The LDS Church should stop curbing free speech and start embracing advocacy
Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormons), reaffirmed the church’s hostility toward advocacy yesterday in response to a question from Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated for lobbying church leaders to consider women’s ordination.
“Having opinions, even about whether women should hold the priesthood, is certainly within the purview of any member of the church,” he said, before contradicting those words by adding: “However, when those opinions transfer into advocacy or lobbying, particularly when they’re clearly lobbying against what has been declared as clear doctrine by church leaders, that crosses a line, and in a few cases, and you mentioned your own case, in a few cases that has led to a disciplinary council.”
So there you have it. Having opinions is okay; expressing opinions is not. You can have ideas, but you can’t make suggestions.
Otterson’s comments come on the heels of officials at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University defending a policy to investigate and punish sexual assault victims for breaking rules such as being out after curfew or being in a bedroom with a member of the opposite sex—protecting rapists by creating disincentives to rape reporting. Heinous policies such as these demonstrate that all is not well in Zion. The church is in desperate need of advocates to point out flawed policy and help the church better protect vulnerable people.
The LDS Church does not forbid advocacy outright. Taking an official, public stance against free speech would be fatal to missionary and retention efforts. Forbidding free speech is rightly viewed as oppressive in the free nations in which most members of the church reside.
Instead, church leaders use passive aggressive hints to discourage advocacy, such as this statement in a First Presidency message directed toward the Ordain Women movement in June 2014: “We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.” Expressing “special concern” is mild enough to avoid the censure of the press in democracies worldwide, but more than enough to set into motion efforts to curb free speech among Mormons.
LDS priesthood leaders can punish members for not “sustaining” priesthood leaders (themselves) or for failure to follow “counsel” of priesthood leaders (themselves). In this environment, it’s just as easy to punish members for failure to take a hint as it is for disobeying an explicit rule. Using passive aggressive language leaves room for church leaders to let some acts of advocacy slide—to even consult with advocates who lobby the church if church leaders happen to want their input and expertise—but provides rationale for capricious and inconsistent punishment when silencing is a more convenient solution from the perspective of church leadership. Church leaders make examples of certain members and scare others into submission without requiring such a blanket degree of punishment as would interfere with the Church’s mission.
While this approach to stopping advocacy has some strategic advantages, it also has many deleterious side effects. More importantly, it is simply not ethical.
Ten Reasons To Stop Curbing Free Speech and Start Embracing Advocacy
1. Jesus Christ himself is an advocate.
It is ironic that less than a month after the June 2014 First Presidency statement expressing “special concern” about advocates, the July 2014 Visiting Teaching message was titled, “The Divine Mission of Jesus Christ: Advocate.” It was part of a series of messages about the virtues of our exemplar Jesus Christ directed to all female members of the Church.
2. Advocacy is patriotism, not rebellion.
Advocating for the church to consider a particular policy change or course of action is not opposing the church. To draw an analogy, would you call an American citizen who advocates for changes to current American laws anti-American? Of course not! Working to improve the nation, through advocacy, is a sign of patriotism. So why should anyone call a Mormon who advocates for improvements to our church anti-Mormon?
3. Responsiveness is good management.
Advocates speak for large groups of people, saving church leaders from the time-consuming process of hearing individual appeals and providing means for people who lack official channels to communicate with leaders. By silencing reformers and whistle-blowers, the church creates the illusion that all is well in Zion, but cuts off an important tool for building Zion—the input of its members, especially its female members and other demographic groups that are unrepresented in priesthood leadership. The tension boils down to this: is it more important for the church to perfect itself or to create the appearance that perfection has already been achieved? Defending the faith must not be confused with defending the status quo.
4. Permitting speech and advocacy is low-risk.
Church leaders have a loud megaphone. They have numerous effective channels to counter speech they disagree with simply through rebuttal instead of through discipline. Church leaders are under no obligation to implement suggestions they find contrary to God’s will or unsatisfactory for any reason. Within the current system of church governance, there is simply no way for members to change church policy without approval of church leaders. The church does not vote on platforms, holds no elections and offers no option for referenda. Why should church leaders be afraid of hearing suggestions that cannot come into fruition without their personal approval?
5. Suppressing speech excludes female perspectives from church policy-making.
Suppressing advocacy cements gendered bias in Church policy and practice because public speech is virtually women’s only recourse for communication. Women are excluded or greatly limited in representation in church governance. Auxiliaries are not designed to address women’s concerns.
6. Suppressing speech reflects poorly on church leaders.
A blanket refusal to allow members to make suggestions to church leaders gives the impression that church leaders are proud and petty, willing only to entertain ideas that are their own, regardless of the merit of the idea. Some members even go so far as to express their belief that church leaders will retract a good policy to avoid the appearance of “caving to public pressure.” In other words, it creates the impression that church leaders care more about their own status and power than about doing what is right. “If a son [or daughter] shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” (Luke 11:11)
7. Suppressing speech perpetuates hostile attitudes toward women in the church.
It’s not just that suppressing speech makes church leaders unresponsive to women, but that members follow suit. I have been told by multiple, authoritative sources that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are so inspired they don’t need women’s input. The fact that such comments were meant as an endorsement of the apostles—in addition to an encouragement for women like me to stop meddling—says a lot about how Mormons view women. A policy made without women is seen as more inspired than a policy that is responsive to women.
8. Punishments for speech are blunt instruments.
Advocacy is not the same as disobedience or fraud. But current procedures to silence free speech do not discern between someone who acknowledges and follows current policy while expressing the opinion that the policy should change and someone who disobeys policy or spreads lies about official positions.
9. Punishment for speech is based on factors that have nothing to do with the character of the advocate.
Since punishing all people who express their opinions or advocate change is not feasible, church leaders have prioritized punishing well-known and popular advocates—those who have a “following.” Thus, the ultimate deciding factor in whether someone is punished is not based on her personal choices, but rather on the actions of others. People may choose to “follow” (agree with) an advocate because she has personal charisma, speaking or writing talent, or access to effective channels to spread ideas. These qualities are ethically neutral; possessing or lacking any of these qualities is no indicator of character. People may also agree with the message because of qualities of the message itself. The message may resonate because it is true—an ethically positive position—but the messenger may still be punished by the church.
10. Asserting that God will punish members without ethical reason is blasphemy.
While church leaders can and do invoke many earthly punishments on advocates, some disciplinary measures depend on God’s cooperation for enforcement: invalidating saving ordinances, barring someone from the Celestial Kingdom of heaven, and eternally separating them from their families. Shouldn’t we tread more carefully before assigning our speech suppression strategy to God?