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A Hard Doctrine

David - November 3, 2008

Neal A. Maxwell is on my list of Top Five Favorite General Authorities. He was an intelligent, witty and spiritual man, and when he spoke, he would go straight to the heart of the subject. This weekend I came across a talk he gave at BYU in 1978 entitled,Meeting the Challenges of Today.” A portion of the address really stuck out for me– the irony 30 years later is unmistakable. Here is an excerpt:

Discipleship includes good citizenship; and in this connection, if you are careful students of the statements of the modern prophets, you will have noticed that with rare exceptions–especially when the First Presidency has spoken out–the concerns expressed have been over moral issues, not issues between political parties. The declarations are about principles, not people, and causes, not candidates. On occasions, at other levels in the Church, a few have not been so discreet, so wise, or so inspired.

But make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; in the months and years ahead, events will require of each member that he or she decide whether or not he or she will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions (see 1 Kings 18:21).

President Marion G. Romney said, many years ago, that he had “never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional, or political life” (CR, April 1941, p. 123). This is a hard doctrine, but it is a particularly vital doctrine in a society which is becoming more wicked. In short, brothers and sisters, not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes not being ashamed of the prophets of Jesus Christ.

We are now entering a period of incredible ironies. Let us cite but one of these ironies which is yet in its subtle stages: we shall see in our time a maximum if indirect effort made to establish irreligion as the state religion. It is actually a new form of paganism that uses the carefully preserved and cultivated freedoms of Western civilization to shrink freedom even as it rejects the value essence of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage.

M. J. Sobran wrote recently:

The Framers of the Constitution . . . forbade the Congress to make any law “respecting” the establishment of religion, thus leaving the states free to do so (as several of them did); and they explicitly forbade the Congress to abridge “the free exercise” of religion, thus giving actual religious observance a rhetorical emphasis that fully accords with the special concern we know they had for religion. It takes a special ingenuity to wring out of this a governmental indifference to religion, let alone an aggressive secularism. Yet there are those who insist that the First Amendment actually proscribes governmental partiality not only to any single religion, but to religion as such; so that tax exemption for churches is now thought to be unconstitutional. It is startling [she continues] to consider that a clause clearly protecting religion can be construed as requiring that it be denied a status routinely granted to educational and charitable enterprises, which have no overt constitutional protection. Far from equalizing unbelief, secularism has succeeded in virtually establishing it.

What the secularists are increasingly demanding, in their disingenuous way, is that religious people, when they act politically, act only on secularist grounds. They are trying to equate acting on religion with establishing religion. And–I repeat–the consequence of such logic is really to establish secularism. It is in fact, to force the religious to internalize the major premise of secularism: that religion has no proper bearing on public affairs. [Human Life Review, Summer 1978, pp. 51–52, 60–61]

Brothers and sisters, irreligion as the state religion would be the worst of all combinations. Its orthodoxy would be insistent and its inquisitors inevitable. Its paid ministry would be numerous beyond belief. Its Caesars would be insufferably condescending. Its majorities–when faced with clear alternatives–would make the Barabbas choice, as did a mob centuries ago when Pilate confronted them with the need to decide.

Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted. M. J. Sobran also observed, “A religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the secular bus, and not to get uppity about it” (Human Life Review, Summer 1978, p. 58). This new irreligious imperialism seeks to disallow certain of people’s opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions. Resistance to abortion will soon be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened.

In its mildest form, irreligion will merely be condescending toward those who hold to traditional Judeo-Christian values. In its more harsh forms, as is always the case with those whose dogmatism is blinding, the secular church will do what it can to reduce the influence of those who still worry over standards such as those in the Ten Commandments. It is always such an easy step from dogmatism to unfair play–especially so when the dogmatists believe themselves to be dealing with primitive people who do not know what is best for them. It is the secular bureaucrat’s burden, you see.

Am I saying that the voting rights of the people of religion are in danger? Of course not! Am I saying, “It’s back to the catacombs?” No! But there is occurring a discounting of religiously-based opinions. There may even be a covert and subtle disqualification of some for certain offices in some situations, in an ironic “irreligious test” for office.

However, if people are not permitted to advocate, to assert, and to bring to bear, in every legitimate way, the opinions and views they hold that grow out of their religious convictions, what manner of men and women would they be, anyway? Our founding fathers did not wish to have a state church established nor to have a particular religion favored by government. They wanted religion to be free to make its own way. But neither did they intend to have irreligion made into a favored state church. Notice the terrible irony if this trend were to continue. When the secular church goes after its heretics, where are the sanctuaries? To what landfalls and Plymouth Rocks can future pilgrims go?

If we let come into being a secular church shorn of traditional and divine values, where shall we go for inspiration in the crises of tomorrow? Can we appeal to the rightness of a specific regulation to sustain us in our hours of need? Will we be able to seek shelter under a First Amendment which by then may have been twisted to favor irreligion? Will we be able to rely for counterforce on value education in school systems that are increasingly secularized? And if our governments and schools were to fail us, would we be able to fall back upon the institution of the family, when so many secular movements seek to shred it?

It may well be, as our time comes to “suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41), that some of this special stress will grow out of that portion of discipleship which involves citizenship. Remember that, as Nephi and Jacob said, we must learn to endure “the crosses of the world” (2 Nephi 9:18) and yet to despise “the shame of [it]” (Jacob 1:8). To go on clinging to the iron rod in spite of the mockery and scorn that flow at us from the multitudes in that great and spacious building seen by Father Lehi, which is the “pride of the world,” is to disregard the shame of the world (1 Nephi 8:26–27, 33; 11:35–36). Parenthetically, why–really why–do the disbelievers who line that spacious building watch so intently what the believers are doing? Surely there must be other things for the scorners to do–unless, deep within their seeming disinterest, there is interest.

If the challenge of the secular church becomes very real, let us, as in all other human relationships, be principled but pleasant. Let us be perceptive without being pompous. Let us have integrity and not write checks with our tongues which our conduct cannot cash.

Before the ultimate victory of the forces of righteousness, some skirmishes will be lost. Even these, however, must leave a record so that the choices before the people are clear and let others do as they will in the face of prophetic counsel. There will also be times, happily, when a minor defeat seems probable, that others will step forward, having been rallied to righteousness by what we do. We will know the joy, on occasion, of having awakened a slumbering majority of the decent people of all races and creeds–a majority which was, till then, unconscious of itself.


  1. My understanding is that the driving political force against the LDS Church and plural marriage in the 19th century was other Christian churches exercising exactly this responsibility. I am not quite sure how God felt about some of His religious children exercising their voting rights to diminish the rights of others of His religious children.

    Comment by DavidH — November 3, 2008 @ 10:36 am

  2. DavidH-
    I’m sure God thought it was fine, seeing as He knows everything that will happen anyway.

    I love this talk. Love it. What gets me excited is when I read the Prophet’s and Apostle’s words from decades ago and realize it applies to the here and now. It’s like how I feel when I read the Book of Mormon and I see that it was written FOR US.

    In Sunday School yesterday, I taught my husband’s Course 14 class (he’s been out of town on business) and we discussed 3rd Nephi 1 and 2. We talked about how the people were told something would happen (ie Christ being born) and most people didn’t believe it. When it happened, most people changed their minds and were converted. But within 3 years –THREE! –most of the people ignored spiritual experiences and signs and just wrote them off as coincidence. I asked the class if that kind of stuff happened now. We agreed there hadn’t been any HUGE signs like the day/night/day without night, but we agreed that in a lot of instances, this thing is happening constantly –people are forgetting their spiritual experiences, prophetic counsel that has happened (and I would daresay Elder Maxwell’s words have come to fruition –we can see it happening!), and they are throwing away religion for various reasons.

    Whew! Long comment. Sorry. I just get excited about stuff like this. :)

    Comment by cheryl — November 3, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  3. Thank you for this post. I cannot think of a time when it was actually ever popular to follow the counsel of a prophet. The scriptures are laced with examples of prophets who preached the words of Christ but were rejected, mocked, and deemed outright fools. We are told in Corinthians that “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ.” I do not presume to claim that I am a martyr for Christ because I have been called a bigot among other things. I simply think that we shouldn’t expect to be treated any other way. “For the Son of God hath descended below them all..Art thou greater than he?”

    Comment by Laura — November 3, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  4. It’s not about rejecting values that are inspired by religion (because they’re inspired by faith). It’s a tad more subtle than that.

    What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religions reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

    (The Audacity of Hope, page 219)

    When you’re right, it shouldn’t be onerous to explain why in terms of real world consequences. If we can’t insist on some basic objectivity in our laws, then what’s to stop some larger religion from restricting your rights based on their belief that you’re heretics, infidels, etc.?

    Comment by C. L. Hanson — November 3, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  5. The lament as to why would dis-believers would watch what the believers were doing is pretty easy to figure out with so much talk about war/struggle/challenge with the secular world. I’d watch carefully, too, if I was being threatened like that.

    Comment by NorthboundZax — November 3, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  6. I often think about his talk when the religious/secular debate comes up. And I think Maxwell makes some great points.

    The problem I see with the talk is that it brushes over the debate in terms of black and white when the issue is much more complex.

    I think a fair questions could be asked, which is a greater threat to Mormonism – secularism or evangelical Christianity? That same question could be asked about Judaism or Islam or many other religions. The answer is debatable.

    What I really want to know – is Elder Maxwell using the word “religion” to describe the Restored Church of Christ? Christianity in general? All religions?

    Now days, it seems the answer would be “all religions”. President Hinckley did a pretty good job of getting that message into our thick skulls. But the mistake we make is assuming our Christian brothers and sisters feel the same way.

    Remember – their fight is not for religious tolerance – but for Christianity to be the state religion. That does in no way benefit Mormons or any other religion. This is a mistake we are still making. We are not one of them. We are not on the same team. Let’s stop trying to be.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — November 4, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  7. [...] at Nine Moons just posted a statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell from 1978 address entitled, “Meeting the Challenges of [...]

    Pingback by Northern Lights » Blog Archive » Elder Maxwell on Prophets and Politics — November 4, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  8. My problem is that many faithful and sincere members of the Church use these kids of statements to further their very temporal (as opposed to eternal) partisan ends. Some sincere questions: What if the best way to resist abortion is not to overturn Roe v. Wade or enact statutory restrictions on the procedure, but to teach young people about the significance of sexual intimacy, and about abstinence and contraception? What if I am equally or more concerned about threats to the family in the form of lack of health care, the economic realities that increasingly demand two-income households, lack of affordable, quality childcare, stingy family leave laws, etc., than about whether gay people can marry? I think abortion is deplorable and that the traditional family truly is ordained of God. I am not at all convinced that one political party has the monopoly on “values” on those questions, let alone on all questions.

    Comment by fifthgen — November 4, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  9. C.L. –
    I understand your point of view and have read Audacity as well. I agree with Obama’s logic, but I don’t think it is entirely possible to leave religion at the door of the voting booth.

    Interesting quote by Dallin H. Oaks:

    “No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those values into the public square. Religious persons need to be skillful in how they do so, but they need not yield to an adversary’s assumption that the whole effort is illegitimate. We should remind others of the important instances in which the efforts of churches and clergy in the political arena have influenced American public policies in great historical controversies whose outcome is virtually unquestioned today. The slavery controversy was seen as a great moral issue and became the major political issue of the nineteenth century because of the preaching of clergy and the political action of churches. A century later, churches played an indispensable role in the civil rights movement, and, a decade later, clergymen and churches of various denominations were an influential part of the antiwar movement that contributed to the end of the war in Vietnam.

    Many sincere religious people believe there should be no limitations on religious arguments on political issues so long as the speaker genuinely believes those issues can be resolved as a matter of right or wrong.

    I believe that questions of right and wrong, whether based on religious principles or any other source of values, are legitimate in any debate over laws or public policy. Is there anything more important to debate than what is right or wrong? And those arguments should be open across the entire political spectrum. There is no logical way to contend that religious arguments or lobbying are legitimate on the question of abstinence from nuclear war by nations but not on the question of abstinence from sexual relations by teenagers.

    Comment by Laura — November 5, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

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