This is another set of reflections on the recent General Conference, this time focusing on President Nelson’s closing remarks on Sunday afternoon. Let’s start with a positive observation: It is nice that Pres. Nelson is now using this time to inform the membership about upcoming events and changes directly — as opposed to through a Newsroom press release that few members will notice or a First Presidency letter to local leaders that a member might or might not hear read, once, over the pulpit. If you are an optimist, that’s another step towards transparency.

Two topics were addressed in those closing remarks. Pres. Nelson told us that the next General Conference “will be different from any previous conference.” He also stated that “the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year” because it includes is the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. My guess is that all of the apostles will travel to Palmyra and that’s where Conference will be held, with their remarks broadcast to the general membership just as they have always been from Salt Lake City. What’s exciting about this plan, if indeed something like this is what transpires, is there will lots of LDS history topics discussed. They might even let the Church Historian speak. Maybe even about LDS history. Going out on a limb, it is even possible (remotely) that an LDS historian or two would be invited to address the congregation. Let thy prayers so ascend to heaven.

The other topic Pres. Nelson addressed was changes to the LDS temple recommend (“TR”) questions. He states: “Some of those questions have recently been edited for clarity.” In another step toward transparency, he then read the entire text of the newly edited questions, all fifteen of them, which take effect immediately. As they are now published in the text version of his talk posted at LDS.org, I’m going to go ahead and quote them here:

  1. Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost?
  2. Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and of His role as your Savior and Redeemer?
  3. Do you have a testimony of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
  4. Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys?Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local leaders of the Church?
  5. The Lord has said that all things are to be “done in cleanliness” before Him (Doctrine and Covenants 42:41).Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?Do you obey the law of chastity?
  6. Do you follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ in your private and public behavior with members of your family and others?
  7. Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
  8. Do you strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, both at home and at church; attend your meetings; prepare for and worthily partake of the sacrament; and live your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?
  9. Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?
  10. Are you a full-tithe payer?
  11. Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?
  12. Do you have any financial or other obligations to a former spouse or to children?If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?
  13. Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple, including wearing the temple garment as instructed in the endowment?
  14. Are there serious sins in your life that need to be resolved with priesthood authorities as part of your repentance?
  15. Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?

Now “edited for clarity” suggests minor changes in wording that do not change the meaning or import of the questions. The disclaimer suggests the leadership have no intention of changing the way the questions have been understood and applied in the past. That’s problematic because, based on many, many first-person reports of individual members who interact with local leaders, there is significant variation in how local leaders understand and apply the questions. If by clarity the senior leadership means less diversity and more uniformity by local leadership in how the questions are presented and applied, this talk won’t do it. They need to send a ten-page letter to all locals and spell out what the boundaries of each question are and what they can or cannot, should or should not, inquire into. As far as I know, they have not provided any such clarity to local leaders. So by clarity they don’t mean uniformity. They are apparently perfectly fine with bishop roulette. So am I. Like Sartre said, we all get the bishop we deserve. If you are troubled because your bishop is a hard-a## conservative, you shouldn’t have moved to Utah.

Really, if your intent is to not change the meaning or application of the questions, you don’t change anything. So to the extent that “edited for clarity” is suggesting that nothing has changed, I think they are practicing the art of dissimulation. They want to change a few things while claiming they aren’t changing anything. That’s certainly easier than acknowledging there are changes, identifying what they have changed, and explaining why they changed it.

Let’s look at two of the changes-not-changes. First, Question 11: “Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?” That’s kind of ironic, because I’ll bet 99% of local leaders asking the question don’t understand the Word of Wisdom. I doubt many GA’s understand the Word of Wisdom. It may be the case that no one understands the Word of Wisdom. Ask a local for an explanation, and you will get a couple of answers, both wrong: (1) It is D&C 89. No, because many suggestions in that text are conveniently ignored, and the ones that are applied don’t make any sense. “Hot drinks” includes iced tea but not hot chocolate? If the English words in the text aren’t taken to mean what they mean in English, then it makes no sense to appeal to the text of D&C 89 as somehow explaining or defining the Word of Wisdom. (2) It is the Lord’s Law of Health. No, because lots of unhealthy foods and practices are perfectly fine, and some of the proscribed items offer health benefits. Energy drinks are allowed and tea is prohibited. Caffeinated sodas are allowed but decaf coffee is not. This only makes sense as an arbitrary list of do and don’ts, not as any law of health.

So here is the closest one can come to explaining and understanding the Word of Wisdom as it has developed over time and how it actually operates in the Church: The Word of Widsom is an arbitrary set of food prohibitions applied to members of the Church in order to create social distance between members and non-members, to create an impression of moral cleanliness for admission to LDS temples, and to foster the habit of obedience to directives of LDS leadership. I’m fairly confident you will not get an answer like that from any leader. And before you post your knee-jerk disagreement with that statement, go read Thomas Alexander on early-20th-century development of the Word of Wisdom and Armand Mauss on assimilation and retrenchment.

What is revealing, of course, is the use of the term “obey” in the revised question. You don’t obey a book or a text. You obey a person issuing a command or directive, hence the last clause of my definition. It’s not about D&C 89 or health, it’s about obeying priesthood leadership. They say, “Don’t do coffee, tea, cigars and cigarettes, and illegal drugs.” You say, “I comply.” That’s it.

The second change worth looking at is Question 13: “Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple, including wearing the temple garment as instructed in the endowment?” I’m not going to go into so much detail on this one. There has been a lot of discussion on this on social media and elsewhere. On the one hand it clearly identifies temple garment requirements as an “instruction,” not a covenant, but also tries to use that clause as one item in the larger group of “covenants that you made in the temple.” Clarity, not.

In an email the Church sent out to the general membership the day after Conference concluded, the revised questions were again stated and, in addition, the text of a First Presidency letter sent to all senior and local leaders was attached. That letter again repeats the new questions, but also includes a revised two-paragraph section titled “Wearing the Temple Garment,” as follows:

The temple garment is a reminder of covenants made in the temple and, when worn properly throughout life, will serve as a protection against temptation and evil. The garment should be worn beneath the outer clothing. It should not be removed for activities that can reasonably be done while wearing the garment, and it should not be modified to accommodate different styles of clothing. Endowed members should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to answer personal questions about wearing the garment.

It is a sacred privilege to wear the garment and doing so is an outward expression of an inner commitment to follow the Savior Jesus Christ.

The phrase “day and night” no longer appears in that explanation. Make of that what you will. The new wording appears to be delegating a fair amount of discretion to the individual members: “Endowed members should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to answer personal questions about wearing the garment.” Only time will tell to what extent local leadership will actually defer to the individual member’s authority to make those personal decisions.

And we might as well repeat the initial paragraph of instructions to those local leaders about how to conduct TR interviews, also part of the First Presidency letter:

As leaders conduct temple recommend interviews, they should not omit, add to, or modify any of the temple recommend questions. However, they may adapt the discussion in an interview to the understanding of the member and respond to his or her questions, especially with youth and new members. As directed by the Spirit, they may teach basic doctrine and correct principles. They should not present personal beliefs, preferences, or interpretations

That seems like stronger language against moral fishing expeditions than I have seen in the past. But again, only time will tell whether local leaders honor these clear directives and limitations on how they conduct TR interviews.

Conclusion. Two cheers for transparency, first in stating the text of the TR questions publicly in Conference, then for sending the First Presidency letter out to all the full membership via email. That’s why I could comfortably quote all those items above. We ought to applaud such positive changes in how the Church does business. I think some of the TR question changes raise new questions rather than providing clarity, but that should play out over the next year or two. Don’t show up to your next TR interview in a tank top with a cup of coffee your hand. But more generally, the changes do seem to relax certain items that were previously assumed to apply, as well as seeming to grant individual members a little more authority to make their own decisions on some items.