Sunday, April 5, 2015

Any Opposed, Please Sit Down and Shut Up

Previously: Where'd Everybody Go?

Something really weird happened yesterday. During the general conference of the church, Elder Dieter Uchtdorf presented the names of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for a sustaining vote. When he asked for any opposed to manifest their votes, a handful of members responded by shouting, "Opposed."

But that wasn't the weird part. What was weird was the reaction of otherwise faithful latter-day Saints who felt those who voted in opposition were somehow out of line. Some described those who voted in opposition as "hecklers," which reveals their ignorance of the meaning of words as much as it does their understanding of church protocol.

Many member's objections to what occurred were typified by a statement Julie Ann Debenham expressed afterward to Fox News: “I think people have a right to oppose things. I just think there is a time and place to do it–and the time and place to do it is not inside the general assembly."

Well pardon me while I try to figure that one out.  The vote was taken in the general assembly; the general membership sitting in the general assembly were specifically requested at that time to manifest any votes in opposition. So...because some in the assembly followed church protocol by manifesting their votes at the proper place and time, others felt it would have been more appropriate had they done so some other place and some other time.

And we wonder why our critics accuse us Mormons of being dumbed down.

Just to be clear, these "dissenters" -a nasty sounding word I don't like using to describe people who are following the rules to the letter- were not in any way "heckling" Elder Uchtdorf. To heckle is to harass or badger a public speaker with impertinent questions or gibes. These people did nothing more than register their vote simply and quickly according to the rules laid down in scripture.  Then they sat down and said nothing more. They did not disrupt the meeting. The business of the meeting included asking for their opposing vote.  For his part, Uchtdorf responded appropriately by verbally acknowledging those opposing votes.

Majority carries. 'Nays' duly noted.

Done and done.

So why all the controversy breaking out on the internet?  I suppose it's controversial only because we are so unused to doing things the way the Lord instructs us to, that when we see it finally happen we panic. Didn't the Lord command  it be done in this very manner?
"And a commandment I give unto you, that you should fill all these offices and approve of those names which I have mentioned, or else disapprove of them at my general conference..." (D&C 124:144)
Not the time and place?  If Julie Ann Debenham were the only person who expressed that silly notion, we could smile and shrug it off.  But go online and have a look. Those very sentiments continue to be expressed by an army of smugly self-righteous, woefully ignorant latter-day Saints who are angry -visibly, vocally, furious- that anyone would have the gall to express a vote in conference contrary to their own.  Sometimes I tremble because of the pride of this people.
Matthew O. Richardson, Associate Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University observes,
"Unfortunately, the law of common consent is viewed by many members as nothing more than an accompaniment to a business agenda. Perhaps because of the frequency of the event, application of the law of common consent may become an automated raising of a hand in mechanical approval." (Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants, pg 134)
The vote to oppose is no less valid or important than the vote to sustain:
"If members are opposed to the proposed action, they can also make it known in the same manner. This practice, formally known as the law of common consent, is not only a noticeable part of our meetings but also an essential principle in proper gospel government and personal progression." (Ibid.)
You want controversy? You should have been around in the earliest days of the church. Back then, before a vote was taken, the floor was opened for debate and discussion. If someone in the congregation had an issue with a candidate for office on the grounds of moral turpitude, the candidate's dirty laundry was liable to be aired right there in front of everybody.  At least the modern procedure is -or was 40 years ago- to refer the person with an objection to go and talk to a general authority, so his grievance could be heard in private and investigated if the matter warranted. This was the procedure N. Eldon Tanner followed in 1977 when a member of the congregation, Byron Marchant, registered his opposing vote:

President Tanner: It seems, President Kimball, that the voting has been unanimous in favor of these officers and General Authorities, and we would ask those new members of the First Quorum of the Seventy to take their seats with their brethren, please.
Voice from the gallery: President Tanner? President Tanner?
President Tanner: Yes?
Voice from the gallery: Did you note my negative vote?
President Tanner: No. Let me see it.
Voice from the gallery: Up here.
President Tanner: Oh, up there. I’m sorry, I couldn’t see up in that gallery. We’ll ask you to see Elder Hinckley immediately after this meeting. 

You'll notice Elder Tanner didn't balk at Brother Marchant for having the gall to voice his dissent right there in the middle of conference. Tanner responded to him with the respect you would expect from the Chair. After all, an opposing vote was asked for. Marchant's beef was his opposition to the Church's policy at that time of withholding the priesthood from black people.  I'm certain that when Elder Hinckley (an apostle at the time) met with Brother Marchant, he was not swayed by Marchant's arguments, but that's not the point. I also doubt Marchant held any illusion that his minority vote would change the policy. The reason dissenting votes are important is so that the record will reflect not all members are in lockstep, regardless of how many others may or may not share their views.  (Marchant was soon excommunicated for advocating a view that would become Church policy by the very next year. Go figure.)

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have taken issue with Eldon Tanner in the past, but in my view he handled this situation perfectly; better, in fact, than Elder Uchtdorf did yesterday.  Uchtdorf  referred the dissenters to their respective stake presidents, where they had already hit the glass ceiling.  Their issues deserved to be brought directly to the attention of the Church's board of directors at Church headquarters.  Uchtdorf's failure to funnel their concerns to the proper authorities will only result in more problems in the future, as the hierarchy remains more and more isolated from the legitimate concerns of the rank and file.

There's one often overlooked reason for encouraging opposing votes when calling a person to an office in the Church: to save the Church from the kind of embarrassment it would prefer to avoid when a particular office-holder's past discrepancies come to light.  Joseph Fielding Smith (not that Joseph Fielding Smith -his nephew by the same name) was proposed as Church Patriarch in 1942. When the vote to sustain him was presented, there were no opposing voices heard, in spite of the fact that Smith had engaged in numerous sexual encounters with other boys during his days in the University of Utah theater department.  Years later, Connell O'Donavan interviewed one of Smith's classmates, Cynthia Blood:
Cynthia claimed that "everybody on campus knew" that Maud May Babcock and Joseph F. Smith, both from the university's Drama Department, "were queer", but it was pretty much "unspoken." Blood reported that "Professor Smith flitted amongst the boys and Maud flitted amongst us girls."
Connell Continues:
Joseph's ordination also dismayed several Mormons who knew that Smith was having sexual relations with other men. Ralph G. Smith reported that Joseph F. Smith "was known to be a homosexual. My brother, John [Gibbs Smith], was very, very upset because he was Captain of the anti-vice squad at the Salt Lake City Police Department. Why, he says, the man's got a record. He says, we've had many women call in and complain about him molesting their little boys [all over 18] at the school at the University of Utah". (Ralph G. Smith interview, as reported in Quinn, p. 387 n. 23) Winifred Haymond (or "Freda Hammond", 1907-1983, never married), a friend of Norval Service, reported that she was "stunned" at Smith's appointment as Patriarch. (From Connell O'Donovan with D.Michael Quinn, Chronology of Events on Patriarch Joseph Fielding Smith's Homosexuality,  )
And yet with all these members of the church who were aware of the patriarch's proclivities, not one of them spoke up and opposed his nomination as Church Patriarch.

Now you may be one of those people who says, "who cares? Maybe what this church needs is more gay people in high office."

You're not getting the point. Whatever your views are on same sex issues and religion, it's irrelevant here. The question is, don't you think the leadership deserved a heads up from those outside their inner circle who knew a thing or two about Joseph Fielding Smith that they did not?  Because what finally ended up happening is that the father of a young LDS sailor whom Smith had been involved with, contacted president Heber J. Grant and told him what Smith had done to his son. Patriarch Smith had been serving for two years as patriarch of the church, giving important patriarchal blessings to important people, before quickly being released for reasons of "ill health."

But as often happens with these things, rumors eventually leaked out. The high calling of Church Patriarch couldn't help but be tainted by the scandal. Joseph Fielding Smith's cousin, Eldred G. Smith, was called to replace him in that office, and when Eldred died, members of the hierarchy quietly dissolved that office altogether. A once important position originally held by Joseph Smith's own father and brother doesn't even exist anymore in the church today.

Our Shared Responsibility
As members of the church of Jesus Christ we have a collective obligation to see to it that the church remains ours, not the private playground of a group of elites.  The very idea that the leaders could possibly act contrary to the will of God is anathema to some in the church today, yet our scriptures warn us to be ever vigilant when pride grips those in power.  They won't be able to see it, but we can, and the Lord entrusts us with the veto power in order to hold their pride in check.  We are reminded in D&C 121 that it is the disposition of almost all men, when they get a little authority, to begin to exercise unrighteous dominion over others.

It says Almost All men. That would include Mormon men. In particular, Mormon men given a little authority.

The Lord has given us the veto power, and we are expected to use it, even against the president of the church if we deem it necessary.  Here is Samantha Shelley writing at Whatsoever Is Good:
"In Joseph Smith’s days as President, he had a falling out with his First Counselor, Sidney Rigdon. Joseph was essentially done with him, and asked the congregation not to sustain him. The congregation sustained him anyway. Joseph accepted it and Sidney Rigdon continued to serve in the First Presidency. There have been other times throughout Church history when people haven’t received a majority vote, and as a result, someone else was called. It’s the way God instructed that His Church be organized, and we shouldn’t immediately judge anyone who doesn’t sustain someone to a calling as being “apostate”.
A brother by the name of Matthew, one of those who voted in opposition yesterday, did so for reasons I feel are well thought out and lacking in guile.  Here is what Matthew wrote on his blog:
"I opposed the vote to sustain the President, First Presidency, and 12 Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the 185th General Conference yesterday. I wouldn't be making this public, except for the fact that I fear that the published reason that the group Any Opposed gave for their opposing votes will unduly influence the discussion about what happened from here on out, because it opened and ended with discussions of LGBT issues, therefore emphasizing them. While I don't claim that LGBT issues are unimportant (especially the suicides of LGBT individuals, which is truly tragic), I believe that these other issues are much more pressing, and hence needed more discussion and exposure.
"For me and hundreds of people I know, our issues with the Church have almost nothing to do with LGBT issues. We are not political or social crusaders trying to force a discussion on social issues or push the Church into changing doctrine or policies to align with a progressive philosophy. What we would like to see, what we believe is mandated in the scriptures that are given as "a law unto [the] Church" (D&C 42:49), is a return to the original doctrine as taught by Joseph Smith, and the more pure, Gospel-centered practices contained in the scriptures. Many of those who share my take on these issues have been excommunicated for their beliefs (you can read a partial list here), but undoubtedly they would have voted in opposition given the chance. My hope is that any faithful member coming across this will take time to read for understanding: even if you don't agree, try to understand where I and many, many others like me are coming from.
"I personally don't like contention; I eschew confrontation in my own life and, despite my failings and imperfections, want all members to come to a unity of the faith delivered to us by Christ, and restored through Joseph Smith. I am afraid that, if the Church doesn't correct its course soon, the Church will do things that will lead to a loss of that faith, and the fullness of the Gospel will be given to another people. [As the Savior warned in 3 Nephi 16 -Rock]
"I can't speak for anyone else, but I can list the reasons that I personally couldn't, in good conscience, either support or abstain from the sustaining vote of the leaders. I believe that every single one of those men are spiritual men. I believe they can be, and very often are, inspired. I believe many of them are honest. I believe many of them do the best, according to the traditions of their fathers and the Church, to be Christlike, and I believe that many of them succeed in becoming very Christlike. However, there is a difference between being spiritual, inspired, honest, and partially Christlike, and acting in full harmony with the requirements of your appointed station."
"I will not engage in the idolatrous notion that "they know more than me", and that therefore the problem lies with me, and that I should keep my thoughts to myself and get back in line. I don't claim to know more than the leaders; I claim that God knows more than us all, that His will is revealed in the scriptures, and that it is the duty devolving on every single member to know His will and use the light and truth that God gives us to judge whether our leaders are leading according to His will. If they're not, it is our duty to oppose the vote to sustain them, that the problems may be brought to light and fixed..."
Matthew goes on to provide a list of specific concerns, many of which I share. That entire essay is well worth your time. You can find the full post here.

It's Called Common 'Consent' For A Reason
The law of Common Consent exists because the Lord has decreed the people will be governed only by those whom the people themselves permit into office.  This system is so important to the Lord that policies of the church and even doctrines must be approved and voted on by the saints themselves before those doctrines become binding on the whole church.

Some members tend to forget that spiritual gifts, such as those of prophet, seer, and revelator, are separate from the administrative responsibilities leaders hold to govern church procedures and policies.  Those who confuse the two tend to wonder why we should even vote for Church leaders, since they presume God has already made the decision to put them in whatever office they are nominated for. But Brigham Young had some interesting things to say about that:
"Perhaps it may make some of you stumble, were I to ask you a question—Does a man’s being a Prophet in this Church prove that he shall be the President of it? I answer, no! A man may be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and it may have nothing to do with his being the president of the Church. Suffice it to say, that Joseph was the president of the Church, as long as he lived: the people chose to have it so. He always filled that responsible station by the voice of the people. Can you find any revelation appointing him the President of the Church? The keys of the Priesthood were committed to Joseph, to build up the Kingdom of God on the earth, and were not to be taken from him in time or in eternity; but when he was called to preside over the Church, it was by the voice of the people; though he held the keys of the Priesthood, independent of their voice.” (Journal of Discourses 1:133)
Apostle J. Reuben Clark reminds us that our vote to sustain is also a vote to elect. Though we do not choose the nominees, whether a nominee gets through the vetting process is supposed be up to us. It's a shame we have that much responsibility, yet are reluctant to recognize or use it:
“In the Church the nominating power rests in a group, the General Authorities, but the sustaining or electing power rests in the body of the Church, which under no circumstances nominates officers, the function of the Church body being solely to sustain or to elect. . . .” (General Conference Report April 1940)
Remember, it is not only our right and duty to oppose certain leaders who may be proposed to us if we don't feel right about them, but also to oppose policies and procedures that we suspect may not have been revealed to the Brethren from Heaven. I'll give Brigham Young the last word here:
"I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied…. Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the Kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, 'If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are.'
"This is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord." (Journal of Discourses, 3:45)

UPDATE April 6th, 2014: As there continues to be considerable misjudgment concerning the motives of those who expressed votes in opposition last Saturday, I think my friend Regina Samuelson quite nicely summarized the problems that compelled these people to vote as they did. Here is what she had to say:

"Thoughts on the LDS Conference "opposed" folks:

"A) They are active, faithful members who feel that the church is being taken in the wrong direction.

"B) Worse, many have sought a forum for expressing their concerns and been dismissed on the local level.

"C) Even worse, many have sought a similar forum amongst the general leadership and been wholly ignored.

"D) According the Doctrine and Covenants, the reason the congregation is asked if the membership is in favor or opposed was to give those opposed a forum to express those concerns. A few members took advantage of that opportunity and have been hung out to dry as a result.

"E) Accepting the teachings and decisions of leaders without actually THINKING - albeit the membership is taught that if they abide by the will of the general leadership, even doing something wicked (as commanded) is forgivable in the eyes of God and will not be held against them - means not that the follower has faith; what they have is a Sheep Complex. Ostensibly, we have been given free will so that we can USE IT.

"FINALLY: All is not well in Zion...but the opposing votes are not at fault. They are a symptom of that which the leadership refuses to face, as per Uchtdorf NOT EVEN LOOKING UP: They have NOT been honest with the membership, and their focus is on things other than Jesus. Time to pay the piper."

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