Daniel faced a serious problem. Darius the king had been tricked by his princes into outlawing prayer. But Daniel felt beholden to pray to his God. The society in which he lived restricted his personal freedoms more than his religious society did. In fact, his religious community went underground due to the persecutions and restrictions of the larger society. As to the larger world around Daniel, we don’t know. People couldn’t travel great distances very easily. The Bible takes place in a fairly restricted geography. If Daniel moved to China or Africa or the New World, he might have had a different experience. To him, as to many people, his local society was the world. Daniel chose to flaut the rules of society, and as a result he was sentenced to death. He chose the less restrictive religious law; in this case, the law that gave him more personal freedom to do what he wanted than did the corporal law dictated by the king.
We don’t hear too much about the others who didn’t pray and would have been sentenced to death because this story is really about political intrigues and the princes trying to circumvent Daniel’s influence with the king. Would you have flauted the king’s rule or obeyed the king? Would you have seen it as oppressive of your religious society to contradict the laws of the land, requiring you to pray when it meant a death sentence? I have no doubt that most people would simply obey the king’s law, regarding it as a minor inconvenience. We like to say that people always take the easy way out, but let me add that the way that is easy to them varies. We paint Daniel’s action as a great sacrifice, but we don’t take into account that personal temperament plays a role.
Likewise, those in the early church who practiced polygamy did so contrary to the laws of the US. This was before statehood. For those who wanted to continue to stay in the families they had formed, it would have been more difficult to leave their families and obey the laws of the land. The church’s law allowing them to practice polygamy was less oppressive to them. For those who had not entered polygamy, it was much easier to obey the laws of the land rather than to enter into the socially practice of polygamy that were inherently difficult and would greatly restrict where they could live. Obeying society’s law required less sacrifice for them than entering polygamy would have.
As I think about these examples and contemporary stories I’ve read from other Mormons, I have a few questions about what it means in practical terms when we admonish people to be in the world but not of it (yet we also admonish them to obey the law of the land). I have concluded that:
- People perceive the church to be “good” relative to how oppressive they perceive the society to be in which they live.
- People will eventually choose “the world” (meaning leave the church) if they perceive the church to be more oppressive to personal freedoms and less enlightened than society, especially if the church is oppressive to their own personal freedoms.
What are personal freedoms? To the person who feels oppressed, they feel like everything: life, liberty, freedom of speech, and ultimately the freedom to pursue happiness. But those who don’t feel oppressed will call other people’s freedoms “sins” or “worldliness.” It’s difficult to separate actual needs (freedoms) from wants, but it seems much easier to judge that in other people – whatever they want that we don’t want is not a need but their own selfishness! People often will judge those that leave as lacking commitment, being worldly, or having been offended. But another perspective is that those that stay may simply fit the mold better; they don’t care about the same things. Their freedoms are not curttailed.
Before I continue, let me lay out a few caveats:
- Perceptions are based on personal experience that may not be shared by people living in the same society. For example, I could talk to two different people living in the same street; one will feel that the church is less enlightened than society, and the other will feel that the church is more enlightened than society.
- Freedoms that are curttailed vary by personal situation. An obvious example is gay marriage. If you are gay and live in a country that permits gay marriage and extends equal rights to gay couples as to straight couples, but you do not have equal rights with straight couples in your church setting, the church setting feels more oppressive.
- Awareness of society beyond our local community is often limited or downplayed as irrelevant. Members in the US who are accustomed to equality between men and women may chafe at the word “preside” in the Proclamation on the Family, but the focus on male familial responsibility in the church may be very enlightened for someone living in a macho society that oppresses women. This is also known as unexamined privilege.
Let’s move from the personal to societal. I often hear two conflicting narratives:
- The world is getting more and more wicked. Pornography is ubiquitous and available for free at a key stroke (although for some reasons Utahns prefer to pay for it). Divorce rates are increasing. Casual sex is the norm. Television shows and music our kids listen to are profane. These truly are the last days.
- The world keeps getting better and better. Illiteracy rates are down. The standard of living is the highest it’s ever been. Organizations protect human rights. Infant mortality rates are down. Horrific acts like infanticide, bride burning, domestic abuse, rape, honor killings, child pornography, and sexual slavery that were the norm of the ancient world have been brought to light and are finally being rooted out.
Which narrative do you find most compelling? Personally, I think that people haven’t changed much, but society is getting better. Evil that used to be hidden is now brought to light. But people are still have great capacity to do both good and evil. The good has got some momentum, though. And society in general is getting less oppressive and better at rooting out oppression. When a government deals with an uprising by cutting off social media, we see the power and freedom that people currently enjoy, globally. We also see that the ability of a regime to oppress individual freedoms is no longer a given. Before social media existed, a government could commit acts of genocide that were not discovered for years or even longer.
Is the church getting more and more enlightened in attitudes? I think so, but not always at the same pace as the society immediately surrounding a person, and this creates conflict and angst for two groups of people: 1) those for whom society is less oppressive than the church, and 2) those who have strong feelings about social justice (often Democrats). Because the word “oppressive” can also be interpreted as curbing one’s ability to sin (not just freedom), in the following series of questions I’ll simply use the word “enlightened,” and you will have to judge for yourself which viewpoint is more enlightened. Enlightened in this case means: informed, edifying, accurate (light has been shed on the matter), or illuminating. Your response will be your own subjective opinion.