I can’t help but scratch my head at all of the interest people have in what should and shouldn’t be discussed in LDS church services. Critics from outside the Church insist that we are giving sham lessons and should instead be teaching what we “really” believe. The LGBT (or whatever order that is supposed to be in)community wants us to talk about sexual identity. Some folks insist we should be talking about the history of the Church and confronting the “dark truths” of our past, whatever those are. Others feel we should spend more time talking about polygamy, despite it being a practice that was stopped over a century ago.
And, of course, we should be talking about race.
A recent news article noted that “some members” of the Church (they quoted exactly two) believe that race is a “taboo topic,” along with other controversial subjects. One member complained that the Church in St. Louis wasn’t talking about the racial issues in Ferguson, and another member asserted that the Church isn’t talking enough about an essay the Church published about a year ago regarding race and the priesthood. The latter complaint was that the essay was somehow being hidden in plain sight, having been published on the Church website for the whole world to read. Still, she asserted (based on…well, we don’t know what) that people in the Church, particularly new missionaries, haven’t read the article, and so nonmemebers know more about our history than we do. (News flash: Some new missionaries still haven’t read the Book of Mormon. Let’s worry about one thing at a time).
In my view, these criticisms reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how our Church services operates, what our Sunday services are meant to address, and how the Church interacts with political issues.
The supposed “wall” of separation between church and state in the U.S. is an interesting, but almost laughably inaccurate portrayal of the role of religion in American society. Throughout our history, churches frequently have been blatantly political creatures and important agents for social change. This is particularly true in the area of race relations, where the abolition of slavery and the push for equal rights a century later both were given their greatest support by churches. The social conservatism movement of the 1980s found its impetus in evangelical churches. We have become accustomed to churches not only weighing in on social issues, but often leading the drive for change.
The LDS church is a much less political animal than many of our other Christian friends. I can hear the screams about Proposition 8 in California already, but even when the Church has taken positions on social topics, most of the political “activity” has been upon the members’ own initiative. Very little time is spent in our Sunday services dealing with such matters. At most, the First Presidency might issue a letter to be read to the congregations, but that is done early in the meeting (usually before I’ve been able to drag my half-dressed family into the chapel), and it does not become the focus of the meeting.
This is done intentionally. The Church does not want its Sunday services turning into social debates. Even though members of the LDS Church in the U.S. are overwhelmingly conservative, the Church is quite serious about being open to people of any political leanings. Church members tend to be (from my perspective) more politically active than the general population, and they are encouraged to be that way by the Church’s leadership, but the Church couldn’t care less if you are Mitt Romney or Harry Reid.
Our Sunday services are broken into three roughly hour-long segments. The first is the Sacrament meeting. The main purpose of that meeting is to renew our baptismal covenants by participating in the Sacrament (or Communion, the Lord’s Supper, whatever you want to call it). We come to that meeting to recommit ourselves to following Christ. We have music and talks that are supposed to help us along that road. Politics are generally kept away from the pulpit. I’ve certainly heard plenty of talks that ignored that rule, but just because something happens doesn’t mean it was intended to happen.
Our second hour is Sunday School, with classes divided up by age groups for the youth, an adult class, and a class for visitors and new members. The purpose of the Sunday School program, as with all of the programs o the Church, is to draw people closer to Christ. The lessons are not intended to be controversial or political. However, it is not at all uncommon for “hot topics” to be raised and discussed during Sunday School. If it come up, it comes up. In fact, the Church’s entire curriculum has been changed in order to encourage more open give-and-take on topics. Nothing is “taboo.” However, a good teacher is unlikely to let a class get completely derailed by a discussion of the inner workings of grand juries in Missouri.
Our last hour is broken up into priesthood meetings (for male members over the age of 12, broken up by age), Relief Society (for adult women), Young Women, and Primary (for children). Same rules apply as for Sunday School. We have assigned lessons and lay teachers, and there is plenty of give and take, especially in the adult classes. (The stories I could tell you…) Again, we trust that teachers will try to keep the lessons positive, uplifting, and focused on improving our discipleship within the Church, at home, and in the public.
For members who want to engage in “deeper” discussions, there are avenues aplenty for that. There are Church magazines, Institute Classes put on by the Church Educational System, lectures at BYU that are broadcast publicly, and countless books published on Church-related topics. The Church’s official website, lds.org, is a treasure trove of information on all sorts of topics. That said, the Church strives to remain apolitical except with respect to issues that you might label “public morality,” such as pornography, gambling, and marriage.
Finally, because we believe in a true and “living” church, one which we believe is led by continuing revelation, dwelling on the past would represent a departure from what we believe is important. We believe that we have a living prophet who is entitled to receive specific direction from the Lord to address our discipleship here and now. Once the Lord has clearly spoken on a matter–as with the revelation on race and priesthood in 1978–any discussion of how things were understood prior to that is meaningless. We mark that issue as “resolved” on our checklist of outstanding questions, and focus on what we need to be doing today, as opposed to what we may have understood and tried to do yesterday.
Now, none of this is to say that dealing with more controversial topics might make our meetings more interesting. Personally, I would have a much easier time staying awake at Church if it were a little bit more like hockey, and there was a decent chance of a fistfight breaking out over a hot social topic. But, alas, that isn’t how we do things, at least on Sundays. There is plenty of room for social action, political activity, and spirited debate, but we try our best not to let it detract from our primary goal of drawing people closer to Christ, regardless of their political leanings.