"So this Sunday I've been asked to teach Relief Society on one of my two least favorite talks from this past conference.....the Dallin Oaks talk entitled 'No Other Gods'."
This was the first e-mail I saw that day. It came from a friend who, as she would later explain, felt like her Relief Society presidency had chosen this talk for the basis of a lesson and asked her to teach this lesson specifically because of how my friend feels about gender issues and same sex marriage1. Her request was that I help her 1) reconcile how she feels politically with how she feels religiously with the things Church leaders say on the topics, and 2) organize a lesson around this talk that wouldn't leave her fuming and unedified after teaching it.
(For the remainder of this post, I'll be addressing my friend. It's just easier to write the post this way)
One aspect of Elder Oaks' talk that was discomforting was that it didn't seem to have much to do with putting God first in our lives except in the context of marrying earlier, having more kids, and rejecting same sex relationships. I remember feeling the same way when I first heard the talk. When I heard it, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, "oh here goes Elder Oaks again." And then I tuned him out.
Reading the talk again now, it seems less grating to me (though parts of it still make me roll my eyes). Having removed myself from the context of the current events at the time it was given, I am a little better able to see some of the principles outside of the application. This talk was given at the first General Conference after the US Supreme Court issued a decision that upheld the overturn of Prop 8 in California. It was also during the first protest by Ordain Women. Elder Oaks' talk took clear swings at each of those events. It also took up one of his hobby horses from past talks as he spoke against the societal trends of later marriage and fewer children.
So how do you make a lesson out of this kind of material? You don't. In fact, my advice is to ignore all these things in your lesson. They're too controversial and too emotionally charged to lead to any kind of productive conversation in a large group discussion (by large group, I mean larger than 4-5). So just don't do it. Go find some other talks on the same principle of false gods and work from those. You might find such resources here, here, and here.
There's the answer to one question. Now you can go write your lesson. Let me know how it goes.
The harder question is how to reconcile how you feel politically, religiously, and the things Church leaders say on these topics. It's a hard place to be in. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was that, during the height of the 2012 election season, I started to feel that the spaces at church and among the saints were no longer safe spaces for me, or for anyone who felt that US social policy shouldn't mirror LDS moral codes. It's a really scary feeling to walk into church -- a place that should feel safe, and a place where one should be able to open their heart to the Lord and their peers -- and feel fear of ostracism. Especially when you've employed the same processes of exploration and confirmation for your political beliefs as you have over religious truths.
Eventually, all this anxiety over-boiled, and so I started writing. I started speaking out 2.
What gave me the confidence to speak out was a combination of a few things. An important epiphany I had was that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an organized implementation of eternal principles. It is an entity that exists in a temporal world and has to deal with temporal issues. The Church, therefore, lobbies for social policies that are consistent with its mission. It can and should do that. I recognize that legalized same sex marriage, and broader acceptance of homosexual couples as part of society, will make it harder for the Church to convert and retain members. I get it. The earthly organization has to get involved in politics sometimes. That doesn't really bother me.
It bothers me more when leaders try to make it seem that spiritual worthiness is dependent on conformity to the political priorities of the temporal body of the Church. And I feel like Elder Oaks was attempting to do exactly that. It worked, too. I had seen people on Facebook commenting prior to conference that they were changing their opinions on legalized same sex marriage because of discomfort with imposing their religious preferences on others. Then after this talk, some of them reversed course because they felt that Elder Oaks had accused them of not living up to their covenants. I'm convinced this was the outcome Elder Oaks wanted.
So how do I maintain my faith when I feel like Church leaders are manipulating the members into policy positions that aren't essential to living the Gospel? With a lot of reading, I've come to the conclusion that even the highest leaders of the Church have opinions and biases that manifest in the way they interpret the Gospel. Some of those interpretations I agree with, some of them I don't. What's comforting to me is that, in some cases, not even all of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve agree with each other.
There have been deep disputes over matters of doctrine and policy in the history of the Church. Hugh B. Brown and Ezra Taft Benson were worlds apart on the priesthood ban (Elder Brown wanting to rescind the ban in the fifties, and Elder Benson being a staunch opponent of Elder Brown's attempts to do so). And even today, it seems that there is disagreement among the top leaders about how much members are expected to conform their political positions to the Church's.
Take for example, Elder Uchtdorf's talk from April of 2013. It was praised by members of all sorts. And one of the most inspiring messages he gave in that talk was "we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences...[and]...The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples."
If the Apostles don't agree with each other in every respect, how on earth am I supposed to agree and conform to every opinion and message given by every one of them? Simply put, I can't. But it's comforting to know that I don't have to. I can disagree with them on some matters and still have absolute faith that the eternal principles they are trying to teach me are true and applicable to my life.
I feel like the notion that we have to obtain perfect alignment of our cultural and social beliefs with every statement the Church leaders make to be a false god in and of itself. Let's try to keep some perspective3, 4.
1 So far as I know, she mostly shares my opinions on these matters. If you feel like I haven't been clear enough on my stances in the past, I wholly accept the Church's teachings that marriage between man and woman was ordained of God and that sexual activity outside of such a marriage runs contrary to His will. And I also wholly accept the Eleventh Article of Faith. Which is part of why I believe same sex marriage should be legal. If you want my opinions on gender issues in the Church, you can read up on those here.
2 And since I know someone will want to bring up that if I'm feeling anxiety, perhaps I should change my views. The problem with that idea is that I've never felt guilty for having my views. I've never felt anxiety over my views. I've only ever felt anxiety at the way other members treat me for having my views. That's a pretty substantial difference.
3If you're writing lengthy blog posts about how Disney's Frozen is indoctrinating children to the homosexual agenda, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god
4Likewise, if you're repeatedly writing lengthy blog posts about how Mormon culture has it all wrong, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god.