The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught me the concept of stewardship, of being entrusted to nurture, protect, and ensure the well-being of something you don’t own. Stewardship means you’re responsible both to the ones who entrusted you and to the beings or things you oversee. In LDS belief, parents have stewardship over children, bishops have stewardship over wards, and Adam and Eve had stewardship over the Garden of Eden. LDS apostles have stewardship over the church and its members—and over the planet and everyone on it, since the apostles consider themselves God’s only authorized spokesmen on earth.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the LDS church’s November 2015 POX, or Policy of Exclusion. That policy classified same-sex relationships as a sin of apostasy and denied being blessed as an infant and baptized at age eight to “a natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting.”
The leadership insisted the POX was God’s idea, but it never made sense, except as mean-spirited retaliation over the church’s defeat in its decades-long battle against gay marriage. Although LDS scripture states that “the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children” (Moses 6:54), the church seemed anxious to be the blunt instrument by which what it considered “the iniquity of the fathers” (Deuteronomy 5:9) was visited upon their children.
Rallies were organized as soon as the policy was announced. Hundreds if not thousands of Latter-day Saints resigned their membership in protest. Increases in depression and suicide were attributed to it. The church looked callous and cruel.
Thursday, at the leadership session of General Conference, the church abruptly rescinded the policy. A bizarre statement stressed that the “changes do not represent a shift in Church doctrine” because “we cannot change the Lord’s doctrine,” but the church wants “our members and our policies to be considerate of those struggling with the challenges of mortality.” (Questions: Precisely who isn’t struggling with the challenges of mortality? Doesn’t consideration for the struggles of mortality underlie Christianity’s most celebrated ideals?)
The statement is akin to a customer service rep lamenting the fact that their employer doesn’t give them the power to solve the problem a customer is reporting. You can all but hear Dallin H. Oaks and Russell M. Nelson of the First Presidency saying, “Look, don’t blame us for the fact that God finds your gayness abhorrent! We’re just messengers!”
There’s no acknowledgment of stewardship, no admission of agency and authority (and their possible misuse), and no apology, even though Saturday morning Henry B. Eyring, the third member of the First Presidency, said, “A simple ‘I’m sorry’ can heal wounds and invite both forgiveness and love.” Sunday afternoon, Oaks declared, “We are all sinners who can be cleansed by repentance,” but characterized only those who didn’t share his judgments as needing it.
Why can’t these men hear or heed their own counsel? LDS doctrine explicitly rejects the concept of prophetic infallibility—while asserting that God would never allow prophets to lead the church astray, a contradiction one scholar labeled “instrayability.” Certainly the current First Presidency gives no indication that they think they can make mistakes.
I’m currently reading The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, an analysis of responses in a 2016 survey of 1,156 Mormons and 540 former Mormons in the United States. Published earlier this year, it has probably been both alarming and useful to the brethren in plotting the church’s trajectory.
I was aghast to learn that when it came to the POX, “71 percent of current Mormons either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agreed with” labeling Mormons in same-sex couples as apostate, while 51% of active Mormons “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that it’s proper and good to bar their children from being blessed or baptized (which admittedly means that 49% percent don’t agree, but to me that’s still a glass slightly more than half empty). No wonder Saturday’s sessions instructed Mormons to avoid judging and rejecting non- or ex-Mormon loved ones: judging and shunning were precisely the behaviors the POX modeled.
Too bad Saturday’s message was undercut by Russell Nelson’s judgy, exclusionary talk on Sunday, full of dire warnings—to people Nelson supposedly loves—that “time is running out” to obey Nelson’s supposedly prophetic dicta. Otherwise, people won’t be exalted and bound to their families forever.
Most people today consider accepting and being accepted by their families as the basis of moral behavior, not its reward. Nelson’s brutal morality has the equation backwards. Not just the Trump administration but the LDS church embraces a family separation policy.
In 2013, writing about the bizarreness of the LDS church and the United States government swapping positions on the legality of polygamous relationships, I invoked the “hideous wound festering on the LDS psyche” and the trauma caused by the church’s graceless experiment with polygamy.
The POX created more trauma and exacerbated that hideous wound, in part because it has the same roots: deifying white heterosexual male sexuality and making it the universe’s organizing principle. It’s not just that LDS theology makes God a straight white man; it’s that for most of the church’s history, being a straight white man was both the greatest mode for righteousness and the reward for it: righteous gay men would be made straight in the next life; righteous black or brown men would be made white; and women—well, women would always be women, but they were certainly lucky to be subservient equal partners in their eternal marriages.
Privileging maleness, heterosexuality and whiteness as ideals supremely valued by the universe empowers those exemplifying those ideals to boss everyone else around, seemingly with impunity: these men clearly consider themselves exempt from a chief characteristic of stewardship—accountability for their choices and the well-being of their charges.
I once wrote that:
Religion asks us to determine what constitutes goodness and righteousness, and it offers us standards by which to make those assessments. For instance, Mormonism teaches that “almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose . . . will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion”—or in other words, our leaders (both religious and political) can sin. Jesus told us that “by their fruits ye shall know them”—or that actions are judged by their consequences.
If the leaders of the LDS church haven’t led people astray, they’ve still harmed them, horribly. Their actions have devastating consequences. It’s not merely right but righteous to hold these men accountable for how they’ve administered their stewardship. They owe it to us all to do better, and to lead by example when it comes to repenting and saying, “I’m sorry.”