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Coalescing Policy Narratives

I confess that I haven’t been particularly productive since last Thursday night. Even after the reassuring divine message I received while walking my dog, this new church policy has consumed my thoughts and overwhelmed my heart these past few days, to the point where I feel like I can neither talk or think of anything else.

I don’t want to reiterate or justify my own position, which has not changed from my two previous posts on the subject. Rather, I want to review some of the pools of consensus that seem to be coalescing as members struggle to come to terms with this issue. Near as I can tell, those pools are settling on the following narratives to explain/justify/vilify the newly established policy that the children of gay parents are to be denied blessings of full church participation until age 18. This list is in no way comprehensive; I’m only going to address the narratives that I think require further comment.

1. The Abrahamic Test Narrative
D&C 101:4 says the members of the church “must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” This policy represents just such a trial, and we need to rise up and accept the challenge, just like Abraham did.

Actually, D&C 101:4 is addressed to the Saints who were driven out of their homes by angry mobs. In context, the revelation is providing an explanation for why God allowed the Saints to suffer such horrible persecutions in that instance. It is not a blanket prediction that every member of the Church will be required to make an Abrahamic sacrifice.

In addition, the comparison to Abraham overlooks what was unique about his particular experience. Remember, Abraham wasn’t just asked to do something difficult, like give away all his wealth or wander in the wilderness for 40 years. He was asked to do something he knew to be morally wrong. The distinction is critical. Isaac had been born to Abraham’s wife through miraculous circumstances, but even if he hadn’t been, the law of the Lord prohibits murder and requires fathers to love and protect their children, not slaughter them. So Abraham was asked to do something that violated everything he knew to be right.

This narrative is invoked by many who defend this policy, and I think most of them don’t realize that, by doing so, they are unwittingly acknowledging that their conscience is telling them this policy is wrong.

2. The Follow-the-Brethren Narrative
The Brethren are prophets and apostles of the Lord. They are his anointed servants with the authority to lead this church, and they cannot lead us astray. This came from them, which means it’s right. So who are you to say that it’s wrong?

That phrase “lead us astray” has been the source of much mischief over the years. It originally comes from the following statement by Wilford Woodruff after he had issued the Manifesto ending the practice of polygamy in the mainstream LDS Church.

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.

The simplest way to interpret that statement, and the way that, I think, a majority of members do interpret that statement, is that the prophet and apostles are essentially infallible. I say “essentially” because there are a host of other statements, many of them far more recent than this one, where prophets and apostles candidly admit that they are, indeed, fallible and capable of error.

So the way a lot of people reconcile “the prophet won’t lead you astray” with “the prophet is not infallible”  is the idea that the prophet can make mistakes, but only tiny ones. If the prophet thinks you’re somebody else and calls you by the wrong name, or if he forgets his wife’s birthday, or if he misspells a word, or if he gives someone the wrong directions on how to drive to his house, well, that’s because he’s human and fallible. But surely he could never get any significant point of doctrine wrong.

But the fact is that, yes, he can, and history has shown us clear examples of where he has.

The most painful is the Church’s longstanding denial of full participation to black members, which lasted for more than a century and was based on Brigham Young’s wrong idea that black skin was the mark of Cain. Granted, that was an idea that did not originate with Brother Brigham or the Church; it was a longstanding justification for American slavery. But Brigham believed it, and he taught it with confidence from the pulpit and used the principle to shape policy. And he was wrong, and, today, the Church openly acknowledges he was wrong. 

One of the reasons I believe that the ban endured for so long is that later prophets erroneously believed in the “essentially infallible” theory. Among other factors, they couldn’t lift the ban because they couldn’t bring themselves to admit that one of their predecessors had simply made a big mistake.

So if the prophet can be wrong, and not just by a little bit, then what does it mean to say that the prophet cannot “lead us astray?” Well, I don’t have an easy answer to that question. I think it means that if you stick with the prophet, even though he can be wrong, that you’ll ultimately end up where you need to be in the end. Even if it takes a century to change course, as it did with the priesthood ban, the Church will eventually get it right.

This isn’t good enough for a lot of people who end up with damaged faith when they discover that prophets make mistakes. And I sympathize; I wish prophets didn’t ever make mistakes. But an infallible prophet would also have to be a prophet without agency. God never tampers with agency, even with his prophets. That’s what mortality is all about.

3. The Brethren-Are-Bad-Guys Narrative
This policy was written by a bunch of out-of-touch homophobes who love power more than God. 

So the flip side to #2, promulgated by some of those who, like me, oppose this new policy, is that not only are prophets fallible, but they are incapable of doing anything right. Or, even more sinisterly, they are incapable of doing anything for the right reason. They’re bigots; they’re haters; they’re liars; they’re control freaks, or, among the more charitable who buy into this narrative, they’re kindhearted, senile idiots.

People who believe this fail to provide an adequate explanation for why the vast majority of what these allegedly terrible men teach and do is overwhelmingly positive. The messages they share at Conference are Christlike and kind, and they have devoted their entire lives to service, requiring them to attend to their demanding duties until the day they die. The colossal amount of goodness to be found in the Church would not be possible if it were being led by the corrupt villains described by this narrative.  And while I think this policy is a grievous error, I think it is an error implemented by men who actively sought the will of the Lord and were trying to do the right thing.

4. The Brethren-Know-Better-Than-Me Narrative
I think the policy is wrong, and my conscience, my gut, and even the Spirit are telling me it’s wrong. But the Brethren are more righteous than I am, and they are closer to the Lord, and obviously they know something I don’t, so I will support this in spite of myself. 

This is a variation on the “Follow the Brethren” narrative, except, in this instance, the person sees a conflict between their personal feelings and their loyalty to the Brethren. In the “Follow the Brethren” narrative as described above, the loyalists feel no such conflict and are proud to be able to among the truly righteous who do not question their leaders. In this narrative, the internal conflict is agonizing, and the only way to reconcile it is to cede personal moral judgment to supposed moral superiors.

This narrative presumes that men are apostles because they are better people than we are. And that may be true in some cases, as I certainly think they are better people, or more righteous people, than I am. But I also think that way of people in my own neighborhood, many of whom would be outstanding apostles. When you have a worldwide church with millions of members and only a dozen or so high leadership slots, you inevitably have a massive overabundance of talent.

The following is from an article titled “Parables of Mercy” by Richard Lloyd Anderson which appeared in the February 1987 edition of The Ensign:

Despite his spiritual stature as a prophet, [Joseph Smith] never claimed personal superiority to other Saints. In fact, he said, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous. God judgeth men according to the light he gives them.”

That light is not dependent on the intervention of any other human being, even a prophet. You have direct access to heaven, and you have the right to the light and knowledge of the Spirit. No one stands between you and the Lord Jesus Christ. And if the Spirit is undeniably telling you something, you can trust it without getting approval from Church Headquarters.

These are my thoughts for the day. I’ll stop now. More to come, I’m sure.

What God told me while I was walking my dog
Rameumptom Watch: Thoughts from the Cheap Seats

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  1. This is why I love you, James McKay Bennett. Considered, thoughtful, fair, reasonable. I spent my evening last night scouring my father’s autobiography for a story; a story he tells of seeking to find a satisfactory explanation of why “Negroes are denied the Priesthood”. This, when he was 22 years old in March 1946 “Grandmother Bennett gave me all the information that is available But it all seems to boil down to this; God is just, and it will all work out in the end.” This explanation was not in the least satisfactory to my father. He continued to write letters to the Brethren seeking an answer. The President of the Church was at the time his grandfather, Heber J. Grant, and he wrote to him as well of course. In all his letters and questioning, no further explanation was offered beyond “God is just and it will all work out in the end.” But he kept on keepin’ on… both in his steadfast faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in his questioning of that which he did not understand. And eventually the policy was changed. I don’t remember a more joyful day in our household.

  2. Here is a scripture that really helped me during this past week: “I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time. Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand . . . .” (3 Nephi 17:2-3)

  3. Who ever wrote this is missing the big picture about faith and why we are here and doesn’t have any except faith in his own mind, which is the biggest reason people fall from the church. The person who wrote this, wants to be “right” and live the “right” way, and figure out who is “right” and who isnt. This is NOT why we are here. Also, I follow the brethren without question NOT because I am blind….but because I asked God, in Faith, if this church was true and led by Christ Himself. He testified this to me, and so because he did, I am now accountable for knowing this information and knowing that his prophets and apostles speak for him. For this reason, I follow, in faith. Following in faith is NOT blind! This is from a post I wrote last week about this issue. Yes, it references the Abraham example, but it does it to demonstrate WHY we follow the prophet, not to justify anything. “I am reading constantly people saying concerning this new policy: What if the Prophet is just speaking as a Man, instead of for God. How do we know? I think people forget why we are here. We are here to be tested. To test our faith to God. Let me say this clearly, we are not here on earth to be right. If you are going to church because you want to be right, you are there for the wrong reason. You may say, “what is the difference?”. Remember when Abraham was commanded to kill his son? How “Right” was that? It’s right, because God said it was right to Kill Isaac. If we keep our minds on the big picture, it shouldn’t matter if the prophet was speaking as a man, or for God. ALL OF IT IS A TRIAL OF OUR FAITH. This quote sums it up, “I would rather stand with God, and be judged by the world, then stand with the world, and be judged by God.” -Ryan

  4. Good thoughts here. I would add one more potential narrative: The Brethren allowed incompetence to be a part of the policy writing. I can see a way that this policy came into existence because of pre-existing parameters related to polygamy. Because of the fact that the church already had an existing policy for the children of polygamists, it is possible that when they made the decision to classify Gay Marriage in the same “Apostasy” category, they made the (wrong) decision to treat the children of LGBT people the same way. And once a policy is in effect, the Church is typically very slow to change it because of how it will appear to the rest of the world. It’s incompetence that lead to grouping polygamy and same sex marriage, but how do they admit that to the world. It’s entirely possible the brethren saw the policy and the grouping with polygamy and thought, “Meh, seems right.” But they’re not exactly going to come out and say that this kind of policy is created that sloppily.

    Just my two cents.

  5. My narrative for getting through this is from Jacob 5:66 —

    “…wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard.”

    Meaning, myself as a member, the Church as an institution, and the world at large are going through this “pruning” process. There will be mistakes, bad policies, injustice, and all the rest both within and outside of the Church for some time, but the overall arc of history is towards more good and less bad. The main thing I can do is try my best to choose the good in my own life and within my sphere of influence.

    And, the Oatmeal (somehow I find this comforting). Also fitting if you’re a Star Trek fan: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/plane