President Monson’s address during this October’s Priesthood session at first seems somewhat unremarkable in theme: he bemoans the lack of moral compasses found in folks today, and calls on members of the Priesthood to stand up and be counted as Mormons and to adhere to the laws of God. This is a familiar theme for President Monson, who is a missionary through and through. The talk raises a few questions and takes a novel approach in describing what it means to stand as a Mormon. This post is a brief walking tour of President Monson’s address, going through the themes and issues of his remarks in order. The audio of the talk is available here.
His address begins with a piece from the NY Times, the excerpts of which are pretty hilarious. I believe President Monson is referring to this op-ed (thanks Tim!) (the very notion that President Monson reads the New York Times is revelatory enough!). Respondents to a survey don’t know what a moral dilemma is, let alone how to resolve one, and school, institutions and families are failing to help cultivate our “moral intuitions.” Not so in our Church, says President Monson: “none within the sound of my voice should be in any doubt concerning what is moral and what is not, nor should any be in doubt about what is expected of us as holders of the priesthood of God.” President Monson seems to take the moral instruction of the Church as a given — or, perhaps more accurately, he asserts that the Church is a clear source of moral instruction.
President Monson does not address the issue of whether we are really learning to cultivate our moral intuitions in the Church, whether our manuals and classes are doing an adequate job of giving us not just a rulebook, but in giving the testimony and the wits we need to be moral people regardless of context. This is not the purpose of his talk, which focuses on courage, but the pedagogy of moral instruction is a problematic enterprise. It is a lacuna that should strike each teacher and parent in the Church. It is not extreme to say that raising moral people requires more than just publishing a list of rules and emphasizing obedience to those rules. As such, our approach may need to go beyond the straightforward resources provided by CES or other Church publishing arms. President Monson’s talk contains therefore an implicit call to arms for all those involved in teaching or leadership in the Church to address moral instruction in a serious way.
But back to President Monson’s sermon, which then focuses on courage and testimony, daring to stand alone for your faith: “What a powerful tool of the adversary is ridicule and mockery! Again, brethren, do we have the courage to stand strong and firm in the face of such difficult opposition?” President Monson offers a couple of examples of times when he needed courage in the face of opposition: when serving in the Navy, and when on a bus when someone was inquiring about the Mormons. These are helpful examples because they are not dramatic or extreme (compare Joseph F. Smith’s “true blue, through and through” story). President Monson teaches us that daring to stand for our faith can be a relatively straightforward, simple thing, yet vital to our character as members of the Church.
One potentially problematic bit, which I found unnecessary to President Monson’s purpose yet seemingly running counter to other contemporaneous messages from the Church: the quotation offered from President Ezra Taft Benson. The quotation reads in part, “Make no mistake about it — you are a marked generation. For nearly six thousand years God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the second coming…God has saved for the final inning some of His strongest children, who will help bear off the kingdom triumphantly.” I thought we’d finished with some of these messages of how amazing we are, which run a little too close to folk stories for my personal tastes. But by quoting President Benson, President Monson effectively establishes these folk notions as doctrine. So, it turns out that it’s official doctrine that you guys are all awesome! Congrats. Mind you, in this context President Monson uses the quote to serve in equal parts encouragement and guilt trip, so don’t go getting a big head about it or anything.
The guilt sections naturally lead to a sidebar by President Monson about repentance, but even in the midst of the repentance discussion the emphasis is on obedience, dispelling the illusion that members can “have their cake and eat it too”, although what this means precisely is unclear. It most likely refers to the notion that some people don’t live the commandments and seem pretty darned happy — to them, President Monson asserts: “Brethren, I promise you that this will not work in the long run.” This is more nuanced than just ‘wickedness never was happiness’; it is ‘wickedness is not long-term happiness, and it really won’t work out for you, no matter what you might think’. This strikes me as a more down-to-earth and approachable perspective for President Monson to reach out to those members of the Church who might be thinking of giving up.
Finally, President Monson brings his focus to testimony, to the necessity of not just searching things out and obtaining a belief, but in sharing these beliefs with others. Daring to stand as Mormon in President Monson’s view probably boils down to two key concepts: keeping the commandments and acting as a missionary. A testimony is central to each of these. Again, nothing particularly earth-shattering, but a solid reminder that the proper basis for moral action in the Church is a solid testimony in the restored Gospel.
Part of my analysis whenever I listen in Priesthood session is to ask the question, “why is this given in Priesthood session instead of in the general sessions of Conference? What is the Priesthood-specific message?” Often the answer to the question is “beats me.” I think in the case of President Monson’s sermon the answer lies not in the doctrinal content of the message so much as the emphasis of the message and the expectations from the speaker. Because we are holders of the priesthood, President Monson explains, we have special rights and responsibilities that we are expected to fulfill. In other words, we expect more out of the priesthood. This may indeed be the only distinguishing factor in Priesthood session addresses over the past several decades*.
All in all, an interesting talk from a terrific speaker. I love President Monson and I think he has left us with some thought-provoking and challenging ideas, assuming that we take the time to explore them in depth.
*It’s just a theory.