When my brother Chris read my post “Less is More in Mormon Church Meetings,” he wrote some excellent comments on that post immediately, but also had more to say. Below is his guest post, followed by links to Chris’s other guest posts on supplysideliberal.com.
In the September 2018 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”), the President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson, and the next in line and current 1st Counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, spoke of revelation and referred to Satan in talking about the proper name of the Church and about the Proclamation on the family (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World”).
This is a big deal.
It’s not as though the words are never used. In my lifetime there have been about 4,700 talks or sermons at Church general conferences; the word “revelation” has come up almost 3,900 times, and the word “Satan” has come up more than 1,800 times.
It’s not that I take the words literally. If you view “revelation” as a Moses-on-Sinai theophany, and “Satan” as ultimate evil personified, then every use is a big deal by definition. That’s not me, but it is descriptive of mainstream orthodox Church members. Most importantly, Presidents Nelson and Oaks know that about mainstream orthodox members, and know they are calling on those literalist beliefs when they use the words.
Without pretending to read minds, what I hear in the references to revelation and Satan is an argument by authority and fear, suggesting that these men see existential threats about which reason and persuasion have failed and all that’s left is authority and fear. Couched in the language of the Church, these are calls to arms against an enemy.
The Name: President Nelson says the name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This scans as trivially true. But he then says to use nicknames is “a major victory for Satan.” Fighting words.
Escalating to such an extent says to me that the word “Mormon” has become dangerous, has become a near existential threat that must be addressed. To make sense of “threat” I reflect on phrases I have heard and used in the 21st century: “big tent Mormonism,” “More Than One Way to Mormon” (which I associate with the Sunstone Educational Foundation around 2016), and “middle-way Mormons” (More millennial Mormons are choosing a middle way — neither all-in nor all-out of the faith, Salt Lake Tribune, September 29, 2018, an article in which I was quoted). Considering these phrases, it feels like President Nelson is saying NO--rejecting the phrases, rejecting the words, rejecting the idea. His emphasis on the proper name, and most importantly his rejection of nicknames, stands as a powerful reinforcement of boundaries. It suggests “Mormon” as it has come to be used threatens the integrity of the Church. That “Mormon” allows too much inside the tent. The Church has lost control of the word (not legally, but sociologically) but cannot afford to lose control of who claims it.
The sense of boundary, of defining ins and outs all over again, is reinforced by post-conference reports of members being challenged with claims of heterodoxy or apostasy for slipping in a “Mormon” in the wrong place. On a personal level, I recognize an outing. I am “ethnically” Mormon to the nth degree. But I feel excluded from the body of the Church by having the name reinforced. I respect the Church’s requests (although the lack of an adjective form is causing conniptions for everyone I know). But I don’t sustain the move, I don’t think it is necessary or wise, I don’t believe. Yet by his rhetorical choices, President Nelson has made the name an article of faith, which now defines me as an outsider.
Why is a noted heart surgeon with decades of experience in high church callings resorting to “revelation” and “Satan”? I hear the call to authority and fear as the last arrows in his quiver. President Nelson has tried reason and persuasion. He spoke to the name issue in the April 1990 general conference. In the following conference, in October 1990, Gordon B. Hinckley countered with a call to make good use of the nickname “Mormon” and addressed Elder Nelson’s earlier address and arguments, by name. Argument has been tried, and failed. This time around, Hinckley is gone and Nelson is in charge. With what might be heard as petulance and is certainly defensive and last-straw-ish, President Nelson says (emphasis in the original):
It is not a name change.
It is not rebranding.
It is not cosmetic.
It is not a whim.
And it is not inconsequential.
Instead, it is a correction. It is the command of the Lord.
I think the name correction is a point President Nelson sincerely feels is mandatory, a must have. And the only thing he’s got left to make the point is authority and fear.
The Proclamation: About the Proclamation (understood to be in opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQI issues generally), President Oaks says: “Modern revelation defines truth as a ‘knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come’ . . . That is a perfect definition for the plan of salvation and ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World.’” And then punches it up with “Satan . . . seeks to destroy God’s work . . . He also seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing.”
As I have written elsewhere, for a church and religion built on gender essentialism--that declares a personified embodied gendered essentially cis male God the Father, and a weakly recognized but still embodied gendered essentially cis female Mother in Heaven—there is no room for homosexuality or same-sex marriage or family structures other than binary pairs. Where gender is essential and defining, LGBTQI issues are threatening. In practical effect, the Church’s only option is exclusion.
But why is a highly respected jurist with equally many decades of high church experience resorting to “revelation” and “Satan”? I hear the call to authority and fear as the last arrows in his quiver. President Oaks knows the arguments have been made in courts across the country—and that they have failed. The Proclamation was written to assemble church teachings about family and gender and marriage so that it could be presented to courts (starting with an amicus brief in Hawaii in 1995) to argue for an overriding interest in preserving one-man-one-woman marriage. The argument failed in the courts, partly because society has moved, and partly because science and (secular) history are on the other side. The result is that from and after Obergefell in 2015 the Church and especially President Oaks has moved to “revelation” and “Satan” rhetoric.
I think the opposition to same-sex marriage is a point President Oaks sincerely feels is mandatory, a must have. And the only thing he’s got left to make the point is authority and fear.
Doing my own prophesying here, I think this is dangerous territory for the Church, as it would be for any church. As I read Western culture in the 21st century, including at least two generations younger than me, I think “in or out—follow me or bust” rhetoric is more likely than not to end at out and bust. There is a risk (and I hear the whisperings) that the name comes across as trivializing revelation and criticizing past authority, leading to a far-reaching re-assessment of the value and power of authority. There is a risk (and I hear the whisperings) that the LGBTQI issues are not believed. That there are now and will be a growing number of members viewing the Church’s stance as opinion demanding but not deserving loyalty. Certainly I hear these whisperings among people who are inclined to disagree anyway. But from surprising corners I hear comments like “I agree with the principle but not the method.”
What does it mean when you shoot your last arrow and it doesn’t strike the target?
Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:
In addition, Chris is my coauthor for