Jana Riess: When the ‘big reveal’ of LDS General Conference feels tone deaf in a pandemic

(photo courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the Sunday morning session of General Conference on April 5, 2020.

After the Sunday morning session of the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I asked my Episcopalian husband to guess what all the windup had been about. He had seen my column the night before speculating about possible reasons why the church might have called a rare solemn assembly, accompanied by the ritual of a Hosanna Shout. He understood I was intrigued.

He showed polite interest. “What was it about?”

“Well, it turns out that my church” — I pointed to myself for emphasis — “is still better than your church.”

“Oh,” he said. There was a beat. “Are you ready for our walk?”

And that’s how it went over in the Riess-Smith household, the big “Restoration Proclamation” of 2020: like a lead balloon.

Overall, despite several beautiful moments, this conference as a whole felt like a missed opportunity, particularly in its second day. The church had the chance to relieve suffering during what is a terrible time for many, and it instead chose the well-trod path of focusing on the uniqueness of its own truth claims.

I can hear the voices of ultraorthodox Latter-day Saints in my head right now, the ones testifying that this conference was beautiful, lovely and a balm to their souls. I guess my two questions for them would be 1) Is conference ever not that way for you? and 2) For whom do you think this proclamation was intended?

The proclamation answers that question: It is not supposed to be for you, happily enmeshed in your church bubble and the comfort of believing you have the inside scoop about God. It’s supposed to be for the whole world, for all of humanity.

It’s supposed to be for everybody else.

As such, its focus on the way Latter-day Saints are unique recipients of the fullness of God’s truth came across as slightly tone deaf in a time of need.

It felt like the church couldn’t scrap its original plans for focusing on founder Joseph Smith and the bicentennial of the “First Vision,” even though it has responded to the pandemic with surprising alacrity in other ways, like shuttering meetinghouses and temples, recalling missionaries, and moving seminary and institute classes online. I think everyone would have understood if we had resolved the conference-during-a-pandemic issue in another way, like by pushing the restoration theme to October, or adding a special broadcast when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Heck, we could have technically postponed this bicentennial celebration a couple of more years and still been historically accurate in our commemoration, since Joseph Smith’s own accounts of his famous prayer don’t agree on when the First Vision happened and how old he was at the time.

But instead we went forward with the planned program, including this very public reiteration of what we believe about the restoration.

I’m not challenging the content of the proclamation; these are generally things I believe, too, though I wouldn’t necessarily express them in this way. This is why I’m not an Episcopalian like my resident BFF. I love the Book of Mormon and I’m grateful for a teenage kid who (around) 200 years ago asked God to help him figure out which church to join.

I’m saying this was not the time to focus single-mindedly on that one aspect of what our people have to offer to the world.

This was an opportunity for speakers to acknowledge the turmoil our world is in right now. A few did, but many speakers’ content felt like the prerecorded musical selections of the choir’s: lovely but antiseptically timeless. Some of those talks could have been lifted from previous conferences and no one would have known the difference.

There’s a time for evergreen sermons that are not context-dependent, but this is not that time. Just in our country, nearly 10 million people have filed for unemployment in the past two weeks; more economic upheaval is coming. People are dying all over the world. And as usual in times of disease, the poor are being disproportionately affected, both by the illness itself and by its attending economic dislocations. “Social distancing” is a luxury that not everybody gets, even in wealthy countries.

People are hurting and afraid, and the best we can offer them is the bicentennial of the First Vision?

And why, when people of faith everywhere are doing heroic things in donating money, ventilators and volunteers to stanch the bleeding, are we still sitting on a 12-figure fortune? General Conference was a ready-made opportunity to do good in the world, to demonstrate that we’re not merely observers of a crisis. I know from reading the Deseret News that the church has made small but important donations of food and medical supplies in recent weeks. I was prepared — eager, more like — at conference to hear that we had started doing far more than this. But . . . crickets.

I’m glad President Russell M. Nelson encouraged church members to fast on Good Friday and “prayerfully plead for relief from this global pandemic.” As I’ve written before, I am a fan of fasting and would like to see our people pay more attention to it as a regular spiritual practice. But I don’t think fasting is enough. Without concrete actions — like, say, donating the money we would have spent on food to charities that are helping right now with disaster relief — it feels like the equivalent of tweeting “thoughts and prayers” while we absently scroll through our social media feeds.

Here’s an overgeneralization about the polarization of religion, but one that often holds true. Liberal religion thinks it’s enough to take care of people’s temporal needs (feeding the hungry, serving refugees) without also attending to daily devotional habits, sexual ethics, and Truth with a capital T. Conservative religion thinks it’s enough to take care of individuals’ spiritual needs and moral rectitude rather than tackling systemic social problems.

But Jesus did both, and so should we. If the restoration of the gospel means anything at all, it’s that God so loved the world.

The whole world. The suffering, fearful world that needs our boots on the ground.

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