In the Sunday morning session of October's General Conference, Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a sermon about "overcoming the world" and finding peace through Jesus Christ. While aspects of the speech were moving and inspiring, much of it was devoted to contrasting "the world" with the Latter-day Saint faith, a familiar narrative that has been invoked by LDS leaders for decades.
Nelson began by assuring listeners that they could "overcome this sin-saturated, self-centered and often exhausting world." Shortly afterward, he provided a lengthy list of worldly "plagues," including arrogance, anger, immorality and greed.
Throughout the address, he continued to contrast the peace and stability of LDS teachings with the "distractions and distortions" of the world and urged the faithful to "trust the doctrines of Christ more than the philosophies of men."
Although leaders since the church's inception have contrasted LDS teachings with "the ways of the world," this narrative especially gained momentum in the decades following World War II, with the rise of the sexual revolution, pro-communist ideologies and civil rights struggles. In order to defend discriminatory belief systems and practices that were receiving intense public scrutiny—such as the priesthood and temple ban on people of African descent—church leaders began positioning their institutional norms and policies as antithetical to the "secular" and "sinful" tendencies of the world. They have even described Satan as the author of social justice movements that have fought against racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity.
This ideological framework has undoubtedly influenced the modern LDS Church and continues to shape the rhetoric of its leaders. Nelson is among those who frequently elevates church teachings above the "sin-stained world," a framework that I believe has several unhealthy effects on the church and its members.
First, this kind of rhetoric enables an us-versus-them mentality, which has the potential to taint and distort the way that members interact with their non- or former LDS friends and family members. I am aware of several instances in which LDS parents have prohibited their children from visiting their non-LDS friends' houses. Even worse, I am aware of devoted church members ostracizing and even disowning family members who are "living in sin."
As part of my graduate research in Mormonism and sexuality, I interviewed dozens of current and former LGBTQ+ members of the LDS Church. Tragically, countless individuals have described heinous acts of marginalization and othering from their own orthodox family members. I am certain that the "church vs. world" framework exacerbates this type of abuse, especially when leaders like apostle and LDS First Counselor Dallin H. Oaks frequently position queer identity and activism as oppositional to God's teachings.
In addition to harming relationships and fueling abuse, decrying worldly ills also impacts the way that many church members feel about science and current events. In 1993, the late Elder Boyd K. Packer warned of three groups that constituted the "greatest threat to the church": feminists, homosexuals and intellectuals.
Although most current leaders no longer express such hardline positions at the pulpit, this way of thinking still occupies space within the church.
The anti-intellectual sentiments of Packer and other leaders can be clearly observed in a general skepticism among members toward science and public health, most recently demonstrated by a widespread reluctance to wear masks and get vaccinated in response to COVID-19. Similarly, framing feminism and homosexuality as insidious threats has caused many members to demonize LGBTQ+ individuals and delegitimize the struggle for gender and sexual equality.
Lastly, rhetoric that denounces the "ways of the world" prevents many members from thinking critically about harmful church teachings and practices. By creating a construct known as "the world," LDS leaders have been able to label those who criticize oppressive aspects of the church as being "worldly"—and according to Nelson, worldliness comes with a slew of negative attributes including pride, anger and hatred.
This toxic framework is an example of what psychologists refer to as "poisoning the well," in which members of an in-group create an adverse narrative about out-groups, such that any criticism made by a member of the out-group is immediately discounted.
Despite the harm caused by pitting "the world" against "the church," more members than ever are beginning to think critically about harmful LDS teachings, especially those of younger generations. For instance, LDS sociologist Jana Riess found in her "Next Mormons" survey that younger members are significantly more likely than older members to believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Her data revealed other hopeful trends in which millennial and Gen Z members of the LDS Church demonstrate greater willingness to examine and scrutinize social injustices and oppressive ideologies, both within and outside of the faith.
As the 21st century church continues to grow and evolve amid contemporary sociocultural norms, framing the world as antithetical to LDS teachings will become increasingly unacceptable to rising Latter-day Saint generations. Worse, it will enable more orthodox members to continue othering people with different beliefs and provide ongoing justification for the abuse of marginalized groups, most notably LGBTQ+ individuals.
I challenge LDS leaders and members to think more carefully about the ways they speak of the world, with the hope that the church will move toward a more inclusive and unifying perspective of their relationship with broader culture and society.
Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to email@example.com