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Oct. 6th, 2010 at 12:46 pm
There has been an uproar over President Packer’s Sunday morning address in General Conference. Thousands of comments have been devoted to it on the Salt Lake Tribune’s website (bet the Deseret News wishes it had covered it just for the ad views) but I am wondering how many of the people upset about it have listened to it carefully.
I spent some time with the talk last night in order to better understand it. Much of the talk is uncontroversial in my mind, particularly the aspects that deal with pornography. Other aspects of the talk have the potential to cause hurt and confusion. I think some of this is due to poor or ambiguous wording. Here are some of my thoughts about what is novel and controversial in the talk. I’ve transcribed as best I can some longer quotes that I think are worth examining.
He opens by saying that we live in a time of confusion and danger for young people. He then says that The Family, A Proclamation to the World was issued, “15 years with the world in turmoil…” President Packer sees the world as a dangerous place for young people, and perhaps a place that is getting worse. The Proclamation was issued to address this in some way. I was interested to hear him say that it is the fifth proclamation issued by the Church. This serves to both emphasize it as rare and minimize it as I can only remember one of the other proclamations being quoted in conference, and never with any regularity. I am completely unaware of two of them. So is this most recent proclamation also destined for obscurity?
Perhaps not. President Packer states, “It qualifies, according to the definition, as a revelation.” I have never heard it classified as a revelation before. I have heard speculation that it might be canonized given the frequency with which it is cited in General Conference, but calling it a revelation gives the document more even authority. I think the wording is a bit odd, as I am not sure that he is in fact calling it a revelation as opposed to simply saying that it qualifies as one based on technical criteria.
President Packer then delves into issues of sex and pro-creation:
In my mind he is placing the issue of our sexuality and how we express it as the central focus of our time on earth and the plan of salvation. This is an unusual focus, but not shocking.
He then begins a discussion of marriage.
I found this very interesting. I had thought that the Church would begin to emphasize sealings as the form of marriage that God requires for marriage to be valid through the eternities. President Packer seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Emphasis seems to be placed on a “pledge of eternal fidelity” and legal marriage. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard legal marriage and pledges given such treatment. I am used to the language of sealing and covenants.
Perhaps we do need to place more emphasis on legal marriage in order to underline its importance and make it an issue worth fighting over? I can certainly see how some would take my own view that we should emphasize temple sealings as a retreat.
I would have liked more clarity here. I assume that he means, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But the content of the talk has nearly nothing to do with adultery. Perhaps he is alluding to the Abinadi and the “or anything like unto it” addition. It is hard to know because specifics aren’t given.
There is then a discussion of Satan and pro-creation culminating in:
I think this is dangerous territory. Denouncing Satan as infertile and even impotent might be true, but for couples dealing with issues of infertility and impotence, being having these traits associated with the Devil himself is deeply hurtful. I do not think that President Packer meant for any such association to be drawn, but for people who are living with these problems such issues are possibly at the forefront of their minds and they are making these associations whether intended or not.
He then begins a discussion of pornography that I thought was entirely appropriate. Some key quotes:
I think all of this is a needed warning and critical advice. I hope that those needing to hear this message can do so through the noise of the rest of the discussion of this talk.
He then seems to leave the topic of pornography for a while in order to address other concerns:
I think that this is the section of the talk that is causing much of the controversy. People are claiming that President Packer is claiming that people are not born gay or that they can be “cured.”
I suppose that you can interpret it that way if you want to, but I don’t see it. I think that this section of the talk is unfortunately worded and unclear. Let’s examine the key sentences. “Some suppose that they were pre-set, and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so.” Is he denying that sexuality is an in-born trait? No. Technically he is denying the combined claim that it is in-born and therefore those impulses cannot be overcome. This is probably still an offensive claim to many people, but it is not a denial of a biological basis for homosexuality and it is not a claim that anyone can be “cured.” It is a claim that people do not have to act on particular sexual urges, which is a pretty standard claim within the LDS Church.
I think that people can be forgiven for taking this a different way when listening to the talk, but reading it and considering it, I think if we want to be critical of this we need to be critical of what was actually said rather than some extrapolation or misunderstanding. I think the headline of the Salt Lake Tribune article linked to above is especially irresponsible.
President Packer then told a very funny story about a class of school children determining the sex of a kitten. One boy claims to know how to do it. The teacher cautiously asks what his method is, and he replies, “We can vote on it!”
The story got a good laugh which you can hear on the recording. It leads into my final big quote:
I think that this section contradicts itself. If moral standards cannot be changed by ballot then why are we so concerned with ballots? The statement, “We cannot change.” is simply inaccurate as it precludes the possibility of revelation on the subject. We’ve certainly changed before regarding marriage. I also think that comparing moral laws and physical laws is problematic for a number of reasons.
If you look carefully at the Ten Commandments, how many of them can be legislated in the USA? I come up with two for sure: murder and stealing. Bearing false witness is only a crime in certain circumstances. In the past you could add adultery and some others. Yet people are able to live moral lives without being compelled to do so by the government.
Read the final quoted paragraph carefully. I think this is the core message of his sermon, or perhaps was intended to be. Unfortunately it has been lost in the storm of controversy surrounding other aspects of the talk.
I summary, I think that President Packer’s talk was problematic, but perhaps not as bad as some have claimed. Many of the problems stem from imprecise wording which allows listeners to hear what they want to. Had he stuck to the topic of pornography the talk would not have been given much attention as what he said on that topic was well worded and non-controversial. I urge everyone to listen to it or read it carefully and come to your own conclusions.