Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dallin H. Oaks is wrong again

It can be frustrating when the LDS church always insists on framing itself as the innocent victim, even when they are actively seeking to oppress others. They seem very interested in speaking out of both sides of their mouth in the past few weeks, first with Bruce C. Hafen's anachronistic address on the evils of homosexuality and now with Dallin H. Oaks's recent statements about religious freedom, in which he compares the LDS church to oppressed black people in the 1960s. (No, I'm not kidding.) I read the address from Oaks in its entirety, so I understand his statements in context. Here are my responses to Oaks's five points of counsel concerning religious freedom.

First, we must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. We are under command to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27), to forgive all men (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10), to do good to them who despitefully use us (Matthew 5:44) and to conduct our teaching in mildness and meekness (Doctrine and Covenants 38:41).

Yes, please. I'm on board. After all these press releases and the recent General Conference addresses attacking everyone from gays to unbelievers to parents who teach their children to think for themselves, I would love to see a little more mildness and meekness.

Second, we must not be deterred or coerced into silence . . . We must also insist on this companion condition of democratic government: when churches and their members or any other group act or speak out on public issues, win or lose, they have a right to expect freedom from retaliation.

I completely agree with this. However, what Oaks and his ilk seem to want is not freedom from retaliation, but freedom from opposition. That is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. There is nothing illegal or immoral about boycotting the businesses of those who contribute money to causes you disagree with. There is nothing illegal or immoral about denouncing bigotry broadly and loudly. Oaks did get one thing right, though: vandalism is wrong. Vandals deserve to be prosecuted and punished under the law.

This next statement seems to be the one that has gotten everyone riled up:

It is important to note that while this aggressive intimidation in connection with the Proposition 8 election was primarily directed at religious persons and symbols, it was not anti-religious as such. These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.

Okay, in the context of his argument, the point would be technically valid if religious voters were actually intimidated against voting on Proposition 8. However, I haven't seen any evidence of this. All the "retaliation" he cited happened after the election, and most of it was not intimidation but simply free speech.

While I think I understand why he said it, I'm frankly amazed that he chose the "blacks in the South" analogy, and that he stuck by it when pressed. It's a very, very bad analogy for several reasons.

First, if any group is being deprived of its civil rights analogous to blacks in the 1960s, it is certainly not the LDS church. It is the gay people who are being denied the right to marry. Duh. I mean, mega-duh.

Second, as I said, it's not clear that anyone was actually intimidated against voting in the Proposition 8 contest. People didn't just boycott black businesses in the '60s. Call me when Prop 8 opponents start lynching and turning the fire hose on Mormons on their way to the voting booth.

Third, the LDS church actively discriminated against black members until 1978, at least a full decade after the rest of the country got with the program. LDS church leaders have made many extremely racist remarks in their official capacities as officers of the church. Most notably, Brigham Young spent three decades preaching racism and hatred from the pulpit, including the doctrine that "if the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." Considering the circumstances, Oaks's comparison of the LDS church to blacks struggling for civil rights is thoughtless and offensive.

Just because you have a persecution complex doesn't give you the right to compare yourself to every group that has ever been oppressed. Especially when you yourself were the oppressor then, and you are still the oppressor now. Come on now.

Third, we must insist on our freedom to preach the doctrines of our faith.

No problems here. Freedom of religion entails the freedom to preach bigotry. Freedom of religion does not entail the freedom to enact bigotry into law simply by virtue of its religious nature. However, all people, religious or otherwise, have the right to vote as they please.

Fourth, as advocates of the obvious truth that persons with religious positions or motivations have the right to express their religious views in public, we must nevertheless be wise in our political participation. . . . religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.

Excellent. I assume this means the church is retracting the false assertions it advertised widely during the Proposition 8 campaign: that churches will be forced to perform gay marriages, that schools will be forced to teach young children about gay sex, that private adoption agencies will be forced to give children to gay couples, etc. Not to mention the biggest, most ridiculous lie of all: that gay marriage somehow takes away the rights of heterosexual people. Spreading lies about your opponents seems less than respectful.

Fifth and finally, Latter-day Saints must be careful never to support or act upon the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office. The framers of our constitution included a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI). That constitutional principle forbids a religious test as a legal requirement, but it of course leaves citizens free to cast their votes on the basis of any preference they choose. But wise religious leaders and members will never advocate religious tests for public office.

Top-notch advice. This is in contrast to Rick Warren's statement, for example, that he "could not vote for an atheist", and the 2007 Gallup poll where 53% of respondents said they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. As a likely result of these kinds of attitudes, the number of Congresspersons who listed their religion as "unaffiliated" in a 2009 Pew Forum survey is exactly... zero. In fact, according to the survey, "In 2007, Representative Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first and so far only member of Congress to publicly declare that he does not believe in a Supreme Being."

Far from "persons with religious-based points of view [being intimidated] from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation," as Oaks would have you believe, the current situation is the exact opposite. Lack of religious belief is political suicide. But it shouldn't have to be.

For the most part, I agree with many of the principles Oaks outlined. My main beef is that I don't believe the LDS church generally follows its own advice in this regard. And the comparison to "blacks in the South" was completely unjustified and ridiculous. I understand that playing the victim is a cherished LDS tradition, but sometimes you need to own up to your actions. Dallin H. Oaks, you're truly not the victim here.


[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

While some of the points are sound, we know what they really mean is, as Mormons, we should be able to do whatever we want, and when anyone protests, we're being discriminated against and persecuted.

They make general points, but really only want them to apply to specific circumstances, but can't go in to the specific examples because that would be against the law. But the Mormon members get the picture, and then get offended when we try to apply their same principles to their actions which violate the same.

You just can't win with those who refuse to see reality, and have no sense of hypocrisy.

Madam Curie said...

Very nice analysis, Saganist.

James said...

I appreciate your article because it helps me see why people disagree with Elder Oaks, but I still don't completely agree with what you're saying. I think it's really good of Elder Oaks to encourage Mormons to speak up, fearless of retaliation.

I also don't think he's so obviously wrong about comparing the 1960's blacks to the Mormons of today; the blacks were threatened because they spoke up for their interests, just like the Mormons are being threatened for speaking up for their interests. It seems reasonable to me.

Saganist said...

Thanks, everyone. James, I did say that I agreed with Oaks encouraging Mormons to speak up. I disagree that Mormons are being threatened to any appreciable degree for expressing their views, and certainly not within several orders of magnitude of what happened to blacks in the '60s.

I would love to see Oaks say something like, "My point is valid and I stand by it, but the analogy was a poor one and I apologize for how it came across." I doubt he would ever say such a thing, because the church does not apologize or admit mistakes. Still, it would be a nice gesture and would garner some goodwill, which the church seems to be running low on these days.