Russell M. Nelson: Culture Warrior (Face Palm)

gay_pride_utah_450What kind of an out-of-touch culture warrior, when invited to deliver a commencement address at a major university, turns the event into his personal discrimination roadshow?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question hits uncomfortably close to home: Russell M. Nelson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon church, who just gave the summer commencement address at BYU, my alma mater (see here, here, and here).  Jana Reiss recently posted a thoughtful and calibrated, although incisive, critique of his comments (here).

Elder Nelson is now indistinguishable from his predecessors who for decades insisted that blacks were inferior to whites and that they—the church’s leadership–were powerless to “change God’s law.”  They used the same arguments.  They hid behind the same deference to divine will.  They encouraged good Mormons to cling to their racism by telling them to be courageous, to ignore the “the world,” to be faithful, and so on.

The Mormon church claims that its leaders talk to God, so it isn’t unreasonable, therefore, to hold these leaders to a higher standard than the average Joe on the street.  The Mormon church, to its credit, recently distanced itself from its racist teachings.  Here’s an excerpt from a statement posted on the church’s website (

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

For Mormons, this was news.  Let me restate that.  For Mormons this IS news, given that the Book of Mormon, a part of the Mormon scriptural canon, still teaches that God regularly curses groups of people with dark skin for collective disobedience.  Nevertheless, there it is, right there on the LDS website: “the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”  No need to beat a dead horse, but let me say this:  releasing this statement in 1960 would have been something; releasing it in 2013 (that’s right, about 6 months ago) is an embarrassing example of playing catch-up.  Apparently, the majority of the entire civilized world—the same “world” that Elder Nelson told BYU students in his commencement address to ignore when it comes to gay marriage—realized it was time to abandon racism a few decades before church leaders.

Fast forward to August 14, 2014.  Elder Nelson is at BYU explaining that “God’s law” requires us to discriminate against our LGBT brothers and sisters.  He wants us to be courageous, to ignore “the world,” to be faithful, and so on.  Same song, different verse.

On this issue, Elder Nelson is absolutely wrong.

Here’s an analogy.  As Mormons, we believe that God wants us to stay away from alcohol.  Does that mean that we have an obligation to work to pass laws to prevent those from other faiths from being able to enjoy a beer?  Is that what it means to be faithful, or to be courageous?  Is that what devotion to Mormonism requires—that we work to impose our religious beliefs, through legislative means, on our friends and neighbors?

A year ago, I attended church services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Here’s what the preacher explained that day to his congregation about gay marriage and civil law:

Contrast that with this juvenile assertion by Elder Nelson in his BYU commencement address:  Marriage was not created by “human judges or legislators, think tanks or by popular vote, or by oft-quoted bloggers or pundits. Marriage was created by God.”

Right.  [Insert eye roll.]  Elder Nelson notwithstanding, human judges, legislators and the rest of the folks on this list are EXACTLY who has defined (and continue to redefine) marriage.  When young couples go to the courthouse before getting married, they sign paperwork required by legislators, not God.  In 1967, when the Supreme Court effectively legalized interracial marriage, they acted as “human judges,” not as God’s emissaries.  What we know as marriage today is the product of thousands of cumulative changes—cultural, institutional, and legal—over the past millennia; all those changes, to some degree, were driven by received wisdom, contemporary activism, community consensus, popular votes, and more recently, we can add the efforts of pundits and bloggers to the list.

I wonder what Elder Nelson thinks about those “human judges” (i.e. the Supreme Court) that redefined marriage to include interracial couples in 1967?  Actually, I probably don’t want to know.

Doing what one is told to do doesn’t take nearly as much courage as doing what one believes is right.  For Mormons, telling a respected leader he’s wrong is hard, particularly when that leader claims to speak for deity.  It’s uncomfortable.  It takes courage.

Bigotry doesn’t have to be an extension of religious belief.  I suspect that most of the BYU graduates in Elder Nelson’s audience already know that.  They can see the mistakes of Elder Nelson’s generation for what they are—even if he can’t.