Dallin H. Oaks and Subtext

Have you ever listened to an entire talk on a subject wherein the subject was determinedly left unmentioned? I heard such a talk last Sunday night: Dallin H. Oaks’ CES devotional broadcast to single adults. The talk was titled “Truth and Tolerance,” but another, more intrepid Apostle might have named the same talk, “A Defense of the LDS Position on Gay Marriage.”

While never mentioning same-sex attraction, Elder Oaks gave several references that made it clear to the discerning listener what he had in mind. For example,

“We also know that evil exists, and that some things are simply, seriously, and everlastingly wrong.”

“It is well to worry about our moral foundation.”

“At the extreme level, evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil, are now legalized and paraded like a banner.”

These statements were linked with such evil actions as theivery, lying, cheating, piercing of body parts, and revealing attire. But those with a background and knowledge of the Church’s stance on gay marriage and its involvement in Prop 8 in California could not help but recognize the subtext of this talk.

The speech proferred four guidelines for knowing when political involvement is appropriate on the part of Church members.

  1. First, when believers in Jesus Christ take their views of truth into the public square they must seek the inspiration of the Lord to be selective and wise in choosing which true principles they seek to promote by law or executive action. Generally, they should refrain from seeking laws or administrative action to facilitate beliefs that are distinctive to believers, such as the enforcement of acts of worship, even by implication. Believers can be less cautious in seeking government action that would serve principles broader than merely facilitating the practice of their beliefs, such as laws concerning public health, safety and morals.
  2. Second, when believers seek to promote their positions in the public square, their methods and their advocacy should always be tolerant of the opinions and positions of those who do not share their beliefs.
  3.  Third, believers should not be deterred by the familiar charge that they are trying to legislate morality.  Many areas of the law are based on Judeo/Christian morality and have been for centuries.  Our civilization is based on morality and cannot exist without it.
  4. Fourth, believers should not shrink from seeking laws to maintain public conditions or policies that assist them in practicing the requirements of their faith where those conditions or policies are also favorable to the public health, safety or morals.  For example, even though religious beliefs are behind many criminal laws and some family laws, such laws have a long-standing history of appropriateness in democratic societies.  But where believers are in the majority they should always be sensitive to the views of the minority.

As Elder Oaks enumerated these points, the listener could barely restrain him/herself from comparing them with the Church’s recent involvement in Prop 8. Although Elder Oaks gave much tribute to tolerance, there was a clear unwritten message that tolerance should not extend to support of gay marriage legislation. Latter-day Saints walk a fine line, however; as we do not want to promote legislation which would limit our own freedom of religion.

We might see this talk as a lawyerly trick of rhetoric, using  code to make sure the faithful still get the “right” message while minimizing the PR hit and keeping a slippery grip on plausible deniability. But an equally credible approach is that he is simply following in the religious tradition of his predecessors. How many sections in the Doctrine and Covenants have subtexts, available only to the most allegiant members? And the Savior himself had this to say about his use of rhetoric:

Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?

He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13)

What do you think about Dallin Oaks’ technique in teaching about political participation? Do you agree with me that he was indeed speaking of gay marriage? Was it an effective way to deliver his message? Do you think his young adult audience “had ears to hear?”

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    My reaction to most of Oaks’s talks and speeches:

    Ugh.

  • http://thegooddemocrat.wordpress.com Dan

    so in being tolerant of other people’s positions and opinions, does that include calling their position, or behavior, or actions, or policies evil? He tells us to be tolerant of others in the same speech where he says:

    “At the extreme level, evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil, are now legalized and paraded like a banner.”

    Makes no sense to me. You cannot call someone evil, or their actions evil and then turn around and say, “but let’s be respectful to each other.”

  • Joseph

    But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

    Matthew 5:37

    It speaks for itself.

  • Thomas Parkin

    I believe truth is absolute and reality is transcendent. What is missing from the talk seems to be the humility necessary to admit that at all times, even at times when we are basically right, we are not in possession of absolute truth. The feeling that we are in possession of an absolute truth, on any topic, engenders what I see as a dangerous lack of curiosity. It tends to round off the gospel learning process through which we penetrate more deeply into truth and augment constantly, if slowly, our store of truth.

  • Clark

    You cannot call someone evil, or their actions evil and then turn around and say, “but let’s be respectful to each other.”

    Why not? I think adultery is evil but I think I can be respectful to adulterers.

  • Joseph

    Thomas,

    Very well said. I read through the entire talk and Elder Oaks speaks of being a watchman on the tower – his role of speaking of the enemy’s approach from afar off. However, he rarely, if ever, acknowledges how much we do NOT know about the subjects facing us today and the need to pursue further revelation to clarify them. If the challenges we face are different for each generation, would not the answers that met the need for one generations have to be further clarified or explored in more detail for another generation?

    I do not mean that we need to make truth relevant. But there is SO much more we have yet to discover and have revealed. Where is the searching for fuller answers?

  • Joseph

    ERROR – I meant, of course, “I do not mean that we need to make truth RELATIVE”.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    Hmmm. I agree that he probably meant same-sex marriage in the subtext, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that his talk was really about same-sex marriage and he just didn’t want to come out and say it. I often find that Oaks delivers talks like he’s establishing legal precedent (or whatever its called!): explaining the case at hand matters less than defining the guiding principles that allow us to decide not only this case but many other future cases. Thus, I think it can be said that he deliberately refrained from mentioning same-sex marriage explicitly, but he did so out of a calculated long-term strategy rather than trepidation.

  • http://richalger.blogspot.com Rich Alger

    I listened to the whole talk. He was very clear that he felt as if he was speaking on a topic the Spirit gave him and that he was giving a warning about approaching danger as a watchman on the tower.

    I sometimes wonder how I might have reacted to ancient prophets. Would I have recognized the message they gave as from God?

    I felt the talk was very reasoned. I am want to defer to Dallin Oaks on this. What good is a watchman if the warning is ignored or marginalized?

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    “I felt the talk was very reasoned.”

    I’m not trying to argue against your point, but does it make sense to “feel” that something is “reasoned”?

  • http://youshouldbe.net Gdub

    The comparison to Christ’s style of teaching is apt. Though extrapolating the subject of Gay Marriage fromt he talk is natural and easy (especially for those of us who were involved in the political process of it), the teaching is more effective due to it’s lack of specificity.

    What Elder Oaks nails down are the common principals at play in an innumerable number of current and future issues faced by church members. Though marriage issues are currently int he spotlight, this could apply just as equally to pornography, entitlement, racism, social injustice, or any other issues of the day.

    Personally, I’m thankful for talks that focus on principles and doctrine rather than rules and policy. It shows a respect for the maturity and intelligence of the audience; leaving it up to us to figure out how to apply the teaching.

  • http://thegooddemocrat.wordpress.com Dan

    Clark,

    Why not? I think adultery is evil but I think I can be respectful to adulterers.

    So you’ll go up to your adulterous friend and say “you’re evil for being adulterous, but please, let’s be respectful to each other.” Something’s wrong with that.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    When somebody finds out a college student is majoring in the humanities, the inevitable question is “What are you going to do with that?” If the discussion goes further, it’s always in favor of technology or business or something else with immediate monetary value. My answer was always that I was in search of an education, not job training.

    I think the question of sermon texts and subtexts is similar. When I read early- or mid-20th century sermons that focus on the specifics of hem length, or family size, or communism, or that knock down outdated science strawmen, they are useful today only as historical artifacts, not as sources of prophetic wisdom. On the other hand, sermons given by other prophets at the same conferences, addressing modesty, the purpose of earth life, war or freedom, and reliance on the Spirit, are very often as interesting and as valid as if they had been given at last April Conference. The one addresses bygone circumstance; the other addresses eternal principles.

    Elder Oaks’ listeners are perfectly capable of applying the principles he teaches to same-sex marriage over lunch this week, and applying the same principles to whatever issue comes to the fore in 2013. If his audience learns NOW to apply eternal principles to evolving problems, then they won’t be standing around next year and the year after that waiting for him or someone else to speak specifically to each future issue. They’ll then be disciples acting in accordance with the gospel, not mindless cogs in the machine waiting to be told what to do and how to think. They’ll have an education, not mere job training.

  • Clark

    So you’ll go up to your adulterous friend and say “you’re evil for being adulterous, but please, let’s be respectful to each other.” Something’s wrong with that.

    No, I wouldn’t do that. It’s not respectful.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    Ardis,

    If Oaks had not been beating this dead horse on a weekly basis since after the post-Prop 8 protests, we could probably all reasonably pretend that this talk wasn’t really about SSM. But for all of us who have listened to and read Oaks repeating this same high-nosed rhetoric, it becomes quite clear what he is referring to. He’s a a former lawyer and judge. He’s trained in the ability of saying one thing and acting as if he is saying something else.

  • mapman

    As one of those young adults in the audience, I’d say that most people were probably thinking about the gay marriage issue during the talk. But it also seemed fairly obvious to me that he was mainly talking about truth and tolerance in general and that he was giving these guidelines for these types of issues in general.

    Joseph, you said, “I read through the entire talk and Elder Oaks speaks of being a watchman on the tower – his role of speaking of the enemy’s approach from afar off. However, he rarely, if ever, acknowledges how much we do NOT know about the subjects facing us today and the need to pursue further revelation to clarify them.”
    The reason for Elder Oaks saying he was a watchman on the tower was obviously because he feels that the apostles and first presidency have gotten revelation about this and know more about it than the rest of us. This makes perfect sense in the context of Mormonism.

  • Marie

    I don’t see where anyone was called evil, certain behaviors were spoken of as evil. There is a big difference from calling out a behavior and trying to define an individual.

  • Marie

    Back to the OP, I think if he wanted to address SSM he would have outright said it. His purpose was to teach principles that could be applied to a number of issues/problems.
    Elder Oaks has never struck me as someone who tap dances around a subject, he’s always been pretty bold.

  • Clark

    I have to admit that Oaks has long been one of my favorite speakers. When I look at my list of favorite talks many of his are there. It’s interesting that some seem to be slamming him on the gay issue since it seems to me that in the 90′s he was one of the big voices pushing the Church away from a lot of the harsher rhetoric and divorcing instinct from behavior. That was a pretty big step.

    As for gay marriage I remain convinced the real issue is the mixing of Church and State on what is for many people a deeply religious issue. Get the State out of marriage and all these issues go away.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    I understand that’s your viewpoint, narrator. I also understand that your viewpoint is as divorced from reality as your claim that he has been addressing this or any other single issue on a weekly basis.

    You’re not even getting the job training. You’ve got the water cooler grousing down to a science, though.

  • NoCoolName_Tom

    Ardis and the Narrator,
    Could you find some common ground by agreeing that when Elder Oaks is speaking to large public audiences outside of General Conference for the past few years, he tends to speak about the interplay between Church and State in the American legal culture with an emphasis on the propriety of religious involvement in politics in certain cases, and that this subject lends itself well to discussion of the Church’s involvement in gay marriage legislation? And could you agree that such a subject could easily arise from Elder Oaks’s professional history and current Church calling and may not have to always carry allusions to Prop 8?

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    NoCool,

    It seems pretty clear to me that Oaks has take this message as his hobby horse following the Prop 8 aftermath. If you have evidence that he had been just as active about this issue prior to the Prop 8 fiasco, then please show me the way. And those ‘large public audiences’ have been almost entirely composed of Latter-day Saints. Following Prop 8 Oaks had the opportunity to take a truly Christian stance by recognizing the hurt caused by the Church’s support of taking away the rights of homosexuals. He had the opportunity of taking a Christlike approach to seek healing after the Church hurt so many people. But no, instead he decided to pretend that somehow the Church was the victim in all of this, and pressed even harder to stick the hurt of others in their faces by asserting the right to hurt and take away the rights of others, all the while condemning anyone who might utilize their free speech to protest against the Church’s caustic actions.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    Clark,

    “Get the State out of marriage and all these issues go away.”

    But the Church won’t support this action. Taking the state out of marriage would result in the legalization of gay marriage, and–according to “The Brethren” (TM)–the downfall of society and the destruction of marriage.

    No. Far from taking state out of marriage, the Church’s plan has been to fully bind the state and marriage and then use the former to enforce their own religious views on the latter.

    The Church learned well from their enemies in the late 19th century. While the early saints may have pointed to the separation of Church and state to protect their form of marriage, today’s saints want to shrink that separation as much as possible to use the state to force others to comply to their religious demands.

    Ugh. I hate getting into SMM debates.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    Ardis,

    I don’t even know what water cooler grousing is.

  • NoCoolName_Tom

    Narrator,
    I’m somewhat on board with you on Elder Oaks, but was just wondering about how much people here could at least agree on. There must be some overlap of agreement in regards to Oaks’s public speaking, I was just wondering how large it was.

  • Michelle

    I agree with comments 11 and 13. While I can definitely see that the principles he addressed could apply to Prop 8, I think they can also apply to other things. I personally love this kind of teaching. It demands a lot of us as listeners, and reinforces eternal truth, not just specific current issues (like Ardis said).

    As to the question about ‘feeling’ if something is ‘reasoned’ I would say that the answer is yes, because engaging a prophet’s words can “make sense” via the Spirit.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    19 in the 90′s he was one of the big voices pushing the Church away from a lot of the harsher rhetoric and divorcing instinct from behavior. That was a pretty big step.

    You know, if you read this talk from that perspective, it takes on an entirely different light.

    Clark, you and Ardis made me smile. Enjoyed your posts.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    NoCoolName_Tom — Oaks has taken meta analysis of this type as a sort of thing he has done for much longer than he has been a general authority.

    Narrator — many, many years ago, that was an Orson Scott Card handle. Is the sub-text of your using the handle that you really agree with/are Card? Of course not, but I just thought I’d note that sometimes the resonance jars me.

  • John Mansfield

    The range of snares conflicting with an LDS view of family life that Elder Oaks has talked about is fairly broad. Before President Monson and Elder Scott, it was Oaks who talked about single men putting off marriage. He has talked about divorce. Fours years ago in a broadcast on “Building a Righteous Posterity,” he said “[I]n many parts of the world where people are listening to this broadcast, the idea of having children has been rejected. Or the thought is that if you have one child that’s enough and a person is just foolish or unpatriotic to have more than one child. There are plenty of ideas out there in the world that work against the gospel plan. And as father Lehi said, ‘[There] must needs be an opposition in all things.’ We can’t expect to be applauded every time we do something that we know is right.”

    Those who listen to one of Oaks’ talks and only think “homosexual marriage subtext” may have a narrower view of his topic than Oaks does.

  • http://ldsaliveinchrist.com Jared

    I found Elder Oak’s talk a fine example of a prophet speaking to the issues of our day.

    I’m grateful that a man with his capacity is willing to follow the Savior and speak the words the Savior would speak if here.

    I came away from his talk with the feeling that the Lord is inspiring his spokesman to warn those who will listen that judgment is at the door of the Gentile nations.

  • http://thegooddemocrat.wordpress.com Dan

    Clark,

    As for gay marriage I remain convinced the real issue is the mixing of Church and State on what is for many people a deeply religious issue. Get the State out of marriage and all these issues go away.

    I agree.

  • WMP

    If Elder Oaks really wanted to talk specifically about SSM, he would have spoken specifically about SSM. He isn’t shy about these things. His comments had far broader applicability (as I think the OP acknowledges). But the bloggernacle *loves* to discuss SSM, so here we are.

    Personally, I was struck by Elder Oak’s statement that he expressed the “three absolute truths” addressed in his talk as “an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He closed his comments by stating: “I assure you my message is true.” Perhaps I am just naive, but I get the strong sense that Elder Oaks knows–really knows–that about which he speaks. It is a reminder to me not to take these things too lightly.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    The other major address that Oaks has given on this topic was a little less that two years ago at BYUI.
    http://newsroom.lds.org/article/oaks-religious-freedom

    He spoke about religious freedom explicitly in the context of SSM, where he infamously compared opponents of SSM to blacks in the civil rights struggle. He was highly criticized for that remark, and so it makes sense that he would want to avoid saying anything explicit on the topic, and instead emphasize the principles for the relationship between religion and the public square at work.

  • L.

    Threadjack, sorry, but oddly enough, the part that stood out to me the most was this from the second section

    “The weaker one’s belief in God and the fewer one’s moral absolutes, the fewer the occasions when the ideas or practices of others will confront one with the challenge to be tolerant. For example, an atheist has no need to decide what kinds and occasions of profanity or blasphemy can be tolerated and what kinds should be confronted.”

    I thought this was shoddy reasoning. For example, my athiest brother wouldn’t stand for someone using bad language around our grandparents or nieces and nephews – he’d ask them to stop because profanity is simply impolite, regardless of your belief in God. Religion is not a prerequisite for minding social mores and general manners.

  • Clark

    L, but for an atheist it’s still a social more. That is it really isn’t a moral issue but an issue of appropriateness. Like wearing jeans and a t-shirt to a black tie event. So there is a difference.

    Of course atheists can and do have absolute moral values. However grounding them is different.

    Unfortunately I think far too many people see atheists through a Nietzschean lens. Which is just unfair. (Although clearly there are atheists like that)

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    As I have seen them stated, both here and elsewhere, I do not disagree with the four main points that Elder Oaks. I may disagree with how he uses some of the terms, but not considerably.

  • JrL

    And what caught my attention was his reference to school prayer. “Generally, they should refrain from seeking laws or administrative action to facilitate beliefs that are distinctive to believers, such as the enforcement of acts of worship, even by implication.” But I’ll freely admit that I was putting my thoughts into his words ….

  • L.

    Clark, fair point and good comment. I suppose I thought his reference was a touch over the top, so it rubbed me the wrong way.

  • Clark

    JrL, I think Oaks has had a pretty pronounced and consistent position on Church/State separation which is different from many members. That’s why I found some of narrator’s comments above a bit funny. I have a sneaking suspicion he’d have difficulty finding justification for them in Oak’s words. (I might be wrong of course – I make no claims to have remotely heard every speech he’s given and almost certainly have forgotten a lot of the ones I have heard or read)

    L, I should qualify my comments in (35) somewhat. As I reread it I’m not sure I agree with all I wrote. It is possible for an atheist to think profanity ethically bad (say on purely utilitarian grounds). It’s just that I don’t think most do.

    I should also qualify the grounding issue. I think we have to distinguish the epistemological issues (how we know something is wrong) from the meta questions (why something is wrong). A Mormon might think God decides what is wrong or right on Utilitarian grounds (what maximizes everyone’s happiness) and an atheist might think the same thing. However a Mormon might say something is wrong because God said it without being able to support it via an utilitarian argument. (Say premarital sex) They might have faith there is utilitarian justification though. So atheists and Mormons can agree a lot on ethics but an atheist will typically demand some sort of argument quite different from what a Mormon would.

    And of course I’m just using utilitarianism as an example of a ethical realism that Mormons and atheists could share. I’m not saying either Mormons or atheists need be utilitarians.

  • Kris

    Jared, I love you.

  • http://latterdaymainstreet.com/ Chino Blanco

    Timely post, considering who was just appointed new chair of the National Organization for Marriage.

  • ExMoHoMoDon

    If Elder Oaks is certain about his recent contentions that gay marriage is a danger to society, and that extending equal protection under the law to homosexuals will somehow destroy religious liberty, then he had ample opportunity to make his case in Perry V Schwarzenegger as they were desperate for witnesses. Surely Elder Oaks missed an opportunity to defend the Mormon Church’s support of Prop 8 and to demonstrate once and for all that demonizing gay people and destroying their equal protection under the law was necessary for some Mormon Holy Cause. Don’t you think that the defendants in the trial would have loved to have Elder Oaks as a witness, since they produced only 2, and one was crazy? I don’t get it. If Prop 8 was a Holy Cause, worth Mormon members donating 21 million dollars and thousands of man hours, why was Elder Oaks MIA in defending it?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X