Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Polygamy Boondogglery

I recently rediscovered the church's essay about the end of polygamy  I don't remember what specific issue I was digging into, but Official Declaration 1 was involved in my curiosity, and that led me back to this shining example of apologetic logical chaos.  It was a lot more troublesome than I remembered. And, of course, I'm going to discuss why I thought so.  To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, I will begin at the beginning, go on until I come to the end, and then stop.
For much of the 19th century, a significant number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage—the marriage of one man to more than one woman.
Phrasing the issue as "the marriage of one man to more than one woman" makes it sound like we're not going to be talking about polyandry.  There's no mention of the marriage of one woman to more than one man.  I wonder why that is.

My guess?  Because that would point to some of the slimier aspects of an already slimy practice.  Modern Mormons are often able to make peace with polygamy since it was such a long time ago, but this is usually possible because the more unpalatable details are shrouded.  The church was relatively honest in the other polygamy essay by mentioning that Joseph wed Helen Mar Kimball "several months before her 15th birthday."  But if more members knew that some of these wives were young women living in the Smith household, or that Joseph married women who already had husbands, or that he married women after sending their husbands or fathers on missions, they may find it more difficult to leave polygamy on the shelf.

However, it's definitely not a good sign that this essay kicks things off with such a significant lie of omission in the very first sentence.  Continuing:
Like the beginning of plural marriage in the Church, the end of the practice was a process rather than a single event. Revelation came “line upon line, precept upon precept.”
Remember this comment for later.  This essay is going to do a pretty good job of showing that the decisions made by church leaders in regards to polygamy align pretty closely with what you'd expect from humans with no divine foreknowledge.  It wasn't line upon line.  It was concession upon concession.
For half a century, beginning in the early 1840s, Church members viewed plural marriage as a commandment from God, an imperative that helped “raise up” a righteous posterity unto the Lord.
That is some interesting wording.  Notice that it doesn't say the church taught that this was its stance on polygamy or that this was the doctrinal truth of polygamy during that time period—it's just how church members viewed it.  They're throwing the members under the bus and trying to keep the prophets above culpability.  Which is kind of shitty.  I mean, why do you think the church members viewed plural marriage this way?  Was it some kind of spontaneously generated mass delusion or was it because their leaders told them that's how plural marriage works?
Also, if polygamy was an imperative to raise up a righteous posterity, why would Joseph Smith need to marry women who already had righteous husbands?  Why is it so hard to determine if Joseph Smith had any children by his wives?  And what's so inferior about monogamous marriages that prevent them from adequately raising up a righteous posterity?  This explanation sounds fine when you don't think about it, but if you're willing to analyze some of the underlying details, it has serious logical flaws and serious unanswered questions.
Many Latter-day Saints embarked on a course of civil disobedience during the 1880s by continuing to live in plural marriage and to enter into new plural marriages. The federal government responded by enacting ever more punishing legislation.
Does civil disobedience qualify as "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law"?  I understand the argument that God's commandments take precedence over secular law, but if that's going to be the approach, we shouldn't get to whine about persecution and we shouldn't pretend like the twelfth article of faith is actually a meaningful aspect of our faith.  Believing in being subject to the law when you have no conflict with the law is fair-weather civic responsibility.  It's like saying you strongly support a woman's right to choose but only when she chooses not to have an abortion.  Imagine trying to fit in with the pro-choice crowd with that attitude.

I'm also not crazy about the nobility of the phrase "civil disobedience."  I hope we're not pretending early Mormon polygamists are as heroic as Ghandi or Dr. King.
This government opposition strengthened the Saints’ resolve to resist what they deemed to be unjust laws. Polygamous men went into hiding, sometimes for years at a time, moving from house to house and staying with friends and relatives.  Others assumed aliases and moved to out-of-the-way places in southern Utah, Arizona, Canada, and Mexico.
...This antipolygamy campaign created great disruption in Mormon communities. The departure of husbands left wives and children to tend farms and businesses, causing incomes to drop and economic recession to set in.
Why are we blaming economic recession on leaving the work to the women?  Apparently the women of Deseret during the late nineteenth century weren't made of the same stock as the women of America during World War II.

It's also kind of weird that the men left their families.  Sure, they were fleeing prosecution, but wouldn't it make more sense to move their entire family to these out-of-the-way places?  I'm sure that would be a huge undertaking, but wouldn't it beat an indefinite separation?  Or they could merely stop cohabiting with more than one wife, which is exactly what this essay will later say men did after the first manifesto:  "other husbands stopped cohabiting with all but one of their wives but continued to provide financial and emotional support to all dependents."  
The campaign also strained families. New plural wives had to live apart from their husbands, their confidential marriages known only to a few. Pregnant women often chose to go into hiding, at times in remote locales, rather than risk being subpoenaed to testify in court against their husbands. Children lived in fear that their families would be broken up or that they would be forced to testify against their parents. Some children went into hiding and lived under assumed names.
That sucks and all, but I don't like the way this is presented in the spirit of victimhood.  The parents did something that they knew was against the law.  Regardless of whether that law is justified, these polygamists knew the risks they were taking. They're not quite as passively victimized as they're made out to be.

None of this should diminish the legitimate struggles church members must have had, however.  Even if you thought the right course of action was to live polygamy and to abide by the law of the land, moving your huge family down to Mexico surely would not have been a simple or painless operation.  But considering how much the early saints are glorified for suffering in the name of their religion as they were driven from place to place (or for suffering incarceration, as in the quote immediately below), it's surprising that more people weren't willing to pack up and move to where they could legally practice their beliefs.
Incarceration for “conscience’ sake” proved edifying for many. George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, emerged from his five months in the Utah penitentiary rejuvenated. “My cell has seemed a heavenly place, and I feel that angels have been there,” he wrote.
A self-important sense of martyrdom doesn't make you right.  

Encountering strong resistance to your beliefs can often reinforce them in your mind.  This happens to Mormons, ex-Mormons, Democrats, Republicans, Anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and people who think Greedo shot first. These early Mormon polygamists' willingness to endure punishment for the glory of their convictions may be indicative of the intensity of those convictions, but it is not indicative of truth—which means this paragraph doesn't really accomplish anything other than stoking Mormonism's seemingly endless appetite for virtuous martyrdom and noble persecution.
Church leaders prayerfully sought guidance from the Lord and struggled to understand what they should do. Both President John Taylor and President Wilford Woodruff felt the Lord directing them to stay the course and not renounce plural marriage. 
This inspiration came when paths for legal redress were still open.
If the inspiration to stay the course came while paths to legal redress were still open, what indicates to us that it was actually inspiration?  Still trying while there's hope and then giving up once hope is gone is what a human without the benefit of divine prophecy would do.  It would have been impressive if the leaders had received inspiration to stay the course and were later able to achieve legal redress, thus validating the intervening struggle.  But inspiration that mirrors mortal decision-making doesn't seem useful.  And it sure doesn't make it sound like God was being very helpful.

God inspired me to brush my teeth this morning.  That's what I was going to do anyway, sure, but I swear I received revelation on the subject.
"The Lord showed me by vision and revelation," he later said, "exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice," referring to plural marriage.  "All the temples [would] go out of our hands."  God "has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it."
Did God tell you or did you just read the Tucker Edmonds Act and see which way the wind was blowing?  Again, this is a decision-making dynamic that is attributed to God but demonstrates no superhuman foresight or foreknowledge and sounds like exactly what a normal human-made decision would have been under the circumstances.
Despite countless difficulties, many Latter-day Saints were convinced that the antipolygamy campaign was useful in accomplishing God’s purposes. They testified that God was humbling and purifying His covenant people as He had done in ages past.
Ah, so that's the explanation for why the prophets were inspired to stay the course.  Because God was humbling his people through persecution.  I guess it's tough to refute that, other than to say that God truly works in mysterious ways because it seems like the only way to tell the difference between punishment and humblement is the membership status of the victims.
The essay lays things out pretty clearly and in pretty mundane, everyday, humany detail, so it sounds like God was phoning it in and merely confirming common sense.  It's also interesting that God commanded the prophet to abrogate a practice that Brigham Young previously indicated was essential for exaltation And when God finally did instruct his servants to cave, it was simply because a man-made government was attaching legal penalties to the policy in question--not for a doctrinal reason or for any kind of revelatory paradigm shift.
The Manifesto was carefully worded to address the immediate conflict with the U.S. government. “We are not teaching polygamy, or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice,” President Woodruff said. “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise."
The quote here from Woodruff is a bit misleading. These two thoughts are in separate paragraphs in the Manifesto with a lengthy sentence between them. But more importantly, even though the Manifesto does directly address US law, it does not mention any territory or government when it declares that polygamy is neither taught nor permitted.

The Manifesto may have been carefully worded, but not carefully enough to provide coverage for modern apologists.  Since this essay admits the church was approving marriages outside the United States (and in Utah as well) into the early years of the 20th century, that means that Woodruff was being dishonest and the church leadership was behaving contrary to the Manifesto's assertions.  
And yes, I know that the usual refutation for an accusation like this is that it's silly to believe that prophets are perfect, since it's widely taught that God must choose imperfect men to lead his church.  But there's a difference between imperfect and actively immoral.  And when a pattern emerges challenging the moral credibility of prophet after prophet, it begins to look like either God is a poor judge of character, God doesn't actually care who he puts in charge, or that maybe God has nothing to do with which asshole is in power.
The Manifesto was formally presented to the Church at the semiannual general conference held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1890. On Monday, October 6, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, stood at the pulpit and read the Articles of Faith, which included the line that Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” These articles were sustained by uplifted hand. Whitney then read the Manifesto, and Lorenzo Snow, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, moved that the document be accepted as “authoritative and binding.”
The voting at General Conference sure has changed in the last 100 years, huh?  I don't remember voting on the Proclamation on the Family.  But Dallin H. Oaks has decided that it represents authoritative and binding doctrine:
In contrast, Latter-day Saints affirm that the family proclamation defines the kind of family relationships where the most important part of our eternal development can occur.
Converted Latter-day Saints believe that the family proclamation, issued nearly a quarter century ago and now translated into scores of languages, is the Lord’s reemphasis of the gospel truths we need to sustain us through current challenges to the family.
I testify that the proclamation on the family is a statement of eternal truth, the will of the Lord for His children who seek eternal life. It has been the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future. Consider it as such, teach it, live by it, and you will be blessed as you press forward toward eternal life.
But we've heard enough from Oaks.  Let's get back to the celebrated ghostwriters of this gospel topics essay: 
The Manifesto was formally presented to the Church at the semiannual general conference held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1890. On Monday, October 6, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, stood at the pulpit and read the Articles of Faith, which included the line that Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” These articles were sustained by uplifted hand.
Okay, so this is kind of difficult to prove, but I can't help but wonder if this paragraph is designed to nurture a misconception that the Articles of Faith, including the belief in obeying the law, were not officially adopted by the church until the October 1890 general conference.  The Pearl of Great Price and the Articles of Faith therein were voted as the fourth standard work by the church in 1880.

Again, this is hardly my strongest criticism, but I don't see why the reading and sustaining of the Articles of Faith is a necessary detail to include here, since this paragraph is about the vote to adopt the Manifesto as binding.  Bringing up a different document—without mentioning that it had been binding for ten years by this point—and then talking about how the assembly raised their hands to affirm it is a weird way to go about narrating the Manifesto's introduction to the church membership.  I imagine that Whitney was essentially reminding the congregation of their belief in submitting to secular law before reading a Manifesto that could have been unpopular with a certain segment of the population.  But that's not how it's presented here.

Certainly, the above quote is not a lie.  And certainly, I can't demonstrate that it was written with the intent to deceive.  But I do think the construction is peculiar enough to support a theory that this was worded in such a way as to realistically generate members' honest misunderstandings of the conflict between the twelfth Article of Faith and plural marriage.
The assembly was then asked to vote on this motion. The Deseret News reported that the vote was “unanimous”; most voted in favor, though some abstained from voting.
"Unanimous" does not mean some people abstained.  The Latin roots that make up that word mean "one" and "mind."  If some people are not of a mind to visibly approve of a measure, I don't see how everyone is of one mind.  Some of them are merely condoning rather than affirming.  Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but at the very least I think that wording counts as abiding by the letter of the definition instead of the spirit of the definition.  It satisfies the denotation but not the connotation.  The essay uses the word "unanimous" to put the best possible not-technically-dishonest spin on the 19th century Saints' reception of the Manifesto.
Having lived, taught, and suffered for plural marriage for so long, it was difficult to imagine a world without it.
If you substitute the phrase "the church" in for "plural marriage" here, it nails why so many people stay in the church.  Interesting that the institution of the church can muster up empathy for members who struggled with the end of polygamy more easily than it can muster up empathy for members who have moved away from correlated orthodox Mormonism.
The Manifesto declared President Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States. It said nothing about the laws of other nations.
This may be the shittiest, weaselliest line in this entire essay. Yes, it did declare the intent to obey the laws of the United States. Yes, it said nothing about the laws of other nations. Both these statements are true, but they are used in service of a lie. This paragraph goes on to discuss polygamous marriages in Canada and Mexico with the implication that these were performed without contradicting the Manifesto. That is plainly inaccurate. Let's revisit a crucial section of the Manifesto that, importantly, says nothing about the laws of any nation:
We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.
Sure, it mentions the Utah Territory. But the part of the sentence that basically says polygamy is over does not provide any geographic restraints. It goes so far as to insist that the church was not permitting any person to enter into polygamy.  Regardless of what country or territory the church was allowing plural marriages in after 1890, it was in direct conflict with the Manifesto. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
If they meant for people to know they planned to continue teaching and practicing polygamy in other locations besides the United States, this was the perfect place to say so—which makes it very significant that they declined to.
The ledger of “marriages and sealings performed outside the temple,” which is not comprehensive, lists 315 marriages performed between October 17, 1890, and September 8, 1903. Of the 315 marriages recorded in the ledger, research indicates that 25 (7.9%) were plural marriages and 290 were monogamous marriages (92.1%). Almost all the monogamous marriages recorded were performed in Arizona or Mexico. Of the 25 plural marriages, 18 took place in Mexico, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Utah, and 1 each in Colorado and on a boat on the Pacific Ocean. Overall, the record shows that plural marriage was a declining practice and that Church leaders were acting in good conscience to abide by the terms of the Manifesto as they understood them.
How? How does the record showing that the church leaders permitted polygamous marriages up to 13 years after they declared it was no longer practiced demonstrate that they were acting in good conscience?

Even based on this essay's insistence that the Manifesto only applied to US territories, this still shows that the church allowed 6 plural marriages in the US after they'd stated their intent not to do so. How is that acting in good conscience? The Manifesto did not say that the church would allow the practice to decline—the Manifesto was a statement that, as of 1890, the church was already not teaching polygamy and planned to submit to the United States' anti-polygamy laws. Clearly, that was not true.
Apostle Heber J. Grant, for example, reported that while visiting Mormon settlements in Mexico in 1900, he received 10 applications in a single day requesting plural marriages. He declined them all. “I confess,” he told a friend, “that it has always gone against my grain to have any violations of documents [i.e. the Manifesto] of this kind.”
Okay, so that means that Heber J. Grant thought that permitting polygamous marriages—even in Mexico—constituted a violation of the Manifesto. Again, based on an apostle's words, how was the church acting in good conscience to abide by the terms of the Manifesto as they understood them if Grant understood them the same way I do?
Church President Lorenzo Snow issued a statement clarifying that new plural marriages had ceased in the Church and that the Manifesto extended to all parts of the world, counsel he repeated in private.
Why did the second Manifesto need to clarify that polygamy was discontinued in all countries if the first one didn't specify any country in which it should still have been taught or allowed?
Even so, a small number of new plural marriages continued to be performed, probably without President Snow’s knowledge or approval. After Joseph F. Smith became Church President in 1901, a small number of new plural marriages were also performed during the early years of his administration.
Notice how there's no citation after the assertion that plural marriages were probably performed without Snow's knowledge.  It seems like they're saying, in effect, "we have no evidentiary basis for this either way, but we choose to assume the best, because that's how we roll when it comes to historical scholarship."  It's also notable that there's no disclaimer that the illicit marriages performed during Joseph F. Smith's tenure were probably done without his permission or knowledge.  Based on the utter lack of credibility and intellectual scruples demonstrated in this essay, I have to wonder if that isn't an under-the-radar admission that Joseph F. Smith knew about or authorized some polygamous unions. 
When questioned about new plural marriages performed since 1890, President Smith carefully distinguished between actions sanctioned by the Church and ratified in Church councils and conferences, and the actions undertaken by individual members of the Church. “There never has been a plural marriage by the consent or sanction or knowledge or approval of the church since the manifesto,” he testified.
The citation on this particular quote references the published transcript of the Reed Smoot hearings, available here (the above quote is on page 130).  This is the same hearing in which Joseph F. Smith testified that new apostles are chosen by the Quorum of the Twelve and not by revelation (page 92), and proclaimed "I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations" (page 99).  This is not a faith-promoting document.  It makes President Smith look evasive, uncooperative, and sometimes snarky (although I suppose it's tough to blame him, considering he was being dragged before the United States Senate to defend his religion while politicians debated whether his colleague was fit for public office).  I suppose it may serve to humanize the prophet, but it also shows that his understanding of his calling is drastically different from how the church regards Russell M. Nelson today.

Also, according to this very essay, the denial in the paragraph I quoted above is false. Remember how we were just discussing that there were at least 25 plural marriages performed after the manifesto (although FAIR Mormon estimates that it's "fewer than two hundred"). These marriages required apostolic approval, but they still happened. Is this essay saying that the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perjured himself before the United States Senate? 
Is this essay also trying to pretend like all of that is no big deal?  Yes. Except they're also pretending perjury isn't perjury. Observe:
In this legal setting, President Smith sought to protect the Church while stating the truth. His testimony conveyed a distinction Church leaders had long understood: the Manifesto removed the divine command for the Church collectively to sustain and defend plural marriage; it had not, up to this time, prohibited individuals from continuing to practice or perform plural marriage as a matter of religious conscience.
The prophet, apparently, was claiming there was some kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy in regards to polygamy. Which is clearly refuted, yet again, by this essay, because plural marriages after the Manifesto required apostolic approval.  President Smith did not state the truth.  

But let's go back to his congressional testimony.  Shortly after sections of the 1890 Manifesto had been quoted on pages 105 and 106 of the transcript, we have this exchange:
Mr. Smith:  Let me hear your question.
Mr. Tayler:  That the suspension of the law commanding polygamy operated everywhere upon the Mormon people, whether within the United States or without?
Mr. Smith:  That is our understanding, that it did. 
Then, on page 108, when the prophet was being questioned about why polygamy was still canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants despite the Manifesto effectively repealing that law:
Mr. Tayler:  And it remains now without expurgation or note or anything to show that it is not now a valid law?
Mr. Smith:  In the book?
Mr. Tayler:  In the book; exactly.
Mr. Smith:  Yes, sir.
Mr. Tayler:  And in connection with the publication of the revelation itself.
Mr. Smith:  But the fact is publicly and universally known by the people.
It sounds to me like the prophet was saying that the withdrawal of polygamy as a divine commandment following the first Manifesto was so widely known and understood among the Mormon membership that there wasn't even a need to put an asterisk in the Doctrine and Covenants to alert readers that the practice had been suspended.

Earlier in his testimony, Joseph F. Smith had clarified the four doctrinal books of Mormonism—including the Pearl of Great Price (added to the standard works more than twenty years prior), which contained the Articles of Faith and thus the creed that "we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

Everybody knew polygamy was no longer commanded.  Everybody knew the secular law was to be obeyed., exactly, then, was Smith conveying a distinction between the church's removal of the divine command and individuals taking it upon themselves to continue the practice as a matter of religious conscience?  A Mormon's religious conscience after 1890 should have compelled them not to take additional wives.
In fact, to take it a step further, if we use the apologetic approach to the condemnation of polygamy in Jacob 2—which is that polygamy is only okay when God commands it—then why the hell would any Mormon's religious conscience compel them to marry an extra wife after a prophet's Manifesto putting an end to the commandment had been adopted as binding on God's church by the law of common consent?
Beginning in the 1890s, as Church leaders urged members to remain in their native lands and "build Zion" in those places rather than migrate to Utah as in previous years, it became more important for them to abide the laws mandating monogamy.
So doctrine is dictated by social convenience and local legality, okay.  And remember that the Articles of Faith were canonized in 1880, so I don't understand why abiding the laws weren't already a priority.

Let me conclude this grueling slog through the swamp of sophistry, the morass of mendacity, and the bog of bullshit with one final point:
"All that we can do," Cannon said, speaking of the First Presidency, "is to seek the mind and will of God, and when that comes to us, though it may come in contact with every feeling that we have previously entertained, we have no option but to take the step that God points out, and to trust to Him."
Okay, sure, yeah, let's talk about the wisdom God exhibited when he instituted polygamy.  It caused strife and multiple schisms in early church history, it brought the death of the founding prophet before any method of succession could be revealed, it delayed Mormon assimilation into society by giving fodder to anti-Mormons and delaying statehood for Utah, it was used as cause for the United States government to seize church assets, and in the modern era it often paints the beloved prophet in a lascivious and predatory light and continues to be mined for ammunition against the church's credibility, honesty, and truth claims.

Good call, God.

Friday, May 10, 2019

There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

Sheri Dew recently conducted a "Sister to Sister Event" at BYU with some current female church leaders (Primary General President Joy D. Jones, Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham, and Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon).  It was presented in a very familiar question-and-answer structure in which the leaders got to field inquiries from women around the world.  I'm guessing none of these women spent any time playing baseball in their younger years, because they bobbled a lot of easy grounders.

The very first question Sheri Dew presented to them kicked things off on a really depressing note.  The question read, in part:
How do we deal with the overwhelming concern that we are never enough?  Everywhere I look, there are voices telling me to do more, be more, fit more in, spend more, more, more, more.
...None of this, by the way, comes from my husband or anybody important, but I feel it.
The woman who wrote this described her hectic family responsibilities, her plentiful demands from the church, and her struggle for personal improvement in a cluttered life.  Apostles have already answered this question, more or less, as Bednar advised us in April 2014's conference to increase our load to get ourselves unstuck from the snows of life and Eyring indicated in the April 2017 priesthood session that if we feel overwhelmed, we should "take that as a good sign."  Weird that members are still struggling with this, right?

What I think is most telling about the question itself is that this woman sounds so incredibly alone.  She feels so deeply that her responsibilities loom before her with Sisyphean certainty, but she also feels the need to admit to this as a personal assessment, and not one that stems from her "husband or anybody important."  What she needs is for someone to tell her that it doesn't matter if it comes from her husband and that her own emotional journey doesn't need to be validated by any priesthood leader—if it's important to her, then it's coming from somebody important.

But what to her fellow sisters in the gospel advise?
I know when we begin to feel overwhelmed and we put too much expectation on ourselves, it's easy to get discouraged and then we lose the spirit and we can't afford to do that because we need the spirit with us.
Joy D. Jones 
Okay, clearly this woman is already discouraged.  You're telling her that this means she's losing the spirit, which is making her even more poorly equipped to handle the surfeit of critical responsibilities the church is hurling at her.  That helps  That tells her what she can do to "deal with" her  Way to answer the question.
With the Lord we won't stumble.
—Bonnie H. Cordon 
I'm not really sure what the definition of "stumble" is here, because if it means to drop one of the three hundred eight-four balls we're juggling at any one time, you're either lying or you're telling this woman that she didn't have the Lord with her.  But surely that's not what you mean by "stumble," because that would mean this is more useless advice that doesn't actually help this woman cope with her emotional exhaustion.  In fact, you may be doing more damage to her by implying that she wouldn't be stumbling the way she feels she already has if she had the Lord with her.

What's also troubling is that, after Jean B. Bingham provides a similarly obtuse platitude by referencing Mosiah 4:27 ("it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength") and all three of them have concluded their answers to this woman, not only has no one given any direct strategies that can actually help her cope, but not a single one of them has applauded, acknowledged, or alluded to her stated desire to have a career in which she can help make the world a better place.  They all focus on the church stuff and the family stuff.

Of course it's very honorable to be a mother and a wife, and everyone is entitled to pursue his or her own beliefs and priorities, but I think that when anyone expresses a strong desire to get out into the world, roll up her sleeves, and try to improve the human experience, we need to point that out.  We need to encourage that.  We need to nurture that.  What we shouldn't do is ignore it and pretend like it's less important.  We shouldn't pretend like that kind of desire isn't exactly the kind of thing we need to see in more people from all faiths and all cultures and all identities.

But on to Question 2:
I hear talks about how important women are in the church, but honestly, that has not been my experience.  What suggestions do you have about working more effectively and in greater unity with priesthood leaders especially when, from time to time, some leaders can seem a little dismissive?
Okay, excellent question!  How should Mormon women combat their belief system's built-in sexism and its de jure superiority of priesthood holders?

Bingham tells a story about a man she worked with in a previous ward who made her angry with his dismissive attitude toward her ideas.  She described them as "purse-slamming meetings."  But here's what she learned:

Over time, I learned to work with this brother.  I learned that it was a style, a personality thing—it wasn't necessarily me.  And I learned that if I prayed for him, if I worked to understand him, and better ways to express myself or approach him, that we worked much better together.  And by the time I was released, I was actually sad.
 —Jean B. Bingham
Okay, kudos to you for learning to coexist with an asshole.   But I hope you realize that you're basically telling women worldwide that when they have a disagreement with a man, they should learn how to understand the man better and how to approach the man better.

Hey.  Guess what.  Sometimes, the man is wrong, though.  Especially in a religion that gives upwards of ninety percent of the power to men and teaches that men are the only ones who have the authority to act in God's name, men can be prone to undervaluing and disregarding the opinions of women.  This...really shouldn't come as a shock to anyone.  So the advice to learn to better understand the guy who's being an asshole and the repainting of sexism as "a personality thing" isn't really helpful.

But then she gets to the part that, as far as I've seen, has induced more online ire than anything else from this event:
We, as women, tend to be, sometimes...can we be shrill or demanding or stubborn?  We think it's...[laughter from all three]...we have the best idea ever and if they don't see it our way, well...then CLEARLY there's a problem here.  [more laughter] So all I want to say is, sisters, when we ask that question that the apostles asked of the Savior—"is it I?"—that's a really good place to start.
—Jean B. Bingham
This is like a female television writer creating a strong female character and then dressing her in revealing skintight leather outfits and having her sacrifice everything for the love of a good man and then killing her off as a plot device to push the male character to his dramatic crisis.

Just because it's coming from a woman doesn't mean it's good for women.  I mean, it's better for Bingham to say this than a man, I guess (same thing goes for Dew's earlier comment about how all three women are "adorable" and "well-put-together") but it's still not great.  The "shrill" and "demanding" parts in particular play into stereotypes about silly emotional women who're always being hysterical.  And then, of course, concluding with "is it I?" implies that women should first assume that they are the problem in any unpleasant interaction with a man.

In another context, the "is it I?" comment might not be so bad.  Human beings, generally, should stop assuming the genesis of a conflict and stop placing the blame on their enemies by default.  But when a female church leader recieves a question that cuts to the core of their sexist ecclesiastical environment and she responds by telling women they should ask themselves if they're the cause of any disagreement they may have with a man...that's...not...great.

Jones and Cordon largely echo Bingham's comments, reiterating that you need to make sure you're right with God when you're arguing with a man.  And of them drops this gem:
But I think if we realize that as we're sitting in councils and we're working with people, especially in the church, we have a wonderful opportunity to do something that I think is remarkable, and that's sustain.  You know, where else, not in any other community but in the Lord's church, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Lord gives us an opportunity to say, "will you sustain these imperfect people?" 
—Bonnie H. Cordon
There's a lot to parse out of this one.

First of all, how ridiculous is her claim that God doesn't give us the opportunity to sustain leaders in any other organization?  Because...this is, purportedly, God's only organization.  In case you were bummed that Elohim doesn't afford you the right to sustain your leaders at the Rotary Club, don't get your hopes's never gonna happen.  You know, where else, not in any other community but in Girl Scouts, in the Girl Scout organization, we're given the opportunity to sell Girl Scout cookies!  I mean, sure, because that's how it works and Girl Scouts are the ones who sell Girl Scout cookies because they get them from the Girl Scouts to raise money for the Girl Scouts, but isn't it amazing how no other organization offers that?!

But more important that the silliness of that assertion is the pointlessness of the act of sustaining.  She pretends like it's some kind of preternatural power that we're endowed with as church members, but it's an empty ritual, especially in this context.  So there's a misogynistic power-tripping asshole in the ward council is sustaining going to help with the situation?  How does that get him to listen to the opinion of the uppity broad with delusions of equality?  How does that help women to actually be seen as important in the church?

It doesn't.

And it's also worth pointing out that sustaining often just makes you complicit in your own oppression.  Even outside of a discussion of sexism, if you have any problem with a church leader, you can sustain him—and basically give a vote of confidence to someone who will continue to treat you the same way—or you can vote not to sustain him, which is about as good as abstaining from the proceedings.  The church likes to pretend that sustaining is a proper democratic vote, but it's not.  Because you can't even suggest someone else to replace the leader whom you believe is performing poorly.

Vladimir Putin is better at this than the church is.  Sure, Putin will throw the guy you're trying to vote for in jail and then fudge the ballot receipts, but at least, theoretically, you have an alternative to voting for him and to just staying home on election day.

But I digress.  Because the point here really is that all three of these women completely failed to address the premise of the question—that it was not this person's experience that women are important in the church.  If anything, these leaders just lent more credibility to the claim that women really aren't valued in Mormonism.

Good job, ladies.

Oh, and before I move onto the next question, I need to include this:
One of the things that I love about my mother and my father...they taught us that if we're having a challenge with a leader in the church, we do not criticize.  EVER, ever, ever.  I never heard my parents say one negative thing.  Because it doesn't help, and when you approach with love, as Bonnie said, that's how you find the charity to work forward.  
Jean B. Bingham
Jesus Christ, that's toxic.

Okay, so let's say, for example, we're talking about one of the many cases in which a Mormon leader has sexually abused a young member.  If you think parents should not say anything negative about their leaders then, I'm struggling to see how you have any kind of conscience.  That kind of behavior needs to be exposed and rooted out and prosecuted, and that's going to involve some unpleasant accusations and some negative words.  I understand the desire for respecting the chain of command, but there are plenty of things that should supersede that desire.

If criticism "doesn't help," how are members who have been severely wronged by their church leaders supposed to resolve these situations?  I'm all for approaching wrongdoers with understanding and with charity, but sometimes you need to approach them with criticism and harsh words so that their deeds can come to light and so people can be protected from them.

In my experience, I have found that people who don't tolerate criticism are generally those who feel especially vulnerable to it because their self-esteem is in the gutter or because they feel that their grasp on their authority is frail.  People who accept criticism gracefully tend to be those who are confident in who they are and have less of a need to enforce their authority with an iron fist.  Just sayin'.
How does someone who is childless or who doesn't have a picture-perfect marriage or who isn't married or whose family is fractured or who identifies as LGBTQ and doesn't feel that there is a place for them feel at home in a family-centric church?
Another good question!  How do we make space for people who don't fit inside the boundaries of the weird little Mormon cookie cutter?  Let's see what sublime wisdom our panel chooses to impart upon us:
In this church, we need to help one other understand that every single one of us belongs to the family of God, belongs to the Relief Society family, belongs to our ward family, that NO ONE is left out.
Jean B. Bingham
Did...did you just restate the question in the form of a statement?  The question was "how do we do a thing" and your answer is essentially, "we need to make sure we do a thing."  Wow.  Great, but the question was how.  Bingham may be gearing up for a run for public office, because that was a pretty slick diplomatic sound bite that glistened just enough to obscure the fact that it was completely devoid of an actual answer.

Heavenly Father put us in families for a reason and we all have a family and they all look different.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
No!  Were you fucking listening to the goddamn question?!  These are people who feel like they don't have families!  Until the church stops telling women their primary role is to bear and nurture children, until the church stops telling LGBTQ members that their identity puts them at odds with the eternal family structure of the Celestial Kingdom, and until the church stops dividing split-faith families along dogmatic lines, this is not a sufficient answer!

Imagine if someone shoots you in the gut.  While you're bleeding out on the sidewalk, you ask the person who shot you, "Hey, can you do something about this bullet wound?"  And then she smiles down at you and assures you that your body is merely shaped a little differently than everyone else's and that's okay and then she gives you a hug.  Thanks, but I'm still in agonizing pain and serious medical danger because of you, so maybe could you actually do something about the bloody hole you ripped through my small intestine?

That was a little parable.  See what I did?

When we follow through on that scripture, then everyone feels included, regardless of what their particular situation is.  Married, non-; children, non-; challenged in many, many ways...
—Jean B. Bingham
Okay, so nobody has actually mentioned the dreaded lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, and intersex people in their answers so far.  And I'm concerned that this was actually Bingham's nod to that cross-section of Mormonism.  It sounds to me like being married, being unmarried, having children, and not having children address every group mentioned in the original question except for the LGBTQ crowd and the not-picture-perfect-marriage crowd.  I can't decide if it's worse if Bingham is putting LGBTQ people in the "challenged in many, many ways" category or if she's just ignoring them altogether.

She does, eventually, find her way to an umbrella statement that "everyone belongs," but...I think by then the damage is already done and it's not like the church is gonna put its money where her mouth is.

The event continues with a few more questions with a few more fluffy answers, but there's one last thing I want to comment on:
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, never hides from us.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
I hate to disagree, Bonnie (okay, that's obviously a lie), but hiding is exactly what Jesus has done for the last two millennia except for a few notable and uncorroborated exceptions.  I would love it if she could provide me a complete list of living persons who have actually seen Jesus face-to-face.  Even the prophet is intentionally ambiguous on the subject.

Sure, I realize she's being metaphorical, but it's misleading nonetheless.  If Jesus wanted to show himself, he could.  The fact that we're reduced to identifying his presence as a series of nonspecific, spiritual, and unauthenticated impressions, feelings, and coincidences means that either Jesus doesn't exist or he's meting out his manifestations in painstakingly paltry morsels—or, in other words, hiding.

As a general comment, I can't help but wonder about the rationales behind the arrangement of this event and the selection of the questions.  My theory is that this broadcast is one of many recent moves to pretend like the church is addressing the tough questions.  Because some of these were tough questions.  And this meeting can be pointed to as evidence that the church doesn't shy away from them and even welcomes them (considering the strongly suggested, rarely used, and obviously carefully moderated option for viewers to send in live questions).  This may work as evidence for a lot of people that the church is being transparent and forthright, but I would beg anyone who will be satisfied by this evidence to review how much of these leaders' responses consist of pleasant platitudes and how little of these leaders' responses consist of serviceable solutions. 

I realize that, because of the all-female cast and the woman-centric material of this broadcast, it's possible that my criticism can be interpreted as its own form of the sexism I'm trying to denounce.  That would be a fair claim, and one that's difficult to definitively refute.  But I hope my criticism is focused on the content of the speakers' words instead of on the identities of the speakers.  From my perspective, Mormonism has a habit of oppressing groups of people and convincing many of them that they are not oppressed.  Women comprise one of the most notable groups for which this is the case.  I don't think these women possess the levels of dishonesty and unscrupulousness and hypocrisy that I ascribe to Nelson and Oaks and Holland.  Unlike some of the apostles, these women seem mostly genuine to me.  They are trying to accomplish what they think is right within the confines of an organization that has forced them to internalize its imposed limitations on their gender.  And after decades in the church, like so many other members to varying degrees across demographic lines, they don't realize how much better they could be without the organization.

And that, sadly, causes them to—with good intentions—become complicit in perpetuating the systemic marginalization of certain groups within of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It causes them to contribute to the sexism.  It causes them to shore up the authoritarianism.  It causes them to stoke some of the more toxic behaviors of the membership.  And I'd be willing to bet that whatever higher priesthood authority gave the green light for this event hoped that's exactly what would happen. 

Also, in case anyone recognized the reference in the title—I've had a certain song from a certain Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby film stuck in my head the entire time I've been writing this.  The trigger for that, of course, was the "Sister to Sister" caption on the video.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

Russell M. Nelson is a runaway train.

Of course, I'm pleased to hear that the church is making moves to try to limit family separation during important life events.  I still have one sister who isn't married, so maybe I'll actually be able to attend a Mormon family wedding someday.


I'm also amused at our current Godless Leader's strategy.  Almost every one of his policy changes is a potential shelf-breaker—and when he makes so many of them in such a short period of time, it's the equivalent of slamming a bowling ball down on an already creaking shelf.  The problem is that when these changes are implicity and often explicitly depicted as revelation and the will of God, people who benefit from the changes can start to wonder why God couldn't have easily provided this gospel golconda sooner.

Imagine you're a recently returned sister missionary.  The last few months of your mission, you were able to wear pants and it was awesome.  It was little change, perhaps, but it made a discernible difference in your quality of life in the often grueling mission field.  And then you learn that the little girl your brother and his husband are raising won't be automatically excluded from baptism prior to adulthood...but you wonder why there was a three-year period in which your adopted niece was treated so differently because of her parents' choices.  And now you learn that your whole family—including your gay brother and your apostate sister—can be present at your future wedding ceremony!

That's great, but at a certain point, you may begin to wonder why you should be celebrating when the church "fixes" its own policy.  Who decided women shouldn't wear pants in the first place?  Who thought it was a good idea to exclude children of gay couples?  Who originally instituted the practice of having legal wedding ceremonies inside the temple instead of just the spiritual sealing?  You may begin to associate changes in policy with the cessation of injustices.  And you may begin to wonder how and why God's true church could have been the source of these easily avoidable injustices.

If Nelson were the dynasty-building mastermind he thinks he is, he would play things more slowly.  Mormonism has had time to adjust to the fact that early leaders were racist, because that was "fixed" 41 years ago.  We've had time to sit with the implications of polygamy because that was "fixed" 129 years ago.  And while most of these recent changes are far less momentous than those more famous shifts, they affect a lot of people and they're affecting them in rapid succession.

When you're shady occasionally, it takes a long time for people to add everything up.  When your shadiness manifests itself in a flurry of activity, that sets the alarms whooping and the klaxons blaring.  This is exactly why the guys who just pulled off the perfect crime agree to lay low for a while.  Because people, whether they're law enforcement officers or cult novitiates, eventually forget or move on or focus on more pressing matters, and the moment when the tide of complacency rises again is the sweet spot for resuming shady activity.  Has Nelson never seen a heist movie?  Maybe too many of the good ones are rated R.

So while I applaud the apostles for their occasional awkward toddler steps toward transparency and inclusiveness and non-abusiveness, I also cackle with delight at the knowledge that they're unwittingly working against themselves.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Notes on the Sunday Sessions

It's an unwavering requirement of Christian disciples and Latter-day Saints to show true love to one another. 
Sharon Eubank, Sunday morning session
I swear I'm trying to make this General Conference roundup more than just thirty-five entries of, "but what about how you treat gay people," but when the pitcher lobs a lazy change-up like this straight through the sweet spot, you don't just politely step back and take a called strike.

What about how you treat married couples who aren't heterosexual and cisgender?  What about how you treat members who point out problems in the church, even with good intentions?  What about how you treat doubters and rape accusers and depressed missionaries?  Please explain how this shows true love.

...President Hinckley put his hand on Otto's shoulder and said, "Otto, that's not good enough.  You ought to be a member of the church.  This is the Lord's church."
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session
Hinckley had known this man less than twenty-four hours and thought it was okay to tell him how to live his life.  This was no mere "bring us your truth and let us add to it."  This was a full-blown "you're doing it wrong and you should do it my way because I say so."  Congratulations, Cook, you just made a prophet look like a dick.

This is not a sweet story.  This is encouraging people to ignore social boundaries and more forcefully push their religion on friends and on new acquaintances.  That could result in member missionary work becoming a bit more obnoxious and no more effective.

I promise that lovingly performing ordinances for ancestors will strengthen and protect our youth and families in a world that is becoming increasingly evil. 
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session 

I found it a bit sad that Cook's talk was about how missionary work is an act of love and he spent what seemed like half of his time extolling the benefits of missionary work for dead people.  Aren't we going to be doing temple work nonstop in the Millennium?  Won't we save ourselves more time in the longrun by converting more living, breathing people in the present?   Won't someone please think of the living?

But I like how Cook decides to throw in a little fearmongering to seal the deal.  The world is becoming increasingly evil and your families need protection from it.  You can get protection by doing holy busy-work in the temple.  Guess what you need to do so your family can spend all that time in the temple?  You guessed it—give us money.

It's interesting that he uses the word "promise," too.  Normally, apostles will opt for something more grandiloquent, like "I testify," or "I bless you," or "I bear my apostolic witness" (looking at you, Holland).  The fact that he uses something plain and something bearing real-world familiarity makes me think he's not messing around.  He wants to pack people in those temples and he's worried that his highfalutin Mormon-speak isn't earthy or visceral enough to get the job done.

Like many of my more conspiracy-theory-esque, accusations-of-sinister-villainy arguments, this one really doesn't have much I can point to as evidence, but I'm fairly certain Cook chose the word "promise" very carefully to maximize the possibility of keeping the tithing flowing. 

Homes filled with love are a joy, a delight, and a literal heaven on earth.
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session
That's not what "literal" means and you know it, you week-old sugar-free donut.

But it IS an infinite atonement because it encompasses and circumscribes any sin and weakness as well as every abuse or pain caused by others.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
I love this.

Because it's a perfect example of how Mormonism loves to make grand, earnest, inspiring statements that it knows are false.   It's not an infinite atonement, and we all know it.  It doesn't encompass any sin and we all know it.  I mean, sure, since few people are going to reach the level of knowledge and understanding required to properly deny the Holy Ghost, it's likely that any sin little old you or little old me can commit is going to be circumscribed by the atonement.  But the fact remains that there is a teaching in Mormonism about the dreaded unpardonable sin.  And that's not exactly a secret.  The unpardonable sin is not one of those things that nobody except church critics and church apologists know about.

That doesn't really matter as far as the meat of Callister's talk, though, because he's trying to tell us that Jesus suffered everything we suffered and can cleanse us of anything we might do.  And that's true—but there is one notable exception, which means there is a limit placed on the atonement, which means the atonement is not infinite.

But it just doesn't lift your spirits the same way when you say the atonement is almost infinite, so even though probably just about everyone in the Conference Center knows he's lying, he lies anyway because it sounds better.


If we feel the spirit, that is our witness that we have been forgiven or that the cleansing process is taking place.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
This is his explanation for how we can tell we've been forgiven.  And he basically says, "you can't be sure."  People asking this question are asking because they want to be free of the worry.  They want to have the peace of knowing they've been absolved.  And Callister tells them that when they feel the spirit, that's their sign that they've been forgiven.  Or that the cleansing process is taking place.

Wait, so if I feel the spirit, it's a good sign, but it doesn't necessarily mean I'm done?  How do I know when I'm in the clear?  How do I know the cleansing process is completed?

When I was a teenager struggling to repent of masturbation, this would have been a spear to the heart.  I would never be sure if the presence of the Holy Ghost was confirmation that I had done my penance or a reminder that my penance was ongoing.  Callister is really telling us that the guilt and stress and worry and self-loathing and self-doubt and longing for peace should never really stop.

Wow, that's shitty.  The church makes rules, shames people who don't follow them, and then keeps them in that state of shame for as long as possible.

Some have asked, "But if I have been forgiven, why do I still feel guilt?"  Perhaps in God's mercy, the memory of that guilt is a warning, a spiritual stop sign of sorts, that at least for a time cries out when additional temptations confront us, "don't go down that road, you know the pain it can bring."  In this sense, it serves as a protection, not a punishment.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
And this is a classic example of Mormonism's tendency to present things that are damaging as things that are beneficial.  And a classic example of how general authorities like to change the question so they can answer it the way they want.

Guilt and the memory of guilt are not the same thing.  The question is about current guilt.  The answer is about the memory of guilt.  I remember lying to my mom about how late I stayed up reading in bed on a school night.  I remember feeling guilt for that.  But it's been fifteen years or so, so I'm over it.  I no longer feel guilty.  But I remember how bad I felt knowing that I was lying to my mom.  The question Callister presents is asking, "why do I still feel like shit for being dishonest with my parent?"  He pretends that the question is "why do I remember what it was like to feel like shit?"

Not the same thing.

But he pretends it is, and if a repentant member is listening and doesn't realize he's changed the question before answering it, they'll consign themselves to continued guilt because he's told them that their emotional suffering is one of God's mercies.

That's kind of shitty too.

I understand why God weeps.  I also weep for such friends and relatives.  They're wonderful men and women devoted to their family and civic responsibilities.  They give generously of their time, energy, and resources, and the world is better for their efforts.  But they have chosen not to make covenants with God.  They have not received the ordinances that will exalt them and with their families [sic], and bind them together forever.
Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Why doesn't God care that much about whether the world is better for our efforts?

Why does he place such a high premium specifically on people who make covenants?  An omniscient, benevolent god really gets more excited about rituals performed and loyalty pledged than about improvements made and suffering ameliorated?  If these people are wonderful and devoted and generous, what's the problem?  If God sees into our hearts, why can't he look at these people and say, "Wow, they're wonderful, devoted and generous.  The world is better for their efforts.  They should be greatly rewarded for exhibiting these characteristics."

When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God, right?  Covenants can be coincide virtue, but they do not create virtue.  It's weird that the Mormon God doesn't see that.

The Savior said, "In my father's house are many MANSIONS."  However, as you choose not to make covenants with God, you are settling for a most meager roof over your head throughout all eternity.
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
So this is one of the things that doesn't really make sense about the doctrine of eternal progression:  progress is only eternal for some people.

If you sided with Lucifer in the War in Heaven, you'll never progress past that point.  If you don't make covenants in this life, your future progress is also limited.  If our whole purpose is to become more and more like our Father in Heaven, why are there brick walls between who we are and who we're supposed to become?  If this church stresses forgiveness through the atonement and talks about how the sins of your youth don't need to taint your life forever, why do sins in your mortal estate inhibit your ability to grow in the hereafter?  This is similar to putting a toddler in a time-out for life because of a tantrum—only infinitely worse, considering that the hereafter is eternal.

I would further entreat to my reticent friends, pour out your heart to God.  As him if these things are true.  Really study.  If you truly love your family and if you desire to be exalted with them throughout eternity, pay the price now through serious study and fervent prayer to know these eternal truths and then to abide by them.  If you're not sure you even believe in God, start there.  Understand that in the absence of experiences with God, one can doubt the existence of God.  So, put yourself in a position to begin having experiences with him.  Humble yourself.  Pray to have eyes to see God's hand in your life and in the world around you.  Ask him to tell you if he is really there, if he knows you.  Ask him how he feels about you and then listen. 
 —Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Oh, cool, that makes sense.  If someone is "reticent" about the gospel, that simply means they have not yet put in the work to find out that the church is true.


I poured out my heart to God and asked if these things were true.  I really studied.  I humbled myself and prayed to see God's hand in my life.  I even asked God if he was really there. And I listened.

Crickets, man.

This guy doesn't know what he's talking about.  He hasn't walked a mile in an apostate's shoes or an agnostic's shoes or an atheist's shoes.  Initially, I thought he was being compassionate here and trying to destigmatize atheism a little, explaining that atheism isn't an indefensible stance.  Reading more carefully, I realize that while he's talking about doubting the existence of God, he's not talking to the active members—he's still talking to his reticent friends.  So what he's really doing is trying to explain people's atheism to them.  "I know why you doubt the reality of God," he's telling people.  "It's because you haven't  had experiences with him yet."  Jesus Christ, that's condescending.

It's kind of like that time I sat my sister down and explained that I understood why she believes in Mormonism.  "Understand that in the absence of critical thought," I told her, "one can be brainwashed into believing all kinds of manipulative nonsense."  Oh, wait, I didn't do that, because I try to avoid being an asshole.  But the prophet of the Lord isn't concerned with such trivial things as whether he's an asshole, so he's given himself more freedom to talk down to those who disagree with him and to tell them how they feel.

But even when he's doing all of this, he still can't really bring himself to admit that atheism is real.  He presents it as a passive matter of doubt or uncertainty, instead of an active disbelief in the existence of God.

He's got no clue.

Then he asked me, "Once I die, please do the necessary temple work for my wife and me so we can be together again."  Thankfully, I am not this man's judge.  But I do question the efficacy of proxy temple work for a man who had the opportunity to be baptized in this life, to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple blessings while here in mortality but who made the conscious decision to reject that course. 
Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
This was a laugh line.

The prophet of God is cracking jokes about someone's cavalier attitude toward exaltation.  That doesn't seem very becoming of the Lord's mouthpiece.  God's work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.  This is serious business.  Why are we pretending like this man's misguided attempt to find a loophole in the Plan of Salvation is less dangerous than it is funny?

Also, why is the Lord's anointed using such weak-ass wording as "I question the efficacy"?  Isn't this a doctrinal question that he should have an answer to?  Because it sounds like he's leaving it in a gray area.  What's the point of a prophet who uses his pulpit to question the efficacy of temple rituals under specific circumstances?  Isn't that something he should have brought to the Lord first to receive revelation before he discussed it with the membership?

Now as president of his church, I plead with you who have distanced yourselves from the church and with you who have not yet really sought to know that the Savior's church has been restored—do the spiritual work to find out for yourselves, and please, do it now.  Time is running out.
 —Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Fear is only a powerful motivator among people who are afraid of you.

Also, many of us did do the spiritual work to find out for ourselves, and that's exactly why we've distanced ourselves from the church.  Of course, now that you've given a relentless fearmongering speech to the worldwide membership, loved ones who are consumed with panic that we'll be separated from them in our benevolent Father in Heaven's kingdom will try to drag us back to the church kicking and screaming, so thanks for respecting our precious free agency.

We should not expect the church as an organization to teach or tell us everything we need to know and do to become devoted disciples and endure valiantly to the end.  Rather, our personal responsibility is to learn what we should learn, to live as we know we should live, and to become who the master would have us become.  And our homes are the ultimate setting for learning, living, and becoming. 
David A. Bednar, Sunday afternoon session
I feel like this may be a rare example of the church leadership actually planning ahead with a degree of sense.  Twisted, manipulative sense, perhaps, but sense nonetheless.

Twenty years from now, when you find out that the priesthood ban wasn't just a priesthood ban but also banned faithful black members from the temple, think how much stronger the argument that you should have known this already will be.  By shifting the responsibility for doctrinal education onto the members, the church will be better equipped to absolve itself of wrongdoing when someone learns something unsettling and accuses the church of hiding the information.

I wonder if this will backfire in some ways, though.  Because if the church isn't supposed to tell us everything we need to know, what is the purpose of the church?  If we're now supposed to be responsible for our own gospel learning, why do we need a religious institution?  Will this be used in the future for members to try to pay their tithing in the form of actual charitable offerings instead of donations to the church itself?

Bednar's approach was also a little confusing because moments after he was telling us to take responsibility for our own learning, he was directing us to the church website for videos we can use to explain temple garments to our children.  Did you want us to take charge of our own education, or did you want us to absorb official, correlated material?  Make up your mind.

When the Lord or his servants say things like, "not many days hence" or "the time is not far distant," it can literally mean "a lifetime or longer."  His time—and, frequently, his timing—is different from ours.  Patience is key.
Kyle S. McKay, Sunday afternoon session

Wow. That's good to know. God created us and made sure we could have his ancient words translated into modern tongues, but he can't be bothered to translate his eternal perspectives into words that stay true to their human definitions.

"Patience" shouldn't mean "wait for it to happen after your lifetime." That's not requesting patience, that's passing the buck further down the historical timeline. Basically, accepting that God may be completely ignoring you is key.

The immediate goodness of God comes to all who call upon him with real intent and full purpose of heart.  This includes those who cry out in earnest desperation when deliverance seems so distant and suffering seems prolonged, even intensified. 
 —Kyle S. McKay, Sunday afternoon session
Man, "earnest desperation" is a pretty apt description of my prayerful struggle to gain a testimony. I called upon God with real intent and full purpose of heart. Doesn't the "immediate goodness of God" sound like there should have been a feeling of peace or love or warmth as soon as I ended my prayer? Because that didn't happen.  Which makes sense, because normally church leaders advise us that we shouldn't expect to receive immediate answers to these kinds of prayers.

This is an empty promise.  It contradicts what we hear in Sunday school classes all over the world.  But it sounds better than the truth and it comes from a general authority, so I'm betting this sentiment will be parroted in innumerable sacrament meetings, even by those who have cried out with real intent when suffering seemed prolonged and did not receive comfort or deliverance.

We should have integrity in all that we do.
Ronald A. Rasband, Sunday afternoon session 
Yes, Rasband, let's talk about integrity. Integrity includes, by most people's definitions, a willingness to be accountable for your actions and the capacity to admit your mistakes.

Does the church behave with integrity?

The church doesn't offer apologies—Oaks said so. The church doesn't acknowledge its institutional flaws and failings—just look at how it treated Sam Young and McKenna Denson. The church doesn't admit that after so much dehumanizing anti-LGBT rhetoric that it's contributing to an epidemic of suicide. The church refuses to show financial transparency so that its members can hold it accountable for its spending. And, of course, it regularly gaslights its adherents by pretending it has been blameless throughout its history.  It's presented itself as above reproach when it comes to depictions of the translation process, the character of Joseph Smith, divinely sanctioned racism, excommunications it insists are handled on a local level, and of course the November 2015 policy and its glib reversal.

This is the church saying, "do as I say, not as I do." Because the church has no integrity left.

What a terrific beat to end on.