I'd like to respond to the remarks by Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who spoke on "Understanding Church Boundaries: How Big Is the Tent" at Utah Valley University on Tuesday April 12, 2016. I was in the audience at the time, and while I appreciated some of the efforts he made to talk about the many wonderful things the church is doing, I also thought that he was dismissive of some of the areas of my personal concern: LGBT Mormons and feminist complaints toward the church.
Otterson began by pointing out the many wonderful things the church has recently done to promote interfaith relationships. He also talked about the new transparency of the church with the Gospel Topics essays from Joseph Smith and Polygamy to Women and the Priesthood.
However, like one of the questioners in the session following his remarks, I wonder how many bishops and stake presidents are being directed to these resources. This questioner pointed out that in her ward, the bishop had banned all use of Gospel Topics Essays in church meetings and had released people from callings who had used them in church. Otterson responded that this should not be done, but when she asked what specific direction bishops are being given, he seemed to falter. It seems that the church's largely lay leadership may not always be as knowledgeable about the resources the worldwide leadership offers.
Otterson went from there to a brief discussion of race relations and the church. After acknowledging the 1978 lift on the ban of priesthood blessing to black members, he said, "Interestingly, however, it doesn't seem to be an issue for our rapidly expanding African membership outside the United States."
To this I say, wuh? The mere fact that members in Africa are joining the church does not seem to me to mean that they have no problems with the church's past or that they are not asking questions about it. As he did several times, Otterso used a tactic of diversion, pointing to the "Freedman's Bank" and "Freedman's Bureau" projects, which are certainly admirable, but do not make other issues of problematic race relations within Mormonism simply disappear.
He then went on to talk about the Mormon Church's stance on immigration, which has been surprising to some in its liberality and its fierce principle of protecting family bonds, and which I personally applaud, and which may have been a big part of the reason that Utah Mormons refused to vote for Donald Trump in large numbers during the primaries this year.
Then came Otterson's biggest misstep, in my opinion. In speaking of LGBT Mormon issues he said:
LGBT rights are enormously important to LGBT members, to their families, to many members, and most assuredly to Church leaders as well.
But this is not the only issue of importance facing Church leaders, and in some countries it isn't an issue at all. This isn't to suggest that this is right or wrong. I simply ask you, if you are in your own bubble or echo chamber, to recognize that the issues we are sometimes fixated on along the Wasatch Front or even in the United States are not necessarily important to our members in East Africa or Central Asia.
The suggestion that I understand here, that LGBT issues are small and restricted to the United States only seems not only ridiculous, but deeply disturbing. Does Otterson imagine that there are no LGBT people in East Africa or Central Asia, simply because governments in those countries contend this is true or because LGBT people there are so afraid of reprisals that they do not feel able to demand more attention? While it is true that LGBT people are a small percentage of the population in any country, I cringe at the implication that being LGBT is some kind of localized US malady. If his point was that giving LGBT Mormons more attention would harm conversion efforts in countries where there was no acknowledgment that this group exists, I am not at all sure that I agree with this decision.
Furthermore, when Otterson went on to discuss feminist complaints within the church, he dismissed the idea that female bloggers had anything to do with recent changes in women praying in church or being placed on some of the highest councils.
Some have gone so far as to claim credit for such recent changes as women now offering prayers in general conference or pictures of women leaders now displayed in the Conference Center. I won't spend any time on that. Let me be clear: I'm personally encouraged to see those changes, and I assume in the normal course of events we will see other such initiatives as the male and female leadership of the Church continue to discuss this topic. But such incremental changes are dwarfed by the significance of what we have seen in the past couple of weeks--something so much more grand in scope and more profound in its implications for women in the Church. .
He dismisses the idea that women asking for changes have been listened to by church leaders, which seems to be part of the idea that the Mormon prophets do not respond to anyone but God, which has its uses, but is perhaps not always true. And then Otterson goes on to another diversionary tactic, saying that nothing these blogger women are asking for matters in comparison to the refugee problem.
I personally care very deeply about refugees and am involved in some very public actions to help them, including an auction by authors, editors, and agents in the book world going live April 18, 2005 here. But what this has to do with the lack of visibility of women in the church, I am not sure. Are we being told that it doesn't matter if women are unhappy with their place in the church because other people are suffering so much more than we are? Or are we being told that the place of women in the Mormon church is service to others, and the "I Was a Stranger" website and action is where they ought to be spending their time more fruitfully?
I wish that Otterson had simply acknowledged the problems without trying to wave some magic wand over them and make them disappear. I also wish that he had spent less time trying to make it sound as if the Mormon church has always been the same and that there have been no substantive changes. While I can believe that God leads our church, that does not mean that I think church leaders have not made grave mistakes in the past--and that there needs to be no apology for them.