(RNS) — On Monday, Dale Renlund, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that four Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temples will be moving to “Phase 3” reopening, and took the opportunity to reinforce the need for church members to practice social distancing and wear masks.
The four temples that later this month will resume some ordinances on behalf of the deceased are in Australia, Tonga, Samoa and Taiwan — all areas of the world that have kept COVID-19 case counts low. Australia has had a total of 908 deaths since the pandemic began; Taiwan, seven; and Tonga and Samoa, zero apiece.
The United States, by contrast, has lost more than 285,000 people. Not surprisingly, the church did not make any announcements about moving U.S. temples to Phase 3.
Several things struck me about Elder Renlund’s announcement. First and foremost was his opening line: “Today I speak to you not as a former physician. I speak to you as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
When a church leader uses language like that, he is speaking for all the other Brethren as well. This was not an off-the-cuff remark mentioned by one person who was “off duty,” but a coordinated effort that came with a press release, a video and a simultaneous social media blitz.
In other words: listen up, ye Mormons.
Second, he called attention to what members owe to “the vulnerable and the disadvantaged” and said that our response to a global pandemic should be responsible and nonpolitical:
As we seek for opportunities to allow for more temple worship in safe and responsible ways, we also must keep in mind that as individuals, as families, and as a Church we will be judged by how we treat the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our societies. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, it wreaks havoc among those who are already disadvantaged. Sadly, responses to the pandemic have been politicized and contentious. Our response need not be.
Third, and what is most interesting to me, he drew a clear connection between the proxy work that Latter-day Saints perform in temples — saving work for ancestors — and the proxy work we are right now called to do for the living people around us by wearing masks.
As we anticipate performing more proxy ordinances in the temples, we do for others what they cannot do for themselves. Without these blessings, these deceased individuals are profoundly disadvantaged.
The Savior taught that the second great commandment, after loving God, was “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). As it relates to this pandemic, especially in temples, that means social distancing, wearing a mask, and not gathering in large groups. These steps demonstrate our love for others and provide us a measure of protection. Wearing a face covering is a sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters.
The money quote — “wearing a face covering is a sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters” — is the part that is rightly getting the most attention, from both supporters and detractors. He went on to say:
Covid-19 is serious. Its consequences are not yet fully understood. The Church has taken the pandemic seriously from the beginning. We closed all temples. Now, we’re opening them cautiously, in phases, to minimize the risk to temple ordinance workers, patrons, and communities.
So here we see a church leader who says he is speaking in his calling as an apostle telling members that they have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable by wearing a mask. And despite his statement that our response to a virus “need not be” political, the comments on his Facebook post are blowing up into a heated argument.
While many comments are positive, there’s also a vocal and angry minority weighing in. Let’s break down their approaches into four categories, one by one.
The “science is bunk” approach
“I will never in a hundred years believe masks are the miracle here to save us from this virus. Nor will I ever buy into the hype that this virus is worth destroying families, churches, businesses, economies and nations over. Something is very wrong with all this, and it’s not because of a virus…”
“masks are useless . . .”
“they intend to first va$$inate the elderly, the mentally disabled, and ethical minorities. Does that not sound like genocide to you?”
A fair number of Mormons wrote in to tell Elder Renlund, a former cardiologist, that medical science was a bunch of hooey, that masks are ineffective at curbing the spread of the disease and can even harm the wearer, and that big pharma is only creating a vaccine to either make money or murder Grandma or both. Probably both.
The Machiavellian approach
“. . . those who are at risk the less than .3% can take and stay safe while the rest carry on.”
But there were other commenters who weren’t worried about big pharma attacking Grandma; they’d rather just let the virus kill her off already so the healthy majority can get on with their lives.
Whereas Elder Renlund said that “as a Church we will be judged by how we treat the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our societies,” there appears to be a segment of that Church that thinks the vulnerable are a worthwhile sacrifice.
And that they’re only three-tenths of one percent of the population, which is an utter fantasy.
The “this rule doesn’t apply outside the temple” approach:
“Elder Renlund was only referring to these temple situations in phase 3. So those who can’t wear a mask is fine. I can’t and my ward and stake are fine with it.”
Here the commenter ignores the context for the message as a whole, as well as all of the images presented in the video.
The scenes in which people wear masks do not take place in any temples, in phase 3 or otherwise. One is of a teacher in a school; another shows a young girl delivering food to someone’s home. There’s even an extreme example of a man putting one on when he’s totally alone in the great outdoors (dude . . . why?), and another where a young woman wears a mask when visiting an elderly woman even though there is already a wall of glass between them.
Belt, meet suspenders.
None of these examples takes place in a temple. In fact, they mostly take place in contexts where masks should not be needed. Even the teacher in the first example is totally alone in her classroom.
The point the Church’s images reinforce is clear: wear a mask at all times outside your own home. It’s not just about a handful of temples going to Phase 3, though Elder Renlund says “especially” in the temple.
The ”blame the victim” approach:
“. . . many that are vulnerable are so because of poor lifestyle choices, if they lived less gluttonous lifes and lived the lords law of health they would be able to live with mild viruses.”
First of all, the majority of the virus’s victims so far have been people whose terrible sin was . . . growing old. Like the leaders of our church have done. Like you will too, someday, O Righteous Commenter, if you are lucky. (As my wise mother-in-law likes to say, getting old is hard, but it sure beats the alternative.)
And second, this is not a “mild” virus. It is not the flu. Staying away from coffee will not help many of the people who are more prone to serious complications, like those born with cystic fibrosis, those who are immunocompromised, or those who have asthma.
At the end of the day, I think many conservative Latter-day Saints are having to come to terms with the discomfort that comes when they disagree with an apostle of the church. Progressive Mormons have dealt with that cognitive dissonance for a long time, for example about LGBTQ issues, but for many conservatives this is likely a new feeling.
An apostle of the Lord is telling them that one of the most Christlike things they can do right now is cover their faces, practice social distancing, and stop the spread of Covid. And they do not like it one bit.