On Sunday, July 12th, 2015, I presented the following ideas in a talk that I gave in my YSA Singles Ward. I was assigned to base my remarks on Robert D. Hales' most recent general conference address, Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom. As you can probably imagine, I was entirely uncomfortable with the topic, but I think that with the help of the Spirit things came together. I outlined my thoughts and then improvised from there. So this is not a direct transcript of my talk, but rather my best piecing together of what I said.
I know that I'm breaking the first rule of public speaking by introducing my topic at the beginning of my talk, but I'm going to do it anyways, because I feel like it's important for me to be transparent about what's going to happen here today. I was assigned to base my remarks on Robert D. Hales' most recent general conference talk, which he titled "Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom." I'm very intimidated by this topic, and would rather not speak on it. This is especially true because over the three days I've had to prepare my thoughts, I have been unable to separate this topic in my mind from gay marriage. So, I'd guess that what's going to follow this introduction is a talk on both protecting religious liberty and gay marriage. And I am sorry for that.
As I've read Elder Hales talk, too many times probably, I've felt very hesitant about the subject matter. I grew up in a politically conservative family. At one point in my life I would have called certain members of my family tea-partyists. Growing up, it seemed like every liberal advance (even Democrats being elected as president) was cause for my family to declare yet again that the end of the world was almost upon us. Now, fortunately, I have recently re-evaluated my attitudes concerning my family's perspectives, and I've been working to remove pride from influencing the way that I see their opinions. I like to believe that all perspectives have truth in them, and so I'm trying to see the truth in my family member's perspectives.
That being said, I have many friends and loved ones who identify as LGBT or Q, or same-gender attracted, insert your phrase of choice. I honor them and I respect them and I do not want to espouse ideas or perspectives that could do them harm. This has made it difficult to fully align with the notion of 'defending religious liberty.'
I've noticed within the culture of the Church a tendency to talk about defending religious liberty in an angry, or a fearful way. It seems like many Latter-day Saints still carry the persecutory complex imbedded in them as a result of their pioneer ancestors being traumatized and abused by those who did not believe. It's part of our heritage as Mormons, but also as Christians. Consider the story of Daniel in the lion's den.
I think it's hardly any wonder that so many of our Mormon people react to news like gay marriage being nationally legalized with instinctual fear. But the scriptures teach us that fear does not come from God. And so as I've approached this topic, I've had two questions in mind:
1. Why is it important for us to preserve agency and protect religious freedom?
2. How do we preserve agency and protect religious freedom in a faith-based, love-filled way, rather than from a place of fear or intolerance?
I found the answer to my first question in a story that I'd like to share. I consider myself somewhat of a student of Mormon history, and I've found a lot of interesting stories in the research I've done. This particular moment from our history has resonated with me deeply, and I hope that it will be as relatable to you as it has been to me.
In the late 70s and early 80s an amendment to the constitution was causing a national stir. The amendment was dubbed the Equal Rights Amendment, or the ERA. It was actually penned in the 1920s, but I guess it didn't make it through Congress for 50 years. The ERA was a document that would have guaranteed equal rights for women (equal pay, opportunity, etc.) in a grand sweep; and it had a lot of support. As someone who feels very strongly about women's rights, and recognizes that we still have a long way to go before we will have reached true political and social equality between men and women, I have often wondered what life would look like now if the ERA had been successfully passed.
For all the support the ERA had, it also had a very large group of people campaigning against it. Interestingly, the Church did not support the amendment, and took a pretty public stance. I have not been able to come to any personal conclusions about the Church's involvement. I've read a fair amount from both sides, and still, in my heart, feel confused about this period in our history. What was the big deal? Did it matter that much? I will confess that I've come a long way, as my initial reactions to learning about the Church's involvement were laced with anger and a strong sense of injustice.
But here's what makes the ERA different from what's happening now on the gay marriage front: 30 years have elapsed since then, and so we can now look back on things through the eyes of retrospect. I'd like to call your attention to two women who played key roles in the ERA movement of the 70s and 80s: the first, a Mormon housewife living in Idaho—Sonia Johnson; the second, a Mormon wife and mother living in D.C. employed under the Kennedy administration—Beverly Campbell.
Sonia was in favor of the ERA. She actually formed an activist group called 'Mormon Women for the ERA' that eventually directly opposed the Church's stance. Beverly, on the other hand, was appointed to be the Church's official spokesperson on the issue. Sonia rose to fame, becoming somewhat of the media darling for the liberal side. The two women traveled national radio and television circuits, one speaking for the Church, and one speaking against it.
Now, eventually the ERA was not passed. But that's not the part of the story that has stuck with me. It's what eventually happened to each of these women.
Sonia was excommunicated. After her excommunication she led a demonstration wherein many of her followers—Mormon women—chained themselves to the Seattle temple in a display of defiance against the Church patriarchy. At some point following her excommunication her husband divorced her and she took a lesbian partner. She published three books which document the radical decline of her philosophies. In 2010, she wrote a book that suggested that her theological stance had evolved from being mostly Mormon, to believing that Heaven would be entirely populated by females. Which is, unfortunately, not at all in harmony with the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Beverly Campbell however, eventually became the director of International Affairs for the Church, a position she served in for over 10 years. Because of the international connections she developed while working under the Kennedy Administration, she was able to open doors for thousands of souls to be taught the Gospel. She also published a groundbreaking book on Eve, which went on to inform the recent temple film remake.
Both were feminists, both had desires to advance the cause of women, but it would appear that one did it the Lord's way, and one did not.
This kind of polarization is something that we're probably becoming familiar with. Last General Conference, Bonnie L. Oscarson put it this way: "There is a war going on in the world in which our most cherished and basic doctrines are under attack. I am speaking specifically of the doctrine of the family."
Now those are strong words. And I'm an anti-confrontational human being, so those aren't words I particularly like. But all this talk of war has reminded me of something. In several places in the scriptures the armor of God metaphor emerges. You're probably familiar with the helmet of the Plan of Salvation, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness. When it comes to issues related to sex and sexuality, it seems like Latter-day Saints have been, in the past, very good at wearing that defensive armor. But defensive armor will only get you so far in a war.
We need to find a way to use the offensive weaponry this metaphor allots us—the sword of the Spirit—and we need to find a way to do it that actually allows for us to have the Spirit with us. In other words, we need to truly feel love, for the people we are fighting against, but more importantly I think, for the people we are fighting for.
My favorite passage in Robert D. Hales' talk—well let me just read it.
"Jesus, who exercised His agency to sustain Heavenly Father's plan, was identified and appointed by the Father as our Savior, foreordained to perform the atoning sacrifice for all. Similarly, our exercise of agency to keep the commandments enables us to fully understand who we are and receive all of the blessings our Heavenly Father has—including the opportunity to have a body, to progress, to experience joy, to have a family, and to inherit eternal life... The blessings we enjoy now are because we made the choice to follow the Savior before this life. To everyone hearing or reading these words, whoever you are and whatever your past may be, remember this: it is not too late to make that same choice again and follow Him."
I think that if we are truly to be Christian people, then in our fight against darkness we must be defending truth for everyone who could at some future point seek to keep the commandments of God. That's what Jesus did. There was no people-he-was-fighting-against and people-he-was-fighting-for. They were all people that he was fighting for.
This idea, that our battle is for all people, is represented really well in Helaman 5. I'm very grateful to Michael for reading and sharing so much of this chapter in his talk previously, and I promise not to read too much, since it's fresh in our minds. But let's take a look at Helaman 5 together, through this lens of defending religious liberty.
In verse 2 we read, "For as their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted."
Now, you're smart people, and I doubt you need me to interpret this verse for you. But I would like to share something that I've learned as I've been studying this chapter over the last few weeks. It looks like perhaps there is no such thing as a superfluous law, at least in God's eyes. Especially when it comes to those human laws that reflect eternal law. Laws, particularly in a republic, are reflections of the collective state of the collective heart of the people; and when that collective heart is evolving towards favoring dark over light, that people is then "ripening for destruction."
And that's kind of scary isn't it? That's where the fear comes in I think. And this is where what happens next in Helaman 5 becomes very instructive. Nephi, one of the judges at the time, and Lehi, his brother, react to this corruption of the laws in a surprising fashion. Nephi abandons his post as judge, and he and his brother go out among the Lamanites—the more wicked part of the people—to preach the Gospel.
After they have been among the Lamanites for a time they are thrown in prison for what Elder Hales would call their "freedom to share their beliefs with others." A mob is approaching with the intent to murder Nephi and Lehi, and it's here in this crucial moment that a miracle occurs. Nephi and Lehi are encircled about by a pillar of fire, and a cloud of darkness overshadows those who are bent on killing the two brothers. The darkness grows and grows and it's not until Aminadab, a former believer, declares that the Lamanites must call out to Christ for the darkness to clear, that the Lamanites begin to pray and the darkness lifts.
I love verse 29. "And it came to pass that there came a voice as if it were above the cloud of darkness, saying: Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings." Good tidings. Isn't it funny that so often when we are truly acting in the best interest of our loved ones, their best eternal interest, that we are accused of bigotry or intolerance? That's something I appreciate about studying the pattern of descent into destruction in the Book of Mormon. It becomes quickly apparent that what's happening today is not simply an issue of 'Murica. It's not simply an issue of dogmatism or the uneducated masses who just can't get with the times. Nephi and Lehi's good tidings are the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as relevant then as they are now. Because eternal law was just as relevant then as it is now.
Nephi and Lehi did not react with fear to what was happening in their world, they acted in faith and love and took good tidings, truly good tidings, to the people who meant them harm. And the real miracle in all this is that through their faith they found people who wanted the light.
Helaman 5 has been a very meaningful chapter for me for a long time, because I once had an experience of sorts that allowed me to look at it differently than most people do.
Several years ago I had a dear friend, someone I cared for very deeply, teach me about darkness and light, albeit a bit unwittingly. Now, here's where I have to admit to something a little strange. I could see his light. Physically. With my eyes. I'm usually pretty in tune with people's feelings. It's easy for me to tell how someone is doing if I'm around them long enough. But this was different. I could see a literal light surrounding this young man's body. And I knew exactly how he was doing in moments because I could see it. I've never been able to see anyone else's light. Just his. Which is actually very awkward, frankly.
One year, right before Thanksgiving break, God told me that when my friend returned to Provo after the break, he would be struggling and there was something that I could do to help. I doubted it. For one thing, this was not the revelation I wanted. I would have much rather been told, "Everything is great," or, "There is nothing I want you to do." That's much more comfortable revelation. I wondered, "What does struggling even mean?" and I questioned the seriousness of the situation.
A week later, my friend came back to Provo. I first saw him in Church. He was sitting at the sacrament table and I immediately noticed a very thick, gray, almost black presence surrounding him. "Cloud of darkness" is the perfect phrase to describe what I saw. It was so visible to me that I glanced around my congregation to see if anyone else had noticed. Nope. Just me again.
Seeing the darkness that surrounded my friend was alarming. And it definitely spurred me to action. I would have done anything for him; I loved him very deeply. But I might not have done anything at all if I had kept doubting God when He told me that something was wrong. And so in retrospect, I'm grateful that God allowed me to see the darkness my friend was under, even though the events that followed this one led to more heartbreak than I care to describe.
And so now it is easy for me to believe in darkness, although I cannot see it anymore. My testimony has grown since that Sunday after Thanksgiving break. Specifically, my testimony of the sanctity of sex, and of the eternal nature of marriage between men and women has grown. I'm converted to these things now, and I've seen how breaking eternal laws causes spiritual death. I do not want anyone that I love to experience that darkness needlessly. And I cannot stand by while that is happening to the people I care about. So if that means that I have to stand up here and give a talk about defending religious liberty and protecting moral agency, I'll do it.
Eternal laws are real, and breaking them causes real darkness to enter our lives. When we follow Jesus Christ we can all become more deeply converted to this principle. It is my prayer that we will continue to emulate and walk behind our Savior, and that as we do that we will more fully comprehend his love and righteousness. He is the light that dissipates all darkness.
In Jesus Christ's name, amen.
After I spoke in Church a fellow ward member found this article about the ERA published by the Church. If you'd like to learn more about the Church's perspectives surrounding that amendment, give the article a once over. Thanks, Garrett!