God Under the Bus

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” —C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

In his classic essay, “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis spoke to the difficulties he encountered when he tried to talk about religion with modern secular audiences. The core of the problem, as he outlines it, is that people expect God to conform to their secular moral perspectives. God, he lamented, is constantly on trial in the modern world because people are not willing to let go of their own assumptions about right and wrong.

This is not the problem that I want to discuss today, but I do want to borrow the rhetorical force of Lewis’s image by suggesting a different, and in some ways, an inverse, problem that pops up among very religious people who sincerely believe in both God and in the mechanisms that they use to determine God’s will (and I count myself in this category). Rather than placing God in the dock to await trial, we throw God under the bus to avoid having to question the validity of our understanding.

This has been going on for a long time—long before there were busses to throw God under. As we read the scriptures, we see plenty of people assuming that God shares their particular prejudices and hates their particular enemies. 

For an example, let’s take the cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9. According to this story, soon after the Great Flood, Noah became a vintner. He grew grapes, made wine, and got really drunk. On one occasion of greater-than-average drunkenness, Noah’s son, Ham, came along and “saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen 9:22)—a vaguely sexual phrase that the text never really explains except to assure us that it was really, really bad. And because it was so bad, Noah cursed, not Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan. “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Gen 9:25).

To make any sense of this curse scene, we need to realize that the people who told the story and wrote it down lived in a world in which their chief rivals were the Canaanites. The Israelites (according to the Old Testament) displaced the Canaanites to create their nation, and they claimed that God told them to wipe said Canaanites from the face of the earth. The story of Canaan’s curse is an etiological tale designed to vilify Israel’s enemy and suggest that God sanctioned their hatred. This type scene recurs when Lot’s daughters do more than simply uncover their father’s nakedness and, in the process, produce the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites—two other groups of people that Israelites just happened to hate (Gen 19:36-38).

These narratives should not surprise us at all. Ancient people did this a lot. Everybody’s gods loved them best and hated their enemies entirely. It would be strange if the religion of Ancient Israel did NOT include this kind of etiological neener-neenering. But we should also be clear that God, as Christians understand God, didn’t really hate the Canaanites and want them destroyed and subjugated. Such a God would be fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. The Isrelites threw God under the bus to justify their own prejudices.

Amazingly, though, this very curse narrative that was designed to justify inter-Semitic rivalries in the Ancient Near East managed to survive well into the modern era as a justification for the slavery, oppression, and genocide of people from the African continent. The nonsensical genealogical arguments connecting African slavery to the curse narrative in Genesis 9 have been well documented in books by David Goldenberg and Stephen Haynes. I won’t go into them here except to say that they were overwhelmingly accepted in nineteenth-century America and that most American denominations—including the Mormon ones—accepted the arguments and incorporated them into their teachings.

And they were wrong. We were all wrong. This was a clear example of pervasive social prejudices seeping into religion and using religious discourse to justify immoral and ungodly prejudices. Acknowledging this requires humility, but that’s OK. Humility is a good thing. And it is even possible to be humble about how well we understand God’s intentions at any given time. All of us can be humble about this because none of us have a perfect understanding of the divine mind.

The recent remarks by a BYU religion professor about the LDS temple/priesthood ban have received a lot of pushback, but not always for the right reasons. The remarks were inartful, to be sure. But even if they had been artfully constructed, they would have been equally offensive, not because the professor himself is a racist or a bad person, but because the policy he was trying to defend is a racist and a bad policy. The essence of his presentation was that a past discriminatory policy was, in effect, God’s fault and not the Church’s. Church leaders from Brigham Young to Spencer Kimball, he suggested, got God’s opinion on the matter absolutely right. The ban was lifted, not because human beings understood God’s will more perfectly, but because God changed His mind.

This is what it looks like to throw God under the bus. It happens when, rather than exercising humility and acknowledging the limits of our understanding, we assert that we have always understood God’s will perfectly and, in effect, blame God for the problems that our imperfect understanding creates. Brad Wilcox could have made this point more diplomatically, but he could not have made any other point. The correctness of the discriminatory policy remains the official position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the institution that employs Wilcox and would not hesitate to terminate his employment if he ever contradicted them in public. No CES emloyee in the current environment can say the one thing that needs to be said, which goes like this: “Look, the Church got it wrong, and the policy was immoral, and we all need to repent for that. So let’s start now to build the inclusive community that Christ requires.”

Discipleship is hard because it is supposed to be hard. Growth requires constant effort, frequent mistakes, and sincere repentance. And while nothing is more important for a disciple than understanding the will of God, nothing damages our spiritual growth more than the pretense that we, or our leaders, understand God’s will perfectly. Institutions, like people, make mistakes. And institutions, like people, must repent when they do. What we must not do is hold on to our previous understanding so intractably that we end up blaming God for our own mistakes. We must not throw God under the bus to preserve the illusion that we have always understood the divine mind.


  1. stirlingadams says:

    An interesting dynamic of this event is that what Brad Wilcox was teaching about the church’s racial restrictions follows what Dallin Oaks teaches. I wonder if the next time Oaks teaches that the restrictions were the result of divine commandment there will be more push back than previously.

  2. Beautiful!

    Most people that leave Mormonism behind also jettison God and Christ, or so I’m told. I think the reason why is that our version of God isn’t worth keeping. He’s manipulative and employs favoritism and values obedience over character and cares more about using the word Mormon than answering our deeper questions like how the queer community fits into his plan or how women can provide more service or deepen their relationship with the divine.

    Our theology is beautiful, and I believe God can answer these questions. I’m longing for leaders that will petition him more on these weightier matters.

  3. Brad Wilcox could have taken a moderate approach and referred to the LDS Gospel Topic Essay: “Race and the Priesthood.”


    In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
    (End of Excerpt)

    The essay also refers to racial discrimination that was common for many decades in the USA.

    The essay falls short of the outright apology to African-heritage men that many of us would like to see. But it more-or-less says that the restrictions came from man rather than God.

  4. purple_flurp says:

    this post gets to the heart of the matter

    to consider that the capital ‘C’ church got something wrong in the past or present is something that no one in the leadership of church wants to do, or at least not publicly. I think they’re afraid that it opens up the large question of claims to divine guidance and Christ being at the helm of the church.

    I assume that for the *younger* generations of church members, I don’t think we would necessarily have a problem with saying something akin to ‘Christ is at the helm, but sometimes his sailors don’t always hear or follow his orders’. But for these 20th century guys they just won’t do it for some reason.

    Or maybe some of the capital ‘B’ brethren believe or at least understand this, but they’ve collectively decided to always err in favour of the public facing image of the church as never making any mistakes.

    Maybe we’ll collectively let go of this in the future and accept the idea that even with divine inspiration, the church is a product of its people, and thus it is on us, the people, to run the church in a way that actually reflects our beliefs of love, charity, service, etc.

  5. @tomirvine999 — Did the priesthood ban come from man or God? Brigham Young said it came from God. The First Presidency in a Statement of August 17, 1949, said the ban was not a policy but a “direct commandment of God.” President Oaks, discussing the ban, stated at the Be One Celebration that “the Lord rarely gives reasons for his commandments.”

  6. Anon, that statement is, at least, factually mistaken about the history of the practice. I’m not sure how to take the statement that it was a commandment at face value when it is grounded in historical error.

  7. @Anon –

    The priesthood ban was a matter of sexual and reproduction politics.

    Brigham Young did not want African-American priesthood holders taking white wives. Young declared that the penalty for interracial reproduction between whites and blacks was death in 1863 during a sermon criticizing the federal government. This slant was shared by the Utah Territory which passed an anti-miscegenation law in 1888 prohibiting marriages between a “negro” or “mongolian” (i.e. Asian person) and a “white person.”

    President J. Reuben Clark (1871 –1961) called racial intermarriage a “wicked virus” in an address in the church’s official Improvement Era magazine (a predecessor to the current New Era).
    The next year, church member Virgil H. Sponberg wrote a letter to Church leaders regarding association with blacks including missionary work. The First Presidency under George Albert Smith (1870-1951) sent a reply on May 5 stating that interaction with blacks should not be encouraged because it would lead to interracial marriage.

    President G.A. Smith wrote:

    From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed. We are not unmindful of the fact that there is growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.

    The “Miscegenation” laws banning interracial marriage remained until they were repealed by the Utah state legislature in 1963.

    Note that Elder Peter M. Johnson is a general authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was called in April 2019. He is African-American, and his wife Stephanie Lyn Chadwick is white


    Harris, Matthew L. and Bringhurst, Newell G. The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History. Chicago : University of Illinois Press, 2015
    Interracial marriage and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [Online] [Cited: January 17, 2020.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interracial_marriage_and_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President J. Reuben Clark, Plain Talk to Girls, Improvement Era, August, 1946. [Online] [Cited: January 18, 2020.] https://archive.org/details/improvementera4908unse/page/n13

    First Presidency to Virgil H. Sponberg, May 5, 1947, in Bennion papers, as quoted in Bush, “Negro Doctrine,” p. 44

  8. Since we do have a mouthpiece of the Lord, it would be nice that if the church was leading us astray with something like the Priesthood ban that God would have corrected the situation earlier.
    I suspect even church leaders would love to hear the voice of God telling them what needs to change.

  9. jader3rd (or anyone),

    What is the difference between leaders making mistakes (which we acknowledge can and does happen) and church leaders “leading us astray,” which (an overbroad reading of) the Manifesto says cannot happen?

  10. Kristine,

    I agree with your sentiment but it’s important to note that President Woodruff’s remark that the Lord will not allow a prophet to lead the church astray is found in his conference address that immediately follows the manifesto, not the manifesto itself. While the manifesto was placed for a vote and accepted by the church through common consent (though not unanimously as the church has only recently acknowledged) the conference address was not put to a vote, was not sustained, and is not part of church cannon. It’s mere commentary.

  11. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    Throwing God under the bus is easier than wrestling with the whole “Why would God allow this” mire.
    I’m going to need exponentially more time in the afterlife than I had in life to get through all my Whys.

  12. Re: Woodruff quote, I think it’s fair to apply the quote very narrowly to the case it was meant for. And beyond that we can look for principles we can learn, that massive changes in what’s taught will not lead us astray. So, if the church says, ordain/temples blacks when it didn’t before, it means that practice won’t lead us astray.

    It doesn’t mean the church had everything perfect from the outset. Indeed, you could interpret the fact that the church moved to allow ordination and temple ordinances to be a fulfillment of the prophecy that God will not let us be lead astray. It doesn’t mean cultural biases were not be made (nor that the leaders were terrible racists without love in their hearts), but theat the church will be placed on the right path in the end. It seems like we are.

    That being said, its still not clear to me why the restrictions were so different than various temple and other lineage restrictions in ancient Israel. Has anyone written on this? I’m not saying those restrictions were ideal, but they were a part of the faith for thousands of years.

    Jesus didn’t come and point out how wrong the past prophets were when he taught all manner of higher laws.

    I could imagine him saying, in effect:
    It has been said that a man with dark skin can not enter the house of the Lord, but I say unto you God is no respector of persons and all are alike unto the Lord.

    Nothing more needed to be said. No debate from his disciples. No apologies needed. The church moves forward with the additional light.

    How many are neglecting his words even now in our church and lusting after women in their hearts while they profess to be against racism? Let’s accept the words and teachings of Christ. All of them.

  13. Sadly, the practice of throwing God under the bus shows no sign of abating in the church. In a 2020 devotional address to the students at BYU, Russel M. Nelson boldly declared, “We may not always tell people what they want to hear. Prophets are rarely popular. But we will ALWAYS teach the truth!” [Emphasis in the original.]

    Later in that same talk, he justified the 2015 Exclusion Policy, as follows: “Though it may not have looked this way to some, the 2015 and 2019 policy adjustments on this matter [i.e., the baptism of children of LGBT parents] were both motivated by love—the love of our Heavenly Father for His children and the love of the Brethren for those whom we serve.”

    The possibility that the 2015 Exclusion Policy was a mistake in the first place is simply unfathomable for the Brethren. It seems easier to believe in a fickle deity instead.

  14. Well Kristine it’s possible that you were led astray by the comment about the presidents of the church never leading us astray. After all, what was the office of the person who made the statement?
    It’s in large part why I appreciated Elder Hollands talk a few conferences ago, about praying which fork in the road to take, feeling confident about the answer, but then shortly finding out the answer to the prayer was wrong. Jesus’s example prayer mentions having to pray to not be led into temptation. Who knows how far God will let us (both individually and collectivity) stray, when we’re not prayerfully trying to prevent it.
    The comment “leading astray” came after a major policy change. So major it was upending marriages. I would like to have confidence in leadership with changes as major as that. Other stuff probably isn’t as big of a deal as that.
    What our testimonies need to be in, are of a true and living church. Not one that’s constant and infallible with infallible leaders. Living means changing. Humility might require giving our leaders the room to direct change without abandoning them, because we treated them like they were infallible.

  15. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    QC – “The church moves forward with the additional light.”
    Considering it’s been 44 years and we’re still getting racist teachings from GAs, I’d say this hasn’t happened yet. It’s like the teenager telling their parent, “I know you’ve told me lots of times not to speed, but what is it hurting? Let’s just move on.”
    There is no part of the Gospel that should be “Hakuna Matata”. We need to remember that hurt, at the least to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but more importantly that we’re not just continuing to ignore the carnage we’ve so easily dismissed, simply because it didn’t affect us.

  16. This is masterful. ty.

  17. Stephen Hardy says:

    “Humility might require giving our leaders the room to direct change without abandoning them, because we treated them like they were infallible.”

    I have long learned that I do not enjoy General Conference. But I wasn’t sure why. It is one of those funny things: When I read the talks they seem reasonable, much of the time. I don’t disagree with most of the messages. I had a moment of understanding recently when I came to the conclusion that I dislike General Conference because the leaders speak as if they are infallible. They kind of insist on it. The messages there are never delivered with one iota of true humility. Yes, yes, I can hear you say that our leaders regularly express their humility. They are humble about a number of things. They are aware that they have big responsibilities and that they may not understand why they are called. Yes yes, they understand that they are possibly not better than the rest of us. But there is no humility in their message. They speak with complete certainty; they speak as if they could never make a mistake. They totally lack the humility that says: i could be wrong here. Or: There is uncertainty about this. Or: I understand God’s message this way, but my understanding may be incomplete. None of that. (Occasionally Elder Uchtdorf has come close to this.) I am sure that they believe that we peons will find their confidence to be inspiring, and that we will yearn for their kind of certainty. Their messages reek of infallibility. It is their tone, and style, not the message itself, that I find off-putting.

    In short: In my opinion our leaders need to learn to speak without the aura of infallibility; with more humility.

  18. Anon for This says:

    Throughout this entire debate I have always thought basically what CS Lewis said. We are judging this by our moral compass without entertaining any notion that there might be something going on that we just aren’t away of. Aren’t you doing that very thing here? Don’t we do that with polygamy as well?

  19. Dave K–thanks for the correction. I wasn’t expressing my sentiment so much as asking a sincere question. I really don’t understand where people draw that line in their minds, but clearly many do make some sort of distinction between mistakes prophets CAN make, and those they can’t because it would be leading the Church astray. I’m earnestly curious about how and where people find the line.

  20. Kristine – my best guess is most people draw the line between policy and doctrine.

    Everyone agrees that prophets can make simple personal mistakes like forgetting someone’s name or taking the wrong exit off the highway. They can even be jerks or swear. Beyond that, the most traditional members would hold that anything church-related that a Prophet says must be the Lord’s will. If it’s part of their stewardship, the Lord won’t let them mess up.

    Many members go beyond that and would allow for errors in policy such as what age missionaries should serve, what time to hold services, or whether to require BYU faculty to have temple recommends. Those policies require balancing and there is no eternal ‘right answer.’ Policy pronouncements where the Prophet has said the policy was the Lord’s will are harder, such as the now-removed policy limitations of children with same-sex parents.

    A minority of members would allow for a Prophet to make an error as to doctrine. The Lord will not allow the FP and Q12 say that something is the His will if it is not. That’s the fundamental challenge with the racial temple/priesthood ban. The teachings we dismiss today as policy and folklore, were clearly taught by prior leaders as doctrine. Our definition of doctrine has changed since then, but we can’t impose today’s definition on leadership ex-post.

    For me personally, I don’t put much stock in the policy/doctrine line, especially since there is no demarcation provided by the church, the definition of doctrine itself is subject to change, and we only learn that something was a policy after it changes. For instance I’d love to have a GA answer whether women’s exclusion from blessing circles, the sacrament table, clerk assignments, and SS presidencies are policies or doctrine. Those are all restrictions I could see changing without much concern from the church body, but we’d only learn after the change that they were policies all along. Kind of like sisters being allowed to serve as witnesses at baptisms. Everyone assumed that required priesthood ordination (me included) until one day it didn’t.

    I’m also in the smaller minority that does not lose faith in the institution if a Prophet makes doctrinal errors. I’ve been a president of deacon’s quorum, teacher’s quorum, priest’s quorum (aka the bishop), and elder’s quorum. In all those responsibilities I’ve gotten doctrine wrong despite my best efforts and then had to correct myself. I don’t see any reason by the president who holds all the keys for this world would be any different.

  21. Yeah, Dave–I think we are probably similar. I read the Woodruff line in narrow historical terms, suggesting not a lot more than that God won’t let the church president do something that will destroy the church. I think some of the other interpretations are possible, but the broader readings get you in a lot more difficulty than they get you out of.

  22. your food allergy says:

    Dave, I have understood myself as being in your smaller minority who can accept a Prophet making doctrinal errors. But there are errors and then there are ERRORS. The enormity of this ban, lasting as it did for more than a century, leading generations of members to adopt evil racist beliefs, excluding untold numbers of people from not just attending the temple and participating in the ordinances of salvation but even having the gospel preached to them, only to be repealed decades after the wicked world had passed the civil rights act, stuns me.

  23. An insightful post and interesting comments—but I have to say, my favorite new phrase is “etiological neener-neenering.” (I had to read it twice to make sure I was pronouncing it properly.) Sadly, I doubt I could successfully sneak it into my gospel doctrine class, but it’s fun to think about.

  24. @Eric Facer, was thinking the same thing. Nelson’s BYU devotional describing the reasons for the POX and its reversal were the biggest example of throwing God under the bus that I’ve seen in my life. And it’s the same story with race.

    @Stephen Hardy, totally agree. I can read conference talks and they are generally pretty vanilla (with some notable exceptions), but listening drives me absolutely nuts for the reasons you mention.

    I do not believe that a prophet cannot lead us astray. First, I don’t really know why I’d believe that coming from a prophet trying to assuage people in connection with a big change, or really ever (just like I have a hard time taking Benson’s 14 fundamentals talk seriously knowing he was basically talking about soon-to-be himself). Second, I think that asks us to abdicate our moral authority and say “all is well in Zion.” I think that’s dangerous and wrong.

    Lastly, while this focuses on leaders / institutions, I think as individuals we throw God under the bus all the time in an attempt to comfort ourselves and other people. I know for some people it’s comforting to say that some tragedy is “meant to be”, but I know several people who have left Church activity after suffering tragedies because it was too painful for them to keep hearing that God *wanted* them to lose their spouse or child or whatever. When we throw God under the bus – whether as a Church for racist Church policies, or as individuals for tragedies that are difficult for us to accept or explain – we risk creating a God that people don’t want to connect with.

  25. “one thing that needs to be said, which goes like this: ‘Look, the Church got it wrong, and the policy was immoral, and we all need to repent for that. So let’s start now to build the inclusive community that Christ requires.'”

    Yes. Exactly.

    “The recent remarks by a BYU religion professor about the LDS temple/priesthood ban have received a lot of pushback, but not always for the right reasons.”

    I gather what you’re saying is that Wilcox is not fully to blame but the church itself. Wilcox is simply saying essentially what can be derived from church policy. So we should be reacting to the church and not Wilcox, per se, who is a mere cog. I can get behind that.

  26. Allan Garber says:

    The Church got it wrong. Period. If the Church would just admit that, we could move forward. I have never seen so much word-smithing about such a simple issue. Fess up!!

  27. It is a matter of the times. There are a whole bunch of people who like the sunlight but do not believe in the sun. They voted for our ex-president, for example. People like this do not need “proof” or “justification.” They believe because they are told.

    So what do you do when most of your organization is composed of people like this? Prevaricate. Never apologize. I think these are all characterizations of our ex-president. Do they apply to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?

  28. Some of the comments here show that some of us do not recognize the difference between doctrine and policy. Both Polygamy and the priesthood ban are policy changes. Throughout history policies have changed for expediency. In the case of polygamy, it is difficult to assess the criteria because in the Bible we are told at some points that it is ok for more than one wife, and others one wife only, and in the case of Abraham, that it was even ok for him to bed his wife’s maid. We we given the law of consecration (or united order), which we could not live, and it was replaced with a lesser law of tithing. We are commanded to live what we are able and to prepare to live higher laws. Changing gears does not mean changing doctrine. The priesthood ban never was doctrine in the latter-days or Joseph would not have been allowed to baptize any black people or ordain them. Young changed the policy for what he saw as pragmatic reasons. Divine? Who can say, but at least the Lord had a back-up plan in place. Polygamy was banned as policy, but it still is in effect for eternal situations, and who can say if it will eve return for mortal ones in our culture? And remember that the book of Leviticus is full of nit-picking laws that were tailored for those who needed to be told every move to make. Where much is given, much is required, and so we need to prepare for changes that might bring back more doctrines that have been put on hold until enough of s are prepared to live them without ripping the church apart. The church is essential but solely because it is the conduit for exercising God’s authority and allowing us to receive the benefits. In and of itself, it is not needed except to bring order to the Kingdom of God.

  29. eastofthemississippi says:

    fbear0143… You nailed it, we have a very difficult time separating doctrine form policy, the doctrine is pure and simple, the policy on the other hand… The church is like NASCAR, it’s the sanctioning body in charge of running things.

  30. Actually, the distinction between doctrine and policy doesn’t work as the church is currently arranged. The problem is that we can only distinguish doctrine from policy in retrospect. We say that doctrines are the teachings that don’t change. But then, when a teaching changes, we say, “Whoops! That was actually a policy, not a doctrine.” Or, as fbear0143 tries to do with polygamy, we propose that the teaching didn’t really change, in spite of current practice and teaching. That gets ridiculous pretty fast.

    The way out of this situation is to define the core Latter-day Saint teachings. The Articles of Faith are a half-step toward that position. We’ve never wanted to complete that process, perhaps because that would require us to take definitive positions on the process of revelation and canonization. Theologically and historically, that’s a big task.

    We end up trying to have it both ways: we love our rhetoric about having unchanging truth, but we also love to talk about continuing revelation. That’s a contradiction that becomes a deeper and stickier mire over time. There might be ways to resolve the problem, but it will take more serious theological work than the every-six-months rhetorical improvisation and the backroom bureaucratic manual-writing that serve as our doctrinal development right now.

  31. fbear and eastofthemississippi, I believe you are mistaken.

    The Priesthood Ban was taught as doctrine by multiple prophets. Church leaders taught for decades that the priesthood ordination and temple ordinance ban was commanded by God. Brigham Young, for example, taught it was a “true eternal principle the Lord Almighty has ordained.”  President Wilford Woodruff issued the following statement regarding the reason why blacks were denied the Priesthood: “The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when ANOTHER DOCTRINE of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality . . . . [emphasis added]”

    In a 1947, the First Presidency under G.A. Smith, in a response to a letter from church member (Professor Lowry) who was questioning the divine origins of the Priesthood Ban, said, “We feel very sure that you understand well the DOCTRINES of the church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be.”

    A subsequent letter from the Office of the First Presidency the sent to this church member regarding the “Negro question” warned, that “when a member of the Church sets himself up against DOCTRINES preached by the Prophet Joseph Smith and those who have succeeded him . . . he is moving into a very dangerous position for himself personally.” [emphasis added.] Moreover, in 1949, the First Presidency officially stated that the Priesthood Ban was “not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord.”  

    A second First Presidency statement (this time under McKay) in 1969 reemphasized that this “seeming discrimination by the Church towards the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God.”  As president of the church, Kimball also emphasized in a 1973 press conference that the ban was “not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it.”

    This “policy vs. doctrine” argument is nothing more than semantics, something D. Oaks has openly acknowledged. As to the lifting of the Priesthood Ban, he said in 1988, “I don’t know that it’s possible to distinguish between policy and doctrine in a church that believes in continuing revelation and sustains its leader as a prophet. … I’m not sure I could justify the difference in doctrine and policy in the fact that before 1978 a person could not hold the priesthood and after 1978 they could hold the priesthood.”

    What the church teaches as doctrine has changed throughout its history. Some doctrines are flat out repudiated by later church leaders (e.g. the “Adam-God” doctrine), while many undergo countless revisions. If you don’t want to take my word for it, then read BYU Professor Harrell’s book, “This is My Doctrine.”

    As one wag has insightfully observed, “chur policies are doctrines that are no longer in favor.”

  32. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    The mental gymnastics required to differentiate between doctrine and policy are sometimes amusing. If we don’t want to say there is no difference between doctrine and policy (because…semantics), we should at least recognize that policy is a reflection of doctrine. We still have a very difficult time figuring out just what LDS doctrine is, but we can use existing policy to infer that doctrine. But that’s still very inexact. Policy can’t change without exposing limitations in our understanding of the underlying doctrine. As fbear contends, polygamy is still doctrine, even if the policy has changed. And there are many who continue to believe that church doctrine is that black people are inferior, even if the policy has changed and they are now allowed to receive temple and priesthood blessings (I don’t believe either of those examples, by the way). You don’t get to parse doctrine and policy in order to avoid wrestling with the failures of the past (or present).

  33. Michael Austin says:

    I agree with much of what has been said in the 3 posts above. Latter-day Saints do not have a clear mechanism of distinguishing between a doctrine and a policy. For, say, Catholics, this is much easier. The Catholic Church has an official Catechism and a formal Code of Canon Law and can draw very clear distinctions between a doctrinal truth, a required policy, and a recommended program. But Latter-day Saints generally consider almost everything that we do now a doctrine and everything we used to do but don’t do anymore a policy. There is absolutely no way that anyone can read the speeches and writings of Mormon leaders from 1850-1890 and come away with the idea that plural marriage was a policy and not a doctrine. It was as hard-wired into the Mormon worldview as any other core doctrinal principal. And, for much of the 20th century, the same was true of the priesthood/temple ban. Anyone who said that this was a non-doctrinal policy in 1930 would have risked excommunication. And, while a few of us liberal Saints today see the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and gender reassignment as changeable policies, this is NOT how they are portrayed in General Conference, in the Church’s curricular materials, or by the Promotion and Tenure Committees at the BYUs.

  34. A theory of mine: Understanding what really happened during the first several centuries of the Christian church will be increasingly useful for our church, notwithstanding our preconceptions about a Great Apostasy. If we are to remain a church with a very strong central hierarchy, we will recapitulate many of the problems that the early church faced as it established the teachings and practices that could not be compromised without sacrificing the church’s essential character. We will come to respect the immense amount of work and sacred commitment that produced the Catholic Church. We will take the choices those people made much more seriously than we have before, though I have no idea how far we should emulate those choices. That won’t guarantee that we keep God out from under the bus, but it will be a start.

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