Wait … What Does that Mean?

The recent upset over YW General President Elaine Dalton’s BYU devotional address on January 15 (see Lynnette’s piece here, fMh here and here, and an interesting letter at Young Mormon Feminists here) centers upon a specific comment directed to LDS young women: “You will also be the ones to provide an example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights.” (full video here)

As many have mentioned in the articles linked above, part of the problem with these two sentences is that they are vague. What form of lobbying is President Dalton referring to? To whom, specifically, is she directing her comments? After all, BYU students come from all over the world. Is she talking about political rights? “Rights” within the LDS church? Within BYU? Her use of the word “lobbying” gives the sentence a political feel, but it’s hard to be sure.

This got me thinking: President Dalton’s speech, and the confusion and careful analysis of  her language that ensued, are not exactly rare occurrences in Mormonism. We often hear imprecise phrases and ambiguous references in talks from our living leaders. Why is this?

Why don’t our leaders clarify their remarks more often?  For that matter, in an age of incredibly effective and speedy communications technologies, and in a church that believes in modern revelation through leaders who are called of God, why don’t our leaders clarify points of doctrines more often?


  1. Maybe you are already asking this question, but I also thought of “In the age of speedy communications technologies, why isn’t there an effective means through which members of the church can ask leaders to clarify their points of doctrine.”

  2. I have observed that at least on some occasions ambiguity seems to serve the church’s interests. As an individual member, it can be frustrating though. I try to remind myself that in reality there are some things that I probably don’t want explained because I might like my personal explanations better than the “official” explanations!

  3. Really. There’s been an uproar about this address, based on any number of interpretations. Why don’t they clarify what she meant, and then we can all just be uproaring about one thing, instead of 20?

    As far as general ambiguity goes, I have to admit I take a cynical view on it–the truth is the ugliest interpretation, and the church just doesn’t want to come right out and say it, so they let the theories percolate freely.

  4. I find this frustrating, too. I was at a conference a couple of years ago in which a GA spoke at length about the evils of militant secularism. We spent the rest of the week debating just what he’d meant. The response to Prop 8? The New Atheists? Something else? I don’t know how helpful it is to condemn something if you leave people uncertain about just what you’re condemning.

    On kind of a related note, do other people remember the church movie about chastity that involved people rafting on river? We watched it every year when I was in YW. My recollection is that it was so vague that if you didn’t know the context (i.e., a lesson on chastity, which oddly enough always got called “morality”), you might wonder exactly what it was talking about.

  5. Two words:

    Plausible deniability.

    That, and with today’s media age, they’re terrified of having the wacky opinions of geriatric leaders memed all over the Internet.

    Sadly, we’ll never again hear such gems as:

    “Bigfoot is Cain”– prophet Spencer W. Kimball
    There’s a planet called Enish-go-on-dosh–Joseph Smith
    “The three Nephites and John the Beloved are wandering the world as we speak and have been alive for hundreds of years”–every Sunday School teacher I ever had.

    At the risk of sounding stupid, the prophets, seers, revelators, GAs and female auxiliary leaders no longer say anything at all. I’ve never seen so many people stand up and talk for so long with absolutely nothing of substance said. They also tend to quote each other or quote scriptures instead of putting themselves out there.

  6. It seems that all Gen. Conferences, Stake Conferences and various other meetings have vague talks and lack substance. If the leaders think the members can’t handle what really must be said then they are doing a disservice to the members. Those that are ready to hear more will hear and live it. Those that are not ready won’t. It isn’t right to hold back because the leaders think the members can’t “handle” it.
    I am bored with church meetings because it seems the lessons are digressing in doctrine. As are other things in the church. As members we have to do the best we can with what we are given.

  7. To expand on nat kelly’s comment, it doesn’t really matter which interpretation of that comment is correct. Any way you interpret it, it’s an awful statement.

  8. Thanks, everyone.


    I’m glad you emphasized that piece of this issue. On the one hand, it’s completely understandable why church leadership encourages us to take questions to our local leaders first; as the size of the church increases, so does the number of individual problems and questions. I get that there are only so many hours in a day. But when the question in the immediate aftermath of a talk is a simple “What did you mean by this?” it seems incredibly unproductive to leave us in a position where all we can do is speculate.

    nat kelly and E.D.:

    I agree. I don’t think there’s an interpretation of this particular pair of sentences that I can get on board with. As you and LilyTiger suggest, something about the ambiguity must serve the interests of the church leadership.

    Deuxmots and Lynnette:

    Thanks for bringing other examples, both of current vaguery and old school Mormon precision. I haven’t seen that raft video, Lynnette, but it sounds confusing (and kind of hilarious).

    I was thinking about temple recommend interview question #7 as another textbook example:

    Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

    This is tremendously vague. What is meant by “support” or “agree”? To what extent would one need to agree with or support these groups (financially? emotionally? philosophically?), and what kinds of teachings and practices are we talking about? (I’ve heard some people say this is a veiled reference to polygamous splinter groups. If it is, why not just ask directly about polygamy?) But, for me, the biggest issue with the question is “teachings … [that] are contrary to or oppose” the LDS church, since there is a healthy dose of ambiguity in a great deal of our teachings to begin with, and since confusion over the meaning of this question leads to real repercussions for people. For example, I’ve heard some bishops state that supporting same-sex marriage is an example of opposition to the LDS church, and others insist that it isn’t.

  9. The rafting video was the worst! I’ve been looking and looking for it online but it is nowhere. The only part I remember (which is telling) is that the metaphor went something like: breaking the law of chastity = drowning a girl with your own two hands.

    It really made me feel super great. As a girl and all.

  10. Galdarag, In addition to all of the informative responses, I wonder if the huge focus by the institutional church on image management may contribute to the vagueness you note? Correlation may be at work as well, i.e. what I’ve seen referenced in the bloggernacle as a dumbing-down effect. (Or should it be a numbing-out effect on listeners? Dalton’s talk elicits a classic limbic system response – flight, flight, or freeze).

    Beatrice, you are spot on too, I so share your frustration.

  11. I agree with what others have said about plausible deniability.

    …but I also think it’s kinda neat. Like, if I were a person who believed in divine inspiration, i would think this would be close to divine inspiration.

    The church has so many different types of members who are in different situations and who have different needs. However, the various leaders have to speak to all members with the awareness that they can’t possibly tailor their message for every particular group, and whatever they say will be seen as applying to everyone.

    So, instead of making clear, concise points, they make (what I think to be intentional) vague points that can be extrapolated by individuals as they see fit.

    …the problem is that people don’t listen to these comments with a blank slate. People come with their culture, personality, experiences, so that some people may interpret x vague phrase to mean x (because that’s what they heard an adult say it meant when they were kids), while other people may interpret it to mean y.

    Occasionally, the church will provide some clarification on an issue…except the clarification will typically not really clarify much at all. Last year, the clarification on what the Word of Wisdom says regarding caffeine fit this, at least for me — at first, the church seemed to OK caffeinated sodas, but then they changed their statement to note (albeit more accurately) that the WoW doesn’t mention caffeine at all.

    Even the clarification is vague enough that people who think caffeinated sodas could read that and say: “Yeah, this is the church saying coke is ok.”

    But the people who thought caffeine was still against the WoW could still believe that. “Well, yes, it’s not written in D&C, but we know from [insert cherry picked quotes here] that it’s not allowed.”

  12. “The only part I remember (which is telling) is that the metaphor went something like: breaking the law of chastity = drowning a girl with your own two hands.”

    Oh, yes, I remember this now. There is a young man struggling in the water and he pushes a young woman down in his struggles. As he walks up the bank where the rest of the youth are they say something like “Hey, you pushed her under!”

    Man, what the point of that? Any meanings I can think of seem really messed up.

  13. Another thing that’s fabulous about that movie is that, as I recall, the problem boy refuses to wear a life jacket, which is why he’s struggling in the water in the first place. One could easily interpret that as a message about the importance of safe sex.

  14. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, de Pizan. And yikes! To be fair, I was wrong about it being vague—the message is pretty clear, at least as far as the voiceover from SWK, though I’m still laughing at the imagery. (There are also several great cringe-inducing lines, such as the classic injunction to the young women to make sure not to lead the boys astray.)

    Back to the question of vagueness, I wonder if it’s also a way to allow for future stealth change. If you never specifically said you were opposed to x, and you later change your approach to it, you can still say, “Since the beginning of time, we have believed x.”

  15. Amen, Galdralag. I can accept that such vagueness might be even be necessary in a global church, but as a standard average North American member I find it exhausting. These vague phrases like “you will see no need to lobby for rights”–and “do you support, affiliate, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or opposed….” drive me crazy. I’d have a thousand percent more respect for Sister (President?) Dalton if she would mount the podium and say (for instance), My dear brothers and sisters, after due consideration the General YW Presidency has decided that we must oppose the Pantspocalypse and Pray in GC movements. These movements are wrong for the following reasons. (I’d be delighted if the only reason they could give was that God told them so! At least we’d all know what we are talking about and what their position is–not to mention WHO is taking this position. Is it the General YW Presidency? If so, do we consider the General YW Presidency to have the authority to make such a pronouncement? We don’t have any idea!) The vagueness is completely crazy-making.

    Every time I’ve had a temple recommend interview and been asked the “do you support affiliate with” question and the “is there anything in your relationships with your family that is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ ” questions, I’ve always said, yes, every single day. Please. I get incredibly irritated at my kids and my husband, and half of my family is in some state of disaffection with the church. I’m going to support and affiliate with them all the way to hell, thank you very much.

  16. In fairness, I don’t think this vagueness is unique to church leaders at all. It’s the same kind of thing I hear all the time as a government employee (and which I’m occasionally called upon to actually write, to my own great horror). When I first arrived, I would often ask for clarification about what the official actually meant. I was reprimanded for it once. No joke.

  17. Agreed, Laura. This absolutely isn’t unique to Mormons. But the fact that it is common among politicians and other groups doesn’t make it any less troubling to me (not that I think you were trying to argue that).

    One of the things that I find most compelling about Mormonism is our idea of continuing revelation; of a God who is available to his children and actively communicating with us. It concerns me a great deal that even simple statements from our leaders are often so muddled and vague that hearers leave with multiple, contrasting views. Though, as Andrew S argued upthread, this serves both rhetorical and organizational purposes, it makes doctrine – even basic, foundational doctrine- murky and hard to pin down. This doesn’t sit well with me.


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