The Church’s new gospel topics essay on Mother in Heaven says the following:
Latter-day Saints direct their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, and do not pray to Heavenly Mother.
I think it’s interesting that this is a descriptive statement and not a prescriptive one. It doesn’t say that we should not pray or must not pray to Heavenly Mother. It doesn’t say that if we pray to Heavenly Mother, we’ll face Church discipline. It just says that we do not pray to her.
It’s descriptive and it’s false. I know Mormons who pray to Heavenly Mother. If you’re reading this blog, you probably do too. The statement reminds me of a couple of other similar descriptive but false statements made by people speaking for Church organizations in the past few years. First, there was the CES administrator who April Young Bennett interviewed for the Exponent back in 2012.
Question: What happens to a female seminary teacher who has a baby? Can she continue teaching seminary?
Answer: She stops teaching seminary when she has a baby.
Question: She is fired?
Answer: No. Female seminary teachers understand this when they are hired. They know that they will only work as seminary teachers until they have children.
Question: Do they have the option of continuing to teach when they become mothers?
Answer: They do not want to keep working full-time after they have children. They want to stay home with their children.
The CES administrator isn’t saying that mothers of young children cannot teach seminary. He’s saying that they don’t want to. Like with the statement about not praying to Heavenly Mother, it’s descriptive but it seems likely to be false. Surely some new mothers would rather continue to teach.
The other statement that came to mind was BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins explaining in 2012 on why caffeinated soft drinks aren’t available on campus:
BYU Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the choice to not offer caffeinated beverages on campus is “not a university or Church decision, but one made by Dining Services. This decision has been based on what our customers want, and there has not been a demand for caffeinated beverages.”
She’s not saying caffeinated drinks aren’t allowed. She’s saying nobody wants them. It’s a descriptive statement, and it’s false. The very same article where she is quoted also quotes BYU students who do want caffeinated drinks on campus.
In all three cases, although these statements aren’t prescriptive on their face, it seems obvious that they’re trying to do prescriptive work with description. They’re not just articulating the way things are, but the way things should be. This is the norm, they say, with the clear implication that people should go along with it. Or if you prefer it phrased like it might be in a seminary movie, everybody’s doing it, a statement invariably used as an argument that therefore you should do it too.
Another way these statements reach from description to prescription is by defining a group for which the statement is true, and thereby implying that people for whom they aren’t true aren’t actually in the group. “Latter-day Saints . . . do not pray to Heavenly Mother,” the Church essay says, so anyone who does pray to Heavenly Mother must not be a true Latter-day Saint. Similarly, if there’s no demand for caffeine at BYU, then if you want caffeine, you must not belong at BYU.
Why use descriptive statements to do prescriptive work? Just to be clear, I think that in all of these cases, the statements are serving as both descriptions and prescriptions. The writers and speakers are describing things that are probably generally true, even if not universally true. Assuming they’re aware of the exceptions, they probably figure that it’s simpler to just state things as universals rather than to get into the details of exceptions. Getting back to the question, I think description is used because it’s subtler to use description to push a norm than to openly use prescription. If you tell people that they should do something, then an obvious response is for them to ask why. If you just tell them that everyone is already doing something, then they’re more likely to question themselves–What’s wrong with me that I do pray to Heavenly Mother?–than to question the norm that’s being pushed.
That being said, I was encouraged to see that the norm of not praying to Heavenly Mother was stated descriptively in the Church essay. I say this because I hope that this norm eventually changes, and I think it’s probably easier to change a descriptively stated norm than a prescriptively stated one. When a prescriptive norm is changed–when people are told that something they were forbidden to do is now permitted, for example–the obvious question that is raised is why. How can this thing that used to be wrong now be okay? This is especially true in the Church, where we have so much rhetoric about how the world around us is changing, but the Church is unchanging. When a descriptive norm is changed, by contrast, then talking about it is just a matter of observing change rather than making it. There’s less to explain. People used to do one thing, and now they do another thing. The CES policy of firing new mothers has already changed. Along the same lines, I hope that a future Church essay says, “Although it was uncommon in the past, Latter-day Saints today generally pray to both Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.”