During an interview following yesterday’s press conference about the need to balance the protection of religious freedoms and gay rights, Elder Dallin H. Oaks addressed the issue of apologies. When asked specifically about whether church leaders saw a need to apologize for past language on homosexuality he broadened the discussion somewhat. From the Salt Lake Tribune:
But Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, wasn’t sure apologizing for past language on homosexuality would be advisable.
“I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them,” Oaks said in an interview. “We sometimes look back on issues and say, ‘Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve,’ but we look forward and not backward.”
The church doesn’t “seek apologies,” he said, “and we don’t give them.”
I’d like to talk a little about apologies, Elder Oaks’ remarks, offer some suggested context and address the nature of apologies. As always, I encourage people to remember that Elder Oaks is an apostle, a special witness of Christ, and that we should afford him the respect that his position deserves.
As to the first point: You can hardly turn around and spit without hitting an public apology in the eye. Just this week Benedict Cumberbatch apologized for using outdated racist terminology during a PBS interview. Target apologizes for a security breach, Honda apologizes for an offensive narcolepsy commercial, apparently a furniture company apologizes for a misleading chair description.
Dov Seidman, founder of a firm that advises companies on such matters, has written of the modern advent of “apology theater.” Insincere and sincere apologies have flooded the market, calling into question the reliability of public apologies. Mitt Romney’s book No Apologies hits on this skepticism, suggesting that there is something weak, inauthentic, or wrong about governments (or people) apologizing depending on the circumstances. Romney, like Seidman, might say that apologies are just as necessary today as they ever were, but would insist that you should not apologize for something you don’t regret. (Romney apparently apologized to New Jersey governor Chris Christie for an embarrassing information leak by his campaign.) Seidman says authentic public apologies, followed up on with concrete action to rectify damages, can increase the competency of a company and the public’s trust in it.
Has the Church ever apologized? In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith and other church leaders are called on to repent several times (for instance, D&C 3:10). Another section declares the entire church is “under condemnation” until it repents and remembers the Book of Mormon (D&C 84:54-58). The publication of such divine reprimands to the highest church leaders and to the body of the church suggests that the need to repent is not limited to individual members, but can be exercised by church leaders, perhaps in their capacity as such. There is no scripture describing the need for institutional apologies.
Other religious bodies have issued apologies. There’s an entire Wikipedia entry on apologies made by Pope John Paul II. Pope Francis apologized for sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. As for us: we’ve come close. For example, Pastor Cecil Murray received a personal apology from President Gordon B. Hinckley for the church’s participation in slavery and racism. In 2007, Elder Henry B. Eyring offered words of apology on behalf of church members at a memorial service for victims of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. The church also issued a public apology for performing baptisms for the dead on behalf of victims of the Holocaust.
Elder Eyring’s remarks didn’t include the words “apology” or “we’re sorry.” But in a follow-up interview church historian Richard Turley said the statement was intended as an apology and that the church “is deeply, deeply sorry” for what happened. On the Holocaust issue, a church spokesman said that the church “sincerely regret[s] that the actions of an individual member of the church led to the inappropriate submission of these names.” The church’s newspaper reported the statement as a “public apology.” We can pick apart the details, but the church has apologized, as evidenced by the other actions taken by the church—the dedication of monuments, the clarifying of church policies, and so forth. But it would be correct to say that apologies have been rare in our history.
What did Elder Oaks mean with his statement? Elder Oaks has participated in many recent discussions on religion in the public square. These discussions have taken place in general conference, local conferences and other meetings. He is very cognizant of the necessity for robust protection of religious freedoms and speaks very often in this mode. He’s thinking about the larger role of our religion in the public square, every day. I believe this context is vital in understanding his position. Stating the position of the Church on these matters requires clear, decisive statements. The Church doesn’t apologize for its doctrines. The doctrines come from God, they don’t change and we do not make excuses for them. But everything else is human. We are all fallible. I think we can apologize, and have apologized, for messing things up and figuring things out as we go, and we do that once in a while. But on doctrinal points, the Church does not apologize for taking a strong position on controversial issues. We’re just not interested in public mea culpas for PR purposes.
I am not sure what Elder Oaks meant when he said that we don’t seek apologies. This is true as a formal matter; I cannot think of a time that the Church has requested an apology from an individual or another institution. But we require apologies as part of the repentance and restitution process, at least from those members who have caused harm to the Church. Perhaps it was directed to LGBT activists or to groups who would limit religious freedom. It was an interesting turn of phrase and I hope he clarifies it at some point.
Getting back to the Church, maybe we don’t apologize much in part because to the modern apology saturation identified by Dov Seidman, but that is a recent phenomenon. It’s also the result of church leaders trying their best to advance the mission of the church. Jesus called his disciples to be “the light of the world” so that others can see the good works and glorify God (Matt. 5:14-16), to be an ensign to the nations (Isaiah 5:26). Alma reprimands Corianton for setting a bad example, thereby preventing the Zoramites from heeding Alma’s call to repentance (Alma 39:11). If we read these scriptures as injunctions to be perfect, it makes sense that we would worry about possibly turning people away—members and non-members—through behavior that would require an apology.
Understanding these scriptures as calling for present perfection on the part of the church might make apologies seem inappropriate at best and damaging to the mission of the church and the salvation of souls at worst. But sometimes there are reasons to apologize. We might also consider that the principle of repentance itself is part of the light we are called to shine forth. Apologizing in a repentant spirit and acting further on that apology reflects some of the most cherished values the church seeks to inculcate in its membership and in the world. Apologies are part of the “civil discourse” that Elder Oaks and other church leaders have called for. Church leaders speak on behalf of the church for doctrine and policy. They are also in the position to offer apologies on behalf of the church, and I’m sure they will do so if the Spirit should so direct them in the future. Perhaps this is part of what it means to keep looking forward.