Dear Elder Oaks,
I wanted to write you to thank you for the spirit of earnestness and sincerity you bring to your apostolic calling. I had the privilege of sitting in the Conference Center on October 6 when you gave your address, “No Other Gods“. I want you to know that I sustain you as an Apostle and a special witness of Jesus Christ, and that I have tremendous respect for that calling and what it entails. I know that you respect the seriousness and weight of your calling as well, and that this seriousness must be on your mind continually. I would like to share with you some thoughts that came to my mind as I listened to your address, in the hopes that perhaps the Spirit will help me better understand and accept your words; I find that sometimes the Spirit comes to me as I write out my thoughts, and while I don’t know if this note will ever come to your attention I know that by writing it I may come closer to a real understanding.
When you stated that “the question posed by the second commandment is “What is our ultimate priority?”” this resonated deeply within me. I know it is true that love of God and of our neighbor must be my ultimate priority if I have any hope of laying hold of salvation, and as you point out, if we love Him we must keep our commandments. For this reason I have a testimony of your statement that if we do not bring our “priorities in accord with this plan, we are in danger of serving other gods.” This is a very important premise in your address and I agree with it completely; still, I wish I understood better the plan. I wish I knew how to tell which parts of Heavenly Father’s plan for us are eternal and unchangeable, and which parts are subject to ongoing revelation and change. Perhaps there is no clean dividing line, but He has shown us time and time again that there is further light and knowledge to be received, even to the correction of long-held policies and traditions in His Church. Is there a way for us to tell where the future lies?
As a married man, sealed in the temple and with four children of my own, I can add my testimony to yours that marriage and family is part of God’s plan for me and that it is a sacred duty. My family is the most important thing in the world to me and the prospect of eternity together is in large measure what motivates me from day to day in my duties. I wish we knew more about our heavenly parents and how best to emulate them in their relationship with each other. I can only suppose that they must love each other with an abiding, eternal affection that transcends all. Again, when listening to your words the Spirit testified to me of their truth. I felt some pangs of worry as I thought of those who are not and will not be married in this life, those who do not and will not have children of their own to bear and raise. My wife and I struggled for some time with infertility, and language describing children as the purpose of existence caused us some pain. Frequently I would console my wife and wipe away tears as we felt that the greatest blessings of parenthood would be forever denied us. I wish you could have addressed some of your remarks to those millions of members who find themselves similarly on the other side of that fence; I don’t believe this detracts from the truth of your words, and you only have so much time to talk in Conference, but it would have been a soothing balm.
You then address your grief at “the sharply declining numbers of births and marriages in many Western countries whose historic cultures are Christian and Jewish.” I would assume that the Church doesn’t care about Western culture per se, except to the extent this is a barometer for ourselves. I don’t know why the numbers of births and marriages of Western countries in general would matter very much, unless it is the fear or knowledge that our own numbers of births and marriages in the Church are sharply declining as well. I assume this is why it is a matter of grief, though I do not have meaningful statistics about Church births and marriages to compare. But given the increasing numbers of members of the Church outside of Western countries, perhaps there is some counterbalance out there. I wish I better understood how to weigh the importance of bringing children into the world against the moral agency of every couple to make child-raising decisions on their own in accordance with their personal revelation. Because I know my own children are a blessing to me I would never want to forbid someone from having kids, but at the same time I would be loath to force a couple into having kids before they felt that they were ready and had the confirmation of the Spirit. What is the Church’s official teaching on the matter? I wish I knew, but sometimes it seems there are mixed messages out there.
As you rightly point out, sometimes “our beliefs compel us to some different choices and behaviors than” other faiths. I’d like to believe that for the most part, the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches a way of righteous living that all people can see is good and healthy. Clearly the Golden Rule is shared by many, for example. Those matters on which we have different choices and behaviors are few and far between, though they do stand as a shibboleth in some respects. I worry that we accentuate those different choices out of their league, focusing on them to the point of losing track of the more common (and most important) commandments. For example, we believe in not drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes; the Word of Wisdom is one of the hallmarks of our faith. But there is so much more! The atonement of Jesus Christ and the ability to draw near to Him through everyday choices of doing good and loving others, while seemingly banal compared to the Word of Wisdom, are still the most sweet and important parts of our religion. I understand that on some level these are all inseparable, but sometimes I wish we could more effectively draw on our commonalities with other faiths and better explain to others how some of those more unique practices figure into the larger picture. It might help our friends (and enemies) have a greater understanding and pave the way to better relations. We’ve done that a lot in times past, but in this world of sound bites and campaign slogans it’s seemed to me that messages of harmony can get lost in the noise.
I have a testimony of the importance of the law of chastity. I too worry about teenage births, children born into situations where they will not have the parents they need to survive, let alone succeed. I am unsure as to why you are distressed as to children born outside of marriage, however, versus the (perhaps more meaningful) statistic of children born where only one parent is known, or children in foster homes, or other situations that are more salient risk factors for the health, happiness and education of the child. My understanding is that marriage used to be a far more accurate shorthand trait for those risk factors to exist, but that this is no longer the case in most Western countries. Is there a reason why we in the Church should care about rates of secular marriage (unless again this is a barometer for our own rates)?
You state that “there are many political and social pressures for legal and policy changes to establish behaviors contrary to God’s decrees about sexual morality and contrary to the eternal nature and purposes of marriage and childbearing.” I assume, given the rest of your paragraph, that you are speaking most particularly with respect to same-gender marriage, but some I have talked with expressed concern that you were speaking more broadly. Does the Church favor legislation with respect to other aspects of sexual morality besides same-gender marriage? Would the Church, for example, favor adultery legislation or laws that punished sexual relations outside of marriage with fines and/or imprisonment? These laws are generally no longer on the books in most states, but would the Church oppose the striking of those laws as it has opposed other legislative acts that are contrary to God’s laws? What is the Church’s stance with respect to current laws prohibiting polygamy? I am not asking these questions in order to doubt your testimony against same-gender marriage, but I would like to understand why we are drawing this particular line in the sand when others that are perhaps just as important do not seem to attract the same attention.
I was particularly interested by (and agree with) your testimony that “unlike other organizations that can change their policies and even their doctrines, our policies are determined by the truths God has identified as unchangeable.” One of the best things about our Church, what I love, is that we start with fundamental truths revealed by God and use those as the basis for our policies and programs. But I have noticed that we have changed our policies several times in the Church on various matters. I don’t need to cite these; I’m not trying to build an evidence file to oppose your words. But you do seem to imply that these policies are forever unchangeable, and I wonder if this is truly the case. I believe that our current policies are in place because of inspired leaders and I intend to obey those policies, but the bedrock of our Church is ongoing revelation and the certainty of your words seems (at least on the surface) to run contrary to that principle. Has God identified his standards against same-sex marriage, for example, as unchangeable? I know that I am under covenant to keep His commandments, and I agree wholeheartedly that “man’s laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral,” regardless of whether the immoral behavior is popular or not. I guess I am asking the same question I asked above: how do I know which parts of the plan cannot change? How can anyone know? I suppose this does not affect my present duty very much, but I’d like to better understand how it works.
Lastly you say, “In this determination we may be misunderstood, and we may incur accusations of bigotry, suffer discrimination, or have to withstand invasions of our free exercise of religion. If so, I think we should remember our first priority—to serve God—and, like our pioneer predecessors, push our personal handcarts forward with the same fortitude they exhibited.” This is the crux of it for me. If we oppose same-sex marriage because homosexual relations are a sin before God, and are vocal in this belief, we do more than incur accusations of bigotry – we are bigots. We are obstinately devoted to our belief that this group of people – in this case, active homosexuals – are sinful and what they want is wrong both for them and for society as a whole. I know my duty, and I know the law of God in this respect as it has been taught to me by faithful leaders. I intend to follow this divine law. But I don’t see how we can avoid the label of “intolerant” or “bigoted” when that’s what we are. We cannot have it both ways, we cannot serve God (in this case, we cannot be fervent advocates against same-sex marriage) and mammon (in this case, we cannot avoid public disapproval of our stance). This is hard. I don’t want to be intolerant and bigoted. I see those adjectives as being in opposition on some level with fundamental characteristics of being Christlike. I don’t want to be a moral coward as President Monson taught (and as you emphasized), but yes, I am afraid. I am afraid, not necessarily of the judgment of others or of losing friends (I am already a fairly off-putting fellow and have few friends as it is!), but I’m afraid of being wrong. I’m afraid that I will be an ardent attacker of same-sex marriage, then years from now when the legislative battle is completely lost (as it almost is today) that the Church will somehow modify its stance on the topic or reframe its perspective on homosexuality and I will have been wrong. I think of those who historically criticized equal rights for blacks on behalf of the Church only in 1978 to have been shown the error in their ways. I don’t believe that homosexuality and race are very comparable, but I provide that example to illustrate my fear.
Elder Oaks, if you’ve read this I would appreciate your guidance on this topic. You’re a great man, a great lawyer and an Apostle. I’m still a fairly young man and I don’t have a perfect knowledge of things. I wish I had the certainty that you show whenever I’ve listened to you speak. I am trying hard to be a good member of the Church and I want to serve God and my family and friends the best I can. Your talk, while grounded in premises I love and agree with, still scared me a fair deal and I’d like to better understand how to accept it fully.