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Talking to Kids (and Adults) About the Culture War

Framing questions about culture war topics can go a long way toward understanding. It's ok for others “to have a different religion than us."

Teaching young children how to steer around inevitable culture war conflicts is hard. Even when we feel we have figured out a tricky topic to our satisfaction, the answers and methods we apply as adults are often too subtle to convey to kids.  Parents in need of simple things to say may sometimes feel we have to choose between teaching kids a simple plain truth, which may lead to blowback if they repeat it in public, and fudging it with a simple half-truth.

There is no way to get around this problem entirely, and sooner or later, kids will have to learn to deal with the complexity themselves. But while the content of culture war disputes is often complex, the nature of the conflict itself is quite simple, to the point that kids can understand it. It can be summed up as, “We have our religion, and other people have theirs. We don’t agree about everything, and that’s OK.” I’ve come to believe that correctly framing the conflict goes a long way toward finding our way peacefully through it for both kids and adults.

I’ve argued previously that we should frame widespread disaffection from the Church somewhat less in terms of “leaving the Church” and more in terms of “joining” another one. At least among educated white members in North America, the story of recent widespread disaffection is mostly one of widespread conversion to an alternative religion, which we can call contemporary American expressivism. Similarly, the story of the contemporary “culture war” is, in significant part, the story of the emergence of this new religion and the conflicts that have arisen between it and traditional religions.

If you accept this framing, a couple of things become clear.

For one, as I and others have written about before, a person can’t be all-in on both the Church and wokeism (or any other comprehensive worldview). You can find the truth that exists in other religions, but you can only honestly adhere to one religion at a time.

We have our religion, and other people have theirs.

For another, if wokeism is a religion, then it should have the same social status as ours. Specifically, you don’t have to convert to it, the same way other people don’t have to join our church. You can respect the religion, see what is good about it, and still decline to participate in its customs or adopt its worldview.

This is important to remember when helping kids navigate new situations. For instance, think about what you would say if your young child asked you what the big rainbow flag at the grocery store meant. At the same time, consider a less familiar (but real) scenario. Many people in your neighborhood are observant Muslims who have recently immigrated from other countries. When tensions flare up in Palestine, many of them march peacefully along the street with flags and banners to support the Palestinian cause. Often their chants include a slogan that local supporters of Israel consider offensive. What do you tell your kids if they ask what the symbols and chants mean?

In both scenarios, it’s simple and true to say that while we have our church and our religious beliefs, not everyone is part of our church. And other people have their own religious beliefs. We agree with some of the things they believe and other things we don’t, but we try to respect their beliefs, and we hope they respect ours too.

We might also add: The people who fly the rainbow flag are part of an American religion that is becoming very popular. There isn’t really a name for the religion yet, but they sometimes call themselves woke. We don’t agree with everything they say about moms and dads, but they are trying to tell people to be nice to everyone.

Likewise, the people marching and chanting were Muslims, which means they believe in a religion called Islam. They were talking about a war far away and who they support in that war. Not everybody agrees with them, but they are trying to help other members of their religion.

It seems to me that the important thing to communicate to young kids in these situations is less the substance of the worldview attached to these symbols and more the social context. Kids at this age are probably asking, “why are those people doing a thing that we don’t do?”—which is a social question, more than a curiosity about beliefs and values.

Answering this question is important because, up to this point, most of the new symbols kids have encountered are either universal (like, say, road signs) or symbols of our own religion (say, the sacrament) and will be integrated naturally into their own developing worldview. (It’s bad to run through a stop sign, and we should take the sacrament to remember Jesus each Sunday.)

Living in a sectarian world, where we encounter symbols and messages that are foreign to us, is more complicated than living in Zion, but it’s not impossible. Kids seem to be able to understand that there are different religions, that not everybody believes the same thing as we do, and that that’s OK. With this understanding, they are in a better position to evaluate messages they encounter without being either uncritical on the one hand or adversarial on the other.

This understanding is also useful for adults. Many of us have been asked at some point why we don’t use a symbol or term when it “just means” equality, kindness, or respect. We may find it difficult to answer. But Latter-day Saints could just as well ask others why they don’t wear, say, CTR rings, which after all “just mean” that we should choose the right. But we know why: other people don’t wear CTR rings because they are not part of our religion. They may not object to the nominal meaning of a CTR ring, but that doesn’t mean they need to wear one. Neither should church members feel obligated to participate in the customs of religions we aren’t a part of, let alone customs that may cause tension with our own religious beliefs.

I am suggesting that we openly—and correctly—frame contemporary American wokism as religion. There is a practical difficulty with this approach, which is that believers in contemporary American wokism, unlike adherents to most religions, usually don’t consider their worldview to be a religious worldview or even a worldview at all. Referring to their beliefs this way, even respectfully, will rub many of them the wrong way or at least cause confusion. But introducing the additional level of abstraction—pointing out that each person speaks according to a contestable worldview—is essential if we want to have productive conversations on culture war topics.

You can only honestly adhere to one religion at a time.

Without this correct framing, the conversation will, by default, take place “inside the box” (where the “box” is the worldview of the other person). In such a conversation, the deck is stacked. At best, the other person will merely come to (mistakenly) believe our religion to be consistent with theirs. At worst, the Christian believer converts himself to the other religion by unwittingly participating in it.

If insisting on this framing feels aggressive, notice the wording of the 11th Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” We regard people of other religions as peers who have the “same privilege” as us, not as our superiors or inferiors. Granting that others may worship how they wish does not imply agreeing to treat their religious worldview as uniquely neutral and universal or to take their beliefs for granted for the purposes of conversation.

Which is to say, the unique teachings of contemporary American wokism should not be simply accepted. For example, the religion holds that maleness and femaleness, qua the social categories we are all familiar with, are, in fact, categories of gender identity, a gnostic sense of one’s identity that is perfectly knowable by the individual but not verifiable or falsifiable by others, even in principle. This is a strong, arguably supernatural teaching which should not be simply accepted unless it is part of a conscious, deliberate conversion to the woke religion.

Wokeists also teach that racism, qua the social phenomenon almost universally agreed to be very bad, is a structural form of oppression inherent in the relationships between white people and others. Some leaders in the movement teach that racial disparities are ipso facto racist. One implication of these teachings is that a white person’s intent does not matter at all for evaluating whether something they do is racist (and thus wrong) and that asking for evidence of racist intent is itself racist.

These are strong claims. Similar ethical claims by other religions would be contested by Latter-day Saints and not treated as the new, universal rules of the game. But because this other popular religion has not been framed as a religion, it may not even occur to us to contest the claims. In May-June 2020, many people found it hard to articulate exactly why they felt uncomfortable adopting the symbols of the BLM movement, despite agreeing that black people’s lives mattered and that patterns of racist conduct should be stopped. For most of them, the reason (whether they realized it or not) was that using the symbols signaled adherence to a whole religious worldview—one that teaches dubious dogmas like “intent doesn’t matter.”

The culture war makes life harder, but the fact that the other religion is a religion should give us some hope of cooling it down. Two warring parties that recognize each other’s interests as valid can often come to a peace agreement. Religions that contextualize themselves and other religions as religions can coexist, despite not being aligned on theological questions.

More importantly, the personal understanding of culture war issues as reflecting a plurality of religious views guards us, and our kids, in two different ways. On one level, it reminds us that believers in the other religion deserve respect, the way Muslims or Catholics or Hindus do. It also permits us to identify the truths that exist within the religion. And on another level, it helps us avoid accidental conversion. The barrage of sectarian messages our kids will hear online and at school can, in this framing, be correctly contextualized as teachings of a competing religion that may or may not be true rather than as obvious or neutral messages that ought to be absorbed and integrated into their worldviews as Latter-day Saints.

Much of the culture war-related tension we experience as Latter-day Saints boils down to a conflict between two religious worldviews, and much of the trickiness comes from the fact that we are trying to do the impossible: affirm them both at the same time. When we realize that many contemporary “secular” notions about sex, family, race, and other social questions are fundamentally religious in nature, conflicts become much easier to manage—and easier to explain to kids.

About the author

Tom Stringham

Tom Stringham is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Toronto.
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