There was recently an interesting online discussion about the trickiness of valuing “agency” when we are also encouraged at Church to put the hand on the scale of the choices our kids make. For example, how often have you heard (and I swear this is a newer trend, not something that was said when I was growing up) that someone is proud that a newly baptized eight year old made the “choice” to be baptized. Did they, though?
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by the Amish. Amish children are taught in Amish schools, separate from public schools, only through 8th grade. They don’t drive or use electronics (except apparently some do use phones and computers in their businesses but keep all technology in the barn.) The Amish are anabaptists, meaning they are only baptized as adults, not as children. The choice to be baptized is a huge decision, far bigger than the choice someone makes in the LDS church, because if they do not choose to be baptized, they are shunned by their Amish family and must go live in the world, completely separate, for the rest of their lives. This is why they are encouraged to go out to experience the world as late teens in an event called Rumspringa, to help them make the right decision.
Contrast that with the life plan we set out for our LDS youth. We certainly don’t encourage them to have some kind of Mormon Rumspringa, a counter-proof experience that will either scare them back into the bosom of the community or conversely lure them into the clutches of worldliness and debauchery.
Instead, we have ways to put our hand on the scale of the “right” choices, the choice to stay in the Church. What is the role of seminary, BYU, missions, EFY / Trek, marrying and having children early, if not this? In fact, at each of these potential steps, youth leaders, Bishops and parents often push their offspring toward these next steps. High schoolers are often asked “Where are you going to college?” but the real question they are being asked is “Are you going to BYU?” A returned missionary is asked “Who are you dating? Anyone serious?” Young singles who are dating may be asked, “When are you two going to tie the knot?” Newly married couples may be asked “When are you going to have a baby? You don’t want to wait too long! I already had one or two by your age!” The cycle continues, on and on, with the assumption that progressing through each of these steps is always the “right” choice, and any deviation is like falling off of a cliff into the mists of darkness.
As LDS parents, if these steps worked for us, they couldn’t be all bad, right? It’s always easiest to see your child make choices that are tried and true, that already worked for you. When they make choices that are different or unfamiliar, that can feel scary and dangerous. We don’t know where those “other” choices might lead. We also tend to overlook the ways in which parental pressure can backfire. As comedian Todd Glass put it, “You wouldn’t let your parents choose your jeans. Why would you let them choose your religion?”
The most interesting thing about the online discussion was this notion that it’s suddenly become important to phrase these life milestones as “choices,” even when there is a lot of pressure and coercion involved. There aren’t many eight year olds who are really cognizant of what the Church is really all about. Those who attend the temple for the first time likewise aren’t briefed prior to the experience on the exact nature of what will follow. The social pressure to complete these ritualistic steps can be very strong in the moment. Refusal is tantamount to a full-scale rejection of one’s family.
Even non-ritualistic milestones within the Church community carry their own social pressures. Kids who don’t attend seminary or Church activities feel singled out as a “project” with friends or teachers approaching them out of love and concern to try to get them to conform with the social norm. Often, the pressure to serve a mission is so great for young men that they may leave the Church entirely rather than give up two years for something they aren’t sure about. Staying active in the Church after choosing not to go on a mission also usually leads to continued social pressure or negative assumptions if a young man persists in his decision not to go. I suspect this is one reason that the age was moved back from 19 to 18. It’s much harder to resist this pressure the younger you are. Failure to marry at a young age may result in similar social pressures and perceived judgements for a young woman.
As parents, whether in the Church or not, we all subject our children to pressures. Even defiant children crave parental approval deep down, and parents want to feel that they are helping their children, using the best tools available to them. We evaluate all of their choices according to our own values: educational, religious, political, employment opportunities, romantic interests, family planning, etc. Just because we have an opinion, doesn’t make it right. Just because they do something doesn’t mean they didn’t cave in to coercive pressures.
It’s difficult to recognize when we are being too coercive as parents vs. just encouraging them with what we believe to be good advice. After all, we have a lot of power as parents, but little control. Parents who try to exert control will ultimately lose the power they have in the lives of their children. We need to recognize when we are being coercive or controlling because we can see that our child believes they must comply to be loved, which is an impossible situation to put them in. The notion from the Old Testament that children must obey their parents or be stoned to death is, aside from a terrible law, a pretty good metaphor for bad parenting. Plus, if all of us are children obeying parents, it’s turtles all the way down. Who are we ultimately obeying here? Some long-dead millenia old ancestor who lived in a completely different world that no longer exists? That’s no way to live a life.
A woman becomes a responsible parent when she stops being an obedient daughter.Glennon Doyle, author
It’s actually quite a bit easier as children to recognize when we feel coerced, when we are being rejected along with our choices. This is partly the pain of growing up, of separating from our parents and becoming independent people in our own right, but it doesn’t have to follow that our hearts and spirits are broken in the process. That’s an option taken by insecure parents who haven’t learned what agency really is. It’s not congratulating someone for making a choice they’ve been pressured into.
Churches can also act as a coercive parent in the lives of congregants, particularly high demand religions. The role of the bishop often functions more as a coercive parent than as a pastoral assistant to the flock in Mormon congregations, more involved in assessing “worthiness” based on a prescribed set of beliefs and actions rather than listening and responding to individual needs. Instead, we could be more honest with Church members that whatever their choices are, there will be heartaches and blessings, adversity and joy, lessons to learn and respite. No choice is a panacea. There is no one plan that leads to happiness without regard to individual circumstances. The one who has to live with it is the only one equipped to make the choice. We need to get our hand off the scale and be more humble about our belief that we know what will be best for every human on the planet.
- When have you felt coerced as a child? How did you know you were being coerced?
- When have you been coercive as a parent? What do you do when your adult child makes a choice you don’t like?
- Have you felt coerced at Church? Why and when? What did you do?
- How do we avoid being coercive and respect choices that differ from our own?
 Rumspringa varies from sect to sect. It’s not always the reality show free-for-all we’ve been exposed to on TV. It is also the courting time, when teens as young as 14 for girls or 16 for boys are allowed to have some socialization with the opposite sex within the community. If they choose to marry outside the community, they are not baptized and they are shunned.
If you are not already familiar with them I recommend GB Shaw’s plays. Major Barbara and Man and Superman come particularly to mind after reading this essay on parenting.
I wasn’t allowed to participate on any teams in high school unless I went to early morning seminary.
As my kids approach college and mission age, I am uneasy about the degree to which I observe them making decisions that appear calculated to satisfy the adults in their sphere, particularly the adults with the most strongly expressed views. They are looking for the least resistance, and I get it and that’s basically how I was until about age 22. It is sobering to see how much influence and responsibility I have as a parent, and I worry how my influence now will be viewed later in their lives. I sometimes wish I had more rebellious /independent kids.
I honestly can’t think of a time I felt coerced by my parents. My parents are just great I guess and also I was a good kid who didn’t do dumb stuff – it’s possible my siblings felt more parental coercion. Any coercion I felt was just secondary coercion from the church because my family was all-in on the church. The church, however … coercive without you realizing it because it controls your information so you think you’re using agency to make your own choices but if you’re making choices within a pre-defined worldview IMO they aren’t choices. That is true coercion and quite tricky (if well-meaning) because it doesn’t *feel* like coercion.
As for me coercing my kids, I struggle on this line too. When am I giving them good advice or making them do something that I know is good for them because they are too young to make certain choices. Some of my kids would sit in the basement playing video games all day and eating junk food if left to their own devices (but they don’t wear crocs, they’d be eating candy not hot dogs, and our video games aren’t super violent so it’s not totally John Charity Spring-level). Like, they just would. Others would make better uses of their time. They are just wired differently. I do think I would be abdicating parental responsibility to permit the former in the name of non-coercion and it wouldn’t be loving or good for them.
I’ve got two kids right now that don’t want to go to church. One is 14 and I’m kinda like – that’s probably old enough to decide. One is 10 and I think mostly just wants to do what his older sibling wants to do and I’m not so sure and think maybe he needs more exposure. I’ve got another who is all-in and I’m having the exact opposite problem where I kind of want her to scale it back and she is about to enter YW and I know she’s going to want to go do temple baptisms and I don’t really want her to (bc I think temple recommend interviews are coercive) but then am I being coercive by telling her I don’t think she’s ready yet if she thinks she is and forcing her to avoid church practices that I think are coercive but she doesn’t!?!?!?
Parenting is hard.
@food allergy I’ve been thinking about your comment a lot. 3 of 4 my kids are super willful and independent and it sure seems like I couldn’t coerce them no matter how hard I tried so I honestly kind of laugh about topics like this. But I think I probably do have more influence than I know, they just pretend I don’t, and your comment made me think about how I need to be mindful of that.
I also remembered an experience growing up that’s stuck with me. There was a family in our neighborhood who I *would* characterize as very coercive. Coercive in a loving way – but coercive and conformist. They were *that* family who had a dozen perfect kids and read their scriptures every day and went to the temple every week and oh boy didn’t everyone know it?
Anyway, one time I was in their home during scripture study. The dad asked a question and I answered “free agency.” He very quickly put me in my place and clarified that no, we do *not* have “free” agency. We have *moral* agency. We do not have agency to choose whatever we want. We are only given agency to make correct decisions.
So, yeah, that was weird.
The best parenting advice I ever received (and this is when my kids were less than 10 years old) was from the wife of a bishop who had teenagers at the time. Her advice: “Pick your battles”. Her daughters were in church every Sunday and appeared to be good kids but modesty (in terms of clothing) was not one of their things. My wife and I imagined the bishop and his wife being happy that they were together at church every Sunday and if the price to be paid was mini skirts and tank tops so be it.
My wife and I tried very hard to pick our battles with our kids and I believe it really paid off. We never had the terrible stage with our teenagers because we didn’t freak out over minor infractions. And our kids talk very openly with us (especially with my wife). My advice to all young parents: PICK YOUR BATTLES
I felt more coercion from the church to obey my parents than I felt from my parents to obey my parents, and as many of you know, my parents were abusive jerks. I used to hate lessons about “obey God the same way you obey your parents because God loves you and would never ask you to do anything that is not best for you. Just like your parents may make you go to bed when you really don’t want to, God will never ask you to do anything that is not what is best.” Well, when your parents are using their authority as parents abusively, and the church constantly tells you your parents will NEVER make you do things that are not best for you, and God is the same way, it is just a promise that God is as abusive as your parents.
As far as people at church not understanding free agency, when I was in the Young Women presidency, I heard some horrible comments about it. Things like, “When I see these new precious and pure and innocent beehives join YW, I wish that I could keep them just as pure and innocent forever.” Yup, that was Satan’s plan. Another comment was, “we have to make the right choice so obvious that the kids have no choice.” Then there was a discussion between parents where they were discussing the use of pressure to get their teens to obey church guidelines and exactly how much pressure/force to apply. The conclusion was “as much as it took.” Some of their tactics they were discussing crossed the line into abuse, but they agreed it was not too much if that was what it took.
I never felt coerced at all growing up, nor did I feel indoctrinated for that matter. I felt like my parents would teach a principle, then invite us to test it. I felt the Church youth/SS programs and seminary did likewise. Going purely off the bloggernacle, one would think I was an extreme outlier, but I found most of my extended family on both sides seemed to be raised mostly similarly, as did most of my friends. Most remain active.
I did have just one or two friends growing up in which I did feel their parents were more on the coercive side. I found out later in life, however, that the father in one of these families refused to allow his kids to be baptized until he felt like they were fully willing and ready, which I thought was kind of ironic. I found out it did put him at odds with the Stake Presidency at times, and that his membership was on a razor’s edge more than once.
I wish I believed that the Church did this for the good individual but I feel like they only have the Church’s interest at heart.
Elisa: “Parenting is hard.” Understatement of the century. Having just had both kids leave the nest, so to speak, I’ve been thinking a bit about this. I do feel like both kids got baptized because they had to and I deeply regret not respecting their integrity enough to notice that and do something about it. The lie we tell ourselves about how 8 is the age of accountability is really sickening. No 8-year old is able to understand and consent to the significance of all that comes with baptism. We really need to stop that practice.
I no longer feel coerced at church. I’ve grown into a less zealous, more pragmatic and nuanced faith and have found that that really works for me. I definitely felt coerced at church when I was a brand new convert at BYU. I was completely ignorant of the differences between Utah/Mormon culture and actual stuff that Jesus would probably like me to do/not do. I was rather easily swayed to do what everyone else was doing: No R rated movies, no rock and roll, no music on Sundays except for the MoTab, etc. Fortunately, I swiftly grew out of such nonsense (thanks mainly to Van Halen).
I think you really do put your finger on something when you talk about humility. For an institution and a group of people who are supposedly humble disciples of Christ, we get awfully self righteous and prescriptive awfully quickly when it comes to telling other people what will improve their lives. We really need to stop that. And as a follow up to the first part of my post re the parenting thing: I’m glad my kids turned out to be the wonderful people they are. They stopped being invested as teenagers (stopped going to seminary about halfway through high school) and no longer attend church, but they took a good deal of positive things taught at church, things like kindness, love, etc. that they really are good kids. I was never the kind to want my kids to perform righteousness and obedience in front of others and I hope that’s one of the few things I’ve done right as a parent. I’m grateful for the positive things that the church provided them and I’m grateful to their youth leaders, who were mostly much less prescriptive and narrow-minded than a lot of church youth leaders I’ve met. I think it’s a shame that many members equate open-mindedness and tolerance with some kind of moral weakness or lack of commitment; being humble enough to realize we’re basically as full of crap as everyone else would go a long way to stop coercion generally in a church context.
I would not say that I was coerced on any major decisions by my parents for the most part, but I wouldn’t say that I made a choice to be baptized. Getting baptized, getting the priesthood, passing the sacrament, etc are the default options; you have to make an effort not to do them. At least that was my experience. Seminary as well, since it was release time. If it had been early morning seminary that would have been different.
One thing that I did only because my parents made me was Boy Scouts. Ick. For about half my time in the program I did not feel safe going on camp outs. Sometimes that was because the other boys were bullies. Sometimes, particularly in a certain high adventure camp, it was because I didn’t trust that they were taking appropriate safety precautions. In any case I still went camping with them because my parents wanted me to go. Once I was 16 I got a job made sure I was scheduled to work instead of going camping with the priests.
And serving a mission. I was not pressured by my parents to serve a mission, but going to college in Utah I absolutely felt the social pressure that the choice was between serving a mission or leaving the LDS community entirely. It did not seem feasible to attend church, date, or participate socially with the LDS crowd if I didn’t serve a mission. And I didn’t want to experiment with the other half student body that was not LDS. I expected to be shunned if I didn’t do the mission. That probably wouldn’t have happened, but that’s how I felt.
Well SOMETHING pushes teenagers into hanging out at 7-11’s and obsessive viewing of cat videos, and no doubt that “something” was learned at home. Then again those cat vids are generally preferable to, say, DRINKING GREEN TEA so maybe we shouldn’t be too critical….
There are other things that seem to be attempts to pressure adults. Coerce might be too strong of a word, but pressure seems an appropriate description.
– issuing callings in person, in front of the spouse or family, without saying over the phone what the meeting is to be about
– tithing settlement seems okay until it isn’t. Bringing the whole family in to an unnecessary meeting too made sure each person announces their status in fake-privacy with the family.
– temple Sacred-secrecy – you don’t know what you’re getting into until you are there
My parents were not really into coercion, but it seemed other parents in our LDS sphere were. So, my parents made it a requirement for me to attend early morning seminary in order to keep my driving privileges, because that’s what all the other parents in the ward were doing, and it worked. My parents, however, were not so much motivated by possible spiritual benefits for me, but were tired of getting up early to drive me themselves. Never mind that the early mornings were taking a toll on my physical and mental health, and I was basically a zombie in high school.
My parents also never pressured me about serving a mission, which also seemed to be the exception more than the rule. They always made it clear that it was my choice and mine alone, that school/work/military/peace corps were also honorable paths and they would lovingly support me in any of them. The only “dishonorable” path in their eyes was staying put and being lazy and unproductive. However, my YM leaders and bishop were very pushy and coercive about missions to all of us boys. One leader even had a running countdown calendar showing how many days remaining until each boy’s 19th birthday, and kept it up to date and prominently displayed on the wall of the bishop’s office, labeled “XX days until your mission papers are due!” This manipulation was so distasteful to me (and caused cognitive dissonance when compared with my parents’ agency-respecting approach) that I decided not to serve a mission, and continued my studies instead. If I had gone, it would have been for the wrong reasons. Being on the west coast, there wasn’t any outside social pressure to go on a mission, and I was enjoying college way too much to interrupt it. Many of my contemporaries who did end up serving were the ones who gave in to the coercion and strong-arming, which included carrots (promises of cars or school tuition) and sticks (family disgrace, threats of disownment, threats of limited marriage prospects). Some of those guys had no business being missionaries at all, and I’m not sure if they were better because of it. In hindsight I don’t regret my decision; as an introvert, high-pressure door-to-door sales would have destroyed me emotionally and spiritually.
And amen to all the other mentions of LDS coercion–tithing, temple stuff, accepting callings, etc. If these things were so awesome, why do we feel like manipulation is the only way to get people on board?
I think I underestimated how coercive the BYU environment has become. It was always more coercive than I liked, but it’s gotten 10x as coercive since I graduated in 1992. It’s hard for kids who’ve experienced normal decision making freedom to go into that environment where every action and thought is subject to policing by peers, landlords, student ward bishops, and administration. Having to complete an annual ecclesiastical endorsement is a big part of that problem, including the fact that church attendance is mandatory and policed or you get kicked out and lose credits. None of these these things instill confidence in the organization. If you have to force people to attend church, it’s natural that you are going to invest less in making church a place people want to be. You don’t have to care about the user experience when you run a monopoly that is state enforced. As bad as BYU can be, the MTC was a thousand times worse than that! Getting into the mission field felt like being released from prison.
I certainly felt coerced into attending BYU (the only place my parents were willing to pay for completely), although I wonder if they would have assisted if I had gone elsewhere. Everything else was just so much more expensive. I didn’t really feel coerced to attend church or seminary, but there was pressure from peers and leaders that I was able to withstand and make my own choices. Attending BYU led to my going on a mission which I can’t regret and see as an overall positive in my life. If I hadn’t gone to BYU, there’s almost no chance I would have done that, but we can’t know what we would have done in an alternate universe either. Would that path have been worse or better? Probably both. No matter what we choose, things end up being a mixed bag. I don’t believe that there is just one path a life can take. We make our choices, and those choices reveal us to ourselves and help us grow and learn (or sometimes the opposite).
Let me be absolutely clear. Agency is a legal concept that is misused by many uneducated Gospel Doctrine instructors. The correct use of the term is to say “free agency.” This means that one is able to make choices to benefit oneself. “Agency” alone means that one is an agent—bound to make decisions that benefit the principal.
In addition, this doctrine is misunderstood by the younger generation of parents. They seem to think that any “teaching” whatsoever amounts to “coercion.” They leave their children untaught and uncounseled in even the most important areas of life.
Children left to their own devices will inevitably be influenced by the modern media. They will imitate the violence and wanton sexuality they see. Is there any wonder why the violent crime rate is skyrocketing?
I agree that parents must not take away decision-making from their children. We have a legion of adult children living in their parents’ basements already. But parents must provide counsel if they wish to avoid adding their children to the hordes who behave in such a way as to put even the most rowdy Russian Princess to shame.
Angela beat me to the punch, but I was going to mention that the BYU experience in the late 90’s/early 00’s was very coercive.
When I a freshman, it was mission mission mission.
When I was a sophomore and junior, it was marriage marriage marriage.
I thought it would stop there, but it didn’t. During my senior and master’s year, it was babies babies babies.
I fell in line with the first two but adamantly put my foot down on the third one. I had seen all my older siblings start families in college and they were tired, miserable people. And everyone in my married student ward would say they loved having honeymoon babies, but I smelled a rat. It really felt like a misery loves company situation.
The reality is, I still had the four kids I always intended to have, just 5 years delayed from all my siblings and peers. It really chaps my hide that this is still a thing.
In terms of parenting, I really struggled with the pandemic. I wanted my kids to get vaccinated, and they all have, but I don’t doubt there was some level of influence there. Thankfully I don’t feel completely to blame; my community is around 80% vaccinated so most of their friends were getting jabbed too. But I did genuinely want them to feel like they had some autonomy here, notwithstanding that they are still little and mostly uneducated on the subject.
Great post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have recently reached out to friends to help me understand how to teach my kids the gospel without being coercive. Being a parent is hard.
-My parents are very loving and kind individuals, who taught us of a loving and kind God/Christ who love us unconditionally. YES- I try to be like this and teach this to my kids.
-My parents taught us the “moral agency” nonsense that Elisa mentioned. We are only given agency to make correct decisions. I not only felt that I shouldn’t make “bad” choices, but that I “couldn’t” make them. From the time I learned about the Amish rumspringa, I’ve been envious, and have considered doing a rumspringa as an adult because I feel I missed out on a lot of experiences when I was younger. NO- I do not teach my kids moral agency. We teach them “This is what the church teaches, this is how we feel about it- but the choice really is yours, and of course you’ll be loved and accepted no matter what you choose. (This is largely due to my wife helping me not be coercive).
-The teaching that I don’t know how I feel about, or how I should proceed with my own kids, is a strong sense of family pride/identity. We were taught, “We’re __(insert prominent LDS surname)___, and we are a force for good. There are things we don’t do, and things we do do. We work hard, we serve others, we do good, we go on missions, we get married in the temple, etc…” I feel like I benefitted from having a sense of who I am and where I came from. And my siblings and I all became successful productive members of society, so it seems to have borne good fruits. But at the same time, I definitely do things out of obligation to my family name/history. I feel the weight of expectations. I cringed when I read the quote in the post that said “Plus, if all of us are children obeying parents, it’s turtles all the way down. Who are we ultimately obeying here? Some long-dead millenia old ancestor who lived in a completely different world that no longer exists? That stung.
I’m conflicted because even outside of the church, sociological studies have shown that individuals who know their family history are better adjusted, show more resiliency in the face of adversity, and have greater confidence. I feel that. I’ve gained strength from knowing that my grandfathers were good men who lived good lives and overcame adversity, and their fathers, and theirs, back to the pioneers. That’s my heritage. -So YES. I want to teach this, but I’m not sure where the line is that it switches from becoming a source of strength, to a source of coercion (don’t become the weak link in this chain of great people). I’m open to hearing suggestions. Thanks.
I teach at a high school in Utah. We were told by an administrator we could not encourage our students to wear masks because that would be “coercive.” I sometimes worry about Utah Mormons. Encouraging students to follow CDC and First Presidency advice is “coercive.” Mandating youth morality interviews and seminary attendance is not.
That “moral agency” nonsense is circular logic that hides coercion in plain site, and it always reminds me of the Reed Smoot testimony about the Law of Sarah. He was being asked whether women’s consent was taken into account when their husbands could just marry and bed other women regardless. His explanation was that their “consent” only had affirmative power, that refusing to give their consent didn’t change the outcome. When his inquisitors were outraged and asked how this qualified as “consent,” he just explained that they could consent, and if they didn’t consent, they just didn’t consent.
Unfortunately, I think there are still quite a few people who think this is an acceptable definition of what consent means.
Allow me to elucidate the differences between different kinds of agency.
First of all, JCS is correct that “agency” standing alone is not a useful term on the context of the gospel. However, his advocacy of “free agency” is misguided. The Church moved away from “free agency” because people were conflating it with “free will”–a concept that is divorced from consequences. (They threw a number of earlier presidents of the Church under the bus in the process, but oh well.) But there was a better reason to move away from “free agency”–namely, that confirmed members of the Church don’t have it. Consider Max Sherzer. When the World Series ended, he became a free agent, eligible to sign with any team. A month later, he signed with the Mets and is no longer a free agent. He still has his free will–he can play well for the Mets, he can play poorly for the Mets, or he can not play at all for the Mets. But he cannot play for another team. The same concept holds for confirmed members of the Church, although it is not enforced so literally–we have signed on with a team and that team is not going to teach you that it is OK to play for someone else.
So the Church needed a term that linked freely-chosen actions to consequences and (given that I have dismissed “agency” standing alone as a viable option) “moral agency” is the winning term. It does not now, nor has it ever meant that one is not free to make “immoral” choices. What it means is that one cannot make immoral choices without consequences. Perhaps some parents imposed abusive consequences to influence the choice. Shame on them. But that is on the parents, not on the concept, which is in no way nefarious.
@lastlemming I appreciate your comments, but I still don’t think I understand what teaching your definition of moral agency looks like in practice. Is it like instead of signing with the Mets, “You’ve signed on with the Mormons, so these are the choices that are available to you now. ?” That doesn’t sound right, and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but I think that’s how many people interpret it. You clarify that “What it means is that one cannot make immoral choices without consequences.” I think most people believe that rather they’re are members of the church or not, or have ever even thought of the terms free agency/moral agency. So I’m not sure what you are saying, Is it more of a “You’ve signed on with the Mormons, so based on our understanding- these choices lead to these outcomes. And as a member of this team, these are the expectations.” As part of moral agency would you actively teach- “You are free to ignore the expectations, that’s your choice, but these are the natural consequences? It’s your life, go live it.” ?
I truly am not trying to criticize, just understand, since I am still working this out in my mind.
Eli — you could pretty much be describing my family. My dad made me wait a few months to be baptized. In the meantime, he gave me long lectures about doctrine, which just confused me. In hindsight, I think he wanted to satisfy himself that he’d given me a real choice, but ultimately, having been told all my life that this was the true church, what else was there for me to decide? I didn’t care if we thought the Trinity was one or three people; I was cool whichever scenario I was told to believe. I’ve told my children simply that baptism means being a member of this church, and a decision to be a Christian. Anything else someone says it is feels like sneaking stuff into an already signed contract.
I had similar feelings as Anna about being told to honor my abusive parents. My dad was clear that disobeying him was defying God himself. He liked to “joke” that they reason the promise of living long in the land attached to the 5th commandment was because parents could kill you for dishonoring them. With my parents in mind, my bro-in-law recently commented to a teen he teaches that the spirit can tell you if your parents are right or wrong about something, because parents aren’t perfect. This badly offended the teen’s parents. But it would’ve meant the world to me if I had heard that at church even once. My parents were coercive, to the extent that it rarely occurred to me that there were options besides doing what they wanted. I was always a bit jealous of kids who were bribed to do the “right” thing rather than imagine what awful hell awaited them at home if they didn’t.
What bothers me is that a discussion of “moral agency” often accompanies coercive attempts to “guilt” a person into accepting a calling. Expectations can be coercive. Refusing a calling can be a very moral, righteous decision. A refusal can protect vital family time, personal sanity, or allow one to avoid situations that one may discern and the local leader may not. Coercion should not be employed in extending callings.
So I’m not sure what you are saying
Let me try it this way using smoking as an example and focusing solely on ecclesiastic consequences:
Free will–I can choose to smoke.
True free agency (i.e., exercised by someone who has made no religious covenants)–I can choose to smoke and suffer no ecclesiastic consequences.
False free agency (i.e., exercised by a confirmed Mormon)–I can choose to smoke and my free agency should protect me from any ecclesiastic consequences.
Moral agency exercised by a confirmed Mormon–I can choose to smoke, but by doing so will suffer ecclesiastic consequences.
This is oversimplified, but I don’t have time to go into greater detail.
Though my parents were pretty rigid, I would say growing up female in UT, surrounded everywhere by fellow Mormons, they didn’t need to be coercive.
We got a steady stream of what was expected from our environment. I am/was grateful they let me make my own choice about where to go to college. Though my 2 best friends went to BYU, that was the last place I wanted to go. I wanted to become an adult—not go where they have rules for rules sake—like what kind of pants one can wear etc.
I haven’t lived in UT since I graduated from college.
Hawkeye, we mostly raised our children in a county next to you. I would say the church environment there was at least as coercive as UT. Our ward boundaries covered 5 different school districts. Early morning seminary meant a 20 min drive on winding roads through the woods.
We never pressured our children to serve missions. I felt they needed to make that decision. I remember one day my oldest son saying, “you are going to make me go on a mission.” I was shocked he would think that—but I told him “no, that is your decision to make, only you can make that decision.” He didn’t go, and went onto college (not BYU).
Our next son, decided to go, I think because his Mormon girlfriend wanted him to go. But he was the one I thought serving a mission would be very difficult—he was very introverted, bordering on social phobia. Well, he ended up coming home early struggling with depression, and then went back to BYU.
We moved to the West Coast when our youngest was in middle school. Found the church to be coercive. He attended early morning seminary but didn’t get a graduation certificate because 1) they didn’t accurately record his attendance and 2) he didn’t do the make-up work required when he was more than 5 minutes late. So, if you were 10 minutes late every day, at the end of the week you needed to do a assignment that would take you 30 minutes.
He chose not to serve a mission and not to attend BYU. Several ward members said negative things to him ( and me) about his choice. Never mind he was a good person—(and salutatorian of his graduating class). We had hope he would get involved in the Church Institute next to the college campus. He did. But that ended when, once again, coercive members/leaders made his non-Mormon girlfriend feel unwelcome and basically. told him he was screwing up his life.
Well, he graduated, married, and now that lovely girl is a member of our family.
Btw. I attended diligently seminary but was denied my having graduated from seminary. Why? Because I did not attend seminary graduation. Why? Because I was scheduled to work. I was at work. Even when my mother tried to get it for me, she was denied.
My youngest says church was emotionally damaging to him. I agree, and it saddens me.
(I do wonder if the church is a more coercive and corrosive environment for males than females, because of the patriarchy and authoritarian environment).
@Lois I’m puzzled by your comment on coercion for males vs females. If anything I think it would be the opposite because men have the institutional power and women are supposed to be heartening and all that.
I will say that the one benefit to being a second-class citizen at Church is that women have less to lose by stepping down in activity and doing things that may get then in trouble with authority. I don’t have to face issues of whether I’ll be able to baptize or ordain my kids cause I can’t do that anyway. I know that’s a real trouble spot for men so I guess in that sense I feel less coerced now, but that’s only after I’ve done a ton of work deprogramming my brain. Because as I said in my initial comment – controlling available information, controlling the set of acceptable choices, purporting to have the only truth and the one path to happiness, claiming to have *the* spokesperson for God on the earth, controlling access to rituals and ordinances that we claim are necessary for exaltation and to be with our families for eternity … that stuff is all quite coercive.
That’s really the point of Tara Westover’s book Educated, right? You can’t really choose to be who you want to be if you aren’t given good information. Of course we can never have perfect information, that’s impossible. But I do think we can do better than a narrative of the One True Church and Moral Agency and honor codes and shunning and faith audits.
*hearkening not heartening but I guess I never paid much attention to that anyway …
“ @Lois I’m puzzled by your comment on coercion for males vs females. If anything I think it would be the opposite because men have the institutional power and women are supposed to be heartening and all that.”
I think it can be coercive for both male and females—but in different ways.
There are many more rigidly defined roles men are expected to embrace and ascend to—scouting, priesthood offices, missions etc. Some of that has changed recently with dropping scouting. If men don’t align with that trajectory, where do they fit?
(Within the church all women are in the same boat—denied any power).
@Lois that does make a lot of sense. Women have more flexibility as long as they get married and have babies.
For LDS men, the decision on a mission is huge. Active parents often push very hard, asserting it isn’t really a choice, citing President Kimball and others. There are LDS parents who dress their boy babies in pseudo-missionary garb, force savings for the future mission and create immense pressure to leave at 18 (often with a combination of threats/rewards, potential shame, on the kid and their family, etc..). Yet, most :LDS males still don’t go and many drift away accordingly.. Of those who do go, many simply don’t fit the mission culture of publicly soliciting people, the lack of privacy and the regimentation – – resulting in many coming home early. On top of that is the idea pushed to LDS women to marry a missionary, further isolating those who resist or return early. And, any LDS male in their 20s is constantly asked about their mission and again isolated if they didn;t goi. Whether a mission is positive or negative for particular individuals depends. But, the line drawing in this issue results in student wards tilted heavily female and many males who just decide leaving is the better option. Missions aren’t for everyone but parents and leaders refusal to back away is destructive in so many cases.
John Charity Spring: “Agency” alone means that one is an agent—bound to make decisions that benefit the principal.
No. “Agency” alone means that one is an agent [true] bound to make decisions that benefit the principal [false]. The agent acts according to the will of the principal. The principal directs and the agent acts in the principal’s best interests.
Every place where the scriptures say that man is an agent says that men are “agents unto themselves”; therefore, each individual is both the agent and the principal. We act for ourselves, following our own will and bound by and accountable for our actions.
“I would not say that I was coerced on any major decisions by my parents for the most part, but I wouldn’t say that I made a choice to be baptized. Getting baptized, getting the priesthood, passing the sacrament, etc are the default options; you have to make an effort not to do them.”
I really like this framing of the “right” church choice often being the default option. This was how I experienced most “choices,” growing up in Utah Valley. I don’t recall getting baptized being a choice at all. It was just the thing that was going to happen next to me because I was eight and that’s what happened to eight-year-olds. It was the same with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and YM activities, where the default was to participate. There, I actually disliked the activities enough to stop going, but it took an active choice on my part, where if I had just chosen the default option, I would have gone. I went on a mission because it was the default option, not really because of any particular pressure from my parents or the Church (although there was for sure some pressure at church).
This idea reminds me of Thaler and Sunstein’s book “Nudge,” which as I remember it is about framing decisions so people will make better choices (better in the sense that they end up happier with what they’ve chosen). They talk a lot about defaults, and whether people end up happier with opting in versus option out of a choice. For example, you get a lot more organ donation if you just make everyone a donor by default and require people to opt out of it rather than when you require them to opt in. Anyway, I think in a Church context, parents probably think they’re doing a good thing when they make getting baptized, going to seminary, going on a mission, etc. the default choices for their kids. They figure that making those choices will make their kids happier in the long run. As a parent now of two sons who are old enough to have served traditional proselytizing missions, neither of whom has done so, I’m glad that they didn’t feel like it was the default that they should go along with. Or at least that they felt like they could opt out even if they did see it as the default.
But even if I don’t prefer missions as a default option, it’s hard (or maybe impossible) to parent without giving kids *any* default options. So I’m not sure what to conclude other than that I agree with Elisa that parenting is hard.
How is signing with the Mets an apt comparison to an 8yo being baptized a Mormon?
My spouse’ sister does a lot of genealogy. When she found ancestor after ancestor who were King men, it chafed her. There was an inherent shame in their ancestors not siding with the revolutionaries. I think she eventually found one who did. Yay.
At least growing up in Utah, you just “know” which other kids are Mormon, and which are not. Now when I make a connection that some of those who were not actually do have ancestors with standard (even notable) Mormon pioneer lines, I wonder about which of their ancestors broke the link.
I didn’t really recognize the inherent pressures within Mormonism when I was fully in.
Now I feel qualified to respond to Jana Riess’ (hopefully) upcoming research.
Growing up I genuinely wanted to please my parents. Hence I genuinely wanted to do the things that believing LDS parents ask of their kids. But the thought crossed my mind about what would happen if I opted not to serve a mission. Would my parents cut off support somehow? What would my ward/community think of me? Even though I wanted to serve a mission, I sensed that for me that it wasn’t really a full choice that I had. The pressure on young men to serve missions in Provo during the 1990s was intense. There was definitely a pressure system reinforced by the high leadership of the church, even if it didn’t necessarily amount to full coercion.
Growing up in Davis County, Utah, and attending a high school that was north of 95 percent Mormon, there was no need for overt coercion. Religious expectations were just endemic to the community we lived in. I knew my parents wanted me to serve a mission so I could serve as an example to three younger brothers, and I ultimately decided to go because I did not have the sense of self or personal conviction necessary to say no. The mission was a tremendous struggle, and I was never really converted to the church after my initial visit to the temple. But now, in hindsight, I see going on a mission as a great growth experience. I’m glad I did it, though not for any reason having to do with faith and belief.
Yes, the MTC experience is nothing but coercion, but the mission itself is also designed to break down the individual and then rebuild them as a devout church member who will toe the line and remain committed for life. Having not ever served in the military, I still feel it utilizes components of military training strategy. You take young men (mostly) at their most suggestive and insecure and remove all by which they define themselves: clothes, music, hairstyle, their first names. You create a situation where they have few options but to embrace the only structure they have–the mission and fellow missionaries. It has been an effective formula for creating committed members, but with fewer young people going and perhaps less social stigma with returning early, it may be waning in effectiveness.
jaredsbrother, well said. The mission is a highly coercive environment full of all sorts of shaming, guilt-tripping, monitoring, and other high pressure mechanisms. Many critics say that the church is a cult. I don’t necessarily think it is. But the mission most certainly is a cult environment.
I suspect the reason Church leaders lowered the age for missionaries was to increase the number of missionaries ie better to send them out right after they graduate from high school before they get involved in college etc.
However, I wonder if that has just increased the number leaving their missions early.
I wonder how those who return early do? Do they stay involved with the church? Do they suffer from depression or other problems afterward?
How are they treated by local leaders and members?
I have always been intrigued by the idea if I were left to my own decision-making as an adolescent the world would swallow me up, that I wouldn’t stand a chance out there. There always seemed to be a belief, even, that regardless of my ability to make good choices, the world was like a virus and if I were infected nothing could save me. Despite demonstrating I regularly made decisions my parents approved of, I was never really free to choose. For example, choosing to serve as mission was my choice, as long as I chose to serve a mission. Going to BYU was my decision, as long as I chose to attend BYU. My parents were orthodox and this was the model that seemed universal and obvious in the church. I chuckle a bit when I reflect back on how I pressed these boundaries. One example: I was entirely unprepared for my mother’s reaction when I wore a blue shirt to church. I admit it was a subtle counter signal, but it wasn’t subtle to her!
Commenters have done a great job of teasing out the problems associated with parental coercion in our high demand religious culture. I’ll suggest part of the problem is we only teach obedience. Rule following. We don’t teach moral philosophy, we don’t talk about Judeo-Christian ethics. I think parents (and the church) may not want to better understand ‘free agency’ or ‘moral decision making’ because that might make children (and adult members) logical and more difficult to engage. Your dealing with an educated audience and it’s going to be more difficult to manage. When an adolescent asks “Why?” it’s always easier as a parent to say “because I said so.” But that doesn’t develop individuals capable of effectively understanding life’s paradoxes and moral dilemmas. I don’t believe the institutional church sees value in educating its members to be more independently thinking either.
There is another problem in our culture. I observe that a root of the problem of coercion is the fact that the institutional church puts its needs ahead of its members’ needs (see Pournelle’s Iron Clad Law of Bureaucracy). A Young Women’s leader is often more interesting in having the needs of her leadership mandate met than she is working for the long-term benefit and growth of an individual young woman. (I’m making a general observation knowing there are exceptions.) A bishop pressures a young man who is not ready to serve a mission because of the mandate from his stake president that all of his young men serve missions–the bishop’s priorities are wrongly placed but institutionally rewarded. This stifles not only the young man’s decision making but his sense of ownership over his own actions.
Lois: That’s funny that we grew up in areas so close to one another, but had such different experiences. I definitely didn’t finish seminary when they switched to Early Morning, although my biggest beef was polygamy which I was told I had to accept or I couldn’t be a Mormon. But they graduated me anyway. I wondered if my parents talked them into it. It was not something I wanted or asked for, but maybe they had to show I graduated for me to get into BYU. Who knows? I often suspected that. I also did not attend the graduation, but that’s because I hadn’t been back since January of that year.
On the mission age change, I had heard another reason to lower the age was that outside the US school system, 19 was a huge life disruption, derailing someone’s academics. In the US, you don’t have to declare a major, and you can putz around and do whatever you like, take a gap year or more, go back in when you want. That’s not the case for most European higher education systems, so they had to send them at 18, which I guess worked for them. Not to fuel JCS’s fire, but I suspect that it’s not working as well for Americans because of our culture of perpetual childhood. We do indeed prefer playing Animal Crossing (not really violent video games so much) and binge watching Bridgerton to “adulting.” And really, who wouldn’t? We just allow that delayed maturation culturally more than other countries.
Many great comments here. Good to read of your experiences. Here is mine: I grew up in Utah in a ward where all the young men were active, so the coercion I experienced was mostly related to scouts. There was a stake high councilor whose job was to grill boys every other month about their progress to Eagle. My father set a rule that I would be grounded in my bedroom for the full interval between courts of honor unless I got every rank advancement as quickly as possible. I was scared of him and his anger and I complied. I also knew that the high councilor would never speak to me again once I made Eagle, and I was right about that.
I chose to be a much more relaxed with my kids. Two of them who are now young adults and not attending church have come to talk with me about how they felt just going to church and experiencing the repeated indoctrination in young women’s was damaging. I gave them both a copy of Luna Lindsey Corbden’s book and a heartfelt apology as they try to work through their experience being a child in a high demand religion.