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.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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. Continue reading