A little over a week ago, the Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent out an email that relieved some people, put some people in their place, and upset some people.
"Dear Brothers and Sisters:
"We are in the midst of a global pandemic unlike any the world has experienced in more than a century. The effects of this escalating health crisis are being felt everywhere, with incidents of COVID-19 infection rising dramatically especially in the United States, including in Utah. Latter-day Saints are not immune. Just today, more than 800 new infections were reported in our state.
"A growing chorus of medical authorities has confirmed that the simple wearing of a face covering when in public and when social distancing is not possible will significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. This is true both indoors and outdoors.
"We note with appreciation the care exhibited by our members in returning to sacrament meetings wearing face masks. Now we ask all Latter-day Saints in the Utah Area to be good citizens by wearing face coverings when in public. Doing so will help promote the health and general welfare of all.
"We are most grateful for all you do to minister to one another and to your neighbors. Please join with us now in common purpose for the blessing and benefit of all.
Elder Craig C. Christensen
Elder Randy D. Funk
Elder Walter F. González
Utah Area Presidency"
Utah was singled out for the obvious reason that it's been breaking its own record for new daily infections at least twice a week, in no small part owing to the great number of people in and out of the Church who continue to go about their lives as though the virus didn't exist. It's pretty embarrassing that this request had to be made. And I do recognize that it's "just" a request. And when I continue to see people at church without masks I'm going to continue to not give them dirty looks or call them apostates to their faces or try to shame them in any way. I follow this same conduct everywhere else, though I move away from them if they sit near me on the bus and I don't particularly care if that hurts their feelings or in some cases makes them think I'm racist. There is wisdom in the advice, "When you see someone not wearing a mask, assume they have a good reason and that it's none of your business." Of course, this assumption disintegrates pretty quickly when you try to apply it to >90% of the people in the grocery store at the same time.
Not harassing individuals about wearing masks in public doesn't mean, however, that I'm going to pretend conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and individualist narcissism constitute a legitimate alternative perspective. It doesn't mean that I'm going to pretend selfish and stupid decisions that actively place countless people in danger are entitled to respect. And it doesn't mean that I'm not going to call people out when I see them on social media trying to explain why the letter is wrong and/or trivial. This is not about "believing differently", regardless of how empirically false said beliefs are. If you want to "believe differently" that the Earth is flat and aliens are coming to probe your dog, I don't care because that doesn't place me or anyone I love in harm's way. I'll leave you alone. This is very different.
So of course in the past few days people have in turn called me out for mask shaming, being the real problem, being a bully, being un-Christlike, and worst of all, being the j-word. They have correctly noticed that I'm not the nicest person in the world, but may have been less astute in observing that Christ criticized pretentious idiots all the time and frequently called people unflattering names (e.g. swine, dogs, hypocrites, whited sepulchres, generation of vipers, Satan). One even said, "It's judgmental people like you who make good people leave the Church." I have news for him: if this were my church, which it is not, I would excommunicate these "good people" myself to stop them from embarrassing me further, at least insofar as I could given that they would still embarrass me by being Americans. So nice try guilt-tripping me and better luck next time.
I wonder why some of them are members in the first place. I don't believe in blind obedience, I don't believe any church leader is infallible, and I don't look down on anyone for the mere fact of struggling to accept certain teachings or policies. I struggle to accept a few things myself. But this church claims to be led by revelation from God, and if you actually believe that, it's both arrogant and nonsensical to immediately reject every teaching or policy that contradicts the views you already hold. If you already know the true mind and will of God so perfectly, I don't know why you need to be here. By all means be that way if you want - it's a free country if you're white - but don't expect me to not find it annoying when you preach your bastardized version at everyone else. The same people rejecting the Utah Area Presidency's request have also criticized the Church for supporting LGBT rights legislation, saying we should treat immigrants and refugees like humans, prohibiting guns in its chapels, and partnering with the NAACP. They also call out the church-owned Deseret News whenever it publishes an article or opinion piece that doesn't cater to the right-wing bias they think should be the default worldview, which is often.
A common theme in the current anti-masker dismissals is that this request "only" came from the Utah Area Presidency and wasn't signed by the prophet. (The bishop in the ward I attended last weekend read the email out loud and said at least twice that it came from the First Presidency. I'm not sure if he was somehow mistaken or just fudging the facts to make people take it more seriously. That wouldn't exactly be ethical, but oh well.) Really, I'm not even sure what to say to anyone who's deluding themself that President slash Doctor Nelson isn't aware of this letter and in full agreement with its message. From the beginning he has treated this virus as a very serious matter and called on members of the Church to be good citizens and follow government mandates and the medical community's recommendations. Some people who claim to believe he's a prophet simultaneously believe this virus is no worse than the flu and/or an election year Democrat hoax that every country in the world is participating in for some reason. The mental gymnastics are astounding. And even if he did sign this, they might still say he's wrong like they did when he donated to rebuild mosques in New Zealand.
Even though the letter makes no mention of government or laws, which wouldn't make sense anyway since Utah's Republican government isn't requiring masks and that's part of the problem, some of the anti-maskers are still whining about their "agency" or "liberty" or "rights". Here we see the truth: that being asked to voluntarily take on some inconvenience and discomfort to protect the people around them, the neighbors that Christ commanded them to love, upsets them just as much as being coerced to do it. The truth is, living in a society with other people comes with responsibilities as well as rights. It's about time anti-maskers got over themselves and recognized that fact. I saw someone say in response to the letter, "I have no desire to be a 'good citizen', or at least not someone else's idea of a good citizen." I told him to go live in the woods by himself. This narcissism - I keep using that word because it's really the most appropriate word - is almost exclusively American and it's about as compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ as motor oil is with ice cream.
But that doesn't stop anti-maskers from trying to justify it through the gospel. Agency, our inherent ability to make our own choices, is so important and sacred that God won't take it away from us despite the incalculable suffering we cause with it. So they start with the false premise that liberty is the same thing as agency and reach the false conclusion that it trumps all other virtues all the time. (For some reason they idolize Captain Moroni, a Book of Mormon character who imprisoned people without trial and put them to death if they refused to support his army, but that's neither here nor there.) Thousands of preventable deaths and the collapse of our healthcare system do not, in their view, negate their God-given right to not wear masks. Of course, they also frequently point out that most deaths don't count because people over sixty or with pre-existing conditions aren't really people. That's if they believe the virus is real or dangerous at all.
Also, this happened the other day, well after the Area Presidency's email, with so-called Latter-day Saints obviously constituting the overwhelming majority of anti-maskers involved. It made national news. If it doesn't disgust you, it should.
This particular incident really triggers me because some of the people I love most in the world, people I would do anything for, are teachers, and the thought of them being willfully and deliberately placed in avoidable danger by these mindless monsters who hold them in contempt makes my blood boil very much. I disagree with one point though - Utah is clearly not better than this.
Ahem. Where was I?
Yes, this is a request, and nobody will face any ecclesiastical consequences for disregarding it. And if one isn't a total jackass about not wearing a mask, one is technically not in apostasy. So here's where I risk getting into actual judgmental territory, as opposed to my previous territory that people think is judgmental but actually isn't. I'm not purporting to know anyone's standing before God but I think these are very important points to consider. Do you imagine God views it positively or negatively when someone splits hairs and looks for excuses not to follow His appointed leadership? And again, what sense does such a decision make just because they asked instead of demanding? If they're wrong about this when it's a request, they would still be wrong if it were a mandate. They would still be wrong if the prophet signed the email. And if that were the case, I suppose the Church could still be led by revelation in other things that don't contradict your politics, but it would seem kind of silly to follow them if they're so easily duped by something you think you can debunk with a few minutes on YouTube.
Good thing they're not wrong. Too bad so many are ignoring them anyway.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.