I don’t know how many times in the past couple of days I’ve read something along the lines of, “I have a testimony that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, so I know this can’t be wrong,” or, “This is what God wants, so we shouldn’t question it.” As I’ve argued in the past, I think we’ve ended up with practical infallibility — we might in theory say that the Brethren could be wrong, but in practice, we’re expected to act as if they couldn’t be. A rejection of the notion of infallibility as understood by many Latter-day Saints, then, doesn’t necessarily allow for disagreement on specific issues.
I do understand that those who accept what the Brethren have to say without question don’t conceive of what they’re doing as blind obedience. If I’m getting it right, the distinction that is made is that the person hasn’t just accepted it with no basis, but has inquired of God, who has given them a testimony of their leaders generally, or of the inspiration of their leaders on a specific issue. I can see the distinction, so I won’t refer to this stance as blind obedience. I do think there are those who see themselves as obeying solely for the sake of obedience—because obedience is taught as a virtue—or who do believe that when church leaders speak, the thinking has been done, so further questioning is unproductive and even wrong. But I also know those in the general camp I’m describing who would say that questioning is okay and obedience shouldn’t be automatic, though at the same time holding strongly to the belief that sincere questioning and prayer will always lead to the conclusion held by the leaders of the church. So I think that this more nuanced view still ends up as a belief in practical infallibility.
I’ve seen a number of people be asked, “well do you sustain our leaders, or not? Do you believe that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, or not? And if the answer is no, what are you still doing in this church?” Often this is asked in rather hostile way, but sometimes it’s a sincere, puzzled question. Given that, I want to explain where I’m coming from on this subject.
As a believer in this church, I do see it as important to sustain our leaders. But I don’t think that means following them without question. I think it means taking them seriously, really listening to what they have to say, and being genuinely open to the possibility that they’re relaying the will of God. What it doesn’t mean is believing that absolutely every decision they make, or every word they utter, constitutes the will of God. I actually think we do them as well as ourselves a disservice when we don’t give them the room to make mistakes, as all humans being do. I don’t think we have to believe that they get revelation that’s qualitatively different from the rest of us. I’m thinking of the interview that President Hinckley gave to Larry King in the 1990s:
KING: Does that mean that, according to the church canon, the Lord speaks through you?
HINCKLEY: I think he makes his will manifest, yes.
KING: So if you change things, that’s done by an edict given to you.
HINCKLEY: Yes, sir.
KING: How do you receive it?
HINCKLEY: Well, various ways. It isn’t necessarily a voice heard. Impressions come. The building of this very building [the conference center] I think is an evidence of that.
There came an impression, a feeling, that we need to enlarge our facilities where we could hold our conferences.
I’m struck by the fact that he describes inspiration in the same way that the rest of us get it. I actually find that encouraging; it means that God works through ordinary people who interact with him in ordinary ways. But it’s worth noting that we all struggle to discern the will of God. It’s part of the ambiguity of our mortal experience. Our leaders don’t magically escape this ambiguity.
I do think that sustaining includes giving the leaders the benefit of the doubt when you can. It might mean that on questions about which you are neutral, you’re willing to follow them, because that’s part of being committed to the church. (I’m assuming that most people don’t have a problem following when they agree.) I think it means assuming good intentions, rather than seeing them as out to get people, and not caricaturing them and their positions. (I confess that I myself don’t always do a great job of that, especially when I’m angry, but I think that’s an attitude that just stirs the pot and doesn’t get anyone anywhere.)
And going back to the issue of taking them seriously—I think this means seriously grappling with what they have to say. That’s different from assuming at the outset that it’s right because of its source; it actually involves being open to the possibility that it’s wrong. And I think that if we take our belief in the conscience seriously, if we really believe that we are moral agents and not automatons, we have to do that.
Getting to the present situation, I think the policy/doctrine distinction is a murky one; it seems used as a way to conveniently dismiss the real questions raised by harm caused by problematic past policies/doctrines and hold to an untenable belief that doctrine has never changed. But even setting that aside, this new development is clearly nothing more than a policy. I don’t understand how people who assert that the priesthood/temple ban was “only” a policy are now treating this policy as if it were canonized revelation.
In the end, I don’t believe in infallibility—practical, or otherwise. And I think we have an obligation to speak up when we see something harmful, that as children of God and sisters and brothers in a very real way to the rest of humanity, we can do no less. I think our ability to do that, to take a moral stand, is part of our divine nature. Many of us learned in the church’s youth programs to take a stand when pressured to drink alcohol or break other commandments. What they didn’t warn us of is that sometimes we have to take a stand when harm is coming from the church itself. But I think the principle still holds.
And I am expressing disagreement on this issue not because I don’t take the leaders of the church seriously, but because I do. And I think this is wrong. It’s punishing the innocent, and further alienating the already marginalized. The Book of Mormon says that what entices us to do good is of God. I don’t see how this is enticing anyone to do good. Instead, it’s causing division and heartbreak. I’m not an enemy to the church. I’m not raising objections because I want to tear it down. But I do think it can be better.