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Guest opinion: Russell Nelson undermines his previous general conference talk about being a peacemaker

By Keith Burns - | Oct 25, 2023

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Keith Burns

In the April session of the LDS Church’s semi-annual general conference, church President Russell Nelson delivered an inspiring speech saturated with urgings to be kinder and more compassionate in our discourse and treatment of others. He urged Latter-day Saints to become better peacemakers in a world plagued by “venomous contention” and “polarization.” He also criticized public figures for “throwing insults constantly” and condemned those who “believe that it is completely acceptable to condemn, malign and vilify anyone who does not agree with them.”

As ennobling as Nelson’s April message was, it is deeply disappointing that his most recent general conference address betrayed the beauty and wisdom contained in it. The speech, which was prerecorded due to a back injury he sustained several weeks prior, contained the exact insulting and divisive rhetoric he so emphatically critiqued six months ago.

Most notably, Nelson invoked familiarly hurtful language around people who have distanced or disaffiliated from the church. You might recall that he controversially labeled people with doubts in 2021 as “lazy learners” and “lax disciples,” fitting into a broader pattern of “us vs. them” thinking on which Nelson has branded his ecclesiastical mantle. In his most recent message, he admonished members to “never take counsel from those who do not believe. Seek guidance from voices you can trust — from prophets, seers and revelators and from the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.”

By setting up a binary between trustworthy church leaders and untrustworthy “non-believers,” Nelson is reinforcing derisive stereotypes that former members and non-members are morally and spiritually inferior. This is a common technique that high-demand religions employ known as “poisoning the well,” in which leaders seek to maintain group cohesion and insularity by convincing members that outside perspectives are misinformed and dangerous.

When religious leaders effectively “poison the well,” there are several results. One is that members unconditionally elevate the words of those leaders above all other outside perspectives, no matter how credible or expert-based such perspectives are. For example, many Latter-day Saints are inclined to support top LDS leaders’ views condemning same-sex relationships and gender nonconformity, even though the overwhelming majority of medical and psychological experts affirm and dignify LGBTQ+ relationships and identities.

Another result of poisoning the well is that “us vs. them” thinking can infect relationship dynamics within mixed-faith marriages and families. For example, if a devoted member were to take Nelson’s direction literally to “never take counsel from those who do not believe,” they might distance themselves from family members who have left the church or who do not hold orthodox beliefs. The devout member may identify those individuals as not worthy of giving advice at best and dangerous and untrustworthy at worst. This kind of labeling and othering embedded in Nelson’s rhetoric is a hypocritical departure from his previous talk encouraging more compassion and less division.

Another area of Nelson’s recent speech that undermined his April sentiments was his language regarding marriage and sexuality, which indirectly yet clearly implicated LGBTQ+ individuals. “Many of the adversary’s most relentless temptations,” Nelson said, “involve violations of moral purity. … Thus, God set clear guidelines for the use of this living, divine power. Physical intimacy is only for a man and a woman who are married to each other.” He continued to invoke an “us. vs. them” binary by stating that “much of the world does not believe this, but public opinion is not the arbiter of truth.” Nelson has stated on other occasions that God is the arbiter of truth, and because Nelson speaks to and for God in LDS theology, he and other top leaders are to be taken as the arbiters of truth.

In addition, pairing Satan with non-heterosexual relationships and identities is a rhetorical method that LDS leaders have steadily employed since the 1950s, which has added theological credibility and rhetorical force to their assertions. It has also caused many church members to couple LGBTQ+ relationships and identities with a biblical and theological counter-figure that represents evil and darkness. Leaders and members will often insist that they love LGBTQ+ people; however, continuing to associate queer relationships and identities with the devil and sin is not loving. And it is certainly not representative of the compassion and kindness that Nelson boldly preached six months ago.

As LDS leaders continue to battle theological and sociocultural issues of the 21st century, they must become more sensitive to the damaging effects of “us. vs. them” rhetoric and the demonization of minority groups like LGBTQ+ individuals. While this discourse will reinforce loyalty and devotion among conservative and orthodox members, it will continue alienating and stoking mistreatment of those on the margins. I challenge President Nelson to practice what he preaches by using more inclusive and compassionate rhetoric about those who leave the church, LGBTQ+ communities and all other groups who fall outside circles of LDS orthodoxy.

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


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