Grace is at the core of the gospel, part 2

Like the talk I wrote about two days ago, I can’t find enough positive to say about President Dieter Uchtdorf’s talk. He preached grace in a way that has never been taught so strongly in General Conference:

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Grace is at the core of the gospel

I’ve long been a fan of Brad Wilcox’s “His Grace Is Sufficient” talk at BYU, mostly because of the way it so forcefully teaches grace without resorting to the sort of cheap grace that turns Jesus’ suffering and death into little more than a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card. The more I’ve studied LDS Christianity, the more I’ve become convinced that grace is at its core — despite a culturally powerful “worthiness narrative” that tells us only our extensive efforts can make us qualify for grace. There’s almost a fear in the church (including among many leaders) against shouting “Grace!” too loudly lest we become among those Christians who believe there is nothing for us to do.

But as Wilcox makes clear, grace is more than the unmerited favor that it is so often described as. It is also an empowering force — a force that not only allows us to hear the invitation of Christ but also to act on it as we follow His example. It is at the core of becoming like Christ and, ultimately, in becoming able to enjoy the everlasting life we call exaltation.

All of this is merely a roundabout way of introducing what I thought was the most outstanding talk of this weekend’s General Conference. Like Wilcox, Elder Dale G. Renlund gave a talk that “gets grace” (although he often uses the word “mercy”). I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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Church’s article on religious liberty gives wrong impressions of legal cases

There’s no question that American society is becoming more secular, and it’s understandable why leaders of the LDS church (and other churches) are concerned that our legal system and social structures will place less value on the practice of religion than they have in the past. As someone who believes in freedom of expression for people of all faiths (or none), I share those concerns.

I would hope that in promoting the cause of religious liberty that the church would present the issues at hand in a truthful manner worthy of emulation by all sides. Sadly, the church’s Newsroom fails to meet that standard in its latest foray into the issue, an article called Other Examples of Attacks on Religious Conscience and Free Exercise. Not only does the article get some major facts wrong, it also is misleading by leaving key facts out or describing events inaccurately. I’m not in a position to say whether the false directions the article takes were intentional — I certainly hope not — but, regardless, the misdirection to readers isn’t helpful to the cause. Most importantly, as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), this use of tactics that appear less than honest makes me sad.

The article lists five examples of court cases described as attacks on religious freedoms and includes brief comments on their significance. I’ll briefly explain the problems with each of those examples.

Employment Example 1: The article says: “A Baptist-affiliated organization that places at-risk children in adoption or foster care terminated an employee because her admitted homosexual lifestyle was contrary to the organization’s core values. Accusing the organization of sexual orientation discrimination, she brought a federal lawsuit that the organization is still defending against more than a decade later. … Businesses that publicly operate according to religious beliefs should have the freedom to hire based on religious criteria they deem necessary to ensure that the working environment is supportive of those beliefs.”

The article’s description of the dispute (Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Inc.) is correct as far as it goes. What is left out is that the child-services institution received a substantial amount of its revenue from taxpayers, about $12.5 million per year from the state of Kentucky. Certainly, there’s no question, at least to me, that a sectarian institution fully funded by a church and/or private donations should be able to set hiring policies informed by the church’s beliefs. But it’s a different matter when taxpayers are footing the bill.

Employment Example 2: The article says: “A New York City restaurant was ordered to pay $1.6 million to a lesbian chef and manager for allegedly discriminating based on sexual orientation and religion because the restaurant held weekly prayer meetings and the owner expressed the view that homosexual conduct is sinful.”

The best that can be said is that the description of the case (Salemi v. Gloria’s Tribeca, Inc.) substantially understates what the jury found, even though it was instructed that “[d]discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or religion must be beyond what is considered petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”

According to the appeals court, “[t]he record evidence, which is extensive and corroborated by multiple witnesses, amply supports the jury’s verdict that, in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law (City HRL), plaintiff’s employer, defendant Edward Globokar, the principal of Gloria’s Tribecamex Inc., which owned the restaurant where plaintiff worked as chef and manager, discriminated against her based on her religion and sexual orientation by, amongst other things, holding weekly prayer meetings at the restaurant where plaintiff worked which the staff viewed as mandatory, fearing that they would lose their jobs if they did not attend, repeatedly stating that homosexuality is ‘a sin,’ and that ‘gay people’ were ‘going to go to hell’ and generally subjecting her to an incessant barrage of offensive anti-homosexual invective.” Is that really the kind of employer “religious freedom” we want to be defending?

Employment Example 3: The article says: “A Minnesota health club, owned by Evangelical Christians and operated in light of biblical principles, was ordered by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1985 to stop hiring only employees who shared their religious beliefs in order to comply with state nondiscrimination laws.”

I doubt whether anyone in the Newsroom even read this case (Blanding v. Sports & Health Club, Inc.), which didn’t have anything to do with employment discrimination. The case involved whether the health club could, in effect, apply different standards of conduct for gay members than it did for its straight members. And even if this were an employment case, do we really want to be arguing that it’s OK for a nonreligious business to hire only evangelical Christians?

Housing Example 1: The article says: “A private Jewish university in New York City was sued by a lesbian couple for its policy of reserving its married student housing for male-female couples. The state’s highest court ruled that the university’s policy could be challenged as violating the city’s ordinance barring housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. … Religious schools should have the freedom to establish values-based regulations for student housing, including regulations separating male and female housing and protecting values of privacy, modesty and sexual morality.”

I can’t disagree that religious schools should be free to base policies regarding school-owned housing on their religious standards. But is that what this case (Levin v. Yeshiva Univ.) was about? Apparently not. The school conceded from the outset that its housing was subject to city antidiscrimination law. And, according to the appeals court, “All parties agree that Yeshiva’s religious affiliations have no bearing on this appeal. Also, plaintiffs did not plead claims based on either the State or Federal Constitution.”

It also should be noted that while the court did indeed rule that the school’s policy could be challenged, the lesbian plaintiffs’ challenge was not successful.

Housing Example 2: The article says: “In 1996 the California Supreme Court ruled that a devout Presbyterian widow with traditional Christian morals violated state law when she desired to rent one of her properties only to couples who are married. The court explained that the widow could avoid compromising her religious beliefs by getting out of the rental business altogether. … Small landlords and landlords renting units closely associated with their family living arrangements should have the freedom to determine who will occupy such units.”

The description of the case (Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Com.) is technically accurate. But the wording here would suggest to the average reader that this widow’s property was “closely associated with [her] living arrangements.” The article’s author apparently wants readers to believe that this situation was something like that of a person who wants to rent out an apartment in her basement and doesn’t want the tenant unduly influencing her children. But that was not the case here. The widow did not live on the premises and visited the buildings only for purposes of maintenance and operations. By any legal standard, she was operating a typical, although small, housing business.

Final comment: It should be obvious by now that the results of these cases don’t portend the type of constitutional doomsday scenario that the Newsroom apparently wants us to think they do. As such, they’re not helpful to the debate over religious liberties. These accounts may even be counterproductive in that their implicit dishonesty presents the Church in less than a positive light.

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My response to the YSA bishop

I wrote the following as a much-too-long Facebook comment in a discussion on “A YSA Bishop Talks to the Sisters About Intimacy.” The person who started the discussion labeled the article using a common barnyard epithet and asked: “Like, is this really what my daughters are going to be taught? … I can’t even handle it and I am not sure I want them exposed to it.”

I just completed reading the article in its entirety. Now it’s time to take a shower.

There’s so much to say, I’m not sure where to begin. My first reaction: If my daughter were in his ward, I’d advise her to never be alone with this guy. Actually, I wouldn’t limit that advice to just my daughter. He strikes me as creepy.

I agree with the bishop on several things: The law of chastity (the real law, not his version of it) is God’s law. I agree that men and women were made to be attracted to each other. I agree that it is appropriate to set boundaries in our behavior. Finally, I agree that the Atonement provides forgiveness.

Beyond that, it’s hard to find much redeeming in this article. I think the word K. used to describe it is too mild.

I think most of the problems with the article are obvious. He sees sexual attraction as something God-given, yet he also apparently sees it as evil. He relies on negative stereotypes of male behavior — and if I were a female and took him seriously, I’d be asking myself why I’d ever want to have anything to do with men. He seems to think that the only virtue of women worth paying attention to is their beauty. I could go on and on; it’s just warped.

There’s also an implicit message to men in that article: If I’m not a creep in the way that bishop is, there’s something wrong with me. I’m actually capable of respecting women as my sisters in Christ, so what’s my problem?

Fortunately, to answer K.’s question, no, I don’t see this extreme view as mainstream. But I don’t see it as uncommon either.

Here’s a problem, as I see it, and it gets to what T. brought up. [One of the participants in the conversation had written: “I’m by no means going to defend the article. I’m wondering if you can explain how you balance personal responsibility with Paul’s admonition to refrain from eating meat if it causes a brother to stumble?”] This sort of talk by the bishop, the similar rhetoric we sometimes hear, and the overemphasis on “modesty” (where modesty = covering skin) are all a pushback against a society that has run off the rails in matters of sexuality. So one extreme is replaced by another extreme, one that has taken us to the point where we’re even painting sleeves on pictures of preschool girls. Ugh.

So now there’s a pushback against the pushback, one that denies that the way someone dresses or otherwise behaves has any effect on anyone else’s thoughts or behavior. I’ve seen some of the anti-pushback posts in the bloggernacle that almost suggest that women dressing provocatively is a good thing.

I want to be careful not to be misunderstood here, because this is a nuanced view. As I see it, in a Christian community, we have a mutual responsibility to foster a climate where healthy relationships and, yes, healthy sexuality can exist. One way we do that is through positive actions, such as seeing persons of the opposite sex as total people rather than merely objects or potential marriage partners. We can do that through developing genuine relationships with people of both sexes. But we can also do that to some extent through self-restraint, perhaps even by not sending inappropriate sexual messages in our dress or comportment. How we dress and behave does send out messages and does affect (not control, but affect) others’ behavior, and I think it’s reasonable to recognize that. It also affects the way we perceive ourselves.

I’m not interested in codifying that sort of thing, and I think we’d be better off teaching principles rather than writing rules for everyone. I’m just concerned that in (rightfully) condemning talks such as the one the bishop gave, we don’t also ignore the mutual responsibilities we have toward each other.

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Does ‘after all we can do’ = ‘despite all we can do’?

For those of us who believe fully that Latter-day Saint scriptures are filled with teachings of empowering grace and see that as conflicting with a common cultural (and, I must concede, even quasi doctrinal) view that grace must be earned, 2 Nephi 25:23 sometimes turns out to be a bit of a stumbling block. The verse, familiar to anyone active in the LDS church, says this: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

I don’t intend here to get into a full discussion of the role of grace vs. works; my best current understanding can be found in my thoughts on the paradox of good works. My intent here is much more limited: to show the plausibility that “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 can reasonably be interpreted to mean “despite,” and that in fact such was likely the intended meaning. In other words, its intended meaning runs contrary to a popular interpretation, that the grace of Christ “kicks in” only subsequent to our doing everything we can, a view that actually can deny grace because none of us really does all that we can do.

I am far from the first to suggest that “after” here means “despite,” although as far as I know most others who have done so have argued from the context. And, indeed, the view of an incomplete grace, one that doesn’t kick in until we’ve lived the perfect life, runs contrary to stated intent of the full passage, which Nephi says is to teach that “there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.”

Popular writers such as Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet have been among those advocating for a “despite” approach. And at least one apostle, M. Russell Ballard, came awfully close to saying almost the same thing in a 1998 Institute talk [1]: “It is only through the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ that people can overcome the consequences of bad choices. Thus Nephi teaches us that it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved even after all that we can do.” (Emphasis not in original.)

But there’s a problem, at least in the minds of some, with such an interpretation. J. Nelson-Seawright, writing at By Common Consent, put it this way:

A revisionist reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 has been offered to overcome this nontrivial obstacle. This reading, most notably associated with Stephen E. Robinson but advocated by many others, suggests effectively replacing Nephi’s “after” with the phrase “in spite of,” yielding the following New Revised Version of the original text: “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, in spite of all we can do.” … Robinson’s reading has the obvious defect of working best when the actual text is changed.

Tim, the evangelical host of LDS & Evangelical Conversations, put the issue more colorfully:

All of the ways I’ve heard “Grace Mormons” get around 2 Nephi 25:23 makes me fear they’ll use the same methodology on all of scripture and just brush the entire Bible aside. … Robinson’s interpretation is gobbledygook. He might as well say “I’m going to make words mean what they don’t mean in order to get the passage to say the opposite of what it says.” I REALLY like the destination Robinson is aiming for, but his textual analysis is mind boggling. I don’t think it’s fair to the passage, to pre-existing Mormon thought, or to the English language.

And now the point of this post: Here’s where Nelson-Seawright and Tim are wrong — it’s the interpretation that grace occurs subsequent to our doing everything possible that changes the words of the original. That understanding adds a word, changing “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” to “it is by grace that we are saved, after doing all we can do.” The word “doing” isn’t in the original.

If “after” here means “subsequent to,” well, that just doesn’t make grammatical sense. “All we can do” isn’t an event. “All we can do” isn’t something that happens at some time, after which something else can happen.

So that raises the question: Logically, grammatically, can “after” mean something else here? Indeed it can. To say it means “despite,” “in spite of” or “notwithstanding” isn’t a stretch at all.

In fact, we find such a use frequently with the phrase “after all.” A few examples: After all we’ve done for him, he doesn’t care. After all she did to destroy me, I still love her. The child drowned, after/despite all he did to try to rescue her. While there is indeed a time element in those sentences, “despite” is the main meaning of “after.”

Similarly, the phrases “after all” and “after all is said and done,” which usually function as an adverbial phrase rather than being used in the way “after all” is in the 2 Nephi passage, carry the idea that something happened despite what would be otherwise expected. Example: We left the house late but arrived on time after all.

Granted, “despite” isn’t the meaning usually associated with “after.” But it’s a meaning that was recognized at least as early as 1900 in dictionaries, when Webster’s gave “subsequent to and notwithstanding” (emphasis added) as a possible meaning of the word.

I’ve looked for passages contemporary to the translation of the Book of Mormon that use “after” in the same way that Joseph Smith did in 2 Nephi 25:23, and I haven’t had much luck, probably because I haven’t devised a way to limit my digital searches to 19th-century documents; this is an area for further research. But I did find one: It came in an 1857 book, “Rollo in Holland,” by Jacob Abbot [2]. In a passage discussing the making of harbors, he writes: “In this way a passage is secured, by which, when the tide is high, pretty good sized vessels can get in; but, after all that they can do in such a case, they cannot make a harbor which can be entered at low tide.” Undoubtedly, “after all that they can do” here is synonymous with “in spite of all that they can do.”

Such a reading for “after all” in 2 Nephi 25:23 makes plain, although in my view the context does already, that the grace we receive through the Atonement isn’t earned. (Just to be clear, I’m not advocating “cheap grace.” There’s still plenty for us to do, but its purpose isn’t to earn grace.) I hope that as we study the words of Nephi, we come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the love that Jesus showed us through his life, suffering and death.


1. Building Bridges of Understanding.

2. The text is available thanks to Project Gutenberg.

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My reaction to the Ralph Hancock interview

I wrote the following as a comment to a Mormon Stories podcast interview with Brigham Young University professor Ralph Hancock. But it quickly became too long for a comment on John Dehlin’s blog, so I’m posting it here. This post will make more sense if you listen to the interview first.

Although I found it enlightening at times and frustrating at times, I also enjoyed listening to the full interview (and look forward to the ice cream).

Although I agree with Dr. Hancock on a few points and disagree with him on more, I do think he effectively pointed out the reason why constructive dialogue can be so difficult. And that is because where we end up depends so much on our starting point, our framework, our assumptions. If one starts out with the assumption/belief/premise, for example, that there are inherent, important and essential differences between men and women that go beyond the different chromosome, then of course you’re going to react differently to many things than would someone who starts out believing that men and women and women are essentially the same in everything except for that chromosome. To take one current example, for someone in that former group (such as Hancock) there’s nothing unjust about the fact that women are never invited to pray in General Conference; for someone in that other group, that apparent policy is nonsensical at best and perhaps even oppressive. Both sides may mean well and be basically good, honorable people, but even on a relatively insignificant matter such as this one they don’t really see where the other side is coming from.

I thought John Dehlin did a good job of getting Hancock to explain where’s he’s coming from, what his starting point is. I don’t agree with many of his conclusions, but I can see how they’re logical within his framework. I also can see that, based on his starting point, that he very well could be a compassionate person (in fact, I assume that he is) and not come across that way.

Hancock’s comments also suggest to me that if Mormon feminists (I’d put myself in that category, although many wouldn’t) are to be effective in gaining sympathy for the changes they’d like to see, they would probably be more effective if they could discuss these issues within a Mormon paradigm. What we have now is that — at least at the popular level — many of them are addressing the issues from an “equal rights” or “civil rights” paradigm, one that is never going to resonate with Hancock or people like him, because they’re not starting out with the basic belief that equality in human value demands equality in opportunity. I think there’s plenty of room within established Mormon doctrine — after all, we are the only major branch of Christianity with a female deity — to make the case that we aren’t fully recognizing the spiritual gifts that women have been given. And even within the Proclamation on the Family, which speaks of equal partnerships, there’s enough to suggest that family life doesn’t have to be based on the model of 1950s TV America.

I think that Dehlin set the example when he made the argument within a Christian (although not specifically Mormon) context for gay marriage. Although I didn’t find Dehlin fully persuasive (because I don’t start out with the same view of homosexuality as he does), I do think he made a strong case in arguing his point on the basis of the scriptural record rather than relying on the type of 1960s-style civil-rights rhetoric that doesn’t speak to traditionalists.

Hancock also is correct in saying that when we make changes, even ones that have a positive element, there are costs involved. And it would be constructive if those who are advocating for various changes, such as gay marriage, would acknowledge that yes, there are tradeoffs. Change, even good change, always comes at a cost, and discussion becomes more likely when both sides recognize that.

But I’m not sure that Hancock recognizes the tradeoffs made in maintaining his position. One problem mentioned in the podcast is that our society, or at least parts of it, isn’t doing a very good job of encouraging fathers to get involved in the lives of their children. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s one of the tradeoffs society has made in emphasizing the breadwinning aspect of fatherhood over the nurturing aspect. Perhaps a more “feminist” approach of the kind disfavored by Hancock would encourage responsible parenting by mother and father. I don’t really know what the answer is, but certainly the present paradigm isn’t working for a growing number of children who are growing up with weak or even nonexistent paternal role models. And that isn’t the fault of those who are pushing for gay marriage.

In any case, the interview was great food for thought. It made one week of my commute to and from work a lot more interesting.

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Utahns, a peculiar people

The LDS church may spend countless dollars trying to convince people that Mormons are normal people, and then these sort of things happen. Only in Utah.

Folks here in Utah seem to have not heard the message that when the King James Version of the Bible refers to a “peculiar people,” it doesn’t mean weird — chosen people or God’s own people is the way modern English Bibles put it, but not peculiar in the current sense of the word.

No, I’m not referring to last year’s pants in church debacle (the event was harmless enough, but the online reaction wasn’t), but of what I read this week in the Salt Lake Tribune. First, a local high school canceled performances of an Elvis Presley-themed musical that has been performed at other high schools around the country (and even in Utah) without complaint (the decision was reversed after portions of the play were rewritten), and then a local city council changed the name of Morning Glory Road to Morning Vista Road because the old name was too sexually suggestive. Huh? Really? For the record, the street had been named after a common flowering plant that has also been the name of at least half a dozen pop songs and three movies (including one starring Katharine Hepburn).

What’s next? Are we going to start adding sleeves to pictures of little girls or depictions of angels in classic paintings? Oh, I forgot. We’ve already done that.

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