Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Church on Defense

Radio Free Mormon's most recent podcast features some interesting clips from a Salt Lake Tribune interview with Elder Steven Snow, the Executive Director of the Church History Department.  In it, Snow acknowledges that some members were confused about the legitimacy of the Gospel Topics essays and expresses regret that there was no way to specify that these essays were in fact approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (approximately 9:40):
It's interesting...I guess...I wouldn't have expected that people would have thought that a rogue history department would go do something like this, certainly in the church—that would be impossible.  And every step of the way, they [the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve] were reviewing it and reviewed it and approved it—what was published ultimately.  So it was unfortunate that we couldn't in some way indicate that....
Radio Free Mormon, of course, immediately points out the obvious:  you can add a notation in the byline or at the bottom of the page to alert readers that their leaders have signed off on these essays.  If the church really wanted to indicate that the material was approved by the prophet, it very easily could have.

But I think that Elder Snow's interview is indicative of a pervasive and ultimately flawed strategy of church leadership:  they're playing a lot of defense.  Many decisions and many speeches demonstrate a focus on retaining the loyal membership base instead of reaching out to those who are on the fence, those who are critics, and those who could be welcomed in from outside.  Big Tent Mormonism is not a thing, at least not anymore.  Today, it's Exactly This One Size Tent Only Mormonism.

The reason the unsigned essays feel like defense to me is because an obviously simple solution that could help members who are more aware of or more interested in troubling issues was avoided—because doing so makes it easier for members who aren't as aware or aren't as interested in troubling issues to ignore them.  If an apostle didn't say it or didn't even seem to approve it, why should we feel the need to absorb this information?  This focuses on preserving the faith of the core membership to the detriment of the faith-related inquiries of those who are no longer part of that core.

A similar issue arises later in the Elder Snow interview—Peggy Fletcher Stack makes the point that the essay on the priesthood ban stops short of calling Brigham Young a racist or even of an explicit acknowledgement that the policy was wrong.  This way, if you aren't having doubts about the church and you stumble across the article, you're not forced to grapple with questions of how a prophet's policy that was upheld by several subsequent prophets could have been wrong and how that might shed light on the possible failings of today's prophet.  But those glaring omissions certainly are not going to smooth things over with doubters or progressives who believe that an important step to healing racial issues in the church is an acknowledgement of and an apology for past wrongdoings.  It's still playing defense—protect who's in, but make no effort to reach out to who's not in or to who's not in enough.

The church's strategy here strikes me as defeatist and limiting.  It's like a soccer team that only puts defenders in the field.  They'll never score, but it's unlikely they'll allow any goals.  Notably, if all of your players stay in your backfield, that means the best possible outcome for you is a draw—zero to zero.  If you put some attackers on the other half of the field you may weaken your defense, but you'll actually open up the possibility of winning by giving yourself the opportunity to score.  An argument can be made that the church has chosen this strategy because it knows it can't score—it knows that its doctrine and its history and its scripture are uniformly incapable of converting the skeptics and the doubters.  So the church focuses exclusively on defending its core of brainwashed, all-in, dyed-in-the-wool, wholly committed members.  They've packed their lineup with ten fullbacks and they're all milling around inside the penalty box.  And honestly, that's just as likely to allow a goal by obstructing the goalkeeper's sight lines as it is to prevent a goal, but I think I've taken this metaphor far enough already.

Plenty of other examples of this defense-centric approach crop up in the recent past.  In Ballard's "Stay in the Boat" General Conference address, though he mentions that questions are fine and that the church will help rescue those who have fallen out of the boat, he doesn't provide any specific questions.  He certainly doesn't provide any specific answers, either, and instead opts to spend the majority of his time telling us to wear our life jackets and not to get distracted.  He pays lip service to those who are no longer in the boat but imparts no reasons or methods to return.  It's all about retaining the people who are already there, safely aboard the Good Ship Zion.

Ballard revisits this strategy a few years later, asking those who are struggling with their faith, "Where will you go?"  Though he acknowledges that some have left the church, he doesn't discuss where they have gone.  Nevertheless, he is quick to imply to those who are still invested in the church that there really is nowhere else to go.  This, again, discourages the attrition of faithful members while providing nothing that assuages the concerns of doubters, progressive Mormons, fringe members, or the people who are, theoretically, drowning in the sea of nothingness beyond the hull of the boat.

And perhaps no recent example of this attitude is quite so callous as the announcement that the policy of exclusion for LGBT children had been reversed.  Notice how this information is framed by the First Presidency, as reported by the faceless Newsroom:
  • Nelson talks about how exciting it is that this is a real-life revelation, but offers no explanation and no apology for the original policy and provides no sympathy for anyone hurt by it.
  • Oaks focuses on Christ's love and says that the "very positive policies...should help affected families," but also offers no explanation or apology for the original policy.  He mentions that families have been "affected," but does not describe what those effects may have been.  "Affected" is a neutral term.  You can be affected positively or negatively.  Saying someone was affected is not an acknowledgement of the marginalization and bigotry that was inflicted upon them.
  • Eyring explains that revelation has helped the church adapt to changing circumstances, implying the policy didn't change because the church did—it changed because the circumstances did.  And he also does not offer an explanation or an apology and also does not express sympathy for those who were "affected" by the three-year exclusion.
All of this is geared toward those who weren't particularly bothered by the policy.  In fact, reading the news release doesn't alert anyone who was not already aware that this was enacted less than 3 years prior.  To a casual observer, this sounds a little like the way the lifting of the priesthood ban is framed—it used to be one way, but now it's another way, and now look at how wonderful it is for us to be moving forward!  

This is still playing defense.  Rather than acknowledge some uncomfortable things that will win them integrity points with critics and doubters and attempting to explain the reasons for those uncomfortable things (which would risk generating doubts among the membership base), the church leaders gloss over and obfuscate the more emetic information and turn their focus to comforting, positive talking points that the general membership is likely to digest.  There's nothing proactive here.  There are no strikers on this field.  This is just a way to prevent shots on their own goal, and they accomplish this by refusing to take shots at the opposing goal.

But beyond the sports metaphor, this behavior shows a hypocrisy in Jesus's shepherd metaphor.  Because by safeguarding the testimonies of the faithful while sacrificing the testimonies of those most at risk to faithlessness, the church is essentially sacrificing one group's salvation in favor of safeguarding another group's salvation. It is leaving the one and expending all its energies on the ninety and nine.  We should expect more from a church that claims to uphold the restoration of the same gospel taught by Jesus himself.  But many of us have learned to expect disappointment.  We've learned that, when the church is at a crossroads between the Christlike decision and the businesslike decision, it will rarely choose the right.

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