In this week’s post, I would love to talk about the Super Bowl (did you see the P-51 Mustang leading the USAF pregame flyover?) or the Olympics (wasn’t that Italian duo in the curling mixed doubles event awesome?) or just one of the usual Mormon topics (wow, eyeroll, that Gospel Doctrine lesson last week …). But no, I’m going to talk about the Brad Wilcox talk to a tri-stake youth fireside in Alpine, Utah last week, because it seems to be a big deal and everyone else in the online Mormon world is talking about it. But I’ll try to not to rehash the earlier W&T posts and discussions on the Wilcox talk. Instead, I’ll take a step back and take a broader view with something like a middle position. First, what do you teach LDS youth? And how do you teach it? At least for the true youth of the Church (high school age, Seminary age, the kind that go to firesides) that’s a tougher question than you think. Second, Wilcox is taking all the heat, but the problem runs much broader and deeper than just one talk. It leads quickly to the related problem of why so many LDS youth and young adults are leaving the LDS Church. Going inactive, just not interested anymore, actively not interested, passionately uninterested, vocally and aggressively opposed — the reactions run the whole spectrum, but however you describe it, a lot more of that younger cohort, the next generation of the LDS Church, have simply lost interest and gone away. Is the leadership-directed template that Correlation and CES use to teach LDS youth the problem? Is the problem with the doctrine rather than how it is packaged and taught? Is the problem generational and societal, not just an LDS problem?
I can’t very well write this post without actually listening to the talk that Wilcox delivered, so give me a minute. [If that link goes dead, you can search “Alpine Utah Tri-Stake Fireside Brad Wilcox” and find it somewhere.] … [Two hours later} … Okay, I’m back. Most of the talk was standard fare for an LDS youth fireside, energetic and upbeat and entertaining and instructive in a teach-the-youth sort of way. He used a gospel acronym G-O-S-P-E-L to talk about Godhead, Only True Church, the Spirit, Priesthood (this was what caused all the trouble, see below), Everyone can get the Mormon gospel (even dead people), and Living Prophets. I can see why he’s a popular speaker for LDS youth. A couple of initial observations:
(1) Yes, he was off-base in tone and off-base on his facts when talking about the priesthood — like most LDS leaders and like most CES types. They don’t seem to realize that, to a lot of listeners, defending the race-based LDS priesthood and temple ban sound little different than white supremacists defending slavery and segregation.
(2) This was a faith crisis talk, a “please stay in the boat” talk, directed to LDS youth. Which is amazing, when you think about it. LDS leaders are publicly saying there’s no problem, that people have always left the Church and the numbers are no different now than in decades past, that the Church has never been stronger — but I never heard a “stay in the boat” talk as an LDS youth. If leaders have to give “stay in the boat” talks to LDS teenagers, the problem is worse than we think. If even the teenagers can figure out there are big problems with the Church and can think about bailing before they are even out of high school, the problem is worse than we think. Publicly, leaders say “Isn’t the Church wonderful?” Privately in closed-door meetings, it’s pretty clear they are saying, “Why are so many people just checking out? Even the teenagers!”
Stop Defending the Race-Based Priesthood and Temple Ban
His remarks on race and the LDS priesthood are what has gotten a lot of people upset. Wilcox reacted quickly when things first flared up last week, issuing a public apology. On Wednesday Feb. 8, the SL Trib ran a story under the headline “LDS leader Brad Wilcox apologizes for remarks about Black members,” which included the full text of the short apology Wilcox posted on Facebook: “My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better.“
Now, just as I am writing this post, there is a second SL Trib article, “Saying he has been ‘corrected,’ LDS leader Brad Wilcox again apologizes for his remarks on race.” The second apology was not a separate tweet or email or press release but remarks delivered as part of yet another LDS youth fireside, this one to LDS youth in Alberta, Canada. I think he’ll just incorporate that into his standard talk and deliver weekly apologies for years to come. Hey, modeling a sincere apology to LDS youth is a very positive thing. It would be even nicer if he would get his historical facts and theology straight. Really, for an LDS religion prof to get his facts and doctrine so wrong, even in a talk to LDS youth, especially in a talk to LDS youth, is a serious matter.
God Didn’t Wait Until 1978. There were several African-American men ordained to the LDS priesthood in the Joseph Smith period. They served missions. They taught in LDS congregations. They were leaders in LDS congregations. So let’s be clear: Asking, as Wilcox did, “Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978 to get the Priesthood?” is a misleading and factually incorrect statement (in the form of a question). They didn’t have to wait. They were getting the Priesthood in the 1830s. Get your facts straight.
Don’t Throw God Under the Bus. Even in his apologies, Wilcox is distressed that he got the tone or wording wrong in trying to explain “God’s timeline” for all this you-can-have-it, no-you-can’t Priesthood zig-zagging. Hey, leave God out of it! Good LDS historians (with plenty of blowback from LDS leadership) have set the historical record straight, that not only did African-American LDS men get ordained in the 1830s and 1840s, but that when in the 1850s and later LDS leaders walked that practice back and ceased further such ordinations, there was no “revelation” to authorize that change. There is no D&C section. There is no entry in a First Presidency journal or letter book. There were no contemporary diary entries reporting Brigham’s account of a revelation to change things. That Utah cohort of leaders just did it on their own initiative, thinking it was the pragmatic thing or the right thing to do. Yes, Brigham Young was a racist jerk … by 21st century standards. Not so much by 19th-century standards. But clearly this was “Brigham Young’s timeline” which was imposed on LDS doctrine and practice, not “God’s timeline.”
The Tone Thing. I’m not going to belabor this. I think every American politician realizes that race is a sensitive issue in America and that one must speak carefully when addressing the issue. Every single Mormon leader should understand that as well. (Don’t they talk about this in GA training meetings, maybe some PR expert doing 30 minutes on “Seven Things Not to Say About Race and the Priesthood”?) That holds doubly true for LDS leaders — and profs and teachers and local leaders and members — because of the LDS history of the race-based priesthood and temple ban. Just stop defending it! That’s exactly what Wilcox was doing, he was defending it to the LDS youth, who really don’t want to hear a defense of these LDS race-based exclusions along with weak and misguided justifications for the doctrine and the practice. Here’s what you do instead: (1) Acknowledge it, and get the facts straight. (2) Admit it was a mistake. (3) State how grateful everyone is that the mistake was corrected in 1978 and that since 2012 LDS leadership has forcefully and publicly repudiated the various misguided defenses of that mistaken doctrine and practice that have circulated over the years.
Another tone error was the whole segment on “play church.” Sure, it’s cute that Mormon 4-year-olds play church together in the living room. But when he jokes that that he “got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament,” I’ve got to think a lot of mothers and a lot of daughters and even some fathers think it is sad, not funny. It’s not at all a joke. These girls are growing up to be good little Mormons, excited about doing Mormon things, and at some point around age 6 or 8 or 10, they figure out boys get to do all this priesthood stuff and get compliments from leaders and visitors, and girls get … a bead or a certificate or sometimes just nothing when they turn 12 or 14 or 16. At least LDS young women can now serve missions on relatively equal terms, and the huge increase in LDS women serving when their eligibility age was dropped to 19 shows how excited they are to serve. It has been a quiet revolution for LDS young women, little remarked by the senior leadership or the locals. But that patronizing “Oh how lucky you women are, you don’t *need* the priesthood the way men do” line is just more salt in the wound. Many don’t feel lucky, they feel slighted.
What Do We Teach the Kids?
And how do we teach the kids? Here’s your word for the day: pedagogy. You teach math to second graders differently than to fifth graders or freshmen. You teach calculus differently to undergrad mathematics majors than to engineering students, and you teach it much differently to grad students. Here’s the question: What and how do we teach seminary-age LDS youth versus college-age LDS youth versus adult LDS?
Keeping Their Attention Isn’t Easy. What makes an LDS youth fireside a successful one? Well, it has to be attractive enough in terms of topic and speaker that the kids will come. And it has to be entertaining enough (or relevant or attention-grabbing, pick your adjective) to keep their attention. Newsflash: Not many LDS speakers can pull that off. Take a look at how many adults snooze through sacrament meeting or General Conference and you’ll see the bigger challenge for talking to teenagers and keeping their attention. Some of the Wilcox rhetoric — humor, some chiding, joking around a bit, inviting a young man up to the podium to make a point, adopting a bit of teen-speak here and there — that might rub an adult viewer the wrong way is exactly what makes him or others like him an effective youth speaker! Effective in the sense the kids will come listen to him and he gets and keeps their attention. A speaker who just can’t connect with the assembled youth is not the right person for the job, no matter how smart or experienced or apostolic they are. If someone thinks Brad Wilcox is a little too animated or lighthearted or gently mocking in his delivery, go watch a few pacing, ranting, gesticulating Christian tele-evangelists or the preacher at your local come-to-Jesus church.
But Get the Facts Right. Pedagogy again. Speaking to youth, sometimes you have to simplify, but don’t oversimplify. You may have to summarize, but don’t misrepresent. Use a little humor, but don’t make fun of or mock anyone. It’s a tricky business. On the one hand, teens want to be told things. On the other hand, they quickly get overwhelmed by details and tune you out. One the one hand, they think they know things. One the other hand, just try to get a teenage LDS kid to read a book on LDS history or doctrine. So I’m willing to give Brad Wilcox and others who travel the youth speaker circuit a good bit of leeway. I just wish — since the kids are actually listening to them — that they would work harder to get the facts straight. The main point is that, in fact, they have a *duty* to get the facts straight and not misrepresent them.
An Ethics of Teaching. You can talk about morality and ethics in the general sense, but specific professions and activities carry their own specific rules of ethics. Obtaining “informed consent” is a key ethical duty of doctors. Keeping client information confidential in all but the most extreme scenarios is a key ethical duty of attorneys. Well, teachers have standards and an ethic to follow as well.
A book I read a few years ago discussed the following values related to teaching or the duty of a teacher: learning, authority, ethics, order, imagination, compassion, patience, character, and pleasure. I don’t want to embark on a whole new topic, but at a minimum I’d say this means don’t teach false facts, don’t omit relevant true ones, listen to your students, encourage questions and serious reflection, and don’t belittle or mock students or others not in the room. This isn’t directed at Wilcox in particular (although I wish he’d get his facts straight) but sometimes I get the impression that LDS speakers and leaders think their office or their priesthood grants them the right to ignore any sort of ethical duty of honesty or candor or accuracy or compassion when speaking or teaching.
I didn’t get to the possible connection between bad teaching and rising inactivity. I’ll bet there are girls in his audience who played sacrament when little — and who don’t laugh at the Wilcox joke. In a few years they’ll learn that women get ordained and preach and lead congregations in other churches. Maybe you can’t flip a switch and give them the LDS priesthood, but don’t make jokes about them or belittle their sincere desire to serve. I could insert five more examples here. Bad teaching and tone deaf speaking and offensive comments aren’t the whole story of why more LDS youth are leaving the Church and not coming back, but that is certainly part of the story.
Instead of just griping, let’s think constructively about how to change things for the better. What suggestions for reform would I propose? (1) Any LDS prof or CES type who gives an off-campus presentation or fireside must provide a transcript of the remarks he or she delivered to the department chair or dean, who can make some designated faculty reviewer actually review them to make sure the Botts and Wilcoxes of the world stay within the lines of truthful, accurate, and respectful dialogue. Self-regulation is obviously not enough. We need some oversight.
Another suggestion. (2) Don’t let entertaining youth speakers do solo presentations. Send a bona fide LDS religious scholar or historian along with them. Let the Entertainer entertain the youth for 40 minutes. Then give the Expert 15 minutes to clarify and correct any misstatements, plus add a few shiny details. Sort of like good cop, bad cop.
Here’s another suggestion. (3) Every LDS parent should sit down with their kids and ask them, “Hey, did any LDS teachers or fireside speakers ever teach something that troubled you? Offended you? Made you think they were a little nuts? Made you a little embarrassed to be a Mormon?” That’s damage control. Sometimes you have to do LDS damage control.