Loyalty in the Church

“If you can’t follow ‘The Brethren,’ why don’t you just leave?”

Kate Kelly’s excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the many conversations surrounding it provide insight not only into current divisions and attitudes within Mormonism, but also into the meaning of Mormonism itself. For some, Kate Kelly is apostate, going against Church teachings and leading believers away from the truth; while for other believers, Kate Kelly is expressing her loyalty and sincere love for the Church by addressing important issues of gender inequality. This is a rather polarized issue within the Church, and the press and blogosphere have made it an international spectacle. This division of course is not new.

In 1938, the Improvement Era published an opinion piece titled, “As a Prophet Speaks.” Its author, Richard L. Evans (member of the IE editorial board and future Apostle), tapped into personal observations about how Mormons react to public utterances of Church leaders following General Conference or other church gatherings. There are the “faithful and undisturbed,” who essentially agree with whatever is said. Others are Satan-inspired and love to find fault. But finally, there are “the most definitely heroic,” those “who sacrifice their own inclinations and interests out of loyalty to the chosen leaders of the Lord.” In facing contradiction between Church teachings and personal conscience, such heroes “find themselves paying some sacrifice either of pride, opinion, or material advantage, notwithstanding which they are numbered among the faithful in the acts of their lives because they believe that inspiration transcends man-made thinking and planning.”[1]

For the sake of a manageable discussion, I propose that there appears to be two basic forms of loyalty within Mormonism, however admittedly over-simplified such a dichotomy must be (I’ll address a third form at the end, demonstrating this as more of a spectrum, rather than a strict dichotomy). This does not mean that there are not many types of Mormons, for indeed there are. Rather, it means that at a moment of crisis when your conscience places you directly at odds with Church teachings or standards, there is a choice to be made: heroically submit or stand up and challenge what you perceive to be wrong. Both choices represent particular approaches to religious loyalty.

This question of loyalty could not be more profound. For Evans, obedience to male leaders should be absolute and unquestioned. Even if you perceive them as wrong or immoral, you are to follow these men and the ecclesiastical institution as though it is God Himself speaking.[2] Quoting President Harold B. Lee, Elder Robert D. Hales explained in a recent General Conference that our safety lay in our unquestioned and absolute obedience to Church leaders, even if it contradicts our personal, political, or social views. We are to accept these words “as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself.”[3] Such words would have been difficult for those struggling with contemporary Church teachings that condemned interracial marriages and upheld principles and laws in support of racial inequality and segregation, but obedience, as Mormons understand it, is the first law of heaven. Obedience is often measured in terms of seemingly petty and small things such as jewelry and facial hair, but the consequences are considered eternal. As Elder M. Russell Ballard explained at General Conference, “Wearing two pair of earrings may or may not have eternal consequences…, but [one’s] willingness to obey the prophet will.”[4] Church leaders are divine vessels in which God is approached and salvation is granted, and speaking against them, ignoring their counsel, or even speaking irreverently about them, places you in an uncomfortable position in the church and the hereafter. Though Mormons prize personal agency, this agency is to be surrendered to those who it is believed are God’s spokesmen on earth. As one widely circulated blog post wrote, church leaders serve as a “person-to-person link” to Jesus Himself.[5] This is a crucial point within Mormon teachings and it is this point that labeled Kate Kelly an apostate.

The archetype of “loyal opposition” for Mormons may be B. H. Roberts. He’s one of the few who mostly made it work without drawing too much official censure.

General Authority Brigham H. Roberts stands as an important figure within Mormon history who bridged these two forms of loyalty, and for the most part, made it work without drawing too much official censure.

For those who find themselves dissenting from particular church teachings, they are met with the question from other members as to why they don’t just leave the Church. These Mormons insist however that the Church represents more than “The Brethren,” and point instead to their conscience and their commitment to certain divine principles, be they historical honesty and openness, racial and gender equality, or even the humanization of the LGBT community. The issues can be many. Members of this group feel too much loyalty to these principles and their own consciences to surrender them for the sake of obedience. This position is profoundly attuned to the truth behind Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s admittance that sometimes Church leaders not only make mistakes, but also are “not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”[6] For this group, there is nothing heroic about obedience under such circumstances and either nuance or reject the “person-to-person” link these men hold with the divine. As these members would see it, there were no Mormon heroes at Mountain Meadows, however obedient all were to priesthood leaders. This group would hold that a certain level of “loyal opposition” is both healthy and necessary.

So, there is an impasse between these two approaches to Mormonism, and both sides largely talk past each other. The former group cannot accept that “the Brethren” would ever fail to support good principles, so all critique to the contrary is discarded and ignored. There is a figurative mental “wall” that is hit that they will not pass through. They are loyal to the Church and its leaders, and any information that flies in the face of that loyalty is rejected. The latter group recognizes and anticipates Church fallibility, and as such, remains loyal to reason and conscience and out of loyalty, rejects whatever contradicts. And yes, this latter approach can include just as much mental editing as the former in order to protect this loyalty to conscience. Though there are some, like Kate Kelly, who find their own sense of loyalty rejected by the Church and many of its members, there are also those who are “betwixt and between” the two positions and continue to serve and work within the Church. This group recognizes the problems and complexities of Mormon history and an all-male ecclesiastical authority, but they do not see themselves as opposed to hierarchical obedience. This position has its tensions, but it is also here where spiritual growth and creativity is forged and where many find Mormonism beautiful and enriching, despite current temperaments of the Church itself. Not all Mormons are blindly obedient, and not all dissenters are worthy of the brand apostate. Many Mormons who disagree with all that is said and taught still claim a home within Mormonism, but as the news of Kate Kelly’s excommunication shows, that home feels smaller and less hopeful.

 

[1] Improvement Era, “As a Prophet Speaks.” Vol 41, No. 3 (March 1938).

[2] Apostle Elder Marion G. Romney relayed this personal story with President Heber J. Grant in a summer General Conference in 1972: “We were discussing some criticism that had been directed against an action taken by him in his official capacity. Putting his arm across my back and resting his hand on my left shoulder, he said, ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he tells you to do something wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ And then he added, ‘You don’t need to worry, however; the Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead his people astray.’ I haven’t forgotten his counsel. I think I have been faithful to that charge ever since.” Marion G. Romney, “The Covenant of the Priesthood: A Challenge to the Priesthood Members to Magnify their Callings.” Ensign, July 1972, pg. 98.

[3] Robert D. Hales, “Strengthening Faith and Testimony.” General Conference, October 2013. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/general-conference-strengthening-faith-and-testimony?lang=eng#10-10791_000_12hales (accessed 6/23/14).

[4] He further explained, “Today I make you a promise. It’s a simple one, but it is true. If you will listen to the living prophet and the apostles and heed our counsel, you will not go astray.” M. Russell Ballard, “His Word Ye Shall Receive,” Ensign. May, 2001. P. 66.

[5] http://thestyleofbeing.blogspot.com/2014/06/mormonism-feminism-and-being-snarky.html (accessed on 6/24/14)

[6] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us.” Gender Conference, October 2013. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng (accessed on 6/24/14)


Comments

Loyalty in the Church — 18 Comments

  1. R.L.E. is Richard L. Evans, long-time voice of the Spoken Word broadcast, a future apostle, and then a member of the editorial board of the Improvement Era.

    Not recognizing his initials is, I’m afraid, symptomatic of the assumptions of this post and the uninformed, ungrounded opinions so freely expressed throughout the bloggosphere in recent weeks.

    I would never invite someone to “just leave” as you characterize the hard-nosed, knee-jerk, obeyers-of-counsel-at-all-costs. But you do not in any way correctly characterize the loyalty of people like me. We do not “discard all critique” (I think you mean “criticism,” no?), and we do not “discard conflicting information” or “reject” out of hand whatever conflicts with our loyalty to the Church, the gospel, and Jesus Christ. You condescend to us as so very often has been done by more knowledgeable people than you: People whom you agree with are smart and reasonable and bright and right; people whom you disagree with are “blindly obedient” to a dictatorial hierarchy, thoughtless, witness, and stupid.

    No. You are wrong, as are all the others whose lack of imagination and lack of understanding leads you to be so dismissive and misrepresentative of people like me. We think about the issues at least as deeply as you do, and we choose to sacrifice “pride, opinion, or material advantage” — but not truth — by admitting that we are fallible human beings with the instincts of fallen man, willing to correct our first, ignorant responses. We are willing to take counsel, and are not stubborn, prideful, or willful (at least at the moment). A little humility from those who condemn us for loyalty is in order — especially from someone who is so ignorant of the Latter-day Saint past and the currents that have brought us to this particular issue and the handling of it that he didn’t instantly recognize Richard L. Evans as the author of that editorial.

  2. Ardis, wouldn’t you fit into the third category I point out? From your description of where you sit, it sure seems like it: “This group recognizes the problems and complexities of Mormon history and an all-male ecclesiastical authority, but they do not see themselves as opposed to hierarchical obedience. This position has its tensions, but it is also here where spiritual growth and creativity is forged and where many find Mormonism beautiful and enriching, despite current temperaments of the Church itself. Not all Mormons are blindly obedient, and not all dissenters are worthy of the brand apostate.”

  3. I appreciate how you laid this out, Konden. You did well to avoid a simple dichotomy and recognize that this is a spectrum.

  4. Ardis, I think you failed to read the entire article. There were three categories you could fall under. Kondin, I wish we all fell in the 3rd catagory. It seems we would be able to follow the words of our prophets and also be willing to accept criticism without assuming apostasy of the critic. I enjoyed this. Thank you.

  5. Yeah, I think Ardis missed the section about the third group, but then so did I, probably because of the initial premise that there are “two basic groups”. It might help to adjust the language in that third paragraph.

  6. It might be worth noting that Elder Hales’ statement was not only quoting Harold B. Lee, but also quoting section 21. This is significant because there is some nuance in that section that seems to be glossed over, particularly the fraught and complementary relationship between “patience” and “faith” with respect to loyalty that is hinted at, combined also with the implicit recognition that church leaders are not always speaking God’s words (if they were, we could simply receive them as God’s own words, not “as if” they were his own words).

  7. Trevor, I just clarified that, thanks for the input. Ardis, I just filled out the initials, thanks for your input as well.

  8. I think people are missing Ardis’ point. Those in number one are both the same and therefore exponentially fewer than those in number three. Blind obedience is almost completely a fiction generated by those who like to think of themselves as independent and superior in a mirror image of what they consider self-righteous. Everyone struggles, everyone questions, everyone has moments of doubt, but the difference is between those who see them as stumbling blocks and those who see them as stepping stones.

  9. I would take issue with characterizing the opposition side as valueing openness and honesty about history.

    John Dehlin has been aggressively censoring just about every viewpoint that disagrees with his over on forums he controls, deleting old Internet content that possibly paints him in a bad light… and of course it’s old news that he’s always been dismissive of just about anything in the history that doesn’t match with Grant Palmer’s opinion and other prominent critics.

    Kate Kelly herself has been hugely hostile to other competing feminist voices within the LDS Church. Calls them “not real feminists”, etc.

    So it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that your first group is “shut up, keep it to yourself, and follow the party line”, while the other side is all about openness, accuracy tolerance, love, hope and fluffy bunnies.

  10. Seth, your comment never vanished, it was still in the approval process. This point was meant to get at your concern: “The former group cannot accept that “the Brethren” would ever fail to support good principles, so all critique to the contrary is discarded and ignored….They are loyal to the Church and its leaders, and any information that flies in the face of that loyalty is rejected. The latter group recognizes and anticipates Church fallibility, and as such, remains loyal to reason and conscience and out of loyalty, rejects whatever contradicts.”

    Concerning your points on Dehlin and Kelly, that would fit under the category of “rejects whatever contradicts” their sense of loyalty to themselves and their sense of “conscience.” I’m not trying to say there is only one direction of mental editing. I’ve also seen it going both ways.

  11. Well, they like to claim they are loyal to reason anyway. I’ve found they tend to be just as irrational as the rest of us most of the time however. Dehlin is still clinging to the silly idea that DNA evidence has anything to do with seriously refuting the Book of Mormon narrative, for instance – despite having it explained to him repeatedly why it’s a non-issue. He’s simply more loyal to his own disaffection narrative than he is to evidence or reason.

    Feel free to delete that query comment I made about my post.

  12. “Dehlin is still clinging to the silly idea that DNA evidence has anything to do with seriously refuting the Book of Mormon narrative, for instance – despite having it explained to him repeatedly why it’s a non-issue.”

    I’ve read all the arguments trying to reduce this to a non-issue and been unimpressed. So if this is your evidence of Dehlin’s dishonesty and lack of commitment to reason, I’m sure you can do better.

  13. Is it ok to lead a movement within the Church? Is it an acceptable way to spark policy change? Obviously it’s a great way to be noticed.

  14. I would appreciate any reference that shows Kate Kelly has said that other feminists in the LDS Church who differ from her in viewpoint are not real feminists. I am not expressing doubt here; but, I would appreciate the help identifying those instances in which Kelly made such comments. Thanks.

  15. Pingback: Mormons are from Mars and Venus and Places Inbetween | Out of the Best Blogs

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