At the most recent General Conference, there was a man in a bright orange jacket who raised his hand in dissent during the sustaining of Church officers. He was hustled out of the meeting by security and asked who his Stake President was so that his issues could be reported to his local leader. This new procedure for dissenting votes (not necessarily the security guards and removing the dissenter from the meeting) was announced by Pres. Uchtdorf in April of 2015. Later that same year, the Church announced the extremely unpopular Policy of Exclusion, barring the children of LGBT parents from baptism, a policy that was later reversed but not until many resigned their membership in frustration.

It’s an interesting policy shift. On the one hand, let’s be real, it’s been a long time since “votes” were really treated seriously. It’s also a bit unwieldy in the modern era, given the total number of Church members, and even the number of conference attendees, for every dissenting individual to get a private audience with the person to whom they object. It could also be a dangerous matter given the rising violence we are seeing in the US as individuals become more polarized, and given how many guns there are out there; you never know when someone’s going to see God as taking too long to change the leader and take matters into his (usually his) own hands. Additionally, dissenting votes at the local level or in years past when the Church was smaller were probably most likely to be based on personal knowledge of misdeeds by the objectionable person (e.g. adultery, dishonest, or just being a cantankerous a-hole). While that’s certainly a possibility still, it’s increasingly more likely that the critiques of leaders are policy-based rather than personal, and yes, politics (and policies) are personal.

But, it’s still not a good look for a Church to be visibly seen as treating dissenters roughly (the security guard problem). It’s equally disturbing that dissenting is a sure ticket to a disciplinary court, practically guaranteed because your local leaders are the ones who approved giving you the golden ticket to attend in person, and now you’ve made them look like they lack discernment. It feels like a recipe for retribution. Additionally, leaders try to present a “united front” instead of revealing the dissent in their own ranks, making it harder to object to specific individuals. This has been particularly true under the Nelson regime. E. Christofferson was forced (?) to defend the Policy of Exclusion, even though he has a gay brother and probably had mixed feelings about the policy at best. E.Holland (whose recovery we all hope for) went on the warpath against LGBTQ students and allies at BYU, encouraging the faculty to use “musket fire” to defend these unpopular positions; this may have been his view, but it eroded his popularity quite a bit as he had often been seen as one of the empathetic ones. And E. Uchtdorf had to make a public apology about having donated to Biden’s campaign, claiming that it wasn’t him after all but a family member (yeah, right). This is a business tactic often used to portray a united front which is a Potemkin Village (h/t Uchtdorf). It also erodes the hope that other views are acceptable; it creates a barrier to dissent.

Reactions to the dissenting brother in online discussions were also interesting, but split along the usual predictable lines. Former Mormons were punching the air and calling him a hero. At least one Church defender said that just based on his appearance (a beard? orange jacket?) you could tell he was not a member in good standing, and the sustaining vote is only for members in good standing. Okey-dokey. Last I checked the Lord looketh on the heart, but self-righteous randos on Twitter, not so much.

I remembered vaguely some dissenting votes from my childhood. There were dissenters when the Church opposed the ERA in the late 70s, and they essentially scuttled it from passing into law in the US. (I highly recommend the Hulu series Mrs. America for any who haven’t watched it if you’d like to know more about this). I also remember local votes with dissenters. In the case of the former, it was a policy dissent, but in the case of the latter, it was based on personal knowledge of misdeeds.

There was an interesting article detailing historical dissenting votes, and here are a few highlights:

  • In 1837, Frederick G. Williams was not unanimously sustained to the First Presidency, and he was then released the following summer with a letter explaining he was still in good standing. (wink)
  • In 1898, two men opposed the sustaining of John W. Taylor (not the later Church President). They were invited to come up to the stand at the end of the meeting to be heard and to reconcile their issues with comments Taylor had made at the prior conference. They agreed to this. Afterward, 20-25 members of the Tabernacle Choir also objected to Taylor, rising to their feet so their dissent could be noted. They likewise agreed to a meeting with Taylor after the meeting. As a result, Taylor recanted his offensive remarks, and then later resigned from the Q12 citing other reasons. This sounds like a hot mess of goss, and frankly, I am here for that.
  • In 1977, there was an opposing vote by Byron Marchant regarding the Priesthood race ban. The vote was halted and his dissent was noted. President Tanner, who had taken the vote, apologized in the following conference because some felt he had been curt. He explained: “During the last conference we had one dissenting vote, and there was some misunderstanding about it. Someone said that I treated him very curtly. I would just like to explain just what takes place if anyone or a number of people have a dissenting vote. We give them the opportunity to go to one of the General Authorities to explain to that General Authority why they feel the person is not qualified, and if he’s found not qualified, then we take the necessary action.”
  • In 1980, three women gave dissenting votes due to the Church’s anti-ERA position. The Church later released a statement: “The Church is firmly committed to equal rights for women, but opposes the proposed Equal Rights Amendment becuase of its serious moral implications.” (Seriously, watch Mrs. America, people).
  • In 2014, (then) E. Nelson admonished Church members to “sustain the prophets” and adding that these callings are not “elected” positions. “You and I do not ‘vote’ on Church leaders at any level. We do, though, have the privilege of sustaining them.” That interpretation of the sustaining vote process is certainly one that is shared by more than just Pres. Nelson, even if others have clearly felt differently about it. To me, though, it sounds a lot like Reed Smoot’s explanation of consent, that women whose husbands chose to marry additional wives could consent to it (and support it), but if they did not consent, the man was still allowed to do it. That’s a pretty bizarre definition of consent, rendering anyone with objections (even if they are founded in personal knowledge of misdeeds) utterly powerless. You can sustain, but whether you do or don’t, nothing will change. Get on the good ship Zion or GTFO.
  • And as previously mentioned, in April 2015 the process changed so that dissenters are referred back to their local leaders.

Dissent in the Church takes a lot of bravery, but is also more futile than it has ever been, but I suppose that’s just a reflection of how things are, so it’s best not have have any false hope that leaders want to know about dissent. After all, Pres. Hinckley claimed there was no agitation for women’s ordination, even though during the ERA legislation, there was quite a lot of agitation. They just excommunicated those who agitated. When any dissent is dismissed as evidence of apostasy, it’s pretty easy for leaders to say there’s no dissent (that’s the No True Scotsman Fallacy for your Bingo cards).

What could the Church do instead? First of all, let’s face facts. They aren’t going to do anything different. They could do away with the process, and the Church audit report which is a twisty word salad of nothing while they’re at it. They could do a blind vote across the membership which would absolutely not yield a unanimous vote, even under the most popular of Church presidents and policies. They could create a tip line for actual malfeasance done by leaders (e.g. George P. Lee stuff). Or they could continue with the tradition as it currently is, a show of support that is not as unanimous as it appears, but it is a long-standing tradition. Those who sustain probably feel a renewed sense of openness to messages leaders are given. Any watching at home who dissent can continue to do so, and it’s about as effective as flipping someone off with your hands in your pockets. You might feel better for ten seconds, but it’s the tree that falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it.

  • Do you think the current dissent process (sending dissenters back to their Stake President to face consequences) works or is problematic?
  • If you were in charge, what would you do about sustaining votes?
  • Have you seen someone dissent? What happened as a result?
  • What do you think the result would be of a “blind vote” about the current Q12? The First Presidency?