In my last post I wrote about latter-day prophecy on socialism, citing prophets and apostles from past General Conferences. I enjoyed both the agreement as well as the “disagreement without being disagreeable” that resulted. Studying the crossroads of politics and religions has led me to many a vigorous and informative debate with my fellow-saints, (especially while sitting in various Deseret Book locations signing copies of my book, “Our Title of Liberty.”)
At times I have identified with (but never compared my self to) the apostle Paul who did not shy from a debate whether it was “disputing in the synagogue with the Jews” or debating the Epicureans and Stoics on Mars Hill. I imagine many considered Paul to be pushy, a sentiment often associated with those who express strong opinions on controversial subjects. It is often said: “you can't discuss politics and religion” but those are my two favorite topics of conversation…and I can only spend so much time talking about sports and the weather.
That said, I wanted to address the following responses pooh-poohing General Conference political statements as either personal commentary, or discounting the validity of talks given long ago:
Some of the Elders of the church interpose personal political beliefs into conference and other talks.
Using a couple of conference statements from 50+ years ago…is silly.
The problem…is that you are using quotes from church leaders…which are quite dated
I cannot fathom such conclusions. Following that reasoning, we might as well stop listening in Priesthood and Relief Society classes on second and third Sundays since the “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church” lesson manuals mostly consist of General Conference quotes since the mid-1800's. General authorities often quote apostles and prophets from General Conferences long past in a continuous blending of prophetic revelation and teaching on a wide variety of subjects.
No president of the church or general authority has ever said that older general conference talks are of no effect or that the doctrine presented has an expiration date. It is true that politics is not discussed as much today as it was in the past, which I imagine can be attributed to a much more fractured political environment whereby such talks would be a much greater distraction from the church's central mission. I believe another reason is that the political evils of today are no different from those of 50 or 100 years ago – they just have different names and as such need no further comment from the brethren. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that latter-day saints are regularly encouraged by the first presidency to be politically involved and they have never once instructed the membership to disregard what past prophets and apostles have taught.
In the early Christian church a scriptural canon existed which was then added to and expounded upon by means of epistles which served as written conference address that added to doctrine revealed by the Savior. In like manner the restored church of Jesus Christ adds to and expounds upon the scriptural canon in General Conference. Those sermons remain just as valid in the future as the day they were given, (the only exception being when specifically superseded by new revelation that alters previous doctrinal positions, e.g., polygamy, or priesthood eligibility changes.)
Another comment made the case for blowing off older conference talks with: “Which of our living prophets or apostles have made similar statements?”
Is anybody really under the impression that living prophets must ratify everything preached by previous prophets? Others have made this erroneous point using an Ezra Taft Benson quote: “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” I wholeheartedly endorse this position and would point to the fact that none of the quotes I cited have ever been contradicted by any subsequent general authority. In fact, there have been no conflicting statements on politics made in any General Conference in this dispensation.
That statement about living vs. dead prophets came from a 1st Presidency message by President Benson entitled: “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet”. (June, 1981 Ensign, First Presidency Message, at the time Benson was of course President of the Quorum of the Twelve) I would like to cite a few principles from that message as they apply to general authorities speaking about politics from the pulpit.
“Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or diplomas to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.”
President Benson explained: “Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to his prophet on the same subject…We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet and you’ll be blessed and time will show you have done the right thing.”
Clearly there is plenty of earthly knowledge about politics available today, but since prophets are authorized to “speak on any subject,” I consider quotes like the following to be definitive statements on LDS political truth:
“Communism is anti-Christ.”
(David O. McKay, Conference Report, April 1950, p.175)
In 1950 many believed the “earthly knowledge” that communism was just another form of government and had no spiritual application. President McKay left no doubt as to what we should believe regarding communism.
I realize in this context the word “should” is controversial and scary. Discussing politics in many ways is like discussing religion – the truth is not scientifically provable and deals with opinions that are not always popular. Someone commented that my statement regarding what Mormons “should” believe was “divisive and cause[d] the thinker to judge the righteousness or accuracy of his fellow saints.” This is the kind of touchy-feely response that seems compassionate but is really an accusation that another's opinion will lead others to bad behaviors. This sort of misdirection is how political discussion gets muddled: by inventing imaginary ill-effects of another's position instead of addressing substance.
The pursuit of political and spiritual truth at times requires bold, yet polite, lines to be drawn. Such is the nature of politics and religion. My goal is not to divide, but to persuade my fellow-saints to consider the prime Messianic declaration on politics: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.” The Savior is clearly saying that there are functions that should be taken care of by government while others belong to God and religion. He did not say which functions belong to which, in much the same way that He doesn't give exact definitions of tithing or keeping the Sabbath day holy. He expects us to be “anxiously engaged” in following His prophets and His Spirit so we can obtain “the mind of Christ” in distinguishing which functions belong to Caesar and which should be left to God.
“Sixth: The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord” to give us scripture.”
This principle responds to those who feel justified in cherry-picking their political beliefs by asserting that prophets mix their “own personal political beliefs” into General Conference addresses.
I would point those folks to Pres. Benson's follow-up: “…there are those who argue about words. They might say the prophet gave us counsel but that we are not obliged to follow it unless he says it is a commandment. But the Lord says of the Prophet, “Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you.” (D&C 21:4.) Said Brigham Young, “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture.” (Journal of Discourses, 13:95.)”
“Seventh: The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.”
President Benson then cited an eleven year old (at the time) conference quote “Said President Harold B. Lee: You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views.”
(Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152–153.)
(Notice how unconcerned President Lee is with being “pushy,” “divisive,” or the potential for some to “judge the righteousness or accuracy of their fellow saints.”)
Bruce R. McConkie said:
“To be valiant in the testimony of Jesus is to take the Lord’s side on every issue. It is to vote as he would vote. It is to think what he thinks, to believe what he believes, to say what he would say and do what he would do in the same situation.”
(“Be Valiant in the Fight of Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1974)
Elder McConkie is clearly stating that the “the Lord's side” of any issue exists and that we should be active in championing it, and voting for it.
I believe it to be plain and clear: The doctrine in General Conference talks is the mind and will of the Lord on any subject…it has no shelf-life, and it never expires.