Are religious schools like BYU at risk of losing accreditation over same-sex marriage?

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Last week, a superior court in the province of Ontario upheld a decision allowing the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to a Christian law school, on the grounds that its Community Covenant, which requires abstention from sex outside (husband-wife) marriage, is a violation of the rights of gay and lesbian students. Trinity Western University, the third oldest university in British Columbia, has found little sympathy among the Canadian public and political class, and is unlikely to win any future legal appeals. The school’s administration has signalled that, if forced, it will cancel the opening of the law school rather than alter the Community Covenant.

While the decision applies to an ecumenical Christian institution in Canada, the significance for American Mormons is straightforward: the sexual standards in the Honor Code at Brigham Young University are virtually identical to those in Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. Is it possible, a Latter-day Saint might reasonably wonder, that in a decade or so BYU will find its own accreditation threatened amidst the legal aftershocks of same-sex marriage?

In the balance of considerations that can be weighed while guessing the likelihood of a threat to BYU’s accreditation (or tax-exempt status), there’s a major one on the side of optimism: the fact that of any country in the world, the United States has the most robust tradition of religious liberty. As a result, the Canadian decision on TWU is not necessarily a ten-year warning bell for BYU. But there are other facts to consider:

  1. The Canadian decision did acknowledge the religious liberty interest of the university in establishing religious standards as a way of promoting the “collective practice” of Protestant Christianity. Its decision was simply that the sexual liberty of gay and lesbian students—framed in the decision as non-discrimination—was more important.
  2. Similar reasoning is being used more and more often in US decisions. So far it has only been applied to religious individuals and businesses. The line between religious businesses and schools has been blurred before in discrimination cases, however, as when the Supreme Court stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status in 1983.
  3. Conservatives in Canada in 2005 were assured that legal same-sex marriage would not lead to religious liberty conflicts, so present assurances that US law won’t allow threats to accreditation are hard to interpret as permanent.
  4. Accreditation is granted by quasi-private bodies. The council that accredits BYU acts under the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, but is probably not bound as strictly by the First Amendment as a government actor would be.
  5. As of last month, marriage to someone of the same sex is a fundamental constitutional right in the United States, and the weights of jurisprudence are likely to shift as a result. It’s unclear whether the First Amendment automatically beats the Fourteenth in conflict, especially as the cultural climate becomes more secular by the year.

When confronted with these kinds of scenarios, there are two canonical (and contradictory) responses among Mormons who support same-sex marriage: denial and approval. Rod Dreher, in a more generally Christian context, named the phenomenon:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

While Dreher’s point is made partly for snark’s sake, it should hit close to home in the online Mormon world. More than that, the point matters quite a bit, because the way that American Mormons approach the question of religious freedom could affect the ability of institutions like BYU to operate freely in the coming years and decades.

In April, Elder Hales, speaking at General Conference, left little room for either half of Dreher’s law. In response to those who deny that the space for religious exercise is shrinking:

The general lack of respect for religious viewpoints is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

As we face increased pressure to bow to secular standards, forfeit our religious liberties, and compromise our agency, consider what the Book of Mormon teaches about our responsibilities.

And to those who don’t mind the encroachment, he insists that it is the duty of Latter-day Saints to push back:

Brothers and sisters, we are responsible to safeguard these sacred freedoms and rights for ourselves and our posterity. …

[I]n your individual capacity, join with others who share our commitment to religious freedom. Work side by side to protect religious freedom.

This is the same narrative that church leaders have been telling at least since 1995, when The Family: A Proclamation to the World was announced in General Conference.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for more skeptical listeners, this language can come across hyperbolic. After all, it’s true that we are manifestly free from fear of persecution in our daily lives as Mormons, at least in most countries where members live. But it’s not enough to point out, as is so often pointed out, that the chance of clergy being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies is remote. This is the most obvious hypothetical conflict of same-sex marriage and religious liberty to come to mind, and maybe the subject of the shrillest paranoia from some members. But it would be a mistake to let it obscure the many realistic ways that the scope of religious exercise could be threatened in the coming years. Among these, the institutional marginalization of BYU is one possibility. Threats to religious tax exemptions could be next in line.

The reason, I think, for denial of the danger on the one hand and apathy on the other is a misunderstanding of what same-sex marriage really means. The degendering of marriage must eventually affect everyone because it both represents and affirms a novel worldview, one in which men and women are interchangeable, human relationships are ordered toward sex and the individual’s identity is authoritative in legal matters. Same-sex marriage lies along the road that was paved by no-fault divorce, premarital sex and legal elective abortion, and other signposts are now appearing ahead.

But regardless of whether we accept this characterization, we will likely soon be forced to accept that some of our liberties are at stake. The cultural and legal space we find ourselves occupying will be no bigger than what we decide now to claim.

The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

Barack and Michelle ObamaRising rates of fatherlessness, a culture of promiscuity, and persistently high divorce rates are impoverishing millions of people. While marriage rates remain high in our society’s upper classes, the institution has all but collapsed among the poor, leaving in its wake an epidemic of broken homes and families deprived of social capital.

The debate over the social desirability of marriage burst into the public consciousness in 1992, when US Vice President Dan Quayle famously decried Murphy Brown, a sitcom career woman who was portrayed sympathetically during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Quayle lamented the message he believed the show was sending: marriage doesn’t really matter.

Quayle was mocked relentlessly for his comments. But the shots he fired into the cultural battlefield ignited a firestorm of opinion and debate about marriage and family values, and he was arguably vindicated by social science as well as the opinions of his successors in American government. All three US presidents since 1992 have taken care more than once to extol the necessity of fatherhood and marriage, as the proportion of US children born outside wedlock passes 40%, with much higher rates among racial minorities and the poor.

Even Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, commented in 2002, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have arrived at a consensus: the erosion of the marriage institution is hurting our society. As one example of this trend, the New York Times reports that as much as 40% of inequality growth in the US is explained by changing marriage patterns. Regrettably, there exists no consensus in the broader public consciousness that there is a problem, and no united front has appeared for shoring up the institution.

No consensus on marriage

Conservative observers, who are inclined to see poverty as a natural consequence of libertine sexuality, have jumped on the family values bandwagon. Liberals, who by all accounts care deeply about the poor, unfortunately have generally not, electing instead to talk about globalization, government policy, discrimination or other causes of poverty unrelated to marriage. An observant writer last year in the Atlantic asked, “why is it hard for liberals to talk about family values?”

White, college-educated liberals in particular are among the likeliest to marry but among the least likely to offer vocal support for the institution. They show a reluctance to “preach what they practice”, as Charles Murray describes the phenomenon.

There’s a mindset of complacency at play. For the wealthy and educated, the prospect of a single life is not a fearful one, financially speaking, so it’s easy to take marriage for granted. But for the uneducated and less advantaged, not marrying means a statistical near-certainty of life at or below the poverty line. Ironically, it is the complacent wealthy who usually marry, while the poor far too often do not.

Those who plan on a single life, however, are still in the minority: 28% of Millennials over 18 are married and a further 56% say they hope to be married at some point. But, astonishingly, only 29% believe that society is better off when marriage is made a priority. The modern philosophy seems to be, “sure, I want to get married, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

If this is the case, then maybe the answer to the Atlantic’s question—why is it so hard for liberals to talk about family values?—is a reluctance to appear judgmental. Charles Murray calls this attitude “ecumenical niceness”. This agreeability might just be dangerous, because social expectations, sanctions and norms, really do affect how people act, as a wide array of social scientific literature attests.

Liberals don’t bear full responsibility for the marriage crisis, however. Conservatives have a tendency to make marriage too materialistic. Marriage in the 1940s and 50s, for all of its virtue and vigor, was characterized by parents who spent surprisingly little time with their children, and who were concerned too much with the appeal of a new post-war middle class lifestyle. Traditional norms, while vital, do not themselves a happy family make.

Children raised in this culturally conservative environment became the next decade’s hippies and cultural revolutionaries. Their error was that in their crusade against their parents’ materialism they also rejected the traditional sexual and family norms that had given them the stability and well-being they continued to enjoy.

Norms matter

The norms and taboos that historically surrounded marriage often included the expectations that sex should wait for marriage, that a man who impregnates a woman will marry her, that married couples should have children, and that divorce is a matter of last resort. While not everyone bent to these expectations in decades past, most people did, and those who didn’t at least publicly endorsed them. Nowadays, these norms are labelled “stigma” at best, and openly rejected at worst.

However, these norms still exist in our upper class, if as unspoken best practices more than expectations. It’s the poor who have lost the norms almost completely in the midst of their public disavowal by the wealthy. Dan Quayle touched on the phenomenon in his notorious speech:

When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. … And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The inter-generational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.

Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.

Marriage without norms

Marriage normlessness has also created its own philosophical novelties. Somewhere between 1970 and now, in the relative absence of cultural taboos surrounding matrimony, many of us have lost part of the vision of marriage itself. Many anthropologists half a century ago would have told you that marriage is an institution whereby a woman’s children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of the woman and her husband. The identity of marriage involved, if not revolved around, its role as the fount of sex and family. The norms of permanence, loyalty, fertility and virginity all flowed from that essence.

But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.

This decade’s gay marriage debate has at worse reinforced, or at best revealed in its proponents, an unprecedented postmodern vision of matrimony, where marriage is not defined in terms of family at all, but only in terms of love and commitment (along with vestigial property and legal rights). As theologian Albert Mohler narrated last year: marriage was reimagined “in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity … Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal—for so long as these might last.”

No public definition of marriage has ever been perfect at any point in history. But some visions are better than others: if marriage is defined in terms of romance, fulfillment or commitment, there is little to prevent further radical changes to norms and rules.

In fact, some “polyamorous” activists have interpreted recent court decisions as applying to the situation of poly-oriented people. Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.

Raising our vision of marriage

If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization. Moderate but left-of-center psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt compares the decline of marriage to global warming as a political issue: both are real and significant dangers to humanity, but most of us see only one of these two asteroids hurtling toward us, to use his analogy.

So it’s with difficulty that we apprehend the challenge of rebuilding marriage culture, a challenge which requires the efforts of everyone who cares about poverty and societal stability, both liberals and conservatives, religious and irreligious. The challenge is neither to invent a culture entirely new (as liberals might suggest) nor to re-create the materialist 1950s (as conservatives often propose).

A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage. But it should also place a higher emphasis on child-rearing than on career or external pursuits, on the immaterial over the material. Gender roles need not be enforced for the sake of nostalgia, but sexual complementarity should be celebrated and upheld where biology makes it prudent.

Arriving at this kind of cultural consensus on marriage and family is vital for the well-being of future generations. The upper class in particular should begin to preach what many of them practice, and to admit that faithful, fruitful, permanent marriage is a good and desirable thing—not just for them but for everyone. All of us should have the courage to defend marriage and the norms that protect it. If we don’t, it will be an impoverished future generation who pays the price.

Photo credit: “Barack and Michelle exit the stage” by Luke Vargas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The New Effort to Modernize Porn Laws

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

Two weeks ago British Prime Minister David Cameron made an unexpected announcement. Beginning shortly, he said, online pornography in the United Kingdom would be an opt-in service. Internet providers would be instructed to block lewd content by default. While Cameron’s rationale that the filtering would slow down child pornography is probably mistaken (offenders could simply opt in), he is correct in noting that internet porn is something unique in its destructive power. Compared to older sorts of smut, it is infinitely accessible and endlessly novel. It was almost impossible to be a porn addict a hundred years ago. Now there are millions of families affected by porn use. This is a radical shift in social habits, and it only makes sense that public policy should be re-examined in its light.

Cameron’s proposed policy on its face is not earth-shaking—it will still be legal to access pornography. But there has been an outcry among porn users who want it to be more than legal. On social news site Reddit, amidst the cries of tyranny, there was a chillingly common sentiment by commenters: “does this mean my wife (or parents, or family) will have to know if I want to opt in?” Cameron became the internet’s new villain. The swift, hostile reaction to the policy across the new media reveals the real implication of the policy for British indulgers: porn use will no longer be in secret.

There is a point to be made about the moral nature of the pornographic vice, which I will come to shortly. The more direct question for Britain at the moment is regarding the freedom of porn users and creators. It is true that Cameron’s policy is a form of censorship, and that it restricts in some degree the liberty of the individual. To the civil libertarian, this sort of mandate is anathema—to the fundamentalist, there is scarcely a good reason to make decisions on behalf of the individual. But while liberty is essential to a healthy society, there are other virtues worth considering.

Pornography, while a private indulgence, is not limited in its effects only to the user. In economics, when the negative effects of an activity spill over to uninvolved third parties, the cost they bear is called an externality. Think of the neighbor of a polluting plant. The problem with externalities is that the third party never agreed to the cost, and has no means of forcing the polluter to pay up. The result is over-pollution. The responsible approach of a modern society to an externality, when the parties do not resolve the issue themselves, is to accept a collective regulation. This is why governments restrict pollution and tax tobacco use, correcting externalities in ways that the voluntary market cannot ordinarily do. In a manner very similar to that of economic externalities, porn use tends to create moral externalities—social costs that fall on others, never automatically priced into the market of individual behavior, so to speak. The effect is exaggerated because the family members of the porn user are often not aware of the behavior.

What does porn do to families? There has been little quantitative study on the question. Of the research that has been done, including metastudies, there is a balance of evidence suggesting that porn use among males leads to increased aggression, less aversion to rape and a disconnection of sex from affection. In addition, there is stunning anecdotal data from divorce lawyers that internet pornography is a factor in around half of divorces. In the absence of a clear scientific consensus, however, it might be as useful to ask as a matter of imagination whether the spouses of porn users are normally aware of their partner’s porn use. If they are not aware, would they like to be aware? Does the fact of the secrecy imply that they would not approve of their partner’s porn use? Why would they not approve? What would it mean to a woman to know her husband spent most nights indulging in pornography?

I am admittedly unable to give definitive answers to any of these questions. However, I can offer my best guesses, and the honest reader will admit their plausibility. Porn is largely a secret vice, indulged in with infrequent exception for only selfish reasons. It is hidden because it would be emotionally scarring to loved ones if it were revealed. Despite its secrecy its effects on the user bleed into regular life. Porn use is often addictive, and the inability of men (and most of the hours spent watching porn are spent by men) to stop weakens sexual and emotional relationships, including marriage. So the question of how to approach porn laws must consider the family as well as the individual.

It is probably the case that Cameron is in over his head when it comes to the technical methods that will be needed to enforce his law. The internet is notoriously difficult to control. It may turn out that, in the effort to avoid blocking clean content, the filters will miss some of the offensive material on the internet. However, this is a small problem. The success of the system will not be that it prevents people from watching the stuff, as they can always opt in. The success of the system will be that in order to watch porn freely without going to the trouble of bypassing filters, users will have to admit to the other members of their household that they want to watch it. This is a check on behavior far healthier than a government ban. It will enable parents and spouses to be aware of what is going on in their own house. It is a modern response to a modern problem. This is no grave threat to liberty. It is in fact a victory—for familial transparency, honesty, and certainly decency.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on August 6, 2013.

The Future of Family Values

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

After centuries of a world whose population was about equal to today’s United States, humanity in the middle of the 18th century began to expand. People weren’t having more children, but advances in medicine and food production were saving millions of infant lives, and a new industrial economy was beginning to support far more humans than before.

Two hundred years later, a new demographic reality emerged, as human birth rates began to fall in step with increasing human development. Today, the world fertility rate is 2.4–that is, the average woman on earth right now will give birth to two or three children in her lifetime–about half as many as she would have fifty years ago. If the UN’s historically correct low variant population predictions are right, the world’s population will be the same in 2085 as it is today, after peaking around 2050.

This decline, which is unprecedented in a few ways, has had an odd juxtaposition with a resurgence in Malthusian thinking. The world fertility rate began falling in the late 1960s. Around the same time, writers like Paul Ehrlich began to worry that the world couldn’t hold many more than the three or four billion people alive at the time, and that famines and wars would soon devastate modern civilization. The fear spread, even though the science was faulty, the economics naive and the predictions very wrong. The paranoia that humanity would soon outgrow its world, accompanied by an anti-natalist attitude, survives into this millennium, even while birth rates continue dropping around the world.

The story behind this general feeling is probably not one of honest scholarship. Demographers and scientists have observed that economic growth accompanies population growth, that there is more food per person than at any point in history, and that huge efficiency gains in many areas mean that the world can support even more than the 9 or 10 billion at which the world’s population will peak. While there are many reasons for dropping fertility rates, the story of the new attitude toward children is one of values.

I don’t think anyone could really have imagined in 1750, as modernity newly lit the world, that anyone other than ascetics would intentionally avoid having children. Fruitfulness was one thing to which the moral structure of almost every old society had pointed; whether in the West or East. It would surprise our ancestors to see a growing movement of people who support laws that would restrict women from having more than a few kids, or who see children as impediments to an independent and fulfilling lifestyle.

As someone who has had the now uncommon experience of having five siblings, I feel like my values surrounding children, birth or maybe life in general, are very distant from the popular ones. It’s easy to feel like I’m speaking another language–I find myself confused at the confusion caused when I tell my peers that my plans for the future are to get married and have kids. The culture of many twenty-somethings is one where kids are foreign creatures, marriage is an abstraction, and pregnancy is a plot point in a sexual narrative. My most cherished memories in life involve the time spent with siblings and cousins; I wonder if the fragmented individualism of the society we live in has started to strip away these most basic of human feelings.

Nevertheless, I think the future is bright. There is new, early evidence that societies that get to a high enough level of human development see rises in their fertility rate. Whether or not this is really the case, it is clear that the people who will be around in a few generations will be the descendants of those among us who value children enough to have them. If there is any heritage, biological or cultural, that parents pass down to children, it can never be a heritage of not having children–childlessness is not hereditary. When the misanthropy of our generation inevitably strangles itself, the earth will be the inheritance of the rest.

Margaret Thatcher: Old-Fashioned Feminist?

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

The most powerful woman of the twentieth century died this week, and she left a trail of ideological disarray behind her. Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, by all accounts asserted her equality with the men around her, but her methods emphatically were not those of “women’s libbers,” as she derisively called them. Thatcher famously claimed that she owed nothing to modern feminism. This clash of a female politician with woman’s rights advocates makes clear that in Western thought, there are two distinct strands of feminism.

Feminism in its roots is a doctrine of equality between men and women. The early feminist movement led to female suffrage, property and contract rights for women and reduced misogynistic violence. Today, the equality of women and men is mostly accepted in the West, at least in our minds and laws. With very few exceptions, it is now legal (while admittedly not always easy) for a woman to do the same things it is legal for a man to do.

If this is feminism, then Thatcher was a feminist. She stepped over the deep-rooted masculine wall of the Conservatives to win their leadership, and strode confidently into place as the most powerful person in Britain. She was not ashamed to have power, or to love it. If there was any question as to whether she believed in equality, it was at the expense of men, whom she sometimes belittled as indecisive and weak.

But Thatcher was not a feminist–not in the modern sense. By the time she broke the glass ceiling, the movement had moved on. They didn’t want her, and she didn’t want them. In fact, with the notable exceptions of Hillary Clinton and arguably Julia Gillard, most women politicians are disliked by feminists, despite their achievements. If the treatment of recent prominent female politicians in the US is any indication, modern feminists aren’t fighting so much for the advancement of women as they are for the advancement of modern feminist ideology.

Rather than promoting successful women, feminism today seems to revolve around grievances. In the semantic game of academic feminism it is a victory enough to identify an errant insensitive word by a non-feminist, that could in isolation offend someone, or perhaps worse, suggest that men and women are not the same creatures. In the striving for indiscriminateness that characterizes the left, feminism threatens to scrape away womanhood from women, reducing gender to a variable in the imagined equations of identity politics.

In an article for the National Post, writer Barbara Kay recently promoted a kind of “family feminism,” the kind of feminism she believes impelled women’s rights activists like Hannah More and Frances Willard in prior centuries, where feminism has its roots. While later feminists would argue for a normless female identity independent of gender roles, these women believed that womanhood was not fully expressed when stripped of its familial context. Unfortunately, the feminist movement has turned against this sort of feminism, accusing modern “family feminists” of blithely upholding traditional gender roles and patriarchy.

But perhaps family feminism has a place in the movement. In her article, Kay notes, “More than 70% of American women today reject the “feminist” label, partly because, in Hof Summers’ words, “they don’t want to be liberated from their womanhood.”” Perhaps this quiet majority of women embraces the classical feminism of the suffragettes, the feminism that does not make excuses or accusations, the feminism that promotes women in order to strengthen the families and societies of which they are a part.