SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Top leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members Saturday to root out racism and make the faith an “oasis of unity” while also decrying violence at recent racial injustice protests that amounted to “anarchy.”
A church leader also offered guidance ahead of next month’s presidential election: Peacefully accept the results.
The election advice from Dallin H. Oaks, the second-highest-ranking leader of the faith, came after President Donald Trump has refused to commit to accepting November’s results and expressed doubts about the voting process.
Oaks didn’t mention Trump by name, but pointed to guidance from church founder Joseph Smith for members to follow laws where they live.
“It means that we obey the current law and use peaceful means to change it. It also means that we peacefully accept the results of elections,” Oaks said. “We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome. In a democratic society, we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
In the same sweeping speech at the signature conference of the faith, Oaks said peaceful protests are protected by the U.S. Constitution but spoke out forcefully against actions at recent rallies that he said go beyond what is protected by law.
“Protesters have no right to destroy, deface or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers,” said Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice. “The Constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy.”
Oaks added: “Redress of grievances by mobs is redress by illegal means.” He said that anarchy undermines individual rights and does not protect them.
The speech came during a conference being held in Salt Lake City without attendees. This is the second consecutive conference being held without an audience after the April event marked the first time that occurred in more than 70 years. The only previous time the church conference was held without people in attendance was during World War II because of wartime travel restrictions.
Oaks tried to strike a balance between preaching unity and obedience as he called on members to help root out racism against people of all cultures.
“This country should be better in eliminating racism, not only against Black Americans, who were most visible in the recent protests, but also against Latinos, Asians, and other groups,” Oaks said. “This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one and we must do better.”
Fellow church leader Quentin L. Cook, also a member of the top Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, made a similar plea for the religion to become a big tent for people of all racial and cultural backgrounds.
“At this 200-year hinge point in our church history, let us commit ourselves as members of the Lord’s church to live righteously and be united as never before,” Cook said. “With our all-inclusive doctrine, we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity.”
Neither Oaks nor Cooks mentioned the church’s past ban on Black men in the lay priesthood, a prohibition rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse. The ban stood until 1978 and lingers as one of the most sensitive topics in the faith’s history.
The church disavowed the ban and the reasons behind it in a 2013 essay – explaining that it was put into place during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church’s early teachings. But the church has never issued a formal apology for the ban, a sore spot for some of its members.
The pleas for unity echoed messaging from church President Russell M. Nelson who since taking over in 2018 has preached for more racial harmony and mutual respect. Nelson has launched a formal partnership with the NAACP.
The faith’s 15 top leaders sat six feet apart on a stage alongside floral arrangements. They wore masks when they weren’t speaking, each sitting in elegant dark red chairs. Many of the leaders are older than 70, including the 96-year-old Nelson.
The conference normally brings some 100,000 people to the church conference center in Salt Lake City. But this time, all church members are tuning in from their homes to hear top leaders provide spiritual guidance as members try to navigate a difficult 2020.
Church leaders called the pandemic a test that will help people grow spiritually.
“We are here on earth to be tested, to see if we will choose to follow Jesus Christ, to repent regularly, to learn, and to progress,” Nelson said. “Our spirits long to progress. And we do that best by staying firmly on the covenant path”
In his comments about politics, Oaks preached civility without backing any political party or candidate as he followed long-standing precedence for church leaders to remain politically neutral.
“In a democratic government, we will always have differences over proposed candidates and policies,” Oaks said. “However, as followers of Christ we must forego the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”
While church leaders sometimes weigh in about what they consider crucial moral issues and have called for an end to people staking out extreme positions, they are careful not to endorse candidates or parties. Church members have historically leaned heavily Republican, but the GOP grip on the faith’s voters has slipped slightly with Trump in office, according to the Pew Research Center.
Church leader Patrick Kearon made a brief mention of the current political climate in the conference’s opening prayer when he said, “We yearn for a return to grace, dignity and civility in public life.”
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