Today in Priesthood we studied Lesson 3 in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay. Rarely have I felt so out of sync with the lesson. Most of the Teachings are fastballs straight down the middle. Nothing fancy. Nothing that challenges my world view. Not this lesson. My first clue that this would not be a normal lesson was this statement, made by Elder McKay in 1941:
The mission of the Church is to prepare the way for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Its purpose is, first, to develop in menâ€™s lives Christ-like attributes; and, second, to transform society so that the world may be a better and more peaceful place in which to live.
That last part, where I added the emphasis, is the part that startled me. Then this, from the same talk:
The term [kingdom of God] implies divine rule in the hearts and wills of men and in society…. Only such a group looking as one mind to heaven for guidance can eventually transform human society.
And finally this, also from the same talk:
There are those in the world who say that jealousy, enmity, [and] selfishness in menâ€™s hearts will always preclude the establishing of the ideal society known as the Kingdom of God. No matter what doubters and scoffers say, the mission of the Church of Christ is to eliminate sin and wickedness from the hearts of men, and so to transform society that peace and good-will will prevail on this earth.
I love the optimism and hope in this talk, but it made me uncomfortable. Elder McKay’s idealism collided head-on with my worldview, in which the Church is not actively transforming society, but providing a safe haven from evil. As for transforming society, well, that can wait for the Millennium. (NB: I am assuming that Elder McKay was speaking of a transformation that would occur before the Millennium, though the excerpts are not without ambiguity on this point.)
The counsel of modern Church leaders seems to have largely abandoned Elder McKay’s aspiration in favor of a more modest emphasis on personal righteousness. Society is portrayed as inalterably evil, and we are instructed to batton down the hatches. Consider some talks from the most recent General Conference, where Church leaders emphasize personal righteousness in the face of widespread evil (rather than the role of righteousness in changing widespread evil). Elder Dallin H. Oaks in Priesthood Session:
As we look about us, we see many who are practicing deception. We hear of prominent officials who have lied about their secret acts. We learn of honored sports heroes who have lied about gambling on the outcome of their games or using drugs to enhance their performance. We see less well-known persons engaging in evil acts in secret they would never do in public. Perhaps they think no one will ever know. But God always knows. And He has repeatedly warned that the time will come when “[our] iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and [our] secret acts shall be revealed” (D&C 1:3; see also Mormon 5:8; D&C 38:7)…. Fortunately, repentance is possible.
Elder Cecil B. Samuelson, also in Priesthood Session:
Brethren, it is both comforting and potentially worrisome to know that we live in an age and a time that was not only foreseen by the prophets of previous dispensations but was also clearly a focus of their concerns and their aspirations. The Apostle Paul said, “In the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1), and then he went on to catalog and describe with remarkable accuracy much that we currently see daily in the media, in advertisements for entertainment, and almost everywhere in the world around us. As careful as we might and should be, absolute avoidance of much of the peril which is seemingly enveloping us is at best difficult and often near impossible to avoid.
President Hinckley, also in Priesthood Session:
We are men of the priesthood. This is a most sacred and marvelous gift, worth more than all the dross of the world. But it will be amen to the effectiveness of that priesthood for anyone who engages in the practice of seeking out pornographic material. If there be any within the sound of my voice who are doing so, then may you plead with the Lord out of the depths of your soul that He will remove from you the addiction which enslaves you. And may you have the courage to seek the loving guidance of your bishop and, if necessary, the counsel of caring professionals. Let any who may be in the grip of this vise get upon their knees in the privacy of their closet and plead with the Lord for help to free them from this evil monster. Otherwise, this vicious stain will continue through life and even into eternity.
I could multiply the citations manifold, but you get the idea. Have we as a Church really abandoned Elder McKay’s aspiration to “transform society”? Or at least postponed that aspiration and placed that task on the Savior’s plate?