The Church has a Trolley Problem (1). For a quick refresher, the Trolley Problem is a thought experiment in ethics where you are given a runaway trolley heading to a group of five people. You can throw a switch to change the path of the trolley to another track where only one person is located. Sometimes the experiment puts somebody you know as the single person you can change direction to. Sometimes that person is your child (kill your child to save many more).
As I explored in my post on the Grandmothers Living in Sanpete, the Church has a problem on making changes that could save a few, but could potentially drive many more out of the Church. Let’s take the LGBTQ problem. The single person on the tracks is the LGBTQ member, that has really no place in the church and its theology. The five other people are the active, orthodox members of the church. The church could make way for the LGBTQ, finding a way for them to marry and have all the rights and privileges (priesthood, holding office) as the heteronormative member that enjoys full fellowship. But that might cause some casualties on the other track, with more members leaving the church than the few saved by the LGBTQ changes.
I believe the Q15 are now weighing these exact same choices. Elder Gong has a child that is gay. One day if he ever gets the the position that he has his hand on the lever, will he pull it to save his child, even though the church might lose the grandmas in Sanpete?
Where this analogy falls apart is that the LGBTQ member of the church (single person on the track) is in true danger, both psychologically and physically (from self-harm) if the trolley is allowed to hit them. If the church accepts LGBTQ people into full fellowship (lets the trolley hit the five people but saves the one), nobody gets injured. Sure, there will be a lot of members that are butt hurt, and lots will leave because the church is surely in apostasy, but there is no real danger to them, unless you decide they are losing their eternal salvation for leaving the church.
What other “trolley problems” has the Church faced? I think ending polygamy and giving the priesthood to all worthy males would count. What about the future? Women and the priesthood?
(1) The idea for this post comes from a podcast called Rameumptom Ruminations by Scott C. If you enjoyed this post, please listen to Scott and he goes much more in-depth on this subject.
The One (LGBT+) takes with them many of the under 30 members (80% leave by age 30 these days). But they aren’t yet really great earners for the church. The five that are saved by sacrificing the one are in their peak earning years.
At first it seems short sighted to possibly lose future donors, but with the church already able to pay for its expenses from earnings on its investment funds, making hay today will build the kitty. When membership dwindles, there will be enough and to spare.
I know that sounds very cynical – but we are talking about weighing in the balance who is in and who is excluded. If souls were what it was really all about, a theology could be crafted to be inclusive of both the one and the five. Or there could be an emphasis on getting the five to embrace – however discomforting it may be for them – the one. I think that could be accomplished in a decade if it were given priority status and the church applied the resources.
The church has, what – 5 million active members? It’s already not working for 2 out of 3 members. If activity shrinks to 3 or 1 million because of exclusionary practices, they’ll pat themselves on the back for separating the wheat from the tares, sell off those unused ward houses, build some more McTemples for appearance sake, and have more wealth per member than any church on the planet.
Maybe the it comes down to institutional pride over loving God’s children. Try putting that on a spreadsheet.
The Church would be better off if it accepted same-sex marriage. It would save many from being hit by figurative trolleys.
When marriage is discouraged among any category of adults, they sadly and inevitably turn to indiscriminate sexual activity. Indeed, many behave no better than a Russian Princess whose parents are away from the castle. It is unrestrained sexual contact without commitment that is the real harm to society.
This discouragement of marriage among the members of one group creates the impression among all groups that marriage is of lesser value. This in turn leads to increased members of all groups frequenting honky, tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens in the search for the latest sexual encounter.
The old women of Sanpete County would not leave the Church if the marriages of all are recognized. Rather, they would rest easily knowing their grandchildren are more likely to stay in the Church.
How many of the “five” left in 1978 after the ending of the racial priesthood ban? My understanding is that a non-zero amount did indeed leave, but I don’t know how significant it was financially or in terms of headcount.
As a counterpoint, when the CoC extended the priesthood to women, they took a massive hit on both fronts. I was speaking with one of their leaders about this recently, and she said “Yes, we lost many members and a lot of revenue. And that’s too bad. But if we didn’t go through that exeperience, it would not have prepared us for the place we are now, where LGBT+ acceptance is possible.”
That’s one of the things that’s made me so cynical about the LDS church: the CoC chose the path of inclusion and elevation, no matter the cost. And it did cost them. What hill are we looking to die on? For what issue are we ready to say, “Well, we’re going to lose half the membership but we need to do this.”?
I am going to start being more vocal about the true origins of the Family Proclamation…
Comic relief – wife and I have given permission to each other as follows – upon achieving widow status she wants to look for love in the country of Italy whereas I would be headed to Great Falls, Montana. Anyone know of any good honky-tonks located there?
Interesting post. My take on this one is that the paradigm is too reductive to be applicable. Specifically, the Trolley problem assumes that those tasked with difficult decisions are like economic rational actors who think they can choose in a given situation, i.e. that leaders would be willing to make doctrinal choices to maximize membership or money or to maximally reduce suffering caused by institutional doctrines or policies. The trolley problem scenario discounts the possibility that the trolley operator thinks they have an operating manual that can’t really be changed (because frankly they don’t get clear messages from the operating manual author). They have been tasked to follow the trolley operating manual even in the case of extreme circumstances. Indeed, sticking to the operating manual when the circumstances are extreme is how one shows one’s faith and commitment to the author of the trolley operating manual. They have stated over and over that they cannot change LGBT policies anymore and that the priesthood is only for men. I do think that they believe they have no choice. They also believe that the member’s opinions don’t fundamentally matter.
So many jumbled thoughts in response to this one. tl:dr — Is the “trolley problem” a part of God’s calculus is deciding what to reveal to man?
Several years ago, Ben Spackman wrote a GD blog post tackling the book of Philemon and the problem of slavery in the Bible. His conclusion was that God sometimes accommodates His people when choosing what revelations to give. Slavery was so prevalent and accepted by Biblical, middle eastern people that God decided that it was better to let them believe slavery was acceptable to God.
When I have asked myself and others why God chose to reveal to Moses a “flat disc Earth sandwiched between the waters of heaven and hell” model of the universe, I often get the response that, because the ancient Israelites were so steeped in a geocentric cosmology, that they would not have been able to accept or understand an accurate description of the universe.
I find it interesting that the Race and the Priesthood essay spills so much ink detailing the racial attitudes of 19th and 20th century America. The implication being that maybe God could not reveal a racially integrated priesthood because the Church and broader American society would reject any revelation that promoted racial equality.
Recently, I participated in a discussion elsewhere on the internet where someone said that the Church COULD not change its stance on same sex marriage, because too many people in the Church would see this is as a failure of prophets and revelation. Putting God at the switch instead of the Church, is God choosing not to give us a different revelation on same sex marriage and other LGBT issues because the Church would crumble? Will He change His mind at a switch farther down the track when the calculus changes? Would such an about face be more akin to the Israelites demanding a king (the lesser path), or would it be more like the switch from lesser Mosaic law to higher law at the time of Christ?
Ultimately, I don’t know. It seems to me that there is some kind of “how well will the people accept this revelation” calculus in what God reveals to prophets. Sometimes, this makes sense to me. Other, more cynical times, I wonder if God is a reliable source of truth (because He seems willing to tell us what we want to hear instead). In either case, we claim to be the epitome of revealed religion. It seems to me that we need a better understanding of how this trolley problem might fit into the process of revelation.
The difficulty with the trolley problem here is coming to an agreement on what the trolley represents and what is the harm it would cause.
You might think Gong would soften the policy towards gay marriage and the like if he were in charge, but that presupposes that he at some point understands the policies on gay marriage to be hurting people. Instead, he might hold to the traditional belief that gay marriage is harmful to society, that gay marriage itself is the trolley and it hurts the eternal salvation of the members of the church. (To be clear, this is not my belief.)
There is a sense in the blogs and social media that certain church leaders are more liberal than others, and I’m sure that is true, but I don’t think most of us really have enough exposure to them to really know. We tend to try to read the tea leaves and undercurrents and extrapolate what they would really say if they could, but in think we often go to far.
Many were surprised when soft- hearted Elder Holland suggested bringing out the muskets, for example. I have heard things from some of the other presumed progressives in the leadership that make me question whether there really is anyone in the Q15 that would change policies with respect to gay marriage.
The trolley problem is a fantastic tool for starting a conversation about ethics, but when comparing it to real world situations, you have to achieve some common level of understanding about what is the trolley representing and what is the harm that results from it. I don’t feel like the church leadership is on the same page as I am in that respect.
If (and that may be a really unlikely “if”) the LDS church were to change its doctrinal or policy positions on Women-Priesthood, LGBT families, individual’s eternal gender, etc., my view is that the former RLDS, now Church of Christ, would have more credibility than the LDS church. The CoC made its changes at a time that the scientific and social pressure was not as well-known or overwhelming. Compared to the LDS church, they would seem to have made those changes because of the their view of God and his love. Do what is right let the consequence follow.
I come here for John Charity Spring. That guy is a true artist.
Dairy Queen… honky tonks….Bon Jovi….. I love it!
How and why are major decisions made by Church leadership? Does the Lord leave it to these men to decide or does He reveal to them what they should do? If you believe the former, as I do, then everything is part of a political calculation. You know, give up on poly when the US government threatens your survival, give up on black ban when the Brazil temple needs blacks. If you believe the latter, as most TBMs do, this discussion doesn’t really matter. The Lord will reveal what he wants to reveal when he wants to do so.
MrShorty, admittedly I haven’t read the Spackman post, but isn’t it just a possible (more possible perhaps) that a people wanting to justify slavery and seeing nothing wrong with it confused their thoughts for God’s? That Spackman explanation only makes sense if we are trying to justify prophetic or scriptural infallibility. That’s not an exercise I’m interested in performing.
My trolley thoughts:
(1) In the Trolley problem, there’s no real “right” answer (no direction the trolley is “supposed” to be going, so it seems impossible to know who to choose to hurt). Here, IMO, there’s a right way we should be headed and we oughtta head there. It’s cowardice, sexism, and homophobia preventing us – not an ethical dilemma. I’ve no patience for that.
(2) Also in the problem, the trolley is going to actually kill people directly either way. Currently, the Church is directly hurting people one way. If it changes course, people might choose to be upset and leave but I’m not sure people will kill themselves over it. I’m not feeling a ton of angst over people who choose to leave because we become more inclusive. Definitely less angst then I feel over people who kill themselves or spend their lives alone.
(3) One thing we don’t often consider with the trolley problem that’s very relevant here is the driver. Here we’ve got an older trolley driver who probably has some interest in protecting people but don’t forget that in his actions to protect “others” he’s first and foremost protecting his own power, position, reputation, and institution. So whenever he says he’s protecting other people, if his actions to “protect” others benefit himself (like, say, a man getting up and explaining why men and not women are in charge and church and women are supposed to stay at home and make and raise babies), think twice about the motives. I mean really, I can’t believe they are getting away with it and I think comparing it to the trolley problem is giving more credit than they deserve at this point.
As The Good Place demonstrated, visualizing the trolley problem can itself be a form of torture for any empathetic human, and in real-world application it’s often a false dichotomy. And you mention as much in the OP—choosing to pull the lever and save the LGBTQ+ people on the track doesn’t actually harm anyone.
So as I think about the Brethren’s reluctance to pull the lever, I’m reminded of just how callous and dehumanizing our doctrine can sometimes be. We don’t really care that much about alleviating human suffering or righting inequities in the world. We show up in force to clean up after hurricanes, sure, but there’s plenty we don’t show up to. As an institution, what we really care about is Righteousness. And “Righteousness” often tolerates or explicitly causes suffering.
Think of Abraham and Isaac—God wanted a servant with enough faith to brutally murder his own child. Or think of Samson or Alma and Amulek causing stone walls to crush the wicked. Or Captain Moroni systematically executing all the kingmen. The scriptures condition us to de-value human life even as they teach us to love our neighbor. The suffering and death of humans is not only an acceptable part of mortality but also something God deliberate causes and often commands us to take part in causing.
That’s how you get a membership that so easily turns a blind eye to a suicide epidemic among our gay youth. Our solution to the problem of evil is to make God deliberately evil and then call ourselves righteous for having the faith to be evil on His behalf.
I think it’s a least worth noting that the then-RLDS Church (it acquired the name “Community of Christ” in 2001) in 1984 did not intentionally drive away tens of thousands of active members once the World Conference decision to approve D. and C. Section 156, which included women’s ordination almost as an aside: “I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church ae being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will and where these calls are made known to my servants, they may be processed according to administrative procedures and provisions of the law. Nevertheless, in the ordaining of women to priesthood, let this be done with all deliberateness. Before the actual laying on of hands takes place, let specific guidelines and instructions be provided by the spiritual authorities, that all may be done in order” (paragraph 9b-d).
Opening the priesthood to women was certainly the tipping point for many traditionalist members. For almost three decades the church openly began to consider numerous issues: One True Church and its exclusive priesthood authority; Book of Mormon historicity; numerous other historical questions, including Joseph Smith’s connection to polygamy; salvation for people beyond the church; baptizing polygamous individuals in India; and the whole idea of “Zion.” The list could go on.
But I think Bro. Jones is correct is pointing out that the church took a serious hit, but at least for the right reasons. It continues to struggle (I could go into the current financial situation, but that has as much to do with poor fiscal management in the years before the Great Recession in 2008-09 as its aging membership and declining tithing revenue–a comment or even post for another time). But there was a significant groundswell from the membership that led to “the trolley going down a particular track,” if you will. There has always been a “free thinking” aspect to RLDS/CofC membership. Like that old joke in my church: Brigham got the obedient ones; Joseph Smith III got the free thinkers.
There’s another way of applying the real world situation to the Trolley Problem. The five have tied down the one to the tracks. The five are not innocent bystanders here, and in fact, if the trolley approaches them, they’re free to step out of the way. Those who remain on the tracks are just throwing a fit and spiting themselves because LGBTQ members might finally receive full fellowship.
Considering older members are far less likely to leave than younger members, I think radical change in the Church is more likely to retain membership (or even grow it) than it is to cause more traditional members to leave.
People frequent Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens looking for sexual encounters? Asking for a friend.
Rich, ordination of Black men is another area in which the RLDS Church was definitely ahead of its time (which, IDK, seems more prophetic than confirming what the people want to hear).
Dylan: Ordination of black men in the early years of the Reorganization (1860 onward) was a contentious issue, which certainly reflected the entire USA at the time. Jim Crow laws in the South led to practices in the church that are cringe-worthy, to say the least, today. Segregated branches existed in the South. I’ve heard of at least one place where, at district conferences, black members had to stand outside whites-only churches and “participate” through open windows.
Why are there only two choices? Is there not also a choice to fix the points so that the trolley will derail rather than go down either track? What is the trolley and what would that mean?
I had started listening to the podcast last week, but got too irritated with it…
Since Holland’s talk at BYU has been invoked once again, allow me to share an insight that I recently experienced. They say that only Nixon could have gone to China–precisely because, being Nixon, he had impeccable anti-Chinese credentials. Maybe Holland is planning to (metaphorically) go to China. But first he has to become Nixon and the BYU speech was part of that.
Which of the Permas is JCS?
Rockwell brought up an important point: Bishop Bill (and W&T) and the Brethren are probably working from different perspectives about what the trolley represents and what the harm is.
Bishop Bill’s post posits that the trolley is the Church’s heteronormative definition of family, and the harm caused is that LGBTQ members despair of their eternal future. However, the Brethren would likely posit that the trolley is the world’s belief that marriage is more about adult fulfillment than procreation, and that the harm is that people would enter into a non-procreative marriage (caveats and kindness for the infertile) and thus doom their souls to eternal damnation. In the Brethren’s mind, lifelong celibacy for LGBTQ saves them eternally. Per the Brethren, the trolley only hits people who prioritize romantic and sexual fulfillment over eternal reward.
Polygamy was never about romantic and sexual fulfillment – it was about procreation. That policy didn’t change because the Brethren wanted people to be happier and feel more accepted at Church; it changed because the government was systematically destroying the Church in an effort to eradicate polygamy. One distinction between the end of polygamy and today’s struggle for LGBTQ rights: there wasn’t pressure from the members to end polygamy, whereas today there are many members (especially younger ones) who want to see changes in favor of LGBTQ members. That could make a difference. Societal pressure, and pressure from faithful members, likely fed into the decision to end the priesthood ban as well.
So this isn’t about whether the Brethren choose to run over the conservative many or the LGBTQ one, it’s about the Brethren changing their minds to see that heteronormative marriage doctrine is the trolley. Right now, the Brethren likely feel that the trolley is the world’s insistence that marriage isn’t primarily about the sacred procreative process.
A few months ago a podcast interviewed Elder Gong’s son about his coming out experience. Based on that it’s not clear to me Elder Gong is particularly sympathetic to LGBT church members. I’d love to be wrong.
As an aside, MIT created a Trolley Problem scenario generator so each of us can experience conundrums for ourselves. Felons vs the elderly. Men vs women. Etc. And you get a score at the end, just Google MIT trolley problem.
Do what is right let the consequence follow. The problem with the trolley problem is that each driver does what they think is right, such as the Q15 policy re: LGBT (and even though I disagree w it).
It’s not just “social” issues and policies. Take something completely different: Book of Mormon historicity. As far as I can tell, there is *no room* for anyone to suggest that the Book of Mormon is not historical. Alarms sound and that person is whisked away. Many of those who leave do it over this kind of truth claim issue. So far, leaders are willing to lose what they calculate is a few to keep the bulk. But is it really a few? I wish I knew the numbers.
The most frustrating thing about this is the Church takes no responsibility. They can break the law or allow abuse to happen and cover it up or just make bad decisions and they refuse to take any responsibility. This is the only Organization that I know of that will not be held accountable for anything. I work for a fortune 5 company and they will take responsibility.
Currently the only ones who hold the Church accountable are the Civil Courts, Members who would leave or are leaving and Prospective members. To TBM’s there is nothing the church does wrong.
Melinda, I dont think there is any procreating happening in Oaks, or RMN current marriages.
In Australia, because we are 18 hours ahead of Utah, we have conferencre weekend the next week, so just watched it. There were 3 mentions of binding yourself to Christ with a covenant. This was not from first presidency, and not a concept I have heard before or understand. Can anyone explain please? What is the covenant?
I wondered whether each speaker, and choir member still believe trump won, and believe lies about Biden. Perhaps the trolley is about this division. Some talks seem to refer to truth and unity, but not specify who has to change/repent, if anyone?
My experience with damage control today – my child called on P-Day to say how hard this last week was as a missionary and was a little shocked that people are not freely accepting the restored gospel of salvation.
I did my best to motivate without revealing that my faith crisis probably began about five years ago. Wife is also unaware.
The constant drumbeat and focus on “the young people” has grown ever so tiresome for those of us who are a bit older; and most likely empty nesters. We’ve become nothing more than “place holders” in the chapel and are charged with the never ending blathering about the importance of the youth. This is becoming such an obvious blindspot for the church….that many of us are saying “why bother?” with this Mormon nonsense any further….
@lefthand, I agree. I’m watching many of my friends in their 30’s and 40’s leave or if not outright leave mentally / spiritually / emotionally checkout and disengage. Guess what happens to their kids?
And I was thinking of this the other day as I watched my elderly in-laws whose life revolves around the Church. They do hold callings as temple workers but haven’t held significant callings in their wards or stakes for ages and ages and ages because at some point you seem to age out of those. They happen to be in a ward that people have been in for decades and they raised their kids in and are happy but would never leave it because they know if they did they’d be totally ignored wherever they went.
So it seems more trolley victims – we are working so hard to damage control for the sexism and homophobia and transparency problems that we can’t focus on actually building community anywhere (which might help with the middle aged / older crowd).
Ruth, your comment on BoM historicity got me thinking about how lots of us handle this problem. I remember a line from Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men (based on PD James book about apocalypse), This from Vulture Review: “In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the bit in Children of Men where Theo talks to Nigel, who’s been rescuing Europe’s great artworks and preserving them. Theo tells him, ‘In a hundred years, there won’t be one sad f*** to look at any of this. What keeps you going?’ and Nigel says, ‘You know what it is, Theo? I just don’t think about it.’”
Bishop Bill: I think the Trolley problem the Church has (if it has one) is that the Church thinks of LGBT people as the one person over there, alone, or not even part of the LDS community, so it’s an *easy* call to sacrifice them. What they don’t realize is that loving Mormon families will stand by their LGBT children and relatives, so the real issue is that you have a large Mormon family on one track, and on the other track you have people who are mostly unaware of LGBT issues, possibly older people (but not always). So you are really sacrificing the future for the past. But hey, nobody cares what I think, as we all know.
Chet: Missions are as effective as they are because we are sending these very very young adults out who really don’t know much about other options. They see their investigators choosing between the Church they (the missionaries) know and love as the entirety of the Gospel and option B which is nothing, falseness, secularism, the “World.” Missionaries are young enough to believe this black & white dichotomy because they usually don’t have enough life experience or exposure to other Churches or other sources of moral goodness. I suspect that’s why we aren’t sending them out at age 30 or 40, and why so few go as older adults, or if they do, they don’t generally do a proselyzing mission.
Angela is spot on, and we should listen to her.
I asked a family member once how they felt being a 30-something Mormon parent leading up the the 1978 revelation. Their response was they never thought of the issue previously. Well, of course they didn’t. Why in the world would someone from Lehi UT worry about the plight of colored people when they didn’t know any? I think the Brethren are using this line of thinking with regards to the queer community today.
Problem is they don’t see the distinction. White Mormon families won’t have colored family members organically. But they will have queer family members. Therefore, as Angela points out, with a few exceptions that will take President Oaks’ counsel to heart to not let their queer family members spend the night with their partners, most families will choose each other over the church. So in that regard, I’m going to end up collateral damage here. Me, a BYU grad, returned missionary, served in all the things, will be run over by the stone cut out of the mountain without hands.
This is the crossroads. It’s not going to be nice.
Also, what JCS said.
@chadwick what is extra tragic is because of that organic growth the trolley problem will never end because lgbtq folks will continue to be born into the church even if every single living lgbtq member leaves. So the harm will continue until the church switches tracks.
Hi all! Tardy to the party as usual.
Earlier I had an impulse to comment here about how tiresome metaphors are (to me) and why ( because they all fail sooner or later, and disconnect from the real events and intentions they’re attempting to illuminate) and how this one in particular goes off the rails rather quickly. Other commenters handled it.
But Angela salvaged the discussion by addressing the critical points attempted by this lame metaphor, and it all made sense again. In a better world, Angela would be at least a bishop or SP.
But my funk remains from the grey cloud I developed after reading the more recent post by Dave B, about the disappearing big-tent. We have a trolley problem and a lot more looming problems. I guess I’ll keep going with my self-directed starfish ministry and try not to think too hard about it.