a couple of questions raised at By Common Consent recently: Who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family? The questions are:

  1. Why should we care about the family?
  2. What does it mean to stand up for the family?

If that sounds like an interesting post to you, then you should check it out.


First Things Article: The LDS Church and Gay Rights

972 - First Things Article Header

I expanded my thoughts on the LDS Church and gay rights from a blog post into a piece that First Things liked enough to run with. Couple of quick notes. First, that article has even more typos than my usual posts. The “heard of Jesus’s message”? I can only hang my head in shame and try to do better next time. Second, I’ve been talking with a law professor about religious liberty to make sure I’m not too far off-base. The one thing he says I was missing from my analysis was that liberals don’t believe religious liberty is confined to only the liberties that you get via secular civil rights (like freedom of speech or privacy). They also tend to suggest that religion ought to be treated as a suspect classification like race or gender. This means that any law which explicitly targeted a religious group would be subject to strict scrutiny.

Practically speaking, however, that doesn’t change much. Most of the rules that would constitute a real burden on a person’s free expression of religion are not going to be crafted as explicitly anti-religious, so we’re still talking about a huge gulf between what conservatives have in mind when they talk about religious liberty (and also what the First Amendment strongly implies about religious liberty by mentioning it explicitly) and what liberals have in mind when they talk about religious liberty.

The Mormon Church and Gay Rights

979 - Church Press Conference

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare public press conference. The topic was gay rights, and Jonathan Rauch described the main idea this way:

[Mormon leaders] made a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.

So, what should we make of this? For his part, Rauch (who is gay) advocates giving the Church the benefit of the doubt and viewing the offer as a genuine olive branch. However, he concedes that “it could be a trap.” Brooke P. Hunter is not nearly as conciliatory in her piece: How the Mormons Punked the Press. She described the press conference as “mostly about defending Mormons’ right to discriminate.” She said “the new Mormon position is like that candy with a razor blade inside” and added

Today’s press conference took place in a twilight zone where parents are in danger of being jailed for teaching their kids about Jesus, and where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.” Oh, please. Show me the Mormons who have been jailed for sharing their views. There are none. And if you can point to one instance of the government preventing good Mormons from practicing their religion in their homes, we’ll eat our hat.

Let me make two observations. First, although Hunter doesn’t seem aware of this fact, her position constitutes a drastic reduction in the scope of religious liberty. First, because she envisions no protection for religious liberty outside of the strictly private sphere. Second, because she is contemptuous of the idea of religious liberty as religious. For instance, she decries Mormons for wanting “special privileges and special rights for churches and for religious people.” Well yes, in order to be religious liberty it has to be liberty specifically for (i.e. specially for) religion and religious considerations. Whatever Hunter has in mind when she talks about religious liberty, it seems to have very little do to with our historic appreciation for the special role religion has to play in the public sphere. This attitude, especially as it seems to be both widespread and innocent of any awareness of its own novel and revolutionary character, goes a long way towards vindicating the fears of religious people.

Second, I think the most logical way to take the Church’s position is the straightforward one. I do not think the bargain is merely political or expedient. I think, and this is born out by other changes in Church policy and teaching I outlined here, that the gay rights debate has forced Mormons (and the religious community as a whole) to do a better job of separating between principled religious doctrines of sexual morality and social convention. It is possible, and for a Christian it is necessary, to commit oneself to loving gay people (and bisexual, and transgender, etc.) in a way that affirms the unique dignity of every human being as in the image of God and also the religious principles that Christians believe lead to human flourishing. Does this break down to the old “hate the sin, love the sinner” trope? In short: yes. And it’s a distinction the world may find curious but that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

In short, I think Mormonism has come to an awareness that fighting against discrimination of the LGBT community is more than politically expedient: it is the right thing to do. The LGBT community should be protected from discrimination in housing, employment, and so on. I do not believe, and so far neither does the Church, that this extends to same-sex marriage, however, which is seen not as equal access to a common institution but as the redefinition of an institution. Even if you think that last bit makes no sense, and I know that many people do, my general message is just that I think Mormons (and a lot of the religious community) have been humbled by the past couple of decades and have come to a deeper understanding of how to live as Christians. That, I believe, is also what led to last week’s press conference.

“Son, Men Don’t Get Raped”

The documentary The Invisible War made waves a couple years ago by tackling the subject of sexual assault within the U.S. military, largely focusing on female victims. A recent issue of GQ has a disturbing and heartbreaking article focused solely on male victims:

Sexual assault is alarmingly common in the U.S. military, and more than half of the victims are men. According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every single day. These are the stories you never hear–because the culprits almost always go free, the survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.

…The moment a man enlists in the United States armed forces, his chances of being sexually assaulted increase by a factor of ten. Women, of course, are much more likely to be victims of military sexual trauma (MST), but far fewer of them enlist. In fact, more military men are assaulted than women—nearly 14,000 in 2012 alone. Prior to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, male-on-male-rape victims could actually be discharged for having engaged in homosexual conduct. That’s no longer the case—but the numbers show that men are still afraid to report being sexually assaulted.

Military culture is built upon a tenuous balance of aggression and obedience. The potential for sexual violence exists whenever there is too much of either. New recruits, stripped of their free will, cannot question authority. A certain kind of officer demands sex from underlings in the same way he demands they pick up his laundry. A certain kind of recruit rapes his peer in a sick mimicry of the power structure: I own you totally.“One of the myths is that the perpetrators identify as gay, which is by and large not the case,” says James Asbrand, a psychologist with the Salt Lake City VA’s PTSD clinical team. “It’s not about the sex. It’s about power and control.”

The title of the article captures this brutal reality: “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped.”

The Primordial Origins of Marriage

Michelangelo's Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.

You can find plenty of attacks on “traditional marriage” these days. These pieces generally take a historical approach, looking at how the institution of marriage has changed throughout history and how widely they differ from 1950s stereotypes. There is a legitimate point to this analysis, marriage has changed quite dramatically from time to time and from place to place, and there are certainly modern embellishments that are anachronistically applied to the tradition backwards throughout time.

Unfortunately, the political assumptions that frequently accompany such critiques distort the analysis. Closer inspection reveals that the same core aspects that defenders of traditional marriage emphasize are much, much older and more deeply embedded into the institution of marriage than critics and maybe even defenders of traditional marriage realize.

The proximate provocation for this post is a piece by Angela C. at By Common Consent: The Myth of Traditional Marriage. The core assumption that leads Angela astray is that marriage is an invention. As she writes:

Depending on whom you ask, marriage was either invented by men to protect or to oppress women.  And some men would argue that marriage was invented by women to domesticate men (a pouty version of the protection argument).

Of course, Angela is also employing the highly partisan assumption that the invention of marriage had to have been sexist: either the outright misogyny of exploitation or the insidious sexism of assuming women need protection. As objectionable as this assumption might be, it’s actually far less important than the subtle assumption that marriage is an invention. Which is to say that it is a social construct.

The explanation of why this idea of social constructivism is associated with socially liberal politics is an interesting one, but it is mostly also outside the scope of this post. I will just point out that it is associated with socially liberal politics. The most obvious example, of course, is the argument that gender is a social construct distinct from biological sex.

2014-09-17 Everything is ChemicalsImplicit in these theories is the peculiar notion that society is not biological. It is peculiar because it is most often embraced by those who either outright deny the role of a supernatural deity in creating humanity or at least downplay it in favor of scientific explanations. But it’s quite difficult to see how science can provide any metaphysical justification for treating humans and our society and its constructs as one class of beings and the natural world as another. It’s very much like the natural foods advocates who warn against eating anything “chemical” without realizing that everything is chemicals. Social constructivism—at least in its most extreme and naïve form—is a modern superstition.

So let us set aside the assumption that marriage is an invention, a deliberate construction willfully created by humans to accomplish a consciously desired end. I don’t mean to say let’s assume that marriage is not an invention. I’m merely saying: if we don’t make that assumption do we find any more likely candidate explanations? And, as it turns out, we do.

To understand the origins of marriage we first have to understand a little bit about the differences between human beings and other animals. The answer is that humans have evolved to make a very high-risk, high-reward tradeoff. The risk is that our offspring are basically helpless for an exceptionally prolonged period of time. This requires enormous resources to feed them and keep them safe. The reward is that, in exchange for that helplessness, our offspring are incredible learners (and then, later in life, incredible teachers). Learning and teaching are what humans do better than any other species. Human babies are useless at running or fighting or hiding, but they are tremendous geniuses at things like language acquisition. We have highly plastic brains that take a long time to learn anything, but that can eventually learn just about anything. That single difference pretty much explains the difference between chimps using sticks to forage for ants and humans launching the Space Shuttle.

The reason why this change has such huge dividends is that it separated human knowledge from human genetics. Other animals are capable of some pretty amazing behaviors (like migration), but these are often instinctual. That means the information is genetic. Advantage: no one has to teach it. Disadvantage: the animals can only learn and change as the speed of genetic evolution, which takes place across hundreds or thousands of generations. If the migration pattern needs to change in an abrupt way, monarch butterflies can’t just tell the next generation to take a different route next time.

Humans, on the other hand, initially used society as a repository for knowledge. Each generation could teach the skills (from language to tool use) to the next generation. This meant that exchange of knowledge (for example when a new tool was discovered) could be exceptionally rapid both across generations and across tribes. That was the basis for creating (eventually) written language, which only further increased the pace since now our knowledge can be transmitted and reproduced even more rapidly and cheaply and widely. In short: other animals learn at the speed of genetics. Humans learn at the speed of memetics which, in the Internet Age, is the speed of light.

This is pretty cutting-edge science because it relies on concepts like group selection that—although initially proposed by Darwin—have been considered more or less impossible until recently. No one could figure out how to make it work: why would one individual sacrifice altruistically in order to benefit his tribe? In short: how do you get trust? Advances in game theory and complexity science have for the first time made it possible to illustrate how these obstacles can be overcome, and therefore how it is possible for groups to compete against each other (and therefore to have group evolution) rather than just individual organisms.

So now we’ve learned two key things. The first is that the chief difference between humans and other organisms is that we have really, really expensive but also really, really high-performing offspring. The second is that this idea carries with it the notion that groups compete and evolve, which is to say that societies can compete and evolve. Most notably, these are intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. They predate any history and go back to the origins of our species.

Which means that marriage predates our history and goes back to the origin of our species, provided we define marriage as (1) monogamous sexual pairing of males and females who (2) cooperate to feed, protect, and teach their offspring. This behavior must be as old as humanity because humanity is impossible without it. Without cooperation, human children cannot be raised by subsistence cultures. They are too expensive. But without sexual monogamy, males and females are not equally vested in the offspring. These behaviors therefore co-evolved with humanity itself.

So we’ve just bypassed all the historical, cross-cultural analysis of formal marriage institutions by a couple hundred thousand years, at least. So much for an “invention.” What does the story look like from there?

Well, all of the individual cultural variations around the kernel of marriage (monogamy and cooperative child-rearing) end up only being possible because of the integral role that the kernel of marriage played in our society. The logic can’t work any other way. Why would someone use marriage as the basis for political alliance, for example, if monogamous, child-rearing relationships weren’t already fundamental to human society? No one would think to invent marriage from scratch for the purposes of political alliance and, if someone did think of it, it would never work because there would be no foundation to build upon.

So it is absolutely true that marriage comes in a wide variety of cultural and legal and historical instantiations, but it is only the variety that is in any sense invented or constructed or arbitrary. They inventions only exist because there was a stable foundation upon which to build them.

Oral language was not invented. It evolved. Written language was not invented. It evolved. Nation-states were not invented. They evolved. Markets were not invented. They evolved. And, like these other bedrock institutions, marriage was not invented. It evolved. Just as oral and written languages vary widely, just as forms of government run the gamut from tribal chiefs to Prime Ministers, and just as the laws for doing business vary from place to place: so do does the institution of marriage alter and change from time to time and from place to place.

But there are individual characteristics that languages, governments, and markets must have in order to exist at all, and similarly there are traits that marriage—despite its many variations—must exhibit in order to exist. Those are sexual monogamy between men and women raising their biological children. Which, not at all coincidentally, are the characteristics that are of utmost importance in the minds of social conservatives defending “traditional marriage.” Whether you believe that marriage was ordained of God by divine fiat in a literal Garden of Eden, was orchestrated by God through the process of natural selection and evolution, or simply evolved spontaneously without any help from a Creator of any kind: marriage remains the fundamental institution that made the human species possible.

The key lesson to learn here is not necessarily that marriage should never change. Marriage—the entire package including the biological kernel and the social embellishments on top of it—changes all the time. Some of those innovations are bad. When society codifies marriage in a way that treats women as property to be bought or sold or gives men a legal right to rape their wives, then society is leveraging the power of the biological kernel of marriage to do great evil. But when marriage is used as a model to care for those in need—like with fostering or with adopting children—then in that case we’re building something beautiful and worthy on top of the foundation that we’ve inherited to work with.

Because this isn’t an argument that marriage should never change, this post cannot function as a direct argument against same-sex marriage, open marriages, or other currently controversial topics. It is possible to believe that the kernel of marriage has filled its evolutionary purpose. Now that we have enormously greater economic prosperity, perhaps the old rationales no longer apply.

This may be so, but at least those who advocate changes to marriage at a fundamental level ought to admit that they are tinkering with the evolutionary foundations of human society. To use a computer analogy: debates about marriage that get to its essential characteristics are not like swapping out one app for another. They are about making changes to the kernel of the operating system. It would be best to know what one is doing before one undertakes such an endeavor. Those propounding the “myth of traditional marriage” manifestly fail to apprehend its true nature and significance. Therefore, they are the last folks I want involved in the process.

College that Opposes Gay Marriage Loses Accreditation

2014-05-02 Trinity Western

The first caveat is that this story comes from Canada, and of course legal systems vary greatly from country to country. I don’t know how their religious liberty protections compare to those in the United States. But this story definitely has some of my fellow Mormons worried, because they can’t help but note the parallels between Trinity Western University (a small, private, religious college in Ontario) and Brigham Young University (a large, private, religious college in Utah

The story comes from the Ottawa Citizen, which reports that:

The Law Society of Upper Canada has voted against accrediting a private Christian university in B.C. that forbids intimacy outside heterosexual marriage… the vote means graduates of Trinity Western University’s future law school will not be eligible for admission to the Ontario bar.

The policy that triggered the backlash required that students

abstain from gossip, obscene language, prejudice, harassment, lying, cheating, stealing, pornography, drunkenness and sexual intimacy “that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

That’s a pretty basic statement of conventional Christian (and Jewish and Islamic) morality. I guess that renders traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims unfit to practice law in Canada. As I’ve written before, stories like this make me worried for the future of my kids.

Andrew Sullivan Doubles Down on Tolerance

2014-04-07 hounding-of-a-heretic-sd

When I wrote about Brendan Eich being forced out (he resigned, but under duress) from Mozilla one of the sources I leaned on was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is an interesting voice because he is not only in a homosexual marriage, he was the guy who wrote the very first article in a major, mainstream outlet in support of legalizing gay marriage He has had some time to think about his initial response to the controversy and he’s decided “the more I have mulled this over, the more convinced I am that my initial response to this is absolutely the right one.”

Sullivan believes his response is “a vital one to defend at this juncture in the gay rights movement.” I, on the other hand, do not support gay marriage. So why is it that I like his post? It’s not just because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s because Sullivan is actually defending “liberalism” in its original, authentic sense. He’s preaching tolerance. We disagree on gay marriage, but I agree with him on the need for real tolerance:

The ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger.

He then goes on to say:

A civil rights movement without toleration is not a civil rights movement; it is a cultural campaign to expunge and destroy its opponents. A moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel.

This all makes me want to cheer. Someone gets it. But is Sullivan in the majority on this one? I do not have any scientific polls, but I have a strong suspicion that he is not, and that perhaps his protests represent some of the last gasps of genuine moral principle in a movement that long since sacrificed principle for expedience in its headlong rush to win by intimidating rather than convincing the skeptics. I think you have to read this entire piece to really understand just how far we’ve come in a few short years, and it’s that rapid transition that makes me think there is too much  momentum to stop the train now.