Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Elder Dallin H. Oaks shakes hands with BYU students after devotional.

PROVO — Elder Dallin H. Oaks expressed concern Tuesday about several disturbing trends in American society — including the decline in newspaper readership — during a devotional address at Brigham Young University.

The public good will suffer in the future if Americans don't rekindle a sense of civic responsibility, teach values in schools and reduce attacks on public officials, said Elder Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He raised his public policy concerns after he urged church members, especially BYU students and other young people, to consider the direction each decision will take them.

A former BYU president — from 1971 to 1980 — and Utah Supreme Court justice, Elder Oaks prescribed the application of one question to every choice.

"Potentially destructive deviations often seem so small that some find it easy to justify 'just this once,' " Elder Oaks said. "When that temptation arises — as it will — I urge you to ask yourself, 'Where will it lead?' "

That question would reasonably place alcohol, tobacco and pornography in a category of things to avoid because they enslave their consumers in addiction, he said.

He encouraged daily scripture study and personal and family prayer because they lead those who observe them closer to Jesus Christ.

Elder Oaks said some choices are between good and evil but others are between two goods, decisions like which job offer to accept, what to read and how to spend time.

"All of these will profit from thoughtful and habitual measurement against the standard of 'Where will it lead,' " Elder Oaks said.

His talk turned to four public issues and where they might lead the nation.

The first was described as an "overemphasis on rights and underemphasis on responsibilities."

"Currently we are increasing rights and weakening responsibilities, and it is leading our nation down the road toward moral and civil bankruptcy," Elder Oaks said. "If we are to raise our general welfare, we must strengthen our sense of individual responsibility for the welfare of others and the good of society at large."

He lamented the decline of readership of daily newspapers. One study showed the percent of those ages 25 to 34 who read a newspaper during the previous week fell from 86 percent to less than 77 percent between 2000 and 2004.

"More and more people are not reading the news of the world around them or the important issues of the day," Elder Oaks said. "They apparently rely on what others tell them or on the sound bites of television news, where even the most significant subjects rarely get more than 60 seconds.

"Where will this lead? It is leading us to a less concerned, less thoughtful, and less informed citizenry, and that results in less responsible and less responsive government."

School curriculum is another concern.

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"I fear that some of the values being taught — or not being taught — to the young people who will be speaking for us from the public and religious pulpits of our nation in just a few years are significantly different from the values that have shaped this nation and its people."

Elder Oaks also said media attacks on public officials and political ads that attack candidates instead of promoting discussion of serious issues encourages doubts about public leadership. That can result in doubts about laws and rules and lead to skepticism about the ties that bind society.

Finally, he urged church members to engage in the public arena.

"We cannot afford to be indifferent or quiet," he said. "We must be ever vigilant to ask, 'Where will it lead?' and to sound the appropriate warnings or join appropriate preventive efforts while there is still time."