Are you guilty of “speaking ill of the Lord’s anointed”?

John Dehlin Blog, Q&A, Writings 38 Comments

A few years ago, Elder Dallin H. Oaks was quoted as saying: “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”

I have worked very hard in my work with Mormon Stories to not criticize LDS church leaders.  That said, I believe that it is generally unhealthy for organizations to shield themselves from constructive, well-intended criticism.  I, myself, am extremely sensitive to criticism — so I am not necessarily a model in this regard…but I still believe that constructive criticism is very healthy….and I actively seek it from people who I do not believe wish me harm.

In my own Facebook postings over the past year, I have been complimentary of many LDS apostles (including Dieter Uchtdorf’s talk “Come, Join with Us” and Jeffrey Holland’s talk “Like a Broken Vessel“) — but I have also been occasionally critical of talks by leaders such as Elder Dallin H. Oaks (“No Other Gods“) and Boyd K. Packer (“Cleansing the Inner Vessel“) — specifically when I fear that their talks regarding same-sex sexuality could contribute to the epidemic of suicidality of LGBT youth and young adults in the LDS/Utah community.

I am also very concerned about the rumors I have heard for many years, from many, many sources that President Thomas S. Monson is currently experiencing dementia.  I absolutely believe that one’s struggles with medical or psychological conditions deserve privacy and sensitivity.  However, given that Thomas S. Monson is a public figure, the LDS church is a global church, a great deal is at stake regarding current events and the church, and given the fact that the LDS church has the capacity to cause incredible benefit or harm to its members — I believe that it is a fair question to ask if there is a current leadership vacuum within the LDS church.

It is common knowledge that during the later years of LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson (my cousin) — that President Benson was ailing to the point of not being capable of leading the church (additional stuff written here).  It was also during this time that Elder Boyd K. Packer felt emboldened to begin excommunicating scholars (see September Six) — a very dark period for the LDS Church…resulting directly from a leadership vacuum.

Many reporters have asked me over the past few weeks if the present leadership vacuum caused by President Monson’s alleged dementia has created an environment that would allow for the current actions to be taken against myself, Kate Kelly and others — which many believe to be incredibly damaging to the church’s worldwide image.  I believe that these are important questions that merit consideration, given all that is at stake for the LDS church, its members, and for folks like me and Kate Kelly.

So to answer the questions….

  • Do I take delight in criticizing LDS Church leaders?  Not at all.
  • Do I believe that constructive criticism is healthy — even essential — for a healthy, well-functioning organization?  Absolutely.
  • Do I believe that LDS Church leaders should be guarded from constructive criticism?  No.  In fact, I believe that constructive criticism and open dialogue are essential to the future health of this church and its members/former members.  As I’ve said many times before, I believe that our inability to speak openly and candidly about difficult issues, without the fear of punishment, is perhaps our biggest problem as a church, and as a culture.

Comments 38

  1. My second excommunication in June 1992 was the result opposing the sustaining of general and stake authorities as stake conference in January 1992. This was during Ezra Taft Benson’s tenure. I had only recently become aware of an officially sanctioned policy of harassing leaders of independent publications such as Dialogue and Sunstone, which I could not accept. I was intimately familiar with the experience of dissidents in the Soviet Union. Hence, my solitary silent upraised hand amid an audience of 5,000+ in Ventura, California in January 1992.

  2. Elder Oaks made a personal opinion statement when he said, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”

    Making criticism that is merely a personal attack or a general expression of negativity would be wrong.

    However, I believe it’s wrong NOT to provide constructive criticism when a church leader seems uninformed on an important topics. A leader who is unwilling to accept new information on a topic loses their credibility and authority as a natural matter of course. It’s not the person who provides constructive criticism that causes loss of faith, it’s the un-listening leader who creates doubt.

    1. This was his ‘personal opinion’? Really? Did he preface this comment to that effect? If he didn’t, then at least by the tone of this ‘declaration’ to say nothing of his position in the church while stating it, speaks volumes that it was NOT his opinion, but rather what the LDS church requires of its members…OR ELSE!

      1. He may have made an additional remark stating that it was his personal opinion, but those remarks wound up on the cutting room floor and didn’t make it into the PBS documentary that aired.

    2. I’m with Paul on this one. Nothing is a “personal opinion statement” when one is speaking from the podium in confernece as a leader of the church. Even if making a back-handed statement whilst wearing a suit and standing in a church building, or writing a book, or speaking the the press. If you were to say to Oaks when he is speaking that you believe his statement is “personal opinion,” he’d have the Strengthening Church Members Committee all over you. (More accurately, the SCMC would be all over your stake president, who’d be all over your bishop, who’d be all over you.)

      Mormons always look at the oddball statements of former leaders and insist, “He was merely speaking as a man.” This indicates that all dead leaders were only speaking as men. This means that Oaks & Bros. are all only a few short years away from merely speaking as men.

      1. To be fair, this wan’t from the pulpit in General Conference. It was in an interview for a PBS documentary.

  3. Freedom to speak even when it goes against the establishment – interesting idea.

    You and Steve Benson are first cousins twice removed?

  4. I think the words are “evil speaking” not speaking ill. I could be wrong. Either way, is disagreeing with them evil or ill speaking? I think not, although many probably interpret it that way. As far as I can recall, John has always said these were good men trying to do what they thought was right.

  5. You would think that they would have learned something from the story of Levi Savage, the man who tried to convince the doomed handcart companies not to head out across the plains into the frozen horror and death they encountered. Sometimes, someone needs so talk some sense into people who are blind to the mistakes they are about to make. That is something that all effective leaders understand. That Mormon leaders are more inclined to scold anyone with criticism rather than listen is clearly illustrated by this story; not only did they overrule him, he was scolded in a specially called public meeting by the church mission leaders who passed them (in fast horse-drawn carriages)just a few days before the snows hit and the tragedy began.

    http://www.salamandersociety.com/library/tell_it_all-t_b_h_stenhouse.pdf

    http://handcart.byu.edu/Sources/LeviSavage.aspx

    I sincerely admire your work. Your personal warmth, sincerity, and honesty help us to really get to know your guests. The approaches used by the leadership haven’t changed all that much in 150 years. Levi was scolded in September for words he spoke much earlier. But he was right, as are you. Honesty is sorely needed.

  6. I agree with the sentiment of what John has posted here. However, I think the YouTube quote should give the full context. Here is the transcript of Dallin Oaks’s explanation of this particular comment in the interview:

    “The talk where I gave that was a talk on “Reading Church History” — that was the title of the talk. And in the course of the talk I said many things about being skeptical in your reading and looking for bias and looking for context and a lot of things that were in that perspective. But I said two things in it and the newspapers and anybody who ever referred to the talk only referred to [those] two things: one is the one you cite, “Not everything that’s true is useful,” and that [meant] “was useful to say or to publish.” And you tell newspapers any time (media people) [that] they can’t publish something, they’ll strap on their armor and come out to slay you! [Laughs.]”

    “I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord. One can work to correct them by some other means, but don’t go about saying that they misbehaved when they were a youngster or whatever. Well, of course, that sounds like religious censorship also.”

    “But not everything that’s true is useful. I am a lawyer, and I hear something from a client. It’s true, but I’ll be disciplined professionally if I share it because it’s part of the attorney-client privilege. There’s a husband-wife privilege, there’s a priest-penitent privilege, and so on. That’s an illustration of the fact that not everything that’s true is useful to be shared.”

    “In relation to history, I was speaking in that talk for the benefit of those that write history. In the course of writing history, I said that people ought to be careful in what they publish because not everything that’s true is useful. See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.”

    Sorry for the long post. However, I think this makes clear that constructive criticism is not wrong. Rather, bringing up past behavior of a leader in order to discredit the leader is wrong (in Oaks’s view). As such, I think that pointing out that certain language from a leader may lead to more suicides or raising the question as to whether the Thomas Monson is experiencing dementia are NOT things that Oaks is trying to shun–unless your aim is to discredit them as leaders.

    1. I’ve never understood why admitting human weakness and imperfections is a problem. Portraying individuals as more than really were by omitting their mistakes and over-emphasizing their accomplishments conveys an unrealistic and unattainable image.

      I believe we are the sum of all our experiences – Good and Bad. I fail to see how we can truly understand someone if we remain ignorant to their struggles and accomplishments.

    2. Chris, the quote in context does add a little more dimension to the statement about criticizing leaders. However, Oaks uses distractions that are simply not comparable to what his extended quote seems to be saying. He is talking about current leaders, it would seem, but then jumps to historical figures. He is trying to conflate the two circumstances to lay a foundation for hiding historical facts about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. He says some truths are not very useful, like an affair that G. Washington may have had in his youth. He doesn’t want to hear this? Who cares what he wants to hear? It may not be useful for understanding Washington as a general or president, but it may be useful in understanding him as a person. This kind of a thing is not even what Oaks’s church is trying to hide by not letting people talk or write about unflattering historical issues. The historical difficulties in JS’s life have direct bearing on whether or not he can be trusted about how this church began. The historical difficulties speak directly to whether or not JS can be trusted. Translating the BofM with a magic rock in a hat while the plates were in the woods, marrying other men’s wives and teaching that God required this, saying the book of Abraham came from the Egytian papyrus, and so on. It is fraud to possess, not only the knowledge of these facts, but the very documents that prove them true and then to do anything to hide them from members or potential members. Yet, this is exactly what they have done.

      I don’t think it is right to insist that leaders should not have to answer for their past either. When nothing bad can be said about leaders in public, it gives the Mormon masses the misconception that these men are perfect which they admit they are not…only when they get caught in contradiction or other difficulties. The problem is Mormon leaders have said they speak for God but have then done a complete 180 on an issue later. Then they say they are not perfect until they want the masses to follow them. Then all the sudden they a speaking for God again. This game is catching up to them for many people.

    3. Thank you Chris for adding this to the conversation. But I find it much more disturbing than the original. I find authoritarianism more tolerable in church authorities than the denigration of truth shown in this statement. I agree with Lori and Mikkel.

      True believers don’t testify of the usefulness of the church, but that it is true. If the church is not true, I don’t care that it is useful. Truth (and knowledge) is not good simply because it is useful in bringing about some other good. It essentially is good. For many it is the highest good. Aristotle says that happiness is virtue and the highest virtue is the contemplation of truth. To want half-truths or anything less than full truth is to deny the primacy of truth itself. Even if it is (at least temporarily) faith promoting. And just because the bar association code of ethics allows advocates to conceal the whole truth doesn’t mean that truth isn’t useful or valuable in and of itself.

      That Oaks would privilege the dishonest hagiography of a Parson Weems over a true biography calls into question not only his knowledge of the founding fathers but his devotion to them. He supports a false idealized version of reality not the reality itself. Not truth. Elder Oak’s approach to the truth about the founding fathers can’t help but bleed over into his approach to knowledge and understanding of the church, its leaders, and its doctrine. And his approach, as in his talk, can’t help but bleed over into values and sanctioned approaches of the membership of the church.

      I think that the church, in the exodus of members who, discovering the truth about Mormon history get angry, lose faith and leave the church, is reaping the fruit from the seeds that Elder Oaks and Packer (and before them, Joseph Fielding Smith, Mark E. Peterson and Bruce R. McConkie) have sewn with their version of useful truth and faith promoting history.

      There is a strong movement right now in philosophy called virtue epistemology. It deals with our duties and responsibilities, virtues and vices, and obligations to knowledge and truth. The position Elder Oaks presents fails to meet our basic obligation to the truth. I don’t care about his failures as a person, we all have our vices, but for an Apostle of Jesus Christ to claim to not want to know the truth because it’s not useful is simply frightening.

  7. I find it easier not to criticize the leaders when I focus on my ward and invest little attention in anyone above my own bishop. Treating my church as the community of people I personally interact with is much healthier for me. I expect very little from people whom I do not know and who do not know me.

  8. I certainly DO think that knowing failures in professional performance are pertinent to my confidence & level of loyalty to a leader – and past MORAL failures are definitely predictors of future moral failures. If you want my support & admiration, your past is going to effect my ability to have faith in you as a leader. That is the difference in Oaks’ generation vs this generation. The embarrassing stuff is kept ‘hush hush’….as we read the cute little stories that make them look so worthy of our adoration. Sorry, but if Washington had an affair as a teenager, I am going to include that fact in my judgement of him, just as much as knowing he didn’t lie about the cherry tree. It does not mean someone has to be perfect – but leaving out personal failures is dishonest. This generation is NOT willing to do it anymore. When I read Monson’s biography, I noticed it blatantly did not include anything about his son’s sexual harassment case. Sorry, but leaving out an embarrassing, hurtful part of his life was typical of LDS Inc.’s ‘Sins of Omission’. Keeping the negative stuff secret is not going to be accepted today.

  9. I’m with you on this John. Although I no longer follow your stuff much (you kicked me off your Facebook page), I trust you and know how sensitive you are to these issues. I am personally far more critical, far more cynical (no doubt why you kicked me off your Facebook page) about LDS leadership–such as it is.

    I do want to point out here something that you said above about the church being “global,” and that is “not so much.” It’s accurate to say that the church exists in other countries, but the term “global” indicates something else entirely. A global church would be like Roman Catholicism, embracing other cultures and allowing people to think for themselves. I spent a few years in Kinshasa, DR Congo, and my house was right near the temple. I got to see first-hand what Mormonism is in one country in Africa. I’ve been a stake leader in Germany, a district counselor in Italy, and ward leader in a military ward in Japan. I can say that the church is not and will not be “global,” and will only simply exist in other countries, attempting to overlay its American ideology and mentality on peoples that will never be able to take it in. You also have to remember that there are only between 2.5 to 2.7 million truly active Mormons world-wide, a good number of them merely New-Order Mormons who don’t really believe but practice, anyway.

    1. Cute, Michael Tweedy. I clicked on your name and it took my the Italian site ‘libero’ — lol! Those were the SUG days, eh.

    2. Michael, thank you for sharing your unique perpectives and opinions. I must contradict you, however, regarding the number of active LDS. Your estimates are roughly half of the actual activity measures. No worries, though. Almost every blog, site, etc., underestimates LDS activity numbers and overestimates name removals and excommunications. I know. I work in the statistical department of the Church. Also, while the Church does have practices and policies that are standardized worldwide, it is my experience that there are definite societal variations in how the gospel is practiced worldwide. That is my experience from working with worldwide Church areas day in and day out. You are free to disagree.

  10. I’ve watched TSM intently over the past few years, and I can’t see any signs of dementia. I was, in fact, surprised by how sharp he seemed a CG or two ago.

  11. John… Do you know where I could get North Logan LDS Stake President Bryan C. King’s e-mail address? I would love to be able to send him an e-mail on how your podcasts have been instrumental in my faith journey in Mormonism. I would like to encourage others to do the same.

  12. I have no desire to see the church destroyed, as I’ve benefited tremendously from many of its teachings, my years of activity, and my associations with some outstanding individuals. However, I can personally attest to the unhealthy/negative effects of growing up in a family that doesn’t allow its members to discuss problems and seek solutions. Right now, the church seems to operate a lot like that family of origin. I’d like to see the institution evolve. The dialog that John and others have initiated is, I believe (or hope) part of that evolution.

  13. My experience is that if you say something about leadership, even if it is true, they label you as rebellious.
    And then everyone starts to lecture you on supporting your leaders no matter what and they remind you no one is perfect, to justify the bad choices and actions of some people in leadership. These phrases have been repeated over,and over and have become tradition in the church. They have replaced good judgement, common sense and even the guidance of the spirit some need, to learn to discern between truth and error.

    Instead of choosing to learn to discern, most people are choosing to trust blindly without questioning at all. What they perceive as supporting their leaders, have become on what I call “idolizing their leaders,” like they were God himself, or like if they were Hollywood celebrities. Another form of idolatry, since only God deserves to have all of our trust and we have been commanded not to put our trust in the arm of the flesh. We are supposed to support “good leaders,” not everybody. In order to discern if we have good leaders, we need to question to receive answers.

  14. Denver Snuffer wrote a chapter in “Come Let Us Adore Him” about Christ’s confrontion with the scribes and Pharisees, here are just a few quotes that I think fit well in this discussion:

    “When any social structure prohibits criticism, controls all dissent, and demands the authorities alone decide all questions facing them, the result is invariably evil. Monolithic thought arising from stifled ideas is Satanic. Christ not only understood this, He came to the social structure which best exemplified the problem. These were the only people who would have killed Him. Christ broke social conventions throughout His ministry because they needed to be broken. On this occasion He went into the house controlled by the scribes and Pharisees, and directly attacked their pretended authority. He distinguished between their right to preside (which He did not challenge), and their assumed exclusive right to teach and interpret scripture (which He utterly rejected). He knew they would never allow this challenge. ”

    ” Anytime men try to control others, invariably the endeavor for control involves stifling dissent and criticism. Those who claim the right to rule over others try to reduce all disputes to a question of authority. The discussion about who has “the” authority makes the question of whether an idea is right or wrong inconsequential. ”

    ” Criticism was unthinkable. Followers needed to be careful to dispense only praise about them. No matter how foolish, vain, unwise or wrong their conduct, they did not accept correction. Errors of course compound themselves, foolishness multiplies, and vanity grows whenever teachers are unchecked by constructive criticism. The only thing that grows in that kind of stifled, intellectual environment is false religion. In such a corrosive setting none of the participants were able to see how completely darkened their minds had become.”

  15. I live in California and I have a lot of open dialogue about a lot of issues with a lot of people.

    I know a few people already on the fringe of Mormonism who are against some of these ex communications.

    I don’t know a single person in the mainstream of the church who is sympathetic to Dehlin nor Kelly.

    I highly doubt this “hurts” the church at all. The doctrine may hurt the church if hurting means affecting tax status and making the church less popular in the eyes of mainstream culture – but the excommunication will have very little if any effect.

    (As opposed to Prop 8 which did hurt the church and affected mainstream members in a negative way)

    1. I think it hurts the church when they lose more and more of their most educated and intelligent members, especially those who are female. Those running the church may think “good riddance,” but I think in the long run the church will be weaker, not stronger, by doing this.

      1. Gordon Banks, your comments make me think of the late historian Arnold Toynbee’s prophetic 1967 commencement address to the University of Utah during the Vietnam War, where warned LDS, US and USSR leaders to beware of three sins: Pride, Idolatry and Impatience. Regarding the young people of these respective institutions he said: “You could get rid of the problem of the Sioux and perhaps live happily ever after in South Dakota. But you cannot get rid of the problem of the Vietnamese like that; you can never come to the end of the Russians and the Chinese; and I doubt whether the elimination of the Sioux is going to make it possible for you to live happily ever after even in South Dakota; for to live happily, you have to be living on good terms with your own children; and you cannot get rid of these by repudiating them; YOUR CHILDREN HAVE A BETTER CHANCE OF GETTING RID OF YOU BY DROPPING OUT. Your American problem in your generation is not how to deal with non-human nature; it is the problem of dealing with your fellow human beings—with your children on the one hand and with your Asian and Russian [and I would add Islamic!] neighbors on the other—and, for coping with human problems, the man of action’s impatience is no virtue at all; on the contrary, it is a failing that leads one into making those mistakes that can be worse than crimes, as some cynic once aptly said… Compared to coping with your children, coping with the Vietnamese is child’s play….To judge by my personal experience, neither an aggressive nor a defensive attitude towards one’s children will save the situation if one finds oneself in danger of losing one’s children through their dropping out. The approach to a solution perhaps lies in reconsidering one’s attitude towards one’s own way of life and towards oneself. If one’s way of life is under judgment by one’s children, this suggests that it may be ripe for being re-assessed by oneself as well, and, perhaps, in the light of re-assessment, for being re-modeled.”

  16. Could Pres. Monson’s health be creating a leadership vacuum? Maybe. Then again, one needs to remember that, so long as Pres. Monson is still alive, whatever his physical or mental condition may be, the First Presidency is still intact, and they trump the Quorum of the Twelve, and they especially trump any individual member of the Twelve. I think while most listeners to this podcast (and by extension) readers of this blog may take exception to some of the activities of Pres. Packer, they take great comfort in the stands taken by Pres. Eyring and Pres. Uchtdorf, so for the time being, at least, they can keep him in check. If Pres. Packer somehow outlives Pres. Monson (which I think, at this point, is unlikely), it remains to be seen how that would impact the balance of power, but I think we can breathe somewhat easily for the time being.

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