Elder Dallin H. Oaks is a learned man. A lawyer by training, he was also President Of Brigham Young University and sat on the Utah Supreme Court for several years. He was on a list of jurists Ronald Reagan considered for the United States Supreme Court, when such nominations were taken seriously and not handed out like candy to the legal grifter class.
In 2020, Oaks is one of the counselors in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The First Presidency sits at the head of the LDS Church, managing all of its spiritual and temporal concerns. Under the First Presidency sit twelve apostles, a host of “general authorities” that oversee day-to-day administrative matters around the world, and an army of “stake presidents,” bishops, and other local leaders LDS members with whom members interact regularly. Every single one is these individuals is male.1Hold on. It’s just a statement of fact.
Oaks gave a talk this morning at the Church’s General Conference event, discussing current events. Oaks reminded that the right to protest is fundamental to the American state, while condemning the violence that he may have, too pointedly, laid at the feet of those same protesters.
Set aside for the moment that there is some question about who is actually responsible for the violence and destruction. White supremacists have been tracking such events and wreaking havoc in “Antifa’s” name. But at the very time Oaks was speaking—the very moment—my daughter was driving to the sewing machine store in Logan, Utah. And this is what she saw:
She explains what she went through in her own words below:
I had to drop off my sewing machine. As I was driving to the store, I saw a man with a large gun standing in the street. I immediately began shaking and decided I need to pull over and call the police because of the man in the street with the gun. I called and a woman answered. I told her I saw someone with a gun. And she said “oh the one at the courthouse?” I said yes, and she told me that he had already been “talked to” but an officer would call me back.
He called 5-10 minutes later. I told him what I saw. And he told me there was nothing he could do because this man is allowed to carry a gun in the street. I asked him who I should call then if I felt unsafe. He told me the police. But that they couldn’t do anything unless he killed someone.
The contrast was poignant. Literally, as Oaks stood at the pulpit decrying “violence” in the streets, my daughter and her mother were crying, shaking, and upset about her very personal brush with violence. That very minute.
Of course, there are millions of Trump voters watching the same General Conference. They saw the image the Church used when Elder Oaks was speaking about violence, and it wasn’t a white man with a Trump flag. The question had to be asked: Exactly what violence does Oaks mean? Is it all violence? Or just the violence that scares white people?
My wife decided to find out. She found the Facebook post the LDS Church established for members to comment on Oaks’ talk. She posted a picture of the man with the AR-15 and the Trump flag and—noting that the law permitted this man to openly threaten violence—and asked why we did not “condemn this type of intimidation” as well?
Sure enough. The first response was from a woman who explained that it isn’t at all “intimidation,” that the man with the AR-15 was acting lawfully, and that our daughter should “drive the other way.” She explained that it would be “different” if he had “threatened” anyone, and suggested that she herself would “detour because I don’t know who he is and what he is going to do.”
Besides being a master class in Trump-supporting cognitive dissonance, what is this woman talking about? If people have to “detour” from Logan’s main thoroughfare because no one knows who this man “is” or “what he is going to do,” it is not at all clear how this is not “threatening.”
What is worse, there are two players in this particular scene. On one hand is a white man carrying a gun and menacing the populace with not only large arms, but large arms that white men allow him to carry precisely for the purpose of menacing the populace. On the other hand, an unarmed 19-year-old woman taking her sewing machine to the store. And this LDS woman leapt to the defense of the man with the gun. She showed no concern for a young woman or her feelings at encountering an armed man in the street. Nor should there be any question as to why.
I do not know how to make this any more clear than I have done before in this column, but let me try this simple if-then syllogism:
If Oaks is not including white men intimidating the public with guns as violence to be condemned, then our family is leaving the LDS Church.
This should not even be the least controversial, and yet here we are, and we know why. 2020 has been disturbing in more ways than can be counted, but perhaps the most disturbing of all is that every white male with abusive, authoritarian impulses has been freed to prey on and bully anyone in their general vicinity. Our family alone has experienced this numerous times the last several months. And in every case, the immediate reaction of LDS people has been to defend the abuser. If Oaks is not including white men waving guns in his rebuke, then he too is defending the abuser—from the pulpit, no less. The Book of Mormon is only one of many hinges on which truth stands. Even if I had nothing to do with the LDS Church at all, I would desperately hope that a man claiming to be an apostle of Jesus Christ would side with a helpless, unarmed 19-year-old against an armed zealot.
With that observation, we return to the fact that the LDS Church is run by men. In 2020, that is a unique “arrangement” even among religious organizations. To maintain it would seem to require, at a very minimum, a high level of accountability to those that these leaders purport to serve. And yet, when there is aggression, when there is abuse, when there is a power imbalance, when young (or even old) women feel intimidated or threatened or victimized—there are still a significant number of LDS people who run directly to the defense of the aggressor—the man.
This is not something that can simply be waved away. Indeed, it goes hand-in-hand with one recent survey that found—even after four years of recklessness and dysfunction—that 75% of LDS men intended to vote for Donald Trump. If that is true, it is a fair question how that pathology is translating to the governance and administration of the LDS Church. And we will have to answer that question when confronting the post-Trump world that we are, perhaps even more rapidly than we had previously considered, now confronting.
As you might expect, my wife’s post triggered a robust exchange of ideas and I am always game for such an exchange. I had expected the exchange to be deleted long ago, but it is still there.2Evidence, perhaps, that someone is grateful the point was being made? Let’s hope. Whether it remains, I don’t know. I have the screenshots.3Now deleted, because “drive the other way” is not a good look no matter how you slice it.
But we will have to discuss these matters at some point, and something will have to change if the LDS Church is going to be an organization to which we can trust our families—particularly our daughters. A congregation full of people who think that the appropriate response to a 19-year-old woman confronting an armed man is to go the long way round is not a safe place to be.