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Guest opinion: Being a critic and a disciple of the LDS Church

By Keith Burns - Special to the Daily Herald | May 27, 2022

Several recent General Conference messages have reminded me of the strong emphasis LDS leaders place on being “all in,” a concept that entails complete devotion to all the teachings and practices of the Church. With this emphasis has come a frequent condemnation of those who demonstrate what General Authority Jörg Klebingat recently referred to as “selective obedience.” In fact, leaders have characterized such a “pick and choose” approach with terms like casual, careless, prideful and destructive to one’s faith. Such black and white thinking implies that one is either all in or all out, a simplistic framework that fails to capture the nuance and ideological diversity that exists across church membership.

A significant part of my motivation for addressing this topic comes as a result of several online criticisms of previous articles I have written, which reinforce this idea that anybody who expresses disagreement with the Church is not a “member in good standing.” For example, in December of 2021, an individual described me as a “left liberal” who “does not like the LDS Church” in response to a piece I had written about my views on gender inequality in the Church. Some one else commented: “Keith isn’t a member of the Church nor is he a woman. I am both.” In response to another article critiquing what many felt to be a homophobic and hurtful BYU speech from Jeffrey R. Holland, an online commenter suggested that I should receive church discipline.

I have not only received these kinds of indignant reactions from unfamiliar online commenters, but also from several LDS friends and associates. To be fair, there have been many other online responders and friends who have been gracious and respectful, even those that have disagreed with my arguments. However, it is still noteworthy that the individuals cited above made hasty assumptions about my political orientation, my status with and feelings about the LDS Church and my supposed need for church discipline. They, like many others, are feeding into a broader pattern of negatively labeling any viewpoint that calls into question discriminatory church policies and teachings.

As I am sure that many other Latter-day Saints find it difficult to publicly express disagreement with church leaders, I would like to share the ways in which I have become both a critic and a disciple in the LDS Church. In doing so, my hope is to provide a relatable narrative to those that have been marginalized by mainstream LDS thinking and argue for a more inclusive religious paradigm that provides significantly more space for differing ideologies.

Upon joining the LDS Church in 2012, I quickly learned that having opinions contrary to the teachings of general authorities was not an attribute of a “faithful member.” The few who had the courage to publicly share their “out of line” beliefs at church were oftentimes shut down or at least not given the respect they deserved. Having entered the Church with views that fully endorsed gay marriage, trans affirmation, feminism, evolution, etc, it was a painful realization that I would not be able to freely share my views without resistance and potential judgment. As a result, I stayed in the shadows for many years, trying my best to appear orthodox on the surface while feeling increasing amounts of dissonance, tension and frustration.

I would often ask myself how I could square my personal views on equality, liberation and justice with church teachings that seemed unequal, oppressive and unjust. I tried every “LDS trick in the book,” including focusing on my personal relationship with God, remembering that everybody is imperfect, recognizing the difference between “culture” and “doctrine” and many other mind twisting methods that all left me feeling empty, hurt and angry. I even tried forcing myself to abandon my convictions and conform to LDS teachings on controversial subjects like homosexuality and gender, oftentimes internalizing criticisms from others that my personal views were prideful, defiant, narrow-minded and even inspired by Satan.

A far healthier perspective I have been coming to is that I can indeed bring my authentic opinions and experiences into the LDS Church with confidence and transparency. I can simultaneously appreciate the many aspects of church membership that enrich and bless my life while also being open and honest about aspects I feel are harmful and oppressive. I can be both a disciple and a critic. Yes, doing so has sometimes upset and unsettled other members (including some close friends of mine), but it has allowed me to engage with my faith in deeply rich, genuine and powerful ways. While many have cautioned me that such an approach would inevitably “take me out of the Church,” it has actually been the very reason I have maintained a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with the Church.

I have taken comfort in the inspiring vision of Dieter Uchtdorf “that we welcome and love all of God’s children, including those who might dress, look, speak, or just do things differently. It is not good to make others feel as though they are deficient…”

In my mind, applying Uchtdorf’s compassionate words does not mean that we shy away from disagreement, but rather that we create a welcoming and safe space for it, resisting the impulse to ridicule or ostracize those who have perspectives that contradict current church teachings. Insisting that every member support the views of church leadership simply won’t cut it, especially for millennials and Gen Zers who are growing increasingly aware of social injustices, power imbalances and oppressive ideologies.

Dallin Oaks, a leader who often frames church membership in black and white terms, recently cautioned: “Don’t be among those who would rather try to change the Church than to change themselves.” This binary idea implies that one can either try to change the Church or try to change themselves. Rather than seeing these efforts as mutually exclusive, there is far more richness and depth in the perspective that members of the Church can be doing both simultaneously — striving to improve in their personal lives and fighting for changes that will make the Church a more egalitarian and inclusive place for all.

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

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