Dallin H. Oaks for Liberals

By: Nate
November 6, 2013

Even his tie is conservative!

Elder Oaks has a reputation for being one of the most conservative members of the Quorum of the Twelve. I believe this reputation comes largely from his impersonal, “laying down the law” style rhetoric. Over the years however, I have found a number of liberal ideas in his sermons. I’ve compiled a few of them here in an attempt to ease some of the liberal angst currently swirling around this great man.

Today’s guest post is from Nate.

No Other Gods: A New Approach to the Same-Sex Marriage Question?

Elder Oaks’ recent address “No Other Gods” provoked much ire in the bloggernacle. At best, liberals described the talk as “hard to hear,” or a “painfully black-and-white assessment of the alleged evils of same-sex marriage” and at worst they accused Elder Oaks of being “a bigoted, homophobic, hate filled bully.

However, these critiques missed one of the most important themes of the talk, a theme that is comparatively liberal. Throughout the talk, Elder Oaks makes clear “us versus them” distinctions between the church and the outside world: “For Latter-day Saints, God’s commandments are based on…” “… this gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective…” “We remain under covenant to keep commandments…even if they become (unpopular) in our particular time and place.” “Our beliefs compel us to some different choices and behaviors than theirs.”

The emphasis on our “unique perspectives,” our “covenants” and “beliefs which compel” us to be different, reorients the dialogue into a new space of respectful and non-judgmental disagreement with Gentiles, very different to the traditional “proclamation to the world” tone, warning of calamities, and emphasizing universality, which still dominates the rhetoric other apostles use when addressing the subject. In this regard, Elder Oaks’ address was one of the more progressive talks on the subject we’ve had.


With the Cardinal when their album “Duets” went platinum.

Elder Oak’s talk Truth and Tolerance is usually seen as an attack on tolerance. However, I believe that both liberals and conservatives are misunderstanding a central position in his talk, a position which is surprisingly liberal:

Our Savior also taught that His followers will have tribulation in the world, that their numbers and dominions will be small, and that they will be hated because they are not of the world. But that is our role. We are called to live with other children of God who do not share our faith or our values and who do not have the covenant obligations we have assumed. Since followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to be a leaven—not to be taken out of the world, but to remain in it—we must seek tolerance from those who hate us for not being of the world. As part of this, we will sometimes need to challenge laws that would impair our freedom to practice our faiths, doing so in reliance on our constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.

Central to Elder Oaks view on tolerance, is that we are to see ourselves as a peculiar minority within a larger body which does not share our values, from whom we seek tolerance for our views, just as we are respectful and tolerant of their right to believe as they wish. This idea of being a small minority is essential to understanding the rest of his sermon, in which we see ourselves primarily engaged in a defensive posture, protecting ourselves, and our small religion, from attacks from the larger outside world, who would like us to conform to them. Our position is defensive, not offensive. And that is actually a very liberal perspective. Like anthropologists who defend the antiquated values of a small Indian tribe from the conformist forces of Western Culture, liberals would do well to defend the right of our church to be as conservative as we want to be, as this enhances the broader diversity of our culture. So in order for us to be the minority “salt of the world” we have to be intolerant of the intolerant, conformist forces of Western Culture, which would take away our savor, just as an Indian tribe must fight against the forces of change which would efface their own identity. In the case of a minority tribe or religion, intolerance becomes a liberal ideal.

Apologetics:  We’ll Call it a Draw

“No photographs, please.”

Elder Oaks gave a remarkable talk to FARMS in 1993, where he said this:

In fact, it is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Its authenticity depends, as it says, on a witness of the Holy Spirit. Our side will settle for a draw, but those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot settle for a draw.

This is a very liberal statement indeed. If one had not known it came from an apostle, one might have thought it had come from one of those New Order Mormons. For generations, church culture, apologetics, and correlated material has presented the historical truths of Mormonism winning by a landslide, when compared rationally with anti-Mormon claims. Here however, Elder Oaks is admitting that in a solely rational context, our side doesn’t win at all. The best we can do is settle for a draw. There is compelling evidence both for, and against the Book of Mormon, and only a spiritual witness can break the tie. I can’t think of another General Authority who as ever said anything so bluntly anti-apologetic. I believe Elder Oaks’ liberal approach to historicity may have influenced the dramatic shift away from an almost exclusively apologetic approach at FARMS, to the more inclusive and broad blend of Mormon Studies at the current Maxwell Institute.

Mistakes Are Not Sins

Explaining to this good brother the effect horizontal stripes can have.

Sins and Mistakes is my favorite sermon of Elder Oaks, and I come back to it again and again when teaching about the atonement and the Plan of Salvation in church. I can’t emphasize just how heaven-sent I feel this particular sermon has been to elevating so much of the unnecessary guilt and judgement we inflict upon ourselves and others. It’s a generous, liberal, compassionate doctrine, and one I think should be incorporated more fully into all of our discussions of the atonement.

Fallibility: “It does not matter that the criticism is true”

Elder Oaks’ council that members should not criticize their leaders, “even when that criticism is true” was met with considerable liberal opposition. However, hidden in this conservative statement, is a frank, almost liberal admission: that criticism of church leaders is often true. Elsewhere in the sermon, Elder Oaks relates a number of times when church prophets and other leaders have been wrong and made mistakes. He quotes Brigham Young, who had concerns about errors Joseph Smith was falling into:

He was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. … He was God’s servant, and not mine.

What is important for Elder Oaks is not infallibility, a vague faith that, “God will never allow the prophet to be led astray,” but authority: we follow our leaders even in their fallibility. And this was stated in 1987, decades before Elder Uchtdorf’s recent admission of prophetic fallibility.

OK, Elder Oaks is Actually Conservative

In spite of all of this, I recognize that Elder Oaks is of course quite conservative. But not in an imbalanced way. He strikes me as enormously intelligent, spiritual, and wise. His perspectives are often different than mine, but he so frequently surprises, challenges and inspires me, that I feel a great respect for him. I don’t think liberals should underestimate him. He understands us more than we know, and beneath the seemingly harsh, legalistic rhetoric, is a very true, loving heart.


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33 Responses to Dallin H. Oaks for Liberals

  1. hawkgrrrl on November 6, 2013 at 3:11 PM

    There are some more examples of E. Oaks’ liberal perspectives in a post I did after hearing him speak in Singapore: http://www.wheatandtares.org/8220/reactions-to-an-apostles-words/

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  2. tristin on November 6, 2013 at 3:54 PM

    I don’t see anything liberal here. I see, rather, a more pluralistic Elder Oaks than many might imagine. You might even call some of them apologetic. But liberal is hardly the word for his perspectives.

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  3. dallske on November 6, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    I agree with Tristan.

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  4. dallske on November 6, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    Sorry, Tristin.

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  5. Will on November 6, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    I like him. I think he should be one of the 12 apostles…oh wait..

    Of course the guy is right, he’s an Apostle of God.

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  6. ji on November 6, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    “a very true, loving heart”

    Thank you — I appreciate your perspective!

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  7. el oso on November 6, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    I have several times gotten the feeling that many of his legal arguments bleed into some conference talks, perhaps a bit too much especially for international saints. They are very informative as to why the church may take certain positions, but sometimes are less inspiring. There is no question that Elder Oaks is most comfortable among political conservatives. He surely believes that their legal positions are most favorable for the church to fulfill its missions.

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  8. Nate on November 6, 2013 at 6:27 PM

    Thanks for your comment Tristin. I see pluralism as one of the most important aspects of liberalism. Liberals today, who try to enforce or shame their beliefs on others, like those who boycott Ender’s Game because of same-sex marriage, are not true liberals according to my definition of the word. The word “liberal” itself implies acceptance, tolerance, and an emphasis on plurality and diversity. This includes tolerance of conservative views, and intolerance of forces that seek to trample upon minority rights and force them to conform to a majority view.

    Good comment el oso. I also find his legalism taxing at times. The times I have found him inspiring have been the times when he frames an argument in a way that causes me to see it in a new light.

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  9. Hedgehog on November 7, 2013 at 2:27 AM

    Nice perspective.
    Did you mean elevate (elevating so much of the unnecessary guilt..), or alleviate though? I’m probably being overly picky, but what do you mean by “elevating… guilt and judgement…”
    I’ve taken a look at the talk in question – so possibly you are saying they are seen as errors as opposed to sins? Which makes them less serious and hence elevated? But still, elevation has a sense of being good I think. And whilst errors are better than deliberate sin, still they would be better not to have happened.

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  10. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 6:14 AM

    OK, Elder Oaks is Actually Conservative I think this is really is the main point and the main problem. The church wasn’t always politically conservative and it’s history of becoming conservative doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the gospel or revelation from God. Who could with a straight face argue Christ who is our example was conservative?

    Oaks sees religion as an extension of the law with regard to social engineering and to some extent I agree with him, if religion isn’t society’s moral conscious who will be? But there is a lot of latitude and political disagreement in how this should or could be applied to society and Oaks takes the politically conservative route of collectivism over individualism for the so called “greater good” (of the privileged btw) and he does it without apparent concern for the small magnitude of the issue and with little more than lip service to those he disenfranchises.

    The Netherlands has the longest experience with gay marriage and it now accounts for 2% of total marriages in that country. Just 2%! Is this the end of society as we know it? Of course not! And if marriage is inherently stabilizing for society, why isn’t it also good for gays too? And please, who can rationally explain how 2% of marriages being gay actually threatens the 98% that are straight?

    Until recently this anti-gay position was being asserted without much love expressed for gays and the position was defended with folklore arguments (like being gay is a choice) reminiscent of the ban on blacks folklore rationalizations and addressed with more Old Testament bright line enforcement than Christian love and acceptance for the sinner.

    A 2007 church news release reminds us; Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine…Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together. I believe Oak’s talk was opinion based on his own conservative bias in addition his lawyerly ways seem more pharisaical than apostolic to me but if TSM were to add “thus saith the Lord” to Oak’s words I would reconsider that conclusion.

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  11. Phil on November 7, 2013 at 6:41 AM

    Keep in mind that no response is good enough for Howard.

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  12. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    I’m not sure what you mean beyond a an intended put down of me, but if all responses were “good enough” for everyone what would the point of blogging be? When you see my name feel free to change the channel of simply skip over what I have to say so it doesn’t upset your karma bro.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on November 7, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I can appreciate this view into Oaks’ pluralism, and honestly, I have seen it myself. He tries hard to display nuance and see both sides of many issues (perhaps not all). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. People view the gospel through their political lens, not the other way around. To liberals, this might feel like “any port in a storm” since the church leadership has taken such a hard right since the 1960s and never really come back. To conservatives who are prone to agree with Oaks anyway, they may see this as grasping at straws. I say whatever works. I do wish that people would acknowledge their own political biases in gospel interpretation, though.

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  14. Jeff Spector on November 7, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    Thanks, Nate, I appreciate the post. In the end, we hear what we want to hear, so any analysis on someone else’s words are always going to be met with a different interpretation. Unless we have a personal conversation with someone, it an be hard to judge their real intent and heart.

    But I really appreciate the effort.

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  15. MH on November 7, 2013 at 8:17 AM

    “are not true liberals according to my definition of the word.”

    When we create our own definitions, it makes conversation difficult. It is best to use the widely accepted definitions. Some people call anyone who disagrees with the tea party as a socialist, making John McCain and Orrin Hatch socialists. I’m not a fan of creating definitions to suit our purposes.

    It’s an interesting headline, and interesting discussion, but calling Oaks a liberal falls flat, IMO. “Elder Oaks is Actually Conservative” sums it best, and is 180 degrees opposite of your headline.

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  16. Jeff Spector on November 7, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    I am always amused when the Old Testament is held up as the harsh tome and the other scriptures as words of the loving God who is really speaking to his children. The Old Testament is as large as all the other scriptures combined and represented all phases of God’s relationship with His Children, both the love and the harshness. It’s also just as present in the other scriptures.

    So, if Howard and others continual push the idea that the Church is anti-gay or was anti-gay, I would maintain it is anti-sin and has spoken just as harshly against most forms of sin. While I agree that the focus on the nature of the individual as opposed to his or her behavior has traditionally been the primary focus on homosexual folks rather than other forms of behavior, Certainly the Church has an organization is somewhat passed that. Members need to get with the program.

    It’s time to move on past the past, I think,

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  17. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Jeff, there is progression to the gospel, it isn’t static, the OT eye for an eye and it’s bright line rules aren’t even Christian as Christ had yet to come and introduce his teachings which focused on love and attitude (beatitudes) and against a legalistic approach to the gospel, the BoM introduces the mighty change of heart and we are reminded that 2/3 of the plates remain sealed. If the gospel is static and unchanging why add anything beyond the OT or beyond the Bible? If we have the fullness of the gospel what is the sealed portion about?

    The gospel is dynamic and living yet much of the LDS church’s practice remains mired in OT thinking.

    Don’t judge gays because they sin differently than you. Don’t judge sinners because they sin differently than you. That’s OT stuff! Love one another is NT stuff.

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  18. nate on November 7, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    MH, good point about working off different definitions. The 1st definition of liberal, according to dictionary: “willing to accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own.”

    This is ironic because many liberals I know are just as intolerant of different opinions as conservatives are. In many people’s minds, liberal just means Democrat, or socialist.

    I think we confuse liberalism with progressivism. Liberalism doesn’t have an agenda, it seeks peaceful coexistence, and to protect minority rights and views. But progressivism is activist.

    If I’m going to say I am liberal, I must also defend the rights of minority churches like ours to be conservative if that is the direction it’s own authorities wish to take. Howard seems progressive to me, because he advocates for changing the church into a more inclusive mix, as he supposes it used to be, or should be.

    But a real liberal should defend the right of church leadership to espouse conservative views, as long as those views do not disenfranchise others, like people outside the church who want to gay marry.

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  19. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    Well Howard is a mix, a moderate republican who advocates for church reform in the direction of love, inclusion and spirituality. Pretty radical stuff, I know!

    Once a safety net is in place to prevent easily preventible third world (and third world equivalent deaths) I’m largely a fiscal conservative believing incentives should encourage self sufficiency and I lean liberal on other social issues.

    But I agree Nate many liberals I know are just as intolerant of different opinions as conservatives but the intolerance is expressed in different ways. Conservatives enjoy playing “ain’t it awful” and a putting out a good rant. Liberals love to wrap themselves in victim hood. And in truth both sides tend to perceive themselves as being victimized by the other side of the aisle.

    Jonathan Haidt explains the psycho/social research regarding the different makeups: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

    And here he explains How common threats can make common (political) ground which begins to explain why evil “threats” like gay marriage make good political fodder and serve to circle the wagons around the tribe commonly known as the LDS church.

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  20. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 3:38 PM

    What is important for Adolf Eichmann was not infallibility, but authority: we follow our leaders even in their fallibility. Eichmann said in his crimes against humanity and war crimes trial defense he had to follow orders…what I was ordered to do, unfortunately I had to carry out.

    On the other hand regarding the church Wilford Woodruff claimed The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. But then, somehow following that reassurance we ended up with the ban on blacks fiasco unraveling and BRM telling us to ignore (the folklore) our prophets previously told us because they were finally able to switch from line upon line to OMG, revelation (more like group inspiration) and received further light and understanding! Which strongly begs the question where did the folklore come from if it came from “prophets”? So obviously the church can be and has been led astray and ignoring it certainly doesn’t help get it back on track.

    In that regard the statement; “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” seems darn pretty self serving. How exactly is it wrong to speak truth to power? Mostly they don’t like having to answer it! Speaking ill? now that is another matter.

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  21. nate on November 7, 2013 at 3:38 PM

    Thanks for your comment and perspecrives Howard. I’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s article, and I absolutly agree.

    I don’t consider myself a mix, but because I aspire to pure liberalism. But I value conservative voices in a diverse society, and I recognize the limitations of of liberalism even as I espouse it. I expect others to push back against me. I embrace liberalism because I think it’s in my nature like as Haight would suggest. It’s my role to play in the whole game. But it may not always be the best way.

    I’ve tried to use my liberalism as a coping mechanism for living in a conservative church. I try to be tolerant of intolerance in the church, because the church has a right to be as intollerant as it feels it ought to be. And I also see it as a trial God puts me through. He made me liberal and stuck me in a conservative chuch. God “is an hard man” as the Bible says.

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  22. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    You’re welcome Nate. in my view there is nothing “pure” about any pure philosophy short of what isn’t love is fear. The rest is an approximation at best. btw, …the church has a right to be as intolerant as it feels it ought to be. The church is us.

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  23. Jeff Spector on November 7, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    “Don’t judge sinners because they sin differently than you. That’s OT stuff! Love one another is NT stuff.”

    Again, you parse the words because you like them that way.

    Depends on which judgement you refer? The ultimate judgement is God’s and God’s alone, However, we are called upon, from time to time, to judge another and, according to Joseph’s translation of the Bible and the Old Testament, to so righteously or against the standard God has set.

    And lest you misinterpret the word’s of President Uchtdorf, his message is that we are all sinners so any sinner is no better than any other sinner.

    And, as far as the Golden rule, it is, of course, in the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:15-18

    “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.

    Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the Lord.

    Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.

    Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.”

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  24. Howard on November 7, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    Jeff wrote: …we are called upon, from time to time, to judge another and, according to Joseph’s translation of the Bible and the Old Testament, to so righteously or against the standard God has set.. Citation please.

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  25. Douglas on November 7, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    Howard – your pathetic comparison of an Apostle to a Nazi war criminal places you well outside the realm of someone who should be taken seriously. Until you apologize for such an intemperate remark, I will give your postings no consideration and advise fellow bloggers to do same..

    Elder Oaks’ telling members to not criticize leaders is most likely referring to public criticsm. That is, praise openly but critique in private. In about 35 years of membership I have found leaders quite candid and receptive in private. That doesn’t mean they’ll tolerate everything. Speaking of intemperate, don’t, when otherwise understandably angered by an unfair accusation, bellow to your Stake Preaident in his office an expreasion that ends with ” …and the horse you rode in on.”

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  26. Will on November 7, 2013 at 8:38 PM


    See JST of Matthew 7:1

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  27. Will on November 8, 2013 at 3:05 PM


    “How exactly is it wrong to speak truth to power? Mostly they don’t like having to answer it! Speaking ill? now that is another matter.”

    Or, in my opinion, Howard you have an unrealistic view of how things happened with blacks and the priesthood. You and progressives constantly cite this as a change in doctrine or worse some type of racism. This, to me, is an absurd claim and a distortion of reality.

    Let me take an example when I was a leader to illustrate my point. I unknowingly walked into a lion’s den. My executive secretary’s step son (who was no longer in the ward), many years before I moved into the ward, sexually assaulted a neighbors daughter. This member was going through another extremely trying time and I invited my executive secretary to come with me on a visit. For whatever reason, he decided NOT to disclose there was an issue or any history (they had not spoken to one another since the incident). During the visit the tension was extremely high and very uncomfortable. After the meeting, I called the sister to see why she was so distressed and she explained the situation to me. After apologizing; then ripping my secretary apart for not disclosing what happened, I forbade him from coming to any future meetings given the tense feelings it created. True, she needed to forgive and forget; and he needed to show more respect for what happened. Really, what both of them needed was more time for the wounds of the situation to heal.

    Likewise, one race horribly treated mistreated another. Even 100 years after the great Republican Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; there was still enormous tension when another great Republican Martin Luther King pushed for civil rights. I think it is reasonable during this time period to have a softball approach between the respective parties to let the tensions ease and I don’t think it is a good idea to force them to worship together. Some faiths elected to segregate the different races into different congregations. We elected to hold off on full membership. Given the fact the other faiths still seem to be segregated and we are more united, I think our approach was much better. I see blacks not receiving the priesthood simply as a waiting game. A waiting game until the tensions eased and it could be successfully implemented – nothing more and nothing less.

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  28. nate on November 8, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    That’s an interesting theory Will. I think there is some truth to it, but I don’t think its very flattering to Mormons or blacks to hear that God treated them with kiddy gloves while they got over their discomfort of one another. But still that’s as valid a theory as I’ve heard.

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  29. Will on November 8, 2013 at 4:33 PM

    ‘but I don’t think its very flattering to Mormons or blacks to hear that God treated them with kiddy gloves ‘

    Who said I was talking only about the blacks? The whites needed to change their feelings, attitudes and behavior probably more so than the blacks . You obviously have never been in the deep south or parts of Africa. There is still hatred and ill feelings and feelings of superiority; as there are in parts of Africa.

    Put another way, It is tantamount to telling a divorced couple, one who have bitter feelings from a horrible experience (rape, beatings, adultery, torture and murder) to just suck it up and get along. It is not as easy as it sounds. These feelings are real and personal.

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  30. […] Now that Mormon presidential aspirations are a distant memory, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has rediscovered the fun of anti-gay-marriage political activism — this time in one of their old haunts: Hawaii! (see this timeline.) In other unsurprising news, criticism of their lame arguments is persecution — and should never be directed at church leaders even when the critics are right. […]

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  31. brjones on November 11, 2013 at 7:28 PM

    Relax, Douglas. I agree with you that it’s an extreme comparison, but many people feel that oaks is a hateful person in his own right. That doesn’t make the comparison a good one, but the degree of offense taken is entirely one of perspective. As is the fact that you see it as particularly egregious because you consider oaks to be an apostle of god. Ultimately that’s simply a matter of perspective.

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  32. Damon B. on February 16, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    I think you make a good point. What Dallin H. Oaks understands very well is agency. My problem is how irrelevant this subject is for the audience. Why do ‘we’ keep pushing so aggressively if we really respect other people’s beliefs? Ask one reasonable adult in the Church what we belief about homosexuality and I don’t think a single one has any confusion about the doctrine. It does not help hetero or homosexuals to keep pounding the issue. How does it help me to hear about this over and over when I’m a heterosexual make with five kids and a wife? Why would I feel uplifted hearing this talk? How about we talk about relevant problems like abuse, education, kindness, and forgiveness? We waste so much talk time on reminding us how the world acts. Does anyone think this aggressiveness is helping bring people to Christ? I don’t. Seems like it just distances us from our earthly brothers and sisters.

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