In defense of Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams

Recently, rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams announced that they are declining to hold concerts in two states who have laws which they find morally objectionable.

In other words, Springsteen and Adams are willing to forgo income they usually receive because they do not wish their participation to give the impression that they support or agree with something.

One might ask whether the rockers hope to instigate change by their refusal to offer their services.

I suspect that they would answer that they hope that they do cause change, but taking a moral stance is worth doing for its own sake.

They will presumably sleep a little better at night knowing they were true to their deeper principles, putting a value on something transcendent (freedom of conscience) that is higher than the almighty dollar.

A preemptive response to cynics

Now, it would be easy to be cynical about such actions, but I do not think that warranted.

To be sure, we could label this as merely the social posturing of men who do not really need the money, and will not miss it. A cynic might claim that they will gain more in good will from the rest of their audience than they lose from those whom they exclude from their commerce. These claims might even be true.

But, that isn’t really fair, and it’s hardly relevant anyway. We can’t access their hearts and minds; we can only take them at their word: their sincere convictions mean that to offer their particular service under the circumstances that currently prevail feels immoral to them. And, we might look at their past behavior or expressions of belief to determine if they are sincere in their moral concern. They seem to be.

Hypocrisy?

Now, surely Adams and Springsteen have performed in states or in nations which have laws with which they did not agree. Our cynical observer might therefore accuse them of hypocrisy. Again, I don’t think this is warranted. We all pick the battles we think worth fighting. No one might have assumed that Springsteen (for example) agrees with New Jersey’s tax code simply because he agrees to perform there. But, if Springsteen were to decide that the tax code in New Jersey was egregious enough to warrant speaking out, if only through a refusal to participate in his profession under those conditions, we cannot and should not claim that his moral scruples deserve no respect.

It would be wrong to compel Adams and Springsteen to perform in venues or circumstances which they believe would morally compromise them, even by implication. As Springsteen put it, “some things are more important than a rock show.”

Indeed, few things are more important than the free exercise of conscience.

Fines or jail-time?

Therefore, I wholeheartedly reject any calls to fine them or penalize them with jail-time if they don’t comply and won’t pay up–after all, they have already taken a financial hit for their stance, and there are very possibly other concert-goers who don’t live in the affected states who will choose not to attend a concert because they in their turn disagree with the rockers’ boycott or the moral code which drives it.

So, there will always be costs and risks to such a stance, but those are clearly Adams’ and Springsteen’s to run. The government has no business penalizing them for a sincere expression of conscience. If anything, government exists to prevent anyone from hampering their rights of conscience.

The slippery slope is unlikely

I think worries about a slippery slope (“if we let them do this, soon there will be no music in those states at all”) are farcical. There are other bands and orchestras. Worse case scenario, people can perform their own music locally. Sure, it’s not Springsteen, but it proves that they’re hardly going to have to go without any music at all, even in an implausible worst case scenario.

No one, after all, has any inherent “right” to attend a rock concert. There might well be industries where the bar might be considerably higher: people need food, fuel, housing, lodging, transport, clothes, and the like. If, say, Exxon-Mobile was to stop shipping gasoline to Alabama based upon a moral stance, we might be more troubled. (Boycotts by large companies feel inherently less defensible–Adams and Springsteen are individuals, inseparably connected to their ‘brand’–they are the brand.)

But, even if a large conglomerate like Exxon-Mobile tried something similar, other providers would likely step in and fill the gap. It’s actually much easier for someone to replace Exxon-Mobile than Springsteen or Adams. (Music purists might well debate as to whether this is a compliment, but let’s assume that it is.)

All of this surely means some inconvenience for those in the states embargoed by the Boss and the Canadian Boss. But, despite what some seem to think, none of us has a right to be free from inconvenience–especially at the cost of making someone do something to which they have sincere moral objections.

Historical precedent

In the early days of the American experiment, there was great debate about those who were conscientious objectors–they considered military service to be a grave evil, even in self-defense. Many were also loathe to take “oaths” of truthfulness–this made it difficult for some to trust them in official capacities, such as in positions of public trust or as witnesses in a court case.

It is to the early Americans’ credit that they found a way to handle even these (fairly significant!) inconveniences.

Rather than oaths, objectors were allowed to “solemnly affirm.” That’s an easy fix–a distinction, we might think, without a difference. But, morally, it was significantly different for those affected.

More tricky is the issue of military service. But, even there, those who objected due to sincere religious or moral conviction were exempted from the draft. That’s potentially a major inconvenience to others–I might end up in the army if my conscientious objector neighbor doesn’t serve. And, if everyone is a conscientious objector, the nation might not last long. But, that theoretical problem didn’t materialize in reality, and so the compromise held. If clear disaster is in the offing, we can always reevaluate how much moral objection the society can accommodate without being destroyed.

I think it a great and noble thing to value conscience that highly. The bar for forcing someone to violate their conscience must be high indeed, or freedom and liberty have no meaning. Even–or especially–when we disagree with a moral stance, we must still bow our heads with a bit of reverence to someone willing to cling to it. If nothing else, we’d want the same respect to our own scruples. (And, if we don’t have any such scruples, then we’ve no business lecturing others about theirs, any more than the deaf should explain why Springsteen’s or Adam’s music is junk.)

Conclusion

So, I say “Bravo!” to Springsteen and Adams for declining to participate in a commercial exchange that they sincerely believe implicates them in something deeply immoral. I hope I’d have at least as much courage in similar circumstances.

It’s a great idea, in the spirit of that which is best in the American and liberal (in the traditional sense) tradition.

So great, in fact, that maybe conservative Christian florists, Orthodox Jewish cake bakers, and devout Muslim wedding photographers ought to take notice.

Maybe this is an approach they should look into?

I’m surprised they haven’t thought of it.

“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know”

The Church has recently released some excellent resources on Church history and doctrine. There is a good summary of various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, as well as the common canard from sectarian anti-Mormons claiming that we aren’t Christians.

The most recent release deals with the pre-1978 priesthood ban, which restricted blacks of African descent from holding the Church’s lay priesthood.[1]

The most unfortunate thing about the priesthood ban was the reasons which some leaders and members offered for the ban’s existence. This new resource repudiates these ideas:

Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church….

The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings….

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

This repudiation is not new—various Church leaders have said the same over the years, but it is wonderful to have it on an official webpage approved by the First Presidency.[2]

A slight downside

Nothing good ever seems to be without its potential for abuse, however. Some have recently used this web page to declare that “the Church has admitted that the priesthood ban was a mistake due to racism.” That is, they insist that God had nothing to do with the ban’s beginnings, and fallible mortals had to finally decide to get rid of it.

But, this is precisely what the page does not do. And, it seems to me, it is quite careful not to do it:

In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.

The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.

Note the careful separation of two issues:

  1. The origin of the policy of the restriction;
  2. The justifications offered for that policy.

This distinction is made repeatedly in the Church’s on-line materials. For example, a Church newsroom article labeled as an “Official statement” writes:

At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended….

Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:

The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.” (emphasis added)

Note again the separation between the “origin of” and “some explanations” for the priesthood ban. An earlier official statement said:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.[3]

When the Church says that “it is not known precisely why…this restriction began,” that would seem to disprove the claims of some, who say that the Church has admitted that the ban originated because of Church members’ racism and was thus “a mistake.” If we knew that, then the Church would not say that the origins are “not known” and “not entirely clear.”

If it was racism, does this mean God was not involved?

For a moment, however, let us presume that those enthusiastic to blame racism for the ban’s origins (rather than the explanations, which were clearly rooted in racism) are correct.

Does this mean that God was not involved in the process? I do not think we can draw this conclusion too readily, though those who offer it are often keen that we do so.

For the sake of argument, let us presume that the ban had its origins in Brigham Young’s and his contemporaries’ racism. (We are here engaging in speculation, just as those who engaged in the racist speculation of the nineteenth century did. So, tread cautiously!)

Even if the ban had its origins in leaders’ racism, it does not follow that God was not involved in the process. If Brigham and other nineteenth century Mormons were racists, certainly most of American and European society was as well. The dynamics of race relations (which would contribute to America’s bloodiest war within a decade of the ban) in the United States must be borne in mind.

The Church’s progress could have been affected by the innate racism of western society. And thus, while God may not have wanted the ban to be necessary, and would have been happy to have it lifted at any time, He may well have recognized that the weaknesses of mortals in and out of the Church made it necessary—or, at least, a viable option among many.

Simply put, it may have been that a Church with a lay ministry, which did not segregate its congregations, would have had even more difficulties in the racially polarized American 19th century if blacks exercised spiritual authority over whites. My experience with some in the American South even today—and what others have told me of their experiences from a generation or two ago—suggest that this potential difficulty persisted well into the twentieth century.

It is thus possible that God commanded the ban as a type of “lesser of two evils,” in the racist 19th century. Or, alternatively, God could have used a ban that he did not initiate as a means of managing the racism which instigated it.

Evidence from later in Church history suggests that one of these scenarios is correct.

Later evidence

President David O. McKay was inclined to dispense with the ban, and prayed about the matter. He told church architect Richard Jackson:

I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.[4]

This evidence account leads us to one of four conclusions:

  1. President McKay lied about revelation to silence critics on the issue of the ban;
  2. President McKay projected his own racism onto God, perhaps subconsciously, thus allowing him to keep the ban in place;
  3. President McKay was mistaken about his revelation;
  4. The ban persisted not entirely (and perhaps not at all) because of past or present leaders’ racism, since God here has a leader willing and even anxious to dispense with the ban, but he is told not to.

Most members, I think, would reject options #1, #2, and #3. That leaves us, however, with option #4—whatever the origins of the ban, God seems to have been using it for some purpose. And, in 1968–70, that purpose had yet to be accomplished, because he forbade the ban from being rescinded and told the prophet to quit asking about it.

There is a similar account from President Harold B. Lee, though it is less well documented.[5] We know for certain, however, that he had a similar view:

For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks….It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.[6]

Previous leaders’ statements

This same distinction between the ban’s origins and the faulty explanations for it has been made previously by LDS leaders.

For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed as follows in 1998:

Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?

A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don’t think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them.

Q: What was the reason for that?

A: I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.[7]

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in 1988, and republished in 2011:

If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to [the priesthood ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that….

The lesson I’ve drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it….

I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking….

Let’s [not] make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies (emphasis added).[8]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 2006:

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated….

I have to concede to my earlier colleagues….

They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the priesthood ban policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong….

It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years….

At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along,…we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.[9]

Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, when asked about the ban’s origins in 1998, replied:

We do not know.[10]

It would be strange indeed if the Church and its leaders were intending to repudiate these recent statements, as the claims of some would require.

An additional perspective

Interestingly, President Boyd K. Packer recently discussed how his perspective regarding the ban has changed in the present as the work flourishes in Africa:

We have had puzzling things. We had the matter of the priesthood being withheld from a part of the human family. That seemed so inconsistent with the rest of human life and humanity and the doctrines and tolerance. We couldn’t figure that out. That’s gone now, but why was it there? I’m not sure, but I do know this: it had the effect of keeping us out of [most of Africa] until we were ready and mature enough, and they were ready and mature enough. Looking back it is easy to see things that you don’t see looking forward.[11]

We see again how the ban’s existence is “puzzling,” “we couldn’t figure that out,” and even now he’s “not sure” why it was in place.

Yet, the ban’s existence also kept the Church from extensive missionary work in Africa until recently. There are significant economic and cultural challenges to working in Africa—a premature enthusiasm for work there might have resulted, for example, in many converts but an unsustainable infrastructure. I have had private discussions with those involved who describe the economic obstacles as something the Church could not have coped with even a few years ago—and they challenge us even today.

Thus, even a ban that was rooted in the difficulties of 19th century racism could ultimately serve God’s purposes, and so be either tolerated or implemented by Him.

God is, after all, the ultimate multi-tasker.

Conclusion

What I am suggesting, then, is that even if one insists or concedes that racism was the origin of the priesthood ban (a concession the Church has not made, and has been at pains not to make), this does not mean that its continuation and its cessation were not firmly in God’s control.

It was necessary to respond to the racism of members and leaders of the Church, as well as potential members of the Church, and the often-hostile societies which surrounded them. The ban is one potential option—though whether God instigated it directly, or whether he simply allowed it and declined to remove it when asked by President McKay, we cannot say.

“I do not know the meaning of all things,” wrote Nephi, but “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).

It is easy—too easy, for some—to simply decide that this entire episode is all simply fallible mortal power plays or administration, with God lurking in the background (if he exists at all).[12]

One can draw that conclusion if one wishes. Many have and will. But, they ought not to be allowed to claim that the Church has admitted as much.

“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know.”

But, we do know God calls prophets, and that there is safety with them, notwithstanding the twists and turns of telestial complexity and mortal fallibility.


[1] The ban was rescinded by revelation in 1978. See Official Declaration 2.

[2] “The church’s First Presidency approves each of the enhanced topic pages….’ The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve both have been very supportive of this process,’ Elder Snow said.” – See Tad Walch, “LDS Church enhances web pages on its history, doctrine,” Deseret News (9 December 2013).

[3] See also Joseph Walker, “LDS Church condemns past racism ‘inside and outside the church’,” Deseret News (29 February 2012).

[4] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 183.

[5] Church historian Leonard Arrington, “asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord’s will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during’three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,…but the only answer he received was “not yet.” Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee’s son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.” – Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.

[6] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published 16 November 1972.

[7] “On the Record: ‘We Stand For Something’ President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia],” Sunstone 21/4 (Issue #112) (December 1998): 71.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.

[9] Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.

[10] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 24, page 4 (CD version); citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “Lessons from Gospel Experiences,” new mission presidents’ seminar, 25 June 2008, disc 4, track 12, 0:00–0:54. I first cited this information in “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,”  Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011), footnote 72.

[12] As I will detail later, such a conclusion also provides the Church’s critics and complainers with definite rhetorical advantages in the here and now, so their enthusiasm should not surprise us.

Shame versus shame

John Gee found a great quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:

We live in an age of compromise and acquiescence. In situations with which we are daily confronted, we know what is right, but under pressure from our peers and the beguiling voices on those who would persuade us, we capitulate. We compromise. We acquiesce. We give in, and we are ashamed of ourselves. . . . We must cultivate the strength to follow our convictions. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 135, ellipses in source.)

The interesting thing is that if we succumb to such urgings, we are ashamed of ourselves–or ought to be.

But, one could add that if one will not succumb, those who have tried to persuade us–often with protestations of good will and friendship (for it is difficult to beguile with a severe tone)–will typically turn quickly, and resort to shaming of their own.

It is, in fact, precisely this tactic that Nephi sees in vision: “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed….And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Nephi 8:25, 28).

Being scoffed at is never pleasant, but I regard it as a sign of success. Scoffing is an admission of intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy–it is not an argument, it is a tantrum (compare Moses 1:19).

This should not be surprising, though it often seems so. The adversary–like those who endorse his tactics–“is permissive on most things, but not on granting passports for citizens to leave his realm.” [Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 11–12.]

Indeed, a key article of un-faith is that Satan’s realm is both preeminent, and all that matters. Only a fool would ignore it or not want to be a part of it….right?

Fellow thralls can expect bonhomie and courtesy; aliens passing by, never. Which is strange for a realm in which “tolerance” is a watchword, but it is tolerance or permissiveness within rigidly circumscribed boundaries.

Don’t believe me? Just try transgressing one.

On Tolerance – Part 5

“It Doesn’t Affect Me”

We might be tempted to say, “Well, it doesn’t affect me.” John Taylor and the First Presidency had some strong words for that kind of attitude:

… the mantle of charity must not be stretched so widely, in our desire to protect our erring friends, as to reflect dishonor on the work of God, or contempt for the principles of the everlasting Gospel. There is an unfortunate tendency in the natures of many to palliate sins by which they are not personally injured, but we must not forget that such palliation frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer; in other words, to save the feelings of our friends we are willing to crucify afresh the Lord of life and glory.[1]

In short, as Elder Maxwell put it, “Kindness never takes the form of permissiveness.”[2] Elder Nelson said that

… in discussing this topic, we must recognize at the outset that there is a difference between tolerance and tolerate. Your gracious tolerance for an individual does not grant him or her license to do wrong, nor does your tolerance obligate you to tolerate his or her misdeed. That distinction is fundamental to an understanding of this vital virtue.[3]

“Imposing” our views

Some worry that through making some acts supported or encouraged by law, and by opposing other acts by law (or at least refusing to endorse them by law) we are “imposing our own morality” on others.

This is nonsense, and those who make the claim need to be called on it. As Elder Oaks (a former Utah Supreme Court Justice) noted:

Those who take this position should realize that the law of crimes legislates nothing but morality. Should we repeal all laws with a moral basis so that our government will not punish any choices some persons consider immoral? Such an action would wipe out virtually all of the laws against crimes.[4]

And remember, even the claim that tolerance should govern the law of the land is a moral, ethical position that claims to be superior to another stance. All laws on this kind must express a moral point of view. What the person is saying is that they want to legislate their morality (even if that morality is a lack of absolute morality) not avoid legislating morality altogether—because that is impossible. As Elder Oaks noted elsewhere:

when believers seek to promote their positions in the public square, their methods and their advocacy should always be tolerant of the opinions and positions of others who do not share their beliefs. We should not add to the extremism that divides our society. As believers, we must always speak with love and show patience, understanding, and compassion toward our adversaries….

As believers, we should also frame our arguments and positions in ways that contribute to the reasoned discussion and accommodation that are essential to democratic government in a pluralistic society. By this means we will contribute to the civility that is essential to preserve our civilization….

believers should not be deterred by the familiar charge that they are trying to legislate morality. Many areas of the law are based on Judeo-Christian morality and have been for centuries. Our civilization is based on morality and cannot exist without it. As John Adams declared: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” [5]

[To be continued]


[1] John Taylor and George Q. Cannon [First Presidency], “Epistle to Saints in Semi-Annual Conference, October 6, 1886,” from pamphlet in Church Historian’s Library, Salt Lake City; reproduced in James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1966), 3:88.

[2] Neal A. Maxwell, Even As I Am (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1982), 86.

[3] Russell M. Nelson, “ Teach Us Tolerance and Love ,” general conference, April 1994.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Liahona (Mar 2000): 15; from a BYU Devotional Address on 9 Feb 1999.

[5] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

On Tolerance – Part 6 (Conclusion)

Elder Oaks: Three Principles on Tolerance

Elder Oaks recently spoke to the young adults of the Church about tolerance, and proposed three principles to guide them. The first is that all people are children of God, and so should be treated courteously. The second is that “living with differences is what the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us we must do.”[1]

The third principle is vital, however:

We do not abandon the truth and our covenants. We are cast as combatants in the war between truth and error. There is no middle ground. We must stand up for truth, even while we practice tolerance and respect for beliefs and ideas different from our own and for the people who hold them.

While we must practice tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs, including their constitutional freedom to explain and advocate their positions, we are not required to respect and tolerate wrong behavior. Our duty to truth requires us to seek relief from some behavior that is wrong. This is easy to see when it involves extreme behaviors that most believers and nonbelievers recognize as wrong or unacceptable.[2]

When things are not extreme, however, the decisions become more difficult:

Profanity, cohabitation, and Sabbath breaking—excellent examples to illustrate how Latter-day Saints might balance their competing duties to truth and tolerance in their own lives in these difficult circumstances.

I begin with our personal conduct, including the teaching of our children. In applying the sometimes competing demands of truth and tolerance in these three behaviors and many others, we should not be tolerant with ourselves. We should be ruled by the demands of truth. We should be strong in keeping the commandments and our covenants, and we should repent and improve when we fall short….

Similarly, with our children and others we have a duty to teach—such as in our Church callings—our duty to truth is paramount. Of course, teaching efforts only bear fruit through the agency of others, so they must always be done with love, patience, and persuasion.

I turn now to the obligations of truth and tolerance in our personal relations with associates who use profanity in our presence, who live with a partner out of wedlock, or who do not observe the Sabbath day appropriately. How should we react toward and communicate with them?

Our obligation to tolerance means that none of these behaviors—or others we consider deviations from the truth—should ever cause us to react with hateful communications or unkind actions. But our obligation to truth has its own set of requirements and its own set of blessings….

In this sensitive matter we should first consider whether or the extent to which we should communicate to our associates what we know to be true about their behavior. In most cases this decision can depend on how directly we are personally affected by it.[3]

Profanity consistently used in our presence is an appropriate cause for us to communicate the fact that this is offensive to us. Profanity used out of our presence by nonbelievers probably would not be an occasion for us to confront the offenders.

Cohabitation we know to be a serious sin in which Latter-day Saints must not engage, whatever the circumstances. When practiced by those around us, it can be private behavior or something we are asked to condone, sponsor, or facilitate. In the balance between truth and tolerance, tolerance can be dominant where the behavior does not involve us personally. If the cohabitation does involve us personally, we should be governed by our duty to truth. For example, it is one thing to ignore serious sins when they are private; it is quite another thing to be asked to sponsor or impliedly endorse them, such as by housing them in our own homes….

In all of this we should not presume to judge our neighbors or associates on the ultimate effect of their behaviors. That judgment is the Lord’s, not ours. Even He refrained from a final mortal judgment of the woman taken in adultery. Tolerance requires a similar refraining in our judgment of others.[4]

Remember, judge situations and behavior, not other people’s final state or stance before God.[5]

I conclude with the words of Boyd K. Packer:

The word tolerance does not stand alone. It requires an object and a response to qualify it as a virtue. … Tolerance is often demanded but seldom returned. Beware of the word tolerance. It is a very unstable virtue.[6]

Some things we must tolerate. But others we must not—think of murder, child abuse, or rape. Surely these acts deserve no tolerance at all. Some things deserve unlimited tolerance, some a measured amount, and some none at all.

Individuals are perhaps entitled to almost boundless tolerance and patience. Actions, however, are not—we are entitled to express our disapproval, and in some situations may even have a duty to do so. And, remember, all tolerance is ultimately founded on a moral law—the conviction that there are absolute rights and wrongs. We may not all agree on what those rights and wrongs are: and that is why we must be tolerant. But, it is not intolerant to have such disagreements, or to express them and stand up for our convictions. Tolerance is intended to permit and encourage exactly that. After all, shouldn’t we expect that everyone can change their minds and come to a better understanding of the truth? It would be intolerant to keep quiet, presuming that others are incapable of changing or growing. They may seek to persuade us, and we them—all in a spirit of charity, of course, but it is never kind or charitable to refuse to speak what we believe to be true about eternal matters.

God be thanked that we have the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the living prophets and apostles to guide us as we seek to keep our covenants—including the covenant to stand as a witness of him at all times, in all things, and in all places. I do not expect that we will win all such contests in the secular realm. But, we are not intended to. We are, however, expected to stand up and be counted—and remain tolerant (in the true sense) while doing so.


[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[3] This footnote is my addition, not Elder Oaks’: It is worth noting, given the current debates and concern about same-sex marriage, that there is substantial worry that current efforts regarding same-sex marriage will pose a substantial threat to religious liberty. This is not the conclusion just of wide-eyed, paranoid talk-radio hosts. An excellent book collects papers from a variety of legal scholars on the questions. Even those scholars who favor the implementation of gay marriage are frank to say that under current US law, there are substantial risks to religious believers unless specific steps are taken to protect them. Since much of this law is being made by the courts—since same-sex advocates have lost at the ballot box and in the legislature, by and large—such protections are not being introduced. So, the same-sex marriage debate directly impacts Latter-day Saints: not by “threatening our marriages,” as some have pretended, but by threatening our ability to live and practice our faith without suffering penalties for our views on moral matters. See Douglas Laycock, Jr. Anthony Picarello and Robin Fretwell Wilson (editors), Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008).

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[5] Elder Oaks has an entire talk which discusses which matters we can and cannot appropriately judge. See Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging,” address given at BYU on 1 March 1998; reproduced in Brigham Young University 1997–98 Speeches, 1–7.

[6] Boyd K. Packer, “Be Not Afraid” (address at the Ogden Institute of Religion, 16 November 2008), 5; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011, italics in original.

On Tolerance – Part 4

Compassion

No one likes to make people uncomfortable. We want to encourage people and tell them positive things, not give them bad news. And, this is especially a risk with people we love and want to be close to: our friends, our fellow Church members, our neighbors, or our family.

Elder Maxwell warned:

Working through our own errors and the errors of others is extremely painful and may require going back to the point of original error. This cannot be accomplished if we minimize the need for the individual involved to confront harsh reality, including the need to go back, spiritually and psychologically, in order to get back on the right road. Letting others simply go erringly on may be easy—but it is not love….Just as we resist the temptation to manipulate others, we must resist the attempts of others to manipulate us. Leaders with the best of motivations can readily be trapped by their pity and compassion for other people. Compassion is important, but it can readily degenerate into the kind of pity which immobilizes us in terms of our ability to really help one another.[1]

We aren’t showing real love or real compassion when we let someone go on in sin and tell them it’s OK.

Imagine there being a bottle we sincerely believed (or even knew) to contain poison. A loved one comes in from a hot day outside, grabs the bottle and puts it to his lips.

“Stop!” you cry, “That’s poison.”

“But there’s no other water in the house,” complains the thirsty person.

“That may be, but you still shouldn’t drink that.”

“Other people get to drink things, why can’t I drink this?”

“It’s poison!”

“Well, you say its poison. I have a different opinion. I say it’s OK. And lots of my friends told me it was fine. Some of them tasted it, and they say it’s fine. You can’t be sure its poison.”

“Even if I wasn’t certain that it was poison, I’m convinced that it is. I strongly advise you not to drink it.”

“You’re so cruel, keeping me from quenching my thirst. Since I believe there’s no poison here, you’ve got no right to go around telling me there is.”

The idea is absurd. But, this is precisely what the “new” tolerance asks us to do. “Real love for the sinner may compel courageous confrontation—not acquiescence!” said Elder Russell M. Nelson. “Real love does not support self-destructing behavior.”[2]

So, do not expect tolerance from the world if you express your views about right and wrong. You aren’t going to get it, and the best weapon they have for silencing you is to paint you as intolerant, or to be “offended.” As Elder Maxwell noted:

In Sodom they probably had absolute free speech, but nothing worth saying! On the other hand, an otherwise permissive society, which tolerates almost everything, usually will not tolerate speech that challenges its iniquity. Evil is always intolerantly preoccupied with its own perpetuation.[3]

[To be continued]


[1] Neal A Maxwell, A More Excellent Way: Essays on Leadership for Latter–day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), 79–80.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Teach Us Tolerance and Love,” general conference, April 1994.

[3] Neal A. Maxwell, That Ye May Believe (Bookcraft, 1992), 74–75.

On Tolerance – Part 3

President Boyd K. Packer has written a great deal about tolerance. I think he summarizes the issue brilliantly and simply:

The word tolerance is also invoked as though it overrules everything else. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it is not the commanding one. There is a difference between what one is and what one does. What one is may deserve unlimited tolerance; what one does, only a measured amount. A virtue when pressed to the extreme may turn into a vice. Unreasonable devotion to an ideal, without considering the practical application of it, can ruin the ideal itself.[1]

In the same vein, Elder Russell M. Nelson cautioned, “An erroneous assumption could be made that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Not so! Overdoses of needed medication can be toxic. Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness.”[2]

Some people believe that they have the right not to be offended, or the right not to be told things they do not wish to hear. This is false, and absurd—if it were true, then I would have the right not to hear that people have a right not to hear things they don’t like, because I don’t like that claim. It offends me!

Contrary to popular belief, “Christian behavior” does not mean never offending anyone or causing them any distress. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed that children who desire to commit serious sin (such as living together without being married) raise serious questions for the parents:

…if an adult child is living in cohabitation, does the seriousness of sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage require that this child feel the full weight of family disapproval by being excluded from any family contacts, or does parental love require that the fact of cohabitation be ignored? I have seen both of these extremes, and I believe that both are inappropriate.

Where do parents draw the line? That is a matter for parental wisdom, guided by the inspiration of the Lord.[3]

He notes, however, that our dedication to the truth—which must be our highest allegiance—may cause some difficulties with the wayward person.

Wherever the line is drawn between the power of love and the force of law, the breaking of commandments is certain to impact loving family relationships. Jesus taught:

“Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:

“For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.

“The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother” (Luke 12:51–53).

This sobering teaching reminds us that when family members are not united in striving to keep the commandments of God, there will be divisions. We do all that we can to avoid impairing loving relationships, but sometimes it happens after all we can do.

In the midst of such stress, we must endure the reality that the straying of our loved ones will detract from our happiness, but it should not detract from our love for one another or our patient efforts to be united in understanding God’s love and God’s laws.[4]

Thus, while we must be kind and not seek to give unintentional or unnecessary offense, we ought to consider that Jesus and the prophets did not and do not spend a lot of time making sure that no one is troubled by their words. Sometimes, if no one is at all uncomfortable, it means we are not doing our job to stand as witnesses of God and Christ “at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even unto death” (Mosiah 18:9). As President Packer observed:

I had the privilege of teaching an institute class for the students at Harvard University, These students finally discovered that when they had a conversation on the gospel and came away having irritated or agitated or discomforted somebody, they probably had accomplished a good deal more than if everybody had agreed with them. And considering the frame of mind of many with whom they conversed, if the Latter–day Saint agreed with all they said that was some indication that he was wrong.[5]

A good rule of thumb, I think, is not to focus on people but to focus on principles and doctrines. Do not say, “You are wrong to live in a same-sex relationship.” That can be construed as attacking the person. Instead, say, “Same-sex behavior is forbidden by ancient and modern prophets. I know that it will not bring lasting happiness, and it would be wrong of me to encourage it. People can choose for themselves, but I will not endorse something I believe to be wrong. Why would you ask me to betray my principles and promises to God?”

As Elder Oaks summarized:

Tolerance obviously requires a noncontentious manner of relating toward one another’s differences. But tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.[6]

You will note that one is not necessarily being contentious just because you refuse to stop expressing your opinion, or remain quiet about standards or matters of public importance. All disagreement is not contention. Some members of the Church who want us to wink at their behavior, or accept their views, try to paint those who disagree as stirring up “contention.”[7] Don’t fall for the trick.

[To be continued]


[1] Boyd K. Packer, “Covenants,” general conference, October 1990; reprinted in The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 83.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Teach Us Tolerance and Love ,” general conference, April 1994.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[5] Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 150.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Liahona (Mar 2000): 15; from a BYU Devotional Address on 9 Feb 1999.

[7] I described a notable example of exactly this behavior in: “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 61–85.

On Tolerance – Part 2

As one Christian author put it, “We are not ‘tolerant’ of known or suspected truth; true tolerance comes into play only when we are confronted with what we recognize as error; and this is the reason why…there can be no real tolerance in a mind which has no strong convictions and no firm grasp on truth.”[1] He goes on to illustrate the problem:

The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) asserts, “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.” But why? Might one not hold a certain dogma to be correct, to hold it absolutely, while insisting that others have the right to hold conflicting things to be dogmatically true? Indeed, does not the assertion “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism” sound a little, well, dogmatic and absolute? Thomas A. Helmbock, executive vice president of the national Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, writes, “The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal…. There is no hierarchy of truth. Your beliefs and my beliefs are equal, and all truth is relative.” If, however, the new tolerance evaluates all values and beliefs as positions worthy of respect, one may reasonably ask if this includes Nazism, Stalinism, and child sacrifice – or, for that matter, the respective stances of the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted ethnic supremacist groups.[2]

This raises an important point. Modern “tolerance” or “anything goes” really doesn’t go for anything. No one truly believes that racism is really no different than not being racist, and that our opposition to racism is really just one belief among many that is no more true than the belief that lynching blacks or burning Jews in Nazi ovens is OK. Instead, “tolerance” is used as a wedge, or way of insisting that we accede to certain claims—sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. It is just wrong, we would say, to be intolerant of black people. But, that argument requires that we accept that there is such a thing as right and wrong, which applies to everyone. Practically every society that has ever been on the planet has been racist, except for ours—and we still have work to do. But, we don’t have a problem saying that racism is still wrong. It is better (in a real, absolute, sense) not to be racist than to be racist.

In fact, even arguing that “tolerance” is a good thing requires you to believe in absolute values of right and wrong. A Catholic philosopher wrote:

 If you think that toleration of all values and value systems is good, are you not then “imposing your values,” your value system, which includes the value of toleration, on other people or other cultures, not all of whom agree that toleration is a value? Many traditional cultures see toleration as a weakness, as a disvalue. So for you to say that everyone ought to be tolerant is for you to say that your value system, with tolerance, is really better than others, without tolerance. Isn’t that “imposing your values” on others? [No! Instead]… I think it is an insight into a real, objective, universal value: toleration. Some cultures and some individuals simply fail to see it. We make mistakes in values, you know, just as we make mistakes in anything else….A mistake means a failure to know the truth. Where there is no truth, there is no error….Notice what we tolerate: error, not truth. Evil, not good. Lesser evils, necessary evils. So the very word “toleration” presupposes real good and evil.[3]

But, as one commentator noted, these days “The only permissible judgment in polite society is that no judgment is permissible.”[4] “[I]t is one thing,” he noted, “to see the best in people, no doubt a charitable attitude of which we all sometimes stand in need; it is quite another to be unable to see the evil in them or to accord it any significance.”[5]

So, if someone accuses you of being “intolerant” for insisting that absolute truths exist, you can point out that their argument is incoherent unless they sneak in the idea of some absolute truths of their own. Basically what they’re saying is that their absolute truths are true, while yours aren’t. And that doesn’t look very tolerant—at least by their definition.

[To be continued]



[1] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, kindle location 1412–17.

[2] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, kindle location 162–167.

[3] Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth, & the Good Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 175.

[4] Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left of It (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005), 238.

[5] Theodore Dalrymple, “Second Opinion,” in The Spectator (11 October 2003); also in Second Opinion: A Doctor’s Dispatches From The Inner City (Monday Books, 2010), kindle location 5311.

On Tolerance – Part 1

The word “tolerance” can be used in at least two different ways. One way is the old way, or the way it is used in dictionaries. The other is a new way, the way it is often implicitly used in political discussion or the media. We may say “tolerance” and mean it in the first way, while someone else may mean it in the second. This guarantees that everyone will be confused.

A Christian author wrote recently about the difference:

This shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance [that is, the second sense of the word] suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new.[1]

Thus, in the modern world, people are tolerant partly because our culture has largely given up the idea that absolute truths or values exist. (Or, if people admit that they do exist in theory, they insist that no one can know about them—my values have as much chance as being true as your values.) So, I can have my values, but to be “tolerant” I should admit that they are in an absolute sense no better or no more likely to be correct than someone else’s. This is, of course, a pretty absolute claim about truth—it is absolutely true that no absolute truths exist—but intellectual sophistication and logical consistency are not really the hallmark of this world. This puts members of the Church—and many other religious believers—on a collision course with the world.

Leaders of the Church consistently use the term “tolerate” to imply that we allow, permit, or acknowledge differences with which we do not agree. Dallin H. Oaks defined it as “a friendly and fair attitude toward unfamiliar opinions and practices or toward the persons who hold or practice them.”[2] And Elder Oaks quoted with approval a Muslim author who noted, “To tolerate something is to learn to live with it, even when you think it is wrong and downright evil.”[3]

In sum, the new definition of tolerance—all truths are relative, and so we cannot insist on one over another—rests firmly on the idea that there is no revealed, absolute truth about beliefs or behavior. The old definition of tolerance recognizes—indeed, it requires—that the tolerant person believe in absolute truths, fixed moral standards, and so forth.

[To be continued]


[1] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2012), kindle location 49–55.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[3] Alwi Shihab, “Building Bridges to Harmony Through Understanding,” forum address at Brigham Young University, 10 October 2006; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.