Decalogue for Dissenters
My remarks in this final section are directed mainly to those who would undertake to join the ranks of “alternate voices” as speakers, not just as listeners. These include, I hasten to add, not only academics or other professional intellectuals but anyone who would aspire to be efficacious in offering alternative ideas or counsel to the saints and their leaders at any level, whether in the pages of Dialogue and SUNSTONE, in ward council, priesthood quorums, Relief Society, or Sunday School.
I would like to share ten principles that I have learned, sometimes painfully in the breach, during the past twenty-five years from my own efforts to offer an effective “alternate voice” at various forums and occasions. As a rhetorical devise, I will use the imperative tone appropriate for a decalogue; I apologize in advance if the tone also seems imperious in places. Also, since my efforts have taken place in the context of an ultimate commitment to the LDS faith, some of the following principles will be less applicable to those who don’t share that commitment.
1. Seek constantly to build a strong personal relationship with the Lord as the main source and basis for your own confidence in the alternate voice you are offering. We often have to do without the Church’s approval, but we need the assurance of the Lord’s.
2. Do your homework before you speak up. We must be sure that our knowledge of the scriptures, of history, and of other relevant data on a given matter will bear up well under scrutiny and under efforts at rebuttal. Otherwise, our offerings will be exposed as unreliable, we will lose credibility as intellectual leaders or teachers, and we will be suspected even by our sympathizers as mere malcontents. No one expects infallibility, but we must know whereof we speak, especially if we espouse an unpopular or untraditional idea.
3. Relinquish any and all aspirations (or even expectations) for leadership callings in the Church. Actually, that is wonderfully liberating. In any case, stake and ward leaders, to say nothing of general authorities, rarely call people to powerful positions who are suspected of too much “independent thinking.” To be sure, the ranks of “alternate voices” have provided occasional examples of bishops, stake presidents, and Relief Society leaders, showing that there may be some happy exceptions to this generalization, but don’t count on that. If you have a career in C.E.S. or in any other Church bureaucracy, don’t expect approval or promotion to accompany your identification as an “alternate voice.”
4. Endure graciously the overt disapproval of “significant others,” including family members, but never respond in kind. Lifelong friends and old missionary companions may sever (or reduce) friendship ties when they learn that you are one of "those.” They simply cannot understand what your “problem” is. If such reactions prove especially crucial in your case (e.g., if your marriage is threatened), you will have some tough choices to make.
5. Pay your “dues” as a member of the Church. Pay your tithing, make clear your willingness to serve wherever called, and do your best to get your children on missions. Try as hard as anyone to “keep the commandments.” You still probably won’t get much Church recognition, but you will win over a few who once looked on you with suspicion. More important, you will make it difficult for your critics to dismiss you as an apostate, for all will see that “thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44).
6. Be humble, generous, and good natured in tolerating ideas that you find aversive in other Church members, no matter how “reactionary.” As “alternate voices,” we cannot complain when we are ignored or misunderstood if we respond with contempt toward those whose ideas we deplore. Besides, if we have any hope of educating them, we have to start where they are and treat them with love and tolerance. No one is won over by being put down, especially in public. Whether in our writing or in our exchanges during Sunday School classes, we must try to be gracious as well as candid (difficult though it be on occasion) and always remember to show forth afterward “an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (D&C 121:43).
7. Show some empathy and appreciation for Church leaders, male and female, from the general level down to the local ward and branch. Anyone who has ever held a responsible leadership position knows how heavy the burdens of office can be, especially in callings like bishop, Relief Society president, and stake president (to say nothing of apostle), in which the decisions made can affect countless numbers of people for good or ill. We may privately deplore the poor judgment, the unrighteous dominion, the insensitivity, and even the outright ignorance of some leaders. Yet, after all, they are, like us, simple mortals doing their best according to their lights. Some of them sacrifice a great deal for no apparent benefit, and all are entitled to our support, and occasionally our praise, whenever these can reasonably be given. When they do something outrageously wrong, they need our sympathy even more. “There but for the grace of God . . . ” etc.
8. Do not say or do anything to undermine the influence or legitimacy of Church leaders at any level. They have their callings and prerogatives, and we should not step forth to “steady the ark” by publicly offering our alternative leadership. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not advocating silent submission in the face of official stupidity. There is much that we can do without playing the role of usurper. When we write for publication, let us by all means criticize policies, practices, or interpretations of doctrine; but let us not personalize our criticisms with ad hominem attacks. They are not only discourteous and condescending, but quite unnecessary. (They can also get you “ex-ed.”)
We should feel free, though, to seek private interviews and/or correspondence with Church leaders, including our own bishops, in which we can offer, in a spirit of love and humility, our constructive criticisms and suggestions. If these are ignored, then at least we have exercised our callings as “alternate voices,” and we have done so without sowing seeds of contention. We are not responsible for how a given leader carries out his or her stewardship. Yet we are not powerless, which leads to the next principle.
9. Take advantage of legitimate opportunities to express your “alternate voices” and to exercise your free agency in “alternate” ways within the LDS church and culture. We must never lapse into a posture in which we just sit and gripe. If we find the correlated lesson manuals to be thin fare, it is up to us as teachers to enrich them with relevant supplementary material (including some “alternate voices”). If we are not teachers, then at least we are obligated as class members to speak up knowledgeably and enrich the class, not simply boycott it.
If we find a general intellectual famine at Church, then we are free to start study groups of our own to supplement the Church fare for those who feel the need. Some of our more conservative leaders may not like such unsponsored study groups, but they have no right to forbid them, and they seldom try (but don’t forget principles 2, 3, and 4). In short, even if we are not bishops or general authorities, and even if we are ignored by those who are, there is much constructive that we can do with our “alternate voices”: “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as they do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:28).
10. Endure to the end. The calling of “alternate voice” is too important for us to allow ourselves either to be intimidated by the exercise of unrighteous dominion or to be silenced by our own fatigue. “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9; D&C 64:33). I have seen many a rich harvest in people’s lives from seeds planted by “alternate voices,” and I hope to live to see many more.
Though I have often failed to comply with all ten of these principles, I have learned from my failures as well as from my successes that the likelihood of influence and efficacy for “alternate voices” depends heavily upon compliance with those principles. They also add up to a personal philosophy that has yielded me a great deal of inner peace in my years of coping with the predicament so common among “alternate voices”: commitment to the religion but a feeling of marginality in the Church. That is my testimony.