Winning the peace

The supreme court has decided, so now in all of the USA same sex marriages are legal. With this landmark decision the USA has joined the many nations in the world where such a union has become official, and from the Netherlands, the first country where these marriages became official, we extend a warm welcome to America. Great that you joined the swelling crowd who thinks that LGTB should not be discriminated against, also not in marriage issues. You are becoming a ‘modern nation’ now (I hope you recognize a European ‘tongue-in-cheek’).

In an earlier blog I explained how preciously little impact this SSM issue has had on the members, wards and stakes in the International Church. i.e. in the largest part of the LDS Church, a notion repeated by many bloggers and commentaries. That means that the recent church statement has very little bearing on the situation outside the USA and will raise questions and eyebrows when read in the International Church. As Wilfried Decoo showed in his blog, the official standpoint of the Church, when brought without adaptation, is awkward for us. Our experiences in Europe are clear: this is a marginal issue, so we are happy to see this US debate resolved in favor of gay marriage. The backlash of Proposition 8 has reverberated even across the Atlantic. Some battles are better lost – and LDS history has shown a few of these. The important thing is not so much to win each and every war, but to win the peace.

From across the ocean, our own experiences indicate that three issues inform that peace. The first is that the public space in our countries no longer is based upon Christianity, surely not the WASP kind; WASM is not far from that. In the Netherlands this has been going on longer and at a quicker pace: our country has been secularizing at high speed since the ‘60s. It took ceremonial form when the customary prayer was taken from our yearly state of the union address (we have a king doing that); some people missed it at first, but we now appreciate that it no longer fits in the present religious situation with not only multiple religions but also various types of irreligion.

This leads to a good look at civil society. In the USA the churches have always been the pivot of civil society, more so than in Europe where churches went from being a handmaiden of power to quick marginalization. But also in the US religious institutions realize that they are losing power, that the ‘market of meaning’ no longer is strictly religious and counts an increasing number of non-religious ‘stalls’. For an increasing number of people ‘freedom of religion’ has come to mean ‘freedom from religion’, and their number will grow. That shift has repercussions that are much more fundamental than a minor issue as gay marriage.

All denominations are now in an essential minority position, politically, and in secular countries such as in Europe – and such as the US might well turn into in the future – people adhering to any faith at all are becoming a minority. This different political arena has to reflect in the agenda of the churches, also in ours. In the past (in Europe) and the present (in the USA) they tried to impose specific rules, based on particular moralistic acts, the ‘don’ts’, as in these issues the churches had the ‘power of definition’: what is a proper Sunday, a proper marriage, proper consumption. Thus, in the Netherlands we lost the shopping-free Sunday: no officially imposed Sabbath’s rest any longer, so Dutch Christians can no longer define what is a Sunday. When one cannot set the moralistic agenda, and loses this ‘power of definition’, one has to turn towards more general and more fundamental issues. So we lost the Sabbath-Sunday, but surely there are more important issues: while we bickered over shop openings, the Middle East caught fire and now the Mediterranean is becoming a graveyard.

Thus, my second point is that winning the peace after losing a struggle, should stimulate a shift from marginal moralistic issues – such as Sunday observance, SSM, prohibition – to core principles: compassion, love, human dignity, equity, freedom. See how pope Francis does just that. Is SSM a marginal issue? Definitely. Marriage is important, there is no question about that. But the issue was never the institution of marriage as such, but the definition of marriage: the LGTB people do not want to abolish marriage, far from that, they want to embrace it, to be included in its definition; this skirmish they won, and for some very good reasons based on fundamental principles, equality and human dignity. The debate had a by-effect. As said in an earlier blog, any issue that stimulates a fierce debate, gains in importance, meaning in this case that marriage is alive and kicking, just a little expanded. SSM marriages form only 2% of all Dutch marriages, really marginal, but the Dutch experience points at an increase in marriages per se. After legalizing SSM also the number of heterosexual marriage rose. In the 80’s many couples opted for cohabitation contracts – easier, cheaper, more flexible – legalizing children as they came along. After the SSM debate and legalization in 2001, DSM (different sex marriages) flourished, with even old cohabiting couples exchanging – slightly belated, one might feel – vows. An example.

My niece's wedding, with the children

My niece’s wedding, with the children


I recently attended the wedding of a niece: she and her husband exchanged vows in a nice ceremony at a natural reserve, after 10 years of lawful cohabitation. The official marriage act was co-signed by the couple’s two children, aged 6 and 9: with his father’s assistance, the little boy meticulously drew all the letters of his name on the document, and everybody loved it. In the last decades a new civil servant arose, a non-paid volunteer who opts for specialized administrative authority just to conduct civil marriages. This is part of a blooming of civil wedding ceremonies: special rooms in castles, beaches, nature reserves and the like. So civil weddings, a prerequisite for all marriages in our system, became more ritualized and much more interesting. Having a mandatory civil weddings before any religious service is a great help, and would especially be good for our own peculiar LDS situation, where we have no proper wedding ceremony, just a sealing.
The young boy signing the marriage act

The young boy ‘signing’ the marriage act


The church tried to define the SSM issue in terms of freedom of religion. That obfuscated the debate. First of all, when the church expressed its opinion, and tried to influence law making, it was acting on a political platform, using democratic freedoms, not religious ones. But, also one important distinction was lost this way, between the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience, my third point. Freedom of religion is a collective freedom to worship wherever and however one wants, while freedom of conscience is the individual freedom to measure action against personal conscience, a conscience invoked with or without a religious factor. Though both freedoms inform each other, they are not the same. An example, again from the Netherlands.

We have a region populated by staunch old-school Calvinists, our Bible belt – we have been a very religious nation, and in some regions we still are. These, quite fragmented, ultraorthodox protestants are part and parcel of our national heritage, and of course completely free to organize and worship as they like: they have religious freedom. But they tend to refuse inoculation against infectious diseases, based on a specific Bible interpretation. Not all of them do, just some. That is defined as freedom of conscience; Dutch society has tolerated it because their numbers are not large enough yet to make it a public health hazard. But voices are rising that it might become so in our densely populated country, and then the government might have to step in with mandatory inoculation. If so, this will not be seen as an infringement on their freedom of religion but as a limitation on their freedom of conscience. In the wake of the SSM legalization, some of the Dutch civil servants had conscience problems to conduct those weddings, mainly from the same Calvinist persuasion. We solved this problem of the ‘weigerambtenaren’ (refusing civil servants) in typical Dutch fashion: colleagues took over these cases. But in the long run they will disappear: new civil servants who have this conscience problem, no longer will be hired for this position.

This distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience might alleviate some of the heavy emotional charge of the debates. The whole debate was definitely not about freedom of religion, but about the democratic freedom to influence law giving, official definitions and the culture of the public space. In actual fact, the church did not fight for religious freedom – that rallying cry was a smokescreen – but instead was a player in a political arena, using democratic freedoms to get its voice heard, a freedom that should be cherished and nurtured. Also, when one loses.

In the end, even with some gnashing of teeth, this whole thing might well be for the good of the church: the debate boosted the institutional importance of marriage, civil weddings gain in importance, and democratic freedom and freedom of conscience are highlighted. And above all, we are helped to focus on the things that really count. Losing the ‘power of definition’ in the political arena, and not succeeding in imposing moral details on the general population, just throws us back on that wonderful verse in D&C 121:41: ‘…only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.’ That is the way to win the peace.

Walter van Beek

21 comments for “Winning the peace

  1. “Win the peace” — great slogan! I wish The Statement on Gay Marriage (not an official title, yet) had embraced that notion. But we have done it before (think polygamy) so we can do it again.

  2. Its good to get a European perspective on this. I thought it would have been a little more difficult to push aside and ignore essential, long-held LDS beliefs, like the critical roles of father & mother, the importance of honoring the sabbath day, and keeping the word of wisdom. But you did it rather easily. Three cheers for rejecting formalized religion in favor of humanism!

    I guess my next question is this: if these issues the church elders are continually preaching (see April 2015 General Conference: Nelson, Christofferson, Perry, etc.) are simply “marginal” and “minor” and not the “core principles”, then why do we need the church elders?

  3. @thor, I think he just means marginal in the sense of trying to use the law to force non-religious people to also follow our practices. With SSM out of the way, we can focus our collaboration with the larger society on charity rather than trying to control others’ behavior as we discipline our own. These things remain extremely important and distinctive within the church in Europe, but the European (and US, by the way) experience has been that “live and let live” works just fine. It isn’t “humanism” (watch Fox News much?) to “allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

  4. Thanks, Owen, for making that clear. It is giving everybody the room they want and need, as long as they do not harm others, or impinge on our freedoms. It is also on not judging others by behavioral standards they have not signed up for. We, as European LDS do honor the Sabbath, but our honoring the Sunday does not depend on our convincing others to do it our way. Indeed, that is essentially American as well, only, my point, the public space in the USA used to be protestant – and so was ours in the Netherlands – and it no longer is. I added two pictures that are both familiar – a wedding – and unfamiliar – a wedding with children. Live and let live, and concentrate on essentials, family love, charity, and – yes – role of parents.

  5. Having 6 and 9 year-olds sign the marriage document is a joke. They’re minors and not legally admissible. “Come, be like us in Europe, where people can live together for 10 years and then have their children sign their marriage papers!” This is supposed to convince anyone your culture has any understanding of the gravity of marriage? Color me less than impressed.

  6. I expected that comment, of course. It is evidently not a legally valid signature, but it is a social recognition of an existing union in which the children have been given their role. That is not a joke, it is simply their way of expressing the couple’s faith in their marriage. It is not meant as example to be emulated by those who do not wish to do so, but that is exactly the point. They – the couple and the audience – experienced it as meaningful, and I had no problem understanding their viewpoint. I do not expect the LDS to follow this format, but the least we can do is respect others who choose this. And any ‘struggle’ over imposing our norms on them will detract from the really important issues, the marriage itself, parenting, the support of a community for a family – just to stay within the example

  7. It’s all a question of culture perception and tradition, pdoe (6). It is beautiful that these children could consciously discover what marriage means to their mom and dad, when they decided to take that next step after a period of lawful cohabitation (during which they formed a family too). Not for all couples, of course, but it works for them. And don’t we Mormons praise people getting married?

    Cultural perception: read the reactions in the nineteenth century to the Mormon polygamous marriages. All over the world people thought it was a horrible joke and that Mormons had no understanding of the gravity of marriage…

    Thanks, Walter, for an insightful and perspective-broadening post.

  8. pdoe, having girls in high school marry college boys (RMs to boot) in the temple and then being pregnant when they graduate is a better example of the gravity of marriage? (marriage/sealing came first and pregnancy second, but b/c it was a temple marriage it was “celebrated” notwithstanding the “gravity of marriage.”) Color me appalled. lol. We, as a culture, are in no position to look down our noses at odd and unusual marriage practices which demonstrate an understanding of the “gravity of marriage”

  9. I met Boyd Packer in person when with another brother from the Netherlands we were the Dutch delegation to the World Conference on Records, Salt Lake City 1969 (I believe). He personally led us through the admin building, had lunch together. A great teacher and a gracious host.

  10. Walter: Your (the Dutch?) understanding of freedom of religion seems to confine the concept to freedom of worship. As a lawyer, this strikes me as an incredibly narrow definition. If we understand freedom of religion to mean only the ability to chose places and modes of worship, then unless we have a very capacious notion of worship much is lost. The ability of churches and other religious organizations to challenge government action while pursuing religiously motivated projects such a universities, hospitals, providing social services, and the like is severely limited if religious freedom means only freedom of worship. Likewise, guarding the institutional autonomy of religious organizations against interference by the state becomes difficult, so long as the state does not interfere with liturgical matters. It also sunders freedom of conscience and freedom of religion in ways the strike me as far from self-evident. For example, one might think that there is in general a right to pursue religiously motivated conduct free of state coercion unless the state has some particularly compelling justification for regulation. Freedom of worship is simply a subset of this broader notion of religious freedom. The idea is that freedom of religion rather than defining a tiny island of protected activity within the broad ocean of the state’s power is — along with other individual rights — meant to be a pervasive check on the power of the state.

    Let me suggest that there are possible historical reasons for what strikes me as the rather crabbed notion of religious freedom that you articulate. Europe developed strong institutions and norms of government control long before it developed strong norms of either individual freedom or democracy. For most of European history religion was an aspect of this administrative state. The traditions in the United States are quite different. We developed strong norms of democracy and individual freedom before we developed centralized government bureaucracies, and for most of our history religious institutions have been free of the state and those institutions that were arms of the state in our early history — Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Episcopalians — have been bit players in the religious economy compared to the disestablished sects, e.g. Methodists and Baptists. As a result of these divergent traditions, European administrative apparatuses are more efficient and rationalized that American administrative apparatuses. They are also more aggressive vis-a-vis those intermediate institutions of society that stand between the individual and the state. American churches have also tended to be far more vibrant than their European counterparts.

    For what is is worth, I think that the Church should always think of itself as a minority religion in a tolerant but potentially hostile society. Hence, I think it should be politically modest and ought to aggressively support liberal institutions and practices. Hence, as a Latter-day Saint I agree with some of what you say. On the other hand, as an American lawyer, I’ll pass on freedom of religion as freedom of worship.

  11. Nate, wouldn’t you say that much of the discussion of freedom of religion in the United States the past 50 years is mainly debate about tokens of religion in the public sphere: especially in/on property owned or controlled by government? Thus debates about displays of the 10 commandments in courthouses, religious garb when acting as a civil servant, etc. It seems to me that these are always the most contentious issues and are quite different from the sorts of things Europeans worry about.

    In this sense while part of the debate is over practical rights and government responsibilities the main debate is very much more over tokens and symbols continuing that debate that’s been ongoing for some time.

  12. Nate (13): Freedom is a complex concept, as it includes both absences and presences: no interferences, no limitations by other powers, no reduction of behavioral alternatives (Max Weber’s notion) on the one hand, and on the other hand the options to create (Marc Bloch’s approach), freedom to organize, to worship, to build. Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship – in which the non-interference is dominant – as it does include, as you rightly note, the building of a community. The latter always has been more important in the USA than in Europe, for the reasons you mention, but it has been here in Europe as well. Dutch society, up till the ’70s, was divided in ‘pillars’, a kind of total institution in which one lived his whole life: a Catholic one, a Protestant one etc. That has disappeared in twenty odd years, but US denominations still have that. There is clearly a Mormon pillar in Deseret, LDS schools, hospital, funerary services, sportclubs (?), broadcasting. That propensity to build a religious community I can easily see as part of religious freedom.

    However, that type of freedom is still part of the collective definition of self of the denomination in question. When the denomination moves into the political sphere – which for part of the US churches indeed is a historical given – they are in a different arena, or field. The drive to extend one’s influence to national or international politics is religious, but the arena itself is political, and the freedom to operate in that field is a political freedom, a democratic one, to influence others of a different persuasion and try to make your minority voice a majority one. Then the values you have developed by grace of your religious freedom are transported into another debate, which is in principle not a religious one. In this arena you try to convince others or outvote them, but not convert them. So I do want to draw a conceptual line between the two freedoms. The reason to insist on this distinction is the huge emotional load that ‘religious freedom’ carries, and that hampers the debate. If Clarke (#14) is right, and the main debates are on public symbols, even more reason to distinguish between the two.

    When the church takes a stand, such as on Proposition 8, it moves into a political arena, using its freedom in the political field. If I disagree with the church in that position, I still see myself as a loyal member of the church.

  13. I actually agree with you about the difference between defending religious believers and religious institutions and religious communities from the interference of the state and debates over the content of public symbols. I am actually not particularly enthusiastic about American civic religion and thus don’t see things like government prayer or nativity displays on government buildings as either religiously significant or as civicly helpful. I think that it would be a mistake, however, to suggest that religious freedom is not at issue in cultural debates like those over same sex marriage.

    I think that the vision that Walter’s post offers of the legitimate sphere or religious community making is too narrow. The real debates in my mind are not about whether religions should dominate and infuse the state (I do not believe that it should) or whether the state should dominate and control worship communities (I do not believe that it should). Rather, the contested ground lies in the intermediate institutions of society — universities, businesses, hospitals, professional associations, social service providers, and so on. As I understand it, Walter, you tend to see these kinds of institutions as “public” or “secular” etc. This is by no means, however, self-evidently the case and often constituting such institutional spaces in “secular” or “public” terms requires the deployment of the coercive power of the state. They aren’t naturally or inherently “secular” or “public” unless we create norms and laws that require them to be so. I think that it is legitimate to think of such norms and laws as threats to religious freedom because they will tend to coerce, limit, and constrain the ability of religious believers and communities to generate such intermediate institutions and infuse them with religious values. Indeed, in the end I think that such moves will tend to weaken intermediate institutions in generally leaving individuals with fewer and fewer points of connection and association between the state and intimate associations such as the family and networks of friends. This would be a loss.

    I think that same sex marriage is actually a poor site at which to debate such issues and resist the creation of norms and laws that will tend to homogenize intermediate institutions along broadly speaking philosophically liberal and secular lines. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to see the entrenching of such norms and the laws they breed as threatening religious freedom and being worth resisting. One of the things that I find unattractive about the Dutch solution hat you describe is the relative weakness of intermediate institutions before the “public” norms of that quite properly govern the state.

    This does not meant that I think intermediate institutions are wholly private or beyond the legitimate concern of the state. Ultimately for practical reason (Latter-day Saints are a tiny minority) and principled reasons (human flourishing requires the availability of a range of social options), I want the economy of intermediate institutions to be pluralistic. This may require careful regulation of institutions or communities that occupy “choke points” in the economy or in society. However, such regulation should be aimed at maintaining the conditions for pluralism rather than creating a homogenized world based on public norms of liberty, equality, and secularity. Generally speaking this is a negotiation that liberals and social democrats have handled badly and a set of concerns to which conservatives have been far more sensitive. Accordingly, it is the kind of thing that I worry about in moments of liberal triumph.

  14. I think, Nate, that we are not too far apart, actually. The political middle ground of civil society is extremely important and religiously based or inspired organizations can contribute much too it. Also in the Netherlands, which despite being seen as fully secular , in fact retains a lot of faith-based and confesionnally colored institutions. But the umbrella of the secular state over these institutions is crucial. My points on the ‘freedoms’ are: 1. If you move into this ‘umbrella’ that defines the limits of religious-institutional freedom, you move into a political arena. There you use your political freedom grated by the secular state, a move that for you seems part and part of your religious freedom, but for the state – and for other players in that arena – is a fully political field. But discussions on definition are notoriously open ended. Anyway, religious freedom is defined by the state, so might be called a subset of political freedom. I see another blog is already running this debate.
    2. My main point was indeed that LGTB marriage is a ‘poor site’ (nice term) to debate this, you are right there, that is just what I was arguing. Invoking religious freedom is a slegde-hammer argument, highly emotional. This obfuscated the issue.

  15. I am not sure what you mean by moving into the umbrella, but if you mean something like “engage in activity beyond religious worship,” then I probably disagree if you are implying that institutions and communities in this space cannot complain of regulation and social pressure as a limit on religious freedom. I think if you are going to have a vibrant and pluralistic Civil society you will need greater legal protection than bare freedom of worship and greater social toleration than a willingness to allow private beliefs. I thus think that a secular civic — as opposed to a pluralistic civic space — is problematic. Claiming no particular expertise, my impression is that European civic spaces tend to be secular rather than pluralistic. There are high levels of toleration for private beliefs but that communities and institutions in the civic space.are expected to comply with a.setof fairl strong and homogeneous norms.

  16. I think that what Walter is saying is that
    1. a secular society is more likely to guarantee freedom for minority religions, but
    2 they will need to realise they are not the only moral voice and can not control the debate or the outcome, accept they are a small fish in a big bowl, and not the only fish.
    3 will be respected as a contributor so long as they also respect the other contributors, and don’;t get petulant when they don’t get their own way.

  17. Geoff, Elder Oaks definitely tried help members along with #2 and #3 last April in Conference.

  18. Great article and discussion I live in Australia and the politicians are controlling the vote on same sex marriage at present 70% of the people want it and the politicians are doing as they please.. I guess sooner or later we may get one to stand up and be counted and give the people what they want .

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