I left the church but, as prophesied, I can't leave it alone. I watched General Conference for a few reasons - because I was curious how differently it would come across with my current perspective, because it's given me comfort and inspiration in the past and I was open-minded enough to see if it would still do so, because I have two nieces (so far) who will be raised in the church and I maintain an interest in the church's development for their sake if nothing else, because it gave some structure and purpose to my lonely weekend, and because I've written about every General Conference since I started blogging weekly on this platform and I might break that tradition but there's no need to do so yet. Here are my jaded, cynical, faithless observations and opinions.
Dallin H. Oaks talked about the monetary value of the church's humanitarian aid, which is being disclosed in unprecedented detail in obvious response to criticism about how little per capita the church gives in humanitarian aid. He gave a total of almost a billion dollars annually, which is almost one percent of the value of the Ensign Peak "rainy day" fund at the time whistleblowers leaked it in 2019. I'm not knowledgeable enough to criticize the church's financial priorities much, and unlike a lot of people I recognize that charitable donations are not the primary reason why religions exist, but I just wish members would recognize that context before jumping to the conclusion that almost a billion dollars is a lot of money. He talked about partnering with good people of other faiths, and the fact that God works through them because one church can't do everything alone. I liked that. I also liked that he didn't feel the need to remind everyone that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The For the Strengh of Youth pamphlet, which I critiqued slightly a few months ago, got an overhaul beyond what I ever would have anticipated. Dieter F. Uchtdorf discussed the new edition and totally threw all the previous editions under the bus. Since it first came out in 1965, it's been a list of do this, don't do that. Some of the this's and that's have changed in fifty-seven years but the overall approach has not. Now that's all been scrapped in favor of generic principles to guide the youth in making their own choices. For example, the sexist list of "immodest" clothes that girls shouldn't wear and the stupid injunction against multiple ear piercings have been replaced with, "Heavenly Father wants us to see each other for who we really are: not just physical bodies but His beloved children with a divine destiny. Avoid styles that emphasize or draw inappropriate attention to your physical body instead of who you are as a child of God with an eternal future" and "The Lord’s standard is for you to honor the sacredness of your body, even when that means being different from the world. Let this truth and the Spirit be your guide as you make decisions - especially decisions that have lasting effects on your body. Be wise and faithful, and seek counsel from your parents and leaders." Based on my anecdotal observations, I think this is the church's way of capitulating to the reality that its young female members are wearing whatever they want and getting as many piercings as they want anyway.
As I anticipated, the bit about homosexuality has been revised: "I am attracted to people of my same sex. How do these standards apply to me? Feeling same-sex attraction is not a sin. If you have these feelings and do not pursue or act on them, you are living Heavenly Father’s sacred law of chastity. You are a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember that the Savior understands everything you experience. Through your covenant connection with Him, you will find strength to obey God’s commandments and receive the blessings He promises. Trust Him and His gospel." This is a nicer way of saying that God expects you to be alone until you die or marry someone you aren't attracted to and will probably divorce, and that you're better off dead because God will make you straight in the next life. (Never mind that no human has ever said the words "I am attracted to people of my same sex.") I know or know of scores, maybe hundreds of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who were miserable in the church and became happy after they left. That's why I stopped believing what the church teaches about them. Why didn't they "find strength to obey God's commandments and receive the blessings He promises?" Am I supposed to believe that every single one of them just didn't have enough faith? Even the ones who still attend church with their same-sex partners?
The pamphlet also includes this gem: "Is it wrong to have questions about the Church? How can I find answers? Having questions is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. In fact, asking questions can help build faith. The Restoration of the gospel started when 14-year-old Joseph Smith asked questions with faith. Seek answers in the scriptures, in the words of God’s prophets, from your leaders and faithful parents, and from God Himself. If answers don’t come right away, trust that you will learn line upon line. Keep living by what you already know, and keep seeking for truth." I never heard this kind of stuff as a youth, but it's all over the freaking place now that the church is facing an unprecedented retention crisis (especially among the youth). I like that questions are framed as a positive thing, but also the constant emphasis on "questions" per se has really started to irk me. I didn't leave the church because of my questions, I left because of the answers. A big question I had was "Why did the church tell women not to have careers and then quietly stop telling women not to have careers?" And the answer was, "Because its past leaders were sexist and attributed their sexism to God, and its current leaders can't admit that its past leaders were ever wrong about anything because that would call their own reliability into question." The church promotes a circular assumption that the answers to the questions will always vindicate it and put it in a positive or at least tolerable light, and that simply wasn't the case for me.
Tracy Browning, the first black woman in a general presidency, became the first black woman to speak in General Conference. For those who say it doesn't matter, yes it does, for reasons I know you know, so shut up. She talked with a normal voice instead of a patronizing General Conference voice. I liked that. She hasn't been assimilated yet.
Russell M. Nelson spent much of his first talk condemning abuse. While he didn't directly allude to the recent Associated Press articles and child rape scandal that obviously motivated his remarks, it was nice to see the prophet kind of respond in some capacity instead of continuing to hide behind anonymous PR employees. It really annoyed me that the First Presidency delegated this issue to them while taking the time to write a letter about changing the name of tithing settlement to tithing declaration. He immediately went on to talk about truth and how we need to be careful about who we trust, which seemed to be a way of calling into question the integrity of Pulitzer-winning journalist Michael Rezendes in a way that won't get him sued for slander.
Kristin M. Yee's talk resonated with me the most, as she spoke about the difficulty of forgiving people who never apologize or accept responsibility for wronging you, a category that might, hypothetically, include ex-neighbors, police officers, so-called healthcare workers, deadbeat parasites, and/or elementary school administrators, hypothetically. In the absence of justice, my resentment feels like the closest thing I have. Giving it up feels like pretending that what happened was okay. I know I need to reorient my thinking for my own mental health. It kind of helps and kind of just pisses me off when I remember that many, many people have been abused and discriminated against far worse than me and never received any justice. This planet needs to burn.
Ulisses Soares spoke about the equality of men and women that doesn't yet reflect lived experience within the church, throwing in the obligatory patriarchal language to obfuscate the church's drastic evolution on this topic in the last fifty years. In all seriousness, I think he's a great guy who means what he says, I'm just annoyed at how the church teaches different things and then pretends it's always taught the same things. D. Todd Christofferson spoke about belonging and inclusion and diversity, which again doesn't yet reflect lived experience within the church but I guess that's why he needed to speak about it. The church would have less work to do in this regard if it had started rooting out racism in 1830 instead of 2020.
Gérald Caussé spoke about our need to use resources wisely and be good stewards of the Earth. Though not unprecedented, this kind of environmental message is almost unheard of within the church. It hasn't been a priority at all and it directly contradicts the political views of a majority of its American members. He said that left His creation incomplete and gave us the opportunity to contribute with art and music and I don't remember but I'm going to assume he said writing too. This came dangerously close to contradicting the political views of a majority of the church's American members, namely that artists and musicians and writers should have majored in something useful and don't deserve to afford to be alive. But this concept of being co-creators with God is a really great one. It first occurred to me in 2013 when I got chills from a slideshow of stars and nebulae set to the David Arkenstone track "Stepping Stars." God had left space silent and David Arkenstone had filled the silence with the sort of thing that we all somehow know space should sound like. That particular video is gone but this one is close enough.
Jeffrey R. Holland spoke about why Latter-day Saints don't (usually) use the cross as a symbol. He made the interesting claim that because the earliest Christians didn't use the cross as a symbol, this is an evidence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the original Christian church. Actually, Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century often wore or decorated with crosses. They became less popular in the twentieth century and were made officially taboo by David O. McKay in the late 1950s, in part because he felt they were "purely Catholic." Holland expressed empathy for several of the various struggles that people face, including the struggles of LGBTQ people that are caused by the church.
David A. Bednar gave a talk that came across to me as a thinly-veiled passive-aggressive condemnation of the increasing number of members who don't wear their temple garments every day, mostly because he shared a parable about a guy who wasn't wearing garments and he said the word "garments" over and over. I thought the church was lightening up about that sort of thing.
Russell M. Nelson spoke again. I don't buy the narrative that the world is the worst it's ever been. I recently read a history of the 1970s, and talk about a decade that I'm grateful I didn't live through. I don't buy the teaching that the 0.2% of people in the world with access to temple ordinances in mortality have a degree of access to God's power that no one else does. That would make God a respecter of persons. And then I didn't pay much attention to the last session so I'll skip ahead to his final talk where of course he announced 18 new temples. I used to get so excited about new temple announcements because they meant that the church was growing and expanding throughout the world. Nowadays most of them mean nothing of the sort. Nelson keeps announcing them for areas where active membership isn't even large enough to staff them, let alone use them in appreciable numbers. The church will be scrambling to find a lot of senior missionary couples in the near future. At this point it feels like he's just showing off. He didn't announce 18 new temples because the church needs 18 new temples, he announced 18 new temples so the church can boast that it now has 300 temples operating or in planning stages, even though its annual membership growth has fallen from 2.19% to 0.85% in the last decade. But at least none of them were in Utah.
General observations: A higher percentage than usual of women (which isn't saying much) spoke and prayed, obviously in reaction to criticisms about the low percentage of women who speak and pray in General Conference. Bonnie H. Cordon was announced with her proper title of "President," not "Sister," which is such a small thing that shouldn't have taken until 2022 to implement but here it is and it's good. Most speakers continued the disturbing trend of quoting and fawning over our beloved prophet President Russell M. Nelson to a degree that I never observed with his two most recent predecessors. Neil L. Andersen was the most egregious. This prophet worship, coupled with the reality of how many things past prophets have gotten wrong that we're supposed to just not care about, was a big part of why I left.
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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.