Transcript: Michael Otterson addresses UVU Academic Conference

Transcript: Michael Otterson addresses UVU Academic Conference

Additional Resource

Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered the following remarks at an academic conference titled, “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance,” on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, to scholars and journalists at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.  

Understanding Church Boundaries: How Big Is the Tent?

By Michael Otterson

Nearly 30 years ago the acclaimed Jewish writer and scholar Chaim Potok delivered a lecture at Utah State University on the theme of boundary maintenance. It was a natural subject for him. As a teenager, his parents strongly discouraged him from reading non-Jewish subjects, which had the perverse effect of pushing him into endless hours of reading secular novels in public libraries. And that, in turn, led to a lifetime of thought about the very issues we are discussing today. In his USU lecture, Potok tells this story:

“Once I stood inside a Shinto temple in a Tokyo marketplace and watched an old Japanese man praying to an idol with the same kind of intensity I used to see on the faces of the old people in the little New York synagogue I attended as a child. The radiance in that withered face, the intensity of his prayer as he swayed slowly back and forth before the idol, a little prayer book in his hand, and his long wispy white beard moving against his tattered coat. I watched him for a while—and then I asked myself: Is the God to whom I regularly pray listening to this old man’s prayer? If not, why? How could anyone utter prayers with greater devotion than that now being shown by this old man? And if the God to whom I pray is listening to the prayers of this old man, then what are Judaism and Christianity all about?”

I can easily relate to that story. As a young man I lived for a time in Japan, and I also stood in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to watch religious rituals. I vividly remember, too, standing next to the Western Wall in Jerusalem not long after the Israelis captured the eastern part of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. I watched as devout Jews, locked out of the sacred space of the Old City for so many years, stood facing the wall, eyes fixed on their scriptures, rocking back and forth as they poured out their prayer verbally and with obvious devotion, oblivious to onlookers or the world around them.

Of all the Christian faiths that I know, Mormonism comes closest to answering Potok’s question: “If the God to whom I pray is listening to the prayers of this old man (or this Hasidic Jew, or this Buddhist monk), then what are Judaism and Christianity all about?” In Latter-day Saint theology, God’s judgment of the old man will be personalized, individual. He will be accountable for his own life, judged by his actions and intent within whatever light that he has, as will all of us. His eternal destiny is not limited by the fact that he may never have heard of Jesus Christ, because that opportunity still lies ahead for him. And, again in our theology, we have a question of our own: “What just, omnipotent God would devise a system of salvation for the human family and then arbitrarily impose boundaries that exclude at least two-thirds of humanity who are not Christian from ever attaining it?” The Latter-day Saint concept of individual agency, accountability, judgment, and eternal progression is the antithesis of Calvinist predestination. Our doctrine of a personalized plan of salvation is Mormonism at its most expansive, boundary-challenging best.

If we could transport ourselves back to the mid-1800s, we would find in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a faith that seemed to the Christian world to do nothing but push boundaries. A literally physical God, separate in substance from His Son, Jesus Christ. The Apostasy. Restoration of the priesthood. New scripture. Heavenly parents. Temples. Redemption for the dead. Building Zion. Ours has never been a faith to feel confined or constrained in its declaration of doctrine or its commitment to spreading that message through more than a million missionaries who, since the Church’s humble founding in that little log cabin in Fayette, have been sent across the world.

Yet boundaries clearly do exist, and they must. I don’t see boundaries in the same way as some commentators, who believe that the Church today is simply battening down the hatches, rigidly resisting any change that seems progressive. That is an odd criticism of a church that believes in modern revelation through apostles and prophets, which in itself implies the ability to change or adapt—at least in organizational and structural terms. Rather, I acknowledge the right of leaders to establish boundaries for doctrine and behavior, such as we find in the Doctrine and Covenants:

We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship (D&C 134:10).

In the next 50 minutes or so I want to explore some boundaries, both expansive and restrictive. In terms of boundary expansion, I will highlight Church initiatives to build relationships well beyond the Church, especially with interfaith leaders, with academics, and with minority communities. I will touch on boundaries that the Church navigates every day in its diverse international operations. And we’ll look at how boundaries are expanded through such things as the Gospel Topics essays and the Joseph Smith Papers. We’ll also talk about the extent to which boundaries have responded to social pressure over LGBT rights and inclusion, from pre-Proposition 8 to today. There are some important things I will not get to even in a 50-minute address. I know you’ll feel free to raise other issues in the Q&A period, and I’ll try to leave sufficient time.

Interfaith

Let’s start with interfaith relations. I suppose there are members of the Church who are frightened to engage with those outside our faith, who won’t let their children play with other children who don’t go to the same church because they fear they may be influenced in another direction. Is this a boundary imposed by the Church institution or one that is assumed by members responding to their sense of a culture that they feel needs protecting? Certainly there are those outside our faith who view us as insular or aloof and disinterested in anyone but ourselves.

We might find that answer on a chilly Sunday evening in November 2004. In Salt Lake City, the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square began to fill up as it had countless times before with people coming to hear a religious message. Inside the historic building the atmosphere was warmer—an oddity perhaps because the large audience consisted of roughly equal proportions of Latter-day Saints and evangelicals, traditionally not segments of the religious community that had been known for their mutual embrace. For once, the principal speaker was not an LDS Apostle—although Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was seated on the stand. On the podium was Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. It was the first time in 105 years that a preacher of another faith had spoken from the Tabernacle pulpit. On this November evening in 2004, some 700 people had been unable to find a seat in the packed Tabernacle and found space in the overflow Assembly Hall to watch on a large video monitor.

Ravi Zacharias came with boundaries of his own. He was not there in the name of some kind of doctrinal unity between evangelicals and Mormons, and that was clear in his references to sin, salvation, and the Trinity—subjects upon which evangelicals and Mormons simply don’t agree, and neither side had then, or has now, the slightest desire to yield any ground. But his overarching message about the centrality of Jesus Christ found ready acceptance among the LDS audience, as did the comments of Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in California, who frankly acknowledged that evangelicals had often misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the LDS Church.

As we look back, what did this signify? LDS and evangelical scholars had been in dialogue for years, but this may have been the first time that a public acknowledgment had been made in such a symbolic place that we can live with our differences and still get along. In many ways that evening encouraged and accelerated a more open dialogue between Mormons and evangelicals that was healthy for both sides. Four years later, Mitt Romney would run for president of the United States, and those doctrinal differences would get a much more public airing. And by 2012, despite a few vocal protests from individual evangelical pastors, evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney in numbers that exceeded the vote for John McCain in 2008. This gradual shift of attitude among many evangelicals didn’t remove boundaries between the faiths, but it seemed to soften the edges and make it easier to get along together.

Expanding and embracing relationships with those of other faiths is not new to the Church. “Our religion is between us and our God,” Joseph Smith wrote. “Their religion is between them and their God.” And: “When we see virtuous qualities in men, we should always acknowledge them, let their understanding be what it may in relation to creeds and doctrine; for all men are, or ought to be free, possessing unalienable rights, and the high and noble qualifications of the laws of nature and of self-preservation, to think and act and say as they please, while they maintain a due respect to the rights and privileges of all other creatures, infringing upon none. This doctrine I do most heartily subscribe to and practice.”

And, of course, the Nauvoo Charter was notable for its welcome not only of other Christians but also of Muslims, or “Mohammedans” as they were called then. Our Church has been quick to defend other religious minorities. Perhaps that’s what Joseph Smith had in mind. His foundational position that Christianity was in a state of apostasy did not stop him from warmly embracing its practitioners.

Since 2008 we have accelerated our outreach to national faith leaders. Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, and Jews now regularly interact and discuss together issues of common concern, notably the consequence of legislation and court rulings on religious freedom. Many luminaries have accepted invitations to come to Salt Lake, and many have hosted Apostles in their own offices or homes. Among them:

  • Cardinal Francis George from Chicago, one of many to speak at BYU.
  • Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life.
  • Richard Land, then president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, and his successor Dr. Russell Moore.
  • Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who, when talking about defense of religious freedom, confidently told his BYU audience that Mormons and evangelicals may not go to heaven together, but we might go to jail together.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia are others with whom we have developed close and mutually respectful relationships.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York sent a touching note of condolence to Church headquarters on the passing of Elder L. Tom Perry last year. A couple of weeks ago Cardinal Dolan, in a national Fox News interview, publicly praised one of the missionaries injured in the recent Brussels bombings for demonstrating in a TV interview strong commitment to his faith. I hope you saw that—it was a wonderful moment. I happened to be present a few years ago when Elder Perry and Cardinal Dolan first had breakfast together in New York, along with Elders Quentin Cook and L. Whitney Clayton—this was before Archbishop Dolan became a cardinal. There was some brief conversation among our Brethren before the meeting about forms of address. How does an LDS Apostle address a Catholic archbishop, and vice versa? “Your Grace” didn’t quite seem to fit our lexicon. That was quickly laid to rest when the gregarious Dolan said simply to the two Apostles, “Call me Tim.” Elder Perry responded with, “Call me Tom.” Tim and Tom got on very well together from that point. The relationships between Catholic and LDS leaders have continued to strengthen, with President Eyring invited to speak at the Vatican conference on the family in 2014, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson speaking in Philadelphia during the Pope’s visit.

In addition to Catholics and evangelicals, there is a long list of Jewish leaders and scholars from around the country who have been hosted in Salt Lake City, attended temple open houses with Apostles, and worked with us on issues of mutual concern. Our respectful relationships with individual Jewish leaders enabled us, after many years of difficulty with unauthorized proxy baptisms of deceased Holocaust victims, to establish mutually acceptable boundaries that finally laid that thorny issue to rest. Add to all these interfaith leaders the national presidents of the Assemblies of God, the Seventh Day Adventists, and substantial engagement with the leaders of African American churches across the country.

Why is all this significant today? As society appears to grow increasingly secular and courts rule on issues that seem to curtail religious freedom, churches are finding they have more in common and are more effective with a collective voice. To be sure, we still have areas of disagreement, not only on doctrine but also on approaches to public policy, but we also have a great deal of common ground that will be increasingly significant as these societal shifts continue. The relationships we’ve built together and the expanded boundaries will, I predict, prove to be extremely valuable to all faith groups in the years ahead.

Academics and transparency

So too will the relationships that are developing with academics. The Joseph Smith Papers Project has been much acclaimed, and rightly so. Many boundary-expanding steps have been taken in the process leading to publication—directly and indirectly. Coming as I did to Salt Lake City to live in 1991, it was noteworthy to me how much more often Brigham Young was cited and referenced in mass media in comparison with Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Restoration. Perhaps that was natural in this city and state where Brigham’s presence was so manifest, but I had noted the same phenomenon elsewhere in the world. We can no longer say today, however, that Brigham eclipses Joseph. In 2005, for example, the Library of Congress hosted “The Worlds of Joseph Smith,” a conference featuring both LDS and non-LDS scholars. Since then, both the Public Affairs Department and especially the Church History Department have reached out to academics, hosting them at the Church History Library, touring Church venues in Salt Lake City, meeting with Church leaders, and presenting papers and leading discussions about their work. Outreach to scholars has ranged from historians like John Turner at George Mason University to leading sociologists like Nancy Ammerman at Boston University and to Marla F. Frederick, professor of African and African-American studies and the study of religion at Harvard.

These relationships with academics are part of what has been described by the Washington Post and the Associated Press as “a new era of transparency.” For at least a dozen years that word has been used with increasing frequency and favorability in conversations between different Church departments and among Church leaders. Like many institutions, from business to government to religion to law enforcement to media and a host of other areas, the Church has not found the transition to greater transparency a particularly easy one. Nevertheless, we have seen:

  • The creation of The Church Historian’s Press in 2008.
  • The previously mentioned Joseph Smith Papers Project and ongoing publications, now at 12 volumes, the first published in 2008.
  • The opening of the state-of-the-art Church History Library and archives in 2009.
  • The Gospel Topics pages published on LDS.org, whose significance is reflected in titles such as “Race and the Priesthood,” “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” “Becoming Like God,” “Plural Marriage” (in the Nauvoo period), and most recently, “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women.”
  • The redesigned Church History Museum that includes in the gallery space Joseph Smith’s different accounts of the First Vision.
  • And just published, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History.

And now I want to introduce another word that is sometimes used alongside transparency. I think it’s an extreme word, but it’s one that has gained some currency among the disaffected. That word is “betrayal.”

Perhaps the best way to contextualize it is in a kind of parable. Brother and Sister Brown are third-generation Mormons, active in the faith, possibly living in the Intermountain West, raised in the best tradition of Latter-day Saint families. One day, not in church, they come across something they never heard in Sunday School. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say they learn that Joseph Smith shared several different accounts of the First Vision, some of them differing in significant details. Surprised and somewhat puzzled, they go to the Internet to learn more, whereupon they discover anti-Church materials that raise all kinds of questions. Perhaps Brother and Sister Brown ask other members about the issue, but they meet mostly blank looks or shrugs, because other members either don’t know about these issues or may not even seem to care very much. Now the Browns start to feel they have discovered something important. They conclude they and earlier generations have been lied to, and we start to hear the word “betrayal,” because those same websites are going to tell them that Church leaders deliberately kept these facts from them. Shaken, Brother and Sister Brown leave the Church. In the wake of that decision, family members still faithful to the Church may have their own sense of betrayal—that a family member has rejected part of their core identity as a family.

I don’t know how common this situation is. It may be less common or more common than any of us think. Either way, it’s tragic. Hence, the subject belongs in our conversation today about boundaries.

Some critics accuse Church leaders of deliberately painting a false picture of Church history and doctrine, all the time knowing that they were deceiving Church members. The imposed boundary, they say, was complete orthodoxy with no exploration allowed. Every historical story was painted with faith-promoting care regardless of any nuances or contradictory facts. It was as if the writers of Church curriculum were the literary equivalent of Arnold Friberg’s paintings—just a little too perfect, with a dash of exaggeration. And it was all done deliberately to deceive.

You would expect me as a Church spokesman to reject those claims, and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly, and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it and it does not square with my personal experience about how Church leaders think and act and what motivates them.

I am a convert to the Church. Before becoming a member, I read extensively—everything I could find, including books from highly biased authors like Dr. Walter Martin’s absurdly named Kingdom of the Cults to much more even-handed treatments that raised questions worthy of study.

Perhaps because of that period of careful evaluation before joining the Church, such topics as the multiple accounts of the First Vision were not new to me. They were certainly not new to Church scholars, either, and such publications as BYU Studies and even the Improvement Era, later renamed the Ensign, and the Ensign itself in January 1985 addressed these and many other topics in some frank detail over many years.

I admit to being initially somewhat dismissive of criticisms that such issues were not the common fare of standard Sunday School curriculum. After all, Church leaders have long emphasized personal study—Harold B. Lee is reported to have said to Church members:

“We would remind you that the acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It demands strenuous effort and a continual striving by faith. … In short, learning by faith is no task for a lazy man [or woman]. … Such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up of the depths of the human mind and linking it with God.”

I later repented of my dismissive attitude, however. In reality the vast majority of members learn gospel doctrine at home when they are growing up, or in seminary and in the three-hour block. While many also read beyond curriculum-based lessons, most are more likely to seek inspirational or motivational works by favored writers than delve into the complexities of Church history and doctrine. Church leaders, and those charged with developing and writing curriculum for lessons in church, were writing in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers wanted their youth and adult classes to leave at the end of the lesson fortified and motivated to tackle another week outside of church. The three-hour block was never intended to be a course deep in Church history and doctrine. Students interested in those subjects could always find scholarly works if they wanted.

With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of a generation that is wired 24/7, that no longer suffices and even seems superficial. Members now Google terms and topics on their smartphones while they are sitting in class. I do that myself. But the realization by Church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen Church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests, and study habits changed. Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal.

Just a few weeks ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard said this to religious educators gathered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle:

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. … Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. … Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.”

Elder Ballard went on to explain that the Board of Education recently approved an initiative in seminary called Doctrinal Mastery, focusing on building and strengthening students’ faith in Jesus Christ. And Elder Ballard encouraged teachers to utilize resources like the Gospel Topics essays and other substantial works so they become much more familiar and comfortable with these sometimes-controversial issues.

The boundaries for classroom and personal study, then, have clearly expanded. But study in Church classrooms or seminary classes is not simply for study’s sake, or for the acquisition of knowledge and insight divorced from obedience to God’s commandments. It is also “study by faith,” and the objective for faithful Latter-day Saints is to strengthen their commitment to covenants and a faithful life. Whatever personal interviews follow this mortal life, I am persuaded that the most important question will not be, “How much do you know?” but “How did you live?”

Moreover, words like “betrayal” and “boundaries” can be highly subjective, especially when we use them to seek validation for our own biases. How much of our listening is to reinforce our own settled conclusions or bias? If that’s all we do, we have established our own mental boundaries that are just as rigid as those found in any institution.

Race relations

I’d like to move now to race relations. Mostly I want to talk about immigration, but before doing so, I’d like to add a word about African American relations. Among academics and others, including some in the African American community, the discussion is still focused on the priesthood restriction that existed from the mid-1800s until 1978. Of course, that discussion will be ongoing since it’s a part of our history and will continue to be important for some African Americans joining the Church.

Interestingly, however, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for our rapidly expanding African membership outside the United States. You know better than I that the racial history of the United States is complex. Race relations in this country continue to be a quagmire, where it’s extremely easy to offend, stumble onto landmines, and create unintended difficulties. But I also want to point out that in our extensive interactions with the African American community outside the Church, we have largely moved beyond discussing the Church’s history pre-1978. For instance, in the past few years we have been in extensive partnerships with African American communities across the nation in harnessing the genealogical expertise of the Church to help African Americans trace their family history pre–Civil War. You may have heard of the Freedman’s Bank and the Freedmen’s Bureau projects. If not, Google those topics to see the extraordinary partnership we have in indexing millions of genealogical records that will help present-day descendants of slaves, whose families were ripped apart and lost to each other, find their kin. It is a deeply human story.

Similarly, in Africa, where the populations are completely familiar with the effect on their countries of European colonial history, the Church’s prior restriction on priesthood and temple attendance is much less significant than it has been in the United States. This is not to minimize an important issue but rather to remind ourselves that our own cultural and national boundaries can make us miss the fact that perspectives can be very different from outside those boundaries.

Let me move now to immigration. There are ample scriptures to suggest that the Church must be a home for every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Ephesians 2:19: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens … of the household of God.” (And by the way, I can’t tell you how comforting that is for a Brit living in America. It makes me feel loved by all of you here in the Colonies.) And of course there is that whole magnificent 10th chapter of Acts, in which the Apostle Peter engages with Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea, when the Lord reveals to him that the Church is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. “And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 10:45).

We all know about the rapid international expansion of the modern Church that parallels that of the ancient Church. The Church’s growth in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia has been spectacular. Sometimes that growth has outpaced our ability to nurture the inward flow of new members. But today stakes and temples dot the land, Spanish and Portuguese are among the primary languages of the Church, and some predict that the day is not too distant when Spanish will overtake English as the tongue spoken by most Latter-day Saints.

Against this backdrop emerges the politically contentious issue of immigration. On March 21, 2011, the influential liberal British newspaper The Guardian carried this lead paragraph: “Could America's 6 million-strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold the key to solving the nation's immigration impasse?”

Immigration was a hot topic then as it is now, and I’m going to navigate this boundary carefully as I discuss it. The issue is controversial not only in the United States but in many other nations where there is substantial mass movement of people

Church members face the same challenges as citizens of other countries when it comes to these matters. Some want to welcome struggling people with compassion, give them work opportunities and eventually a path to citizenship. Others for economic or other reasons oppose immigration, or at the very least are strongly opposed to immigrants entering the country illegally. It isn’t my purpose today to argue the merits of either case or anything in between. Rather, I want to show where the Church has drawn its own boundaries.

In the last two presidential election campaigns, those of us in Church Public Affairs were very conscious of media outlets who were quoting Latter-day Saints in the community—some in Utah, others in Arizona and elsewhere—who were expressing extreme or intolerant views. While limited to a very few, some of it sounded like pure racism. Of course, Church leaders could not allow that to go uncontested, first because it was a distortion of our God-given doctrine and secondly because they could not stand by and allow our own Latin members to feel that the Church was racially bigoted.

Additionally, Church leaders knew that families who had lived in the United States for many years were in danger of being torn apart. Some young men and women, arriving at missionary service age and who had always assumed they were American-born, were learning that they had been brought into the country as little children but without legal immigrant status. Others had been born in the U.S., but their parents were not legal immigrants. The prospect of having these young people, who had grown up in the United States and in the Church and who knew no other culture, forcibly removed to countries where they had no familiarity or direct association, seemed inhumane and fundamentally at odds with the great second commandment to “love thy neighbor.” Moreover, generations of Mormons who had served Latin American missions knew what it was like to tread the streets of Peruvian villages or Colombian barrios, to see faithful Latter-day Saints living in poverty still dress their children in their very best each Sunday to walk to a church, maybe miles away. Those same missionaries, many of them now leaders in the Church, still have the flags of those South American nations in their own homes. Yet, at the same time, Mormons by default show allegiance to the rule of law and the commonsense view that any country must preserve the integrity of its borders. Concern about crime, competition for jobs, and pressure on social services was genuine and could not be ignored either.

The result of careful consideration by the Church’s leadership was a statement of principle by the Church, which dovetailed perfectly with a community initiative by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. The Church’s statement had three elements, which it shared with community leaders including Utah legislators. They were, first, “Love thy neighbor.” This “second great commandment” was the scriptural imperative to be followed. Next, “Keep families together,” another doctrinal must. And third, “Acknowledge the federal government’s responsibility to secure its borders.” It was a principled, middle-of-the-road boundaries statement that the Church knew would not be favored by all its members. Latter-day Saints on both sides were free to express their own views, but as an institution the Church had established its position based on principles and balance. The Church took the unusual step of endorsing a Deseret News editorial that said in part:

“Utah stands on the verge of forging a comprehensive solution that has eluded Congress and other legislatures. This promising solution will require statesmanship that navigates the many crosscurrents that might exist both within and between the House and the Senate.

“The Utah solution that is emerging would weed out dangerous criminals without overburdening local law enforcement. It would hold employers and employees to account for compliance with the laws. But it would also provide a pragmatic way for hardworking but undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and contribute productively without creating a path to citizenship.”

The legislature passed a law. The Utah Compact was consistent with how we view the Lord’s commandments. Media response generally was highly complimentary. The Church was credited for using its influence to chart a middle line and praised by The Economist for its measured tone in a highly inflammatory national debate.

The big tent

How does this principle-based, often delicate act of balancing competing interests come into play with our own members? During the 2012 election campaign, we repeatedly told journalists who tried to shoehorn the Church into the right wing of electoral politics that the Church was a big tent. That is certainly true. I have said elsewhere that we in Utah sometimes have a myopic view of Church members and their political ideology. If you truly understand the diversity of the global LDS membership, you will know that we have members living under a multitude of political regimes. We live under a dizzying array of political structures and rules—Vietnam and Venezuela, Canada and Cuba, Scandinavia and Swaziland, China and the Congo.

A few months ago I received a Facebook message from a nephew of mine living in Sydney, Australia, a fully active member of the Church, a returned missionary and parent. He happened to listen on the web to an address I gave at the FairMormon conference last year and wrote the following: “It seems that in the U.S. many members are concerned with ‘issues’ that members here don’t even give a thought or care about.”

I mention that because I think it raises an important point. We criticize politicians and the media for being inside the “Washington Bubble,” for always seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own professional or vocational biases. All of us are susceptible to that—including me, of course. LGBT rights are enormously important to LGBT members, to their families, to many members, and most assuredly to Church leaders as well. But this is not the only issue of importance facing Church leaders, and in some countries it isn’t an issue at all. This isn’t to suggest that this is right or wrong. I simply ask you, if you are in your own bubble or echo chamber, to recognize that the issues we are sometimes fixated on along the Wasatch Front or even in the United States are not necessarily important to our members in East Africa or Central Asia.

My colleague Elena Nechiporova is director of public affairs in Eastern Europe. Her area of responsibility takes in part of two continents, spanning territory from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Kazakhstan, a country of 17 million people, is just one of the nations she serves, and I use it as an example. Most Kazakhs are Muslim, and so careful attention and respect must be paid to culture, faith, government, values, national priorities. We found that by focusing on the shared value of family, we can successfully navigate those boundaries. Today we can operate freely in Kazakhstan and we’ve received permission to build a chapel. We could relate parallel experiences across her area.

Another colleague, Brad Hillam, is director of public affairs for Asia, based in Hong Kong. His responsibilities include China, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and 18 other nations, each with its distinctive history and cultural boundaries to which the Church must adapt. It is a remarkable thing that we are able to operate in these nations, but we do so because we respect the legal and cultural boundaries in each place.

Whether here in the United States or overseas, defining boundaries isn’t always about drawing a clear line between right and wrong, but about balancing competing rights and priorities. So it was with the Utah immigration compact. So it was with the Utah Compromise when balancing religious freedom and gay rights, or embracing isolated gay youth while maintaining the law of chastity, or understanding that while the prophets and apostles never claim to be infallible, they do have the mantle and the responsibility to declare policy and doctrine for the Church and to define its boundaries.

Gender issues

Given the enormous breadth of this academic conference subject, time won’t allow a thorough exploration of every issue I’d like to address, but I would like to touch on gender issues, starting with women in the Church.

Over the past year or two, some inside and outside the Church have spent a lot of time and a lot of blogging space to draw attention to what they feel are gender inequalities in the Church. Some have gone so far as to claim credit for such recent changes as women now offering prayers in general conference or pictures of women leaders now displayed in the Conference Center. I won’t spend any time on that. Let me be clear: I’m personally encouraged to see those changes, and I assume in the normal course of events we will see other such initiatives as the male and female leadership of the Church continue to discuss this topic. But such incremental changes are dwarfed by the significance of what we have seen in the past couple of weeks—something so much more grand in scope and more profound in its implications for women in the Church. This picture from the New Yorker illustrates my point.

According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, there are now 60 million displaced persons in the world—that is one in every 122 people. In 2014, 42,500 people became refugees, sought asylum, or were displaced from their homes every single day. This is a global catastrophe unparalleled since records began. And half of all refugees are children.

Quietly but determinedly behind the scenes, the presidency of the Relief Society and presidency members from the Primary and Young Women have been working in consultation with the General Authorities to determine how to help women of the Church harness their enormous potential to do good and to channel it in ways consistent with the teachings of the Savior.

The 90-minute women’s session of general conference on March 26 reminded the women of the Church what they are capable of when, as disciples of Jesus Christ, they reach out to others in need one on one as He did.

If you missed it, or have not seen the dedicated website published by the Church two days later, this is what General Relief Society President Sister Linda K. Burton said about extending help to those in need, especially refugees:

“We have organized a relief effort called ‘I Was a Stranger.’ It is our hope that you will prayerfully determine what you can do—according to your own time and circumstance—to serve the refugees living in your neighborhoods and communities. This is an opportunity to serve one on one, in families, and by organization to offer friendship, mentoring, and other Christlike service and is one of many ways sisters can serve.”

Sister Burton also talked about doing things “in wisdom and in order.” Look carefully at the words she used. This is not a Church-wide “program” that marshals the Relief Society on one targeted objective and neglects others. Church leaders know how readily the women of the Church respond to such calls, and to make it a purely institutional program would have deprived women from the opportunity to respond as their personal time and circumstances allow. The result was, nevertheless, spontaneous. A day after the website launched, local refugee relief agencies were exulting over the community response to that call. The Utah Refugee Center’s executive director told a reporter that her phone was ringing off the hook. “I’ve got people all over the state doing service projects,” she said. “My phone is blowing up; my email is blowing up. It is unbelievable what’s already happening.” I suspect that we are seeing something here in its infancy that will have lasting implications for women of the Church and those they serve. It is boundary expanding mostly because it forces us to enlarge our minds to envision truly what Jesus Christ would want of the women of the Church.

Now let me take the remaining 15 minutes to address one of the more complex and pressing issues facing the modern Church, and it is one that is often misunderstood. I refer to what is commonly termed LGBT rights.

Nothing I can say here today is likely to influence the position you might occupy personally in this debate, and that is not my purpose. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, and everyone has to adjust to that reality because the boundaries have now shifted for the community at large. But what I would like to do, consistent with the theme of this conference, is to talk about where the boundaries are for the Church in this whole issue of LGBT rights and to push back on the often-heard assertion that the Church’s boundaries are established because of fear and hate of LGBT people. Another part of the common narrative is that it’s only a matter of time before the Church accommodates same-sex marriage within its doctrine.

An assertion commonly attributed to Winston Churchill is that it is the victors who write history. Not in this case, however, because those who lost the Proposition 8 election in 2008 have to a large extent dictated the “hate” narrative ever since. From the moment the results were in, showing a majority Californians in favor of defining marriage as between a man and a woman, many LGBT advocates leveled their anger primarily against the LDS Church and its members and supporters. Churches were vandalized, Latter-day Saints were forced out of jobs, LDS businesses were boycotted.

We all know that in the heat of an election campaign we see extremes and distortion. But we are well beyond that election now, and public opinion has moved in favor of gay marriage. So how do we then explain why the “hate” word continues to be leveled against the Church by some LGBT advocates, gay media, and allies? I know from my interactions with LDS educators that even some of our own young people have accepted that propaganda and ask why we “hate gays.” I want to challenge that particular interpretation of history and the ongoing distortions of the Church’s position.

At the time of the Proposition 8 campaign the Church set out its position in an official website commentary called “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” It’s a comprehensive document and is still available online on Mormon Newsroom for those who might want to review those arguments. I draw attention to two key elements of that commentary. The first is its tone. The second is the subject of religious freedom. Let’s look at tone first. This is what it said, in part:

“The Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage neither constitutes nor condones any kind of hostility toward homosexual men and women. Protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not affect Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness, and humanity toward all people. As Church members decide their own appropriate level of involvement in protecting marriage between a man and a woman, they should approach this issue with respect for others, understanding, honesty, and civility.”

Moreover, the Church made it clear that its opposition was based on unwanted changes to the nature and definition of marriage, not because of hostility to LGBT rights in general. It specifically said so: “The Church does not object to rights, including hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, as long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference.”

This was in 2008. If there was any question that the Church meant what it said about willingness to support extending rights for LGBT people, those reservations should have been laid to rest just over a year later when Salt Lake City proposed municipal ordinances to protect housing and employment rights for LGBT people. I was privileged to read the Church’s official statement at that meeting of the city council, and I’m going to read you parts of that statement and I invite you to listen clearly to the boundaries as they are articulated.

“The issues before you tonight are the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against. But, importantly, the ordinances also attempt to balance vital issues of religious freedom. …

“In drafting these ordinances, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations, for example, in their hiring of people whose lives are in harmony with their tenets, or when providing housing for their university students and others that preserve religious requirements. 

“The Church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage. They are also entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters. The Church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman. … In these comments and in our actions, we try to follow what Jesus Christ taught. Our language will always be respectful and acknowledge those who differ, but will also be clear on matters that we feel are of great consequence to our society.”

This was not a blanket sign-off for any such ordinances by any municipality or legislature, but support for an approach that balanced the rights of different groups. There is no hate in that language. Or in a later statement when the Human Rights Campaign came to town and the Church issued a strong supportive statement against bullying and isolation of young gay men.

Most recently, in the spring of 2015, in a news conference attended by three of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Neill Marriott of the Young Women presidency, the same kind of balance was sought between religious and LGBT rights, and that year resulted in what was widely acclaimed as the “Utah compromise.” It was a tribute to Utah legislators, to the local LGBT community, and to the Church, whose influence was key.

My point—if it is still unclear—is that the boundaries for the Church on LGBT issues are doctrinal, rooted in our understanding of God’s law of chastity, the purpose of marriage, the ultimate purpose of life itself, and human destiny. Hatred of any person or group should, on its face, be anathema to anyone claiming to be a Latter-day Saint.

The Supreme Court itself acknowledged the legitimacy of religious scruples when effectively ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in June 2015. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy acknowledged the reasonableness of the religious and philosophical premises of those who argue that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman:

“There are untold references to the beauty of marriage in religious and philosophical texts spanning time, cultures, and faiths, as well as in art and literature in all their forms. It is fair and necessary to say these references were based on the understanding that marriage is a union between two persons of the opposite sex.

“Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world” (The United States Supreme Court, Obergerfell v. Hodges, No. 14-556, June 26, 2015).

We can all recognize that the way things were said in the 1950s differed from the 60s, and differ even more from today. I think we have to acknowledge that as society’s understanding of LGBT issues has expanded, so has the use of more inclusive language and greater sensitivity to the struggle which many LGBT people have, particularly in religious communities. But we should also recognize that there is a difference between not excluding or ostracizing people and making fundamental changes in doctrine. As the much-discussed handbook should make clear, the doctrine of the Church in relation to sexual morality—that sex is proper only between a married man and a woman—has not changed and there is no sign whatsoever that it will change in the future. The law of chastity applying to heterosexual and homosexual behavior is inviolate. What has changed, and needs to continue to change, is our attitude, language, and actions toward those of our own membership who are attracted to people of the same sex and who want with all their hearts to remain faithful to Church covenants and the law of chastity. Many will be criticized from outside the Church, and even from some inside as well, for doing so. But for those who make that choice, how can we help them navigate their lives with love, support, and encouragement.

Late in 2012 the Church launched a website, mormonsandgays.org. Additionally, Church leaders are teaching stake presidents and bishops how to better handle such situations. Additional resources and training materials are in process.

I said there were two elements to understand about the Church’s still-valid commentary, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” One, the issue of tone, I have just dealt with. The second is the issue of religious freedom. Even before Proposition 8, the Church knew that same-sex marriage and antidiscrimination laws foreshadowed a direct collision with religious rights supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ensures religious “free exercise.” Others, including scholars outside the Church, felt the same way—see for example the compilation of expert perspectives in a 2008 book edited by Douglas Laycock, Anthony Picarello, and Robin Fretwell Wilson entitled Same Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Now, same-sex marriage is in the rear-view mirror for most people, and in the past few years, attention has shifted to the issue of nondiscrimination legislation. Consequently, the number of collisions between LGBT and religious rights has exploded exponentially at municipal, state, and national levels, and of course in other parts of the world, notably Europe and Canada. I could list many examples because they are easily found. You will not need additional help from me in thinking of examples as soon as I mention clashes over nondiscrimination legislation in Arizona, Indiana, and most recently Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi.

Winner-take-all scenarios are regularly pursued in the culture wars across the country by both sides. That is unfortunate. Some state legislatures seem intent on making religious freedom so broad that it simply sounds like a license to discriminate on any grounds. Some LGBT advocates take an equally uncompromising position on the other side. We believe there is a better way. I have described what the Church has been advocating for years—urging mutual respect, balancing the competing rights of people within a pluralistic society.

I have spent a lot of time on this last subject because of its topicality and because it provides one of the best examples of the challenges in navigating boundaries while the public and our members are caught in a tsunami of changing social values. This is made more complex when those values are not shared in every country across the world, and so the Church looks for principles anchored to scripture and doctrine.

The theme of this two-day conference is described as the “art” of boundary maintenance. That is an apt choice of words, because carefully drawing boundaries more often resembles art than science. And if it’s an art, who are the artists?

All of us are artists to some degree. Through the lives we lead, the contributions we make, and the service we give to others, we all get to contribute a brush stroke. But in the end there has to be a master artist, someone who sees the grand vision of what our Father in Heaven plans for the eternal destiny of His children. By divine appointment, prophets, ancient and modern, have had that charge. The New Testament Apostles used other metaphors, including one of a building, “fitly framed together,” Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone.

The point is that there is a cornerstone. There are boundaries, both of behavior and of doctrine. There are commandments. There is obedience. Believing this as I do doesn’t rob me of my agency or of my opinions. Rather it compels me constantly to evaluate my own behavior against that standard, knowing that ultimately I will be accountable to God for where I draw those boundaries for myself. President Dieter Uchtdorf closed the Sunday morning session of general conference just over a week ago by calling obedience “steps of faith.” He acknowledged that obedience is “not a popular word these days.” But he closed with this: “We come to see obedience not as a punishment but as a liberating path to our divine destiny. … Eventually, the priceless, eternal spirit of the heavenly being within us is revealed, and a radiance of goodness becomes our nature.”

And so we return to where we started—that mind-expanding doctrine that both challenges and excites. Thank you.

Now, in the remaining time, I’m happy to take questions and comments.

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