Last week I listened to a podcast on Freakonomics about traffic Roundabouts. [1] While listening to the utility of roundabouts, I came to the conclusion that Joseph Smith would have approved of roundabouts, and the church today not so much. The church today is a more traffic light focused.

Let me explain. For a traffic light, the navigation of the the signal is pretty binary. If it’s green, you go, it it’s red, you stop. There is some nuance to the yellow light, but even that can be boiled down to you just stop if you can. Navigating a traffic signal takes little thought, and really no choices, as evidenced when you drive home from work thinking about your weekend plans, get home and realize you don’t remember any of the drive home, even though you drove through four signals.

To drive through a roundabout, you need to know one rule (principle): yield to traffic already in the circle. After that its all up to you. But it takes thought and your judgment each time you approach the roundabout. Are there cars in the circle already? How fast are they going? Will they turn off before they reach the junction in which I’m about to enter? Is my speed compatible with the speed of the cars already in the circle? As you can see, it is not cut-and-dried. It takes thought and many conscious decisions for the drive. In fact, it is proving to be very difficult for the developers of autonomous vehicles to program the cars to navigate a roundabout safely. Traffic lights are easy for a self driving car, roundabout are not.

From the podcast:

I think one of the other complicating factors is that in the United States we have the most established set of transportation design guidelines compared to other countries. That’s good for the most part. But what it does is it trains our driving population to rely on the transportation system to instruct them at every move. And it causes them to put a lot of trust, whether deserved or undeserved, in the technology that’s built into our transportation system. A roundabout is a deviation from that. Because now I have to think for myself. A yield sign at every entry at a roundabout requires that a driver has to come to that yield sign and think for themselves: “Am I allowed to go? Am I not allowed to go?” So it’s uncomfortable for a driver that wants to be instructed.

So why don’t people like roundabouts? They don’t like to make all those decisions! The driver wants to be instructed! They want the government to dictate when it is safe to go (green light) and then it they need to stop (red light). In La Jolla, California, an existing roundabout was critiqued by one resident who wanted to add stop signs and speed bumps to make the roundabout more “civilized”.

You can see where this is going. When Joseph Smith was asked how he governs the members of the church, he replied “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves”. Much like a roundabout. The principle: yield to traffic already in the circle. Then it is up to everybody to govern themselves in the circle. In fact God himself is a roundabout guy as evidenced in D&C 54:26 “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward”. So where did the Church lose its way? I see more of the cut-and-dried rules today than in the early church.

Take the Word of Wisdom. Originally it was a roundabout. Yield to hot drinks, and strong drinks. But you decide how to do it, what a hot drink is, and what a strong drink is. And whatever you decide is fine. Now, the WofW is a traffic light, with no room for interpretation. A red light for coffee and tea, but green for hot chocolate. Red for all alcohol, even though beer was left up to the individual back then it was a roundabout. The WofW only enforces the red lights, there is little talk of the green lights and what is permitted. Can you think of other rules in the church that have gone from roundabouts to traffic lights?

I’m not ready to throw the church under the bus on this (Don’t you love the traffic idiom?). I think the church is giving its members what they want. For the most part, they want to be told what to do. They want a line item list of “do nots” for the WofW. They like the stop signs and speed bumps, because it makes life more civilized. But not everybody is like that. If you are reading this Blog, you are most likely a traffic roundabout kind of person. If green tea has health benefits, you would like the choice to interpret “hot drinks” differently, not by commandment or constraint.

So what kind of person are you?

[1] a roundabout is like a traffic circle only smaller. A traffic circle sometimes has stop signs or signals, a roundabout only has yield signs.

Image by Gendzo Macher from Pixabay