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.