Paul Mero: The ironies of the LDS Church weaponizing religious freedom

Conservatives lost the ‘culture war’ long ago and religious freedom is a lost cause.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency delivers the 2021 Joseph Smith Lecture in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

As someone who has had a long and successful career in politics and public policy largely built upon weaponizing every idea from values to ethics to morals to faith and beyond, I know the weaponization of an idea when I hear it.

My most recent example is the speech by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Dallin H. Oaks, delivered recently at the University of Virginia on the occasion of the 2021 Joseph Smith Lecture. If you ever want to listen to a classic presentation on how to weaponize religious freedom, you should take a moment to review Oaks’ speech.

As I have written previously in these pages, traditional-minded conservatives lost the “culture war” by the late 1990s with the beginning of the end occurring in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy with his undoing of liberty as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If that statement is true, anything is true.

For 14 years at the helm of Sutherland Institute, I answered the call of my church to defend the faith, its Brethren and its more high-profile moral causes. I did that until it seems my church had me fired from that position – just my theory – exactly over the issues addressed by Oaks: religious freedom and nondiscrimination. I might be the only person who can authoritatively argue that his comments at the University of Virginia take irony to new levels.

The biggest irony he mentioned in his speech is the idea that the church campaign to pass a federal “Fairness for All” bill will lead to peace and harmony between the competing rights of homosexual behavior and religious expression (i.e., nondiscrimination laws and religious freedom, respectively). Has Congress ever been the arbiter of peace and harmony? As LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson urges his saints to avoid contention, his First Presidency colleague seeks to settle the scrum between gay rights and religious freedom through the unceasing chaos of congressional politics. The irony is staggering.

Right up there with the many ironies among ironies is Oaks claim that the Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinances (2010) and the “Great Compromise” statewide nondiscrimination law (2015) are stellar examples of how a federal “Fairness for All” law could be achieved. In reality, the claim is a smokescreen for what actually took place – those laws were birthed by the LDS Church, nobody else. There were no compromises. In fact, the opposite was the case. In both instances, much to Oaks’ denial in his speech, those laws simply created “legal discrimination” against the LGBTQ community. Only Utah gays, obviously struggling with church-policy driven PTSD, believed a hug was an equal trade for legal discrimination.

I believe Oaks believes sincerely that religious freedom has nothing to do with discrimination. Why wouldn’t he? He is not the one being discriminated against. Ask the LGBTQ community if a carve out in the law allowing 1) religions a position of “separate but equal,” 2) labeling homosexual behavior as immoral, sinful, and less than normal, and perhaps worse of all, 3) insisting that gay Latter-day Saints are “born that way” (i.e., the unscientific church invention of “same-sex attraction”) and yet, cruelly denying them the ability to “fulfill the measure of their creation” aren’t acts of blatant discrimination.

Imagine asking Martin Luther King, Jr. for a “Great Compromise” in which the Southern States, among all states, are allowed a carve out to discriminate against blacks. You can’t. And this is why the idea of “Fairness for All” is an intellectual, legal and moral sham.

Honesty is the best policy. Religious freedom is prima facia discrimination in a world where it can be defined as anything from a simple prayerful expression to the Taliban and where its own strictures and rules naturally – and entirely reasonably – separate us from them. Honesty insists that Congress not settle such controversy. Honesty insists that constitutional matters are settled best by our judicial system. And honesty demands recognition that the LDS Church document, “The Family – A Proclamation to the World,” does not include or even entertain in the slightest the ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity.

And finally, beyond the disturbing problem of weaponizing religious freedom, if my church can truly “see around corners,” it would see that religious freedom already is a lost cause (no temporary conservative court will save it) primarily because of the demands of the LGBTQ community – which makes “accommodation” of that community not only ironic but naïve.

Paul Mero

Paul Mero now lives very happily in Las Vegas, continuing to focus his work on underserved populations in higher education.