A Salt Lake City-based television station reported yesterday that Elder Dallin H. Oaks addressed Church responsibility in recent LGBT Mormon deaths. A few days ago, Elder Oaks was at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., speaking about… wait for it… religious freedom. In a Q&A session following the address, Andrew Evans (an attendee) posed this question:
Less than a year ago, right here in Washington, D.C., my friend killed himself. He was Mormon and gay. You’ve gone on record that the church does not give apologies. Does religious freedom absolve you from responsibility in the gay Mormon suicide crisis?
The news article summarizes Elder Oaks response with “That’s a question that will be answered on judgment day,” and “I will be accountable to a higher authority for that.”
At first blush, Elder Oaks appears to take a measure of accountability. For many who struggle with the recent handbook policy changes and concerning reports of repercussions in the LGBT Mormon community, a church official recognizing and taking a measure of responsibility for those repercussions is surprising. However, I don’t really think this brief summary adequately portrays what Elder Oaks said. The news article later gives Elder Oaks’ response in full:
I think that’s a question that will be answered on judgment day. I can’t answer that beyond what has already been said. I know that those tragic events happen.
And it’s not unique simply to the question of sexual preference. There are other cases where people have taken their own lives and blamed a church-my church-or a government, or somebody else for their taking their own lives, and I think those things have to be judged by a higher authority than exists on this earth.
And I am ready to be accountable to that authority, but I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another so that people will not feel driven, whatever the policy disagreements, whatever the rules of the church, or the practices of a church, or any other organization, if they are administered with kindness, at the highest level or at the level of the congregation or the ward, they won’t drive people to take those extreme measures.
That’s part of my responsibility to teach that. And beyond that, I will be accountable to higher authority for that. That’s the way I look on that. Nobody is sadder about a case like that than I am. Maybe that’s a good note to end on.
Elder Oaks begins by recognizing the tragic nature of the events, and that suicides are often blamed on churches, governments, or other organizations. He indicates that the organization’s involvement in those deaths can only be determined by God. I previously wrote about the complex issues playing into depression and suicide. It is indeed very difficult to sort through the various factors, and I believe Elder Oaks is correct in stating that God is the only entity capable of determining the amount of influence anything played in a suicide.
Elder Oaks states he will be accountable to God, presumably in his position as a leader of the institution that may or may not have factored into that death. This is where the response looks promising, if it weren’t for that “but….”
Elder Oaks explains that his responsibility is to “teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another.” As long as the “policy disagreements,” “rules of the church,” or “practices of the church” are “administered with kindness,” then “they won’t drive people to take those extreme measures.” There’s the rub as I see it. Elder Oaks is not claiming accountability for policies, rules, or practices that may contribute to the deaths. He claims accountability for whether or not those policies, rules, or practices are “administered with kindness” from the highest leadership levels all the way down.
Teaching people to be loving, civil, and sensitive to everyone is wonderful. John Gustav-Wrathall, president of Affirmation, recommended churchmembers do just that in a recent Deseret News op-ed: “Church leaders and members can, regardless of what the policy is, make a concrete, positive difference in the lives of LGBT people both in and outside of the church by creating a safe social environment where everyone is cherished, by including individuals in the circle of our friendship, and by seeking to listen and understand.”
Elder Oaks bears responsibility to teach people to be nice about rule enforcement. In his view, as long as members are kind in enforcing the rules, people won’t be driven to take their own lives. So the danger lies in how individual members enforce the rules. The problem is not with the rules, it’s with what individual members do with those rules.
I’m pretty sure when Andrew Evans asked Elder Oaks his question, he wasn’t concerned as much with how the rules were enforced as much as the rules themselves. Regular members can’t do anything about the rules, so all we can control is how nice we are with enforcing them. Elder Oaks is in a position where it looks like he should be able to do something about the rules. That is why it looks like he should be accountable for the damage done by the rules themselves, regardless of how nicely they are enforced.
The problem? You are accountable only inasmuch as you have power. So the question is, does Elder Oaks view himself as having power to change the rules? The answer, of course, is no. Can Church leaders, on their own, decide to change the rules? The answer, of course, is no. Leaders believe they operate according to God’s rules, which they do not have power to change. So if these are God’s rules ultimately causing harm, where does the responsibility belong? The onus is on God, not the Church.
That’s the ultimate dilemma. If the policy is inspired, as official records state, then God holds accountability for the inherent damage the rules inflict. Individual church leaders and members hold accountability for being kind, civil, and sensitive in enforcing the rules. The Church then, as an institution, is absolved of any responsibility in damages from the rules and enforcement thereof.