Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describes the big challenges and questions facing the Church in its interface with the media and the public. This is from a talk delivered at the annual FAIRMormon Conference Aug. 7.
In his youth living in Liverpool England, he was investigating the LDS Church when he first encountered attacks on the faith.
photographs by Scot Facer Proctor.
In the Church, Liverpool is…known as the landing place for the first missionaries in this dispensation outside of North America, Heber C. Kimball having leapt to the dock as his ship, the Garrick, moored there in 1837. Later, in 1851, Franklin D. Richards compiled the first edition of The Pearl of Great Price in Liverpool, and the city became the publishing center for the Millennial Star.
One hundred and thirty years after Heber C. Kimball’s leap to the dock on the River Mersey, I went to the main library in that same city to see what I could find about Mormons. I found more than 30 volumes that either dealt with the subject in detail or in extracts. If memory serves, all but two of those volumes had a negative tone or were outright attacks. I therefore became familiar, even before I was a member, of the nature and tone of criticism of the Church.
The fact that I am here suggests that I didn’t find those arguments more persuasive than the Book of Mormon itself – not intellectually, and especially not when matched against a powerful spiritual witness of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Fast forward to April 19, 1970, where I was living in Australia with my new bride. When a dear patriarch laid his hands on my head to give me a patriarchal blessing, his words included this phrase: “You will be given opportunities to defend the gospel.” I was always interested in that choice of words – “defend,” not “preach” or “proclaim” or “teach.” What was it that the patriarch saw that I didn’t at that time, in choosing the word “defend?”
One month later my wife and I were at the temple in New Zealand where, since I was now an elder, we could be sealed. In the temple, where we stayed for a week, one of the veteran temple workers approached me. “You’re a journalist, aren’t you?” he asked. The question surprised me because I wasn’t aware I had mentioned that to anyone. He then directed me, rather forcefully, to listen very carefully to the language of the male initiatory ordinance that had to do with defending truth. I won’t mention them here, but I think of those words every time I do initiatory ordinances.
The Beginning of 40 Years Defending the Church
Fast forward again, to 1974, back in England where I was Business Editor of the Liverpool Daily Post. One day I took a call from President Royden Derrick, who was the president of the England Leeds Mission, which covered all of northern England. He was in Hull, a city on the northeast coast almost directly east of Liverpool, where he had seen a critical letter about the Church in a local newspaper from a minister of another faith. He knew my profession, and wondered if I had a suggestion as to how it might be handled. I took a few minutes to write a kind, conciliatory letter to the paper and included an invitation to anyone who wanted to know what we really teach to “come and see.” The letter was duly printed, and although I didn’t know it, I had just embarked on a journey that would immerse me in Church public affairs for the next 40-plus years.
Two years later I was invited by the Church to manage the newly opened Public Affairs office in London, and three years after that I returned to Australia at Church invitation to establish a public affairs office for the Pacific Area based in Sydney. For the past 24 years I have been here at Church headquarters.
What Has Changed?
What has changed in those 40 years? Less than we might think, in terms of the questions being asked today. In fact, many of them are pretty similar to questions that confronted me in the Liverpool Library, which were the same as those raised in Joseph Smith’s day: the veracity of the Book of Mormon, the witnesses, the translation process, the nature of revelation, the personal history of Joseph Smith. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, but it mildly surprised me, in the wake of publication on LDS.org of a series of in-depth essays on various topics, that so many faithful members expressed surprise at discovering some things like multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision for the first time in their life-long membership. Since I was reading that readily available stuff in 1967 before I was even a member of the Church, I had erroneously imagined that most members read the same things. For example, the Improvement Era – the forerunner to the Ensign – carried a detailed article on eight contemporary accounts of the First Vision in its April, 1970 edition.
In other ways, a great deal has changed in the past few decades, and I don’t just mean world-class historical scholarship and the immense amount of research material and resources that are at our fingertips today, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and insightful work by some brilliant young and emerging historical scholars. I refer primarily to the environment created by the Internet, and to social media in particular, which has brought both challenges and opportunities that we all recognize. For Church Public Affairs, the explosion of voices – both pro and con – have made our work demanding and exciting all at the same time. For instance, I love the Church’s passionate commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right, and I applaud its increasing transparency – evidenced again this week in the announcement of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Since we are often on the cutting edge of public issues, I’d like to give you an insight today into how Church Public Affairs works, and then I’d like to share some perspectives on some much-discussed topics that will illustrate that working process. I have chosen to call this discussion “On the Record” because I think some things have not been said clearly enough, or they have been overlooked or misconstrued. I won’t be breaking any new ground today on such perennial topics as race or polygamy or other questions on which there are more competent speakers. I will try to leave 10 minutes at the end for questions, and I invite you to write your question on a card and pass it to an usher in the next 30 minutes or so. Please focus your questions on matters directly related to public affairs so I have a chance of responding. (So, no, I don’t know where the Ten Lost tribes are…. Although I did have a bishop once who was called by a member at 1 o’clock in the morning who asked him exactly that. The bishop’s pointed response: “I presume they are all in bed”).
How Public Affairs is Structured
The Public Affairs work of the Church is overseen by the Church’s Public Affairs Committee, which is chaired by a member of the Twelve. Other General Authorities or General officers include the senior president of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishop, the Church’s legal counsel, one of the female general officers, and an additional seventy who serves as executive director of the department. The executive director works particularly closely with me, especially on strategic planning matters. In addition, several senior Public Affairs staff, including myself, attend the weekly committee meetings.
The first thing I want to put on the record is this: Public Affairs does not have its own agenda, independent from the Brethren. I work on a daily basis with the member of the Twelve and the Executive Director. In addition to regular meetings twice a week with the member of the Twelve, we talk every day, often several times. With the executive director, I make presentations to the full Quorum of the Twelve monthly and receive direction from them. Sometimes a member of the staff with a particular specialty makes a presentation and receives counsel. I mention this because we sometimes have rocks thrown at us by some bloggers who love to postulate as to why Public Affairs does this or that. One blogger even referred to Public Affairs recently as a “rogue department,” which would be news to the Brethren. Newsflash: We don’t freelance.
Sadly, the insight and understanding of some who love to write volumes of commentary seems often in inverse proportion to the amount of words they write. Perhaps it’s simply easier to target Public Affairs because it seems less disrespectful than criticizing Church leaders. If so, we are honored to take those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” A thick skin is a pre-requisite for Public Affairs employment. This makes me think of that wonderful verse in Acts, when the high priest and his council were attempting to intimidate Peter and the apostles, and had them beaten up. Verse 41 of Acts 5 says: “And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.” And the next verse notes, almost parenthetically, “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” (Acts 5:41-42).
No member of the Public Affairs staff would last long if he or she issued a statement on behalf of the Church that had not been approved. Of course, we frequently suggest a response to a breaking issue, but the Brethren are not shy in editing or rejecting those statements or writing their own versions. In addition, the member of the Twelve who chairs the Public Affairs Committee will confer with other members of the Twelve or with the First Presidency on major issues. Our task is to find language that most accurately reflects what’s in the Brethren’s minds. There is no place for private agendas on the part of staff.
I’m taking more than a moment on this point because it is extraordinarily important. This audience probably understands, but let me give you an example of what happens when it isn’t understood. Earlier this year, the Church held a news conference to call on the Utah Legislature to pass a bill that treated religious rights and gay rights in a balanced and fair way. Three apostles attended that news conference, and Elder L. Tom Perry later attended the bill signing with the Governor and other community leaders. Some people actually challenged the validity of the message because there were “only” three members of the Twelve, and not all of them plus the First Presidency. Presumably these three apostles were “rogue” also. This so reminds me of the Savior’s critique of “blind guides” who “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23: 24)
What about other communications, for instance on Mormon Newsroom? Newsroom and the department’s Facebook and YouTube channels are among the primary communications media we use to disseminate significant news and latest developments. Much of what is posted there deals with routine news stories, but even these cannot be posted without approval from Church Correlation, which has the responsibility to ensure that all Church communications are doctrinally sound and consistent. Because of the nature of our work, Correlation gives us high priority when we are dealing with breaking news or issuing a commentary on a significant topic. But again, there is a check-and-balance system that should give members of the Church a high level of comfort that what they read on Newsroom has been well vetted. Are we infallible? Of course not. Might we occasionally make mistakes or fail to choose exactly the right word in a statement or interview? Assuredly, yes. But you can be sure we know who runs the Church, and of the respect we have for the established processes.
“Defend” v “Promote”
Despite the words my patriarch chose when he said I would have opportunities to “defend the gospel,” there are words I prefer to use other than “defend.” If all we ever play is a defensive game, the most we can hope for is a draw. While it can be extraordinarily difficult when under attack or critique from unfriendly voices, it’s important that we try not to sound defensive. We would do better to explain or promote an idea, concept or principle. For example, when the “Book of Mormon Musical” first surfaced, despite its blasphemy, crudeness and bad language, we opted for a non-defensive statement that taught a principle. Our much-quoted response was: “The Book of Mormon musical may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” As many of you know, we even took out ads in the show’s Playbill, inviting people who had seen the show to now “read the Book.”
Critiques of the Brethren
It isn’t easy to avoid sounding defensive when things we love are belittled. This applies also to critiques of the Brethren themselves. Personally, I view habitual criticism of the Brethren as one of the most pernicious of pastimes, so let me spend a moment on this. I will use the term “Brethren” here because this is an LDS audience and you all know what that term usually means – the General Authorities of the Church, and in particular the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles. I try to avoid that term when talking to secular media because it sounds strange, even antiquated, to non-LDS ears, and I generally opt instead for the term “Church leadership.”
If memory serves, I think the first time I encountered an accusing finger pointed at the Brethren was from an English journalist who I’d invited to meet with a visiting apostle while I was managing the Church’s London public affairs office. He asked how we could justify leaders of the Church flying trans-Atlantic jets when Jesus used a donkey. My response to him was that as soon as they invent a trans-Atlantic donkey we would be happy to use it. That may not have been original – I can no longer remember whether I borrowed it from something I’d heard – but it did seem to address the absurdity of the question. I can hardly believe it when I hear people question the motives of the Brethren for the work they do, or when they imply there is somehow some monetary reward or motive.
Let me share the reality. Not all the Brethren have been businessmen, but most have had extraordinarily successful careers by the time they are called to be an Apostle. As President Spencer W. Kimball once pointed out, the ability to lead people and an organization is a more-than-helpful attribute in a Church of millions of people, especially when combined with spiritual depth and a rich understanding of the gospel. Because several have been highly successful in business careers, when they become apostles their stipend and allowances may literally be less than a tithe on what they previously earned.
Some of the Brethren have been educators. Elder Scott was a nuclear physicist, Elder Nelson a heart surgeon. Several were highly successful lawyers. Right now we have three former university presidents in the Twelve. President Boyd K. Packer was also an educator by profession, although in his spare time and in his earlier days he loved to carve beautiful things out of wood. That sounds curiously related to another scripturally honored profession – that of a carpenter.
What It Would be Liked to Called to the Twelve
Can you imagine what it would be like to be called to the Twelve? In most cases you have already had a successful career. You know you will continue to serve the Church in some volunteer capacity, but you have begun to think of your future retirement. The First Presidency and the Twelve, of course do not retire. Neither are they released. With their call comes the sure knowledge that they will work every day for the rest of their lives, even if they live into their nineties, until they literally drop and their minds and bodies give out. Their workday begins early and does not end at 5pm. The Twelve get Mondays off, and those Mondays are frequently spent preparing for the rest of the week. If they have a weekend assignment, they will often travel on a Friday afternoon. Periodically, even though in their 80s, they face the grueling schedule of international speaking conferences and leadership responsibilities.
What about when they are home? I have the cell phone numbers of most of the Brethren because I sometimes have to call them in the evening, on weekends or when they are out and about. I’m not naïve enough to think that I am the only Church officer to do so. So even their downtime is peppered with interruptions. I invariably begin those calls by apologizing for interrupting them at home. I have never once been rebuked for calling. They are invariably kind and reassuring, even early in the morning or late at night.
Their primary time off each year is from the end of the mission presidents’ seminar at the very end of June, through the end of July. And while this time is meant as a break, most of the Brethren use this time to turn their thoughts, among other things, to October General Conference and preparation of their remarks. During Christmas break they do the same for April conference. Every one of them takes extraordinary care and time in deciding on a topic and crafting their messages. The process weighs on them for months as they refine draft after draft.
This is not a schedule you would wish on anyone. Yet they bear it with grace and find joy for some overwhelmingly important reasons – their testimony and commitment to be a witness of the Savior of the world and their desire to strengthen His children everywhere. They would be the very first to acknowledge their own faults or failings, just as we can readily point to the apostles of the New Testament and see imperfect people.
As I read the gospels and the book of Acts, or the various letters written by the apostles to the various groups of members scattered throughout the Mediterranean area, I get a glimpse of extraordinary men. Men with individual faults, certainly. Yet I choose not to view Peter through a critical lens that dwells on the impetuous elements of his nature, or as the wavering soul who failed to affirm he knew the Christ. I see him more in the winter of his life, having weathered trials and storms to become one of the towering figures of Biblical history, whose name and accomplishments have endured for two millennia. The same can be said for many others of the ancient apostles, perhaps especially Paul whose life transformed him from persecutor to persecuted. And so today, because my testimony tells me that the gospel has been restored, I see the senior Brethren in the same way. Yes, they are individual, mortal men, but the Lord has given them, not me, the mantle to lead the Church and make the tough decisions. I am not lionizing the Brethren. I am not over-awed because I have shaken the hand of an apostle. But I do sustain them with all my heart, and I have a quiet and reassuring confidence born of personal experience and exposure to their councils that the Church is in good hands.
Some Big Questions
Certain it is that the Brethren have to wrestle with big questions. Let me turn to some of those now, and since I am about half way through I have time to address perhaps three or four before we break for questions. Since it has become such a big question, I’ll talk a little about the emergence of gay rights and what it has meant for the Church, especially as it relates to religious freedom.
I will also talk a little about dissent and disciplinary councils, and the in-depth Church essays now appearing on LDS.org. And I’ll end with an explanation of what principles shape and drive our messaging from Public Affairs.
One advantage in having worked for Church Public Affairs for so long is that one gains a long-term perspective that comes with institutional memory, and that sometimes is valuable. Certainly you don’t have to be very old to remember a time when some of the language used in the Church to describe homosexual behavior was intemperate, even harsh, by today’s standards. We’ll talk more about that in a moment. But the fundamentals haven’t changed. Sex outside marriage is morally wrong, by God’s law. Sex with a person of the same sex is wrong, by that same standard. The doctrine hasn’t changed, but our way of addressing it has changed significantly.
Most people here will understand the word “presentism” – defined by Webster’s as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Presentism is a common problem. It’s so easy to dig into the past and find a statement that reflects the norms of the times in which it was stated and then incorrectly apply it to our day. Is there any one of us who wouldn’t like to un-say or un-write something we once said that in today’s parlance seems at best in-artful, and at worst, offensive?
Unquestionably, there has been a more careful and considerate choice of language in the past few years, as the Church has engaged with the pro-gay rights movement. As I said, this doesn’t reflect a change in a doctrinal understanding of the purpose of sex, marriage and the family, or what constitutes sin, but it does reflect a deeper understanding and consciousness among Church leadership.
While acknowledging that, it would be a mistake to assume that the Brethren were ignorant of these trials years ago. I’m thinking particularly of Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Twelve, who was a stake president in – of all places – San Francisco in the ‘80s when the AIDS epidemic broke out. I was with Elder Cook when we interviewed him on camera about this topic, and it was clear that he was deeply, emotionally touched by his experiences in helping several gay members with AIDS navigate their last days. Likewise, I have heard others among the Brethren describe the pain they feel for families, including gay family members, who have been torn apart while trying to navigate this extremely difficult issue.
As same-sex attraction has become more talked about in society, our language has changed in order to speak to an evolving audience even as our standards of chastity have remained constant. One might say the same for co-habitation before marriage of heterosexual couples. We don’t like it, we discourage it, we teach young people chastity before marriage, but we also understand the reality that most of the world today has different, ever-changing standards or values, and a strident voice from the Church is going to do nothing to change behavior.
Toward the end of the 2012 presidential election campaign, Public Affairs prepared a website that we called “mormonsandgays.org.” The site included several interviews with members of the Twelve, and it had the most intense scrutiny by the Brethren before it was launched. Frankly, the website had more than one purpose. In the heat of an election campaign in which a member of the Church was his party’s nominee for the presidency, we thought it likely that the “gay issue” would be dragged into the campaign at some point, and we would be confronted with all of the misrepresentation and distorted perspectives that we had dealt with ever since Proposition 8 in 2008. But the website was also an opportunity to recognize the experiences of some of our LGBT or same-sex attracted members.
In some Latter-day Saint homes, when teens had “come out” as gay to their parents, the reaction had been anything but compassionate, or reflective of a mutual search for understanding. In extreme cases, young people were ordered out of their homes. Being homeless and destitute made such young people prey to drug pushers, prostitution and other degrading experiences, and in some cases even to suicide. I am unaware of any Church leader who countenanced such actions, but awareness of some of these problems was not universal among leadership and certainly not among the membership at large. Mormonsandgays.org, which was carefully scrutinized by the Brethren before it launched, was designed to address that by encouraging parents and other family members to embrace their children, brothers or sisters while not condoning immoral behavior.
This issue remains a difficult one. The Church is now working to further develop mormonsandgays.org, and version 2.0 is scheduled for completion and launch early next year. Meanwhile, the topic leads us naturally to a related one, and that is the Church’s position on religious freedom vis-à-vis LGBT rights.
Even as early as Proposition 8, the Church said publicly that it did not oppose extending rights to LGBT people covering such areas as housing, employment, probate, hospital visits, etc., that posed no threat to the family. The problem it had was with efforts to redefine marriage. Even at that early date I remember the Brethren opining strongly that legalizing gay marriage would bring multiple challenges to religious freedom. In that, they were remarkably prescient. If you aren’t aware of the great cultural clash that has arisen between LGBT rights proponents and many faith groups over the perceived threat to religious rights, I can assure you that it’s becoming one of the great social issues of the day.
It’s beyond my scope today to dig more deeply into this topic than I need to, but even a casual read of what many LGBT advocates are saying about religious rights is sobering. The ink was barely dry on the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Council to allow gay scout leaders, when the Human Rights Campaign – one of the major LGBT advocacy groups – was saying that it was a helpful “first step” – meaning they won’t be satisfied until all churches are also forced to accept gay scout leaders in their troops. Even before the scout issue arose, many on that side of the debate had been clamoring for removing university accreditation from religious colleges who failed to meet the LGBT definition of what is or isn’t socially acceptable. And removing tax exemption from churches has been another agenda item emerging recently.
The Church’s response has been a model of restraint, reasonableness and Christ-like behavior. While not yielding an inch on our Father’s plan for his children and the purpose of our life here on earth, including how sexuality is to be expressed, the Church has recognized the legitimacy of LGBT claims to fair housing, employment and other services such as those I have mentioned. Further, without the Church’s public call last January in a news conference for an equitable treatment of both religion and LGBT rights, Utah would not have the laws it has today protecting the rights of both.
Going forward, the Church will continue to urge for this kind of balance. It is not easy for all of our members to understand this. There are some whose views carry a tone we heard many years ago, and who believe that any gesture of compassion toward LGBT people is tantamount to condoning sin, even though simple attraction in itself is not a sin.
Can You Have Your Own Views?
Others seem to want to reshape the Church into whatever the latest politically correct social convention says it should be. Consequently, much internal teaching needs to be done on this topic, especially among our youth and millennial members – i.e. young adults. Wisely, the Brethren will chart a course that adheres to the doctrine of the Church while emulating Christ’s inclusiveness and love for all people.
Can members have their own views on this topic and still stay faithful to the Church? That’s a question we hear often, and it arises from a number of different scenarios. Can a member be a Democrat and a good Mormon? That one makes me smile, because if the members who ask it could travel to some countries of the world and meet faithful members of the Church who belong to their national communist parties I fear their blood pressure might be permanently damaged. Can I believe in women’s rights and be a good Mormon? Can I think that our hymnals might benefit from a good revision? If I sometimes think that every minute of our three-hour block isn’t entirely inspirational, am I on the road to apostasy?
I don’t mean to be flippant, because I know that some questions are more important than others. All I can tell you is how I approach this subject personally. I have never found the Church to be an intellectual straitjacket. We have an enormously diverse membership. I have spent time with members of the Church on every continent where we have units. One of the most thrilling aspects to being a Latter-day Saint is the sense that we belong to a diverse but unified global family. Because I’m British, I admittedly joke about the French from time to time – it’s kind of an obligatory thing that goes with British citizenship. (Actually, I’ve never forgiven them for backing the wrong side in the American Revolutionary War). And, of course, the French respond in kind about the English. But if I’m on a plane and sitting next to a French Latter-day Saint, I feel an immediate bond. National and cultural differences evaporate. I have far more in common with that person than with one of my own non-LDS countrymen, even one my own age from my hometown or school. As a Latter-day Saint, I know instantly that my newly met French acquaintance and I share the most important core values and experiences, and we have the same broad aspirations for this life and the next. I am content to rest on the assurance that as Latter-day Saints we are, in reality, no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens in a kingdom that traverses all national boundaries and cultures.
Am I interested in making sure that my French seat companion comports precisely with my views in every nuanced interpretation of how to live his or her life? Do I insist that we both must be on exactly the same point on our spiritual journey? Or do I, like the Lord, allow room for personal interpretation, growth and understanding?
It is only when my friend begins to insist that I interpret everything his way, or that he suggests the Brethren are misleading the members, or that he elevates himself to be more than my friend but rather my uninvited teacher, that I may worry about his direction. If he tells me about his blogs and public demonstrations to prove the Brethren are wrong, and resists counsel, I might expect that Church leaders would counter that influence even if they would prefer not to. If kindness and gentle persuasion and love unfeigned prove unsuccessful, I would fear for his eternal future. But I would not deny him the right to believe differently. While I love the diversity in the Church, I don’t believe that ultimately, diversity trumps unity. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.”
To my certain knowledge, the First Presidency and the Twelve do not direct the outcomes of disciplinary councils, and studiously avoid doing so. Indeed, as the court of final appeal, the First Presidency cannot do so. They must remain independent. Church policy is that decisions rest with bishops and stake presidents, both as to whether to hold such councils and what the outcome might be. Of course, stake presidents may confer with Area Seventies up their priesthood line for counsel about process, but not about decisions and outcomes.
There has been speculation recently that disciplinary councils, or invitations to a sit-down with the bishop, have coincided and therefore have the appearance of being centrally directed. This is not the case, however, and there is a simple, plausible explanation that requires no mental gymnastics to understand. General Authorities – including all of the quorums of seventy – come to Church headquarters every six months for training right before General Conference. Over the years, these training sessions cover a wide range of diverse topics. If how to hold disciplinary councils in accordance with Church processes is one of those topics – which it was recently was – it isn’t surprising that as the training works its way down to the stake and ward level, some leaders may feel better prepared to engage with members whom they feel need counsel. This might especially occur at a time when some members are publicly campaigning for changes counter to Church policy or doctrine. Frankly, I don’t know whether there has been any increase in such counseling, and if there has, whether I have correctly identified the reason. But looking for a conspiracy behind every hint of change isn’t healthy and is rarely accurate.
The In-depth Essays on LDS.org
I promised a word about the in-depth essays on LDS.org that address subjects that some members have found challenging. Frankly I don’t have much to say about these. Feedback we received on LDS.org suggests that some members felt the essays should have been placed in a more prominent position and preceded by a major announcement. Other members think they got more attention than they deserved. Overall, I think there’s some merit in the argument that they should have been more prominent from the beginning, but there is more context to this. Certainly several of them received significant press coverage when published. Those who follow Church developments closely will have seen an increasing emphasis on study and learning in the home, on Sabbath day observance that incorporates such learning into our daily lives, and an increasingly flexible teaching curriculum that draws on many resources – including these essays – for content and support. It’s the intent of Church leaders that these essays be more than just a one-read experience on LDS.org, but rather that their content and principles work their way into the larger tapestry of learning, especially for our youth.
Much discussion preceded the publication of these essays, including a determination about their length. At one point, 50-page page essays or even longer were contemplated, and some were drafted with extensive footnotes. But it was acknowledged that few rank-and-file members would wade through such heavy work, other than scholars who were already familiar with the substance of the issues. An alternative was considered – a brief two- or three-page commentary, but this was felt to be inadequate and failed to meet the main criterion of transparency. The result of these deliberations is what you currently have on LDS.org and generally these essays have been well received. Although highly competent LDS scholars prepared initial the drafts, they had extensive review by Church History staff and other scholars. Their review was followed by a rigorous reading for accuracy and balance by the Twelve before approval by the First Presidency.
Balancing Competing Principles
Earlier, I mentioned the importance of not being too defensive. I hope I have not sounded overly defensive today. You may find this a little surprising coming from someone whose profession is public relations, but I’d like to leave you with a final thought.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, also a former chairman of the Public Affairs Committee, used to talk about what he called “the central dilemma of public affairs.” Do we let our light shine so that men may see our good works, or does that risk looking like doing alms before men, for the praise of the world.
Today we have an additional dilemma. The core function of the Public Affairs department is to build relationships with opinion leaders whose influence can either help or hinder the Church’s mission. We can do much good in society with that objective. It leads to such things as engagement with other churches, with political leaders of different stripes, with LGBT and other community leaders and many others.
At the same time, the Church from ancient times has essentially been counter-cultural, which means that it often pushed back against social conventions and established institutions. Jesus talked a lot about sheep, but he never acted like one. He challenged social norms, associated with people who polite society rejected, and confronted the Establishment when it displayed hypocrisy. The apostles, too, fearlessly challenged convention time after time in order to teach gospel truths.
So how do we balance these two seemingly competing principles, of building relationships in the secular world with those outside the Church who see things differently, yet pushing back against growing secularism and disaffiliation with organized religion?
The answer to these and other difficult questions is found in following Jesus Christ in every circumstance. This is our principal mandate, our prime directive. Our Church bears the Savior’s name. It’s His Church. The teachings are His and we try to model our lives on what Jesus taught. Our messages from the Church, therefore, must always be crafted with that in mind, and the Church’s actions must always be consistent with what it says. In every decision that we make, and every recommendation we take forward, we try to keep that in mind. What would the Savior do? Those associated with FairMormon, in particular, have an obligation to engage with the kind of language with which the Savior would identify, and avoid polemical, confrontational tactics. We have identified six simple principles that, rather than defend, assert what we stand for. They are these:
- We have faith in God, strive to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and embrace God’s plan for his children, bringing joy into our lives and the lives of others.
- We are strong supporters of the family, defenders of strong, enduring marriages and child bearing, and of raising well-educated children with high moral values.
- We value and defend freedom, including freedom of religion, respect individual agency and moral choices, freedom to worship and freedom to share our faith.
- We hold and try to live by strong moral values, including personal honesty and trustworthiness, and other Christ-like attributes.
- We serve others, including those in our own faith and those not of our faith. Charity, or love of our fellow men and women, is a source of joy.
- We strive to demonstrate through the redemptive power of the gospel that lives can change for the better. We think of this in terms of faith, repentance and the Atonement.
Such are the issues and challenges that face us today. Thank you for listening.