Must Read: Michael Otterson on "Boundary Maintenance" in Mormonism

Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.     © Photo courtesy of UVU. All rights reserved.

Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. © Photo courtesy of UVU. All rights reserved.

Michael Otterson, the managing director of Public Affairs for the Church, recently spoke at an academic conference titled, “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance,” to scholars and journalists at Utah Valley University in Orem. I’ve long been impressed by Otterson and his remarks here are no exception. I’d go so far as to say this is a must read for every Church member who considers themselves invested at all in the Church and its place in the modern world. The 50-minute talk touches on interfaith, race, immigration, gender, and LGBT issues. It’s long and completely worth it. You can read or watch the full talk or highlights here. Some of my personal highlights are below.

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"If we could transport ourselves back to the mid-1800s, we would find in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a faith that seemed to the Christian world to do nothing but push boundaries. A literally physical God, separate in substance from His Son, Jesus Christ. The Apostasy. Restoration of the priesthood. New scripture. Heavenly parents. Temples. Redemption for the dead. Building Zion. Ours has never been a faith to feel confined or constrained in its declaration of doctrine or its commitment to spreading that message through more than a million missionaries who, since the Church’s humble founding in that little log cabin in Fayette, have been sent across the world.

Yet boundaries clearly do exist, and they must. I don’t see boundaries in the same way as some commentators, who believe that the Church today is simply battening down the hatches, rigidly resisting any change that seems progressive. That is an odd criticism of a church that believes in modern revelation through apostles and prophets, which in itself implies the ability to change or adapt—at least in organizational and structural terms. Rather, I acknowledge the right of leaders to establish boundaries for doctrine and behavior..."

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"Some critics accuse Church leaders of deliberately painting a false picture of Church history and doctrine, all the time knowing that they were deceiving Church members. The imposed boundary, they say, was complete orthodoxy with no exploration allowed. Every historical story was painted with faith-promoting care regardless of any nuances or contradictory facts. It was as if the writers of Church curriculum were the literary equivalent of Arnold Friberg’s paintings—just a little too perfect, with a dash of exaggeration. And it was all done deliberately to deceive.

You would expect me as a Church spokesman to reject those claims, and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly, and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it and it does not square with my personal experience about how Church leaders think and act and what motivates them."

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"In reality the vast majority of members learn gospel doctrine at home when they are growing up, or in seminary and in the three-hour block. While many also read beyond curriculum-based lessons, most are more likely to seek inspirational or motivational works by favored writers than delve into the complexities of Church history and doctrine. Church leaders, and those charged with developing and writing curriculum for lessons in church, were writing in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers wanted their youth and adult classes to leave at the end of the lesson fortified and motivated to tackle another week outside of church. The three-hour block was never intended to be a course deep in Church history and doctrine. Students interested in those subjects could always find scholarly works if they wanted.

With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of a generation that is wired 24/7, that no longer suffices and even seems superficial. Members now Google terms and topics on their smartphones while they are sitting in class. I do that myself. But the realization by Church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen Church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests, and study habits changed. Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal."
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"How does this principle-based, often delicate act of balancing competing interests come into play with our own members? During the 2012 election campaign, we repeatedly told journalists who tried to shoehorn the Church into the right wing of electoral politics that the Church was a big tent. That is certainly true. I have said elsewhere that we in Utah sometimes have a myopic view of Church members and their political ideology. If you truly understand the diversity of the global LDS membership, you will know that we have members living under a multitude of political regimes. We live under a dizzying array of political structures and rules—Vietnam and Venezuela, Canada and Cuba, Scandinavia and Swaziland, China and the Congo.

A few months ago I received a Facebook message from a nephew of mine living in Sydney, Australia, a fully active member of the Church, a returned missionary and parent. He happened to listen on the web to an address I gave at the FairMormon conference last year and wrote the following: “It seems that in the U.S. many members are concerned with ‘issues’ that members here don’t even give a thought or care about.”

I mention that because I think it raises an important point. We criticize politicians and the media for being inside the “Washington Bubble,” for always seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own professional or vocational biases. All of us are susceptible to that—including me, of course. LGBT rights are enormously important to LGBT members, to their families, to many members, and most assuredly to Church leaders as well. But this is not the only issue of importance facing Church leaders, and in some countries it isn’t an issue at all. This isn’t to suggest that this is right or wrong. I simply ask you, if you are in your own bubble or echo chamber, to recognize that the issues we are sometimes fixated on along the Wasatch Front or even in the United States are not necessarily important to our members in East Africa or Central Asia."

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"Winner-take-all scenarios are regularly pursued in the culture wars across the country by both sides. That is unfortunate. Some state legislatures seem intent on making religious freedom so broad that it simply sounds like a license to discriminate on any grounds. Some LGBT advocates take an equally uncompromising position on the other side. We believe there is a better way. I have described what the Church has been advocating for years—urging mutual respect, balancing the competing rights of people within a pluralistic society."

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"The point is that there is a cornerstone. There are boundaries, both of behavior and of doctrine. There are commandments. There is obedience. Believing this as I do doesn’t rob me of my agency or of my opinions. Rather it compels me constantly to evaluate my own behavior against that standard, knowing that ultimately I will be accountable to God for where I draw those boundaries for myself. President Dieter Uchtdorf closed the Sunday morning session of general conference just over a week ago by calling obedience “steps of faith.” He acknowledged that obedience is “not a popular word these days.” But he closed with this: “We come to see obedience not as a punishment but as a liberating path to our divine destiny. … Eventually, the priceless, eternal spirit of the heavenly being within us is revealed, and a radiance of goodness becomes our nature.”