A recent newspaper photo of a Utah legislator sitting at his desk in the state capitol with a revolver strapped to his side says it all. This year the state legislature repealed the law prohibiting carrying guns within 1000 feet of a school so as not to interfere with a law-abiding citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms. A resolution to allow any citizen the right to carry an unconcealed weapon without a permit was proposed. Utahns worry a lot about the federal government taking their liberties. They rushed to purchase guns and ammunition as soon as Obama’s election was announced in 2010 knowing that Obama would take their guns away.
This paranoia extends beyond state borders. The controversial Arizona immigration law was written by a Mormon legislator. Although the Church officially takes moderate positions on both gun laws and immigration, Mormon political views do not reflect this moderation. I can’t help believing that the fear rhetoric heard in Mormon meetings creates a culture of fear that makes Mormons tremble for their personal as well as moral safety whenever they open their front door. It also feeds the perception that people of different color, religion, or even political parties are enemies.
Mormons hear on a near-weekly basis that Satan’s power is increasing and that the world is at near terminal wickedness. Boyd K. Packer opened his October 2010 conference address with this remark: “This General Conference was convened at a time when there is such confusion and danger that our young people hardly know which way they can turn.” If I took Pres. Packer seriously, I would probably stash a revolver in my purse even though I’m not one of the young people he worries about.
I doubt the Church wants members to be running around armed to the hilt or spouting wacky conspiracy theories. Leaders know this kind of behavior does nothing for Church PR. But I hope they will realize that fear rhetoric from official as well as grass roots sources feeds this problem. Plenty of positive reasons exist to motivate Mormons to keep the commandments and support the Church. Turn down the fear rhetoric!
When I was a teen, my family moved into the ward in Lindon, Utah where Boyd and Donna Packer and their 8 children lived. I remember the Packers as a relatively young couple, at least compared to my parents. Brother Packer worked for the Church and we knew the Packers were religious, but were blown away to have a general authority called from our little ward.
Young, good-looking Elder Packer soon became a favorite Church speaker—often using stories about his children to make his point. One story he related was about tussling with his boys on the living room floor and calling one a little monkey. “I not a monkey, Daddy,” the child replied. “I a people.” Then Bro. Packer made the point of knowing who we are—children of God. Another touching story was about trying to locate an affordable house in Salt Lake for his large brood after his call. The only place with space enough for the children to play freely was too expensive for his modest salary and a bank account depleted by years of graduate school. Yet Elder Harold B. Lee urged him to go ahead with the purchase, without offering financial help. Elder Packer related the story as an example of the need to sometimes rely on faith to take a step into the unknown.
Advancing Elder Packer to an apostle in 1970 meant I could enjoy the gentle humor and down-to-earth wisdom from my favorite conference speaker more often. One of his most memorable speeches was entitled, I think, “Let It Go,” in which he admonished listeners to let go of past injustices and resentments and move forward. I bought his first book, Teach Ye Diligently and used it as a source for inservice lessons.
I’m not quite sure when I ceased to enjoy President Packer’s talks. I know his 1981 talk about the need to omit negative facts from Church History because, “some things that are true are not very useful,” struck me as dishonest. I found his “milk before meat” philosophy for church instruction and his rationale, “some things are to be given only to those who are worthy,” condescending.
But 30 years of full time dealing with Church problems might shake anyone’s faith in the common sense of most members. I also suspect that having little contact with members below the rank of stake president creates a barrier to understanding the hearts and mind of ordinary members. And being stuck in a demanding job from which one can’t retire and which leaves little or no time to pursue interests outside family and church would erode anyone’s sense of humor. Believing that Satan rampages through the world trying to thwart the work to which one has devoted his life is also conducive to fear and rigidity. While I no longer listen to Pres. Packer’s speeches, I think I understand his transition.
Currently, younger, more liberal church members find Pres. Packer’s brand of religious conservatism more irritating than inspiring and shudder at the possibility of him leading the church someday. But I suspect traditionally devout members who share his beliefs about homosexuality and women’s roles love and admire Pres. Packer. For more liberal members? My best advice is: Pray for Pres. Monson’s continued good health and long life.
Our daughter called to see if our three youngest grandchildren could stay with us Sunday afternoon. She, her husband, and their 9-year-old have tickets to the afternoon session of General Conference. I agreed, knowing I could change my tickets for the matinee of The Caretaker. I never turn down a chance to spend time with our grandkids, ages 2, 4 and 6. Then Lolly said they would all need to spend Sunday morning with us in order to be close enough to Salt Lake to make the afternoon session by 12:30—the recommended time for seating. That means I’ll have to watch conference Sunday morning—I do worry about losing grandparenting rights if my devout daughter learns how casual my church commitment is.
For years I devoted two weekends a year to General Conference. I have photos of myself and George dozing on the sofa to prove it. We did rest our eyes occasionally, but basically the messages uplifted me. I read the synopses in the Church News, then reread the addresses in the Ensign. I highlighted thought-provoking phrases and copied them in my quote book.
Gradually, I found fewer phrases to highlight—fewer original passages that provoked deeper thinking about this world and the next. A sense of déjà vu descended upon me when I clicked on the TV at conference time. I noticed the same topics recycling year after year even when new general authorities took their turn at the pulpit: Follow the Prophet, Keep the Commandments, Be Morally Clean, Families Are Important, Prepare for Catastrophe, Share the Gospel, Magnify Your Callings, Try Harder. Has it always been like this and it just took thirty years of adult membership for me to memorize the messages? I’m not sure. Listening to conference gives the impression that nothing much has changed in the world in the last 20 years except for Satan becoming hyperactive. Now that may be evidence of the timelessness of the gospel. And it’s sort of a positive. Once you have the messages memorized, you’re free to pursue other interests on conference weekends.
A recent Mormon Matters posting asked readers what they expected to hear in October conference. Nostalgia is probably burnishing my memory, but I expect nothing as good as the messages I enjoyed decades ago. The eager anticipation when Boyd K. Packer’s name was announced as the next speaker. Homey stories about his children touched me as he taught gospel truths—before age and duty gifted him with perpetual gloom and grumpiness. Sterling W. Sill’s literary allusions and Marion G. Hank’s genial humor carried their messages to my heart. I know Paul Dunn embellished his stories—I suspect he’s not the only one—but he was optimistic as well as entertaining. The last time I was truly entertained by a conference address was a few years ago while in Cedar City. Equipment at the local radio station malfunctioned during an address on morality and the tape or whatever they use stuck— repeating the word “sex” over and over and over. No, I expect to be neither entertained nor enlightened by conference speakers this year, but I will enjoy the grandkids.