Mormon Options on 'Church and State'

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NOTE: This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

"I hate war!" was a clear denunciation voiced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 14, 1936. He was talking about real war five years before he had to lead the United States in the most destructive war in history.

There are lesser wars in respect to which citizens are called to take sides. In recent decades some of the most popular chosen examples are the "culture wars," which are so attractive among some religious factions. They have proven to be productive of not much more than unproductive polarization and civil chaos.

Now and then, over against them, an informed and articulate citizen is found to utter a meaningful "I hate war!" in respect to culture wars.

Among them in the recent past and, specifically, this October, is a speaker who has the credentials to participate in the noisiest domestic contretemps this season. He is Dallin H. Oaks, who could have been expected to wage war on one side as factions agitate about the loss of religious liberty, thanks to Supreme Court and other court actions. The warriors have been urging us all to take up rhetorical arms against such courts.

Oaks is well credentialed to represent Mormons, who generally occupy main fronts in the culture wars. A "member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he is the third most senior apostle among the twelve apostles in his church.

Oaks has been president of the LDS academic flagship, Brigham Young University. We knew him in his University of Chicago Law School faculty days as a superior legal scholar and a staunch, articulate loyalist in the LDS ranks. No one we knew then or since would have thought of him as a compromiser, a wishy-washy sort.

So we paid attention when Oaks showed how he hated culture wars and spoke up for an alternative in the particular instance of a "church and state" issue. The conflict was a prime time, front-page subject, thanks to Kim Davis, a conservative Christian. Davis refused to obey laws and courts mandating the issuance of marriage licenses for gay marriages, which she, in her version of Christianity, in conscience opposes.

Oaks disagreed with Davis and her sympathizers, and used the occasion of a talk on "The Boundary of Church and State" at the recent Sacramento Court-Clergy Conference to address the larger issues behind and beyond that case.

Reader Alert! Now we are going to do something rare in Sightings. Instead of quoting and condensing his talk, we will pass it on intact via the internet. Attempts to excerpt cogent bits and to reproduce appropriate snippets failed. The whole speech deserves attention.

We have to explain why excerpting would be unfair to Oaks, his original audience, and serious people on all sides who have a stake in the controversy. Instead of being wishy-washy, he demonstrated, some say, weariness over Mormons being constantly and predictably cast as militant cultural warriors.

Oaks also made clear that Davis' action was harmful to the republic and, yes, to religious freedom and the rule of law.

True to the ethos of Oaks's alma mater and his talk, we reproduce his succinct statement of a thesis:

My thesis if that we all want to live together in happiness, harmony and peace. To achieve that common goal, and for all contending parties to achieve their most important personal goals, we must learn and practice mutual respect for others whose beliefs, values and behaviors differ from our own. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, the Constitution 'is made for people of fundamentally differing views.'

Then Oaks elaborated on and applied that thesis.

One does not have to be a Mormon Elder, a Mormon, a believer, to find reason to listen. Nor would Oaks expect everyone to agree with his every line. He is starting a conversation, which is the most subversive thing to do among people who want to prosecute a culture war over religion.

Read Oaks -- and we hope you will -- and listen critically to the calls by partisans who want to wage culture wars in the name of "religious freedom."

But it is time for us to get out of the way as you bring up the Oaks speech -- one which we hope will become all but canonical and classical -- and enter the conversation, unarmed, if you "hate war."

Resources:

A complete transcript of Dallin H. Oak's October 20, 2015, presentation, "The Boundary Between Church and State," at the Second Annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference in Sacramento California can be found here, courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Newsroom.

A recording of Dallin H. Oaks' speech is available on YouTube.

"Mormon Apostle Calls for Balance and Accommodation, Not Culture Wars." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Newsroom, October 20, 2015, Global.

Walch, Tad. "Elder Oaks makes national news with statement on gay rights, religious liberty." Deseret News, October 21, 2015, National Edition.

Healy, Jack. "Mormons Say Duty to Law on Same-Sex Marriage Trumps Faith." New York Times, October 22, 2015, U.S.

Image: Screenshot of the YouTube recording of Dallin H. Oaks's talk, "The Boundary Between Church and State," delivered at the Second Annual Sacrament Court/Clergy Conference on October 20, 2015, in Sacramento, CA.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com.