The author of the guest post below, Robert D. Griffiths, is one of the most impressive men I know. I interacted with him frequently while he was serving as the US Consul General for the State Department’s Consulate in Shanghai (2011-2014) and continue to learn from him. His profound experience as a diplomatic and his deep knowledge of Asia and humanity in general add depth to his counsel. I should also observe that he and his wife are two of the most genuine and loving Christians I know. Here he shares some important thoughts about dealing with the discomfort that some people face regarding the Church’s position on social issues. I think his guidance should be considered by those in and out of the Church. — Jeff L.
The Church in a Changing World
What if I’m uncomfortable with the Church’s position on social issues?
By Robert D. Griffiths
was struck when someone close to me, in reaction to the Church’s newly
launched effort to aid refugees, blurted out, “Finally, something about
the Church we can be proud of!”
This got me thinking about the pressures that are put on Church members in a day when society, in an
effort to be accommodating to people of all persuasions, becomes
distorted by single-issue politics. Social media and a 24-hour news
cycle flood us with narrowly-focused information and criticism and it is
easy to miss the big picture. In such an environment, it is too easy to
either feel embarrassed that the Church is not more responsive to the
social issues of the day, or to hunker down in traditional Mormon
culture and wait for the Second Coming.
I was born in Utah, but
have lived overseas in developed and developing countries for some 30
years, and in the big cities of the U.S. East and West Coasts for
another 11. These years have provided rich and perspective-broadening
experiences. Yet when I consider what I have seen in the world, and the
challenges and changes that pummel societies across the globe, and in
“Zion,” it seems to me that the world could really use what the Church
has to offer.
Oh, I am well aware that the Church is not perfect.
It has made mistakes historically and continues to fall short of its
ideals today. And there are those whose personal experiences and
circumstances lead them to believe that the Church is not for them. But
in a plea to not throw the baby out with the bath water, consider the
Belonging. The refugee crisis in the
Middle East reflects a resurgence in hatred among ethno-religious
groups such that murder of “the other” is hardly given a thought. In
some places in Africa, there is similar strife. The hateful rhetoric
between China and Japan and that coming out of North Korea–while not
yet having led to blows–is growing uncomfortably harsh. And then there
is the anger directed at the United States from many quarters. All of
this is disturbingly reminiscent of pre-world War II rhetoric that
justified hatred of other peoples as sub-human and deserving of
persecution, even death.
Even at home, inter-racial tensions are
becoming ever sharper in many of our cities. Many political attitudes
reflect not only a zero-sum mentality, but in some quarters
“understanding” “empathy” and “compromise” have become vilified. One
national political commentator famously declared on national TV that he
wanted to kill someone for holding different political views. On a
personal level, one result of the disintegration of the nuclear family
in many people’s lives is an increase in loneliness and a sense of
rootlessness. While friendships can be rich and wonderful, they do not
carry the same level of commitment, and sense of belonging, that family
One of the often overlooked, but profoundly
significant, teachings of the Church is that all human beings are
brothers and sisters. Not just in some metaphorical sense, or as a warm
and fuzzy social attitude, but literally we are all children of Heavenly
Parents. That teaching alone, if internalized throughout the world,
would significantly mitigate war, hatred and strife and replace them
with a sense of common roots and shared interest with all in the human
Since the LDS Church was relieved of the burden of
discrimination against blacks and the priesthood some 40 years ago,
Mormons, for the most part, have readily re-embraced the fundamental LDS
doctrine of the human family. In a recent stake leadership meeting I
attended, most of the well-informed and well-received discussion was led
by Hispanic and black leaders. And more striking, I think, was a sales
flyer I received in the mail from an orthodontist in a small Utah town.
To make his practice more attractive to conservative Mormons–the
majority of his potential patients–he highlighted a picture of his own
large family, which includes four well-dressed and smiling (with
straight teeth!) children of African descent (presumably adopted) along
with four biological children. In dealing with minorities, Mormons may
lack the nuance that will come in time from greater exposure, but their
hearts, most of the time, are in the right place.
numbers are still small, the expansion of the Church with its
fundamental teaching of the human family acts as a hatred-absorbing
control rod as it expands its presence in communities at home and in
nations abroad. And the lonely soul is comforted.
As imperfect people and nations perpetrate injustices on one another,
grudges grow. Revenge can motivate otherwise peaceful people to commit
cruelties and even atrocities in an effort to even the score. Justice,
it seems, demands it. No one wants to be played for a sap. Without a
mechanism to mitigate a desire for revenge and deflate feelings of
vengeance, injustices can pile up until enmity replaces humanity. This
happens on the international level—witness the ethnic and clan-based
violence that undermines Mid-East peace today—and on the personal level
when perceived injustices cause friends to backstab or family members
stop talking to each other.
In a complex world, it is human nature
to try to simplify wherever possible. We want to separate the good guys
from the bad guys, despite a more honest recognition that no one is all
bad, or all good. Americans are rightly proud of the rule of law and
the ability to sue for justice, but we too readily mark for life those
who have committed crimes, even after they have paid their debt to
society. Just ask anyone who has ever had a felony conviction how easy
it is to apply for a job. While there are certain individuals who may
always be a danger to society, we create a huge, benighted underclass of
our fellow citizens simply because it is easier to pigeon-hole “bad
guys” rather than allow for the possibility that people can put past
mistakes behind them.
The benefits of forgiveness are widely
recognized, at least on a certain level. Putting historical grievances
to rest can provide a foundation for peace between previously hostile
nations and peoples. Nelson Mandela’s extension of forgiveness to those
who had terribly wronged him created a template for an entire nation to
move forward in peace. It is also widely recognized, if not widely
practiced, that people are psychologically much healthier when they stop
carrying burdens of self-pity and revenge. But it is hard for
forgiveness to get traction when it seems to undermine justice.
Church has had its share of injustices perpetrated upon it, and has
perpetrated some of its own, but the overwhelming strain in church
teaching and practice is to do right and forgive wrongs. The Saints are
in fact told to “forgive all men.” But the real power behind the
Church’s doctrine of forgiveness is the understanding that justice is
not undermined when we forgive. As we are patient, a just God will right
all wrongs. Moreover, we believe that people’s hearts can truly be
changed and the ‘natural man’ can be overcome.
justice will be served, and hearts can be changed, the Mormon practice
of forgiveness provides the world a welcome and powerful tool for the
amelioration of ill-will and improved human relations at all levels.
Traditional values and religion have taken a beating as the scientific
revolution reduced the need for Divine explanations of natural
phenomena, as greater transparency has revealed hypocrisy in religious
institutions, and as almost unrestrained freedom to think and act as
individuals has become the norm in many societies. It is good for
falsehoods to be exposed and for new and worthwhile ideas to enrich
humankind. But in the very imperfect and sometimes cruel process of
tearing down traditional institutions, a price is paid. While Karl Marx
may have dismissed religion as “the opiate of the masses,” the fact is
that religious faith has provided a vital measure of hope to the vast
majority of the world’s people throughout the ages, especially those who
have not been privileged to enjoy material abundance and a life where
things go their way.
It is hard for secular society to provide
hope, in an existential sense, because its time horizon is so short. Our
material well-being, our health, our reputation, even our lives, can be
overturned in moment by a lost job, a hurricane, a diagnosis, a
lawsuit, a vengeful social media attack, or a speeding dump truck. And
while data for historical comparison are hard to come by, the incidence
of depression, loneliness and suicide is high and rising in the world
Few, if any, religions provide as much information, from as
many sources, regarding the afterlife as does Mormon theology. For
anyone with an open-minded interest in the possibility of life after
death, affirmations from four separate books of historical and modern
scripture, fervent testimonies of modern day prophets, and countless
stories from family histories and contemporary accounts among the Saints
cannot help but provide food for thought, if not the seeds of hope and
faith. Moreover, the picture of the afterlife revealed by Church
teaching and testimonies is relatively detailed and wonderfully
comforting and reassuring. We will see our loved ones again. We will be
made whole. We will enjoy both justice and mercy. We will be happy.
in this life, the Church offers a lot of hope of the short-term kind.
The Church organization of bishops’ storehouses, social and counseling
services, job placement assistance, and home and visiting teaching, and
the community of Saints, provide tangible help and hope when life
happens. Not to mention the spiritual comfort that believing Saints can
tap into through individual prayer and blessings.
of the hope that the Church and its teachings can provide is contingent
on some level of faith and commitment. But that does not change the fact
that in a world where hope for so many is in short supply, where
hopelessness for almost anyone is so easily stumbled into, and where
humans continue to yearn for an identity that is more than a bunch of
chemical interactions brought together by random chance, the Church and
its offers of hope shine like a beacon.
There are religions in the world that aspire to a monastic separation
from the world, where an individual ultimately progresses by inner
devotions with little connection to other people. There are animal
rights advocates–modern-day Taoists–who believe that it is wrong for
humans to infringe on the natural world. There are those who seek to fix
their societies in a past time, believing that modernity is to be
shunned. For better or worse, the Church is not like these, but is “full
in” with the use of all resources, especially new technologies, to make
the world a better place. And consistent with a rapidly developing
world and continuing revelation, the Church’s efforts are changing and
The Church, understandably, focuses mainly on its core
expertise, the spiritual development of the sons and daughters of God,
where it is best positioned to make its greatest contribution. As David
O. McKay said, in the language of the time, the purpose of the Church is
to “make bad men good and good men better.”
efforts do extend outside the spiritual realm. Regardless of what one
might think of what goes on inside LDS chapels and temples, one must
admit that the grounds outside are generally quite pretty. LDS
facilities visually enhance their communities. Perhaps this is a small
thing, but it does reflect consistency in our regard for beauty, inside
and outside, without being ostentatious.
In fact, the Church
spends a lot of time and resources to make the world a better place.
Often working in tandem with other organizations, such as Catholic
Charities, the Church has a long history of charitable giving. And
charitable service, such as the Helping Hands program, is getting
considerable emphasis. The willingness of church members to spring into
action after natural disasters has drawn a lot of media attention in
recent years—the thousands of members from neighboring states who
volunteered to “de-muck” homes of members and non-members alike after
the flooding in Louisiana is only the most recent example. Effective
charitable giving is not really that easy to do—it is not clear to me
that what Syrian refugees need most are the quilts and toothbrushes that
our ward is preparing to send them—but the Church works hard to find
niches where it can make a difference. Wheelchair donations, digging
rural village wells, and providing neo-natal care are three areas where I
have seen the Church be particularly effective overseas. All LDS
missionaries have charitable service built-in to their routines, and
Charitable Service missionaries do charity work full-time. Welfare
Square is widely renowned for its model stressing the dignity of work
even as the needs of people who cannot work are also met. Charitable
giving for all members, in tithing and fast offerings, is a fundamental
part of Church membership and develops the soul.
of people gets top priority. Education has always been valued among the
Saints. The Church’s universities serve several purposes, but providing
top-level curricula and facilities reflects the respect that Mormons
have for the world’s professions. The grassroots functioning of the
Church requires literacy; the rotation of opportunities to serve in a
lay ministry is predicated upon members having the needed skill sets. In
addition to (sometimes seemingly endless!) training programs, chapels
worldwide have long been venues for language classes, and there is a new
effort to utilize chapels for a wide range of non-religious education
efforts. For example, new programs in peer-counseling to support
self-reliance help to create sustainable employment opportunities.
Public speaking skills, gained from a very early age among active
members, boost confidence. Church meetings provide a life-long venue for
the development and practice of musical skills. The Perpetual Education
Fund is a remarkable, ultimately self-sustaining, program that enables
advanced education and family-supporting vocational skills to expanding
thousands of members in developing countries. A fundamental LDS teaching
undergirds all these efforts: All honest labor is noble. And because of
the education, industry and discipline that members gain in the Church,
members of LDS congregations around the world tend to be more
productive than their peers outside the Church.
I smiled when a friend of mine in Washington, D.C., whose lifestyle and
values would put him in contrast with most Mormons, commented on a
recent trip he had taken through Utah. “The people are so nice!” I know
there are exceptions, when members of the Church have been unkind or
thoughtless or ideological, but I think they are exceptions. Generally,
Mormons treat other people as brothers and sisters, willing to trust and
forgive, imbued with the optimism that comes from being rooted in hope
for the future. We believe in being nice!
Almost without realizing
it, Mormons teach themselves civility by attending church. The
geographical delineation of ward units causes us to associate with
people we might not otherwise choose as friends, and we learn to get
along. It is very different from the practice where a church-going
family new to town might visit different congregations until they find
where they feel most comfortable. We learn to be patient in fast and
testimony meetings when speakers say things that are, well, off the
mark. We learn to buoy up and strengthen each other, and the constant
practice of being nice would help refine anyone’s character.
many Mormons have strong political views, our church meetings are
strikingly apolitical. When members do speak in public venues and with
those holding different political views, President Hinckley counseled us
that if we must disagree, we should do so without being disagreeable.
There has to be room for different views. It would be a dull world if
everyone saw everything the same way. The tens of thousands of
missionaries who return home annually certainly have had to learn how to
cope with disagreement, shunning and rejection and come away smiling.
of the most oft-quoted scriptures is from Doctrine and Covenants 121, which makes
clear that we are to seek to influence others only by persuasion,
long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness and love unfeigned. That
counsel is a blessing for the rest of the world as well.
Church, of course, does not have a monopoly on any of these virtues.
Some people may practice them better than we do. As Mormons strive,
however imperfectly, to live up to the teachings of the gospel and their
ideals, even a modicum of the tolerance that Church critics generally
extend to those who disagree with the Church should allow for cutting
the LDS Church some slack. Even if the gospel message of the Restoration
is not wholly believed, the Church should be given credit as a force
for good that the world could surely use. And that is something to be proud of.
About Robert D. Griffiths
Recently retired as a Senior U.S. Foreign Service Officer, rank of Minister Counselor, Mr. Griffiths is currently an instructor in Chinese politics at the University of Utah and at BYU. He previously taught economics and Chinese studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. As part of his 34-year career with the State Department, he lived and worked in greater China for 14 years, most recently as U.S. Consul General in Shanghai (2011-14). Previous postings abroad included Beijing, Bangkok, Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Bogota. He served in the U.S. Senate for a year as foreign policy advisor to Harry Reid, (D-NV), and worked in the Asia Policy shop in the office of the Secretary of Defense. He has a B.A. in Asian Studies (summa cum laude) from BYU, and a master’s degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. He has spoken frequently at universities in the U.S., China and Thailand, and been interviewed on National Public Radio and other programs both in the U.S. and abroad. He has lived in or visited 35 countries on every continent and speaks Chinese and Thai. He is married to Jeanne Decker Griffiths and they have three grown children.