Well, we have ourselves a new president. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
A week or two ago, Brandy Siegfried mentioned Ron Suskind’s article “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency.” I didn’t read the article, but I heard Suskind talk about it on NPR, and found it very interesting. Suskind says that if Bush wins, there will be a civil war within the Republican party. The two camps are the “reality-based” camp and the “ideology-based” camp. In other words, some in the administration believe that policy should be set based on empirics, where others believe that policy should be driven by what they believe to be right, regardless of the (alleged) facts on the ground.
Though Suskind’s structuring of the coming debate seems calculated to expose the ideologues as stupid, I’m not quite as ready to write them off. We have several reasons not to trust empirical data, one of the greatest of which is that much of the data being produced by ‘objective’ sources is in fact driven by ideology. Thus, if your vaunted empirics are tainted anyway, why not just choose what your gut tells you? Still, it’s hard in this rational age not to be persuaded by the reality-based camp and their graphs, lazer pointers and science. Something tells me they’ll have an uphill climb in the second Bush administration. The astute observer will watch how this conflict unfolds over the next four years.
But stepping past politics (is that possible on a day like today?), I want to talk about the way we navigate this conflict in our own lives as Latter-day Saints. Many of you may be much more rational people than I am, but I admit to having been driven to factual conclusions by my ideology many times, instead of the other way around. As Mormons, I think we’re especially susceptible to this. We know the truth, we think of it as absolute, so what is to keep us from inferring new data points in the larger world, from our central core of truth?
Some examples of factual conclusions that are often drawn based on inferences from the gospel: Homosexual behavior is a sin. Therefore, homosexuality is unalloyed choice. God would not make someone predisposed to sin, therefore anyone who is gay came by that orientation as a result of their own perverse decisions. I suspect there are few reading this that subscribe to these conclusions. On the other hand, I suspect there are many here (including myself) who have held this belief at some time in their lives. (Admit it, you were much less enlightened on this topic back in junior high).
Another example: Past prophets, and the Proclamation on the Family have declared that women ought to be primarily concerned with the nurture and raising of children. There is a half-stated subtext in the church that women ought to stay home with the kids. Therefore, kids whose mothers do not stay home suffer. If you buy this line of reasoning, you jump quickly on board with any study that finds increased chances of deviancy or depression in kids without stay at home moms, and you probably give little weight to studies that find no such correlation. Again, the trust truth, damn the data.
Lastly, abortion is wrong. Therefore, a fetus is a life. Therefore, abortion is murder.
All of these are examples of our willingness to expand gospel principles into the hurly-burly uncertainty of real life. I think it’s a noble impulse, and one that suggests confidence in our beliefs. However, the dangers are obvious. First, it’s just so darn easy to be wrong. We should not trust our willingness to draw logical extensions from doctrines, when the results fit so perfectly into our world view. If logic tells us that some doctrine x necessitates some secular fact y, we might do better to question the link than to instantly rely on y. We may yet learn new doctrines z and j and l that show easily how y is not required.
Second, when we follow these little logical links into the world, we find that many people who hold our doctrinal beliefs do not share our secular conclusions. This tempts us to make yet another logical jump– and conclude that these other people must not really believe the doctrines, if they cannot accept what follows from them. All based on good logic, of course, but incorrect a lot of the time.
Any good faith will tell its adherents something important about the world. The truth claims of the LDS faith are even more majestic, claiming to circumscribe all truth into one great whole. And yet, we should be conscious of the fact that we do not yet know all the truth that will make up that great whole. In fact, when we see the whole, we may be surprised by some of its parts. Is our understanding of the gospel sophisticated enough to accept some fact that seems contrary to our principles? Are we able to accept the dissonance that comes with such a task? Or should we continue on, doggedly affirming that reason can be attached to doctrine to create a flashlight that will illuminate everything we bump up against? Again, I think it’s an ambitious project, but I’ve made too many incorrect doctrinal conclusions to feel like it’s a good idea. Here’s hoping the two Republican camps find some middle ground, and that we can as well: let true principles lead you to hard facts, and let hard facts lead you to true principles.