There's little challenge in having modern prophets, and very little point to it, if they're only allowed to ratify our opinions and endorse our behavior. If they always agreed with us, wouldn't they be redundant?
Prophets aren't obliged to make us comfortable, which is why, as President Ezra Taft Benson once observed, "The world prefers that prophets either be dead or worry about their own affairs."
"It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets," President Marion G. Romney said, "but it is a greater thing to believe in the living prophets."
And the most important time to do so is precisely when they say what we don't want to hear. President Romney offered a memorable illustration of this principle:
"One day when President Grant was living, I sat in my office across the street following a general conference. A man came over to see me, an elderly man. He was very upset about what had been said in this conference by some of the brethren, including myself. I could tell from his speech that he came from a foreign land. After I had quieted him enough so he would listen, I said, 'Why did you come to America?' 'I am here because a prophet of God told me to come.' 'Who was the prophet?' I continued. 'Wilford Woodruff.' 'Do you believe Wilford Woodruff was a prophet of God?' 'Yes, sir.'
"Then came the 64-dollar question, 'Do you believe that Heber J. Grant is a prophet of God?' His answer, 'I think he ought to keep his mouth shut about old-age assistance.'"
On another occasion, President Romney recalled taking President Grant home following a speech in then-Bishop Romney's ward:
"Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: 'My boy, you always keep your eye on the president of the church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.' Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, 'But you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.'"
"I say to Israel," Wilford Woodruff declared, "the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God."
The church seldom speaks out on public policy issues, but sometimes it does. Two notable examples involve the proposed Equal Rights Amendment around 1980 and California's Proposition 8 in 2008.
Both cases provoked angry controversy, even within the church. And some politically conservative members — full disclosure: I'm a very serious conservative myself — quickly pointed out that members on the opposing side seemed to be out of step with church leaders.
More recently, the church has engaged the vexing problem of illegal immigration. On June 10, 2011, its Public Affairs Department even issued an official statement on the topic.
This time, albeit very gently, it's the ox of some politically conservative Latter-day Saints that was gored.
Since then, I've been fascinated and disturbed to hear some of them — people who have generally welcomed and agreed with the church's rare statements on public policy, who have sometimes even prided themselves on being more faithful than their politically liberal brothers and sisters ("Can a good Mormon really be a Democrat?") — express outrage at the church for meddling in politics.
Some have said that they won't believe that the church has really taken a stand on this matter until President Thomas S. Monson himself announces it. A Public Affairs statement, they say, doesn't count.
But Public Affairs isn't a rogue operation proclaiming positions on its own authority. Its "official statements" — which, historically, include the 1978 revelation on priesthood (the department was called "public communications" then) — are approved by church leaders at the highest levels.
"You may not like what comes from the authority of the church," said President Harold B. Lee, serving at the time as a counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith. "It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. … Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow. … Let's keep our eye on the president of the church."
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, and the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.