Many years ago, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck famously wrote that new ideas in science don’t win by persuasion, but rather because those who oppose those ideas simply die out. With each child born and then coming of age accustomed to the new ideas (and lacking attachments to the old ones), society moves further and further away from the old ideas. We could say much the same about religion, too. Indeed, the Mormon Church let us know recently how they will be handling their future as a religion. When I saw what they had to say, I thought about Max Planck’s words–and I’ll show you why today.
A Few Places Vacant at a Crowded Table.
Last weekend, while I was off prancing around evergreen forests like the carefree mountain-nymph I am at heart, the Mormon church body had its regularly-scheduled jamboree in Salt Lake City.
Well, more properly it was called the 187th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These rowdy shindigs take place around April and October each year and are an opportunity for the big names in the religion to blather at their flocks about where the Mormon Church is heading ideologically and strategically.
One of the many speakers at this particular conference was Dallin Oaks, who is on their Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The men in this group are like cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church–way up the chain of command, second only to the group’s president. Perhaps most importantly they’re the ones who actually select the next president when a current one dies. (A whole series of secondary councils exist as well, called the Quorum of the Seventy. There are local Seventies too. It gets weirder from there. And here you thought the city-state government of fifteenth-century Florence was convoluted!)
Dallin Oaks’ speech can be found here, if you are in the mood to listen to an ancient bigot-for-Jesus brag that his church will be bigoted-for-Jesus as long as he’s in charge of it–er, sorry, as long as totally Jesus so decrees it. It’s clear that the Mormon Church’s upper hierarchy is getting quite alarmed by Americans’ sharp shift toward equality and compassion for LGBTQ people, and so Dallin Oaks felt it necessary to reiterate his dedication to his tribe’s persecution and harassment of that group.
The hilarious thing is that he laboriously backs up his assertions from Bible quotes, Book of Mormon quotes, and quotes from previous Mormon leaders. It’s quite a ponderous speech and I couldn’t help but erupt into laughter as I watched his video.
I wonder if he realizes just how easy it is to tell why he’s going to all this trouble.
Dissection of a Bigot.
The official bigotry-for-Jesus starts about five minutes in.1 I knew this was where he was going before even hearing him say the words, incidentally. It doesn’t take many dogwhistles to clue me in, these days.
Here’s the bit I mean:
The restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the inspired family proclamations which I will discuss later are essential teachings to guide mortal preparation for exaltation. Even as we must live with the marriage laws and other traditions of a declining world, those who strive for exaltation must make personal choices in family life according to the Lord’s way whenever that differs from the world’s way.
Remember please that exaltation to Mormons means becoming godlings of their very own planet and begetting that planet’s people upon the women they marry on Earth during this lifetime–if they’re one of the few Mormons to marry in an official Mormon temple ceremony, of course, and unless of course the couple divorces. In that case, the couple has to be unsealed (meaning supernaturally separated) so that they can go be sealed to someone else in another official temple wedding. See, if people who were officially sealed are not officially unsealed after a divorce, then after they die the two warring spouses might well discover themselves godding together somewhere. Obviously this is why there are so many planets in the ‘Verse that don’t have any people on them. It must be like The War of the Roses in the afterlife! (The kittens are staring at me because I keep giggling over here.)
So the nice man in the suit and
magic underwear temple garments is saying that if someone doesn’t adhere to what he calls “the Lord’s way,” then they won’t get to be gods of their own planets. It’s a heckuva threat, considering what a prize Mormons consider exaltation to be. (What on earth would Christians do, if they couldn’t use threats to get their way?) That’s literally what they used to evangelize my Evil Ex back in our younger days: “Don’t you wanna be god of your own planet in Heaven?” (To his immense credit, Biff laughed and said no, he’d clean toilets if need be as long as he got into Heaven at all. The Mormon missionaries evangelizing him had no clue in the world what to say to that.) Of course, women don’t get to be goddesses of their own planets. They get to birth kabillions of people on their husband’s planet. But who cares what women think anyway, amirite Dallin Oaks?
He considers humanity’s progress toward equality to be indicative of “a declining world,” too. But as I’ve pointed out many times in the past, the world’s not declining in morality. It’s just moving away from religion, is all. We may face setbacks, sometimes even devastating ones, but we’re gradually moving forward as a species despite the kicking and screaming of people just like Dallin Oaks.
Of course, since progress is heading in a direction that Dallin Oaks doesn’t like and finds scary, he’s going to oppose it with vigor. He’s not dense. He knows that the better off people are, the less they need weird religions like his. There’s literally nothing good–by despots’ reckoning–about a huge decline in world hunger or about world poverty getting cut in half. Despots need people to be desperate: hungry, poor, sick, disenfranchised, angry, and frightened. It seems to me that every tyrant who’s ever lasted more than a fortnight in power has had widespread support from people stuck in that exact headspace.
And, too, a person in a privileged group–which benefits greatly from the status quo that their leaders helped orchestrate and continue to maintain–is going to be upset and nervous about losing any of that privilege. They won’t want to see any changes in that status quo for a variety of reasons. Losses like that are a signal that their time as a dominant force is ending. A must-read essay from The Weekly Sift calls this condition privilege distress. This condition is behind the lamentably-common Christian whining about their intolerance not being tolerated by their ideological enemies. As that blogger puts it:
Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism— it goes on and on.
Since Dallin Oaks is a high-ranking member of pretty much all the privileged groups in America (white, wealthy, cisgender, male, mostly-able-bodied, English-speaking, Christian–even if many fundagelicals would quibble that point), he’s going to see any peeling-away of his privilege as a tangible wrong done to him personally.
If you ask me, there ain’t many sights as distasteful to see as that of Christians acting like they’re getting picked on when they’re told they must follow the same rules as everybody else and not bully, shun, or mistreat those they’ve designated as their enemies. Christians are the people who should care the most about the marginalized people of the world, as well as those under specific life-or-death orders to be so compassionate and kindhearted that their entire tribe is marked by those traits and known the world over for it.2
But here I am, and here you are, and here Dallin Oaks is.
Why Dallin Oaks is Not in a Position to Talk.
Only rarely have I found a Christian who is not a spluttering little factory of lurid threats. It’s like it’s all they’ve ever done. Dallin Oaks, despite having a name that sounds like it came straight out of a Hunger Games novel, is not one of those rare exceptions to the rule, either. He acts like it’s the biggest tragedy in the world that yes, indeed, Mormons must “live with the marriage laws. . . of a declining world.” (No, I don’t think he said much at all about the horrific effects his tribe’s bigotry has had upon those they’ve harassed and marginalized. He only has so much sympathy to give, and he’s already used it all up on himself.)
Of course, this sure ain’t the very first time that Mormons have faced the lamentable situation that they find themselves in today.
In fact, this isn’t even the first dust-up they’ve ever had over marriage.
Back in the 1840s, after establishing enclaves in Utah (at the time not even a territory), they got told by their leader to begin the practice plural marriage, which is basically polygyny (one man married to as many women and girls as he could manage). They were told that if they didn’t do this, then they couldn’t go to Heaven and become gods themselves one day.
Mormons ferociously defended their misogynistic system. But then the United States declared that it was going to start confiscating the group’s property if they kept holding to this doctrine. In response, their leader at the time, Wilford Woodruff, claimed in 1890 that his god had told him via “vision and revelation” that the Mormon Church had to end this practice to avoid losing all their stuff. (Who’d have guessed that iron chariots were still in use in the 19th century?!?) The quorum, for their part, agreed unanimously. At the next jamboree in October of 1890, the news was shared with attending Mormons, who took it more or less amicably.
So officially, plural marriage was out and monogamy was in. Unofficially, though, the new doctrine took a while to sink in, and for some Mormons it never did. Some really fundamentalist segments of Mormonism broke away in schism over plural marriage, practicing it more or less secretly even to the present day. But by and large Mormons learned to deal with the new law. By the 1980s, when I was a fundamentalist myself, we were getting told by our own leaders that it was a bad idea to bring up plural marriage and its revocation around Mormon missionaries (sorta like how evangelicals react to mention of televangelists’ greed or their various sex scandals).
Knowing this bit of history about the Mormon Church, then, I hear someone like Dallin Oaks talking about what he views as a divine absolute and I just laugh and laugh.
The rest of his speech utilizes the same sorts of talking points we usually hear out of evangelical bigots-for-Jesus. But he’s also telling his tribe something that he thinks they desperately need and want to hear.
Sounding the Horn.
He’s telling the most fervent of his followers that nothing whatsoever is going to change.
And in its way, this dogwhistle message is as important to the rest of us as it is to his flocks.
For example, at the 10:15 mark, he informs his audience that the Supreme Court decision regarding equal marriage overturned “thousands of years of marriage being limited to a man and a woman.” It’s a weird thing for a Mormon to say considering that barely a century ago his own church had demanded polygamous marriages of its followers for pretty much the exact same reason.
He may well have felt more of a pressing need to drill down vocally on his tribe’s culture war because of two of the empty spaces at the table during that conference. Two of the other top Mormon leaders were too sick and weak to attend: Thomas Monson, their president since 2008, and Robert Hales, a member of the Twelve since 1994 (in fact he died on October 1st, on the last day of the conference). Considering the advanced age of most of the biggest names in the group and how many have died recently, a change is coming to Mormon leadership soon. .
They’re telling the rank-and-file, Yes, someone new will be leading us soon. But he won’t change our doctrines or policies, don’t worry.
You won’t ever have to call him Daddy.
The Pot Must Be Stirred.
More and more, though, this old guard of Mormon leaders does not speak for the flocks. PRRI discovered in 2016 that some 72% of Mormons supported LGBTQ anti-discrimination measures generally, while 38% opposed laws that allowed business to discriminate legally against same-sex couples (I’m betting that how questions were worded had a lot to do with that odd little statistical burp). More importantly, however, at least to people like Dallin Oaks, only 66% of Mormons opposed same-sex marriage, while 26% support it.
And I’m betting a great many of those Mormons who support LGBTQ equality are young. Age is, simply put, the best indicator there is of a person’s acceptance or rejection of LGBTQ people’s rights. Across the board, we see that the younger a survey respondent is, the more progressive they are. For example, that 66% above represents all Mormons as a group. But 58% of younger Mormons oppose equal marriage, compared to 70% of older Mormons. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s definitely there. And Mormons’ median age is rising right along with that of almost every Christian flavor, as the Pew Religious Landscape Survey told us a couple of years ago (from 41 to 43), so this demographic bomb is looming over them just like it is with evangelicals.
Further, the Pew survey tells us that Mormons are relaxing their standards in other ways as well. Dallin Oaks also spoke against cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births, you see. The percentage of married Mormons dropped from 71% to 66% between 2007 and 2014. Their rate of cohabitation held strong for now at 3%, but the percentage of Mormons who’d never gotten married rose from 12% to 19%. So I’m guessing that it’s only a matter of time for them on that score as well. I’ve been hearing rumors that way more Mormon men than women are leaving the religion (apparently their sex imbalance ratio is worse than any other flavor of Christianity, except for Jehovah’s Witnesses). That kind of a gender imbalance tends to lead to people making decisions for themselves rather than aligning with the party lines.
Hey, you know that morality is just a slippery slope! One day you’re drinking soda and you’re all happy and all, but the next thing you know you’re engaging in a totally consensual adult relationship on your own terms! Oh! Won’t anybody think of the rational adults making decisions for themselves?!? I know, right? Jeez, what’s next? Playing D&D?
Moreover, though the Mormon Church itself operates an official site for gay Mormons, I don’t think they’ll get much headway. They use that ickie “same-sex attraction” terminology, which is a sure sign to me that they’re going to repel a lot of the people they want to reach. Despite that halfway effort, clearly aimed at stanching the flow of criticism of their bigotry, they can’t fully mute the voices of LGBTQ people within their ranks–or the families and allies of those folks.
Neither can they successfully offer halfway-there proposals that only partially alleviate their culture war. In 2015, that was their tactic–demanding the ability to legally discriminate, while also demanding that gay people stay in the closet or stay celibate (where oh where have we heard that one before? Oh yes..). That’s right about when they had that scandal over demanding that children of same-sex couples be barred from Mormon rituals–a scandal that caused a “mass resignation” from the religion when many thousands of them finally hit their limits and quit.
We’re going to talk more about this method of marginalization next time, because it’s an important one. So I’ll just mention for now that it appears to be their running tactic. Basically, they want to maintain some control over those who oppose their bigotry and to dictate how the LGBTQ conversation’s going to run. But while they’re busy trying to grab for whatever power they can glean at others’ expense, the conversation’s sprinting ahead of them amid wild laughter and rainbows, without a care for what the old guard is doing behind them in that stultifying circle of wagons they’ve pulled so tightly around themselves.
Equality is the future. In fact it is the only future. I genuinely believe that equality–for LGBTQ people, for women, for people of color, for everyone–is inevitable (eventually).
The Mormon Church can either change and be a relevant part of that vibrant future, or they can hold fast to their bigotry, become totally irrelevant as a cultural force, and miss out on that future.
Those are their two only options.
The many Mormons who don’t agree with their leaders’ bigotry–and there are a great many–should be hearing speeches like Dallin Oaks’ diatribe and understanding that they will not change the Mormon church one iota–at least, not until their generation takes the reins of leadership. There will be no change or reform from within–not anytime soon.
See, Max Planck’s idea about how new ideas take hold in a society is sometimes paraphrased One funeral at a time, humanity makes progress, but it’s not death itself that leads to progress. It’s the movement of young people toward progress that creates that change. If enough of them stand for an idea, then inevitably some of them will turn into a culture’s next leaders. They will drag their tribe forward–if they can–even though it may take a long time. Hey, it took the Catholics like 350-ish years and a 13-year-long formal investigation to apologize for mistreating Galileo. Or those young people will grow up embracing new ideas like LGBTQ equality, see that forcing their tribe to change is too much trouble, and leave to make new groups.
That is what Mormonism’s current leaders fear the most. Young people are starting to leave Mormonism behind, while the ones remaining tend to be slightly more progressive than their older peers in the religion. How many more losses in membership and money will it take for their god to tell one of their various prophets that he’s changed his mind about anti-LGBTQ bigotry? Will they wait till the last second, as they did on plural marriage? Or will they reverse course before they hit a tipping point? What will win, their rigidity and dogmatic stubbornness, or their pragmatism and greed?
(Me personally, I think pragmatism and greed. They’ve got a track record here, don’t forget.)
I also wonder if Dallin Oaks is going to make a play for the presidency of the religion, given how the quorum as a whole reminds me of the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. I just hope they televise the ritual where they bang at big rocks with swords to see who can chip it the hardest.
With that hope in our hearts, I’ll see y’all next time!
TRIAL BY STONE
2 You snerk, you lose. But here’s a Barna survey about how people see Christians–bearing in mind the usual caveats about Barna. Also, yeah, their use of the word “Pharisee” is wrong. But the diagrams are interesting.