Sometimes it can be quite interesting and even perplexing watching the church as it does (and does not change) over time. When I was much younger, I assumed that all the doctrines were solidly nailed down, or maybe even screwed down, to the floor and all that was left was just adjusting a few policy and organizational detailed “accessories” around the room.
But as I have grown older (my kids would say “much older”), I have seen many changes occur and I can’t even come up with a definition of doctrine that seems to tidy up everything.
I have noticed some tendencies that the church leadership has such as a strong desire to not be seen as bending to public pressure. Lately as I study the church over time I do see one trait is that their Modus Operandi – or “MO” – is often to not clearly call out a change, but to change a direction/teaching/policy/doctrine and just generally ignore the way it used to be.
I recall earlier in my lifetime hearing near fire and brimstone preaching even in General Conference about such things as birth control being contrary to the will of God and women working outside the home will cause a quick disintegration of families. In just a few decades later, all of the wives of my recent bishops have worked outside the home and the same can be said for most of the other member’s of the bishopric. It didn’t seem to be because they were in poverty. One member of a bishopric was a stay at home dad and his wife worked a successful corporate job. I had a friend that is a currently serving bishop tell his daughter just after she was engaged, “we need to get you into get you setup with some good birth control”.
None of these changes were ever “superseded” in a way that your average member could see that a big change had taken place. Nothing like, “Oh in 1982 they seemed to change direction on this issue.” I would guess that all of my kids (all adults) probably don’t even know that the church used to be adamantly against birth control. What I see is more of a pattern of starting to talk about something in a different way and never mention what the old direction/teaching/policy/doctrine was. This of course sometimes had to be done slowly over time, as in generations even.
Now of course items that don’t really have “baggage” are just announced and the church moves on as expected. I didn’t sense anybody felt the church had been in the wrong for decades when they change in missionary age. That is not the type of change I am focusing on.
I think this MO was actually effective for most of the church’s existence. Take women giving blessings. I have been reading a few historical books around the early church and even a few decades into the Utah period. I am just amazed at how women were blessing all over the place. It wasn’t just limited to situations like when a woman was in labor and might not want a few men standing around. It was more that women would plan on having “blessing get togethers”. If they visited a friend they would lay their hands on (sometimes even with oil from what I gather) and give a blessing before they parted. If someone in the past few years read all the current church publications, they would probably never hear about this. It was just never talked about as everyone new that only worthy Melchizedek priesthood holder can do that! A bit like the “Memory Hole” in George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I don’t find that this MO is publicly disclosed. But you can see traces in the talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer in 1981 titled, “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect”. In this he gives instructions to not repeat in any way things that are in print that are negative toward the church. Just because someone else has stated it does not mean you repeat or reference it. He states, “Don’t perpetuate the unworthy, the unsavory, or the sensational. Some things that are in print go out of print, and the old statement ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ might apply.” It seems he is giving a fairly strong hint of “ignore it and it (might) eventually go away”. In this address he all but admits there are historical issues that can “hurt” people’s faith in the church.
There were a few times where this MO didn’t work. For example the teaching of Brigham Young about Adam-God. Several offshoot religious groups kept this floating around and eventually this forced Elder Bruce R. McConkie to talk about it and he labeled it a “heresy”. Even President Kimball stated, “We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.”
And of course there are two big issues that the church wishes would go away down the memory hole: Polygamy and the Priesthood and Temple ban on Blacks.
But then the Internet happened.
Suddenly you didn’t have to go visit Lighthouse Ministries in Salt Lake to get books and learn about the items that church leaders wish would stay swept under the rug of time. This made the MO of “just stop talking about it” MUCH less effective.
In fact to me it feels that most of the Gospel Topics Essays are ceding ground that the church had already lost – issues that anybody could find with a simple Google search (and often clear proof that it wasn’t just “anti-Mormon lies”). The essays are an attempt to shine the best possible light on the topics as a defensive move, not simply an altruistic move toward historical openness.
But going back to one of the two “big” items that the church is still wrestling with – race in the church. I had already started this blog post when I started reading a book just released by Dr. Joanna Brooks called, “Mormonism and White Supremacy.”
The following quote jumped out at me:
Like most difficult subjects in Mormon history and practice, the anti-Black priesthood and temple ban has been managed carefully in LDS institutional settings with a combination of avoidance, denial, selective truth telling, determined silence, and opportunistic redirection. Most white Mormons have believed and hoped that by looking forward and doing better, the ban and its legacy would take care of themselves. We told ourselves that new, more cosmopolitan (albeit white) Church leaders would endorse tolerance, love, and compassion; newly sensitized Church media would begin to feature images of Mormonism’s growing diversity; and old doctrinal folklore would fade out with the passing generations. The past did not have to be reckoned with, undone, or confronted. It could simply be outlived if we turned our faces toward Zion.
Brooks, Joanna. Mormonism and White Supremacy (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
The statement of “avoidance, denial, selective truth telling, determined silence, and opportunistic redirection” sure sounded like it lines up with my assumption of the MO of the church on issues it wants to leave behind.
I can see one reason for this MO. That is that church leadership does not want to say in any way that previous church leaders were wrong. It is easy to see how doing so might lessen some members view of the prophet and top leaders. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone thinking, “If the prophet was so wrong on the priesthood and temple ban for black members, could they be just as wrong on the current LGBTQ+ issues?” They make it nebulous and don’t point a finger directly. Note that even in the Adam-God topic that the leaders were very careful not to say anything like, “Brigham Young got this one wrong.” 
Does it appear to you that the church has an oft-used MO of “just stop talking about it”?
If so, do you think it generally was working and did the Internet markedly decrease the effective this of this technique?
Can you think of other items where the church leadership as a whole stopped talking about certain topics?
 The Race and the Priesthood Gospel Topic essay does seem to go as far as to say that Brigham Young was influenced on the topic of race by the society he was in – and some do take that as “Brigham Young made a mistake”.