What I’m Hoping to Hear at General Conference

By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center

This weekend, Mormons across the state will take a break from their normal three-hour Sunday services and gather in their living rooms as a families for a marathon of speakers. Why? It’s General Conference time again.

"LDS Conference Center" by whistlepunch, http://bit.ly/1dYO3EY

LDS General Conference (Photo by whistlepunch, http://bit.ly/1dYO3EY)

As a member of the LDS Church, I look forward to those wonderful weekends that come like clockwork each October and April with the same anticipation as Christmas or Easter. Conference weekend might as well be declared a church-wide holiday; it’s that big of a deal for us.

Every family celebrates a little differently. For some, it’s traditional conference meals or snacks. Others set up tents in their living rooms to watch the speakers (in emulation of one story from the Book of Mormon). When I was a kid, my parents used to make bingo boards with various gospel topics that might be mentioned in the squares, a brilliant scheme to get their five rambunctious children to sit through eight hours of talks.

But in the end, the fun, celebratory aspect of conference isn’t why we get so excited. Mormons believe the addresses delivered by general authorities in these church-wide meetings are quite literally modern day scripture. Conference isn’t just eight hours of edification for church members; it’s what defines their faith. And, in a time when the world is just plain complicated, having a fresh declaration of Mormon doctrine every six months is welcome.

I’m always excited to hear what the leaders of my church have to say, but I’ll be listening with particular interest this time around. I’m hoping to hear a talk, or even part of one, about environmentalism.

Photo by Jeremy Hall, http://bit.ly/1gWQZS9

Outside the LDS Conference Center (Photo by Jeremy Hall, http://bit.ly/1gWQZS9)

That might strike you as crazy, considering my church is notoriously right leaning when it comes to politicized issues. But I think a talk openly advocating environmentalism is completely within the realm of possibility. In the year since last April’s conference, the LDS church has made some important moves that make it clear where it stands on environmental issues.

A month after the last conference wrapped up, the Mormon Newsroom site released a statement on Environmental Stewardship and Conservation, officially affirming a church position that often goes overlooked: that “all are stewards—not owners—over this earth and its bounty and will be accountable before God for what they do with His creations.”

The statement didn’t say anything particularly groundbreaking, but it was the first official stance I had seen the church take on environmentalism. As someone who often feels isolated among other Mormons for my passion for the environment, this statement had a great enough impact on me that I decided to write about it.
I wondered, though, whether I was making a bigger deal of the statement than I should. I consulted George Handley, a professor of literature at BYU who is widely considered the go-to expert on Mormon environmentalism.

“The statement is a big deal,” Handley told me. “It’s a little bit ambiguous because it comes from the Mormon Newsroom, not the [more doctrinal] Ensign Magazine or LDS.org. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows from here. Growing could mean a lot of different things, and we can only speculate what those will be…But I think the significance of the statement is that it gives a sort of permission to members of the church who care about environmental problems. It says to them, ‘you’re OK and there is nothing wrong with you. You care about creation and you should.’”

But Handley says that more important than the statement was an address that Elder Marcus B. Nash, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, gave at the Stegner Center Symposium on Religion, Faith and the Environment held on campus at the U in April 2013. The speech outlined doctrines specific to Mormonism that should lead LDS people to care for the environment.

“[Before Elder Nash’s address] there’s never been in the history of the church a comprehensive speech that focuses exclusively on environmental stewardship. There’s been little hints of things and isolated statements by many general authorities, but never anything like Elder Nash’s talk,” Handley says.

Lincoln Davies, the professor at the Stegner Center who was responsible for organizing the symposium last year and getting Nash to speak, says Handley isn’t the only academic who thinks Elder Nash’s remarks were historic. Davies told me that Mary Evelyn Tucker, who leads the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and was the keynote speaker at the symposium, described Nash’s speech as a groundbreaking, watershed moment for the LDS Church.

“I don’t necessarily know if those labels are accurate, but I don’t disagree with them either. [Elder Nash’s address] was an important step, one that I personally hope will continue and be expanded upon,” Davies says.

The thing that is so exciting to me and other Mormon environmentalists about these two actions—the thing that makes us hope that similar addresses might be given in the future—isn’t that new doctrine is being decreed from the powers that be, but that the church is bringing sometimes overlooked principles into focus.

A view of Mormons heading to conference (Photo by the More Good Foundation, http://bit.ly/1mJJpe2)

A view of Mormons heading to conference (Photo by the More Good Foundation, http://bit.ly/1mJJpe2)

Environmental doctrines have existed for as long as our church has. Many of the statements that Handley is referring to were made by Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, and Brigham Young, Smith’s successor. The problem is that we, as rank and file church members, have seemed to skip over the environmental scripture passages and comments from church leaders for a really long time.

For example, I bet that even people who aren’t members of the church are familiar with the Word of Wisdom, the doctrine that counsels LDS people to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. However, I’d be surprised if many non-LDS people knew that the Word of Wisdom also counsels Mormons to eat meat “sparingly…only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” and commands that both meat and plant-based foods be used with “prudence and thanksgiving.” That’s because even I, a lifelong member of the church, have never had a lesson in Sunday school that highlighted these aspects of the Word of Wisdom unless I brought it up. They just haven’t really been on Mormons’ radar.

And in the absence of specific, modern teachings about environmentalism from church authorities, I get the impression that many LDS people defer to the politics of local government.

Davies nicely summed up this phenomenon:

“When you live in Utah, sometimes the politics of the right-wing political groups that say we shouldn’t worry about environmentalism kind of get mixed up with what the LDS church might actually have to say about it,” Davies says. “But while environmentalism has often been cast as a political issue, which is fair, I think it is, at bottom, a moral issue and a spiritual issue.”

Between the Mormon Newsroom statement and Elder Nash’s talk, any confusion of whether you can be a faithful, observant member of the LDS church and environmentalist have been totally cleared up. Of course you can! But the question remains: What next?

It’s really anyone’s guess. And I want to be sure I echo a sentiment that both Davies and Handley expressed when I interviewed them; as a humble and obedient member of the church, I don’t aspire to tell the men I sustain as prophets what to preach about.

That being said, I started to hope that this issue might come up in General Conference after I interviewed Elaine Emmi, a board member for Utah Interfaith Power & Light who has worked extensively with the LDS Church.

“I’m one of the few non-Mormons who listens faithfully to General Conference and have learned a lot throughout the years that I’ve lived here,” Emmi says. “And I’m interested to see what happens at the upcoming conference. Maybe more environmental messages will come through there, where the real impact will be felt.”

Like Emmi, I’ll be spending my weekend listening to conference, waiting to see what happens. Until then, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.

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