Monday, April 2, 2012

What Happens If There Are Any Opposed?

I was fascinated to read this post on the Ex-Mormon Subbreddit by a user named JohnBrownsBody yesterday. I have no reason to suspect it's a fabrication, but I suppose it's possible. Either way, it makes for an interesting story.

Here's What Happened

The basic gist of the story is that this 17-year-old boy is an atheist whose parents still strongly believe in Mormonism. The boy's family traveled to Utah for Spring Break to see General Conference last week and brought the 17-year-old along for the Saturday afternoon session at the Conference Center.

Of course, during the Saturday afternoon session, the officers of the church are sustained by the congregation. When Uchtdorf read the names of the prophet and apostles and asked if there were any opposed, this 17-year-old raised his hand. After the sustaining votes were completed, two security guards motioned to the boy that he needed to come speak with them.

He followed them into a private room where they asked him for his name, his full address, the name of his ward, and the name of his bishop. They wrote all of this information down on a notepad. They interviewed the 17-year-old and asked him why he raised his hand to oppose the sustaining votes. He replied that he did not think that Thomas S. Monson and the apostles were prophets, seers, and revelators and so he raised his hand to indicate such. They asked him whether he came to the Conference for the purpose of voting in opposition. He explained that he came because his parents brought him.

The two security guards bore their testimony that they thought Thomas S. Monson was a great man and that they sustain him fully. They also had a discussion about what his parents must feel about him at this moment. According to the boy, the security guards listened to his response and then said: "Well, it looks like you're going through some hard times, I hope you get over it. We aren't trying to intimidate you or force you to believe something, but I hope you change your mind." The 17-year-old basically told them that probably wasn't going to happen.

The security guards frowned and then one of them silently took him out of the room. As they were leaving, the other guard stated: "We'll be in touch."

My Response

I'll give the security guards the benefit of doubt to say they were just doing their job, enforcing a policy that has been laid out for them by the organization they work for. To be fair, the security guards mentioned that this doesn't happen to them very often, so they were probably surprised and inadequately trained about how they were supposed to respond. And, oddly enough, on one level it's even nice to have all those rumors validated: if you raise your hand to oppose a leader, someone will actually take a moment to listen to you in confidence (which is undoubtedly supposed to be the intention behind that policy).

That being said, it's really difficult not to see the power dynamics underlying this entire exchange. Although the security guards emphasized that they were not trying to intimidate the boy, the entire context of the exchange suggests exactly the opposite. When a 17-old-boy is being ushered into a private room (with no parental consent or supervision, mind you) by a pair of older, male security guards---complete with suits and earpieces, how can that situation be interpreted as anything but intimidating? It evokes the imagery of a terrorist or suspected criminal being interrogated by the authorities. This is no heart-to-heart discussion with a personable ecclesiastical authority about genuine doubts and concerns that a young teenage boy is experiencing. This is a power play made by people in positions of authority against someone who has very little power in comparison. The fact that they took down his name, address, and ward information and said, "We'll be in touch" sends that message very clearly. I applaud the boy for his youthful chutzpah, but most other ordinary individuals would have felt fairly shamed and demoralized after such an experience. (Which is the whole point, right?)

The whole situation just speaks to what I've said earlier on this blog about the church failing to provide a healthy environment for independent thought. The fact that the church asks the question "Are there any opposed?" when officers are sustained superficially suggests that there is room to disagree with the sustaining out of good conscience. But we’ve all been in a meeting where a forgetful counselor neglects to ask if there are any opposed---for the very reason that no one really expects anyone to oppose it. Church members are habituated and socially pressured into voting unanimously in favor of what the leaders have proposed---which means that the possibility for dissent is ultimately only an illusion. [1] Then, when a 17-year-old calls them on their bluff, the fact that he is treated with suspicion and intimidation (as opposed to mutual respect and the open exchange of ideas) is rather telling, in my opinion.

The last thing I want to say about this is that if I worked for Kirton and McConkie (the Church's law firm), I would immediately advise the church to change their policy about how to treat dissenting votes in General Conference. I recognize that after the Cody Judy incident, the church needs a security team on hand to ensure the safety of the General Authorities. That being said, these issues need to be handled without violating the civil rights of suspects. Although I doubt this boy's parents will press charges, these security guards should have been accompanied by a lawyer who was getting this boy's parents to sign a ton of waivers for privacy, detainment, and future silence in order to avoid a lawsuit. That's because this is not only a clear example of how the church has little tolerance for criticism and dissent, but a potential violation of the boy's civil rights.


[1] If I'm not mistaken, from a strictly legal perspective, church members are not actually official members of the church anyway. Although the church retains membership records, the members don't actually have any voting rights in the organization/corporation like they do in other organized religions. (At least that's what I remember from the Mormon Stories interview conducted with Daymon Smith.) So, the whole voting thing is fairly farcical to begin with.


  1. When I was in high school in New England, one of the bishops of one of the wards opposed the sustaining of a new stake president. Stake leadership indicated from the pulpit that they would meet with him afterward to discuss his concerns. I have no memory or whether his calling as bishop was affected in any way (I think my parents would have discussed it if it had been). His objection was primarily based on the fact that many people really did not like the new stake president (who was from my ward so I knew a bit about him). The stake president went forward in his calling, but he had very public fair warning that he needed to watch his step. I think the bishop's opposition did make a difference in how the stake president managed the stake. That all happened in the 1970s, outside of Utah. Wish it felt like opposition would be respected here in Utah today.

  2. Before I left the Church, I actually stood up and refused to sustain someone. And my idiot BP kept saying that it was 100% unanimous. To Which I kept saying "No" "its' not unanimousm."

    What is suppose to happen is that it is suppose to be entered into the public records of the ward/Branch as to what the objection is

  3. Btw, Margy... I apologize for being pretty belated in my reply to your comment. (I'll play the "but it was the end of the semester!" card.)

    I think you make an excellent point that opposition is not necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes opposition and criticism---although it has a negative tone---can in actuality be a way of giving people valuable information. For example, I always invite my students to share their criticisms with me at the end of the semester during a class discussion. Sometimes those criticisms are hard to hear. But when I get around to swallowing my pride and examining whether the criticism is warranted, it leads me to make important changes to my class. It makes me a better teacher at the end of the day. So opposition doesn't have to be viewed as a de facto bad thing. If we really listen to it, it can make things better for everybody.