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Guest op-ed: Intentions aside, Oaks continues to marginalize the very people he seeks to reach

By Keith Burns - Special to the Daily Herald | Oct 9, 2021

Keith Burns

During the Saturday afternoon session of General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks took on a controversial subject especially relevant to Millennials and Gen Zers. He addressed non-churchgoers, both those who have stopped attending the LDS Church, as well as other churches and religious organizations. Citing trends that show significantly reduced participation in organized religion, he argued that actively participating in a church helps us “rise above the individualism of our age” and “overcome the personal selfishness that can retard spiritual growth.” Pointing out that all religious organizations can provide numerous benefits, he stressed that the LDS Church contains the most optimal blessings, due to its unique ability to provide divinely authorized ordinances that lead to salvation.

Not only did Oaks describe the blessings of membership in the LDS Church, he addressed the reasons some have stopped attending:

“Some say that attending church meetings is not helping them. Some say, ‘I didn’t learn anything today’ or ‘No one was friendly to me’ or ‘I was offended.’ Personal disappointments should never keep us from the doctrine of Christ, who taught us to serve, not to be served.”

While addressing the reasons he believes have caused people to leave the church, he never once acknowledged why they might feel unwelcomed, lonely or hurt. Imagine how it feels to be an LGBTQ+ member who continues to hear that their identities and relationships are inferior to cisgender heterosexuality. Likewise, a female member who feels undervalued, all the while receiving praise about her angelic qualities. Or a non-white member of a ward that is at least 90% white. Or an individual who feels their unorthodox perspectives are not welcome or safe to express? Instead of reducing people’s genuine concerns to phrases like “personal disappointments” and “being offended,” Oaks could have acknowledged some of the complex reasons people leave the Church in the first place.

Also disturbing were Oak’s descriptions of the qualities he feels non-churchgoers lack. He argued that “individual spirituality can seldom provide the motivation and structure for unselfish service provided by the restored Church.” He also used strong language to portray blessings he feels non-attending members lack:

“Members who forgo church attendance and rely only on individual spirituality separate themselves from these gospel essentials: the power and blessings of the priesthood, the fullness of restored doctrine, and the motivations and opportunities to apply that doctrine. They forfeit their opportunity to qualify to perpetuate their family for eternity.”

Again, people who have left the Church do not feel any more loved or welcomed by this rhetoric. One woman who recently decided to take a step back from the Church told me that Oak’s talk only put salt on her wounds, making her less likely to return anytime soon.

Instead of expressing compassion for the people who feel unwanted, unwelcomed or unsafe, Oaks quoted a statement from Spencer W. Kimball that eerily resembles what many call “blaming the victim.”

“We do not go to Sabbath meetings to be entertained, or even simply to be instructed. We go to worship the Lord. It is an individual responsibility. If the service is a failure to you, you have failed.”

Blaming those who have had negative experiences with the Church removes all accountability from leaders and members, instead pointing the finger at people who feel ostracized and excluded. Rather than blaming these individuals for “failing,” church leaders and members should ask themselves how they might be causing others to have less than desirable experiences at Church. This approach would align more fully with the merciful and compassionate spirit of Christianity that the Church so often espouses.

As Oaks continues to address sensitive and controversial subjects, he should replace his harsh rhetoric with compassion and understanding. In this way, he can more effectively “leave the ninety and nine … and go after that which is lost.” (Luke 15:4). Regardless of Oak’s intentions, the sting of his words can have harmful effects, driving away the very people he attempts to reach.

Keith Burns is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism and sexuality.

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