Like most progressive Mormons engaging in the discussion about inclusion levels of the LGBTQIA community within the Church, I’ve argued in favor of love—that love is a behavior, that Christlike love practices empathy and inclusion. There is no concrete opposition to that, since love is an abstraction, so what I hear from “opposing” voices sounds a lot like, “We do love; we want to include” followed by a caveat. In truth, most orthodox, mainstream LDS are sincere in their desire to love and include, but they both justify and endorse policies of exclusion without hesitation. It’s a baffling dichotomy. But this weekend, at General Conference, the fog lifted for me. I’ve had it all wrong. This isn’t about a lack of love. It’s about power and submission. It’s about the corruption of ethics and ideals and how we’ve exchanged them for easily quantifiable “standards” that bind a subservient class to the will of its leadership. It’s about control.
The fog lifted during Elder Oaks’ Saturday morning General Conference talk, which may be one of the Quorum of the Twelve’s most divisive public addresses. I won’t discuss most of what he said (review “The Plan and the Proclamation” here), but will focus on one effect of the address.
Elder Oaks’ position on same-sex marriage is in line with the Church’s position. He probably had more to do with establishing that position than anyone else and seems more invested in promoting it than other apostles. However, his Saturday message is an audacious reversal of previous statements by General Authorities that have acknowledged faithful Mormons are safe to differ in their view. Instead, Elder Oaks creates a new class of sinners out of Mormons who support legal same-sex marriage.
He does this by beginning his talk with scripture passages and quotations from other church authorities that delineate between the righteous and unrighteous, those of God and of the world. In this way, he constructs a thought track designed to bring his audience to a point of agreement. This is a technique used by all great speakers, but it is, nonetheless, manipulative.
After capitalizing on the commonly held idea that evil opposes God, Elder Oaks lowers the ax by claiming “converted Latter-day Saints believe that the proclamation” demands alignment with his stance since supporting gay marriage equates to rejecting and fighting God. I won’t discuss his particulars about the proclamation today. However, I want my readers to notice that he divides faithful, practicing Latter-day Saints into either a converted group or an unconverted group, based not on their testimony of Christ nor of the restoration, but on their agreement with his view that same sex marriage is evil and an attack on families and the plan of salvation. He effectively makes sinners of practicing Latter-day Saints who value the rights of others, respect agency, and believe that God is greater than it sometimes seems Elder Oaks remembers. Because of the influence he wields as a senior apostle at the General Conference podium, the effect is potentially stunning.
Of course, he would likely assert that he said nothing of the sort, but meaning is found both in the words that are used and behind their organization. Interestingly, his organization dismisses grievances against him by labeling opposition as “of the world.” This is gas lighting.
The question is, why does he divide faithful saints?
There is one recurrent, historical reason for a leader to create enemies where none exist, or to pass laws and edicts that make good people into bad people—and that thing is power, either a thirst for it or a fear of losing it. It’s no secret that members, especially the young, are abandoning the formal church. Any institution that loses membership also loses power. The authority and influence of its leadership, then, are diminished in the eyes of the very world that Elder Oaks condemns. Historically, leaders create enemies to bind stalwarts to them and to encourage a sense of superiority in their people. That superiority, in turn, permits otherwise good people to look the other way as the leaders expel, or worse, the inferior among them. (Remember our own history.) No human being—no matter his calling—is immune to the seductions of power. If this were the case, we wouldn’t have the caution we receive in D&C 121:39. But we do have it. Sometimes sustaining a leader means calling him out.
On Saturday morning, Elder Oaks emphasized our need for standards, but he did not emphasize our need for integrity. One cannot advocate for integrity at the same time one calls on another to forsake it. This controversy is no longer limited to whether or not to include, or how to include, or under what conditions to include those who are Other in their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s now also about marginalizing those with the courage to do exactly what we’ve been taught—to stand, in spite of insults, for something good, namely for freedom, mental health, inclusion, and a myriad of other related values that should be prized in the church.
Whether intentionally or not, the highest leadership has been dividing us by creating rules and regulations—policies and standards—that exceed the message of the Savior and effectively compel us to judge one another. Because of their position, we seek their approval in much the same way they accuse some among us of seeking the approbation of the world. They cannot see that they are our world. Or perhaps they can, and they use that to maintain power.
Chances are, as you’ve read this, the thought has flashed through your mind that I better be careful, or that I’m going to get myself in trouble. Your thought validates my point. The exclusion controversy we face in the LDS church is not about whether or not we love. I love. I encourage love. I love my leaders, and I love the people sitting with me in the pews. I love the people who have left. But devout Mormons never contradict authority, even though those in power sometimes contradict one another. If we do, we risk our good standing, be that in the eyes of our peers or the institution. That is the fall from grace that should trouble us all. ~~
“I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent–if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression… This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. … We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it.” — Hugh B. Brown
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