‘Landmark’ Speech From LDS Leader on LGBTQ Rights and Religious Freedom Was More Like a Sunnier Groundhog Day

LDS President, Dallin Oaks/YouTube.

On Friday evening at the University of Virginia, Dallin H. Oaks, the head of the LDS church, delivered a speech aimed, ostensibly, at balancing what religious conservatives refer to as “religious freedom” and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to live free of discrimination. There were whispers in advance that this would be a significant moment with regard to the Church’s relationship to LGBTQ people, and indeed the Salt Lake Tribune’s religion reporter called it “important,” while the paper clearly deems the speech’s balancing act a success. 

First, I will acknowledge that this speech did sound very different from Oaks’ previous speeches. He referenced Obergefell without disparaging it, speaking critically of government employees who failed to uphold the law; and, in addition to Christian scripture and the usual array of LDS voices, he quoted Muslim, Jewish, and women speakers (most of whom were, predictably, straight, cisgender, conservatives). 

At the outset of the speech, without pointing to any one group in particular, Oaks said: 

“Recently, I have come to understand the distress of those who feel that religions are invoking their religious rights—like the free exercise of religion & freedom of speech—to deny or challenge their own core beliefs & their access to basic constitutional rights.”

If we go ahead and assume he was talking about LGBTQ+ rights advocates, it sounds pretty good. Like I said, the rhetoric was less overtly hostile and marginally more inclusive than his usual fare—a low bar, to be sure—and parts of it could almost pass for expressions of actual empathy. These broad statements that hinted towards inclusion may seem notable, but there’s little reason to believe there’s anything of substance behind them. And there’s ample reason to believe that Oaks merely gave us the illusion of tolerance. 

Perhaps most notable, on the positive side of the ledger, was the decision to borrow the words of Troy Williams, a veteran community organizer and the Executive Director for Equality Utah.

The quote was used to demonstrate how the 2015 “Utah Compromise” on housing and employment laws was a “win-win” compromise for the Church and nondiscrimination advocates like Williams and should serve as a model for the rest of the country. In that great compromise, the Church gained additional protections for religious freedom and religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws in the “most sensitive areas” of church employment decisions and housing (particularly, student housing). 

Quoting an LGBTQ-rights advocate to emphasize compromise and common ground, however, is about as close to a message of equality and acceptance as Oaks would get. There was no announcement regarding a change in LDS policies on LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights, including the policy that dictates excommunication for any Mormons who “act on their same-gender attractions.” There was no acknowledgement of Oaks’s longstanding history of spewing anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric or condoning electroshock therapy to “cure” LGBTQ+ people at Brigham Young University while he was the school’s President. 

What Oaks did have to offer were vague statements, including his expression of “deep regret” that religious conservatives and advocates of anti-discrimination laws and policies “have been drawn into conflict with one another.” (The passive voice worked overtime throughout the speech.)

In reality, the Church continues to restrict members from gay marriage and gay sex. To be sure, the only part of Oaks’s speech that used “gays,” “lesbians,” “human” or “rights” in the same sentence was a quote from a 2015 opinion piece published in Deseret News, an LDS publication: 

“conflicts between religious liberty and non-discrimination principles are exacerbated when advocates for non-discrimination paint people of faith as ‘bigots’ and when people of faith fail to appreciate the brutal history of discrimination against the basic human rights of marginalized groups such as gays and lesbians.”  

Curiously, however, Oaks’s version of the quote left out two key words: “discrimination against,” such that the relevant portion scarcely even makes sense: “…to appreciate the brutal history of the basic human rights of marginalized groups such as gays and lesbians.” 

The exclusion of these two words, in a speech that used “discrimination” twenty-six times, is notable. It strongly suggests the refusal of Oaks, and of the Church, to recognize the inherent humanity and equality of LGBTQ+ people and the very real discrimination that we face at the hands of individual and institutional actors. Really, acknowledging that LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against in a speech about the future of religious freedom and nondiscrimination is the bare minimum that Oaks needed to do to show good faith and an intention to do better.  

Reproduce, reuse, recycle

Oaks has given numerous speeches over the years that—except for the few statements mentioned earlier—sound nearly identical to the one he gave this past Friday at UVA. These included the same “both sides” arguments; emphasis on the “rule of law”; and advancement of false equivalencies between marginalized groups being actively targeted and disenfranchised under the law on the one hand, and the “targeting” of religions and religious freedom by those advocating for the expansion of anti-discrimination laws on the other. 

By way of example, in 2015 he announced that the Church would advocate a new “fairness for all” approach in Utah, which required compromises between “protecting religious liberties and prohibiting discrimination.” (Notably, although the Church-backed law passed earlier that year had included protections for transgender people, Oaks didn’t acknowledge the existence of transgender people then or now. While this exclusion is in line with the Church’s refusal to acknowledge that trans people exist, in 2021, the deadliest year on record for transgender people, the exclusion from the speech speaks volumes.)

As in the UVA speech, in his 2015 speech Oaks criticized a “county clerk,” reported to have been Kim Davis, for refusing to grant gay marriage licenses based on her religious beliefs. And again, just like in the UVA speech, he stated that “both sides” should seek balance, not “total victory.” “Religionists” should “not seek a veto over all non-discrimination laws that offend their religion,” while anti-discrimination advocates should “not seek a veto over all assertions of religious freedom.” 

And the Groundhog Day atmosphere doesn’t end with the speeches themselvesit extends to the coverage. At the time, his 2015 speech was lauded as a “landmark moment in the conservative religion’s transformation from a faith that frowned on gays and lesbians to one becoming more welcoming and compassionate.” Of course they may have pulled the trigger on that article a bit too soon as the Church would, just days later, “sen[d] seismic waves through the Mormon community,” with its new policy barring the children of married gay parents from membership or baptism. In a speech now scrubbed from an official LDS website, Elder D. Todd Christofferson called same-sex marriage “a particularly grievous…sin that requires Church discipline.”

In other words, the legacy media hasn’t historically been the most astute critics.

The truth is, Oaks has been preaching essentially the same message for nearly thirty years. Scaling back vitriolic language, quoting some diverse voices, covering the usual rhetoric with a veneer of tolerance, and promoting the speech as completely new and different (including calling it “the most difficult address I’ve ever had to make”) is, what I call, argument laundering. And he does it because it works. The media love a kinder, gentler tone.  

Indeed, apart from the reactions noted earlier, in the hours following Friday’s speech, some outlets applauded Oaks and characterized the “landmark” address as a remarkable departure from his previous rhetoric. Headlines said he called for a “peaceful resolution” to the conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination. 

Notably, none of these articles mention either Oaks’ advocacy for a less rigid boundary—“a curtain”—between church and state, or his assertion that Employment Division v. Smith, a 30-year-old religious freedom opinion written by no less than ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, must be overturned.

The self-described “most difficult address” of Dallin Oaks’ career wasn’t substantially different from his previous speeches in terms of substance or underlying message; he didn’t announce any changes to LDS policy on LGBTQ+ people, he ignored the existence of transgender people and the discrimination they face, and he called for some fundamental changes in religious freedom jurisprudence. What may have been personally “difficult” for Oaks was that he had to, for the first time in a very long time, adjust his rhetoric in order to appear palatable to the general public. 

He made the aforementioned language adjustments to appeal to—or avoid alienating—the new majority: people who support the expansion of anti-discrimination laws generally—regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof—and people who are religious but, in spite of conflicting doctrine, are increasingly embracing and supporting their LGBTQ+ neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and fellow Americans. 

Given that context, and the lack of home-pulpit advantage, it’s easy to see why Oaks laundered his old arguments, slapped a new label of “tolerance” on them, and sold them to his UVA audience as a “peaceful resolution” and a new way forward. A gentler tone and a willingness to compromise are both certainly welcome, but if we confuse retreat for grace, or rhetoric for action, we do so at our peril.