After President Dalton’s much-discussed “you . . . will see no need to lobby for rights” talk, Galdralag wrote a post in which she asked, “Why don’t our leaders clarify their remarks more often?”
I think this is a great question. Church leaders frequently say things that sound vague to me, often intentionally vague. This puzzles me. I would think if they have messages from God to share, they would want to come right out and share them, and not beat around the bush so often. Certainly they’re not always unclear–I think I can venture to conclude, for example, that they don’t like porn–but a lot of the time they are.
In this post, I’ve come up with a list of possible reasons for their sometime vagueness. (Some of the better ones I’ve borrowed from Andrew S’s post on the Church’s statements on caffeine last year at W&T.) In the comments, please let me know which of these you find more or less plausible, and also other causes you think might be important. This is kind of a laundry list of seat-of-the-pants thinking, so I won’t be surprised if you disagree with some (or all) of my ideas.
Avoiding looking silly later
A lot of past Church leaders have said a lot of things that were absurd, or that turned out to be false, or that the Church has decided to ignore (or more than one of the above). I think Brigham Young is the poster prophet for this problem, but it certainly didn’t end with him. So I wonder if current Church leaders say fewer things in definitive terms so that they have to worry less about looking silly later. The virtue of vagueness is that they can still say they have all the answers, and not have to back down on being the one source of all truth, but they don’t have to commit to saying as many things definitively that they might later regret.
I could credit this to correlation, but I also wonder if it wasn’t President Hinckley’s doing. Given his background in PR, and the fact that he served in the First Presidency for about 30 years, I wonder if he was the one who taught this to other GAs, either implicitly or explicitly.
Maintaining plausible deniability
President Packer, in his infamous 2010 talk, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” did not once use the words “gay,” “homosexual,” or even the dreaded “same sex attraction.” What he did say was this:
We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From the Book of Mormon we learn that “wickedness never was happiness.
Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Remember, God is our Heavenly Father.
He could have just said “People are not born gay. God doesn’t make us that way. Gay marriage is therefore wrong.” But the disadvantages of saying it this plainly are probably obvious. Reporters covering the conference would have trumpeted his statements in the headlines: “Mormon Leader Calls Homosexuality a Choice.” The way he did it–the vague way–he got a similar message across, but with the added advantage of not having to answer for it if there had been too much blowback. He could always have claimed that he was talking about something else, that he wasn’t talking about homosexuality at all, for example, and that he only intended to condemn people for having sex outside of marriage. (And I recall at the time I saw people on the Bloggernacle arguing these very points. I find this interpretation difficult to take seriously given the history of other talks President Packer has given, and the fact that gay marriage was a hot topic at the time.)
Nurturing the hedge about the law
I think Church leaders are sometimes vague because they like the idea of a hedge about the law, but of course if you come right out and define the hedge explicitly, then it becomes the new law, particularly in a church that believes in continuing revelation. Being vague about the hedge about the law is a way of maintaining it without formalizing it.
One example of this type of vague statement comes from the “Entertainment and Media” section of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet:
Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way.
That’s a pretty big (and vague!) hedge. Even setting aside questions about definitions of words like immoral, it appears to rule out pretty much all sports as entertainment, since they are violent in some way, and virtually all movies. (How many movies have no violence? Here’s the list of movies scoring a zero on violence/gore by the Kids-In-Mind raters. There are 50. Happy viewing!)
There’s an even better way to maintain the hedge about the law, though. Make it auto-growing:
If you find yourself asking whether a work is pornographic, the question itself suggests the material makes you uncomfortable. That should be enough to tell you to avoid it.
This comes from a sidebar to the article “The Road Back: Abandoning Pornography” in the 2005 Ensign. The article wasn’t written by a Church leader, but I think the quote just perfectly captures the use of vagueness in serving the hedge about the law that I think might motivate Church leaders in being similarly vague. “Is this movie porn? Well, since I asked, then it must be, so I should avoid it. But doesn’t this mean I should be asking the question about more movies? Then they must all be porn too!”
I think the “Do you affiliate with groups opposed to the Church?” (paraphrasing) question in the temple recommend interview falls into this category too. I’ve heard it said numerous times that this is a question asking about whether you’re a polygamist. I don’t doubt that that’s what the question started as, but I wonder if it hasn’t been left in the interview because it’s a great catch-all for building hedges about every law. Particularly if people have internalized the standard articulated in that Ensign article, they’ll worry about every single person they know and every organization they’ve had any contact with. If Church leaders wanted this to be a question about polygamy, they could make it a question about polygamy. It’s not like they haven’t revised the interview questions before. But I wonder if they don’t leave it vague because it’s a handy fertilizer for the hedge about the law.
Avoiding giving people bad ideas
Sometimes I think Church leaders are vague because they don’t want to explicitly name or describe things they’re condemning that people might not have even thought about. This problem is illustrated well by a comment made at fMh last year:
I was a chubby 12-year old with fly-away pony tails, a nose freckled by the sun and scabs on my knees when I rode my bike to my Bishop’s interview, a 40-something man that I barely knew. He asked me if I knew what masturbation was and I said I did not, so he explained it to me and that I should not do it. I promptly rode my banana seat bike home and gave it a try.
It isn’t surprising, in light of stories like this, that Church leaders don’t outline in explicit detail all the things they want us to avoid.
I think this may have been one of President Packer’s motivations for not explicitly mentioning homosexuality in the talk I referred to above. I also think it’s clear that it was President Dalton’s motivation for not mentioning the “Wear Pants to Church” and “Let Women Pray” movements explicitly. I suspect things like this might be thought of as particularly dangerous because they’re so seductive. It sounds so reasonable to let women pray in General Conference. If President Dalton explicitly condemned this, it would bring the fact that women currently aren’t praying in Conference to mind for many people who had never even thought about it. And that might make them needlessly begin to doubt that every move leaders make is inspired, and then the Church would become much more difficult to run because everyone would be questioning everything all the time.
Avoiding harshness for the sake of the innocent
This concern is articulated by Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It might be used as a rationale for being vague; it probably overlaps somewhat with the concern about giving people bad ideas. Here is what Jacob said:
[I]t grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God…
Of course, Jacob says he’s going to go ahead and speak plainly, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Church leaders sometimes reasoned the same way as Jacob and made the opposite decision. They might use vague terms to condemn sins they think are quite evil to avoid forcing innocent people among their listeners from hearing about the depravity of a few.
Keeping outsiders in the dark
There’s a long tradition in the Church of saying things vaguely to avoid letting outsiders know what we’re up to. Joseph Smith famously proclaimed that he wasn’t practicing polygamy (which he of course justified by thinking of his polygamy as something different from ordinary worldly polygamy). This runs all the way up to President Hinckley’s oft-discussed comment about God once being a man and people becoming Gods, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.”
Since the Church has gotten so good at making the words of GAs and other general leaders available to everyone in the Church, particularly online, they’re in a position where everything they say is likely to be heard by many outsiders. I wonder if this fact doesn’t drive an overall trend toward greater vagueness.
Keeping options open for possible future change
The Proclamation on the Family says,
By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.
I know this topic has already been beaten to death, but this doesn’t seem like so much an example of vagueness as outright contradiction. It certainly seems to fit under the umbrella of lack of clarity, though. In any case, one possible value of the lack of clarity in the Proclamation is that if the Church moved in the future to give women more power in the organization, leaders could point back to the Proclamation as a precedent and focus on the “equal partners” part.
Incidentally, Lynnette has told me that one of her professors joked that the Catholic Church does something similar. They make a new statement that departs slightly from previous ones and then repeat it a couple of times, and then later jump into the change with both feet, referring to the new statements and saying “the Church has always taught” the new thing, while ignoring all previous statements to the contrary.
Also, Andrew S explained this issue nicely in his post that I mentioned above. See the heading “Ambiguity as a change strategy.”
Satisfying a diverse Church membership
Keeping different groups of people happy appears to be a clear motivation for the rise of chicken patriarchy in the rhetoric of the Church. We have new discussion on the importance of husbands listening to their wives and couples being equal partnerships, and this is aimed at satisfying the younger generations that find sexism odious. But at the same time, we haven’t really given up the traditional patriarchal rhetoric that says men are presiders and women are followers, and this is aimed at satisfying the fans of old-style patriarchy in the Church.
The Proclamation on the Family is again a good example. Another is the change in the temple language, where wives no longer covenant to “obey” their husbands, but rather to “hearken” to them. If the goal of the change were to make the language equal, then husbands could covenant to hearken to their wives too. I’m guessing it’s left in the middle as a compromise to try to keep everyone on board. The hope is that old-style patriarchs will hear “hearken” as “obey,” and egalitarians will hear it as being reciprocal even if it’s not explicitly stated that way.
Several commenters on my post on the authorship of the Proclamation on the Family pointed out that different members of the Quorum of 15 probably had different ideas about what the document should say, so this is likely how it ended up with unclear language. Even though GAs’ talks aren’t written by committees, they’re clearly subject to the same pressures. This can be seen in one of the changes that President Packer ended up making in his talk “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” that I mentioned above. In the original version, he said that the Proclamation on the Family “qualifies according to scriptural definition as a revelation.” In the final printed version, he took this line out. The only possible explanation that seems reasonable to me, given his high office, is that others in the Quorum of 15 pushed him to change it. This suggests that even GAs’ talks are effectively subject to committee oversight. And President Packer turned over a new leaf of vagueness by referring to the Proclamation the following year as an “inspired document.”
Tithing: Discriminating on price
Church leaders have declined to clarify whether tithing should be paid on gross (before tax) or net (after tax) income. In this particular case, I think there’s a very good reason they’re vague that’s quite specific to tithing.
Church leaders want to maintain the Church’s revenue, so they want to keep as many members paying tithing as possible. They know that some members pay on net and others pay on gross. The net payers are likely not to be able to pay on gross, either because they don’t have much money, or because they live in countries with high income tax rates. The gross payers obviously could pay on net, but if they did, the Church would lose all the extra revenue that is the difference between gross and net for those people. So if Church leaders decided to clarify tithing and say that it must be either on gross or on net, they would face the following dilemma: If they say tithing is on gross, they are likely to entirely lose revenue from many net payers who simply can’t pay that much. If they say tithing is on net, they will almost certainly lose the extra revenue from gross payers who would switch to paying on net. Maintaining revenue from both kinds of members depends on maintaining vagueness.
I highly doubt that this solution was planned, but what it appears Church leaders have stumbled on is a way to use price discrimination to keep tithing revenue high. Price discrimination happens when sellers charge different prices to different people for the same product. Sellers benefit from price discrimination because it allows them to sell to customers who value the product less while also not giving up the revenue they would get from selling at a higher price to customers who value the product more. You can see price discrimination in airline tickets, for example, which are generally sold more cheaply to leisure travelers than business travelers, because business travelers are willing to pay more. (The price discrimination is accomplished mostly by pricing tickets more cheaply if they are bought farther in advance.) If airlines set high fixed prices, they would keep the business travelers and lose the leisure travelers. If they set low fixed prices, they would keep both types of travelers, but lose the extra revenue that business travelers would be willing to pay. This situation is analogous to the situation Church leaders face. Leisure travelers are like net payers; business travelers are like gross payers. Selling tickets for a high fixed price is like saying tithing must be paid on gross; selling tickets for a low fixed price is like saying tithing must be paid on net.
As I understand it, the Church is far from unique in finding a way to offer the same product (church membership) at different prices. Lots of churches ask congregants to pay to support the church without specifying a fixed amount they have to pay. In fact, by allowing people to pay whatever they want, many other churches are effectively using much finer-grained price discrimination than the LDS Church is. But what the LDS Church has that is unique is both price discrimination and a high expectation. We’re told we’re supposed to pay 10% of our income, which sets the expected contribution level high even while the denominator in the calculation is left vague, which allows price discrimination to happen. I suspect this combination of price discrimination and high expectation is one reason the Church has been able to do so well financially in the past few decades.
A final note: I know that in this last section, I probably sound completely cynical, describing the Church as a seller of religion and charging tithing to its members as buyers. I’ve just framed the relationship between the Church and its members that way to make the discussion of tithing more clear. I do understand that tithing collection doesn’t represent the whole relationship between the Church and its members, or even necessarily a large part of it.