The Church in a Changing World
What if I'm uncomfortable with the Church's position on social issues?By Robert D. Griffiths
I was struck when someone close to me, in reaction to the Church’s newly launched effort to aid refugees, blurted out, “Finally, something about the Church we can be proud of!”
This got me thinking about the pressures that are put on Church members in a day when society, in an effort to be accommodating to people of all persuasions, becomes distorted by single-issue politics. Social media and a 24-hour news cycle flood us with narrowly-focused information and criticism and it is easy to miss the big picture. In such an environment, it is too easy to either feel embarrassed that the Church is not more responsive to the social issues of the day, or to hunker down in traditional Mormon culture and wait for the Second Coming.
I was born in Utah, but have lived overseas in developed and developing countries for some 30 years, and in the big cities of the U.S. East and West Coasts for another 11. These years have provided rich and perspective-broadening experiences. Yet when I consider what I have seen in the world, and the challenges and changes that pummel societies across the globe, and in “Zion,” it seems to me that the world could really use what the Church has to offer.
Oh, I am well aware that the Church is not perfect. It has made mistakes historically and continues to fall short of its ideals today. And there are those whose personal experiences and circumstances lead them to believe that the Church is not for them. But in a plea to not throw the baby out with the bath water, consider the following:
Belonging. The refugee crisis in the Middle East reflects a resurgence in hatred among ethno-religious groups such that murder of “the other” is hardly given a thought. In some places in Africa, there is similar strife. The hateful rhetoric between China and Japan and that coming out of North Korea--while not yet having led to blows--is growing uncomfortably harsh. And then there is the anger directed at the United States from many quarters. All of this is disturbingly reminiscent of pre-world War II rhetoric that justified hatred of other peoples as sub-human and deserving of persecution, even death.
Even at home, inter-racial tensions are becoming ever sharper in many of our cities. Many political attitudes reflect not only a zero-sum mentality, but in some quarters “understanding” “empathy” and “compromise” have become vilified. One national political commentator famously declared on national TV that he wanted to kill someone for holding different political views. On a personal level, one result of the disintegration of the nuclear family in many people’s lives is an increase in loneliness and a sense of rootlessness. While friendships can be rich and wonderful, they do not carry the same level of commitment, and sense of belonging, that family relations do.
One of the often overlooked, but profoundly significant, teachings of the Church is that all human beings are brothers and sisters. Not just in some metaphorical sense, or as a warm and fuzzy social attitude, but literally we are all children of Heavenly Parents. That teaching alone, if internalized throughout the world, would significantly mitigate war, hatred and strife and replace them with a sense of common roots and shared interest with all in the human family.
Since the LDS Church was relieved of the burden of discrimination against blacks and the priesthood some 40 years ago, Mormons, for the most part, have readily re-embraced the fundamental LDS doctrine of the human family. In a recent stake leadership meeting I attended, most of the well-informed and well-received discussion was led by Hispanic and black leaders. And more striking, I think, was a sales flyer I received in the mail from an orthodontist in a small Utah town. To make his practice more attractive to conservative Mormons--the majority of his potential patients--he highlighted a picture of his own large family, which includes four well-dressed and smiling (with straight teeth!) children of African descent (presumably adopted) along with four biological children. In dealing with minorities, Mormons may lack the nuance that will come in time from greater exposure, but their hearts, most of the time, are in the right place.
While our numbers are still small, the expansion of the Church with its fundamental teaching of the human family acts as a hatred-absorbing control rod as it expands its presence in communities at home and in nations abroad. And the lonely soul is comforted.
Forgiveness. As imperfect people and nations perpetrate injustices on one another, grudges grow. Revenge can motivate otherwise peaceful people to commit cruelties and even atrocities in an effort to even the score. Justice, it seems, demands it. No one wants to be played for a sap. Without a mechanism to mitigate a desire for revenge and deflate feelings of vengeance, injustices can pile up until enmity replaces humanity. This happens on the international level—witness the ethnic and clan-based violence that undermines Mid-East peace today—and on the personal level when perceived injustices cause friends to backstab or family members stop talking to each other.
In a complex world, it is human nature to try to simplify wherever possible. We want to separate the good guys from the bad guys, despite a more honest recognition that no one is all bad, or all good. Americans are rightly proud of the rule of law and the ability to sue for justice, but we too readily mark for life those who have committed crimes, even after they have paid their debt to society. Just ask anyone who has ever had a felony conviction how easy it is to apply for a job. While there are certain individuals who may always be a danger to society, we create a huge, benighted underclass of our fellow citizens simply because it is easier to pigeon-hole “bad guys” rather than allow for the possibility that people can put past mistakes behind them.
The benefits of forgiveness are widely recognized, at least on a certain level. Putting historical grievances to rest can provide a foundation for peace between previously hostile nations and peoples. Nelson Mandela’s extension of forgiveness to those who had terribly wronged him created a template for an entire nation to move forward in peace. It is also widely recognized, if not widely practiced, that people are psychologically much healthier when they stop carrying burdens of self-pity and revenge. But it is hard for forgiveness to get traction when it seems to undermine justice.
The Church has had its share of injustices perpetrated upon it, and has perpetrated some of its own, but the overwhelming strain in church teaching and practice is to do right and forgive wrongs. The Saints are in fact told to “forgive all men.” But the real power behind the Church’s doctrine of forgiveness is the understanding that justice is not undermined when we forgive. As we are patient, a just God will right all wrongs. Moreover, we believe that people’s hearts can truly be changed and the ‘natural man’ can be overcome.
Knowing that justice will be served, and hearts can be changed, the Mormon practice of forgiveness provides the world a welcome and powerful tool for the amelioration of ill-will and improved human relations at all levels.
Hope. Traditional values and religion have taken a beating as the scientific revolution reduced the need for Divine explanations of natural phenomena, as greater transparency has revealed hypocrisy in religious institutions, and as almost unrestrained freedom to think and act as individuals has become the norm in many societies. It is good for falsehoods to be exposed and for new and worthwhile ideas to enrich humankind. But in the very imperfect and sometimes cruel process of tearing down traditional institutions, a price is paid. While Karl Marx may have dismissed religion as “the opiate of the masses,” the fact is that religious faith has provided a vital measure of hope to the vast majority of the world’s people throughout the ages, especially those who have not been privileged to enjoy material abundance and a life where things go their way.
It is hard for secular society to provide hope, in an existential sense, because its time horizon is so short. Our material well-being, our health, our reputation, even our lives, can be overturned in moment by a lost job, a hurricane, a diagnosis, a lawsuit, a vengeful social media attack, or a speeding dump truck. And while data for historical comparison are hard to come by, the incidence of depression, loneliness and suicide is high and rising in the world today.
Few, if any, religions provide as much information, from as many sources, regarding the afterlife as does Mormon theology. For anyone with an open-minded interest in the possibility of life after death, affirmations from four separate books of historical and modern scripture, fervent testimonies of modern day prophets, and countless stories from family histories and contemporary accounts among the Saints cannot help but provide food for thought, if not the seeds of hope and faith. Moreover, the picture of the afterlife revealed by Church teaching and testimonies is relatively detailed and wonderfully comforting and reassuring. We will see our loved ones again. We will be made whole. We will enjoy both justice and mercy. We will be happy.
Even in this life, the Church offers a lot of hope of the short-term kind. The Church organization of bishops’ storehouses, social and counseling services, job placement assistance, and home and visiting teaching, and the community of Saints, provide tangible help and hope when life happens. Not to mention the spiritual comfort that believing Saints can tap into through individual prayer and blessings.
Naturally, most of the hope that the Church and its teachings can provide is contingent on some level of faith and commitment. But that does not change the fact that in a world where hope for so many is in short supply, where hopelessness for almost anyone is so easily stumbled into, and where humans continue to yearn for an identity that is more than a bunch of chemical interactions brought together by random chance, the Church and its offers of hope shine like a beacon.
Development. There are religions in the world that aspire to a monastic separation from the world, where an individual ultimately progresses by inner devotions with little connection to other people. There are animal rights advocates--modern-day Taoists--who believe that it is wrong for humans to infringe on the natural world. There are those who seek to fix their societies in a past time, believing that modernity is to be shunned. For better or worse, the Church is not like these, but is “full in” with the use of all resources, especially new technologies, to make the world a better place. And consistent with a rapidly developing world and continuing revelation, the Church’s efforts are changing and increasing.
The Church, understandably, focuses mainly on its core expertise, the spiritual development of the sons and daughters of God, where it is best positioned to make its greatest contribution. As David O. McKay said, in the language of the time, the purpose of the Church is to “make bad men good and good men better.”
However, Church efforts do extend outside the spiritual realm. Regardless of what one might think of what goes on inside LDS chapels and temples, one must admit that the grounds outside are generally quite pretty. LDS facilities visually enhance their communities. Perhaps this is a small thing, but it does reflect consistency in our regard for beauty, inside and outside, without being ostentatious.
In fact, the Church spends a lot of time and resources to make the world a better place. Often working in tandem with other organizations, such as Catholic Charities, the Church has a long history of charitable giving. And charitable service, such as the Helping Hands program, is getting considerable emphasis. The willingness of church members to spring into action after natural disasters has drawn a lot of media attention in recent years—the thousands of members from neighboring states who volunteered to “de-muck” homes of members and non-members alike after the flooding in Louisiana is only the most recent example. Effective charitable giving is not really that easy to do—it is not clear to me that what Syrian refugees need most are the quilts and toothbrushes that our ward is preparing to send them—but the Church works hard to find niches where it can make a difference. Wheelchair donations, digging rural village wells, and providing neo-natal care are three areas where I have seen the Church be particularly effective overseas. All LDS missionaries have charitable service built-in to their routines, and Charitable Service missionaries do charity work full-time. Welfare Square is widely renowned for its model stressing the dignity of work even as the needs of people who cannot work are also met. Charitable giving for all members, in tithing and fast offerings, is a fundamental part of Church membership and develops the soul.
The development of people gets top priority. Education has always been valued among the Saints. The Church’s universities serve several purposes, but providing top-level curricula and facilities reflects the respect that Mormons have for the world’s professions. The grassroots functioning of the Church requires literacy; the rotation of opportunities to serve in a lay ministry is predicated upon members having the needed skill sets. In addition to (sometimes seemingly endless!) training programs, chapels worldwide have long been venues for language classes, and there is a new effort to utilize chapels for a wide range of non-religious education efforts. For example, new programs in peer-counseling to support self-reliance help to create sustainable employment opportunities. Public speaking skills, gained from a very early age among active members, boost confidence. Church meetings provide a life-long venue for the development and practice of musical skills. The Perpetual Education Fund is a remarkable, ultimately self-sustaining, program that enables advanced education and family-supporting vocational skills to expanding thousands of members in developing countries. A fundamental LDS teaching undergirds all these efforts: All honest labor is noble. And because of the education, industry and discipline that members gain in the Church, members of LDS congregations around the world tend to be more productive than their peers outside the Church.
Civility. I smiled when a friend of mine in Washington, D.C., whose lifestyle and values would put him in contrast with most Mormons, commented on a recent trip he had taken through Utah. “The people are so nice!” I know there are exceptions, when members of the Church have been unkind or thoughtless or ideological, but I think they are exceptions. Generally, Mormons treat other people as brothers and sisters, willing to trust and forgive, imbued with the optimism that comes from being rooted in hope for the future. We believe in being nice!
Almost without realizing it, Mormons teach themselves civility by attending church. The geographical delineation of ward units causes us to associate with people we might not otherwise choose as friends, and we learn to get along. It is very different from the practice where a church-going family new to town might visit different congregations until they find where they feel most comfortable. We learn to be patient in fast and testimony meetings when speakers say things that are, well, off the mark. We learn to buoy up and strengthen each other, and the constant practice of being nice would help refine anyone’s character.
Although many Mormons have strong political views, our church meetings are strikingly apolitical. When members do speak in public venues and with those holding different political views, President Hinckley counseled us that if we must disagree, we should do so without being disagreeable. There has to be room for different views. It would be a dull world if everyone saw everything the same way. The tens of thousands of missionaries who return home annually certainly have had to learn how to cope with disagreement, shunning and rejection and come away smiling.
One of the most oft-quoted scriptures is from Doctrine and Covenants 121, which makes clear that we are to seek to influence others only by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness and love unfeigned. That counsel is a blessing for the rest of the world as well.
The Church, of course, does not have a monopoly on any of these virtues. Some people may practice them better than we do. As Mormons strive, however imperfectly, to live up to the teachings of the gospel and their ideals, even a modicum of the tolerance that Church critics generally extend to those who disagree with the Church should allow for cutting the LDS Church some slack. Even if the gospel message of the Restoration is not wholly believed, the Church should be given credit as a force for good that the world could surely use. And that is something to be proud of.