What Happens When Church Leaders Employ Strident Rhetoric Against Advocates of Equality?
For me, my fellow board members, and hundreds of Ordain Women supporters, our advocacy of ordination and equality within the LDS Church is an act of love toward our faith, our culture, and our heritage. We have attempted in every possible way to carry on a respectful and faithful dialogue with our church leaders.
Despite Ordain Women’s faithful and respectful tone, I have been disturbed in recent weeks by the harsh and divisive rhetoric employed by two church leaders toward their fellow saints, who express any disagreement with church policy. This harsh rhetoric is not Christ like, and potentially dangerous. I worry, because church leaders walked this same rhetorical path prior to 1978. Their failure to acknowledge the good will of those who argued in favor of racial equality in the church ultimately damaged the reputation of church.
In April Conference (2016), Dahlin H. Oaks spoke about “opposition.” In his speech he stated:
Some of this opposition even comes from Church members. Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies—“the loyal opposition.” However appropriate for a democracy, there is no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not (see Matthew 26:24).
While it is disturbing that loyal members are not be tolerated, when expressing an opinions differing from current church policy, even more ominous is the use of Matthew 26:24, as a reference. This passage reads: “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.”
This rhetoric is disturbing for two reasons. 1) It lack any proportionality. Does Elder Oaks seriously believe that anyone who disagrees with a church policy is betraying Christ, or that it would have been better if that person had never born? 2) Such rhetoric from an influential leader can lead to violence. A mentally unstable follower may interpret such rhetoric as a call for violence against others. Those of us, who advocate for equality in the church, have become all too familiar with hateful and sometimes threatening messages from unstable members of the church.
Falling in line with Elder Oaks, L. Whitney Clayton made these comments in his commencement speech at Brigham Young University on April 23, 2016. “The faithless often promote themselves as the wise who can rescue the rest of us from our naiveté. . . . We should disconnect immediately and completely from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith . . .”
Leaders’ words have consequences. Words like these destroy families, break up friendships, and can even result in adverse business and employment consequences for members, who in good faith and after much thought and prayer have concluded that current church policy is incorrect. There have been times in the past, when members acting in good faith and following the dictates of their conscience have proven to be correct, and the church has changed its policies. Before ramping up the rhetoric, leaders might consider the damage caused by previous leaders in such situations. For example, leaders damaged the church, when they refused to acknowledge the injustice of the priesthood/temple ban against members of African descent. Instead, leaders mistakenly insisted that inequality was the will of God, and punished those who challenged this policy.
After years of unsuccessful requests to meet with church leaders, and after publically stating his opposition to the policy, my uncle Byron Marchant, was excommunicated in October 1977. However, the costs were much higher than his church membership, alone. He lost his employment, and after my aunt died on brain cancer during this same period, misguided relatives sued for custody, and took his two young daughters.
While Byron has never received an apology, in the recent official church essay on “Race and the Priesthood,” church leaders approved the following language:
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.
What were these theories that the Church now disavows? What was the rhetoric that cost Bryon so dearly? Here are a few examples from church leaders of that time.
“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient; more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:61. Italics in original).
“Surely no one of you who is an heir to a body of more favored lineage would knowingly intermarry with a race that would condemn your posterity to penalties that have been placed upon the seed of Cain by the judgments of God” (President Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, p. 168).
“When He placed the mark upon Cain, He engaged in segregation. When he told Enoch not to preach the gospel to the descendants of Cain who were black, the Lord engaged in segregation. When He cursed the descendants of Cain as to the Priesthood, He engaged in segregation” (Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems – as they affect the church,” August 27, 1954, p. 15).
“The arm of flesh may not approve nor understand why God has not bestowed the priesthood on women or the seed of Cain, but God’s ways are not man’s ways” (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Reports, October 1967, p. 34).
Brethren, please be careful with your rhetoric. Please do not walk us down this dark path again. As supporters of Ordain Women, our belief in equality comes from our belief in the justice of God. We love our faith, our culture, and our heritage. We advocate for equality because of our desire to see the church we love improve and flourish. Our conviction is honest and deep. We hope that you will respect our sincerity and respond in good faith. We do not want to see the church that we love once again walk down the path of intolerance.
Ready for Revelation
Mark Barnes, the author of this post, is on Ordain Women’s Executive Board as Finance Committee Chair.