Church Public Affairs has worked with the producers of the recent PBS documentary, The Mormons, to publish extended transcripts of the Elder Oaks and Elder Packer interviews (thanks to Justin for the heads-up). Major kudos to the Church for making these available. Some important excerpts from the Oaks interview:
HW: I’m often told that there has been caution exercised regarding certain “dangers” to the Church. Particularly, some 10 years ago, there was a specific caution as to three dangers.
DHO: There are different dangers, but the leaders of the Church are always responsible to try to identify things that pose a danger to the faith and the will and the spiritual well-being of members. And at different times in the Church different dangers have been identified. I’ve identified a few myself.
I thought that public misunderstandings and possibly public persecution as a result of the ban on the priesthood were a major problem. I used to worry about it, but I wasn’t a leader of the Church at that time. I remember worrying about it, but obviously we don’t worry about that anymore. Feminism is clearly a point of danger to the Church because it draws the daughters of God away from a perception — or it distorts perceptions — about things that are very important eternally — marriage and family and responsibilities to posterity and so on. It has some very favorable effects in encouraging people to maximize their service to mankind [and] to develop a talent. All of this I’ve had with my own daughters, of whom I have four, and I’ve felt the benefits of feminism. But also it has some troublesome aspects. If a person grows up saying, “Well I don’t want a family, I want a career,” that goes against eternal values — so I think there’s a danger there.
Now intellectualism is also perceived as a danger. I suppose it has been for at least a century. I read some history of some of the early confrontations with science — creation of the earth and so forth. In fact at Brigham Young University in some of its earliest years, [there] was [such a] manifestation. There’ll be other manifestations at different times. The life of the mind, which is a great, defining object of universities in our day, of which I’ve been the beneficiary in my own life, can be seen or practiced to be in flat-out opposition to the spiritual characteristics of one’s faith. Revelation stands in opposition to science in some aspects according to some understandings. So I think in any day the watchmen on the tower are going to say intellectualism is a danger to the Church. And it is at extreme points, and if people leave their faith behind and follow strictly where science leads them, that can be a pretty crooked path. ([The] science of today is different than the science of yesterday.) We encourage the life of the mind. We establish and support universities that encourage education. But we say to our young people: “Keep your faith. Do the things necessary to hear the promptings of the Spirit. If you’re getting too far off the line in the latest scientific theory or whatever, you will get a spiritual warning.” And I believe that.
HW: You used an interesting phrase, “Not everything that’s true is useful.” Could you develop that as someone who’s a scholar and trying to encourage deep searching?
DHO: The talk where I gave that was a talk on “Reading Church History” — that was the title of the talk. And in the course of the talk I said many things about being skeptical in your reading and looking for bias and looking for context and a lot of things that were in that perspective. But I said two things in it and the newspapers and anybody who ever referred to the talk only referred to [those] two things: one is the one you cite, “Not everything that’s true is useful,” and that [meant] “was useful to say or to publish.” And you tell newspapers any time (media people) [that] they can’t publish something, they’ll strap on their armor and come out to slay you! [Laughs.]
I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord. One can work to correct them by some other means, but don’t go about saying that they misbehaved when they were a youngster or whatever. Well, of course, that sounds like religious censorship also.
But not everything that’s true is useful. I am a lawyer, and I hear something from a client. It’s true, but I’ll be disciplined professionally if I share it because it’s part of the attorney-client privilege. There’s a husband-wife privilege, there’s a priest-penitent privilege, and so on. That’s an illustration of the fact that not everything that’s true is useful to be shared.
In relation to history, I was speaking in that talk for the benefit of those that write history. In the course of writing history, I said that people ought to be careful in what they publish because not everything that’s true is useful. See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.
HW: From the time of the Manifesto to a hundred years later, it’s not something that’s known very much.
DHO: It’s an extraordinary moment. There are other such moments in the nation, [such as] the persecution of Catholics to having a Catholic president. But probably the Mormon experience of opposition to being prototypical Americans is a unique experience. The three elements that I think trigger that, or bring it about, are the abandonment of Mormon communal economy, the abandonment of separate Mormon political parties, and the abandonment of polygamy. All those came about because of, or triggered by, the Manifesto. They all became effective during the administration of President Joseph F. Smith, at the turn of the century. Those are the big ones. There are a lot of others that become part of it, but I think they’re all triggered by or are a result of those three. And it’s a “Mormon compromise,” as Kathleen Flake says in her book. It’s a result of a Mormon compromise — and the Mormons retained their religious freedom. They won the right to propagate without persecution. They preserved their unique doctrines and so on. Those [remain] with us today, but other things that were essential to and a cause of earlier persecution were abandoned in that compromise as we entered the 20th century.
HW: Extraordinary moment.
DHO: The best thing ever written on it was by Kathleen Flake. I have to say I’ve been a lifetime student and writer of Mormon legal history, at least. I learned many, many things in her book that I didn’t know. She captured it very, very well, and was able to stress also what remained unimpaired by the compromise.
HW: Yes, but I would imagine that that challenge at that moment for Joseph F. Smith was, “How will I reach out to the flock and tell them that I might have been up on the stand saying things I didn’t quite believe in, or that I’ve abandoned the law of the land, or that I’m not really a revelator and I’m abandoning a central principle …” and tell them that the real stuff still is there. You know, how do I reassure?
DHO: Oh, yes. She wrote about that so movingly, and I’d never thought of it. That was something that was new to me, but it rang true.
HW: And the “it” being just that dilemma that the Church faced, about reassuring the Saints that abandoning polygamy would not adversely affect the doctrine.
DHO: That’s right. And I’m sure my ancestors would have wanted to be reassured.