Lately I feel like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actively trying to push me out of it by doubling down on a facile, myopic, and demonstrably incorrect view of itself and the restored gospel that I cannot accept without shutting my brain off. For example, as part of recent high-level efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging of members in Europe, Russell M. Nelson's wife Wendy said in a devotional, "My testimony is that prophets of God always speak the truth" and "For this new year let's put an exclamation mark after every statement from a prophet, and a question mark after everything else we read, see, or hear." Okay, so this paraphrase about putting exclamation points instead of question marks after prophetic statements was also shared by Neil L. Anderson in General Conference a couple years ago, and I didn't find it helpful then either. It rather obtusely sidesteps the legitimate issue of prophetic fallability. But by saying that "prophets of God always speak the truth," Sister Nelson goes a step further and claims that prophetic fallability doesn't even exist. There's no way to spin that statement to make it accurate. If prophets of God always spoke the truth, they wouldn't contradict each other (or themselves) and the Church wouldn't have to formally disavow all the racist things that Brigham Young and others said. Later she asks members to question everything they read, see or hear except the prophet. Um, yikes. And she thinks statements like this will prevent loss of faith?
This brings me, then, to a discussion of Brad Wilcox's recent controversial fireside in Alpine, Utah. I know it's been discussed to death, and I'm sure he feels bad enough and I have no desire to rub it in further, but it's not like he'll ever read my blog anyway, and I can't not discuss it after it caused me so much angst this week that I could have lived without.
Everyone who's met Brother Wilcox says he's very nice. I've been aware of him since I was ten years old or so, when my parents outsourced most of my sex education to a book he wrote, and I've been in Utah long enough to hear him speak twice - at the Logan Institute's weekly Religion in Life devotional and years later to my YSA stake. On both those occasions, he said almost verbatim the same things about black people and women that have aroused such controversy this time. This time, however, his talk was structured around trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of young people. He said at the beginning, "Maybe some people can leave some churches and they don’t miss that much. But you leave this church, you miss everything. You miss everything. Let’s talk about the blessings of the gospel that you can only find here." And he reiterated at the end, "I hope you realize that if you walk away from this religion, you lose everything. You lose everything. Everything that truly matters most. So stay put. Stay strong. Look for every possible reason there is to stay. And there is to share the truths we have that cannot be found elsewhere." And in between as he went through each of his topics - Godhead, Only True Church, Spirit, Priesthood, Everyone, and Living Prophets (GOSPEL) - he kept stressing the things that people will lose if they leave the Church.
It would be unfair to call his approach entirely fear-based. He does focus on the positives that the Church has to offer. But at the same time, he is trying to make people afraid to lose those positives. I think he could have eliminated that side of things altogether. For me and many others, it has the opposite effect of encouraging us to stay. It makes me think, "Why do you have to beg and cajole me not to leave instead of making me want to stay?" His assertions that people who leave lose everything are both false and perplexing in light of his acknowledgement elsewhere in the talk that people of other faiths have truth and access to the Spirit. One of my closest friends right now is a former Latter-day Saint who believes that when she left the Church, she kept all the true and good parts and simply added to them. (Why does that sound familiar?) I discussed this talk with her and she said it's too bad because she likes Brad Wilcox. She's one of the kindest people I know, she rarely stops smiling, and I have holy envy for her expansive and inclusive spirituality. I think I'm more committed to an ideal of objective truth than she is, but nonetheless, I want to do what she does and what Joseph Smith said to do: "We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons." This expansive and inclusive view has always been integral to the gospel, but it's always been in tension with the "only true church" thing. And Brother Wilcox didn't get off to a promising start in that section of his talk either.
"If you haven’t yet run into somebody who gets a little uptight when you say 'This is the only true Church,' then you will run into somebody who will get uptight because they don’t like that. They don’t think that sounds very tolerant. And in today’s world, tolerance trumps all. So by hang, we better be tolerant." Now, I believe in objective truth and I don't believe all religions can be equally true, so I'm not opposed to this concept on principle, but yes, tolerance ought to compel us to be very tactful about how we share it, and comprising .02% of the world's population (or less than half that if you only count active members) ought to give us a little humility in our interactions with the other 99.98%. And I think Brother Wilcox gets that. He said, "But we’re not screaming 'We’re number one,' saying we’re better than everybody else. We’re saying 'We’re the only true Church' in a spirit of invitation." Then he used an analogy from Boyd K. Packer: "Truth is like a piano keyboard; some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano." I think this analogy still misses the mark. I think it drastically undervalues the amount of truth and goodness that other faiths (not just Christian churches) have, and oversells how much we have. If we have a whole piano, why do we need continuing revelation or an ongoing Restoration? Why should I even think God is limited to one instrument? And then Brother Wilcox went and made it needlessly derisive: "You walk away from the Church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing Chopsticks the rest of your life. I don’t want to play Chopsticks the rest of my life." And I personally don't want to hear only piano music for the rest of my life.
In the section on Spirit he said some nicer and more nuanced things, but in the section on priesthood - which has been at the center of the controversy - he went right back to being derisive. He opened with, "How many of you used to play school? Okay, good. I’m glad to see those hands up. How many of you used to play Church? I’m glad to see a few hands go up. My kids played Church. They’d pull out the stuffed animals, they’d put them on the couch, they’d sing the song, they’d do the talk, [I] got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament, but they played church. And I used to think, 'Oh, that’s so cute. It’s so cute.' But now I’m older, and I realized it wasn’t just cute. It’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing Church. They’re sincere, they want it to count, but they don’t have the authority. They don’t have God’s permission. So that the things they do really count on Earth and in eternity. Man, I want what I’m doing to count. And to be able to have that, we have to have the priesthood. We have to have that." Wow. I hope I don't have to explain why this is an unwarranted slap in the face to billions of good and sincere people. I look at these people and think about how proud God is of their goodness and sincerity, and how much He blesses them and works through them. Brother Wilcox and many, many other Latter-day Saints look at these people and think how sad it is that they're all wrong. To the extent that this attitude wins out in the Church, it is not a spiritually healthy place for me.
Moving right along: "Now, sadly, you live in a time where a lot of people get uptight about priesthood issues. It’s one of the most glorious things we have in the church, and yet people want to sit and fight about it and get uptight about it. Now, I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex issue, but I sure think we make it a little harder than it needs to be. 'How come the blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? What’s up with that, Brother Wilcox? What? Brigham Young was a jerk? Members of the Church were prejudiced?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying, 'Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978?', maybe what we should be asking is 'Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?' 1,829 years they waited. And why did the Gentiles have to wait until after the Jews? And why did everybody in the House of Israel except the tribe of Levi have to wait until - when you look at it like that, then instead of trying to feel like you have to figure out God’s timeline, we can just be grateful. Grateful right down to our socks that the blacks received the priesthood in ’78. Grateful, right down to our socks that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had the priest to restore to them in 1829. Maybe we should just feel grateful."
This is one of the things he said both times I heard him speak in Logan. I didn't recognize it as racist, because he didn't say anything about black people being inferior or cursed or less valiant, but I did have mixed feelings about it. Brigham Young was a complex person and your mileage may vary on how much of a jerk he was, but yes, he was prejudiced, and so were other leaders and members of the Church. That's very well-documented. It's not up for debate. What's bizarre here is that by mentioning Brigham Young, Brother Wilcox seems to show an awareness that he, not Joseph Smith, instituted the priesthood ban. So Brother Wilcox seems to be aware, as most people are nowadays, that black people did get the priesthood well before 1978, and then it was taken away from them. What does that mean for his ideas about God's timeline? Nonetheless - and maybe this makes me racist, I don't know, but when I heard him say this I thought his other questions were legitimate points. Not answers to the issue by any means, but additional food for thought. I had figured out long before his talks that there's very little evidence the priesthood ban had anything to do with God, and a lot of evidence that it had to do with white men being racist, but in order to maintain my faith I had to believe that God had some greater non-racist purpose for allowing this mistake. He could have stopped it. I don't buy the argument that stopping it would have thwarted Brigham Young's agency. Brigham Young wanted to do what God wanted him to do, and would have appreciated the correction. In any case, I failed to grasp just how insensitive Brother Wilcox's dismissal of racism was, and obviously so did he.
He continued: "'Yeah, but, Brother Wilcox, how come the girls don’t have the priesthood? I mean, that’s what I want to know. How come the girls don’t have the priesthood? What’s up with that?' Girls, you’re going to hear a lot of people say a lot of things, and many of them say them with very angry voices, but just because somebody’s angry doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. Just because somebody’s loud doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. I was at a professional conference for BYU. I had a name tag. It said, 'Brad Wilcox, Brigham Young University'. Some lady walked up to me that I didn’t even know, she sees my name tag. And she’s like, 'Oh... WHY DON’T YOU GIVE WOMEN THE PRIESTHOOD?' Just like that! And I said, 'Good to meet you, too.' And then I asked, 'What’s the priesthood?' and she said, '...Well, I don’t know, but I think the women should have it.' Seriously? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it?' What’s malaria? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it.' I mean, I’m going to let her voice, that’s very shallow, drown out my testimony just because she’s loud? No way." One thing that doesn't come across in a transcript is the faces and voices Brother Wilcox did when citing people like this anonymous woman to make them look and sound stupid. I highly doubt that in real life her eyes bugged out and she shouted just like that. It's pretty juvenile and uncalled for, but he was speaking to young people and trying to be funny, and obviously it's worked for him until now.
"Girls, listen closely, because I don’t know that you’ll ever have somebody explain it quite this point blank again. You have access to every priesthood blessing. There is not one priesthood blessing that you are denied. And you serve with priesthood authority. When you are set apart in a class presidency or you’re set apart as a missionary or in any calling in the church, you serve with priesthood authority. You will go to temples where you will be endowed with priesthood power, and you will dress in priesthood robes. 'How come the girls don’t have the priesthood?' What the heck are they talking about? Your life exudes priesthood; it’s surrounded by priesthood; it emanates priesthood." When church meetings were canceled during the early months of the pandemic, many women without priesthood-holding men in their households found it difficult or impossible to receive the sacrament. They did not "have access to every priesthood blessing."
"'Well, how come women don’t have priesthood keys?' Well, how come most men in the church don’t have priesthood keys? Priesthood keys are an organizational structure. It’s how God’s house is a house of order. And so not everybody needs them; just those who are part of this organizational structure. So how many men in a ward have priesthood keys? The Spirit is whispering... The Spirit is whispering... Four! You knew it! You knew it. I’m so proud of you.... So girls, don’t mix keys up with influence. We’re certainly not saying the only ones who have influence in the church are the Bishop, the Elder’s Quorum President, the Teacher’s Quorum President, and the Deacon’s Quorum President. Surely there are others at all levels of the Church who have great influence without having keys. So don’t mix those up; don’t think that that’s something that’s needed to be able to make a difference." Theoretically true, but how much influence can women really have when they're superfluous to the organizational structure and listening to them in meetings is optional? A congregation needs a certain number of tithepaying Melchizedek priesthood holders to exist. It doesn't need a Relief Society. Speaking of which, I've mentioned before how both of the Relief Society general presidency counselors in 1995 attested that the male church leaders never consulted them about the Family Proclamation or even told them it was in the works. Chieko Okazaki remarked, "Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there." How's that for influence?
"What else don’t women have? Priesthood ordination. They’re not ordained to the priesthood. 'Well, how come they’re not ordained to the priesthood?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking, 'Why don’t they need to be.' Girls, how many of you have ever entered a temple to perform ordinances? Raise your hands high. Raise them high. Do you realize that you have done something that no man on this Earth can do? There is not a male on this planet who can enter a temple to perform ordinances without being ordained, and yet you just waltz right in. You just walk right in. So what is it that sisters are bringing with them from a premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination? Maybe that’s the question that ought to be keeping us up at night." I guess I accepted this as a legitimate point the first two times I heard it because he didn't exactly come out and say "Women need the priesthood because they're better than men," which I've had a problem with for a long time. Now that I've had my feminist awakening, I can see how patronizing it is regardless. Abby Hansen explained it better than I could over at the Exponent blog:
"We have to do everything else that a man does to go to the temple. I don’t get a free pass on paying tithing, drinking tea, or skipping my church meetings. I still have to answer temple recommend questions every two years and be interviewed by my male priesthood leaders where I tell them what kind of underwear I wear each day. I have to cross every single hurdle that men have to cross – except for the one that lets me bless my sick children in the middle of the night, preside in a meeting, or see women with authority, independence and final decision making ability. For most of the history of the temple, women (including myself) didn’t make covenants directly with God like the men did, and our entire destiny and eternal potential is a complete mystery because Heavenly Mother is a hidden secret – but because we don’t have to have priesthood ordination to go into the temple, somehow that’s supposed to make it all okay? Are men picked on and persecuted because they get to possess the actual power of the God of the entire universe while girls and women just have to do everything else exactly the same, only minus the power and authority? Oh, my. It must be so hard to be a man."
Brother Wilcox did say one thing the first time I heard him that he seems to have subsequently dropped from his repertoire. He gave it as his opinion, and he's entitled to his opinions, but I thought it was a silly opinion and I was glad to see it go. It was a thought on why the Book of Mormon only mentions six women by name (half of whom are from the Bible). "You know what's happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus?" She's revered by three billion people? "Her name is a swear word!" Oh, yeah, I guess I have also heard her name used as a swear word twice in my life. Actually, a much better example to support his opinion would have been Eve, who's long been blamed for all the problems in the world and regarded as ipso facto proof of female inferiority. But the whole idea that women were kept out of the Book of Mormon to protect them struck me as absurd. How many people outside the Church could even name one Book of Mormon character who isn't also in the Bible? Why, I wondered, can't we just admit that the Nephites were sexist like every other culture in the history of the world? I don't know why he stopped saying that, but I assume he realized it didn't make sense, and I respect that.
[ADDENDUM: I'm keeping in the above rhetorical question about sexist cultures because it's just about word-for-word what I thought at the time, but I will pass along this feedback from a friend: "I was perturbed when you mentioned all other cultures in the world are sexist. I don't know how much you know about Hinduism, but we worship goddesses and have been for the last 5000 years (well before the feminist movement). We elected women leaders to run our country on multiple occasions. We're not perfect by any means and there is room for constant improvement but I wanted to make sure you were privy to that knowledge in case you might need it in the future sometime. Other than that I loved your article. Thank you for writing and sharing it."]
Now again, I'm not interested in piling on Brad Wilcox and I'm sure he's a great person, but I hope everyone in church leadership is getting the message loud and clear: THIS APPROACH TO KEEPING PEOPLE IN THE CHURCH WILL NOT WORK. I would have hoped that would be obvious by now.
Much of the Church's current rhetoric feels to me like five steps backward after some initial progress in being candid about difficult issues and shedding toxic cultural baggage. But there was one good thing to come out of Brother Wilcox's talk, and that was his apology on Facebook: "My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better." Now, many have questioned the sincerity of his apology for saying the same thing he's said several times before, and pointed out that it doesn't mention the other offensive aspects of his talk, but I see it as a big deal because church leaders never publicly apologize for anything. I don't suggest for a moment that they owe an apology every time people are upset about something they said, but Brad Wilcox is hardly the first one to screw up and he won't be the last. I hope this action on his part will set a precedent and open a new chapter of much-needed institutional humility.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, 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.