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More expansive boundaries, not 'bubbles,' for LDS Church, Otterson says

OREM, Utah — The LDS Church is expanding its boundaries today far more than restricting them, the managing director of LDS Public Affairs said Tuesday at Utah Valley University.

Michael Otterson, 67, has been the chief spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for eight years. He provided an expansive and candid view of the church’s public engagement over the past decade during his keynote address at UVU's 17th annual Mormon Studies Conference, "Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance: Negotiating Identities in and Around Mormonism."

Otterson said the LDS Church is expanding its boundaries today by building relationships outside the church with interfaith leaders, academics and minority communities, including woman and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

He also provided an in-depth response to a question about women and the priesthood from Kate Kelly, an excommunicated former leader of Ordain Women, during the question-and-answer session.

And he warned against what he called "bubbles," or seeing the church through a narrow lens of interest or bias.

"I don’t see boundaries in the same way as some commentators, who believe that the church today is simply battening down the hatches, rigidly resisting any change that seems progressive," he said. "That is an odd criticism of a church that believes in modern revelation through apostles and prophets, which in itself implies the ability to change or adapt — at least in organizational and structural terms. Rather, I acknowledge the right of leaders to establish boundaries for doctrine and behavior."

Born and educated in Britain and a former international journalist, Otterson is well-known for his essays about Mormons published by the Washington Post's On Faith blog. His address drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 to an auditorium in the UVU library.

Otterson made a case that the church was known in the 19th century as pushing boundaries, and that its doctrine still does so.

"The Latter-day Saint concept of individual agency, accountability, judgment and eternal progression is the antithesis of Calvinist predestination," he said. "Our doctrine of a personalized Plan of Salvation is Mormonism at its most expansive, boundary-challenging best."

Otterson outlined how LDS leaders have accelerated their outreach to national faith leaders since 2008. Churches are finding they have more in common and are more effective with a collective voice as soceity grows increasingly secular.

"The relationships we’ve built together and the expanded boundaries will, I predict, prove to be extremely valuable to all faith groups in the years ahead."

Church leaders have expanded boundaries by increasing the transparency of the faith's history through Gospel Topics essays on its website and the Joseph Smith Papers, he said, and took issue with those who criticize the church's past history curriculum and claim church leaders deliberately painted a false picture.

"You would expect me as a church spokesman to reject those claims," he said, "and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it, and it does not square with my personal experience about how church leaders think and act and what motivates them."

He noted the Washington Post and the Associated Press have described the current age as "a new era of transparency" for the church.

"The realization by church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests and study habits changed," he said. "Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal."

Otterson rejected the assertion that LDS boundaries on LGBT rights are established out of fear and hate of LGBT people as well as the idea that it's only a matter of time before the church accommodates same-sex marriage within its doctrine.

It's a distortion and propaganda to say Mormons hate gays, he said. First, hatred of any person or group should be anathema to any Latter-day Saint.

Second, church boundaries on LGBT issues are doctrinal, based on LDS understandings of chastity and the purposes of marriage, life and human destiny.

"The doctrine of the church in relation to sexual morality — that sex is proper only between a married man and a woman — has not changed, and there is no sign whatsoever that it will change in the future," Otterson said. "The law of chastity applying to heterosexual and homosexual behavior is inviolate."

Kelly, a founder and former board member of Ordain Women excommunicated by her local LDS leaders in 2014, asked about the church's position on women in the priesthood and if those who advocate for women to receive the priesthood should be punished in their local congregations.

For the church's position, Otterson referred her to the Gospel Topics essay on women and the priesthood.

"People aren't punished for opinions," he added, "and I think there is a significant degree of misunderstanding. Having opinions, even about whether women should hold the priesthood, is certainly within the purview of any member of the church. However, when those opinions transfer into advocacy or lobbying, particularly when they're clearly lobbying against what has been declared as clear doctrine by church leaders, that crosses a line, and in a few cases, and you mentioned your own case, in a few cases that has led to a disciplinary council."

During his presentation, Otterson said he is encouraged by recent LDS changes that increase the visibility of women.

"I’m personally encouraged to see those changes, and I assume in the normal course of events we will see other such initiatives as the male and female leadership of the church continue to discuss this topic," he said.

Otterson noted that many people criticize politicians and Beltway media for being inside the “Washington Bubble,” always seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own professional or vocational biases. He suggested some critics should avoid similar thinking when addressing issues in a global church.

"I simply ask you," he said, "if you are in your own bubble or echo chamber, to recognize that the issues we are sometimes fixated on along the Wasatch Front or even in the United States are not necessarily important to our members in East Africa or Central Asia."

Otterson said the conference's title is apt, that boundary maintenance is an art.

"And if it’s an art, who are the artists?" he asked, answering they are Jesus Christ and prophets.

"The point is that there is a cornerstone," he added. "There are boundaries, both of behavior and of doctrine. There are commandments. There is obedience. Believing this as I do doesn’t rob me of my agency or of my opinions. Rather it compels me constantly to evaluate my own behavior against that standard, knowing that ultimately I will be accountable to God for where I draw those boundaries for myself."