Dallin H. Oaks spoke in the April General Conference this year about Mormons who publicly disagree with the policies and doctrines of the church leadership. In one breath he called them “the loyal opposition.” In the next, he dismissed the very idea of a loyal opposition as having no place within a religious institution based on authority and divinely appointed leadership.
As someone who many might very well label a protester, I disagree. While I may not necessarily believe that the way that religious institutions change and become better is purely because of political pressure applied from within or without, it would be disingenuous to insist that this has never happened to Mormonism. And as someone who was raised Mormon, has spent her whole life attending church every Sunday, I refuse to accept that I am not allowed to speak my own mind when I disagree with leaders. In fact, I would argue that it is part of the foundation of Mormonism to believe that God speaks to us all differently and that as individuals, we have not only the right but the obligation to seek out our own revelation from God.
In 1890, then President and prophet Wilford Woodruff, under pressure from the United States government, rescinded polygamy as a way of life for Mormons. He insisted that the manifesto on polygamy was from God and that he would have fought to the death to live God’s law if God had not told him otherwise. The idea that the political pressure on the leadership of the church (many of whom were jailed for living polygamy openly) had no effect on this revelation seems ridiculous. Likewise, the 1978 revelation to Spencer W. Kimball that blacks were no longer to face an exaltation ban (including priesthood ban and a ban from temple ordinances) did not come out of black hole. The Civil Rights movement the previous decade, pressure on Brigham Young University’s sports program, and growing discomfort with the policy among even stalwart members was part of the reason that Kimball and other leaders of the church began to pray about the issue, and finally received a revelation to change it.
Mormons who spoke out against the black exaltation ban in the early 70s might well have thought of themselves as “the Loyal Opposition.” Looking back, were they wrong and only at the very moment in 1978 when President Kimball announced the change, then suddenly everything had to change? I find that difficult to believe. Instead, I think that there were Mormons who were inspired to disagree with this policy so that leadership would begin to question it. But how can we tell what doctrine is really doctrine and what doctrine is only temporarily doctrine and will later be declared heresy or simply a mistake? I think that there is no clear answer to this. We can only wait and see and do our best to hear God in our own way and to continue with the hope that others will do the same.
For me, being a believing Mormon doesn’t mean accepting everything straight from the mouths of leadership. When I have done as leaders have asked, and prayed to God to gain a testimony of what leaders have told me, the answers haven’t always come that they are right. I’m afraid that sometimes I feel that we Mormons are accused of “blind obedience” correctly. As Dallin Oaks himself said in a previous talk on Testimony, “we each have a direct relationship with God, our Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ.” This means we have two ways to receive God’s word, through the voice of others and through the Holy Spirit testifying to us personally. What we do when these are in contradiction is something Oaks doesn’t address.
But Dieter F. Uchtdorf, currently in the First Presidency, admits, “we openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.” And he adds to this, “And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” Uchtdorf invites those who doubt to be part of the church despite their doubts and argues that they will fit in better than they might think with others, because the truth is, almost every Mormon has had doubts. That doesn’t mean they should leave or that other Mormons should reject them. We have to find a way to express a commonality of faith despite our differences, even if those differences turn out to be in important areas.
I don’t believe that I have higher access to God than the prophet or the apostles of the church. I don’t necessarily think that I have lower access to God, either, though I do believe that I don’t have the authority to change the church’s doctrine or policy. I can only change myself and try to convince others that I am right, or to allow them the chance to convince me I am wrong. I hope that as a church, we Mormons eventually we will find our way to the best truth that God can get us to understand in the time and place that we are in. God may speak to us in our own language, but I’m afraid that what He means to say may be significantly garbled by the constraints that mortal speech places upon us. And since our church is an institution that works in a mortal world with mortal people, it’s possible that different approaches to improving us work at different times.
Christ said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). If this is true, it is a radically individual view of access to God and to truth, and one might argue this makes for a tension from the beginning between an institution of authority with designated leaders, but this tension exists in all organized religion.
Joseph Smith himself read from the scriptures and decided that he should pray and ask God for an answer to his questions, since he felt that none of the church authorities in his day could tell him what he needed to know. He set the example for Mormons that we are to ask God for ourselves about what is true, and then tell others what we have been told, even if they laugh at us or tell us that we are too young or have no authority to have heard from God. This is one of the many reasons I remain Mormon, because I love the idea that even the least among us have access to God, to truth, and that we reject faithful criticism at our peril.