The debate surrounding LGBT issues is one high in emotion and passion, with all sides having strongly held beliefs and entrenched views. Often, the flash point of these debates revolves around the religious beliefs of those who question the morality of LGBT behavior. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no exception to this rule, being one of the more conservative religions when it comes to this topic. One church leader in particular has himself become a lightning rod on the subject.
“Harmful rhetoric” and “discrimination” were alleged to have been a part of President Dallin H. Oaks’ recent General Conference talk entitled Truth and the Plan. These claims were made by Lori Davis, a Board Member of a group called Mama Dragons, a group whose stated purpose is to provide support for Mormon and former Mormon mothers of LGBT children. A brief review of social media and other contemporary news articles will quickly demonstrate that the Mama Dragons were not alone in their feelings that some wrong was committed by Elder Oaks. Others actually implied that people may have to call a crisis line following the talk. Such drastic condemnation would certainly lead the reasonable reader to ask what horrible thing President Oaks said to possibly elicit such a strong response.
Unfortunately, despite the strong rhetoric, many who made the condemning statements on social media and elsewhere failed to cite what words were actually offensive. General indignation seemed to be sufficient for those people. Some, fortunately, were more specific. I’d like to look at several of them, and analyze what they might tell us about this issue, how those from different viewpoints are approaching it, and what we can learn from it.
One local advocate named Becky Moss was quoted as saying that President Oaks urged members to oppose the rights of LGBT people. Openly-gay and former Mormon Sen. Jim Dabakis claimed President Oaks was a bully who made LGBT youth feel unloved, and alleged that President Oaks told them that they were part of Satan’s plan. Another member of Mama Dragons stated that he should be ashamed of himself, because by claiming that gender was eternal, he could drive a transgender youth to suicide. Interestingly, this Mama Dragon actually said she agreed with President Oaks’ statement, it was just the “way he meant it,” that bothered her. Another writer alleged that Oaks’ comments amounted to saying, “If you’re gay or transgender the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) thinks Satan is to blame.” These articles and others make the general claim that President Oaks’ comments are “hurtful” to LGBT people.
Before examining the merit of these claims against President Oaks’ actual comments, it would be prudent to frame these responses in their historical context. This is not the first time President Oaks has been the target of criticism. In fact, his talk a year earlier entitled The Plan and the Proclamation, drew similar comments. One website dedicated to LGBT Mormons noted that Oaks’ 2017 talk was seen by many as divisive. One commenter on this site went so far as to say that he felt like “it was like a gun pointed towards my head telling me, either you have to be like this, or you cannot live…I felt excluded, banished from the love of Christ.” Such feelings are certainly serious and not to be taken lightly. They are similar to those expressed by many others. I will also look later at the specific words in this talk which were so offensive some people.
These two talks, in conjunction with other comments and speeches President Oaks has given in the last few years, have lead to him becoming the focus of angst by those advocating change in the church’s position towards LGBT members. I have heard and read comments of those who say they dread when President Oaks will speak because of this issue. This seems to be in large part because the Church has positioned President Oaks as one of its primary spokesmen on this topic.
In late 2012, the Church launched the website mormonsandgay.org. This was viewed by many at the time as the Church’s effort to take a “softer tone on gays.” The website was viewed as a change in “tone” by the Church, but not a change in doctrine. From its inception, President Oaks was at the forefront of the website’s roll-out and mission. The creation of the website was applauded and commended by many who today are critical of President Oaks. It seems that, at the time at least, the were okay with the Church maintaining its beliefs, and appreciative of its efforts to change the tone. The website clearly stated that while same-sex attraction was not a sin, the Church firmly maintained its beliefs regarding gay marriage and homosexual behavior. Then apostle Dallin H. Oaks personally affirmed those beliefs on the website and in subsequent interviews.
Following the website roll-out, the change in tone, the emphasis on same-sex attraction not being a sin, and other moves by the Church that were viewed as taking a more liberal approach to the issue, some LGBT advocates became hopeful that the Church was on a path toward ultimately changing its stance on the issue. They saw these things as small steps that would ultimately lead to a doctrinal 180 at the highest levels of the church. These hopes were dashed upon the rocks, however, when the Church made a game-changing announcement in November 2015. The Church announced a policy change that made entering into a gay marriage an ex-communicable offense and equivalent to apostasy, and also prohibited the baptism of children of same-sex relationships. The historical context to this move, beyond what was previously noted, is that the United States Supreme court had legalized gay marriage in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges only a few months before that. Elder Christofferson at the time acknowledged that the Church’s new policy was in some measure a response to this event.
The 2015 policy change reverberated among members and non-members alike. Some in the Church, as well as critics outside the Church, saw it as an extreme and unjustified move. It effectively shattered the hopes of those who thought the Church was slowly moving in the direction of morally approving of gay marriage and a homosexual lifestyle. The perceived incremental improvement of the website and tone change seemed to magnify the effect of the November decision because assumptions had been made by advocates about the direction the Church had moved on the issue. They saw the earlier moves as an indication that they would eventually see the Church make a change similar to what occurred with polygamy and the priesthood ban. This move was a huge blow to that line of thinking, and the added effect likely landed in part on President Oaks as part of the fall out. At the same time, the majority of the Church seemed to accepted it without issue, which is evidence that the moves were not out of line with the Church mainstream as some tried to make it appear. Also that year, the Church had intentionally highlighted the opposing ideals of religious freedom and non-discrimination in its active promotion of legislation to reinforce them. In both cases, President Oaks was at the forefront of the rollout and the debate.
The Church was gauging both the legal and social waters, and correctly foresaw the direction debate on this issue was going. In conjunction with the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, certain forces were working hard to make it unacceptable for anyone, including religions and their members, to take a viewpoint other than the one they advocated. If you opposed gay marriage, you were guilty of bigotry, discrimination, hate, or any other of a long list of accusations. Religious beliefs notwithstanding, if some parties had their say, no one would be allowed to have such a position without risking social ostracization or legal repercussions. Thus, the Church made a point to advocate for both religious freedom, and non-discrimination. Unfortunately, some still hold the view that the two are mutually exclusive when it comes to this issue, which is part of what leads to the current negative feelings surrounding President Oaks. He cannot resolve the dilemma that many people will never accept a religious criticism of LGBT behavior as allowable. They will always see it as unjust discrimination. This also plays into some of the disapproval he receives, and is also out of his control. President Oaks also drew additional criticism from some people when he made a comment in an interview about the Church not apologizing for past rhetoric.
That brief historical summary is the outline of events that frame the reactions to both his 2017 and 2018 conference talks. As the face of the issue for at least the last six years, anyone opposed to the Church’s position would see him as the embodiment of everything they don’t like when it comes to doctrines and teachings on this issue. Added to those negative views would be inherent issues of the LGBT debate which are out of his control as described above. To his credit, not only has President Oaks not shied away from the controversy, but he has leaned fully into it by intentionally speaking on the issue in General Conference while at the same time acknowledging its controversial nature. Below is a summary of both talks, with brief excerpts of what I believe some people found offensive.
2017 – The Plan and the Proclamation
Summary: Warns members against embracing the teachings of the world, and urges members to accept those of the true gospel instead. He discusses the Plan of Salvation. He promotes the teachings found in the Church’s 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
“We have witnessed a rapid and increasing public acceptance of cohabitation without marriage and of same-sex marriage. The corresponding media advocacy, education, and even occupational requirements pose difficult challenges for Latter-day Saints. We must try to balance the competing demands of following the gospel law in our personal lives and teachings, even as we seek to show love for all. In doing so we sometimes face, but need not fear, what Isaiah called “the reproach of men.”
“Just 20 years after the family proclamation, the United States Supreme Court authorized same-sex marriage, overturning thousands of years of marriage being limited to a man and a woman.”
“The family proclamation begins by declaring “that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” It also affirms that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” It further declares “that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.””
Analysis of Quotes:
He reaffirms the Church’s long held stance against gay marriage. He also reaffirms our need to show love for all. He reaffirms the proclamations statement on the eternal nature of gender. There is nothing controversial or negative in these statements, at least no more so than any the Church has ever put out on the topic. He acknowledges that some do not agree with the Church’s position, and that is okay. The topics covered are standard and long accepted Church doctrines. If these statements are problematic, the only thing that could fix the problem would be to not discuss the issue at all, which is what many critics seem to want.
2018 – Truth and the Plan
Summary: Truth can be found in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” We should seek truth from the right sources. Reaffirms truths in the Proclamation. Mortal life is a time to choose and be tested. Eternal relationships are fundamental to our faith and ordained by God.
“Gender is eternal. Before we were born on this earth, we all lived as male or female spirits in the presence of God.”
“Under the great plan of our loving Creator, the mission of His restored Church is to help the children of God achieve the supernal blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom, which can be attained only through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–3). We affirm the Lord’s teachings that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” and that “marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”
“Our commitment to God’s plan requires us to oppose abortion and euthanasia.”
“Fourth, some are troubled by some of our Church’s positions on marriage and children. Our knowledge of God’s revealed plan of salvation requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women. We know that the relationships, identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God’s great plan.”
“Finally, we are beloved children of a Heavenly Father, who has taught us that maleness and femaleness, marriage between a man and a woman, and the bearing and nurturing of children are all essential to His great plan of happiness. Our positions on these fundamentals frequently provoke opposition to the Church. We consider that inevitable. Opposition is part of the plan, and Satan’s most strenuous opposition is directed at whatever is most important to God’s plan. He seeks to destroy God’s work. His prime methods are to discredit the Savior and His divine authority, to erase the effects of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to discourage repentance, to counterfeit revelation, and to contradict individual accountability. He also seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing—especially by parents who will raise children in truth.”
Analysis of Quotes:
For the most part, there is again nothing really new here. He emphasizes doctrines clearly outlined in the Proclamation, namely, that the Church does not agree with same-sex marriage, and that gender is eternal. The final paragraph seems to be what most detractors took issue with. It was often taken out of context and misquoted by those seeking to make it sound like something it wasn’t. What President Oaks is teaching is no different than what the Church and all other general authorities believe: that the family is an eternal and essential part of the gospel, and that Satan as the adversary to the Lord’s work will seek to do all he can to destroy it.
So, we come back to some of the claims that were made following this talk. Namely, that President Oaks was a bully, that he discriminated, that he used harmful rhetoric, or that he intentionally made statements to hurt those in the LGBT community. What is clear, is that none of that is true, and many exaggerated and false claims have been and are made in an effort to attack President Oaks. The truth is, he made no statements that are out of step or different than the official Church positions on these issues. If you have a problem with the statements, you don’t have a problem with President Oaks, you have a problem with the teachings of the Church. As the spokesman and primary figure the Church has asked to speak on the topic, he has become the target of anger that is actually meant for the teachings of the Church, but is more easily directed at a person. This allows many members to still listen to their “favorite” apostles while telling themselves that those apostles would never agree with what President Oaks is saying. The truth is, they do agree. The brethren are united on this topic, and they made that clear in 1995 with the Proclamation.
Ironically, President Oaks is one of the general authorities who has made it clear that there is no litmus test for Church membership or worthiness when it comes to this issue. He has allowed those attacking him to maintain their own personal point of view without consequence. You can be a temple recommend-holding member of the church and support gay marriage. Perhaps those who have felt animosity towards President Oaks have misplaced their anger. Perhaps they should permit him the same freedom to believe that he willingly permits them. Finally, perhaps they shouldn’t see him as the source of a doctrine they disagree with, but simply as the messenger who is bringing it to them.
Matt Tait lives in Kansas City, KS. He has five children and has been married to his wife Janie for 16 years. He is trained as an attorney, but is currently working in the field of healthcare administration. He served in the Santiago South, Chile, Mission from 1998 to 2000. He loves studying the gospel and doing what he can to defend the faith.
1 Cristina Flores, “Mothers of LGBTQ children say remarks at LDS General Conference are ‘harmful rhetoric’”, KUTV, October 8, 2018 (https://kutv.com/news/local/mothers-of-lgbtq-children-say-remarks-at-lds-general-conference-are-harmful-rhetoric)
3 Staff, “General Conference: Oaks Reiterates Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage and Transgender People,” Q salt lake, October 8, 2018, (https://qsaltlake.com/news/2018/10/08/dallin-h-oaks/)
6 Timothy Rawles, “Mormon church believes Satan behind trans and gay marriage advocacy,” San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, October 10th 2018, (https://sdgln.com/news/2018/10/10/mormon-church-believes-satan-behind-trans-and-gay-marriage-advocacy)
7 Brady McCombs, “Mormon leader reaffirms faith’s opposition to gay marriage in a declining world,” Chicago Tribune, September 30, 2017, (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-mormon-conference-20170930-story.html)
8 LGBTQIA+ Mormons, Families and Friends Reactions to General Conference, October 16, 2017, (https://affirmation.org/lgbtqia-mormons-families-friends-reactions-general-conference/)
9 Now mormonandgay.lds.org
10 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “New Mormon church website has softer tone on gays,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 7, 2012, (http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=55407878&itype=CMSID)
12 Aaron Shill, “LDS Church reaffirms doctrine of marriage, updates policies on families in same-sex marriages,” The Deseret News, November 5, 2015. (https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865640835/Church-updates-policies-on-families-in-same-sex-marriages.html);
13 Church Provides Context on Handbook Changes Affecting Same-Sex Marriages, Mormon Newsroom, November 6, 2015 (https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/handbook-changes-same-sex-marriages-elder-christofferson)
14 Laurie Goodstein, “Mormons Sharpen Stand Against Same-Sex Marriage,” The New York Times, November 6, 2015, (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/07/us/mormons-gay-marriage.html?module=inline)
15 Laurie Goodstein, “New Policy on Gay Couples and Their Children Roils Mormon Church,” The New York Times, November 13, 2015, (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/us/mormons-set-to-quit-church-over-policy-on-gay-couples-and-their-children.html
16 Jennifer Napier-pearce, “Trib Talk: LDS leaders Oaks, Christofferson on religious freedom, LGBT rights (watch the video),” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 30, 2015, (http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2112602&itype=CMSID)
17 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “We all can be more civil on LGBT issues, Mormon leader says,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 30, 2015, (http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2108746&itype=CMSID)
18 The Church felt strongly enough about the dangers to religious freedom that it released an official statement and created a website to address the issue. (https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/religious-freedom) (https://www.lds.org/religious-freedom)
19 Steve Evans, “All Apologies,” By Common Consent, January 28, 2015, (https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/01/28/all-apologies/); Apologies and Repentance, (http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2015/01/apologies-and-repentance/)