For I am not ashamed…

Draw the LineThis past Monday one of the radio talk shows I listen to asked about what happened in Church during the weekend. In the wake of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, the host, Brian Lehrer, asked how the religious sermons given in the region had confronted these decisions.

Of course, in LDS congregations this past Sunday was Fast Sunday, leaving the subject of the testimonies given up to those who chose to speak. In my own case, I heard no hint of a mention of these subjects, or any controversial current events, in the testimonies given or in lessons taught. Should there have been?

It is clear that our current LDS practice is, in general, to avoid anything that might breed contention. And I understand and agree with that practice. A worship service should be for worship—for bringing each of those in the congregation closer to God. So surely we should do and say things in our services that will accomplish that goal.

But I suspect that we are, in a sense, dodging the difficult in the way we do this. It seems to me that controversies like Ferguson and Staten Island last week, and like the U.S. Senate report on CIA “enhanced interrogation” this week are moral questions—questions that should be addressed in a religious context somehow. And the involvement of Mormons, respected Mormons by the accounts of those who know them personally, in the latter controversy perhaps suggests that these are not merely distant or academic questions but issues that each of us may have to face. And if we have to face similar issues, shouldn’t we confront the moral and religious questions in Church?

The scriptures may even support the idea that we should confront things like this at Church. In the New Testament, Christ says he brings not peace, but a sword, and adds that the gospel will set us at variance with our families. Elder Holland suggested that the Savior did not preach “comfortable doctrine, easy on the ear,” but instead He upset “those who thought he spoke only soothing platitudes.” Despite this, I think, few of us go to Church expecting to be pricked in our hearts. Indeed, at common complaint I hear from those struggling with Church attendance is that they don’t get anything out of Church—they complain of being offended by what is said in our meetings. [I admit, of course, that often offensive things ARE said. But such situations can also be opportunities for re-evaluating our assumptions and understanding or figuring out how to love those we disagree with or who err.]

The problem for local leaders, of course, is that dealing with these questions is far from easy. Controversial subjects can easily lead to anger and frustration instead of resolution to change or understanding of what is moral. And even if a teacher or speaker can successfully convert a subject that inspires hot feelings into motivation for personal improvement or better understanding of the basic principles of the gospel, can we really be certain that the comments a teacher receives or the feelings among those in the congregation will be equally focused on righteousness?

I don’t know the answer to this issue. Our practice of avoiding contention may have left us without an important venue for learning how to discuss the controversial and explore how to connect those issues to the gospel. In a way, we are collectively ashamed of our inability to handle discord.

Sadly, it sometimes doesn’t appear that our collective experience on blogs and other social media has taught us much in this regard. So I can’t blame local leaders and members for avoiding controversial topics.

41 comments for “For I am not ashamed…

  1. December 12, 2014 at 11:15 am

    In case it isn’t clear, discussion of the Senate torture report, Ferguson or Staten Island or the failings of other members of the Church is generally off topic. This post is about what we do and should be doing in Church, and how and where to discuss controversial subjects.

  2. Kristine
    December 12, 2014 at 11:24 am

    I changed the opening hymn from a Christmas carol to “Father in Heaven”–a prayer for peace–as a tiny way to register my dismay at the week’s events, but I’m sure no one would have noticed or understood.

    I have also been in services where the presence of contemporary events and politics was overwhelming–most recently an All Saints’ Day service which the priest turned into an occasion to discuss his support for gay marriage–and that is its own kind of awful. Like you, Kent, I don’t know where the golden mean is, but I do often wish we could at least try to discover it.

  3. Amy T
    December 12, 2014 at 11:48 am

    One of my former bishops was a devoted Tea Party member, and if I’m understanding correctly, you think my ward should have been subject to regular rehashing of the latest Glenn Beck diatribe?

    Have mercy!

    I am very opposed to hearing about politics in church, and since it’s impossible to discuss current events like Ferguson without bringing politics in, best to leave it off the table.

  4. December 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Amy T, I do understand that this cuts both ways, and I too wouldn’t want a political diatribe each Sunday. But I wonder if there isn’t a way to try to tie current events into the gospel, and get us all to think about how gospel principles help us think about those events.

    Could it be that your concern is simply that you don’t trust your fellow ward members to do that without reverting to political diatribe?

    If so, my concerns are the same. I just want to find a way around the diatribe to respectful dialogue about current events that focuses on the Savior and how to apply His teachings today.

  5. Kristine
    December 12, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    It would be nice if we could treat racism as one of those political issues that is also moral and therefore ok to talk about at church.

  6. Bruce Forbes
    December 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    One issue that we should be aware of is that according to U.S. Federal law, discussing politics in a church meeting in a way that appears to be favoring a political party, candidate, or position can loose the Church its tax-free religious organization status. We can discuss the religious principles that affect political decisions, but not the political issues themselves. As a Gospel Doctrine teacher in an election year, I usually had to work hard to keep the class going in this direction.

  7. Cameron N.
    December 12, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    The problem with such discussions is that most people, even those who think they are informed or desire perfect understanding with an open mind, do not really know the details of such current events, because they are so obfuscated by agendas and publicity. Thus, discussion of such might be productive if a first hand witness prophet hiding in a cave saw them and was present in the meeting, but otherwise they just turn into debates about the event itself where people can talk past each other.

  8. Trevor
    December 12, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Agreed, it seems tricky to implement, yet very much lacking…

    It’s come to the point that some Mormons insist that those who voice concerns (e.g. Ordain Women, or even others calling for much smaller changes) are ruining (the illusion of) unity in Zion.

    This seems to be a problem in society at large as well, but wouldn’t it be great if we could learn a little more at church how to civilly and respectfully disagree?

  9. December 12, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I agree in general, Cameron. I’m not sure that we have to know all the details in order to understand moral lessons or learn how to think through moral dilemnas or to draw the line from these to the Savior and His teachings, but it helps.

  10. December 12, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Exactly, Trevor. Unity doesn’t mean hiding disagreement.

  11. December 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I thought Rosalynde’s FB comments insightful, that in contrast to other Protestants where congregations are self-selecting, LDS wards and branches tend to be much more politically (and often racially) mixed, which means whatever position might be taken from the pulpit (by whomever), odds are a good percentage is going to disagree to a greater or lesser degree.

    And we don’t have a good track record of nuanced and balanced discussions in our wards.

  12. Catherine S
    December 12, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    An amazing African American brother in our ward (just baptized this last year!) got up and bore his testimony about how distressed he was about events in Ferguson and NY, but how the Gospel helps him remember to love and not be angry. He also testified that he knew that God would help heal our country. As a life-long member of the church, I would have never borne that testimony, if only because I know that it goes against the status quo of fast and testimony meeting. That morning I was so grateful he didn’t know that, because it was an amazing and moving testimony!

  13. December 12, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    The degree to which Sunday services should be politicized is a matter of dispute. Liberal Protestant denominations, inheritors of the social gospel of the late 19th century, bring in a lot of liberal causes under the umbrella of Sunday preaching and teaching. Conservative Protestant denominations (including LDS) focus teaching and preaching on gospel topics and tend to leave politics out of Sunday services.

    So current events not showing up in LDS Sunday services is not a failure — it simply reflects how conservative denominations, including LDS, approach the question of what is or is not important to include in Sunday services. Ironically, (political) liberals think conservative churches are politicized, when in fact it is (religious) liberal mainline churches that bring in more politics on Sunday. (This is empirically established and discussed in Putnam and Campbell’s book.)

  14. December 12, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    While I don’t dispute that liberal mainline churches are politicized, what I don’t hear in your comment, Dave, is what arguments are used to keep current events out of Church. Am I wrong in assuming that these events have a potential impact on our spirituality?

    And, for the record, I don’t see the question to be what you assume, Dave. I don’t thing we are talking about politicizing church. Is it not possible to discuss current events without politicizing church?

  15. Steve Smith
    December 12, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    I think that a major reason why the Ferguson/Staten Island decisions weren’t talked much about in church (I don’t know about LDS congregations near the locations, it could have been) is that people generally don’t know much about the events or care. Sure these decisions received a lot of media attention, but not everyone follows the news. Plus these decisions have hardly any impact on most everyone’s day-to-day lives. The fact of the matter is that there are so many issues related to morality that we could become preoccupied with that there is simply not enough time to cover them all.

    Beyond those issues, the reason that other political issues aren’t mentioned is that it is sort of the culture to avoid political issues, not to mention avoid addressing issues that aren’t touched on in the correlated material.

  16. ji
    December 12, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    No mention in my ward, either — but that’s okay — those who bore testimony shared thoughts important to them about their walk with Christ — and sympathy was shared for a family whose youngest daughter (still in Primary) was diagnosed with a brain tumor just the day before. The Holy Ghost attended the meeting.

    If someone was present who was affected, he or she would have been welcome to share.

    But no, no one bore testimony about how bad the police is are how evil G. W. Bush is. Should someone have done so? Are a ward, are we spiritually bankrupt because no one did so?

  17. Michelle
    December 13, 2014 at 4:26 am

    I love the example of the personal testimony shared above. I think there are far too many current events that are distressing to even begin to cover them in Church, although I understand the desire to have our faith intersect with our world.

    I personally think that is best done in homes, friendship circles, discussion sites like these, etc. I think if Church became a place to cover all the things that people think we ‘should’ talk about, we’d get little or no doctrine — not because we aren’t capable of getting there, but just because of the sheer number of things we could address. True doctrine, understood, still needs to be the primary purpose of church meetings, imo.

    But the personal application and testimony of how the gospel helps in the face of hard things (because each of us experience different hard things) and current events (because each of us likely has different current events that stir our need for gospel perspective and processing) to me is the place where the golden mean can be experienced.

    So again, it thrills me to hear about that convert’s testimony. I think if we had more of that kind of realness (“the gospel/this principle is helping me with ____________ right now”), we’d all be a lot better off. But that becomes about each of us individually being vulnerable and real rather than expecting the community to somehow change. We *are* the community. We are the culture.

  18. jjohnsen
    December 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    “It is clear that our current LDS practice is, in general, to avoid anything that might breed contention. And I understand and agree with that practice. ”

    Not in my experience, not in a conservative Davis County ward. Nobody here has a problem broaching contentious subjects as long as it’s anti-Obama, anti-Gay, or pro-gun.

  19. December 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Conformity to any cultural construct is dangerous as pointed out here: People need to discuss issues and not just go with the flow. Mormons used to be known for thinking deep and discussing even the most uncomfortable issues. Now we may as well put a white shirt on Moroni. It is not going to do us any good to ignore what takes place in the world. To do so makes our message irrelevant to most people. A bit of controversy is good, and to just conform and get along out of “kindness” is what may be what Jesus warned against when He said he would rather be hot or cold but if we are lukewarm that will result in being spit out.

  20. Holly
    December 13, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Two Sundays ago a man in my ward gave an EXCELLENT talk during which he brought up the Ferguson riots. He wove it into his talk while discussing entitlement. Sadly, I can’t remember enough to share it here, but it was well done and didn’t go off track into politics. He just mentioned specific comments from people in that area and how these comments displayed selfishness and entitlement.

  21. Tim
    December 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    And that’s exactly the problem those of us in more conservative areas would run into if we talked even more about stuff like this at church–discussions of the riots without discussing the broader race issues, verbally attacking people who are different from us, etc. etc. My bishop already thinks it’s okay to play long clips of everyone’s favorite LDS talk show host during church meetings. Political hostility at church has already contributed to at least one family going inactive. I’ve been in wards where there was enough diversity of thought where these issues could be discussed, so I guess it could work in some places. Just not in my ward.

  22. Manuel
    December 14, 2014 at 10:54 am

    “Our practice of avoiding contention may have left us without an important venue for learning how to discuss the controversial and explore how to connect those issues to the gospel. In a way, we are collectively ashamed of our inability to handle discord.”

    While this may be true, the phenomenon is compounded by the very culture of “inspired leaders.” I have witnessed too many times members interpreting the biases, political agendas, fears and even shortcomings as the very recipe that “God” had prepared for an audience through that particular leader.

    Some leaders have extremely strong political agendas, that they push during church, sometimes with extremely poor doctrinal justifications (sometimes with no justification at all), and yet the members feel compelled to follow since in Mormon culture, “God” chose this leader and is “guiding him” through “inspiration” as to how to lead the flock. (I cannot recount how much damage I have seen done against good members of the church under this scheme)

    I imagine you don’t like to see this element through an objective perspective, but I am not surprised these issues aren’t talked about. The unequal status of regular members vs church leaders with regards to “inspiration” in a church setting will surely trump any dialogue and as I have witnessed for many years, the agenda of the leader (no matter how wrong) will prevail. The rest are left with going with the leader’s way or the highway. Questioning leaders is frowned upon in the church. Anyone who has a strong disagreement faces carrying the scarlet letter of an apostate and having to put his/her family in that same light in their congregation/community. That is basically how it is.

  23. Vic
    December 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I too am impacted by events in the news and the many distressing issues that confront our darkening society and have been frustrated that some things are never addressed at Church. As I see it, the problem or challenge of addressing these things at Church runs counter to a very basic and fundamental reality, which is, that the basic and overarching purpose of the Church at all, is to teach the Gospel, ie the covenants and ordinances of the Priesthood. After forty years in the Church I seem to see clearly that that is a towering challenge in and of itself. As one poster above said, it would be unmanageable to try and address and weave current events into the curriculum.

    It seems to me that the Lords intent is to focus on us learning the Gospel and then he lets us choose other venues to address other issues. “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” The challenge for the Church venue is to teach those correct principles without distraction and that is quite enough. I say that despite the frustration I feel and then find my way on to other forums for the other issues

  24. December 14, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Kristine says, “It would be nice if we could treat racism as one of those political issues that is also moral and therefore ok to talk about at church.” Whenever I tell a class that each of us is God’s child and he loves the person you might want to be mean to just as much as he loves you, and is offended if you treat his child meanly, I am addressing that very topic. I’ve said that sentence to multiple children’s and adult classes. When you teach pure doctrine, everything does come up. But when you try to inject politics, what you think is truth, isn’t necessarily truth, and will be a huge mess.

    A few weeks ago a RS teacher taught our class that spanking is child abuse and that if you spank your child, soon you will be open to all kinds of abuse including sexual abuse. Obviously, that was her opinion and not doctrine, but if she had gone to GC talks she could have gotten some good talks that supported her opinion to a certain extent, but as it was, she offended many people in the class and destroyed constructive participation. I think that’s what happens when you start discussing politics instead of doctrine.

  25. December 15, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Steve Smith (#15) “these decisions have hardly any impact on most everyone’s day-to-day lives.”

    Maybe in your ward. In my ward I know of a family where the father is regularly stopped by the police for, essentially, “walking while being black.” The mother’s fear because of this is almost palpable.

  26. December 15, 2014 at 11:28 am

    BTW, I’ve removed a couple of comments that violated the request in comment #1 that we don’t discuss the issues around Ferguson or Staten Island or the torture memos.

  27. December 15, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Vic (#23), wrote “the basic and overarching purpose of the Church at all, is to teach the Gospel, ie the covenants and ordinances of the Priesthood.”

    My difficulty with this is that I don’t see how this is separate from figuring out how to react to current events. If the Gospel doesn’t teach us how to deal with the things that DO happen in our lives, and in our nations, how exactly do we learn to apply the gospel?

  28. Steve Smith
    December 15, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Kent, indeed, racist trends have a negative effect on people in the US. I don’t deny that. I also don’t deny that racism and white privilege have a lot to do with the court decisions. But the very court decisions themselves don’t seem to be directly affecting anyone’s lives except for the police officers’ and those of the families and friends of the victims.

  29. Jared vdH
    December 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Steve Smith (#28) I suppose it depends on one’s overall interpretation of events. I agree that the individual court decisions don’t seem to be directly affecting anyone’s lives except those directly involved. However when viewed in aggregate with other recent court cases and in tandem with other self reported through social media incidents of racism and police brutality, the two individual court cases can appear to be two nationally visible plot points along a well populated trend line.

    I believe that the question of the OP is why can’t we talk about the trend line and what should we be doing to address it in Church settings. This of course assumes that you agree that the trend line exists in the first place.

  30. December 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Because it hasn’t been noticed as it should have been, let me repeat my comment above (#1):

    “In case it isn’t clear, discussion of the Senate torture report, Ferguson or Staten Island or the failings of other members of the Church is generally off topic. This post is about what we do and should be doing in Church, and how and where to discuss controversial subjects.”

  31. ji
    December 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Let’s discuss Ferguson and torture in the public square.

    At church, let us talk of the eternal truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and how we might be a help to our neighbor.

  32. December 15, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    Wait a second . . . you mean other wards don’t talk about Ferguson in fast and testimony meeting? Not only did we have a Ferguson-related testimony (main message: we won’t see justice in this life, but Jesus will make everything right in the end), but two speakers in the same meeting spoke about their love for former DC mayor Marion Barry who had recently passed away.

    A note on the Marion Barry tributes: I found them really jarring, but in a good way I think. Growing up in the DC area, I always thought of the cocaine-smoking mayor as an embarrassment to the city. Those crazy people who elected him for mayor . . . again! After he got out of prison! But listening to a ward member whom I deeply respect speaking emotionally about Barry’s legacy opened my eyes to a new perspective. I could no longer write off Barry supporters as “those people.” I was forced to see that among “those people” were my people – my own brothers and sisters. And while I might never agree that Barry deserved their love and support, I was able to knock off a chunk of my eye-rolling, I’m-so-superior-in-the-voting-both attitude.

  33. ji
    December 16, 2014 at 5:09 am


    I’m glad for the testimonies you had in your ward! If members of your ward were affected, and made a connection in their testimonies “(main message: we won’t see justice in this life, but Jesus will make everything right in the end)”, that’s appropriate and fitting. What isn’t wonderful is for some Latter-day Saints to hate other Latter-day Saints because their wards didn’t have Ferguson-related testimonies, or to hate the church generally because of it.

  34. December 16, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Steve Smith #29: “But the very court decisions themselves don’t seem to be directly affecting anyone’s lives except for the police officers’ and those of the families and friends of the victims.”

    What court decisions are you referring to?

  35. Steve Smith
    December 16, 2014 at 6:59 am

    OK, duly noted Kent, I didn’t notice comment #1.

  36. December 16, 2014 at 10:58 am

    He means the grand jury decisions to not indict the police officers in Ferguson and in Staten Island.

    I think Genevieve’s comment shows that there ARE plenty of members who feel indirectly affected by those decisions.

  37. December 16, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Fair enough. While most people might see it as a distinction without a difference (“Court decision, grand jury decision, whatever!”), my point in asking is that I think it’s important, in attempting to assign responsibility for what happened in these cases, to accurately characterize it. With the (personally exceedingly tiresome) caveats that (1) I am not a lawyer, and (2) anyone with questions about how the criminal process will affect his own case should contact an attorney licensed to practice law where the case arose, potential criminal cases that are heard by a grand jury don’t get to court, where they are heard by a petit (trial) jury or by a judge, unless and until the grand jury says they do.

    A grand jury has to determine that there is enough evidence to sustain an indictment before a case ever gets to court. And whatever the merits might be of an argument that racism or white privilege has influenced decisionmaking, it should be remembered in the Ferguson case that (while we don’t know the racial composition of the grand jury or how the vote broke down along racial lines), there likely were African Americans serving on the grand jury, and several African American witnesses supported former Officer Wilson’s version of events.

  38. December 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    You’re getting very close to discussing the events instead of the subject of this post. Let’s keep on topic.

  39. December 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Fair enough. In truth, not only am I “close” to that line, I’ve probably crossed it. I’ll bow out. Still, I do think (despite the fact that most people’s reaction is, “Court decision, grand jury decision, whatever!”), if people are going to make the case that these (and similar) events should (or perhaps that they shouldn’t) be discussed in Church, the events themselves at least should be accurately characterized. If they’re not, then it simply increases the potential that things people think should be avoided in Church discussions (such as contention) will occur.

    Warm regards. Carry on!

  40. Jared vdH
    December 16, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    One question I would like to see explored in a Church setting: do we as Mormons really have a sustainable framework for active resistance to abusive government authority? The only examples I can think of are civil disobedience to anti-polygamy laws and the Mountain Meadows massacre. Not exactly sterling examples to fall back on. Examples of submission include: Haun’s Mill, the evacuation of Missouri, the evacuation of Nauvoo, the Mormon Battalion, the Utah war, the Manifesto.

    Examples of active resistance from scripture: Moses, Joshua, some Judges, Esther, Captain Moroni, Nephi son of Helaman, Mormon (maybe Nephi son of Lehi)

    Examples of passive resistance (waiting for God to intervene) or outright submission: Daniel & friends, David, Jeremiah, Anti-Nephi-Lehis, church members during the fulfillment of the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite

    My point is, I think that the overall culture and teachings of the Church lean very heavily towards submission to government authority or at best passive resistance. Thus the activism and protesting seem to go counter to the culture and the Church. Since this is the main method people in general are using to speak out against what they feel are systemic prejudices people are uncomfortable showing outright support for those actions in Church.

    This is just something that I thought of during my commute home, so I haven’t done any heavy thinking on it. Any thoughts?

  41. Kevin Winters
    December 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    The issue is not “talking politics”, but how we talk politics. It’s not a case of, “Well, I have this Bishop who talks Tea Party politics and it is insane,” but, “How my Bishop talks about politics is problematic.” And to try to keep any kind of seperation between “true doctrine” and how that doctrine is played out in all aspects of life, including those two taboo topics of politics and sex, is to ignore the power that truth has in influencing every aspect of our lives and that the Saints should endeavor to be open and vulnerable in talking about them. The issue is precisely that people are defensive, they identify with their political views, so that when those are questioned they feel that they themselves are being questioned, including their moral standing within the Church. I think someone else pointed it out earlier: Mormons generally are ashamed of dealing with conflict and disagreement among its ranks (yes, with some notable exceptions). Until we work on that, until we have more Uchtdor-ian calls to plurality within the Church, then, yes, we can’t sanely talk about politics…but that is an indictment on the maturity of the Saints, not about politics itself.

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