True and Living

So I continue to wade into online and offline discussions about the church’s policy of denying crucial gospel ordinances to innocent children, and the consensus seems to be that I have “rejected the prophets,” in the words of one Facebook commenter who seemed really enthusiastic about getting the ball rolling on my inevitable excommunication. Privately, I’ve been told that the only faithful thing for me to do is to “stop talking about it.” Someone else told me that I’m faithless for referencing statistics that show a marked uptick in LGBT suicide rates among LDS teens since the policy was announced – they’ve quadrupled by some measures –  because it “makes the Church look bad,” even though the church eventually acknowledged the same sad facts in a public statement.

This has been real eye-opener for me, if for no other reason than it has demonstrated just how far removed from a Zion society we really are. The eagerness of so many of us to condemn and ostracize those who show even the slightest hint of discomfort with conventional Mormondom is especially disheartening. After all, I’ve been a pretty conservative, straight-arrow, whitebread, Republican, orthodox Mormon for most of my life, so I had no idea so many other members were this anxious to get rid of me. I also had no idea that calling attention to a deeply troubling suicide trend was more offensive than the fact that a group of uniquely vulnerable young people increasingly see death as a preferable alternative to a life in the Church.

But I’m not leaving. I’m not even going to slacken my activity level. I intend to remain fully engaged and committed, and I intend to continue to sustain the prophets.

(I will now give voice to a straw-man accuser who will helpfully say all of his accusations in italics to distinguish them from my own reasoned, sage-like responses.)

Sustain the prophets? Say what? You can’t sustain the prophets if you disagree with them.

Of course I can. In fact, that’s one of the truest tests of discipleship – to follow human and fallible leaders that have all the same amount of agency I have, even when they’re not always right. That was my position well before this policy came on to the scene, and that’s my position now.

But by disagreeing with this policy, you’re not following them.  

Not at all. I would not be following them only if I were to subvert this policy and refuse to comply with it.

Wait a minute. You’re saying you will comply with this policy?

Of course I will. In the unlikely event that I were ever a bishop, and a married gay couple gave consent for their innocent child to be baptized, I would do everything within my discretion to make that happen.

That’s not complying with the policy!

It is. Thankfully, this policy, and particularly the clarifications that came after it, gives the bishop a great deal of discretion. Children are to be denied blessings and baptism only in cases where life with married gay parents constitutes a “primary residence.” So in joint custody cases where one divorced parent is an active member and the other has remarried someone of the same gender, which are likely to constitute the vast majority of cases to which this policy applies, I would likely have the discretion to assign the designation of “primary residence” to the parent living in circumstances that would allow the child to receive all the blessings of the gospel.

That may work most if the time, but that won’t always work. So what about cases where you couldn’t do that?

In those cases, a child cannot be baptized without First Presidency approval. So I would petition the First Presidency for approval.

Yeah? Well, what if they turned you down?

Then I’d show up on the doorstep of the Church Office Building and beg.

Man, you just can’t take no for an answer, can you?

I wouldn’t want to, no. And I don’t understand why so many would want to. Just as I don’t really get why so many are gloating over their own righteousness and reveling in the pain of those of us who are struggling with this policy, I also don’t get why everyone wouldn’t be looking for every possible avenue to include rather than exclude, to show compassion rather than condemnation, to welcome rather than reject.

Get off your high horse, you NOM*. The fact is, you can go through all that nonsense and still come up short. You can camp out in front of Thomas Monson’s office, and he could still tell you no. So what then?

What then? Then I weep. Then I return to these precious, innocent children and their parents and, with tears in my eyes, tell them that despite everything I could possibly do – and I would have done everything I could have possibly done – the Church still won’t let them be baptized. Then I would plead with them to turn the other cheek and not reject the Church that has rejected them. And I would organize a ward council to find as many possible ways to include this child and their family in every possible way within ward activities and use every resource available at my disposal to let them know they are valued, they are wanted, and they are loved.

Wait a minute. Their families? Even the gay couple?

Yes. Even them.

But they’re sinners!

That they are. As are you. As am I. As are all fifteen men in the highest offices of the Church. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Let’s set aside the straw man for a moment. For more than a century, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints excluded people from full fellowship in the Church based on folklore about Cain, “less-valiant spirits,” and other nonsense that was passed off as doctrine. Many within the Church viewed that as wrong, and now the Church has admitted it was wrong. But at the time, even those who viewed it as wrong could not very well go about ordaining black people, even though they believed that was the right thing to do, or, even more significantly, even if it was the right thing to do. Discipleship required them to be patient enough with an imperfect church that they were willing to endure the mistake in order to sustain leaders who, unlike a perfect Christ, have weaknesses and blind spots and therefore actually need to be sustained.

And isn’t that a better story anyway? Isn’t it better to imagine a church that develops and grows and learns from its mistakes?

That’s the story, incidentally, that the Lord has always expected us to tell. This may be a bit of a tangent, but I don’t think that people who stand up in a testimony meeting to praise this as “the only true church” realize that they’re misquoting the Lord, who never actually said that. What he did say was this was the only true and living church. (See D&C 1:30) Plenty of other churches have truth in them. Some have gobs of it. But this church is both true and living. It is more than just correct principles; it is the living people doing everything in their power to apply them. And the Church, like all living things, develops, grows, and learns from its mistakes.

If you don’t think so, and you think that sustaining the prophets and apostles absolutely means that, in every difference of opinion, they’re always right and you’re always wrong, then you need to pray with everything you have that your children never come to you with hard questions. Because when they start asking you why John Taylor repeatedly said the Church would never stop practicing polygamy, or why Brigham Young made all kinds of racist claims that the Church has specifically disavowed, you better have a miracle in your back pocket if “well, they were wrong” is never an acceptable answer.

 

* New Order Mormon. I’ve been repeatedly told I’m one of these, as if this designation were a real thing that deserves my authority and respect, which it isn’t, rather than just a nasty name that intolerant members use to label people they don’t like, which it is.  

I know what I hate

24410582I’d never heard of Caitlin Flanagan. Apparently, she’s an editor at The Atlantic who was raised in a home where voting for Democrats was more than mandatory.

“When I was young, my father told me what his father told him: If I got in the voting booth and so much as reached for the Republican lever, the hand of God would come into that voting booth and strike me dead,” she said.

That quote is an excerpt from her brilliant Time Magazine piece called “Why This Democrat Won’t Be Voting for Hillary Clinton.” It’s a devastating critique of Hillary’s history of destroying the women who dare to come forward with tales of Bill Clinton’s sexual predations. For decades, I have been waiting for feminists to catch up with their principles and recognize the Clintons for who they really are. And now, finally, this is beginning to happen.

And I have Donald Trump to thank for it.

With a single tweet, Trump reintroduced Bill and Hillary’s sordid history into the national dialogue, and the name “Juanita Broaddrick” has actually been uttered in their presence by people who live outside the right-wing echo chamber. I had given up hope that this was possible, yet The Donald made it happen without even breaking a sweat. And I can’t help but be grateful.

I want to make sure I am not misunderstood here, so I have to dump a boatload of caveats on you before I say what I’m going to say. I think Donald Trump would, at best, be an absurd president, and, at worst, a terribly destructive one. His immigration proposals are racist, reactionary, and largely ridiculous. He has no real ideological convictions to speak of, and he doesn’t seem to have any interest in the real work of governance or respect for its constitutional constraints. His election would essentially dismantle the Republican Party and set back the conservative movement by a generation or two. I will not vote for him under any circumstances, and if he and Hillary are my two choices, I’m sitting this one out.

Okay? Caveats out of the way? Good. Here’s the point I want to make:

I don’t hate him.

Understand what this means. There are many political figures who make my blood boil just by showing their smug little faces on a TV screen. The Clintons certainly top that list, but this odious group draws its membership from both the left and the right side of the aisle. Whenever Ted Cruz opens his smarmy, self-satisfied mouth, for instance, I have an irrational urge to pound my fist into it, even if he’s saying something somewhat reasonable.

That’s important to note here. My visceral negative reaction to politicians does not directly correlate with whether or not I agree with them. For instance, I oppose Barack Obama on just about everything, but I consider him to be a decent man, so he doesn’t make me want to shoot out the television screen every time his face pops up. Ditto Bernie Sanders. I think he’s a buffoon peddling utopian nonsense, but he’s a kind-hearted and well-intended buffoon. Just being wrong isn’t enough to provoke my ire. You have to be a sanctimonious, hypocritical jerk, too.

You know, like someone named Clinton. Or Ted Cruz. Or Glenn Beck. Or Michael Moore. Or Nancy Pelosi. Or Rosie O’Donnell.

But not, for some reason, Donald Trump.

I realize this doesn’t make a lick of sense. Trump’s practically a mobster, and if my criteria for political loathing were in any way consistent, my stomach should turn every time I catch a glimpse of him. But it doesn’t. Instead, he makes me laugh. I find I want to listen to him just to find out what outrageous thing he’s going to say next. When I DVR the Republican debates, I fast forward through all the boring political boilerplate being spewed by the real candidates and focus on Trump’s far more ludicrous answers.

I tell you this not just to confess my secret shame, but rather to make a larger point.

Even though I’ve deliberately tried to disconnect from politics these past few years, I can never fully step away. I therefore retain a certain set of ideological convictions that prevent me from ignoring Trump’s grotesque excesses just because the guy is entertaining.

But most of America isn’t so ideological. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I actually envy people who can go about the important business of their lives and pay little or no attention to the squalid sideshow of politics. Good for them.

But if I don’t hate Trump, there’s a pretty good chance that they don’t hate Trump, either.

Remember that they also won’t view him as a traditional Republican – again, the Trump brand has more power than the Republican brand, which means people who would typically never imagine voting for a Republican will imagine voting for Trump. These are not people who obsess over every bit of political trivia and wake up in the middle of the night to write blog posts about it. No, these are people who, on Election Day, will be voting with their gut, not their brain, and all things being equal, guts go with the one that’s harder to hate.

Is that Hillary or is that Trump? Your brain and your gut are now telling you two different things, but you know what the answer is.

 

 

In all Patience and Faith

So my frustration with the current LDS policy that withholds crucial gospel ordinances from innocent children has led me to a number of online discussions where I’ve encountered people just as angry, or far more angry, than I am over this state of affairs. What I’ve learned is that there is a template for many of these discussions which requires that participants speak the language of Dissident.

And I’ve discovered that, for all my objections, I don’t really speak Dissident.

To speak Dissident, one has to always assume the worst possible motives for the leaders of the LDS Church. They can’t just be wrong;  they supposedly have to be exposed as lying fascists. Every mention has to include snide asides about how they’re all in it for the power/money/babes, and frequent mention of Thomas S. Monson’s presumed senility and dementia is de rigeur.

So, as I encounter hardcore Mormons who now defend the Brethren with arguments about how the Gift of the Holy Ghost is not really a big deal – a position that would have been unthinkable to them two months ago – I also encounter equal levels of rigidity from those who think it impossible to imagine the men inflicting this policy on them are anything but devils in disguise. Certainly the Lord’s church wouldn’t ever be capable of such egregious error, and so, clearly, this isn’t the Lord’s church.

I find both of those positions equally ignorant of the principle of agency. We all have it, even prophets and apostles. And the Lord will never, ever interfere with it, even in the case of prophets and apostles. That’s why the prophets and apostles need us to sustain them – not because they’re perfect, but precisely because they aren’t.

Much has been made, for instance, of President Russell M. Nelson’s talk where he states that this policy is “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord” and that he and the other apostles have received “spiritual confirmation” that this is the case. Those who speak Dissident are quick to note that this elevates this policy to the level of doctrine, making it infallible. End of discussion, right? Consider these words of the First Presidency: “We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be.”

That last bit predates Elder Nelson’s talk by six decades or so. It was a letter from the First Presidency to Lowry Nelson, a BYU professor of Applied Sciences who had written Church President George Albert Smith about his concerns about the church policy of withholding the priesthood and temple blessings from black members. In 1947, over the course of a series of letters, President Smith stated that the idea “that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things” is “contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel.”

He went on to state that those of African descent were less righteous in the preexistence, and that is why “it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” He goes further to decry the “repugnant” concept of “the intermarriage of the Negro and White races” which has “has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now” and “is contrary to Church doctrine.”

These letters were signed by the full First Presidency, including my great-grandfather David O. McKay, who succeeded George Albert Smith as President of the Church. Seven years after this letter was written, President McKay had this to say on the same subject:

“There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

That’s inconsistent with the 1947 letters, but it’s entirely consistent with the Church’s current essay on the subject.

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

From the LDS.org essay “Race and the Priesthood.”

So how do you reconcile these contradictory positions? The only intellectually and spiritually honest answer is: you don’t. They are irreconcilable. One prophet was right, and one prophet was wrong. One prophet called it doctrine; another denied it was doctrine. And then another got rid of it altogether.

Doesn’t that mean the Church is a fraud? Quite the contrary. It means the Lord teaches his people the way he always has – “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” (2 Nephi 28:30) If that’s the process, then surely it means that the Church is going to move away from positions of error when it receives greater light. Infallibility never, ever comes into play.

But why is that the process? Why does he permit leaders to stumble in darkness and say and do things that are later proven to be incorrect by an application of greater light?

The answer is agency. Agency is the central purpose of our existence, and that’s true of prophets and Webelos leaders. (That’s me, incidentally. The extent of my current ecclesiastical authority is the supervision of 10-year-old boys learning how to conduct flag ceremonies. And even in this capacity, I’m far from infallible.)

One of the preeminent challenges of discipleship is sustaining leaders that are capable of error, who are just like you, me, and everyone other than Christ who has ever and will ever live. It means speaking Dissident is the wrong approach. It means when the Lord tells us to follow the prophet “in all patience and faith,” (D&C 21:5) he was right to put the word “patience” first. We recognize the importance of being patient with an imperfect bishop or relief society president, but we somehow think that once someone enters the Quorum of the Twelve, they have their agency extracted and patience is no longer necessary. That’s bad reasoning. Even more importantly, that’s bad doctrine.

So how do I explain Elder Nelson’s report of spiritual confirmation of a policy that, to me, contradicts fundamental gospel principles and remains wholly wrong? The answer is that I’m patient. I certainly don’t question Elder Nelson’s motives. I may not believe what he believes on this point, but I believe he believes it, and I respect the authority of his office. I don’t bolt from a church that has proven, time and again, that it is a force for great good in this world, that it is home to the influence of the Holy Ghost and the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and, that, not on my timetable but on the Lord’s, it will eventually get it right.