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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