During the most recent LDS General Conference, Apostle David A. Bednar delivered a talk that promised to “hush” members’ fear. But in a highly manipulative series of twists and turns, he instead amps up fear, channels it down routes that benefit the Church, reframes the source of fear, and then in an exciting backflip into double-think, loads language to conflate fear with love.
This talk is spiritually abusive.
As I point out in Recovering Agency, high-demand groups instill phobias. This is not some random, baseless claim. Cult researchers have studied this at length. In my book, I spend a whole chapter describing instilled phobias within Mormonism: how it’s done, which phobias the Church instills, and why. The main purpose, of course, is to make you afraid to leave the Church, and also to make you afraid of disobeying God (with the Brethren in proxy as the voice of God).
This process is not simple and happens over a long period of time. It’s rare to see a talk that covers so much ground all by itself. Yet if any single talk is perfect for demonstrating how this process works, “Therefore They Hushed Their Fears” is the one.
Elder Bednar begins with a story of how scared he felt as a boy after breaking a window. (I’m sure if you were to run a statistical analysis of LDS Conference talks, you’d find that every general authority broke at least one window.)
Stories like this are persuasive because they put us in the speaker’s shoes. We are invited to relate to him and feel the emotions he conveys. All children have accidentally broken something, so this story conjures up strong, personal childhood emotions. It regresses the listener to an earlier time, when we were at the mercy of our parents. When we were afraid of punishment from an ultimate authority.
Elder Bednar survives the encounter, of course. He had loving parents who handled it well. As he expresses relief in his story, we are relieved along with him.
Thus we’ve begun the emotional ride he’s about to take us on.
Keep in mind that most viewers of this talk are already conditioned to trust Elder Bednar. He presents himself well and speaks in the usual soft tones of a general authority. Mormons recognize him as an apostle, a righteous and spiritual leader, chosen by God, and blessed with spiritual gifts. Few Mormons would question his motives. They have already suspended disbelief and are willing to hear all of his words uncritically, hopefully through “the Spirit,” an emotional, meditative state that leaves them open-minded and willing to accept whatever message he delivers.
Most LDS listeners are hoping to feel the emotions Elder Bednar is about to convey.
Immediately after providing relief at the end of the window-breaking story, Elder Bednar lists some seriously scary situations:
“You undoubtedly have experienced much greater feelings of dread after learning about a personal health challenge, discovering a family member in difficulty or danger, or observing disturbing world events. In such instances, the distressing emotion of fear arises because of impending danger, uncertainty, or pain and through experiences that are unexpected, sometimes sudden, and likely to produce a negative outcome.”
This first half of the list is in second person: You. Again, you’re being welcomed along on his emotional journey. These are the things you are probably afraid of, and may be experiencing right now.
Then he widens the scope:
“In our daily lives, endless reports of criminal violence, famine, wars, corruption, terrorism, declining values, disease, and the destructive forces of nature can engender fear and apprehension. Surely we live in the season foretold by the Lord: ‘And in that day…the whole earth shall be in commotion, and men’s hearts shall fail them’ (D&C 45:26).”
When we hear emotionally-charged words, we tend to feel those things. And as we imagine the situations he describes, we bring to mind similar times when we’ve been afraid. Through this, Bednar evokes fear, brings it to the forefront of the momentary experience.
Then as he brings up other concepts, our brains actually connect these emotions to the thoughts. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
For instance, when he next offers relief. But there’s a catch: “My purpose is to describe how fear is dispelled through a correct knowledge of and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The feeling of relief is held hostage for the ransom of one simple thing: Our minds. We are asked to give up our minds to a correct knowledge and faith, as defined, of course, by the LDS Church.
For several more minutes, Elder Bednar hammers home that we can only be comforted by God himself, with phrases like: “…deliverance only he could bestow,” and “…Jesus Christ is the only source of enduring peace.”
What Bednar fails to mention is that Mormons don’t have a monopoly on emotional peace. (Christians don’t either.) Faith is just one way to calm fear. Many Buddhists find peace in meditation and a philosophy of letting go of attachments. Psychologists teach that we can find peace through various therapies, like cognitive behavior therapy. Peace can be found through many philosophies and techniques, like “don’t sweat the small stuff,” “keep calm and cary on,” finding time to take care of yourself, getting involved in charitable acts, taking medication, spending time in the forest, and running marathons. There are as many right ways to find enduring peace as there are people on earth. And nothing will give you peace unless it fits your unique needs.
But by creating a monopoly on spiritual peace, the Church creates emotional dependency. The message is: You need us. Your vast world of choices is whittled down to just two: Stay and have a chance at serenity, or live in fear for the rest of your life.
These are your only choices. Pick one:
Bednar wants us to know that faith in Christ alone isn’t enough. He raises the stakes and demands purity (another mind control technique) by quoting the Doctrine and Covenants:
“He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”
This is a very important caveat in this process, because his suggestions might fail. They will probably fail. In other words, you might do all that he has said, and still feel afraid or worried. By making serenity contingent upon “works of righteousness,” any failure of this promise is your fault, not a failure of the promise itself. I call this “blame reversal.” Through this requirement, these doctrinal claims can never be proven wrong.
Mormons are effectively taught to view all things through the lens of Mormon teachings. Here, Bednar bluntly spells it out:
“The peace Christ gives allows us to view mortality through the precious perspective of eternity and supplies a spiritual settledness that helps us maintain a consistent focus on our heavenly destination. Thus, we can be blessed to hush our fears because His doctrine provides purpose and direction in all aspects of our lives.”
We must do all things via the frame of the gospel. We must interpret all things in light of Church doctrine. The teachings will direct us, not just in some things, but in “all aspects of our lives.” This type of ideological system is called “totalism.”
It’s not a knitting circle where you go to knit, and you’re free to live the rest of your life as you see fit. It’s not even a psychologist who helps you untangle your childhood or your current relationship and lets you move on when you’re done. No, the living gospel applies to Every. Single. Thing. You. Do.
It applies to every single thought you think.
And if it doesn’t? Well, be afraid. Be very afraid.
How afraid? Well, Bednar touches on the dispensing of existence technique, the threat that life itself (or eternal life, or identity) is at stake. Yep, he goes there. Of course he would, in a talk about fear. What is the price of failure? He quotes Alma 37:47, “…see that ye look to god and live.” He doesn’t spend much time on it, but a reminder is enough, especially when previous and later talks reiterate it in greater detail.
Our established commitment to the gospel is what will keep us safe. Bednar quotes Helaman:
“Remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”
The threat is strongly implied: You have nothing to fear, you know, as long as you withstand all the mighty shafts of whirlwind and stuff. Oh, and those mighty storms… those are coming, which are scary in and of themselves. And if you fail to withstand them, it’s probably your fault because you didn’t build on a firm foundation. And then you can look forward to a gulf of misery and wo.
Easy stuff. No fear here. You’ve literally got nothing to worry about, right?
Quotes like these create the very same problem they address. Even if you showed up to Conference feeling calm, by now you’re going to be a bit frightened. His talk is self-fulfilling and generates a lot of unnecessary fear.
But again, relief from all this drummed up fear is possible! Bednar is very specific about how to avoid the misery and wo:
“Ordinances and covenants are the building blocks we use to construct our lives upon the foundation of Christ and His Atonement. We are connected securely to and with the Savior as we worthily receive ordinances and enter into covenants, faithfully remember and honor those sacred commitments, and do our best to live in accordance with the obligations we have accepted.”
So, basically, everything. Do everything, plus some, and you’ll be just fine. By “covenant” he means “promise to keep the commandments.” The list of LDS commandments is incredibly long and impossible for any one person to fulfill. There are dozens of express commandments; dozens more are implied. Nothing to fear at all, just so long as you comply.
Many members praised another talk, given by Elder Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace“, because it emphasized grace over works. He said:
“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline.”
As you can see, Bednar’s talk directly contradicts Uchtdorf’s otherwise-comforting words. And this sets up a manipulative predicament for members.
Both doctrines are promoted (within the same conference!), which gives the Church plausible deniability for every problematic interpretation. And they can claim a source for either doctrine, based on convenience. If you want to claim Mormonism promotes grace just like mainstream Christianity does, you quote Uchtdorf. If a member is failing to find peace through grace alone, you can quote Bednar, who says you’re not working hard enough. If you work yourself to death in a cycle of toxic perfectionism, leaders can just quote Uchtdorf and claim you misunderstood the doctrine. Never mind that Bednar has literally put the fear of God in you.
Rather that disproving the validity of LDS doctrines, contradictions like these give the Church a perpetual “out” for any situation, which will make the Church look right, and the member look defective.
Next, Bednar starts loading the language. Turns out, there are two kinds of fear: regular fear, and “godly fear”, which means, fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord of course isn’t real fear. So if you felt a twinge of horror at the idea of “misery and wo” above, don’t worry! That’s not the bad kind of fear. It’s good fear! You can simply replace bad fear with good fear, and now that pounding you feel in your chest is comfort. Not fear at all.
“Different from but related to the fears we often experience is what the scriptures describe as ‘godly fear’ (Hebrews 12:28) or ‘the fear of the Lord’ (Job 28:28; Proverbs 16:6; Isaiah 11:2–3). Unlike worldly fear that creates alarm and anxiety, godly fear is a source of peace, assurance, and confidence.”
Alert: There is absolutely no difference between a fear of spiders, fear of terrorists, and fear of God. They are all the same emotion. They cause the same measurable physiological reaction.
But by reframing one type of fear as “godly fear,” they get you to open your mind and willingly let that fear into your heart, ironically, in the hopes of inoculating yourself against those other “bad” fears. You become an accomplice in instilling your own phobia.
Watch how he does it:
“But how can anything associated with fear be edifying or spiritually helpful?
“The righteous fear I am attempting to describe encompasses a deep feeling of reverence, respect, and awe for the Lord Jesus Christ, obedience to His commandments, and anticipation of the Final Judgment and justice at His hand. Thus, godly fear grows out of a correct understanding of the divine nature and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ, a willingness to submit our will to His will, and a knowledge that every man and woman will be accountable for his or her own sins in the Day of Judgment.”
See? That doesn’t seem so bad. Fear is just reverence and awe. And it’s a correct understanding, so you want to accept it. And while you’re at it, you want to submit to His will. This is a request to literally subsume your autonomy to God… and by “God,” they mean Church leadership standing in proxy.
The final cherry on top: you’ll be held accountable for your sins someday. Just in case you weren’t already scared.
But, you may protest, Elder Bednar says we shouldn’t be afraid of Judgement. Yes, he says that, but it’s all very confusing doublespeak:
“Please note that godly fear is linked inextricably to an understanding of the Final Judgment and our individual accountability for our desires, thoughts, words, and acts. The fear of the Lord is not a reluctant apprehension about coming into His presence to be judged. I do not believe we will be afraid of Him at all. Rather, it is the prospect in His presence of facing things as they really are about ourselves and having ‘a perfect knowledge’ of all our rationalizations, pretenses, and self-deceptions. Ultimately, we will be left without excuse.”
You’re told you shouldn’t be afraid, but the events he describes would still sound pretty scary to most people. You’ll have to confront all the ways you’re bad, sinful, and wrong, and you’ll have no excuse. Anyone who is still afraid after being told they shouldn’t be? They’re going to blame themselves for not understanding, rather than resting the blame where it belongs–this is Bednar’s talk, after all.
He persists in talking about this “perfect knowledge” stuff, and this instills a constant feeling of spiritual surveillance:
“Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)
He reminds us again of the demand for purity. The fear this demand causes can only be relieved via the Church: “My beloved brothers and sisters, godly fear dispels mortal fears. It even subdues the haunting concern that we never can be good enough spiritually and never will measure up to the Lord’s requirements and expectations. In truth, we cannot be good enough or measure up relying solely upon our own capacity and performance. Our works and desires alone do not and cannot save us… Certainly, ‘we believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.’”
No, Elder Bednar. The haunting concern that “we can never be good enough” has a single source: The Church. Sunday school lessons. General conference. Your talk. So there is one simple, very effective solution for your listeners: Stop taking all of this so seriously. Stop listening to talks like these that fill your head with persistent demands, horrible images of fear, and frightening, imaginary consequences for failure.
Life really is not as scary as LDS leaders make it out to be. Honestly, it’s not. I’ve been out of the Church for fourteen years. I even suffer from chronic social anxiety. So I know all about fear. And I know that the world is not nearly as scary a picture as Elder Bednar paints.
Elder Bednar throws in one final emotional manipulation; he conflates love with fear: “Godly fear is loving and trusting in Him. As we fear God more completely, we love Him more perfectly. And ‘perfect love casteth out all fear.’”
Yep. He really said that. Fear = Love. (Freedom is slavery. War is peace. Ignorance is strength.)
This doublethink is not without real-world consequences. Heartbreaking, damaging, severe consequences. Faithful members who heed this talk will be more susceptible to family abuse. Young women seeking their eternal companions; new wives experiencing their first taste of verbal abuse; older wives who regularly endure beatings; children who look to their fathers as a godly leaders even as they are hit and screamed at.
Abuse victims will take this message to heart. It will confuse them. It will lead them right into the hands of their abusers and keep them there.
Because fear is love. Love is fear.
The Church has robbed these victims of one of the few tools they might have had available to them: trust in their own feelings. The Church itself is complicate in this unending cycle. And there is no excuse for it. If there really is a God and a Judgement Bar, these leaders will be accountable for using God’s word to make the weak weaker.
But since there probably will be no Judgement Bar, it is up to us to hold the Church accountable. I call on the Church to end spiritual abuse.
May there never again be a Conference talk as damaging, coercive, manipulative, or fear-inducing as this.
Also published on Medium.