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


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.

Re-examining gay Mormon youth and suicide: What does the data say?

salt-lake-city-downtown-2[1]Do young Latter-day Saints, and especially gay youth, commit suicide at a higher rate than other youth in the US? The short answer: with the data we have, we don’t know. So what do we know for sure?

The Mormon teen suicide problem

Some readers may have read a recent interview in the Huffington Post with Wendy Williams Montgomery, a Californian mom and LGBT advocate. In the interview, Montgomery refers to a widely recognized problem within Mormon culture: the high rate of suicides among gay youth. “Mormons,” Montgomery asserts, “have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country.”

Over the last few years, the idea that Mormons have a problem with teen suicide, especially among gay youth, has become common wisdom. In 2012, a Reuters article highlighted the issue of gay teen suicide in Utah. The Huffington Post has featured the issue multiple times, as in a 2012 post. High-profile Mormon critic John Dehlin frequently discusses gay teen suicide among Mormons, and recently referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. His characterization seems to fit the general impression: Mormons have a special problem with suicide among gay teens.

Missing data

There is no question that gay teen suicide is a reality among Mormon youth. In many cases, we have heard their stories, either through media or personal experience. Fortunately, we are more aware of this reality than we were in the past.

Unfortunately, however, these stories seem to be accompanied, more and more frequently, by statistical claims that are not supported by data. Mrs. Montgomery’s assertion that Mormons have the highest gay teen suicide rate in the country is unsourced in the original interview, and other blogs and outlets making similar claims are also missing sources. I surveyed all the government and health data I could find on youth suicide in the United States, and was unable to find any agency that collects public data by religion or sexual orientation (data so specific would be very difficult to collect). In fact, the American Association of Suicidology’s LGBT Resource Sheet notes, “to date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.” The claim appears to be fabricated.

Other claims to the effect that Mormons, or Utahns, have a unique or unusually acute problem with gay teen suicide, or even teen suicide, cannot be supported by any data I can find.

The data we do have

Much of the interest in Mormons and teen suicide seems to originate from a 2006 article in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article pointed out a few statistics about suicide that would have been surprising to most readers at the time. First, that Utah had the highest rate of suicide among males age 15-24. Second, that Utah had the 11th highest overall suicide rate in the United States. And third, that the youth suicide rate in Utah had tripled over the preceding half-century (in fact, this is true across the United States). The newspaper didn’t cite its sources, but all of the categories of statistics they refer to are available through the CDC and other federal sources and appear to be genuine.

What else do we know? The data in that report is now nine years old, so it’s worth taking stock of the current reality. I’ve collected a set of more recent figures below, from public data and representative surveys:

  • Utah’s suicide rate among people age 15-24 is 9th highest in the United States, among 47 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among males age 15-24 is 7th highest, among 46 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among females age 15-24 cannot be reported as the number of cases is smaller than 20 (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s overall suicide rate is 5th highest in the United States (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah is 29th out of 40 states with available data for the rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (not completed suicide) (CDC, 2013)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17. (Utah Department of Health, 2012)
  • Across 9 sites surveyed (all in the Midwestern or Eastern US and California), lesbian and gay high school students had a rate of attempted suicide that was approximately 4 times higher than for straight students (CDC, 2011)
  • A representative survey of students in Grades 7-12 across the US using the Add-Health database found that Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than their nonreligious peers. (Add-Health, 2010)
  • The same survey found that religious gay teens had a lower attempted suicide rate than nonreligious gay teens (the number of cases did not allow for statistical significance, however).   [Update: These last two statistics came via an author and are unpublished. I have not been able to independently verify them, as I don’t have access to most of the Add-Health dataset. Take with a grain of salt! Thanks to Mike in the comments section for doing some digging!]

The following are additional relevant results from a small non-representative 2009 survey conducted by the Family Acceptance Project and affiliated researchers, included at the suggestion of commenters below.

  • Gay youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.4 times as likely to attempt suicide, 2.8 times as likely to experience depression, and 1.7 times as likely to use illicit drugs than gay youth who experienced low levels of rejection. Note: Unfortunately, the researchers who wrote the original journal article misinterpreted odds ratio as relative risks, and accordingly reported higher numbers for the foregoing statistics (specifically 8, 6 and 3 times instead of the above figures). This appears to be a good faith error–misinterpretation of the odds ratio (a very unintuitive statistic) is extremely common, even among researchers. The journal article is restricted, but available here to those with institutional access. General information about misinterpreting odds ratios is here.

To the best of my knowledge, these statistics are the closest we can come to answering the statistical questions surrounding gay teen suicide among Mormons, or within Utah. Specifically targeted data on completed or attempted suicide among gay Mormon teens simply isn’t available.

The data speak well enough for themselves, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the relevant data points appear to justify an unusual suspicion about Utah (or, by extension, Mormons). This is especially true since the surprisingly strong link between high altitude and suicide rates has become well established. Among high-altitude states in the Rocky Mountain West, Utah appears to have overall rates within the average range, and youth rates slightly lower than the average. We have no empirical data specific to Utah for gay and lesbian youth, but we can assume that like other states, the rate of attempted suicide, and presumably completed suicide, is considerably higher than for straight youth.

It’s also worth noting that Utah’s overall suicide rate has increased relative to other states since 2006, while its youth suicide rate has fallen in comparison to other states. Furthermore, the Add-Health dataset mentioned above suggests that Mormon gay youth are relatively less at risk for suicide than nonreligious gay youth. [Update – I haven’t been able to independently verify this. See above.]


While only systematic recordkeeping and representative surveys can answer the questions we’re most interested in, we shouldn’t ignore anecdotal evidence about suicide. The sense among many concerned observers in Utah and elsewhere that the situation is bad and getting worse probably reflects an important reality. Youth suicide in the US has quickly gotten worse over the decades, and a disproportionate number of these suicides across the US, including within Utah, are among gay youth. Combined, these two trends might be giving an alarming impression to those concerned about the well-being of gay teens; an impression made locally that could be transformed into misplaced claims, such as Mrs. Montgomery’s. So her hypothesis–that Mormons in particular have an unusually severe problem with gay teen suicide—could possibly be an observer’s local interpretation of nationwide trends, but it cannot be supported or rejected by the data itself, as far as I can tell.

The hypothesis cannot be confirmed or rejected by theory, either. Many advocates who highlight the issue of suicide among Mormons do so within the framework of a particular narrative, at the center of which is the idea that Latter-day Saint sexual values are harmful. Since there is no data to support the assertion of abnormal suicide rates, the theory seems to be doing all the work. But there are other theories that could be put forth—Latter-day Saints could just as well hypothesize that robust Mormon families and supportive faith communities lead to lower rates of suicide among gay youth. But this would also be unjustified; it would be best for everyone to refrain from attempting to explain phenomena for which there isn’t evidence in the first place.

Those who believe in Latter-day Saint sexual values and those who do not should be able to agree: one youth suicide is too many, including among gay youth. Even if the Mormon problem is not unique, it is still a problem. We don’t need statistics, and certainly not unsourced statistics, to tell us this.

Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

Statistics tell stories, and this is something that Mormons know well. While many demographic indicators speak to the social health of Mormon culture, there are some that do not.

A well-known example: in 2009, a study found that Utah had the highest rate of online porn subscriptions of any state in the US. Latter-day Saints, who form a majority of Utah’s population, profess a belief in avoiding pornography.

New data, however, offer a conclusion opposite to the findings of the 2009 study, suggesting that Utah and other states with high Mormon populations have abnormally low rates of porn use.


The Mormon blogosphere (or “Bloggernacle”) lit up with commentary after the release of the famous original study, and the conclusions of the paper became a focal point of the growing discourse about sexuality among Mormons online. Many major blogs addressed the issue head on, as in posts here and here.

After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here. The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the religion’s teachings:

We all know LDS Church leaders have been emphasizing the dangers of pornography, especially to young men.  And yet, the statistics have shown that Utah has the highest rate of home online porn subscription.

Still, this seemingly contradictory pair of facts seems to suggest that there’s something compulsive going on with porn in the world of Mormonism.  Mormon communities are emphatic about chastity—because it is a commandment.  But Mormonism’s emphasis on chastity can impact the way Mormons feel about healthy sexuality, tinging it with shame, mystery, guilt, and unrealistic expectations. [link]

For five years the conversation on Mormonism and porn has been defined by this single data point, and psychological and sociological analyses of Mormon culture, like Brooks’, have rested upon it.

The paper’s accompanying fact that Idaho (25% Latter-day Saints) had the lowest rate of porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users in the US has only very rarely been cited. Also seldom reported is the fact that the data in the 2009 study was from an unnamed vendor, whose users may or may not be representative of the US population.

The New Data

Pornhub pageviews per capita

Annual pageviews per capita by state,

Last week, the third largest pornography website in the United States ( released data on its annual pageviews per capita by state. A chart of pageviews by state is shown at right (a link to the analysis, which does not show explicit content, is here).

The chart as presented by Pornhub is limited in its applicability, because relevant demographic variables are left uncontrolled for, but the conclusion nevertheless appears favorable for Mormons. Utah’s pageviews per capita in 2013 were 40th in the US. Idaho and Wyoming, the other states with large Mormon populations, are even lower on the list, at 49th and 46th respectively.

In order to find a more meaningful interpretation of the data that would adjust for possible confounding variables, I went to the trouble of gathering the most recent demographic data I could find for each state, so I could perform a controlled regression. I included variables for GDP per capita, internet penetration per capita, male/female ratio, age distribution, race and each state’s marriage rate.

Using ordinary linear regression methods, I generated a difference between a state’s actual views per capita and the views that would be predicted based on demographic variables. In this analysis, Utah’s deviation from the views predicted by demographics was 45th in the United States, while Wyoming was 46th and Idaho came 50th.

In other words, when controlling for other variables, there is an even stronger suggestion than before that Mormon populations do not have abnormally high rates of porn use (at least as represented by Pornhub). We might even suggest that their rates of use are especially low.

I also decided to directly analyze the relationship between Mormonism and porn use (again, as measured by this particular metric). This is something the author of the 2009 study did not do. I included a variable for the percentage of a state’s population that is LDS, as measured by official LDS membership statistics and the most recent population projections based on census data.

The regression finds, roughly speaking, when controlling for the variables already mentioned, that a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 16% decrease in the amount of porn consumption.

This result is highly significant, even at the 0.001 level. In fact, “percentage of Latter-day Saints in population” had a higher statistical significance than any other single variable I included in the regression (the next most significant variable was internet penetration). The proportion of overall explained variation in the regression is 66%, and a test for overall significance is highly conclusive, suggesting that the model as estimated is meaningful and significant.

Why do the results appear so different for these two sets of data? It’s almost impossible to know. The author of the 2009 study did not reveal the identity of the “top ten” porn vendor who gave him credit card data, and he admitted that there was no way to evaluate whether the users of that vendor were representative of the porn industry in general. His data, which was gathered from 2006 to 2008, also did not measure consumption, but rather paid subscriptions. A possible explanation of the discrepancy is that Utah’s porn use is skewed toward paid pornography.

In fairness, we cannot be sure that users are representative of the industry overall. However, in this case we are aware of the identity of the provider, which provides both paid and unpaid content.

Statistics tell stories, and the famous “Utah porn statistic” has told far more stories than it is worth. If critics of Mormon teachings on porn and sexuality would like to continue promoting the idea that a conservative sexual culture has backfired on itself, then they will have to confront a less convenient set of data.

Here is another narrative, that perhaps time and further analysis will prove: Mormons view less porn than others, and those conservative sexual teachings are working.

EDIT: In response to a request, I obtained recent Gallup data on religiosity by state, and added these variables to my regression, in order to separate the effects of religiosity in general and religious engagement by Mormons. The same general results persist: a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 17% decrease in porn pageviews. The p-value is once again very low, at 0.002. In deviations from projections including religiosity, Utah is ranked 38th, Idaho 50th, and Wyoming 46th. The differences from the earlier analysis are small and require no changes to the conclusions I suggested above.

Technical notes: I used Stata to perform the regressions mentioned. Data were collected from government sources wherever possible. The results were consistent even when using logarithmic variables for pageviews and GDP. I learned the relevant statistical methods as part of the completion of the econometric portion of my Honours economics degree. EDIT: Datafiles and my Stata do-file can be accessed here.

Women are becoming less happy: What’s wrong with modern feminism?

Woman“Was happiness the goal? I always thought it was equality.”

That was the comment of a feminist writer this week in the Los Angeles Times, speaking on the goals of feminism. The statement is surprising—why would we think that women’s equality and happiness are opposed to each other?

The comment reveals a puzzle that has gone unsolved among feminists since 2009, when a landmark study cut short the unconscious narrative of the modern feminist movement, wherein the victories of feminism are always victories for women.

The puzzle is the juxtaposition of two facts: first, that the feminist movement has made historic progress in achieving its goals over the last half-century. Second, that women’s subjective well-being, or happiness, has unquestionably declined in absolute terms and in relation to men since the 1970s.

The research

The 2009 paper in the American Economic Journal, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, was titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and it caused a stir in the social science world. The authors found, in their meta-analysis of data, that while women in the US and Europe were once happier than men by a comfortable margin, their advantage had steadily declined starting in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s the average level of happiness for women had fallen below that of men, and it began to fall even more quickly during the twenty-first century.

The declines in unhappiness among women are not easily reduced to other phenomena, because the declines have occurred among all age groups, races and education levels of women, and persist when controlling for cohort effects, employment and family status.

The paper alludes to a few possible explanations for the paradox. One involves marriage: married people are known to be happier than unmarried people, and this holds more strongly for women than for men. A falling marriage rate would likely contribute to lower relative female happiness.

Another explanation the authors suggest is that the women’s movement itself has made women less happy, by leading women to think that they are not “measuring up” in a world where women are more often expected to work for pay, and to compete in that sphere, in some way, with men.

Both of these possible causes rotate around the changing cultural and economic roles of women, and suggest the possibility that the achievements of second- and third-wave feminism have led women, in fact, to become less satisfied with life.

There is no way to prove this is the case, and it would be dishonest to conclusively indict modern feminism in causing female unhappiness. Nevertheless, the paradox still puts feminist theorists in a difficult intellectual spot, because no feminist would have predicted in 1970 that the women’s movement would be accompanied by a broad decline in female happiness, especially in relation to men.

But the reality of the last forty years seems to say that modern feminism either makes women unhappy, or else that at best, it has little or no power to make them happy. (If feminists disagree, perhaps they can bear the burden of the data and prove it.)

The goals of feminism

This is where we are reintroduced to the philosophical question introduced by the Los Angeles Times commentator: is feminism about equality or happiness? Ideally we take both, but if we must make one our goal to the possible detriment of the other, or at least some modern formulation of the other, which one will we take?

We have seen the fruits of the kind of feminism that devotes itself to modern egalitarian ideas before happiness. But what would happen if the aims of feminism were designed according to the criterion that they would lead to the most happiness for women?

That is, if feminist ideology were left aside for a moment, and the progressive assumptions so peculiar to our age were temporarily locked in their ivory tower, what kind of public policy would we find would really bring more enjoyment into the lives of women?

Social science has been fairly conclusive on many of the correlates of happiness in the Western world, and some of these correlates are especially powerful for women. It is worth taking note of these data by considering a few examples that may have been overlooked by activists.

A happiness-focused feminism

As mentioned before, married women are considerably happier than unmarried women (see the Stevenson paper, p. 217). Public policy that promoted the institution of marriage would seem to be an unambiguous gain for women. To be specific, perhaps public schools could teach teenage students about the emotional, psychological, and financial gains that accrue to married people (along with, of course, the sacrifices that are involved).

The story goes deeper than marriage: women are especially wounded by a reckless sexual culture. Sex unconnected from commitment does not lead to long run happiness for either sex, but men derive more satisfaction and less pain than women from these indiscretions. Ross Douthat argued recently, citing studies: “In our sexual culture, the male preference gets treated as normative even by women who don’t share it, and whose own comfort level with sex outside a committed relationship is actually substantially lower.” Even if we do not insist on marriage, women would probably benefit from a “somewhat more conservative sexual culture,” Douthat argues.

Speaking of our sexual culture, there are few places more hostile to women than the virtual world of pornography. Porn use has been shown to corrupt men’s attitudes toward women and to make them more inclined to violent sexual acts. It would make sense for feminists to advocate for a culture that stigmatizes pornography, and for public policy that would help establish that culture.

Women’s happiness is also more affected by instability in domestic life than is men’s. This is perhaps tied to higher female risk aversion. One of the most ubiquitous causes of domestic instability in the Western world is male alcohol use. Men are known to drink at least twice as much as women, and are responsible for about four-fifths of binge drinking. In the US, fifteen to twenty million adults are dependent on alcohol, two thirds of them men.

Alcohol’s costs in comparison to other drugs are particularly social—for example, if a married man is an alcoholic, it is his wife and children who pay much of the price. Alcohol use, even at relatively moderate levels of consumption, also increases the likelihood of rape and other forms of violence by men. Feminists interested in female well-being should fight the culture that normalizes this extraordinarily pervasive social vice, a primarily male indulgence.

Feminism’s future

I have offered a few suggestions for a happiness-focused feminism: strengthening the marriage institution and fighting a culture of promiscuity, pornography and alcohol. If, as I have suggested, we define feminism as a program of initiatives that are likely to make women happier, then feminism will include these traditionalist ideas (as well as others).

However, like the LA Times commentator, academic feminists have rarely sponsored these policies, and in the case of marriage, they have sometimes promoted the opposite. Indeed, they have made organizations and churches advancing these goals their enemies. They seem to ask, in response to gloomy female happiness data, “was happiness the goal?”

Perhaps we have found the explanation for the refusal of a majority of American women to identify as feminist: modern feminism is not really designed to increase the quality of women’s lives. On the contrary, it is an ideology that is firstly anti-traditional and only secondly pro-women: women’s well-being is incidental (and perhaps obstructive) to the cause of progressivism.

If this is feminism, please count me out.

However, if feminism is the promotion of policies known to make women happier (whether the policies are conservative or progressive), count me in. I look with optimism toward a more virtuous society, where the happiness of women and men is the germ of our cultural philosophy, and ultimately the fruits of its efforts.

Photo Credit: Mait Jüriado.

Is There Still a Place for Social Conservatism?

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Social conservatism has been out of favor with Western academics for a long time, but more recently the disapproval of the traditional has become truly popular. With a few exceptions, public opinion has moved to the left on social issues over the last two generations, and most profoundly on those issues that relate to sexuality. (Social conservatism often implies certain views on culture, race and class, but it is usually characterized by its approach to sexual issues, at least in the last few decades.) Large majorities in most developed countries now embrace political positions that were almost undiscussed twenty years ago. It is worth asking whether social conservatism will persist, and whether it would do us any good if it did.

The scarcity of social conservatism in the intellectual world forces its sponsors to consider carefully their conviction to the worldview. Recently I came to terms with my identity as a social conservative, after a period of rejecting the label.

As a teenager, I had always taken the conservative view on social issues I had considered. I remember polling my high school social studies class as a fifteen year-old as part of an assignment, proud to find I was one of three students who opposed the impending change to marriage laws. I loved to argue with peers, and while I was good at it, I began to wish there were better defenses for my beliefs. On euthanasia, abortion and even prostitution I often felt compelled to defend traditions for which there were not at first appealing justifications. I began to suspect that perhaps intelligent people couldn’t be socially conservative.

So the feeling I had on deciding I was socially liberal, as I did when I was around eighteen, was of relief. I felt at ease, now able to set aside the opaque biases and prejudices of my old beliefs, and to embrace a morality that was more simply justified and explained. By abstracting away from reality a little, a whole new world of ethical reasoning opened up, where the limits of morality were only those that I (or “society”) arbitrarily placed upon it.

The intellectual leap to relativism was made easier by the fact that I had been surrounded by those ideals my whole life, having grown up in a place and time where progressive social values seemed to dominate popular theory (if not practice, as they tend not to do in suburban Canada).

This consensus, which has grown perhaps with the help of a new wave of libertarianism, has moved quickly, and as an ideology it is unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Statements on social issues by leaders of government in Canada only fifteen years ago would scandalize our new sensibilities. Nowadays there are belittling labels used to describe those whose social vision lags behind the avant-garde.

To understand the reasons for this shift, as well as to explain my personal reasons for returning to social conservatism, it is necessary to examine the culture war as a conflict not only of values, but of visions, to borrow a concept from writer Thomas Sowell. While values, or moral preferences, can certainly change, I am skeptical that they ever reverse themselves on a societal scale in any short period of time, as they at first appear to have done since the 1990s.

It would be difficult to dispute that most major ideologies, including conservatism and progressivism, ultimately value social welfare above most everything else. This is almost definitional to political ideologies. So while values clash at points, there must be a difference in the respective visions—in other words, as Sowell wrote in A Conflict of Visions, in each feeling or “sense of how the world works”. In the progressive vision, humans are most moral when generally free to invent their own moral philosophies, using their abilities to reason. In the conservative vision, people are not independently intelligent or sensible enough to do so, and would do better, as a rule, to bend to tradition, authority, and emergent social norms, and as an exception, to reason.

While liberals tend to think of humans as essentially unconstrained in their ability to intentionally move society forward, except to the extent that they allow society to restrict them, conservatives are more skeptical, crediting people only with the ability to be effective parts of a decentralized system, whose success is not purposed or created by anyone in particular. For this reason liberals seek morality in reason, and conservatives in wisdom. Importantly, liberals look for the causes of problems, while conservatives tend to seek the particular explanations for success.

My reconciliation with my social conservatism was not really a shift in values, as reflected by the fact that decisions in my personal life never really changed throughout the period of my movements in worldview. It was something subtler: the realizations (which I made in practice before in theory) that most of us require social norms and authority in order to act ethically, that we are not very good at moral reasoning, and that reality is more subtle than anyone’s individual capacity to understand.

This skepticism, however, made me more optimistic than less. Individuals do not have to be angels in order to be a part of collective triumph and social progress. Social norms can take the place of analytically expensive institutional or governmental policies. The constrained vision, the conservative worldview, means that our best hope for a virtuous society is in collectively doing the ordinary things we are already designed (but sometimes less inclined) to do: accepting personal responsibility, raising good families and offering meaningful service to people who are near us.

Accepting this newly old-fashioned vision of the world, where the health of a society depends on such particular things as familial stability, led me once more to appreciate the virtues of temperance, chastity and sacrifice that characterize social conservatism. Learning how to raise good families, for example, probably does not require anything special in the way of deductive reasoning. It is not a new concern. It is an old question to which we have answers in the way of an enormous body of tradition. We would probably do better to add to that body of wisdom incrementally, than to attempt to create new and universal moral theories by abstraction.

This cautiousness will be the role of social conservatism in the decades and centuries to come, in the Western intellectual universe. Social conservatism has existed, at least with respect to most of its particular prescriptions, for thousands of years. Because of this characteristic endurance, I will not be among those surprised when it does not evaporate in the face of progressivism, no matter what the character of progress currently happens to appear.

Polyamory: Where Will Modern Morality Lead Us?

Three rings representing a polyamorous relationship.This weekend in Vancouver, B.C. is the first national conference of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, a relatively new organization that aims to represent the interests of people involved in “poly” relationships, relationships of three or more individuals. According to the group, there are thousands of polyamorous people in Canada, most of them apparently unconnected to polygamist religious groups.

Since 2011, when a superior court ruling confirmed the legality of polyamorous relationships, the conversation surrounding polyamory has grown, and it is now large enough to attract the attention of major newspapers, as well as 13,000+ users who follow a polyamory board on social news site Reddit. It is on the verge of turning political. The CPAA’s director, Zoe Duff, who is in a relationship with two men, says that marriage hasn’t been much of a concern for polyamorous people, but says “as a long term thing, I can see a desire to have the right to marry.”

Somehow it isn’t very surprising that the marriage discussion is moving to this point. We’ve become accustomed to the language of modern egalitarian individualism and the challenge it presents to traditional norms surrounding sex and marriage. From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, public opinion on pre-marital sex reversed. The last few decades have seen homosexuality (and other sexual ideas) become recognized as a legitimate part of human identity.

The consistent message of those at the vanguard of these transitions is in itself nothing new. The message is, why not let people do something if it isn’t particularly harmful? Naturally we aren’t overly surprised when we find that these values, carried to their logical conclusions, suggest that polyamory is as legitimate as anything else, and perhaps should be recognized as a part of marriage. This is certainly the language used by the CPAA:

We are the poly majority: modern, secular, egalitarian polyamory. …

That means women or men can have more than one partner… if everybody involved agrees it’s best for them. That’s not empty theory; we live all gender combinations. …

Our relationships are custom-made by those in them, without preset roles. We don’t just choose freely; we define the choices. …

We are NICE: negotiated, individualized, consensual, and egalitarian.

The excerpt above doesn’t appeal to any values that are unfamiliar, or say anything that would be out of place in a Canadian university. Who would disagree that people should choose freely what’s best for them? Who doesn’t like those “NICE” values? But surely, you’re thinking, things aren’t so simple. Surely there is some good reason our society hasn’t embraced polyamory. There is (and it isn’t the supposed tax issues created by polygamy).

Some have made a science out of identifying and attacking old norms that violate the new social orthodoxy. But humanity, and in particular human morality and social activity, is not reducible to the freely chosen actions of utility-maximizing individuals. That is to say, marriage is not simply two (or more) people entering into a contract, and sex is not simply individuals freely seeking individual fulfillment. This sort of thinking is totally academic; it is a model of humanity that offers conveniently the simplifications that intellectuals seek, and thus lends itself well to reasoning (i.e. “Individuals have freedom, therefore they ought to be able to commit to multiple people as long as it is consensual”).

The model, however, is broken, despite the narrow truths it contains. Whether you view humanity as the work of a magnificent God, or else as the result of millennia of biological adjustments, or both, it is impossible to imagine that things are so simple. The nuances created by such awesome forces will inevitably refuse to be contained by anything simplistic. Morality is not summarized in a maxim.

To be specific again for a moment, there is good reason for the taboo surrounding polyamory. And to be emphatically old-fashioned, I tend to think that polyamory represents an indulgent attitude toward sex, is a poor environment in which to raise children, and is, regardless of any consensual considerations, almost totally incompatible with the kind of love that ought to exist between a married couple. As a result of the experience and wisdom you’ve collected over the years you’ve been alive, you probably agree with these statements. But these kinds of statements won’t be popular with theorists–they’re more difficult to prove than moral generalities are to assert. But when it comes to living life in the real world, we make our decisions more on the basis of our intuition and core values, however ineffable, than we do on the apparently self-evident principles of hyper-rationalist thought.

The reason I can say what I’ve said in this entry is that I’ve entered the debate early. There’s a good chance that a decade or two from now these words will be bigoted or ignorant or even “polyphobic”–who knows. I may end up on the wrong side of history (in the way that Bill Clinton regrets signing DOMA in 1996). But there’s also a chance that the modern open mind will expand to contain the things it cannot quite understand, but is still pretty sure about–that it will not surrender to the intellectual trap of pleasing certainties–that every wind of social doctrine will not carry it too far away.

Let me know in the comments whether you think polyamory will become acceptable over time. Also let me know what your view on polyamory is, and whether you think that your views will change.