Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Deconstructing Elder Oaks' Prop 8 Devotional

By Madame Curie

In another in a long line of... interesting... publicity moves, the LDS church today decided to highlight in its newsroom a talk given by Elder Oaks yesterday (Oct. 13, 2009) to BYU-I. (Click on the link for the full talk). Unlike with Elder Hafen's infamous talk, this time the talk is featured front and center as the "Top Story".

So, despite the fact that I have three papers due to be edited by 5 am tomorrow morning, I am going to address yet another frustrating talk on politics from the LDS Church. In doing so, let me make it abundantly clear that I am not a constitutional expert or a lawyer. Rather, I am merely looking at this talk as an interesting, intelligent, analytical student of Mormonism. And since the talk was given as a general devotional to BYU-I students, I don't think a law degree should be necessary in dissecting what was said.

Sections I-III: The Consitution is Ordained of God
In the beginning of his talk, Elder Oaks discusses the importance of religious freedoms within the United States, and their role in allowing the Restoration to come to pass. I likewise believe that religious rights are important, as are any individual's rights to express her opinions - dumb or otherwise - untrammelled. This applies to all. I only have a frew nitpicking things to say about this section of his talk.

At the very beginning of his talk, Elder Oaks says:
I am conscious that I am also speaking to many in other places. In this time of the Internet, what we say in one place is instantly put before a wider audience, including many to whom we do not intend to speak. That complicates my task, so I ask your understanding as I speak to a very diverse audience.
Now, given that this talk was knowingly placed as the "Top Story" in the LDS Newsroom, this statement can be taken one of two ways. The first possibility is that he is saying, "Other people who were not my intended audience are going to read this talk, and take it out of context". The problem with that conclusion is that he says that his task is "complicated" by this fact and that he is speaking to a "diverse audience". This seems to indicate that the talk with written with the intent that it would be found on the LDS Newsroom within 24 hours. As such, the second possibility is that, knowing the press this talk would receive, Elder Oaks purposefully chose to make the devotional a political platform. I believe that this was most likely the case.

Elder Oaks continues, choosing to cite an "old military maxim that when there is a battle underway, persons who desire to join the fray should 'march to the sound of the guns,'" inevitably bringing up the thought of the "war on the family" rhetoric. Although it is not immediately clear that this is going to be a talk about same-sex marriage, since he launches into several minutes of discussing the Constitution, this immediate and early reference to war mentality does prep the hearer that the talk will be about Prop. 8.

In discussing the importance of our democracy and freedom from dictatorship, Elder Oaks says:
With freedom we can be accountable for our own actions and cannot blame our conditions on our bondage to another. This is the condition the Lord praised in the Book of Mormon, where the people — not a king — established the laws and were governed by them (see Mosiah 29:23–26). This popular sovereignty necessarily implies popular responsibility. Instead of blaming their troubles on a king or tyrant, all citizens are responsible to share the burdens of governing, “that every man might bear his part” (Mosiah 29:34).
One thing that I always find interesting about the Church's current disparaging remarks on the evils of kings and monarchs, using Book of Mormon citations as scriptural justification, is that the same BoM passages were used by Joseph Smith in the early days of the Mormon church, albeit with a perpendicular purpose. What Joseph Smith intended to form in Nauvoo and throughout the United States was a theocracy. He used King Benjamin from the Book of Mormon as an example of how the Lord actually would prefer that individuals be ruled by a righteous monarch (aka a Prophet). Indeed, records indicate that Joseph Smith had himself annointed King over his theocracy. Very ironic proceedings from a church that now clings to the idea of a democracy as God's ordained governmental institution.

The other difficulty with Elder Oaks' statement is his reference that because of democracy, each man and woman is judged according to his or her own decisions, and not those forced upon them. In other words, democracy allows personal responsibility. The difficulty with this statement is that the LDS Church is very far from a democracy! How is it personally responsible to vote a certain way because the Prophet told you to? Compound this fact with statements from LDS authorities indicating that "when the Prophet has spoken, the debate is over," suggesting that the Prophet can speak on any issues, including politics, and should be obeyed, and that you should follow the prophet even if what he tells you to do is wrong. These statements are at direct opposition with what Elder Oaks describes as the environment necessary for "personal responsibility".

Section IV: What is Religious Freedom?
In this section, Elder Oaks explains what religious freedom within the United States means and doesn't mean. He stresses that it is important that a government ensure that religions do not infringe on others' human rights, as defined in the constitution, such as property rights and the right to life. (Interesting note: What implication does this have on things such as the United Order, where the church basically owned everyone's property and goods?) This argument is carefully constructed so that Elder Oaks can argue that some human rights are acceptable, while others should not be considered rights in the first place.
As would be expected, most of the battles over the extent of religious freedom have involved government efforts to impose upon the practices of small groups like Mormons. Not surprisingly, government officials sometimes seem more tolerant toward the religious practices of large groups of voters.
In making this argument, I am reminded of the government's responses to polygamy. Perhaps this is not what was intended, but whenever a Mormon hears "persecution" and "Mormons" together, it is only natural to think of polygamy. If that is the case, then somehow Elder Oaks must make the cognitive leap that the definition of marriage is not something that the constitution can define, unless the Church agrees with it.

Furthermore, in his last sentence of that statement, he states something that is fundementally true: Government is more tolerant towards larger religious practices, because we are a democracy. Thats how a democracy works - the majority wins. In the case of polygamy, the church was on the "wrong side," and so Mormons cry persecution. In the case of same-sex marriage, the gays and lesbians are unfortunately on the "wrong side" of public opinion - therefore, since Mormons are of the majority, they really have no right to claim "persecution!".
Religious belief is obviously protected against government action. The practice of that belief must have some limits, as I suggested earlier. But unless the guarantee of free exercise of religion gives a religious actor greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to all actors by other provisions of the constitution (like freedom of speech), what is the special value of religious freedom? Surely the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion was intended to grant more freedom to religious action than to other kinds of action. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief should not be enough to satisfy the special place of religion in the United States Constitution.
I am not quite sure what he is trying to say here - religious individuals should have more say in government than the average Joe? How does that work? Or religious individuals should be more protected than the average individual? This seems like shaky legal ground, to me the non-legal oberserver. It seems like Elder Oaks is indicating that Mormons should be extra priviledged politically, simply because they belong to a minority religion. That doesn't seem right to me.

Section V: Religious Freedom is Under Attack

Continuing with his indication that religions and religious persons should be held accounted special treatment from government, Elder Oaks goes into an attack on atheism. He first indicates that, as non-believers, atheists are therefore NOT covered by special privledges held in reserve for the believers:
Atheism has always been hostile to religion, such as in its arguments that freedom of or for religion should include freedom from religion.
In other words, Oaks seems to indicate that atheists should not be permitted in their practice or prosyletization of their non-belief, at least not on a governmental level, because the US Constitution does not validate their non-belief as it does another's belief. In other words, atheists should not have the special "protections" that religious individuals do. I am not sure, again, what Oaks is getting at here. Does he mean that belittling a rationalist's argument is ok, because they are not believers and therefore not covered by the Constitution, but that belittling a believer's argument is NOT ok? What special "protections" is he referring to, anyway?
As noted by John A. Howard of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, these voices “have developed great skills in demonizing those who disagree with them, turning their opponents into objects of fear, hatred and scorn.”
Such forces — atheists and others — would intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation. Noted author and legal commentator Hugh Hewitt described the current circumstance this way:
“There is a growing anti-religious bigotry in the United States. . . .
“For three decades people of faith have watched a systematic and very effective effort waged in the courts and the media to drive them from the public square and to delegitimize their participation in politics as somehow threatening.”
It seems interesting that Elder Oaks would call out atheists for delegitimizing Mormon arguments in the public square, when talks such as this one clearly are meant to have the same effect on atheist's arguments. How else can one explain his statement that "freedom of religion is not freedom from religion"? Furthermore, the obvious analogy within the Mormon faith is striking. It seems to me that talks like this one and Elder Holland's in General Conference seek to "demonize those who disagree with them, turning [opponents of the Mormon Church] into objects of fear, hatred, and scorn." In particular, the words "pathetic," "crawling," and "silly" from Elder Holland's talk come to mind. Kettle, meet pot.

Next, Elder Oaks specifically brings up the question of Prop. 8, and argues that:
At no time did anyone question or jeopardize the civil right of Proposition 8 opponents to vote or speak their views.
I am not sure what Elder Oaks considers necessary to "jeopardize" someones civil right to speak against Prop. 8, but I would think that threats of eternal salvation, ostracization by your family, friends, and religion, and strong urging by your bishop to give money (when he knows full well your financial situation) might make someone fell that their rights to freedom of speech within the church were certainly "jeopardized". However, since the church is not a democracy, feedom of speech can be restricted there. However, that doesn't mean we should cry foul the second someone calls us out on it.
Religious freedom needs defending against the claims of newly asserted human rights. The so-called “Yogyakarta Principles,” published by an international human rights group, call for governments to assure that all persons have the right to practice their religious beliefs regardless of sexual orientation or identity. This apparently proposes that governments require church practices and their doctrines to ignore gender differences. Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines or practices should be resisted by all believers.
I wasn't sure what he was referring to here, so I read all of the Yogyakarta Principles. These principles are a set of non-binding considerations to protect the human rights of LGBTQ individuals. They include the right to life, privacy, education, etc. The only principle pertaining to religion was the following:
PRINCIPLE 21. The Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. These rights may not be invoked by the State to justify laws, policies or practices which deny equal protection of the law, or discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

States shall:
a) Take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to ensure the right of persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, to hold and practice religious and non-religious beliefs, alone or in association with others, to be free from interference with their beliefs and to be free from coercion or the imposition of beliefs;
b) Ensure that the expression, practice and promotion of different opinions, convictions and beliefs with regard to issues of sexual orientation or gender identity is not undertaken in a manner incompatible with human rights.
Considering this principle, I think Elder Oaks was trying to indicate that the above statement could potentially force the Church to perform same-sex marriages in the temple. But such an argument is as ridiculous as indicating that the government is able to force the Muslim faith to do away with burqas. This simply does not say that the government can impose on a religion, PARTICULARLY in a country where freedom of religion is respected by the constitution.

In a country where all-white country clubs still exist, I expect that religions will still be allowed to continue being homophobic and sexist.

Section V: What Should LDS Members Do to Protect Freedom of Religion?

In this final section, Elder Oaks gives words of advice for LDS Members as they fight the war for religious freedom against those evil gays and lesbians (snark mine):
First, we must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. We are under command to love our neighbor, to forgive all men, to do good to them who despitefully use us and to conduct our teaching in mildness and meekness. Even as we seek to speak with love, we must not be surprised when our positions are ridiculed and we are persecuted and reviled. As the Savior said, “so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”. And modern revelation commands us not to revile against revilers.
This quote is great, but seemingly at odds with his GC talk given only one week ago, where he indicated that:
God’s anger and His wrath are not a contradiction of His love but an evidence of His love. Every parent knows that you can love a child totally and completely while still being creatively angry and disappointed at that child’s self-defeating behavior.
Interesting parallels are make here between wrath, anger, and love. I am not sure that I understand how one can be patient, understanding, compassionate, mild, and meek, and not reviling, while simultaneously being justified in righteous wrath and anger.
While our church rarely speaks on public issues, it does so by exception on what the First Presidency defines as significant moral issues, which could surely include laws affecting the fundamental legal/cultural/moral environment of our communities and nations.
Our church "rarely speaks on public issues"??? What the hell Mormon church is he a member of? Surely not the one that advicated and then excommunicated people for practicing polygamy, urged church members to join the John Birch society, spoke out vehemantly against communism and socialism, daily decries the evils of feminism, intellectualism, and gay rights, and put every ounce of its weight behind getting the ERA to fail? What kind of church starts off as a theocratic institution that defines a new order of marriage and communal living, but then 100 years later works the system to block others from marrying?

This is tantamount to the church's explanation that we were "never a racist church" when our own prophets (Brigham Young) declared that any interracial couple deserved "death on the spot". You cannot change history simply by insisting that things occurred differently than they did. In a marriage relationship, this would be considered a form of emotional abuse. But at least a marriage relationship is a democracy - in a Mormon Church/Mormon member relationship, "when the prophet has spoken, the debate is over," and there is no form of redress.
Along with many others, we were disappointed with what we experienced in the aftermath of California’s adoption of Proposition 8, including vandalism of church facilities and harassment of church members by firings and boycotts of member businesses and by retaliation against donors...

These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.
Yes, illegal things done by some individuals to some individual members of the church were wrong, and legal redress should be attempted. However, the actions of individuals by individuals should be dealt with on an individual basis, rather than held up as a banner from heaven indicating that we are justified. Newsflash: The "victimization" card didn't work so well for Hillary Clinton in the last election. People can see right through it, and they hate it. If you are going to talk the talk, be willing to walk the walk. All is NOT fair in politics. That is simply how it is, and claiming special status as a "believer," indicating that special privledges are yours for belief in God is wrong.

Yes, people were fired and businesses were boycotted. That is how things are done in diplomacy; we had an embargo against Cuba for who knows how many years. The UN frequently enacts economic sanctions on countries that they disagree with. When reason fail, when argumentation turns into "Well, my God says you are wrong," people must take action. The church knows this; they use their power to protect their image as well. "Protecting the good name of the church" is grounds for excommunication. Individuals have been fired from BYU for being openly gay or even for supporting gay or feminist movements. Reputations have been destroyed within the church when books are published that the church doesn't like. I may be ex-ed simply for writing this post. To someone who isn't Mormon, these may seem like small things. But when ones entire sense of self, world-view, cultual, family, friends and community are wrapped up in it - and sometimes their jobs as well - it is a BIG DEAL. So, as I said - if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. There can be no double standard here.

Furthermore, gays, lesbians, transexuals, and bisexuals have endured much more than just being fired from jobs. They have been discriminated against, killed in horrible fashions, subject to all sorts of intimidation and violence. There is simply no comparison with the push back experienced by LDS church members after Prop 8 to civil rights violations that homosexuals have endured for years.

I have not even touched the issue of civil rights in the South and how pathetic of a comparison it is to the backlash after Prop 8. Its just too ludicrous to compare. As stated in a rebuttal of the talk by the Salt Lake Tribune:
"Were four little Mormon girls blown up in the church at Sunday school? Were there burning crosses planted on local bishops' lawns? Were people lynched and their genitals stuffed in their mouths?" asked University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell. "By comparing these two things, it diminishes the real violence that African-Americans experienced in the '60s, when they were struggling for equal rights. There is no equivalence between the two."
That about sums up my feelings on that topic as well.

Finally, Elder Oaks makes some extensions that can only be understood in light of the fact that Mitt Romney was rejected as Republican nominee for president in 2008, and it clearly planning on a second run:
Fragile freedoms are best preserved when not employed beyond their intended purpose. If a candidate is seen to be rejected at the ballot box primarily because of religious belief or affiliation, the precious free exercise of religion is weakened at its foundation, especially when this reason for rejection has been advocated by other religionists. Such advocacy suggests that if religionists prevail in electing their preferred candidate this will lead to the use of government power in support of their religious beliefs and practices. The religion of a candidate should not be an issue in a political campaign.
Yes, and this clearly did not make a difference in Utah and Idaho, who voted nearly 100% for Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries. Furthermore, I received far more "Obama is a Muslim!" propaganda from my Mormon friends than from any other voting bloc.

I am left baffled as to why Elder Oaks would choose to give a lawyer-speech, chock full of difficult constitutional analyses and references, as a Tuesday devotional talk at BYU-Idaho. Surely most of the students left with their heads spinning. This talk can only be perceived as a marker of the church's stance on Prop 8, and its unwillingness to let the argument pass out of the public eye. I disagree with the victimization card, and with the blatent attempts to align the Mormon church with the evangelical Protestants. The Protestants are not going to accept Mormon doctrine as Christian, no matter how much we align ourselves with them or donate money to their causes. What the Catholic Church has been unable to do since the Reformation, Mormons are unlikely to succeed at in the Internet era.

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann had Elder Oaks on his Countdown tonight as the 5th "Worst Person in the World":