Guest Post: May I Disagree?
(April is a health educator and mother of three young children.)
As a Mormon in good standing, who also happens to be an independent thinker with more left-wing opinions than right, I have been grappling with an issue lately. (By lately, I mean almost my whole life.) What should you do when you disagree with church leadership? Is there a place in this church, or in heaven, for independent thinkers who don’t share official church opinions?
Recently, another Mormon proudly told me that she waits to hear what church leadership says about an issue before she formulates her own opinions. I don’t understand how that works. How do you prevent your brain from thinking until after someone else tells you what to think?
Among those whose thoughts are not such a blank slate, it appears to me that the most common coping tactic of faithful Mormons for disagreeing with church leadership is denial. A particularly aggravating version of this denial, frequently practiced by Utah politicians seeking Mormon votes, is simply stating your own personal opinion and asserting that the church feels the same way without fact-checking. A more subtle approach, exercised by a more thoughtful cohort of dissenting Mormons, is to find some loophole, exception or spirit of the law variation to the official stance where you can safely squeeze your divergent opinion in and still pretend that it essentially fits. If nothing else, you can always go with, “The church doesn’t endorse any particular political party and encourages us to use our agency.”
Other Mormons describe a difficult but rewarding inner battle they experience when they try to change their personal opinions to better match the opinions church leaders say they should have. A few years ago, a kind and empathetic priesthood leader recommended this option to me, volunteering a personal account of his own struggle with the church’s stance on the Equal Rights Amendment back in the seventies. His sincerity was moving (and I’ll admit it, his past support for ERA was endearing) and I was relieved that at least this particular leader didn’t consider my secret opinions to make me un-temple-worthy.
But this approach yields another question. What if you can’t change your mind? The most frequent admonition I have heard on this dilemma is to keep quiet. Don’t go around making other people question their testimonies. Don’t apostatize by fighting against the church. That makes sense…assuming church leaders are right and you are wrong. Sowing seeds of doubt about the truth is bad. Fighting against Zion is bad.
But are church leaders always right? We Mormons don’t believe in papal infallibility (or prophetic infallibility, to put this non-Mormon dogma into Mormon terms). Between primary, seminary and missionary service, we are trained to actively go about doing good and standing up for our beliefs. Wouldn’t this training apply when church leaders are advocating a cause you believe is wrong? Shouldn’t you stand for the right even then? Someday, when that offensive policy changes, as many offensive, former church policies have, won’t you be glad you were one of the pioneers who helped the church progress forward?
But wait. If we don’t believe in infallibility, why are we always quoting President Woodruff, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program.” Does that mean that everything a prophet says is always right? When church positions and policy change, it is never because the old stance was wrong, but only because something different is unequivocally right today than what was perfectly and absolutely right yesterday?