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The Ineffability of Conservatism
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I heard a story a while ago that I’m still trying to process. The story was related to me by a friend of mine who’s also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He said that in his congregation there was a young man, who we’ll call Adam. (Details have been changed to protect the identity of “Adam”.) Adam is fourteen, and he had been reading some anti-LDS stuff on the web and because of the things he’d uncovered he decided he didn’t want to attend church any more. A combination of inertia and parental expectations had kept him coming, but it was clear that the situation was only temporary.
His parents and the Bishop (for people who aren’t LDS bishops preside over local congregations), who were hoping to figure out some way to rebuild his faith and keep him in the church, hit upon the idea of getting his father to teach his son’s Sunday School class. The idea was that if they could shift the context somewhat, that perhaps his father’s words would be more effective than they had been. Also, while my friend wasn’t aware of all the details, he speculated that perhaps the son refused to engage in any kind of discussion at home, and they were hoping he’d be more likely to sit through it in this setting with peer pressure and what have you.
So there Adam is, waiting for Sunday School to start when his dad gets up to teach. Adam, apparently sensing where this is heading says something along the lines of: “No way. I’m not doing this”, and he stands up to leave the room. His father, in a kind of pleading voice says, “I would really like you to stay.” But Adam refuses and walks out of the room. My friend says that since this happened Adam hasn’t been seen in church. Though he still lives at home with his folks, does all the normal stuff, and even has the latest iPhone which, again according to my friend, his parents can scarcely afford.
My friend told me this story because he was struck by the difference between this event and what would have happened if he had tried the same thing forty some odd years ago when he was Adam’s age. First off he doesn’t think it would have ever even occurred to him to walk out on his dad. Given that he can’t imagine doing it, he has an equally difficult time imagining what his father would have done if he had, but he’s pretty sure that it would have gotten physical. I had to agree on both points, I never would have conceived of doing that nor can I entirely imagine the wrath that would have descended, but it feels like things would have bordered on the apocalyptic.
What are we to make of this story? Of the difference between what happened recently and what would have happened 40 years ago? And of the underlying issue: Should kids have some obligation to the “faith of their fathers”? Should they have any obligations, period, to their parents? Particularly if those parents are still feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their head? Is it a good thing that Adam discovered the truth, or at least “his truth” as early as possible? Or is it a bad thing because whatever you think about God’s actuality, religion provides a cultural grounding that will later be very beneficial? Is it a good thing that his dad acquiesced so easily? Does it represent a better and more enlightened form of parenting? Or is filial piety important, separate from the benefits of religion? Given that teens are pretty dumb might a large amount of deference to adults be a good thing on the balance?
You might already be able to guess my answers to these questions. But these days I feel like my answers are significantly different from the modern consensus. So while I’ve certainly talked about subjects like these, I’ve never been entirely sure if people appreciate such posts or if they merely endure them. I was encouraged to think that it might be the former based on some comments I got on my recent survey. Which is part of the reason why I choose to write on this topic.
In fact one person directly requested it:
You at one point mentioned that one of your children was NOT a Mormon, or religious? That to me is a huge story, because as far as I can tell being religious is about as good as it can be done in today's day and age. How did your boy fall off? Will you ever do an episode on that?
I am not going to speak directly about my son because too many people who read this blog know him, which makes the discussion more fraught and complicated than I want to deal with. Though I may make some general references to it.
This second comment was not directly on point, but similar to the story I lead with it’s something I’ve been chewing on for awhile.
I sometimes wonder how much of your stances on stuff is simply downstream from having a stable family environment and good fatherly figures. It feels like there's a very hard-to-bridge gap when talking to religious people who have had good families growing up, and I wish I could explain how helpless most secular/liberal people I know really are in this regard.
Explaining the secular benefits of religion has been a long term theme of this blog. And this comment would seem to indicate that I’m actually underselling those benefits, that I have accrued benefits I’m not even aware of. But this also leads to me underselling the difficulties of “just doing it” as it were. And of course Adam still has a good fatherly figure, even if he’s not inclined to listen to him. But you can probably imagine how it all ties together, which is to say it’s not just me, my friend, and Adam’s father who thinks Adam is making a mistake. There are people, who, having grown up without the benefits Adam had, now wish they could access them. People who wish they were in Adam’s position, and if they were, they would make a different decision.
It is possible I’m reading too much into these comments, and we still haven’t passed from the level of anecdotes to data. But I’d like to provide one final example that very directly speaks to the situation. One of the friends I made on my mission (I served a two year proselytizing mission in the Netherlands) has since that time left the Church, come out as gay, and now lives very happily with his husband on the east coast. You might imagine from this that he wishes he had stood up when he was 14 and walked out of his Sunday School class, and that he definitely regrets wasting two years on a mission. But in fact it’s the exact opposite. He doesn’t begrudge his mission at all, and considers it a major step in turning him into the adult he is now, even though he stopped attending church or being religious decades ago. And he bemoaned the fact that my son was never going to get that experience.
None of these examples is going to convince someone who’s strongly anti-religious that Adam is making a mistake, but I’m hoping they might do the inverse, that is, convince people who aren’t strongly religious that despite this being an explicitly religious example that Adam nevertheless screwed up. That, even if you don’t believe in the existence of God, you might entertain the idea that there are benefits to raising children in a religion with strong families and fathers, and the whole package. Or to get more basic, that society, in the form of parents, might have something beneficial to pass along to teenagers. And that there needs to be some level of friction for opting out of this transmission.
The rest of the post is going to run with this assumption. Which to me seems pretty self-evident, but if you disagree with it I’d love to hear why.
So Adam made a mistake, but is he the only person responsible for that mistake, or even the primary one? Certainly we’re all ultimately responsible for our actions, but Adam’s pretty young. If we think he’s too immature to understand the benefits of religion, and spending two years on a mission (even if he does subsequently leave the church) is he also too immature to be allowed to make that mistake? In other words, was this actually the Father’s mistake because he didn’t react more forcefully? Was it a mistake to not yell, or to not ground him? Dare we imagine that it was even a mistake to not take him out to the parking lot and wallop him?
We can’t entirely discount these possibilities, but they’re all things that parents are strongly encouraged not to do anymore, especially the walloping, but even a father grounding a kid for being disrespectful is something that’s mostly fallen out of favor, particularly if it’s related to “forcing your beliefs” on the kid. To put it another way, many, if not most, of the people who feel that Adam made a mistake, would also be of the opinion that if the father did any of the things I listed, he would have made an even bigger mistake. And all of those who think that Adam didn’t make a mistake would definitely think that. So how is the father supposed to act in these circumstances?
The current answer is that he should show forth unlimited love and acceptance. And this answer is hard to argue with. Both love and acceptance are very important. (Though love is much more important than acceptance, and it’s important to not conflate the two, though people frequently do.) Additionally, over the short term, this tactic probably leads to the best outcomes. But what about over the long term? Does a world where 14 year olds can abandon the traditions of their fathers with impunity end up better than the one where they don’t? But all this just takes us back to the point I made already. What I really want to know is should the father have handled things differently?
Perhaps, but it would have been very difficult to act other than he did. A father in 2022 is a long, long way from the near absolute authority exercised by the pater familias in ancient Rome. These days if Adam’s father had been too harsh with him, he could have been left entirely without allies. At that point regardless of how the father wanted things to proceed. He wouldn’t have the requisite support to actually enact his desires, and if he went too far the government might even have gotten involved.
If Adam was too immature to have made a mistake, and his father didn’t have the backing to have acted other than he did, where was the mistake? Or rather where would we go to correct the mistake? I believe that the difference between today and 40 years ago — when my friend and I were growing up — points to the answer. Neither Adam nor his father are at fault, rather society as a whole is. Over the last 40 years we changed the nature of the water we swim in. In the past the father would have had allies. On some unexpressed level everyone was on the same page when it came to defiant children. But this also meant that the father wouldn’t have needed allies because Adam would have never done what he did.
So, yes, it would have been a bad thing for my Father to wallop me in the parking lot, and it would have been a bad thing for me to stand up at 14 and effectively tell him to go to hell. But neither of those bad things happened. We achieved the ideal outcome without effort and without drama. And yes, I realize this is an oversimplification, but within it there is a kernel of truth. I avoided making the same mistake Adam did, and my Father didn’t have to raise his hand against me or even say anything. How did that happen? How did society back then manage to coordinate to achieve this outcome?
I’m not sure there’s a straightforward answer. Certainly there’s not some switch that we can easily flip back to its historical setting. As I said it was basically just part of the environment, the water we swam in. Back then we all knew not to mess with our fathers. And it wasn’t specific. It wasn’t don’t do X or Y will happen. Both the nature of X and the nature of Y were left ambiguous, or at least the border was, but walking out on my father in the middle of Church was clearly deep in the territory of X, and it would bring some unknown and terrible Y. Despite this ambiguity everyone was essentially on the same page. But whatever that coordination was we’ve lost it. And it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to get it back.
This is the ineffable nature of conservatism. It’s hard to describe the water when you’re in it. What it was that kept things working this way. What it is that we’ve lost. Why Adam made a mistake. And why “secular/liberal people” feel “helpless” as mentioned by the second comment. On the other hand it’s very easy to point to the gains brought by liberalism: women's suffrage, the repeal of Jim Crow laws, healthcare for the old and the poor, and of course fewer kids getting walloped by their fathers for expressing defiance.
This is part of what makes the culture war so contentious, and acrimonious. It’s easy for liberals to fall into the trap of believing that conservatives are just a bunch of old people yelling at clouds, because that’s precisely how nebulous their complaints seem. But conservatives know that things are different, that the water is changed, even if it’s hard to describe and even more difficult to solve. How do you get an entire society to all agree to go back to the “old ways” when you can’t even entirely define what those “old ways” were?
All of this leads one to wonder, if it’s impossible to restore the consensus that was lost, how did we arrive at that consensus in the first place? Was it just an artifact of historical barbarism, of a more benighted time when “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and parents were strong and children were weak? Or is it possible that it evolved as part of culture and society for precisely the reasons I mentioned above. And now that it’s gone we’ve ended up with a bunch of children and young adults who have been cast adrift at the mercy of their immature desires. (This post could be expanded to include statistics on the increase in suicidality and depression among that cohort but I think if you’re not already with me on this point that additional statistics are not going to tip the scale.)
But rather than arguing over the benefits of the old system it might be useful to consider the benefits of the new system. What did Adam get by walking out of church and never returning? Here I’m obviously biased and you should definitely take those biases into account when you consider my answer. With that caveat in mind, I’m not really seeing many. Sure he saves some time, a few hours on Sunday and a few hours here and there outside of Sunday. Additionally he’s spared some aggravation, annoyance and anxiety at the whole situation. There’s also probably some things that I’m overlooking, but overall, when piled up, it doesn’t seem to amount to much in the overall scheme of things. Which is not to say that the entire project of liberalism isn’t positive on the balance, but is there no way to preserve some of the best parts of what it replaced?
The possibility exists that there is no benefit to remaining with the faith of your fathers, even just until you’re an adult. That all the people I reference in Part II are wrong. If so, then perhaps Adam did the wise thing. But that’s not how it seems to be playing out, not just with Adam, not just with people close to me, but with young men everywhere. I understand I’m retreading territory which was already well explored by Pascal, but I think the math might be in favor of religion even if we don’t bring in an eternal and infinite reward.
Moving closer to home, I know a lot of Adams, and for nearly all of them, leaving church, contrary to the desires of their parents, starts a trend of isolation and sloth. This trend does not continue forever, but it continues long enough that most end on a plateau of ambition and achievement that’s well below where they would have been had they stayed.
If we broaden our focus to all young men, one can’t help but consider the incel phenomenon — both those who identify as such and those who are involuntarily celibate without adopting the label. This problem would also appear to be tightly related. Because you know where there’s a lot more women than men, women who have a higher than average desire to marry? Most churches!
This is only one example of conservative ineffability, and a somewhat disjointed one at that. (Though only part of that is my failings as a writer. Part is the aforementioned ineffability.) There are certainly other examples, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Society has changed in profound and often unseen ways over the last few decades. (It should be noted that the US Christian percentage hovered around 90% as recently as the 1980. And church attendance was at 70% as recently as 2000.) And, because of their subtlety these changes are still being grappled with. There are a lot of Adams, and it’s not clear what to do about them, but I would opine that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. The problem is difficult to define, but that doesn’t mean it’s not consequential and important.
I’m posting this right before Christmas, which means the connection to donating should be obvious. But instead I’m going to ask for something else, consider reaching out to a young man who seems to be having a hard time.