Jana Riess: For Latter-day Saints, a General Conference to remember — but let’s leave our smugness at the door

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast on Oct. 4, 2019.

General Conference is the time of year when I try to guess what will be announced or emphasized at the 10-hour event, the semiannual worldwide meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This year, though, all bets are off, other than that I’m sure many of the talks will adhere to the planned theme of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the date the church recognizes for founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.”

This conference is different in many ways. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all sessions will be shuttered to the public, with our general authorities — most of whom are elderly enough to be among the most vulnerable to dying from the virus — giving their addresses via livestream from Salt Lake City. This is just one of many changes affecting the church right now, from the closure of all temples worldwide to the recall or early release of many missionaries. Every day, it seems, there is some new development.

The church is hunkering down along with the rest of the world, and it’s the right thing to do, probably for many weeks to come. There are early indications that social distancing is achieving the desired effect and saving lives, just as there is sad evidence that the virus is still taking root in those communities, including religious communities, that have defied isolation instructions by continuing to meet together in person.

I’m proud of the way the church has handled itself in the past month. Compared to other religions, we tackled the problem days earlier and more comprehensively than others were able to, a product of our highly centralized structure. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some missteps, like last week’s love fest for returning missionaries at the Salt Lake City airport, but it does mean the institution didn’t attempt to downplay the potential danger of COVID-19. Instead, it rolled up the sleeves of its ubiquitous white dress shirts and got to work.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ve probably noticed that I’m generally much quicker to criticize institutions than individuals. For me, the beauty of Mormonism happens at the local level, with the ragtag ward members I love, and not through organizational charts of the identically dressed, mostly white, men who steer the ship.

But the past few weeks have brought a surprising reversal in which I’ve found much to praise about how the institution has behaved in a crisis and less to compliment in the way some ordinary members are using the pandemic as an occasion to shore up their testimony of Mormon exceptionalism. This has included statements like these:

  • “Our prophet saw this coming. He knew it all in advance! The home-centered ‘Come, Follow Me’ curriculum got everybody ready to study the gospel at home. I bear my testimony that it was inspired for just such a time as this.”

  • “It’s been less than a year since the church changed the policy on temple sealings, allowing couples to get married in a civil ceremony first and then be sealed in the temple at their convenience, rather than having to wait a whole year. That changed because the Lord knew the temples were going to be closed and didn’t want any couples’ eternal future to be in limbo!”

  • “The switch from home and visiting teaching to the new ministering program foresaw a period when we wouldn’t be able to visit each other in our homes. This was totally tailor-made for social distancing.”

  • “The church has been telling us for years to be prepared for emergencies and store a good supply of food. I’m so glad I listened to that counsel and followed the prophet.”

  • “It’s amazing that the prophet we have right now is a trained surgeon who understands the medical situation around the virus. Also, it’s amazing that the apostle who’s now in charge of the missionary program is a former airline executive who is perfectly positioned to oversee the largest missionary evacuation in the church’s history.”

Could all of the above be true? Sure, of course. Is this the right time to be dwelling on these things, let alone saying them out loud in the face of other people’s suffering? No. No, it is not.

And the church can help set that tone.

One thing we’ve learned about Latter-day Saints, at least in the United States, is that we generally take the lead from church authorities about how to think and behave around certain topics. Two prominent political scientists, for example, have said that we’re “dry kindling,” waiting for the spark that comes from church leaders before they swing into action. Often, that spark comes at General Conference.

So here is what I’m hoping for this weekend: that we focus on a bigger God and a less grandiose church. That our leaders emphasize how to respond to COVID-19 with Christlike compassion for the whole world, without indulging in denominational pride. That we set aside our need to construct a narrative out of what is happening — a narrative in which we are, predictably, the chosen heroes — and instead cast our energies on helping the 99.8% of humans who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And, if a columnist can dream, I would love to see us take our reported cache of $100-plus billion and use it to bless the world immediately. After the market’s recent gyrations, the church’s (literal) stockpile will be noticeably less now than it was in December, underscoring the futility of putting our faith in Wall Street for humanity’s rainy day. But a fortune of, say, $60 billion or $75 billion could commission a whole lot of ventilators for people who might otherwise die, and offer desperately needed protective equipment to the health care workers who are risking themselves to save lives.

This is the kind of emergency charity the church has historically done well — the kind that responds to emergencies without encouraging long-term dependence. We have the capacity to do so much good during this crisis. I hope that General Conference helps ordinary members to catch a vision of how the church — which is all of us — can become the hands and feet of Jesus right now.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.