Reproductive Rights are Human Rights, Terryl

Source: The World Health Organization


Let me begin by stating succinctly a fact that men like Terryl Givens are not at liberty to question: when they put “reproductive rights” into quotations, as a thing to be mistrusted or invalidated by them in any way, it’s a betrayal to the women they claim to love. They’re placing the enfranchisement of their wives, daughters, granddaughters, mothers, and sisters in jeopardy to score points in an argument. They speak without personal stake or experience in the rhetoric they’re posing against women’s bodily autonomy. And if through some nightmarish scenario their efforts are successful and they overturn Roe. v. Wade, they will still be threatening the very sanctity of life they claim to be defending.

This is what I’m going to be talking about today. Not because I want to. Not because I don’t have anything better to be doing with my time. But because when men put philosophical challenges to reproductive rights out into a public forum, it’s a direct threat to me and my survival in this country. Please pardon me for talking about abortion like it’s a life or death issue to me, because that’s exactly what it is. I will be bringing the full weight of my passion into this response. If seeing women be passionate in an argument offends you, now is the time to make your exit.

Also, to my transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming friends. My apologies for using gendered language in this response. In all the ways these discussions also affect you, regardless of your gender expression, you have my love, recognition, and support.

Men are the Least Important People in ANY Discussion Concerning Legalized Abortion Access

It always astounds me whenever men talk about refusing to support safe, legalized abortion because, barring some advancement in medical science that gives men a womb, they will never experience any of the risks surrounding being pregnant. They will never know the devastation of being pregnant with an unwanted child. They will never know the trauma of having their bodies used against their will to carry a fetus to term. They will never know how it feels to desperately want a child and to have their bodies continually thwart their efforts by rejecting multiple pregnancies. They will never know what it’s like to have reproductive tissue vacated from their bodies, either through manual removal or forced inducement, that could’ve been a person… but just isn’t.

These may be fighting words, but it needs to be said. Fetuses are not people. Not medically and, in most cases, not legally. Not even in the eyes of God, at least not as practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a fact with which any temple president can acquaint Brother Givens or anyone else who cares to explore it. All he has to do is ask if any temple ordinances are performed for stillborn children. Having served as an ordinance worker myself, I’ll save him and you the phone call: no temple ordinances are performed for fetuses who do not survive birth into mortality, independent of where they were in their mother’s gestation cycle. The Church has no official stance that delineates when life or personhood begins in a fetus. In policy, they currently treat birth, not conception, as the point when life begins.

I want to talk about the word fetus. It’s the medically correct and factually accurate term for reproductive tissue before it successfully exits a mother’s body during the birthing process. Until a fetus successfully transitions into an independent existence, no longer relying on a mother’s lungs for air, her body for nutrients, and her womb for protection from the elements, that fetus is not a child. It is reproductive tissue that belongs to and is a part of a woman’s body. It is legally hers to remove from her body at will.

The fact that Givens has grandchildren and either doesn’t know or has no respect for these fundamentals about a woman’s reproductive health is exactly why men like him should have no say in our reproductive choices. To speak on these issues in an educated way, you need to have a deeper understanding of female anatomy beyond “slot A, tab B.” To the degree that men don’t understand female anatomy, they’re unprepared to have intelligent conversations on abortion.

Without Legalized Abortion Access, Unwanted Pregnancies Become Forced Pregnancies

I don’t view Terryl Givens and critics of legalized abortion like him as being “pro-life.” Individuals who are pro-life support comprehensive, affordable health care for all people. They support laws and policies that lift individuals and families out of poverty. They hold the governments they elect accountable for reproductive violence through forced sterilization and family separation. They recognize the humanity and dignity in every person, not just the unborn. That’s not an accurate description of most who oppose abortion in the United States.

Instead, I refer to critics of legalized abortion as “pro-pregnancy advocates,” because that’s where their support for the unborn starts and ends. They envision a society where laws and policies force women who don’t want to be pregnant to give birth to unwanted children anyway.

The only alternative to safe, legalized abortion access is to impose unwanted pregnancies on individuals and families. Let’s talk about why that’s such a despicable thing to advocate for in the United States.

Women who receive abortions in the United States are overwhelmingly poor or at low-income status. In 2014, 75% of abortion patients met that criteria. More than half of them (51%) were using contraception at the time they became pregnant. White individuals made up 39% of cases, with the remaining 61% being made up of Black, Latinx, and other racial minorities.

As one of the last developed countries in the world with no guaranteed paid maternity leave or child care, the most expensive health care in the world, rampant racial bias in reproductive medicine, and a shockingly high maternal mortality rate, the United States is arguably one of the worst countries in the world in which to have an unwanted pregnancy. But that’s exactly what pro-pregnancy advocates are trying to impose on women: illegitimate control over the most vulnerable families in our society. It’s predatory and unconscionable, which is why Givens leaves all of this out of his think piece. It’s easier to justify harming women and families through pro-pregnancy advocacy when you never acknowledge the humanity and harm of the people most affected by this issue.

Forced Pregnancies Produce Unwanted Children

This is something I can talk about with a great deal of personal knowledge and experience. I was an unplanned, unwanted child. I grew up in a low-income family that later turned into a single mother, with the bare minimum of education, caring for two children with no child support. We were as poor as it was possible to be in the United States without being homeless.

I know exactly what it’s like to be an unwanted burden to my parents. My parents frequently took their financial struggles out on their children in all kinds of abuse. If Givens is outraged about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder women experience from abortions, his head might actually implode when he discovers what Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is like for the unwanted children he’s trying to bring into this world.

I have years of missing time in my memory from C-PTSD, where my brain has compartmentalized and blocked off the worst traumas I’ve lived through. This doesn’t stop isolated fragments from violently breaking through into my consciousness on a semi-regular basis. Thought spiraling and hallucinations are a regular part of my daily life. I’ve had to learn techniques to cope with my mental illness, with varying levels of success from day to day. Unlike regular PTSD, which often centers on a single event that can be successfully reprocessed and healed through therapy, C-PTSD is different. The compounded results of living in trauma, insecurity, and deprivation for prolonged periods of time make it almost impossible to treat. There are too many incidents for me to ever reprocess, and many of them are too suppressed to be accessible to me anymore. As a result, there will never be a time when I’m no longer living with the harm from my childhood.

Givens’ argument rests on the unacknowledged, unchallenged assumption that being a living, unwanted child is somehow preferable to being an aborted fetus.

My question is: what exactly does he know about being either one?

Admittedly, I don’t know what it’s like to be an aborted fetus. But I’m an expert on being an unwanted child in a poor, dysfunctional family that would (and almost did) seek out abortion. The act of keeping a child alive in circumstances like mine is not merciful. It’s not a decision worth honoring or enshrining in law or public policy. It’s not preferable to terminating a pregnancy that never should’ve happened. If having legalized abortion means more kids aren’t born into impoverished, dysfunctional, abusive families like mine, I don’t view that as a problem.

Pro-pregnancy advocates who grew up in families where they were wanted, loved, and valued should want the same thing for all children, but they just don’t. They show that every day in the legislators they vote for, the policies they refuse to support, and the poverty they’re comfortable with existing in this country. My early life is a testimony to how little they genuinely care about me and families like mine.

They can lie to themselves all they want about that, but they’re not fooling me.

Legalized Abortion Guarantees Comprehensive Health Care to Women with Reproductive Disorders

Givens is deeply mistrustful of anyone who disagrees with him on abortion, especially if they’re members of the Church. He paints them as individuals who couldn’t possibly approach the issue of abortion from an impartial, fully-educated place if they are pro-choice. In total contradiction of that portrayal, allow me to put forth what I know about women’s reproductive health—not because I’m a policy expert, a Constitutional scholar, a medical professional, or even because I have children of my own.

I stand instead on the only credential that matters in this discussion: I am a woman. What’s more, I’m a woman whose reproductive health has uprooted the life I tried to build for myself and forced me to be the expert on pregnancy I never wanted to be.

I have been diagnosed with, and take medications for, multiple chronic conditions. One is typified by infertility and hormonal imbalances that make pregnancy more dangerous for me than the average woman. My endocrine disorder makes me prone to pregnancy complications at every stage. I am more likely to miscarry and to have stillborn children. I am more likely to require dilation and evacuations for the removal of non-viable pregnancies—procedures that could be necessary for me at any stage of pregnancy. These procedures are abortions and are not distinct in any way from the practices Givens wants to see outlawed.

And even if I somehow avoid all of that and safely make it to the labor stage, I’m still not out of the woods. Preeclampsia and eclampsia are more common for women with my condition. If you need a point of reference, that’s what Sybil died from on Downton Abbey. They are still fatal when they aren’t caught and addressed in time. Remember that preventable maternal mortality rate I mentioned earlier? The state I live in is part of the reason for that, having a higher maternal mortality rate than the (already high) national average because they don’t catch preventable pregnancy complications in time to intervene.

For me, however, the scariest aspect of pregnancy would be the mental and emotional anguish I would experience from discontinuing the medications I depend on to be well. Life without those medications isn’t survivable for me, and I’d have to discontinue the ones I rely on the most if I ever became pregnant.

If there was ever a woman who wanted to be pregnant, whose entire existence is just completely incompatible with being pregnant, it’s me. Pregnancy would put me into an impossible position of choosing between risking everything to have a child I want and destroying my physical and mental health in the process, or terminating that pregnancy immediately to avoid living full time on suicide watch from the combined Molotov cocktail of hormonal imbalances and untreated mental illness. To avoid ever being placed into the position where I would be forced to choose abortion, I’ve instead chosen to do everything in my power to never become pregnant. Because my infertility is so severe, it hasn’t been that difficult to achieve so far.

This is my reality, what I’ve accepted about God’s plan for me on this earth. I accepted a long time ago that part of that plan for me may include having an abortion someday, whether it’s a spontaneous abortion (the actual term for a miscarriage) or a procedure to remove non-viable tissues from my body. Those with better luck in relation to their reproductive health shouldn’t forget that not everyone else’s situation is the same. I shouldn’t have to show up in these conversations and make my struggles visible to remind people like Givens to have empathy and compassion for those who are different from them.

Eliminating Choice is Just Outsourcing Choice

When abortion restrictions are written into law and policy, the first concessions are always the same because we already recognize as a society that being too conservative on this issue is inhumane. Rape, incest, maternal mortality (respected even in Utah's first abortion law of 1876), and fatal fetal abnormalities are the standard exceptions. Some people take comfort in outlawing abortion on these grounds because they tell themselves that all the “deserving” women will surely still get a pass. But given that we live under a system that is supposed to have protected equal access for everyone, and there are plenty of these “deserving” women who can’t access care, we already know these exceptional protections won’t work as intended. And really, who are pro-pregnancy advocates to be the gatekeepers in determining which women are “deserving” and which ones aren’t? What qualifications do they have that we should be outsourcing choice to them?

When you introduce a system of abortion where exceptions need to be justified to meet legal requirements, the responsibility of appointing arbiters of choice instead falls to the government. Under a system where women can’t be trusted to terminate their own pregnancies responsibly, the government undertakes that responsibility by appointing someone (or a group) to make those decisions instead. Depending on the beliefs and biases of the members of that group, that doesn’t mean they would grant me an abortion, even if it would save my life. All they would have to say to prevent me from proceeding is that my needs aren’t justified. Given the many, varied positions that exist on abortion in this country, ranging from “go ahead” to “we should give women who have abortions the death penalty,” I don’t like my odds trusting strangers with that decision about my body.

Speaking of outsourcing, we need to confront the policy that Givens quoted in his essay regarding consulting with the bishop before terminating a pregnancy. God forbid I should ever end up in that position. But if I did, the last conversation I intend to have in that moment of crisis is an interrogation with my bishop. I reject the very premise that I need his permission or forgiveness for seeking valid, necessary medical treatment. I don’t need my bishop’s permission to receive cancer treatment, an organ transplant, or to have one of my limbs amputated—nor does he need mine. Why on earth should I need his blessing, under the threat of church discipline, if I need to terminate my pregnancy? Especially if I’m in a time sensitive position where my life is in danger, he is not the priority for consideration at that moment. Nor should he be—not for me and not for any other woman.

I don’t trust anyone enough to unconditionally put my life and decisions this important into someone else’s hands. I don’t trust ANY institution (religious or secular) to appoint someone else to make my reproductive choices for me. No one is more personally invested in my health and continuing survival than I am. That’s why I will always believe that the decisions surrounding my own body are best left with me. No one is as motivated to protect my interests as I am.

Interfering with Reproductive Choices Outside of Your Own is Unrighteous Dominion

Much of the criticism to abortion coming out of the Church relates to the belief that woman’s responsibility in God’s plan of salvation is to bear children. Everything she does, in their eyes, should be centered on that goal. Anything that exists separately from that goal is considered evil.

Infertility has freed me from this view of myself, the women around me, and the world. Bearing children likely won’t be the most important thing I’ll ever do with my life. Like many women who experience infertility, I’ve had to reconstruct a new purpose for myself, my talents, and my time separately from having children. That’s what I’ve learned from walking around in the body that God has given to me for the past 30 years. The entire reason I live with infertility is to be a walking, talking, breathing contradiction to people who never learned to value women for anything beyond our ability to reproduce.

The divine mission of a woman’s life on earth is as vast as any man’s, expansive into every aspect of life—not just reproduction. In every way men fail to see that, in every way they limit our potential as a trade-off to marriage and children—especially against our will—they deny the divinity within us. They frustrate the contributions we were sent here by God to make to the human family. Their actions are a form of unrighteous dominion that is deeply offensive before God.

Perhaps saying it quite that strongly is a little rich for some people. But even in the worldview of more traditional views of womanhood, men controlling reproductive choice doesn’t hold up. In that worldview, men have priesthood and women have motherhood. Even in the most conservative interpretation of the Church’s teachings, motherhood still belongs by divine ordination to women. This necessarily includes decisions related to family planning and pregnancy. According to male church leadership, this is what women get instead of ordination and real institutional access within the Church. They had better expect we’re going to hold them to that. They can’t relegate us to a gendered position in our community based on biological functions, then get mad at us when they don’t like how we’re performing (or not performing) those functions. A complementarian view of male/female relationships dictates that men and women occupy different spheres where they are each most prepared and qualified for the affairs of that sphere. If men are going to continue expecting women to respect the delineations of those spheres, they need to have the self-awareness to know when they are intruding outside of the place they’ve appointed for themselves and for us.

At the bridge between the most progressive and most conservative views of family planning in the Church is the idea of couples making choices together prayerfully through revelation. Wherever revelation exists, the limitations of stewardship will always apply. There is no reason or occasion where God would ever provide specific guidance related to pregnancy and family planning outside of anyone’s individual stewardship. For a man like Givens to try to insert himself into these sacred decisions for untold numbers of women through interference with law and public policy is beyond inappropriate. There is no stewardship he could ever possess that would grant him the needed revelation to counsel every woman, both in and outside of the Church, on their individual reproductive choices. This is because that kind of authority has never been appointed to any individual person on earth.

Adoption is NOT an Acceptable Alternative to Legalized Abortion

What troubles me also is the flippancy with which Givens proposes adoption as an alternative to abortion. Adoption does nothing to address the physical and emotional needs of women during wanted and unwanted pregnancies, to say nothing of the lifelong traumas carried by adopted children throughout their lives. You can’t fix one set of traumas by piling more traumas on top.

Adoption comes with its own unique brand of harm that too often goes unrecognized, a fact I became aware of when I started helping people to find their biological families through genetic testing. Through my work, I’ve met and listened to many adoptees rights advocates talk about their own adoptions. I’ve heard them talk about first rejection, the trauma they carry in body and memory from being separated from their biological mothers. Second rejection, where biological families refuse to connect with them later in life when they go searching for answers and wholeness in their identities. The difficulties in obtaining legal documentation like birth certificates and passports, being treated differently from an adoptive couple’s biological children, and sometimes even being rejected by their adoptive families for “not fitting in enough.”

Anyone who thinks adoption is an easy and convenient solution to unwanted pregnancies is unaware that the systems of oppression that have existed in this country to benefit adoptive parents above everyone else are actively being dismantled as we speak. The days in which adoptions were performed in secrecy, preying on vulnerable women for the sake of giving their babies to couples who were willing to pay enough money, are disappearing. As rates of unwanted pregnancies have gone down in the United States, adoption rates of infants have followed suit. The majority of domestic adoptions in the United States are now performed through the foster care system with older children. That may sound like a good thing, until you consider that adoptions from the foster care system are nowhere near matching the total number of kids in the system. The vast majority of kids in foster care age out of the system without ever being adopted.

Why increase the number of unwanted children on an already burdened foster care system? Because white people want to adopt white babies, and more than half of the kids in the foster care system aren’t white. And since children under the age of 1 make up only 7% of the kids in foster care, there aren’t enough white infants for white parents to adopt domestically anymore.

If white people are looking for more babies to adopt, they can’t keep looking for marginalized people to take children from. That’s not a valid solution to curtailing abortion rates, and it was never designed to be. It’s a talking point that Givens needs to avoid using until he more fully appreciates its problematic connection to evangelical adoption culture. Evangelical Christianity has entire ministries dedicated to taking children from some of the most marginalized societies on this planet. They have found all kinds of ways to justify deeply problematic behavior. The last thing on earth church members want or need to do is to mimic these communities in how we advocate for and talk about adoption.

There are Better Ways to Reduce Abortion Rates than Making Abortion Illegal

I’m also not surprised that Givens is unaware that progressives on the left have already proposed solutions to reduce unwanted pregnancies (and by extension, abortion rates) in the United States. Getting abortion rates much lower at this point won’t be an easy thing to achieve, as they are already at historic lows. The benefit of having legal abortion in this country is these rates are knowable and trackable. The fact that Givens has reliable numbers to cite in his judgmental portrayal of women who seek abortions is a credit, in fact, to legalized abortion. But I digress.

One solution to reducing abortion rates is to provide comprehensive sex education that teaches consent, and free contraception to those who are sexually active. The falling rates of unwanted pregnancies in this country (and I would argue in every country) are largely attributed to the availability of contraception. Contraception is more effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy than religious lectures and moralizing, and it’s not even close. If what you care about is seeing the number of abortions go down, that happens as effective contraception use expands. That’s part of why the birth control mandate was included in the Affordable Care Act. Among the many ways that mandate improves women’s lives, it makes them less likely to ever need to seek out abortions.

The second solution, proposed by Gabrielle Blair on Twitter, is the compulsory sterilization of men through reversible vasectomies. This approach sounds like a joke, but the fact remains that it would prevent unwanted pregnancies with far greater consistency than anything else women can do.

In this arrangement, the only pregnancies that would happen with men in the United States are planned, wanted pregnancies. When a man is in a committed relationship where he is emotionally and financially prepared to provide for a child as a father, his wife or partner could even provide him with written permission for the reversal of the vasectomy, thereby indicating her consent to being impregnated. Since women have had such a hard time seeking out sterilization for themselves from doctors who won’t perform the procedure without permission from a male partner, even if the woman is single or isn’t straight, this solution has a degree of poetic justice to it. Let men take on the responsibility and burden of being taken seriously and treated with respect in regards to their reproductive health for a change.

I can already hear the unironic outcry that “This is America! You can’t force men to do that!” Why not? What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Why should women be the only ones subject to government mandated intervention with their genitalia? And people who balk at this proposal act as if we’re not talking about the United States, a country that has habitually and forcibly sterilized people whenever it has been convenient. In fact, our current government is still engaged in forced sterilization under the tenure of Republicans that Givens has likely voted for in his lifetime. If he wants to direct his ire at individuals and groups who don’t respect the sanctity of life, perhaps he should start with the Republican party.

The thing conservatives fail to understand and retain in memory during this discussion is that progressives ALSO envision a society where abortion is no longer necessary. We want all sexual interactions to be consensual, with shared goals in whether or not those interactions lead to pregnancy. We want families to have the financial stability to care for the children they conceive, where no child lives in poverty, food scarcity, or in want of education and opportunity in the future. Progressives want the tax dollars we pay to be used on a social safety net that protects everyone indiscriminately. We not only believe that women deserve better than abortion, we’re fully committed to supporting women in all the life challenges that would eventually make abortion obsolete. Until then, we’re fully committed to leaving the choice to the women most affected by it, respecting the decisions they make about their own bodies. We understand that to outlaw abortion without dealing with any of the root causes for why it happens is cowardly, and ultimately impossible.

If you’re Terryl Givens or someone who agrees with him and none of this has convinced you to expand your worldview on abortion and reproductive rights at all, can I just point out that we’ve already tried life with illegal abortion, where contraception was taboo? IT DIDN’T WORK! No amount of moralizing about abstinence from religious people has ever made it work, and countless women have died as a result.

Women like Margaret Sanger have spent the past century building infrastructure to care for women’s health, born out of the suffering of women. Sanger’s motivation for founding the organizations that later became Planned Parenthood was to help women like her own mother, whose health was compromised from too many pregnancies and seven miscarriages. These advancements have provided vulnerable women with comprehensive healthcare, not just abortions. Those services have contributed directly to the reduction of unwanted pregnancies and abortions for decades.

If men are going to contribute to women’s health, it’s not going to come from dismantling the health care infrastructure and legal protections women have spent the past century building for themselves. It’s not going to come from removing access to healthcare and reproductive freedom. It’s not going to happen by challenging in court women’s legal status as fully autonomous individuals who are capable of making our own medical decisions. If men like Givens care about women and want to help us so much, care about us with the same empathy, intelligence, and rationality that women show for each other. Come prepared to talk about real solutions in these discussions, including ones that don’t directly benefit you. If you want to give medical advice to women, become a doctor and give qualified medical advice from an informed position, or just shut up already.

There’s also something to be said for how historical illiteracy has shaped the way many conservatives view this issue. Why don’t I support the religious right in their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade? Because I know, historically, the people who are treating women and mothers as collateral damage in the war against abortion are the same ones who support segregation and white supremacy. You get in bed with those folks at the peril of your own soul.

I’m So Tired

The fact that I need to defend my humanity publicly to a man in my own church, who claims to love and sustain women in the family of Christ, leads me to challenge him to consider if he knows the meaning of either of those words. And if Givens is going to teach about abortion without the spirit of empathy or any legitimate understanding of women’s health and our best interests, maybe he should follow the scriptural injunction in D&C 42:14 and not say anything at all on the subject.

Thinking about the greatest exception I took with Givens’ piece, I fully admit that it’s a cultural difference. As a proud east coast native who was born and raised there, one of our hallmark traits is minding our own business. You disagree with someone else’s life choices? Incorporate that decision into your own convictions and behavior. In no way is it necessary for you to express that disapproval to anyone else, or to impose your values on anyone else’s behavior. Failure to abide by that would get strings of expletives thrown at you, even from people who might agree with you. Why? Because you broke the cardinal rule about minding your own damn business. It’s an approach to life that has served me well and it applies in this discussion, too.

You fundamentally disagree with abortion because of your personal religious beliefs? Then don’t have one. Leave everyone else in this country out of that decision.

That’s not hypocrisy. That’s not a betrayal to Jesus. It’s the tolerance and love necessary for coexisting with people who think and believe differently from us in a civil society. It’s the example we receive from The Book of Mormon in Alma 30:7-8, which I believe is the best recipe for civility in our day. If we want to live in a society of equals, we can’t reintroduce the subjugation of women into our laws. And we certainly shouldn’t be demonizing others within the Church for holding nuanced viewpoints on controversial subjects. We don’t all need to agree with each other on political issues to be good members of the Church.

Remember: if you’ve somehow magically resolved what is (and should be) a complex issue, you’re the one oversimplifying or willfully misunderstanding it.

The "Cult" Thing

Because it's going to come up at some point: I don't think the Church is a cult. I do think the way many in the Church create and enforce their family cultures is cult-like though. I have met families in the Church who would absolutely meet the criteria for being a cult. It's something we don't talk about or address openly enough, which allows unhealthy behaviors to fester and spread.


I don't have family in the Church. It's me and my husband at this point. That's it. No in-laws. No racist uncles. No parents giving me a hard time about not going to church. No side-eye aunties. No cousins, siblings, or neighbors ratting me out. I deal with none of that.

For something to be a cult, the standards of control, dehumanization, and humiliation need to be universal. I don't think the Church qualifies for that because as an organization, it's not monolithic in how people are treated, either in good ways or bad ways. This is where the entire idea of bishop/leadership roulette comes from: the fact that we're all having drastically different experiences based on many different factors, primarily geography and the family cultures within a particular unit.

Does the toxicity in families still significantly overlap with how many people experience the Church? Absolutely. From the items leaders believe they're supposed to prioritize to the methods they use, we underestimate how much impact their own family cultures have had on shaping their approach. From what I've seen and heard in discussions surrounding leadership selection, being called to a leadership position is viewed by many as an endorsement of their family culture and an invitation to incorporate it into their ministries. In fact, I would argue that there is an unwritten cultural expectation where lay leaders think that this is part of what their calling is supposed to do. 

What it means to be a member of the Church, in the units where these members preside, becomes defined by and inseparable from being an acceptable member of their own families.

I've met a lot of families in the Church. My favorite ones are always the chill ones who respect everyone for who they are and mind their own business. The ones who don't view deviations from their own approaches as a sin or some kind of personal insult. That's the kind of church member I'm trying to be, largely because I've had some really great examples of what that looks like.

The ones who are petty, dishonest, toxic, abusive, controlling, manipulative, authoritative, and who use religion as a means to forcibly produce compliance and conformity to a single ideal, under threat of being shunned? That's not inherent to the Church, friends. It originates in families, who then bring that behavior into the Church.

Now here's the bitter pill for those who are unprepared to accept that anyone in the Church doesn't have a cultish experience by default. Just because I go to church with your family doesn't make me the same as them. That they gaslight, manipulate, disrespect, and dehumanize doesn't mean that is a guaranteed, standard behavior for every member of the Church. Those who refuse to engage in such behavior also can't fix those who do, no matter how much they may want to. We can use church settings to challenge and invite people to change. We can present different points of view and set positive examples. We can advocate for less toxic approaches in family life. But ultimately, the choice and responsibility to apply a different approach belongs to each individual. No one else can do it for them.

I've been doing this work within the Church for many years, particularly in youth programs with parents who struggle to adapt their parenting to having teenagers.What I've learned from it is that people who want to be horrible will find a way to go about doing that and justifying it to themselves, independent of what anyone in the Church says or does. There is no magic super power to make people do the right thing. Not in Christianity. Not in any religion. You cannot force people to do the right thing against their will. God doesn't have that power, and neither do the rest of us.

I will never understand what it's like to grow up in a family who cares so much about getting into heaven, they will browbeat the people closest to them for doing anything (including the innocuous) to "jeopardize" it. It's not an experience I have in common with folks who can. And that, precisely, is my point.
When there is abusive behavior in LDS families, it leads to abusive behavior within the Church. It won't be possible to eradicate the cult-like behavior from the Church until we acknowledge their source. It will happen when we are able to stop mistaking the toxic cultures of individual families with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Flattery and its Role in Conflict

I've spent a lot of time thinking (because all I have now is time to think) about how my country got to where it is right now, via open combativeness and the obtuse refusal to acknowledge or live in the reality of facts. I think at least part of the answer to that is flattery.

I think we all have people in our lives where we feel like we're at an impasse with in terms of meaningful conflict resolution. Do I cut this person out of my life because they've gotten in bed with truly despicable people? Or do I try to maintain some peaceful coexistence?

I've found myself returning to the scriptural places I've looked for answers throughout my life on how to handle these situations. It's simpler to me than looking to living leadership, whose relationship to all of this has been hopelessly complicated by ineffectiveness. What came from that is recognition that I haven't fully understood the problem, which is why I've felt so lost in how to confront it with my own loved ones. This is why I still love reading scripture. There's nothing new under the sun. I don't have to figure out everything alone.

Scripture has a lot to say about flattery. And, true to my Mormon roots in discourse, examining it as a subject made me realize I don't know exactly what it means. "Excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one's own interests." 

When we think about the people in our lives who are giving into their worst impulses right now in relation to their civic duties and the pandemic, this is how they arrived at that place. People around them give license to all those impulses through insincere praise.

The language surrounding flattery in our standard works is not morally neutral. Multiple records talk about flattery akin to sin itself. Let's view some examples: 

"For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue."
Ps. 5:9

How did Paul define a deceitful, unclean ministry? One that uses flattery, prioritizing "pleasing men" over serving God. (1 Thess. 2:1-5)

What was at the heart of the disintegration of the Nephite generation after Nephi's death, culminating in the wickedness of King Noah and his priests? Flattery. (Mosiah 11:7)

How were the people in the Church during the reign of Mosiah led into committing sin? Flattery. How was the situation handled by church leadership? Open admonishment from the Church. (Mosiah 26:6)

And who could forget the time when democracy and the rule of law in the Nephite civilization were under attack by those who wanted to delegitimize the government and replace it with a fascist monarchy, to the benefit of the autocrats who were flattered into that support. (Alma 61:4)

Scripture openly condemns flattery repeatedly as a source of idolatry, conflict, corruption, and societal collapse. The people who choose to believe it and submit to it are not innocent. They stand condemned for it by the God they claim to worship. Let's look at why.

Flattery relies heavily on dishonesty. You cannot flatter without lying. Those whose positions in government are maintained through lies cannot be good leaders, no matter what else they might accomplish. 

Flattery in these cases I've copied from the Book of Mormon were especially dangerous for how they introduced inequality into Nephite society. Governments cannot have a privileged class to whom law does not apply without standing condemned before God. If you walk away from a lifetime of reading the Book of Mormon without picking up that crucial lesson, you didn't understand a word of what you read. That is the entire message, the central warning of the entire text.

The Book of Mormon warns against and condemns people like Donald Trump and his family. People who rely on lies, wealth (or the illusion of it), corruption, and oppression to get what they want.

Why do people in the Church support them anyway? Because they honestly believe they will be the beneficiaries of all that corruption. They think they are the autocrats to whom Trump and his administration will be beholden. It's choice made out of selfishness.

The last conversation I may ever have with my mother was one deeply entrenched in everything I just shared with you. She's so deep into Trump's cult of personality, she is cutting everyone out of her life who doesn't support him, her children included. Part of this on her part is untreated bipolar, which causes her to live in a psychotic mental state where she has no grasp on reality. There are times when I don't she even remembers she has children. I have no idea if she's dead or alive right now.

The last thing I said that got through to her at all was to remind her, with no emotion in my voice whatsoever, that Trump and his supporters don't care about her. As much as she worries about him, he doesn't care if she lives or dies.

I'll never forget her response. 

"I know."

What makes someone okay with living in this kind of arrangement with their government? 


What's the only way to get through to someone like that? 

The moral reckoning they will have to live with when it all falls apart and they're left holding an empty bag.

Flattery doesn't change truth. It can only manipulate how other people perceive it for a time. That approach to leadership is not sustainable. It will fall apart. This will end. 

Why do I believe that? Because the scriptures told me so. 

If you need a new approach with the Trump supporters in your life, try pointing out all the ways they're already standing there holding an empty bag because of him.

Eventually they'll realize that's all they're going to get for their loyalty.

Violent Backlash to COVID-19 Restrictions

I wasn't listening to general conference yesterday because husband and I have taken up typewriter collection and repair as a COVID-19 hobby. We took a brief trip down to Utah to find new machines and visit with friends, stopping at antique shops in towns and cities between Boise and Salt Lake City. We got in last night.

We are zealots when it comes to masking, hand washing, sanitizer, and taking every precaution we can to be safe and to allow others to be safe in our presence. In several places we stopped in Utah and Idaho, we were alone in that sentiment.

This summer in Idaho has been difficult. Armed counter protestors have made the city I live in feel like there is no refuge here except in my own house. When the mayor of Boise instituted a mask mandate, right wing protesters showed up in person to take the masks our tax dollars have paid for and burned them in the street. We had Ammon Bundy showing up here with unmasked, armed resistance in opposition to COVID-19 restrictions. He and his supporters stormed the capitol building multiple times and he had to be forcibly removed.

The life altering moment for me, however, was when Black Lives Matter tried to have a peaceful protest downtown. Armed groups, intending to commit real violence, made it necessary to cancel the event. As a precaution, the mayor urged BLM protestors not to show up at City Hall where their protest was supposed to take place. But police were mobilized anyway in case violence erupted on site.

My husband was working traffic control remotely for that incident. He received images of police with high caliber rifles, ready to open fire on the public at that protest if things went sideways. 

So, when I heard President Oaks' talk condemning violent protest, I'll be honest. Rioters and looters from BLM were the furthest people from my mind because we never experienced that here. That's not who initiates violence and chaos where I live. Militia groups, Trump supporters, and far right factions in the Idaho Republican party are the ones who engage in violent threats and armed resistance in Idaho. Those are the groups who stand condemned by President Oaks in my city.

Is it understandable to me that other people specifically felt like he was targeting Black Lives Matter with his remarks? Of course. He didn't choose to be explicit in the groups he was condemning. Being vague means he lost control of his message.

But is that the only way to interpret much of what he said? No. 

I wish he would've been more clear to avoid misunderstandings like these. Being vague risks deepening the divisions that are already at a breaking point in so many communities in this country. I am glad that the leaders of the Church are making attempts to confront the polarization and violence spreading across the planet. It's long past due, given that right-wing prejudice is being perpetuated by our own.

I saw a criticism about them not providing us with any kind of concrete actions to eliminate racism in our congregations. I understand the desire for this. Based on some of the people I met in northern Utah on my trip, I can promise you it wouldn't help. The people who most need to be confronted about racism and prejudice aren't going to be in settings where they will receive that correction. The rare few who are will not be ready in this moment to metabolize it.

Confronting racism in yourself begins with uncomfortable, honest self-reflection. It involves an unflinching moral inventory of yourself and your actions. I would argue there have already been calls for this from multiple speakers. I wouldn't call that nothing or insignificant, even if it is ultimately ineffective.

It's easy to want people to be where you are, with the understanding you have of what is needed to confront racism. Right now, we're still working on getting people to even want  to do that. Being honest with ourselves about that is the first step to making lasting change.
We could all be operating from a list of mandated changes to our congregations to eliminate racism. Or we can each be opening ourselves to divine correction, asking in sincere prayer "What can I do?" Then committing to act on the actions we ourselves come up with. I think the people who are most receptive to the former are people who are already doing the latter. 
I trust that if we follow the counsel we've been given to reject racism, more will follow. And it will be the answer to many prayers for change.

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