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Last year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members in Utah to vote against Proposition 2, a state referendum what would decriminalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It’s a proposition that I would have otherwise supported. This month, the Church updated its policies to forbid carrying firearms on Church properties (except where required by law) — a policy that I would normally oppose, as I believe that responsible concealed carry can save lives. A few years ago, the Church came out in support of non-discrimination laws in employment and housing, a policy that I (as a libertarian) would also normally oppose.
Some time before that, they came out in favor of the Utah Compact, and issued warnings about overly harsh immigration policies that separate families and lead to mass deportation. I agreed with those statements, but a number of my friends and colleagues did not. The Church has staked out positions on religious liberty that more progressive Church members bristle at, and the Church’s position on same-sex marriage has become increasingly unpopular.
If there’s one universal experience for members of the Church, it is that every one of us will eventually face a time when Church leaders announce some policy, position, or statement that contradicts our political beliefs. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, I can almost guarantee that it eventually will.
When this happens to me, here are 9 things I consider, or 9 different ways I look at the issue:
1. I am grateful prophets don’t always agree with me.
If prophets always agreed with me, then things would be easy. But things are not supposed to be easy. There’s no spiritual growth in that. And I’m grateful they don’t, because it gives me occasion to demonstrate loyalty, to demonstrate to God my willingness to set aside my own predilections and to follow counsel from divinely appointed servants. I am a Latter-day Saint first, and a civil libertarian way down on the list, after husband, father, and a few others. When prophets disagree with me, it gives me occasion to show God where my ultimate loyalties lie. And it’s not with my politics.
Saints of every generation have been asked to do “hard things” by God’s servants, and I think this is by divine design. So it must be that prophets and apostles occasionally invite us to do things that we don’t already want to do. Things that might go against our natural inclinations, that work against our own reasoning and preferences. And it’s those moments where we spiritually mature the most, where we learn the humility to set aside our own preferences and seek instruction from a power and authority higher than our own. Neal A. Maxwell taught:
Discipleship includes good citizenship; and in this connection, if you are careful students of the statements of the modern prophets, you will have noticed that with rare exceptions—especially when the First Presidency has spoken out—the concerns expressed have been over moral issues, not issues between political parties. … But make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; in the months and years ahead, events will require of each member that he or she decide whether or not he or she will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions (see 1 Kings 18:21).
President Marion G. Romney said, many years ago, that he had “never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional, or political life” (CR, April 1941, p. 123). This is a hard doctrine, but it is a particularly vital doctrine in a society which is becoming more wicked. In short, brothers and sisters, not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes not being ashamed of the prophets of Jesus Christ.
I believe this is true, and so it is that I delight when the prophets turn out to disagree with me — precisely because it gives me an opportunity to show that I am not ashamed of them, and that I truly believe they are men of God — and not just because they agree with me.
2. The God we worship is a divine Person, not a political ideology.
I don’t want to place my own political ideologies over instruction from God’s servants. When we evaluate the teachings of God’s servants against our ideological worldview (whether it be liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other perspective), we risk elevating our own ideas over God Himself. In other words, the problem is not libertarianism, liberalism, conservatism, or any other belief system. The problem was with –isms entirely, when those –isms lead us to prioritize abstract ideas over ongoing revelation.
This can lead to something I call ideolatry, which what happens when we become dogmatic about our particular ideological perspective, or hold to it with a fervor that defies correction by God or His servants. When we do this, we have supplanted the living God with an idea (or set of ideas). The God of Israel is not an abstract, universal, immutable set of ideas or laws, but a living, dynamic Person who communicates instructions tailored to our specific time and situation. Latter-day Saints can — and must — be flexible in matters of abstract belief while being resolute in matters of loyalty to God.
3. Prophets are watchmen on the tower.
We can think of prophets as watchmen on a tower. As one Ensign article explains, “Watchmen were sentries stationed on a wall or in a tower in order to look out for and warn of dangers approaching from afar. They were employed to protect cities as well as vineyards, fields, or pastures.” From their vantage point on the tower, they have an elevated view that helps them to see things that the rest of us cannot see. It allows them to warn of dangers while the danger is still far off, so that we can prepare ahead of time.
If we only heed the warnings of prophets if we too can see the danger, then what is the point of the tower? The whole point of the “tower” in the analogy is so that we can be warned of dangers we cannot see. So insisting that we be able to personally see or understand the dangers before taking heed of the warning neuters the entire purpose of having prophets, seers, and revelators at the head of the Church. President Harold B. Lee taught:
There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory” (D&C 21:6).
So it is that when we heed the warnings of the “watchmen on the tower,” we can be protected and insulated from the powers of darkness that threaten us as a community. And this means precisely that we heed those warnings just as much when we don’t see the dangers as when we do. Because that’s what they are for: to see what we don’t see. That’s part of what makes them seers.
4. Prophets are fallible, but this doesn’t mean we should trifle with their words.
None of this should be misinterpreted to imply that prophets are infallible, or never make mistakes. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “[T]here have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” However, prophets can have a divine commission while also being mortal, imperfect people. King Benjamin expresses this perspective clearly:
I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ea.rs that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people. (Mosiah 2:9-11)
Here, King Benjamin says three things: (1) People should not fear him as they might fear God, because he is a mortal man, subject to imperfection. (2) People should not trifle with his words, but should open their ears and hearts to what he has to say. (3) This is because he has a divine commission from the people and from God to be their teacher. This is what it means to treat prophets as authorities: we recognize their mortal fallibility, but we do not trifle with their words. This means taking them seriously when they urge us to do something, rather than blithely dismissing them if their instructions do not line up with our preconceived notions.
5. I recognize the inherent fallibility of my own reason.
Prophets are fallible. They can make mistakes. They can have biases. They can sometimes (gasp!) mistake their own biases for inspiration. But so can we. The problem is that my politics are as man-made as any other. The inspired elements are mixed in with uninspired elements. I’m a libertarian, and libertarians often take pride in the belief that their conclusions are the product of rational deduction from first premises. But reason cannot take us nearly as far as we think, and our premises are not nearly as “self-evident” as we pretend.
The antidote to this sort of pride is epistemic humility: an acknowledgement of our own fallibility, the limitations of human reason, the possibility that others of sound mind might arrive at different conclusions from the same “self-evident” premises, or even take *different* premises as self-evident altogether. It’s recognizing that prophets are fallible, but so are we. And so we cannot, without great hubris, claim some special access to the truth of the matter that the prophets have somehow missed. Even the best of political ideas should always be adopted provisionally, and subjected to higher authorities than man’s own reasoning (such as the Spirit and the voice of God’s prophets).
6. Following the prophet is not blind obedience, if we know them to be men of God.
The divine commission of a prophet is established differently than the authority of secular scholars and experts. Prophets generally do not have a diploma that establishes their divine stewardship, and there is no (mortal) third-party accrediting agency that verifies their authority. Rather, we must seek personal revelation from God to know whether they are genuine prophets and apostles. If we continually seek confirmation from the Spirit that these men are indeed God’s servants, it is not blind obedience when we follow their instructions.
Seeking personal revelation from God to confirm the divine stewardship of His servants is a kind of “independent verification” that is vastly different from the peer review processes valued by Western thought. When we engage is such prayer and seek such confirmations, we are not comparing the teachings of the prophets against scholarly consensus, nor are we examining their methods and replicating their reasoning. We are instead asking a simple question of God: “Are these men commissioned by you? Are they indeed prophets and messengers with a divine calling?” Brigham Young famously said:
What a pity it would be if we were lead by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him. … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the lord dictates or not.
Some have misread this quote, and think Brigham Young feared that people could be led astray unless they independently verify each of his instructions. However, when read in the context of his entire sermon, in the first sentence of this quote, Brigham Young was mimicking what others (non-believers) had said about the Saints. He is saying that he does not share the fears held by non-believers, but fears more that people will not heed the teachings of the prophets with the conviction that comes the Spirit of God.
7. Inspiration doesn’t always come with reasons attached.
Most spiritual promptings don’t come with reasons why. We might feel prompted to visit a friend, to not board an airplane, to spend some time in the temple, and we might never find a reason for it. That same is true of inspiration received by Church leaders. In the past, reasons have been speculated over and given for policies and practices, and those reasons have later turned out to be wrong. Without disavowing the priesthood ban itself (a practice of unknown origins), the Church has completely disavowed the reasons that were typically attributed to it.
If the First Presidency’s reservations about decriminalizing marijuana (or same sex marriage, or concealed carry on Church property, or whatever it be) are inspired, I wouldn’t expect them to always come with reasons attached. So it stands to reason that the Church must rely on knowledgeable third parties to supply those reasons. The arguments supplied by these third parties could be quite flawed, or even spectacularly wrong — and yet the reservations of the Church could still be divinely inspired. In other words, bad (or incomplete) apologetics does not mean lack of inspiration.
8. There may be good reasons for the Church’s positions I don’t yet know about.
A decade ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vocally support Proposition 8 in California, which would define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The Church not only expressed reservations about same-sex marriage, it urged Latter-day Saints to spend time and effort persuading California citizens to support this proposition. At the time, there were a lot of bad reasons given for this — lots of arguments that ultimately didn’t hold water. Many in the Church have since concluded that there were no good reasons at all. I was almost one of those — I flirted with positions on marriage that the Church does not share (such as the idea that governments shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all).
But then I stumbled upon the excellent writings of Catholic thinkers Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, in their book, “What Is Marriage?” They supplied tremendously insightful reasons why marriage should be preserved as a conjugal man-woman institution, separate and distinct from the companionate romances of same-sex unions. Some of those arguments are summarized at www.discussingmarriage.org. These arguments persuaded me, and I didn’t encounter them until later in the game.
The point here is that, with patience, strong and wholly rational reasons can often be found for the Church’s policy preferences. Just because faulty reasoning is being advanced in our often low-information political discourse, doesn’t mean good reasons don’t exist or will never be articulated. Sometimes we have to step outside our echo chambers to be exposed to arguments that just aren’t circulated in the social networks we normally participate in. Sometimes we have to study and search for answers. And sometimes we just have to wait.
9. We cannot see what would have been.
It’s precisely because of what I don’t see that I need prophets and apostles. This particular debate has played out before. President Heber J. Grant strongly supported the Prohibition, and strongly encouraged the Saints to vote against its repeal. However, despite this, many Latter-day Saints voted in favor of repeal. The arguments were familiar: Enforcement of the laws was leading to violence and being used as a pretext to expand police powers; drinking was often a victimless crime; there was a thriving black market that empowered dangerous people and victimized the vulnerable; etc.
But what gives me pause is the millions of lives and families who have been destroyed by alcohol since 1933 (repeal of prohibition). Some estimate that 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. Multiply that a few times to represent the families ruined by alcohol — and then extrapolate this back through the years. It represents millions of children without fathers or mothers, and parents bereaved of children. And this doesn’t even take into account non-death ruin of families to alcohol-related issues, including abuse, divorces, rape, infidelity, etc. It’s entirely possible that this is the reality that President Grant did — by inspiration — foresee when he urged Saints to oppose the repeal of the Prohibition.
We simply don’t know what our nation would have looked like today had the Saints heeded President Grant’s warning. It’s almost certain that black markets would have continued to thrive, and that enforcement of these laws would continue to have major problems. It’s almost certain that some of those alcohol-related deaths would still have happened, with perhaps some more deaths related to gang violence and enforcement that didn’t happen in our world. But given that the Prohibition did succeed in dramatically reducing the number of people who drank and the number of alcohol-related deaths, and did help foster a culture of temperance that lasted even decades after repeal, it’s entirely plausible that those numbers could have been dwarfed by the reality we face today.
So even if we don’t see our current reality as some sort of dystopia-like version of events, this may only be due to how familiar it is to us. It may be that in an alternate reality where the Prohibition was retained, people would be shocked to learn about the alcohol-related deaths, assault, and divorces that we take for granted as normal. We don’t always know when prophetic warnings are fulfilled; we might simply think it’s life as usual, because we cannot see what might have been. And so it is that when seers warn us, I take heed; it’s their job to see what we do not.
If you do advocate against
I think that Latter-day Saints should follow the prophets, even when they disagree, for these reasons and more. But that doesn’t mean that I think you are an apostate if you disagree with the Church. But there are dangers to be aware of. It’s one thing to disagree with the Church and, based on our own spiritual impressions and reasoning; and another thing entirely to publicly agitate against the Church for its position on the matter. Loyalty to prophets and apostles does not require agreement, but it might require that we do not actively seek to undermine their projects and initiatives, or that we do not publicly urge others to disregard them.
Further, we should be wary that we don’t diminish in our own eyes (and in the eyes of others) their spiritual and moral authority as spokesmen of God. The danger is that with each act of personal defiance, we step further into a worldview and lifestyle where instruction and correction from divine servants is treated lightly (“trifled with”), to be followed only when we are already inclined to do so. When the ship (the Church) is disconnected from its rudder (prophets and apostles), it becomes less responsive to course changes. And when this happens, we — as a collective body — are less able to avoid the storms of life, as our pilots are less able to steer the ship around them.
And so, if for some reason you feel compelled to vocally disagree with the Church on politics, take extra effort to be more sensitive to prophetic direction in all other areas of your life — and especially in those areas where you are inclined to disagree. After all, if prophets never surprised or disagreed with us, or if they only told us things we already knew, then they’d be redundant. What use would they be? We should expect prophets to tell us things we weren’t expecting, things we couldn’t arrive at through reason alone. Else what’s a prophet for?
This article was adapted with permission from an earlier article published at Latter-day Saint Philosopher.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “Meeting the Challenges of Today,” BYU Devotional, Oct. 10, 1978.
 Chapter 9: Heeding the True Messenger of Jesus Christ,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2011), 78–87.)
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” Ensign, November, 2013.
 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, 150.
 See the statistics here: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.