At times like this, the elixir of postmodernity is at its strongest: there is no history–only narratives. Hagiography (a narrative that paints its subject in a particularly effusive light, typically in a religious context e.g. George Q. Cannon’s biography of Joseph Smith or the early religious biographies of say, Simon Stylites) is, while sometimes a beautiful thing, also a dangerous thing. The propensity for crafting it is natural–particularly if it’s a powerful person whom we think promotes policies that resonate with our own predispositions (or, at least, we assume their policies will bother us less).
Whether we are depicting the Saints of old or the Saints of today, we run the real risk of putting another complicated human in the service of our ideology. As a large body of work has now shown, the stories that activists tell about themselves, the movement, and the institution that they are agitating can be at least as influential as the deeper, structural forces bounding it. Any successful movement does not just need adversaries to mobilize people against; they need advocates that exist both in actuality and in the much more usable mythologized form.
That the Uchtdorf mystique exists is not terribly remarkable in its own right: leaders enjoy different reputations at different times, and with respect to him, he sacrificed aspects of global relevance in order to engage in Church service. Mormons–and Western Mormons, in particular–been guilty of crafting an Uchtdorf Cult of Personality. For Latter-day Saints who don’t exactly identify with the Intermountain Magisterium, he, at least, seems different–and in some ways, is different. A speaker with the capacity to speak to a wide array of audiences, it is no surprise that he has attracted a coalition of devotees. Some love that he admitted church leaders have committed errors. Some appreciate his proactive voice for crafting immigration legislation that isn’t hostile to undocumented immigrants. He has expressed support for openness in church history, a spirit of inclusivity, and compassion for refugees. And some think he, frankly, looks fantastic on television. He was the Mormon Cult of Personality that few felt eager to condemn, including those given to condemning it.
But he, like any other figure (political or ecclesiastical) is given to making decisions that we may not like. He stood alongside the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency in denying Ordain Women’s appeal (see also here). Hugh B. Brown (noted for his support for civil rights legislation), for example, opposed the civil disobedience advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King. James E. Faust, perhaps one of the more civil rights minded Latter-day Saints in 1960s Utah (a low bar), felt similarly. Meanwhile, the same man who wrote The Kolob Theorem (much derided among the Mormon literati for taking Book of Abraham cosmology altogether too seriously) also advocated for a more proactive effort of including Ghanaian Saints in the proselytizing efforts. We do the figures we claim to revere a disservice when we latch onto them as leaders who, we hope, we save the Saints from other leaders and perhaps, themselves.
Uchtdorf’s position on homosexuality can serve as a case in point. My commentary ought not be construed as condemnatory or dismissive of the genuine pain and anxiety experienced by those who experience same-sex attraction or self-identify as Gay, Lesbian and Mormon; it is entirely compatible with any given position on sexual identity in Mormonism. Rather, it is an exploration of the myth-making in Mormonism–and how, in spite of what we call our most honorable intentions, we can re-shape a history after an image of our own making–a process with which Mormon folklorists are all too familiar (seagulls, mantles, and broken glass shards come most readily to mind). Whether that image is beautiful, commendable, or politically useful, it represents a history written of expedience–and should be explicitly understood as such.
Uchtdorf and Homosexuality
There have been some narratives floating around that Uchtdorf represented a more moderate voice among a group of retrogrades It reflects a common trope: an inside reformer working “from within” to mitigate the effects of what see as a harmful system (akin to Arnold Silva, the FEMA head in the first season of House of Cards; Underwood calls him “the only man who could prevent a disaster [from] becoming a catastrophe”). It is an appealing narrative: a telegenic, emotionally compelling, advocate for causes that we find sympathetic? What’s not to like?
First, it is important to acknowledge what we do know. Some of it is rather Basic Level Mormonism–and thus, no surprise–but it is worth restating in order to establish a backdrop. While we do not have access to the particulars of of what was said in the meetings leading up to the decision, we do know something of Uchtdorf’s document trail.
1. In July 2008, Uchtdorf, then a member of the First Presidency, promised--during the throes of Proposition 8 –that “living prophets are profoundly aware of the different circumstances we members are living in. They are in this world but not of this world. They point the way, and they offer help for our difficulties, not through the wisdom of this world but from an eternal Source.” He assured the Saints that Monson had “inspired answers” to the problems of the day. That same month, he signed a letter asking Mormons to “do all you can support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of [their] means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.” (Letter from First Presidency to General Authorities, Area Seventies, and the following in California: State and Mission Presidents; Bishops and Branch Presidents (June 20, 2008). Uchtdorf’s comments were an adaptation of his October 2002 address; this section reflects a section of his July 2008 address almost verbatim; only the name, Monson, is switched out with Hinckley.
This rhetoric is par for the course, but as with any history of a text or its ideas–whether Biblical, medieval, or contemporary–we cannot separate the rhetoric from the circumstances in which it was given; even ordinary comments can reveal meaning under particularized circumstances; it is one thing for me to call my father an “honorable man,” and it is quite another for Marc Antony to call Brutus “an honorable man.” At the very least, we can say that Uchtdorf had no problems saying the same thing of Monson during Proposition 8 as he did of Hinckley–both of whom made opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage (as such, rather than civil partnerships) a major aspect of Church political involvement.
2. In 2010, Uchtdorf stated that “some [questions] related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life.” These comments are, with minimal variation, a mirror image of the 2007 statement: “God loves his children.” (“Many questions, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life”). Uchtdorf echoed a fairly well-established Church-consensus.
3. In 2011, Uchtdorf signed For the Strength of Youth, claiming that, along with Presidents Monson and Eyring: “Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin. “
4. In summer 2015 (only a few months before the policy became public), Uchtdorf, along with the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, maintained that heterosexual marriage “is the best setting for God’s plan of happiness to thrive” and that “strong families, guided by a loving mother and father, serve as the fundamental institution for nurturing children, instilling faith, and transmitting to future generations the moral strengths and values that are important to civilization and vital to eternal salvation.” Moreover, it concludes, “sexual relations outside of such a marriage are contrary to the laws of God pertaining to morality.”
5. In November 2015 Uchtdorf signed off in support of the policy prohibiting children of LGBT couples whose “primary domicile” was with their LBGT parent from receiving baptism.
Unanimity: Standard Protocol or Noble Dream?
If Quinn’s conclusion is to be taken seriously, then ” flexible deference, but not slavish devotion, to precedent” sets an “important context for all decisions” (Extensions of Power, Location 385).
In 1989, James E. Faust, one of the more left-leaning members of the Quorum (one who thought that Ernest Wilkinson’s right-wing influence on the First Presidency was nothing less than nefarious), celebrated: “this requirement of unanimity . . . ensures that God rules through the Spirit, not man through majority or compromise” (interestingly, Oaks would later distance the Church from the name of this speech: “continuous revelation,” claiming that it overstates Church access to revelation: “We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation.”). The following year, Gordon B. Hinckley claimed that “if there is a lack of unity, there is an absence of action. . .[counselors] become a safeguard that is seldom, if ever, in error.” later promising that in 33 years of Church service, “there has never been a major action taken where this procedure was not observed. . .Only then is implementation made” (emphasis added).
We have no reason to believe that policy changed. In general, as Quinn observed in 1994: “Tabling items due to dissent continues to be a pattern in the contemporary Church” (Extensions of Power, Location 483). In 2012, Elder D. Todd Christofferson told the Church in 2012 that “the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God.” A year before the policy was implemented, then-Elder (now President) Russell M. Nelson (who has been the policy’s most public advocate) has highlighted the sheer difficulty in getting “15 men [who] have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things” to agree on a policy; Nelson’s comments 2014 might reveal some level of vigorous exchange over the November 5 policy specifically. As one former, rather high-ranking employee in the LDS Church humanitarian indicated to me, “they have egos, but they keep them in check.”
Henry B. Eyring–whose named stands alongside Uchtdorf’s on the November 5 policy– has expressed his surprise at how junior apostles might challenge senior leadership:
I had been studying for the ten years I was a professor at Stanford how you make decisions in meetings, in groups, so I got a chance – here’s my chance to see how the Lord’s servants do it of which I now am one – but I looked at it with my Harvard-Stanford eyes.
And I thought, this is the strangest conversation. Here are the prophets of God and they’re disagreeing in an openness that I had never seen in business. In business you’re careful when you’re with the bosses, you know.I watched this process and they were disagreeing, and I thought ‘good heavens,’ I thought revelation would come to them all and they’d all see things the same way in some sort of way. And it was more open than anything I’d ever seen in all the groups I’d ever studied in business. I was just dumbfounded.
But then after awhile the conversation cycled around and they began to agree.. . .
Then, it was President Harold B. Lee who was chairing the meeting .and I thought now he’s going to announce the decision. I’d seen this miracle, and he said, ‘Wait a minute. I think we’ll bring this matter up again some other time. I sense there is someone in the room who is not yet settled.’ And they went on to the next item, and I thought, ‘That is strange.’ And then I watched somebody, one of the brethren, I think one of the Twelve, walk past President Lee, and say, ‘Thank you. There’s something I didn’t have a chance to say.’
So, I want you to know. We’re in another kind of thing here.
Hinckley has celebrated that he has felt free “to speak on any issue, despite the fact that I was a junior member.” Ezra Taft Benson gained a reputation for paying close regard to even junior members of the Quorum (Extensions of Power, 455).
Is it possible that Uchtdorf simply rubber-stamped all of these statements, bowing to the pressure of the retrogrades? Perhaps. Even the most connected among us will only glean a shadow of the particulars of those discussions. But If Uchtdorf caved, he did so repeatedly. There as been precedent for apostolic deference to presidential decree. Elder M. Russell Ballard, also a participant in the Nov.5 discussion, used a story of the Quorum of the Twelve flipping their decision once the President had declared: “This is what the Lord wants.” While Ballard acknowledged the importance of vigorous advocacy, he emphasized that it is “just as important is the responsibility to support and sustain the final decision of the council leader, even if you do not agree fully.” In 1946, Spencer W. Kimball “swallow[ed his] pride and disappointment” in order to secure unanimity.
N. Eldon Tanner relayed a similar experience:
I remember so well when a matter was being discussed where different members of the Twelve had differing views and expressed them freely. When President McKay summed up the discussion and said, “This is what I think we should do,” I turned to the brother next to me and said
“Isn’t it wonderful to see how he always comes up with the right answer, and we all seem to feel that it is the right answer?”
My colleague turned to me and said, “You are listening to a prophet of God.” This is how we know that any decision that is made becomes the unanimous decision of the group, regardless of the feeling of any member prior to the decision.
According to Nelson, this process was followed in making the decision for the November 5 policy; they “wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter” and then, only made a decision “when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.” Nelson called it “their privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.”
If Uchtdorf simply bowed to the will of the presidency (as described by Ballard and Tanner) on homosexuality, he must have done so so consistently. But I find that unlikely. If his 2010 comments are in any way representative, he echoed the consensus of the Church–with no evidence of reservation. In describing episodes where apostles cave, Quinn uses language like sometimes, occasionally, and at times.Just as frequently, there are instances in which a lone hold-out prompted top leadership to change (e.g. Brigham Young, Jr.’s refusal to vote in support of a non-Mormon professor at BYUA prompted Wilford Woodruff to adopt Brigham Young’s position). Taking him at his signed statements, even at moments when he emphasized measure and moderation re: homosexuality, Uchtdorf’s rhetoric on the causes homosexuality has largely matched the positions struck by Jeffrey R. Holland, M. Russell Ballard, (see also here, from 2009) and, in 2006, Dallin H. Oaks (“The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions — whether nature or nurture — those are things the Church doesn’t have a position on.” See also here). It is possible that Uchtdorf had certain reservations about some policies and their implementation but ultimately, opted to agree to each position–but this speculation exists strictly within the realm of the possible, not the plausible. As reflected by his 2010 comment, we have exactly no evidence that Uchtdorf held a position on homosexuality’s origins distinctive from most of his fellow apostles; indeed, Packer edited his conference speech to eliminate his comments on the origins of homosexuality–and as I understand it, at his own initiative. If his signing trend means anything (and I think it should), Uchtdorf believes that:
1. Homosexual marriage is theologically unacceptable, and homosexual family units do not reflect “God’s plan of happiness.”
2. Homosexual activity is considered sinful.
3. Homosexual feelings are not, in themselves, immoral but are to be controlled.
4. Heterosexual marriage is the standard form of marriage in Mormonism and ought to be celebrated as such.
5. And most importantly, that all people–both LGBTQ or straight, should be treated with love, compassion, and respect.
That Uchtdorf would support the November statement, then, should not surprise us.
Allow me to be clear: it is not my purpose to assuage–or incite–concerns about the making of the November 5 policy or to criticize Uchtdorf. In relevant ways, Uchtdorf does represent a departure from past members of the First Presidency. He has publicly celebrated a Mormonism that is not Ameri-centric. Indeed, Uchtdorf’s excellent advocacy on behalf of refugees, undocumented immigrants, and those vexed by doubt resonate beautifully with the feelings of many marginalized on the outskirts of Mormonism.
But we should not use Uchtdorf’s track record for progressive Mormon myth-making either; the theological questions undergirding sexuality are far, far bigger and more vexing than Uchtdorf’s comments–and should not be reduced to Mormon Kremlinology.
Instead, Mormons can use this issue to ask broader questions about the deployment of narratives in the construction of group identity. The process typically followed is common:
1. We interpret Mormonism’s views on homosexuality in a certain (e.g. most often, negative) way. We want them to change.
2. We hope to identify with Mormonism in some way, in spite of our anxiety.
3. We hope to find a tool to intervene–to effect change.
4. We seek for an individual who might have the capacity/will to change institutional practice/doctrine to align with beliefs (e.g. Uchtdorf).
5. We deploy him/her in an effort to justify our continued affiliation and, perhaps, an internal agitative movement.
Whatever our position happens to be on the theological defensibility/invalidity of homosexual identity–and the ways of engaging this issue are vast–we should restrain ourselves from turning Uchtdorf into an icon in the Mormon Kulturkampf. Like all of us, he has the capacity to be many things at once: forward-thinking and conservative, compassionate and dogmatic, flexible in some regards and less so, in others. Engaging in counterfactuals about What Uchtdorf Would Do might make for intriguing Mormon Parlor Games for Progressive, but it does no service nor respect to the totality of Uchtdorf’s character or influence. Chimamanda Adichie’s warnings against a “single story” reflect not only Africa; they reflect the human experience.
So, as we grapple (and I hope we do grapple rather than kvetch) over the Terrible Questions that Mormon dogma claims to answer–sex, identity, displacement, family, and the afterlife–we can do better than become vexed over the inside baseball politics that Mormon Kremlinology has to offer. As great of a leader as President Uchtdorf is (he’s not dead, folks), we do his service more honor by following his counsel of compassion, love, and, when appropriate, loyalty rather than placing on him a mantle that he has never claimed to bear.
Let me emphasize: it is an honorable to create an environment in which the human needs of marginalized people are met. One could easily argue that a movement would be justified. However, as we craft these movements, we must pay the same kind of care to representing the views of our heroes, (and our villains) correctly. It’s immensely natural to become cynical: to use any point of entry, any figure in whom we might see potential. But do they see themselves that way? We rightly ask commentators to engage marginalized peoples on their terms, in their complexity, and in their multidimensionality. But that is not a virtue merely as a political gesture–as a stroke in the broader struggle in dismantling racial, gendered, or political hegemonies (though it certainly is that); it’s a virtue because representing humans in their complexity is, quite simply, one of many right and fair things to do.