Elder Oaks has a reputation for being one of the most conservative members of the Quorum of the Twelve. I believe this reputation comes largely from his impersonal, “laying down the law” style rhetoric. Over the years however, I have found a number of liberal ideas in his sermons. I’ve compiled a few of them here in an attempt to ease some of the liberal angst currently swirling around this great man.
Today’s guest post is from Nate.
No Other Gods: A New Approach to the Same-Sex Marriage Question?
Elder Oaks’ recent address “No Other Gods” provoked much ire in the bloggernacle. At best, liberals described the talk as “hard to hear,” or a “painfully black-and-white assessment of the alleged evils of same-sex marriage” and at worst they accused Elder Oaks of being “a bigoted, homophobic, hate filled bully.”
However, these critiques missed one of the most important themes of the talk, a theme that is comparatively liberal. Throughout the talk, Elder Oaks makes clear “us versus them” distinctions between the church and the outside world: “For Latter-day Saints, God’s commandments are based on…” “… this gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective…” “We remain under covenant to keep commandments…even if they become (unpopular) in our particular time and place.” “Our beliefs compel us to some different choices and behaviors than theirs.”
The emphasis on our “unique perspectives,” our “covenants” and “beliefs which compel” us to be different, reorients the dialogue into a new space of respectful and non-judgmental disagreement with Gentiles, very different to the traditional “proclamation to the world” tone, warning of calamities, and emphasizing universality, which still dominates the rhetoric other apostles use when addressing the subject. In this regard, Elder Oaks’ address was one of the more progressive talks on the subject we’ve had.
Elder Oak’s talk Truth and Tolerance is usually seen as an attack on tolerance. However, I believe that both liberals and conservatives are misunderstanding a central position in his talk, a position which is surprisingly liberal:
Our Savior also taught that His followers will have tribulation in the world, that their numbers and dominions will be small, and that they will be hated because they are not of the world. But that is our role. We are called to live with other children of God who do not share our faith or our values and who do not have the covenant obligations we have assumed. Since followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to be a leaven—not to be taken out of the world, but to remain in it—we must seek tolerance from those who hate us for not being of the world. As part of this, we will sometimes need to challenge laws that would impair our freedom to practice our faiths, doing so in reliance on our constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.
Central to Elder Oaks view on tolerance, is that we are to see ourselves as a peculiar minority within a larger body which does not share our values, from whom we seek tolerance for our views, just as we are respectful and tolerant of their right to believe as they wish. This idea of being a small minority is essential to understanding the rest of his sermon, in which we see ourselves primarily engaged in a defensive posture, protecting ourselves, and our small religion, from attacks from the larger outside world, who would like us to conform to them. Our position is defensive, not offensive. And that is actually a very liberal perspective. Like anthropologists who defend the antiquated values of a small Indian tribe from the conformist forces of Western Culture, liberals would do well to defend the right of our church to be as conservative as we want to be, as this enhances the broader diversity of our culture. So in order for us to be the minority “salt of the world” we have to be intolerant of the intolerant, conformist forces of Western Culture, which would take away our savor, just as an Indian tribe must fight against the forces of change which would efface their own identity. In the case of a minority tribe or religion, intolerance becomes a liberal ideal.
Apologetics: We’ll Call it a Draw
Elder Oaks gave a remarkable talk to FARMS in 1993, where he said this:
In fact, it is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Its authenticity depends, as it says, on a witness of the Holy Spirit. Our side will settle for a draw, but those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot settle for a draw.
This is a very liberal statement indeed. If one had not known it came from an apostle, one might have thought it had come from one of those New Order Mormons. For generations, church culture, apologetics, and correlated material has presented the historical truths of Mormonism winning by a landslide, when compared rationally with anti-Mormon claims. Here however, Elder Oaks is admitting that in a solely rational context, our side doesn’t win at all. The best we can do is settle for a draw. There is compelling evidence both for, and against the Book of Mormon, and only a spiritual witness can break the tie. I can’t think of another General Authority who as ever said anything so bluntly anti-apologetic. I believe Elder Oaks’ liberal approach to historicity may have influenced the dramatic shift away from an almost exclusively apologetic approach at FARMS, to the more inclusive and broad blend of Mormon Studies at the current Maxwell Institute.
Mistakes Are Not Sins
Sins and Mistakes is my favorite sermon of Elder Oaks, and I come back to it again and again when teaching about the atonement and the Plan of Salvation in church. I can’t emphasize just how heaven-sent I feel this particular sermon has been to elevating so much of the unnecessary guilt and judgement we inflict upon ourselves and others. It’s a generous, liberal, compassionate doctrine, and one I think should be incorporated more fully into all of our discussions of the atonement.
Fallibility: “It does not matter that the criticism is true”
Elder Oaks’ council that members should not criticize their leaders, “even when that criticism is true” was met with considerable liberal opposition. However, hidden in this conservative statement, is a frank, almost liberal admission: that criticism of church leaders is often true. Elsewhere in the sermon, Elder Oaks relates a number of times when church prophets and other leaders have been wrong and made mistakes. He quotes Brigham Young, who had concerns about errors Joseph Smith was falling into:
He was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. … He was God’s servant, and not mine.
What is important for Elder Oaks is not infallibility, a vague faith that, “God will never allow the prophet to be led astray,” but authority: we follow our leaders even in their fallibility. And this was stated in 1987, decades before Elder Uchtdorf’s recent admission of prophetic fallibility.
OK, Elder Oaks is Actually Conservative
In spite of all of this, I recognize that Elder Oaks is of course quite conservative. But not in an imbalanced way. He strikes me as enormously intelligent, spiritual, and wise. His perspectives are often different than mine, but he so frequently surprises, challenges and inspires me, that I feel a great respect for him. I don’t think liberals should underestimate him. He understands us more than we know, and beneath the seemingly harsh, legalistic rhetoric, is a very true, loving heart.