Jana Riess: LDS leader Dallin Oaks blasts right-wing extremists, but will they know he’s talking to them?

Church apostle sounds the alarm about recent actions of some Trump supporters, but the General Conference talk did not let liberals off the hook, either.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, speaks at General Conference about the U.S. Constitution on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Extreme right-wing Donald Trump supporters got a serious dressing-down at this weekend’s General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even if the speaker — President Dallin Oaks, the next in line to be the faith’s prophet — did not specifically name them or the candidate they supported.

Oaks’ talk was jarring, perhaps not so much in its content as in its context. From the very beginning, it had a “one of these things is not like the others” sensibility about it. For starters, it was a boldly political speech that occurred on Easter Sunday, when other speakers emphasized the risen Christ. As well, it was a specifically American-focused message that followed a beautiful morning session showcasing the international character of the 21st-century church through global choirs singing in their own languages (that adorable children’s choir from Korea!) and speakers joining virtually from multiple continents.

Latter-day Saint social media has been buzzing about whether Oaks was sounding the alarm about recent actions of Trump supporters in the United States. I think there’s no question he was, though as you can see from my analysis of the quotes below, I don’t think liberals are completely off the hook either.

Oaks • “Sovereign power of the people does not mean that mobs and other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action … The people exercise their power through their elected representatives.”

This was for right-wing Latter-day Saints. Oaks was referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which Trump supporters sought to disrupt the legitimate functioning of government through violence.

It’s in keeping with the apostle’s October 2020 conference talk, in which he appeared to be responding to Donald Trump’s preelection statements that he would not accept election results as legitimate unless he won. Latter-day Saints, Oaks clarified, “peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome.”

Unfortunately, some Latter-day Saints did indeed participate in the ridiculous farce that was the “stop the steal” movement among disappointed Trump voters, and a few even took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Oaks • “We are to be governed by law and not by individuals, and our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any officeholder … These principles block the autocratic ambitions that have corrupted democracy in some countries.”

This was also for right-wing members. The context for this is Trump tried to overturn a legitimate and peaceful election, which is the bedrock of good government. Because Trump seemed to view government primarily as a tool for furthering his own ambitions, he considered it a personal betrayal when his vice president and attorney general would not overturn the Constitution and two centuries of political precedent just to keep him in office.

To someone like Oaks, this kind of behavior is exceptionally dangerous. Democracies are more fragile than we think. To survive, they need to be greater than one leader’s desire for power.

Oaks • “Despite the divinely inspired principles of the U.S. Constitution, when exercised by imperfect mortals, their intended effects have not always been achieved. Important subjects of lawmaking, such as some laws governing family relationships, have been taken from the states by the federal government.”

This was for liberal and moderate Latter-day Saints. Oaks here was reminding listeners of his view that individual states should never be forced to allow same-sex marriage if that is not the will of the people in those states. Again, though, he didn’t single out any one group by name.

Oaks • “Being subject to presidents or rulers, of course, poses no obstacle to our opposing individual laws or policies. It does require that we exercise our influence civilly and peacefully … On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.”

This was for everyone. As I listened to the talk a second time on YouTube, I was struck by the irony of the divisive and angry comments of viewers below, screaming past one other about politics. (See also the church’s Facebook page!) Oaks suggests that, while we can have strong views about politics, we cross a line when we claim church members who voted differently are somehow deficient in faith. (Yes, I know I have done this, too. I’m trying.)

Oaks • “There are many political issues, and no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time … This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election.”

This was for everyone. There has not been a more politically polarized time in modern U.S. history, and that divisiveness is dangerous.

Let’s take a moment to assess where we are. Since the 1950s, the Gallup organization has tracked public approval ratings of U.S. presidents by party. Back in the 1950s, a majority of Americans could legitimately say “I like Ike” and mean it: Not only did 88% of the members of his own party approve of him, but 49% of Democrats did, too. What we see now, by contrast, is a country split right down party lines: On the eve of the 2020 presidential election, a stunning 95% of Republicans said they approved of the way Donald Trump was running the country. Only 3% of Democrats could say the same.

Folks, that’s the stuff civil wars are made of. One remedy is to bring back split-ticket voting — remember when we used to do that? — in which people actually have to use their brains and vote candidate by candidate, issue by issue. That’s what Oaks is advocating here, and I wholeheartedly agree. Blind loyalty to any political party can reap frightening consequences.

Oaks • “Independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve.”

This was primarily for right-wing Latter-day Saints again. What I hear him saying is, “Right-wingers, sometimes you may need to vote for a pro-choice candidate in order to avoid a greater evil.” Listening between the lines, I would not be surprised if Oaks himself voted for Joe Biden despite the church leader’s well-attested opposition to abortion.

Oaks • “We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.”

This was also primarily for the right wing. This was the money quote, which the church immediately tweeted from its official account almost as soon as the words were out of Oaks’ mouth. There have been far too many instances in the modern church in which members who are Democrats, who are only a third of our U.S. membership, have been challenged or mocked by the conservative majority. (Is apostle Dieter Uchtdorf’s family unfaithful for generously supporting Biden’s campaign? No? Then stop judging the family’s worthiness.)

Somehow I have a feeling when this conference’s talks are parsed out for Relief Society and priesthood lessons over the next six months, this one will not be in the rotation in most stakes. As Oaks said, church meetings are not the place to talk about politics. But the talk was historic nonetheless.