Accountability and Persecution

The other day I heard something from a church leader (I think I walked in on a conference talk my wife was watching on BYU-TV), and the speaker was saying something about accountability and how important personal and priesthood accountability is in the church.

I thought about that for quite a while. Many may be familiar with Boyd Packer’s famous talk about the three threats to the modern church: gays, feminists, and “so-called intellectuals.” In that talk, he spoke of the need to “face the same direction.” As a Church Education administrator, he was challenged by Harold B. Lee to always face downward, meaning that he was to represent the leadership’s position to the CES staff, and not the other way around. He said that applied to the church as a whole, suggesting that to turn and champion the interests of the lay membership to the leadership was tantamount to challenging their authority. Clearly, the three aforementioned groups had turned the wrong way. “There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.”

What this suggests to me is that the church leadership, confident in its belief that it represents the will of God, believes that no church member has the right to turn the wrong way and suggest any changes or point out any problems. Such people are labeled “ark steadiers,” after the man who was killed trying to prevent the ark of the covenant from touching the ground; he was killed not because of his good intentions but because he did not have the right or authority to touch the ark. Likewise, the logic goes, lay members do not have the right or authority to correct or even imply correcting the leadership. Apostle Dallin Oaks has said, “It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”

We’ve seen examples of ark steadiers disciplined and ejected from the church. One such person is Lavina Fielding Anderson, a former Ensign (that’s the church’s official magazine) writer who founded the Mormon Alliance, a group dedicated to preventing “ecclesiastical abuse.” The reason such a group is needed at all is that, because everyone is supposed to be facing the same way, there is no mechanism of redress in the church. There is no official channel to make church leaders aware of members’ needs and problems, and apparently the church prefers it that way. Not long ago, the First Presidency issued a statement to its members asking that questions and problems be addressed to the local leadership and not to the General Authorities. Hence, the leadership becomes insulated from the membership at large, and the local leaders, most of whom have no formal leadership or counseling training, are left to deal with the problems of their ward and branch members. It’s not surprising that there is great potential for ecclesiastical abuse.

Of course, Ms. Anderson was ultimately excommunicated for publicizing leadership problems (many of which are quite serious) because her actions were seen as a public and deliberate challenge to the leadership. She was facing the wrong way.

The message from the Brethren could not be clearer: accept the counsel and instruction of leaders without question, and certainly never publicly question. We have all seen this attitude in the church, from the almost fetishistic devotion to following lesson manuals “with exactness” to the unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary rules, such as the “Kimballization” of BYU in the 1950s to the current belief that the number of earrings one wears is a direct indication of one’s faith in the prophet.

Yet the leadership is accountable only to God, assuming of course that God really is directing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. History is full of men and women who claimed to speak for God, and their complete lack of accountability has led to predictable results. It’s no surprise that most powerful religious leaders end up indulging in sexual excesses; after all, if the prophet did it, it must be right.

I’d been mulling over these thoughts over the weekend, and then yesterday a friend called me to express his outrage over Dallin Oaks’s remarks comparing the backlash against Mormons after Proposition 8 to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t really need to comment on the disconnect between a Mormon claiming persecution on the level of a group that not only suffered much more as a people but whose very movement was openly disdained by LDS leaders. It’s almost too ludicrous to be outrageous.

But then it was said by an apostle, so it can’t be ludicrous. If he said it was so, it was so. My friend bet me that if Oaks’s comments become widely publicized, the church will issue an apology or at least a public retraction. I’ll take that bet. My guess is that they won’t, for two reasons. First is this notion of the leaders speaking for God; to admit that Oaks’s analogy, which he termed “a good one,” was offensive and ludicrous opens the door for questioning of the leadership. Second, Oaks’s remarks reflect the extent that a persecution narrative informs the lives of church members.

From its earliest days in upstate New York, the LDS church has been opposed and attacked, often violently, by its non-Mormon neighbors. From tarring and feathering to Haun’s Mill to the Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and Johnston’s army, the common thread is persecution, and to this day, this persecution is part of what defines people as Mormons. So, for Oaks and many other Mormons, the backlash from Proposition 8 was merely a continuation of that very persecution and is a natural outcome of the church’s standing for truth and right.

But the reaction Oaks cited really doesn’t compare to persecutions, and certainly not the kind of discrimination inflicted upon African Americans for centuries. Back when Proposition 8 was defeated, I told a Mormon friend that the vandalism and the protests would be short-lived, as they were a product of genuine hurt and anger. And my prediction has been right, I have to say. Yes, the church suffered a huge PR setback, but as far as I’ve seen, there has been no sustained persecution. But that really doesn’t matter. Oaks has publicly and officially done what the lay members had done long before in incorporating Proposition 8 into the persecution narrative of the church.

And who is to say he’s wrong? After all, no one wants to face the wrong way.

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11 Responses to Accountability and Persecution

  1. Esau says:

    Wow. What a great post. I was shocked when I heard and read that as well. To compare the “persecution of the saints” after proposition 8 to those events in history is utterly ridiculous. I know some members that weren’t even AWARE of proposition 8, let alone the “backlash”. Maybe the brethren got a lot of hate mail or something and just assumed that all the members were suffering.

  2. Steven B says:

    I suppose we could quibble over whether “most” or “many” powerful religious leaders end up indulging in sexual excesses. But your point is well taken. Thank you for this excellent post.

  3. GBSmith says:

    Interesting you should post on this as there’s a very similar piece on Mormon Matters.

  4. AzAnnony says:

    You say that the early church was opposed and attacked; murder, mayhem. What you don’t mention, which I know you are aware of, is that the Mormons were doing the very same thing to non-beleivers. The Mormons were driven out of pretty much everywhere they tried to settle because they behaved badly and people got pissed. I’m not saying that the deaths and violence towards Mormons was acceptable, but the Mormons themselves participated in these behaviors as well…pot? kettle? Anyone? Buehler?

    This is where the persecution comes in…they move in and behave badly, people get pissed, things get ugly, the Mormons have to leave…and they claim persecution over their beleifs when they, themselves, started the bull***t in the first place.

    The persecution excuse is getting so old, so fast.

    The Mormons, as a whole, participated vehemently in removing basic civil rights for a minority. People had something to say about it…so we whip out the persecution card…we’re so perrrrsecuuuted….I know the church is twoooo….persecuuuution.

    It’s pathetic, and then to use the civil rights movement and blacks as a comparison when their own doctrine and history is thick with discrimination? THEY discriminated. That was a stupid idea on the part of “those who talk to God” to use THAT analogy…now they get to be persecuted again.

  5. Thank you for your post. “Facing the same direction” explains how once genial speakers like Boyd K. Packer and brilliant men like Dallin Oaks and Jeffrey Holland have narrowed their focus to fear-based rhetoric. Too bad General Authorities aren’t given sabbaticals to stay in touch with the real world.

    Sad that highly intelligent people such as Lavina Fielding Anderson have to accept excommunication in order to maintain their integrity.

    The Church might not be in a growth slump if leaders and members checked out some alternative directions to face.

  6. I interpret Elder Oaks’s talk as more a warning for the future than a commentary on the recent past. For a high-ranking apostle to speak in these terms is a very clear warning for those with ears to hear. The warning is, put on your seat belts, we’ve got some major turbulence ahead, the same kind of moral/spiritual turbulence you can read about ad nauseum in the Book of Mormon. For the real issue here is not gays but the basic question of whether we’re a secular or a god-fearing society. The balance is fast shifting toward secular, which will bring us the same civil war, outside invaders, secret combinations, and natural disasters that the Nephites faced when they turned from God in this promised land. Only with today’s technologies, this time it won’t take 1,000 years to fully play out…

  7. Odell Campbell says:

    Christopher, your reply demonstrates the tragic consequences of a person raised to fear questioning and to see unquestioning obedience as a strength.

    Thankfully, Dallin Oaks is only influential with a very small group of people – US Latter-day Saints. So his weird and paranoid remarks only make him appear crazy.

  8. Bull says:

    This really resonated with me. I’ve been reading Bagley’s book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and recently had the opportunity to visit the site. It epitomizes the following quote:

    Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

    The church cultivated a persecution complex that pitted the righteous church against the evil gentiles. The prophet vigorously preached murder and violence and the end of days setting up the climate of hostility. The church turned the Indians loose on the gentiles and promised them they could take what they wanted. The church leaders ordered the murders and thefts and then made blood oaths to hide the truth. The church has never admitted responsibility and instead hid and protected the perpetrators before betraying one, and only one, of the murderers. Brigham Young seemed to condone the act after the fact in various ways.

    It is just stomach turning to see the end to which religious fervor and unquestioning belief in religious authority can lead.

    Those righteous, religious men convinced themselves that an innocent caravan of wealthy pioneers were evil murderers guilty of the blood of their prophets and that they merited summary execution. After all, their leaders told them so.

    Don’t tell me that religion isn’t harmful. And don’t even try to tell me it isn’t morally corrosive.

  9. Sadie says:

    Someone I know has resolved (in her own mind) the problem of keeping the counsel not to communicate directly with the general authorities and her need to say something about policies, statements and issues that she feels the general authorities need to hear from members.

    She sends letters addressed to Mr. Joseph Cannon, editor in chief of the Deseret News. He is directs a for-profit organization that is in the business of publishing news, information, opinion and commentary. So it must be legitimate for a member to articulate her/his opinion to such an individual.

    It is also probably the case that Mr. Cannon is in touch with individuals on the board of directors of the Deseret News on a fairly regular basis. If Mr. Cannon gets enough “flak” of a certain kind or of a certain tone, it is possible that Mr. Cannon will convey the jist of that flak–albeit with discretion–to members of the board. Its a long way around the barn, admittedly, but it might work for some people who want to follow counsel but still have a say. Tell it to Mr. Cannon.

    Sadie

    Sadie

  10. What a great post! I think Mormons hold onto a certain persecution mania. It’s part of their collective identity to believe that those who disagree with them are intent on harming them. One might politely criticize the church, but strong and immediate action is always taken against the questioner. For a minor example, since I left the church, I’m no longer allowed to be alone with my nieces and nephews because my siblings believe I’ll preach anti-Mormon rhetoric to them (something I would NEVER do). Mormons must, to maintain their victim identities, believe that those who are not Mormon–especially those who have left the church–are against them and want to destroy them.

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