In General Conference two weeks ago, Elder Uchtdorf announced a new For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, designed to replace the version that has been in place since 2011. Many are hailing this iteration as a massive improvement over the last–and I agree. This is not mere wordsmithing but a very different approach both in terms of how guidance is presented (more principles than rules) and in eliminating some of the particularly problematic issues in the 2011 version.
I did a very close comparison of the two. I already talked about one troubling change last week, and now I’m tackling the rest. It’s impossible to do a line-by-line because the topics are organized very differently, but I grouped all of the similar topics together and compared the versions. Here are some of my thoughts on key topics–I left out some that were just not that interesting–and I would love to hear yours!
- Topics & Overall Approach
The first major difference is evident in the Table of Contents and throughout the text. The 2011 version is a prescriptive set of rules around 19 specific topics including Dating, Dress, Friends, Language, Sexual Purity, Tithing, etc. The 2022 version has only 7 sections that are organized around principles instead of topics and focus a lot more on principles and guidelines than on specific rules and standards. The 2022 version has a lot of sections containing questions for teens to ask themselves as they are making decisions–without dictating the answers. I really like this approach, which is by itself a huge improvement. This will be evident in some of the specific topic discussions below.
In addition, although unintentional, the way that the 2011 topics are organized alphabetically leaves the impression that Dress and Appearance, for example, is one of the top topics; repentance is buried in the last 1/3. The first several topics in the 2022 version, by contrast, are much more inspiring and encouraging than the 2011 version.
Having said that, there is still a component that is really missing here. I agree that decisions should be driven by values and principles rather than nit-picky rules. The 2022 version goes a step in this direction. But it still dictates to readers *what* their values should be instead of guiding them through a discovery process where they can determine their *own* values, the principles that support those values, and the behaviors and choices that would follow from that (and that will necessarily differ, potentially significantly, person to person). In addition, while the guide purports not to give youth answers to questions, some of them seem pretty implied with leading questions.
Here’s one similarity: neither mentions Heavenly Mother. The 2022 version uses the term “heavenly parents” one time, and “Heavenly Father” 23 times. (Relatedly, there were zero–zero–uses of the term “Heavenly Parents” or “Heavenly Mother” in the most recent General Conference, reversing a trend that had seen increase use of the terms until Renlund’s April smackdown.)
- Agency & Accountability
Both pamphlets contain a discussion of agency, and the 2022 discussion of agency is an improvement over 2011.
The 2011 version included a lot of fear-based language: “While you are free to choose your course of action, you are not free to choose the consequences. Whether for good or bad, consequences follow as a natural result of the choices you make. Some sinful behavior may bring temporary worldly pleasure, but such choices delay your progress and lead to heartache and misery. Righteous choices lead to lasting happiness and eternal life. Remember, true freedom comes from using your agency to choose obedience; loss of freedom comes from choosing disobedience.”
2022, by contrast, overall focuses on the joy and happiness that comes from making good choices; emphasizes that these are guidelines, not a list of rules; and I think overall displays more trust in and respect for the youth. I particularly like the line “Your Heavenly Father trusts you.” It’s a much more positive and encouraging message than “don’t screw up or it’ll ruin your life.”
The 2011 version dedicates six paragraphs to dating; the 2022 version only one. There are two major improvements in 2022.
First, the 2011 version is outdated and sexist–stating that “[Y]oung men generally take initiative in asking for and planning dates.” Umm, Bumble much? Not only is this a little ridiculous, but I honestly don’t know what it’s doing in a religious publication.
Second, the 2022 version is far less prescriptive. The 2011 version sets the infamous 16 year floor on dating (“You should not date until you are at least 16 years old”) in addition to a lot of other rules: “When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality. Invite your parents to become acquainted with those you date.”
While some of those aim towards good outcomes, I like the more principle-based approach in 2022: “The best way to get to know others is through genuine friendship. While you are young, build good friendships with many people. In some cultures, youth get to know members of the opposite sex through wholesome group activities. For your emotional and spiritual development and safety, one-on-one activities should be postponed until you are mature—age 16 is a good guideline. Counsel with your parents and leaders. Save exclusive relationships for when you are older. Spend time with those who help you keep your commitments to Jesus Christ.”
I can’t even tell you how many lessons and discussions I had growing up about “how many additional couples” or people were required to make a date consistent with these rules, or people who judged kids who went on dates before age 16 (so the poor kids who were really young for their grades missed out on a lot of social activities). Those silly discussions take away from the more important considerations in dating, which I think are much better addressed in the 2022 version: focus on building friendships, wait until you’re mature enough to date, wait until you’re mature enough for exclusive relationships. Those are all principles I can get behind and are going to differ from person-to-person.
- Dress and Appearance
The dress & grooming standards is one area getting a lot of attention, for good reason–the 2011 version was absolutely terrible. The 2022 version is a massive improvement and honestly throws into relief just how bad the previous version was.
The major issues in the 2011 version include:
- Detailed proscriptions about girls’ clothing with no countervailing counsel for boys. Girls were told, “Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner. Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back.” Boys were told “Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.” Apparently that means that boys can wear short shirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders. This sexualizes girls bodies; there is also victim-blaming language earlier in the section that warns that a person’s “dress and grooming influence the way you and others act,” feeding into the “she asked for it” myth.
- Vague advice to avoid “extreme” or “inappropriately casual” styles, which is vague, will vary tremendously by culture, and tends to a lead to a lot of judgment (i.e., judging harmless things like boys with long hair, funky-colored hair, etc.).
- The infamous, totally ridiculous, injunction against more than “one pair of earrings.”
The 2022 version is centered on guidelines and principles. It no longer includes prescriptive rules about girls’ clothing and earrings (or even tattoos! I wonder if that’s also a cultural thing). It doesn’t even use the word “modest”! Instead, it focuses on the principle of showing respect for our bodies.
I really can’t believe how bad the 2011 version is. I am glad it’s changed, but I am also mindful that there are many women speaking about how much those “standards” harmed them. (Here and here are good examples if you want to understand this more.)
- Entertainment, Media, and Pornography
Both pamphlets devote a fair amount of space to this topic–although the 2011 more. The 2022 changes focus on principles and guidelines and giving teens questions to ask themselves so that they can make their own decisions rather than more prescriptive advice: “As you make choices about what to watch, read, listen to, or participate in, think about how it makes you feel. Does it invite good thoughts?” The 2011 version, by contrast, seems more focused on warnings people about all of the ways that Satan uses the media to trick us. The 2022 version never even mentions Satan, and instead focuses primarily on using media in positive ways.
I like that the 2022 version addresses social media—not only that we should share uplifting content, but also that we should not compare ourselves to others on social media: “Social media can be a powerful communication tool. If you use it, focus on light, faith, and truth. Don’t compare your life to what other people seem to be experiencing. Remember that your worth comes from being a child of heavenly parents, not from social media.” And I like the 2022 advice to take breaks from screens to spend time in real life, but without shaming the use of screens.
The pornography portion is significantly improved. The 2011 version is incredibly discouraging to anyone who feels they have a pornography problem: “Pornography in all forms is especially dangerous and addictive. What may begin as an unexpected exposure or a curious exploration can become a destructive habit. Use of pornography is a serious sin and can lead to other sexual transgression. Avoid pornography at all costs. It is a poison that weakens your self-control, destroys your feelings of self worth, and changes the way you see others. It causes you to lose the guidance of the Spirit and can damage your ability to have a normal relationship with others, especially your future spouse. It limits your ability to feel true love. If you encounter pornography, turn away from it immediately.”
This is in my view an extremely fear- and shame-based way to talk about pornography and I think would leave people with the impression that they can never love or have a relationship if they view pornography–how discouraging and destructive! While I’m no fan of pornography, I think these claims are overblown and counterproductive.
The 2022 version is much shorter and somewhat less alarmist: “intentionally viewing pornography is sinful and harms your ability to feel the spirit. It weakens your self-control and distorts the way you see yourself and others.”
My one big issue with the 2022 version is the way pornography is defined: “Pornography is a representation, in pictures or words, that is designed to arouse sexual feelings.” I do not think that is a standard definition of pornography. I believe pornography is typically defined as printed or visual material that contains an explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity. To me this is an important distinction and a miss for the FSOY pamphlet for two reasons.
First, this is an over-inclusive definition that in my view may feed into the idea of girls-as-walking-pornography. Many things might “arouse sexual feelings” that are not pornography. An attractive person in a perfectly appropriate photo or film, or chaste but romantic song lyrics, or any other number of things could “arouse sexual feelings.” It is an imprecise and confusing definition that may end up causing more harm than good, particularly in people who struggle with scrupulosity and shame around sexual feelings.
Second, I just don’t see how we can say that we must avoid sexual feelings at all costs (by avoiding this loose definition of pornography) while at the same time saying that sexual feelings are sacred and God-given. Yes, I understand the arguments around channeling and controlling, but this remains somewhat shame-based and shame and sexual health cannot coexist.
I love the changes to the discussion on friends and friendships. The 2011 version focuses on needing friends with the same “values” or standards as us so that we aren’t corrupted by friends:
- “Everyone needs good and true friends. They will be a great strength and blessing to you. They will influence how you think and act, and even help determine the person you will become. They will help you be a better person and will make it easier for you to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Choose friends who share your values so you can strengthen and encourage each other in living high standards.”
- “As you seek to be a friend to others, do not compromise your standards. If your friends urge you to do things that are wrong, be the one to stand for the right, even if you stand alone. You may need to find other friends who will support you in keeping the commandments.”
I think that concept has led to a lot of ostracization in the Book of Mormon belt with parents and kids thinking their kids can’t be friends with people who aren’t Mormon / don’t follow every rule. It also focuses too much on using friendships as missionary work, as if the only reason to befriend people of other faiths is to convert them.
I love that the 2022 version doesn’t focus on the need for friends to help us uphold standards but instead focuses on loving other people and explicitly calling out the need to be kind and inclusive to everyone (without a missionary focus).
- “All people are your brothers and sisters—including, of course, people who are different from you or disagree with you. Heavenly Father wants His children to love each other. When you serve His children, you are serving Him.”
- “Treat everyone as a child of God. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, you can lead out in treating people of all races and religions and any other groups with love, respect, and inclusion—especially those who are sometimes victims of hurtful words and actions. Reach out to those who feel lonely, isolated, or helpless. Help them feel Heavenly Father’s love through you.”
- Honesty & Integrity
This topic is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I like that it moves away from a more fear-based approach from 2011 (“Dishonesty harms you and harms others as well. If you lie, steal, shoplift, or cheat, you damage your spirit and your relationships with others”) to a more positive approach about loving truth and being the same person in public and private.
That said, there’s something off in the way that the 2022 pamphlet defines integrity. It defines integrity as “lov[ing] truth with all your heart” and “doing right simply because it is right.” In other words, integrity is following all of the Church rules even if others are choosing differently. While integrity is often understood as moral rightness, I think a more expansive and helpful definition of integrity is “the state of being whole and undivided”–i.e., living in harmony with your own values.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife describes how at Church we conflate “integrity” with “obedience”, but that they aren’t the same thing–and “obedience”, unlike integrity, is not inherently valuable:
Choosing to conform to something that you believe or sacrificing what you want immediately for something you believe is more important is a divine principle—I absolutely believe it is. But we use the word “obedience” to talk about those kinds of moral actions—actions based in our integrity—and I don’t like the word because it obscures personal responsibility and also elevates obedience in and of itself—which I think is problematic. Many times in my life, I have deferred to a principle or a person I trusted, and it was a smart choice to do it. For example, heeding the wisdom of a doctor, or the wisdom of a parent—there’s clearly moral value in being willing to borrow wisdom, and conform to that wisdom. You learn in the process of doing it and you can avoid costly mistakes; you develop your moral thinking in the process. However, what I find problematic is when we value obedience, as though obedience were in and of itself a moral good. The problem is that we put responsibility onto someone else for our moral choosing; we frame it as if God values “just doing what you’re told” and if your leaders get it wrong, they are responsible for your wrong action. I’m not sure that is true.Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
By contrast, integrity is:
To be able to stand before God with a clean enough conscience to say I really was challenging myself to do what I believed was right—I had integrity. Integrity is being true to what you believe in, even when it’s hard, when it’s uncomfortable, when you give up positions or prestige or privilege in a relationship. I believe that my integrity is a gift to my marriage, to my family, and to my community. I am most believing when I am seeking truth, because that is a fundamental value of the Restoration.Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
To me, and this relates to the point I made earlier, rather than telling youth that integrity means following rules that are given to them by an external person or organization (Church), we should help them develop their own values and moral code and commit to living according to that. Living by someone else’s moral code–especially if it is counter to what I feel in my heart to be true–is actually the opposite of integrity. It leads to a divided self, rather than a whole self.
I like the changes in the guidance on language, which have moved away from a focus on “clean” language (“Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind. … Choose friends who use good language. Help others improve their language by your example. Be willing to politely walk away or change the subject when those around you use inappropriate language … Do not use profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, and do not tell jokes or stories about immoral actions. These are offensive to God and to others.”) to a focus on using kind language (“Make sure your language reflects love of God and others—whether you’re communicating in person or virtually. Say things that uplift—nothing that might be divisive, hurtful, or offensive, even as a joke. Your words can be powerful. Let them be powerful for good.”)
- Music & Dancing
The 2011 version had a lengthy section on appropriate music and dancing. The 2022 advice is similar, but much abbreviated, and focuses on asking youth how entertainment they are listening to or viewing makes them feel and encouraging them to step away from entertainment “not consistent with the spirit.” Gratefully, it eliminates the concept from the previous version that music can encourage immorality or violence through its “beat, or intensity.” That one was always a headscratcher for me.
Do not listen to music that encourages immorality or glorifies violence through its lyrics, beat, or intensity.
- Physical & Emotional Health.
These sections are quite similar as they both focus on the Word of Wisdom. One interesting difference (which is probably not intended) is that the 2011 specifically says not to use marijuana; the 2022 version states, “But remember that alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other harmful drugs and substances are not for your body or your spirit.” Depending upon how one defines “harmful drugs,” this arguably doesn’t preclude marijuana! And limiting to “tobacco” wouldn’t preclude “vaping”, although IMO that one is a lot more clearly harmful than marijuana.
I doubt the intent is for the Church to start approving the use of marijuana but I don’t read the Word of Wisdom as precluding it
The biggest change here is that in the 2011 version, repentance is one of the last topics addressed (because it is in alphabetical order) whereas it is one of the first in the 2022 version. The 2022 version also strikes a more positive and hopeful tone than the 2011 version. The 2011 version contains warnings such as:
- “If you delay repentance, you may lose blessings, opportunities, and spiritual guidance. You may also become further entangled in sinful behavior, making it more difficult to find your way back.”
- “Some people knowingly break God’s commandments, planning to repent later, such as before they go to the temple or serve a mission. Such deliberate sin mocks the Savior’s Atonement.”
The 2022 version is more optimistic:
- “Even when you try to do your best to make good choices, sometimes you will make mistakes. You’ll do things you wish you hadn’t. Everyone does. When that happens, it is easy to feel discouraged or wonder if you will ever be good enough. But there is good news—wonderful, hopeful news! Because God loves you, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who took upon Himself your sins so you can repent and keep progressing.”
- “Repentance isn’t punishment for sin; it is the way the Savior frees us from sin. To repent means to change—to turn away from sin and toward God. It means to improve and receive forgiveness. This kind of change is not a one-time event; it’s an ongoing process.”
I particularly like the “ongoing process” piece in the 2022 version. When I was growing up, I was taught that if you sinned and then repented, and then committed the same sin again, it was doubly bad, harder to repent and gain forgiveness, and eventually you may be beyond forgiveness. This led to a lot of unnecessary shame and concern (how would you define “same sin”?), particularly since a lot of “sins” are just habits that we are working on but can’t immediately flip the switch on.
- Sexual Purity
This, along with dress & grooming standards, is one of the most significant topics addressed in the pamphlets. I am also admittedly running out of steam, so this will be a shorter treatment.
Overall, the 2022 version gets rid of some of the more harmful / threatening language. Some language 2011 includes that 2022 does not is:
- In God’s sight, sexual sins are extremely serious. They defile the sacred power God has given us to create life. The prophet Alma taught that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except murder or denying the Holy Ghost (see Alma 39:5).
- Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression.
The 2022 version omits reference to Alma 39. It also removes the reference to “passionate kissing” or “l[ying] on top of another person,” which IMO are vague and led to a lot of consternation over whether one had “crossed the line”, instead saying, “Outside of marriage between a man and a woman, it is wrong to touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body even if clothed.”
The 2022 version is an improvement, and my criticisms of it have more to do with the Church’s position on chastity generally than the specific language of the pamphlet. Nevertheless, those criticisms are:
- As described more fully here, I think guidelines around physical intimacy should be grounded in emotional maturity & readiness and caring for one another and treating others with respect–not on purity. I think sexual purity is a destructive, harmful, baseless framework.
- The more I read it, I honestly think it’s creepy to talk so much about what kind of sexual relationships God “approves” of. Seriously, does God really just sit around thinking about what kind of sex is appropriate? Likewise, I am kind of sick of hearing about how “sacred” sex and sexual feelings are. While I understand this is an improvement over some religious traditions that treat sex as carnal and dirty, flipping the script and calling it “sacred” is a little over the top for me. This is beyond the scope of the post, but I think it sets people up for disappointment if they feel their sex life doesn’t live up to this “sacred” promise.
- Relatedly, the Church is constantly speaking out of both sides of its mouth: sexual feelings are “sacred,” but we should avoid any activity that arouses them. As a friend said in response to this, “Do not do anything that arouses sexual feelings? From ages 12 to 20-something, that means to cease existing as a normal human being because sexual feelings and arousal can come naturally and unbidden.” Not to mention that we are frequently exhorted to use these standards as adults–so as married adults we should avoid anything that arouses sexual feelings? Hmm.
As much as the Church is trying to get away from shame-based approaches to sexuality, so long as it uses a purity model to define sexual conduct and essentially tells people to suppress their sexual feelings, the problems of sexual shame in the Church are not going anywhere.
My final comment is about the treatment of homosexuality. The 2011 pamphlet said:
- Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin. If you find yourself struggling with same-gender attraction or you are being persuaded to participate in inappropriate behavior, seek counsel from your parents and bishop. They will help you.
This is terrible–truly terrible–because (1) it does not define behavior, so a queer kid may worry that any number of interactions qualify as a “serious sin”); (2) it does not distinguish between “same-gender attraction” and actually violating the law of chastity or clarify that sexual orientation, alone, isn’t sinful; and (3) it suggests that homosexual / lesbian sex (whether or not between married people) is somehow way worse than heterosexual premarital sex.
The new one says:
- “I am attracted to people of my same sex. How do these standards apply to me?” Feeling same-sex attraction is not a sin. If you have these feelings and do not pursue or act on them, you are living Heavenly Father’s sacred law of chastity. You are a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember that the Savior understands everything you experience. Through your covenant connection with Him, you will find strength to obey God’s commandments and receive the blessings He promises. Trust Him and His gospel.
While it’s an improvement insomuch as it doesn’t suggest that homosexual or lesbian “behavior” is somehow MORE BAD than regular old pre-marital sex, it still tells gay people that Christ will help them stay celibate for forever and that this is the way for them to obey the law of chastity and retain a “covenant connection” with God. Presenting celibacy as the only option for queer people totally sucks.
What do you think?
- What’s better about the new FSOY pamphlet? Worse? The same?
- Do you feel like these changes are too little, too late?
- Many are convinced that people are just going to continue to refer to the old pamphlet as the “real” set of rules that fill in the blanks for this one. What do you think?
- I’ve never shown my kids the older version of the pamphlet; I probably won’t show them this one, either, but it’s definitely better. Will you show this to your kids?
- Did you notice the overwhelmingly male nouns and pronouns used to reference God in the pamphlet? How do you think this impacts young readers?