A stake president in Sandy, Utah gave an address to conclude his stake conference on February 3 this year that was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit since Ezra Taft Benson’s heyday during the John Birch Society era. DeVisser claimed his remarks were inspired by the Holy Ghost which might motivate some General Conference addresses on how to recognize the source of perceived revelation.
The good stake president’s goal was worthy. He wanted to motivate members of his stake to live closer to Jesus, to spend more time reading the Book of Mormon, praying, examining their own spirituality and repenting, to increase fast offerings, and to get out of debt. He chose a standard Mormon motivator: fear. The pres invoked the usual rhetoric of the wickedness of the last days and quoted warnings from past and present prophets of gloom and doom (Mormons sustain apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators). Besides Benson, he quoted Boyd K. Packer, Neal Maxwell, David A. Bednar, and, oddly enough, Heber C. Kimball, who predicted the Civil War would bring down the U.S. government and usher in the return of the Savior.
My understanding of fear as a motivator is that it has dramatic short term effects, but little long-lasting benefits. Fear stirs the basic emotion of self-preservation, but the horrors of calamity are too unpleasant to dwell on. At its worst, fear motivates hasty, unwise decisions. At best, it forms unrealistic resolutions that will not be carried through.
I believe President DeVisser is a good man who cares about the problems he sees in his stake: violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and immorality. I doubt fear will motivate his members to make the changes in their lives that will overcome these problems. These are complex issues for which the government is not necessarily to blame. They are also individual problems in the lives of the people afflicted. Paying more fast offerings, praying, reading the Book of Mormon, and repenting may be part of the solution for some, but others will need professional help.
Unfortunately, DeVisser followed the pattern too often presented as the cure-all by Mormon leaders. Stir up the members with fear talk and give them a checklist of commandments to keep. That approach not only doesn’t help people resolve personal problems, it drives young people away.
As I said, DeVisser’s talk was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit in stake conference, but that kind of rhetoric is common in sacrament meetings and auxiliary classes in wards I’ve attended. I hope the negative fallout from this talk will motivate General Authorities to tone down the fear mongering in their own discourses. For my money, love of God and gratitude for blessings is a far better motivator than fear to encourage Christ-like behavior.