Beginning at about the 40:30 minute mark, Bednar speaks about religious freedom, the Constitution, Covid-19 actions. Most of his comments orbit his fundamental assertion that religious freedom is incomplete without the right to gather, and that "no freedom is more important than religious freedom." I think there is a bigger agenda at work here. Let me explain.
Now lest I come off critical out of hand, I have to acknowledge that some of Bednar's observations ring true. For instance, that a church without gathering eventually leads to scattering. We're social creatures. Humans crave togetherness and connectivity with friends and loved ones. If a church gathering isn't providing that experience with some regularity, people will find other ways to get it.
In that spirit, I share this quote:
-- Bob Iger, Chairman of Disney, speaking to shareholders on May 5.... what we create has never been more necessary or more important than right now. In fact, it’s quite possible that what we create is appreciated now more than ever, because people find comfort and inspiration in our messages of hope and optimism. This is the same reason we believe people will resume familiar activities once this crisis ends. They miss doing the things they enjoy, things that make them feel happy and connected with family and friends...People want good news. They want to experience joy and the feeling of togetherness...
And so, because I support religious freedom, I also support the right to gather. If that's where Bednar stopped, we would be mostly in agreement.
But he makes a couple of leaps, in connection with Covid-19 and regional government-imposed gathering bans, that don't settle with me. Namely:
Sure, some aspects of our lives these past 3 months feel like fascism. Fauci anticipated as much, I think, when he said, "If it looks like you're overreacting, you're probably doing the right thing." But how is not being able to assemble at church somehow a bigger social sacrifice than the MILLIONS of people who lost their jobs or businesses? Or the fact that minorities have been massively over-penalized by Covid-19 compared with whites? It isn't as if any Mormon lost their ability to worship from home, hold meetings over Zoom, or declare their faith and compassion with others through various digital media. Bednar underpins the premise of his speech (below) with a false idea that religious liberty was attacked or stripped away under Covid-19. It was not. There is no reason to call it out as a special grievance. And he should know that. Could it be he's playing at something different?
Beginning at the 59:31 mark, Bednar incorporates a key phrase from all of the church newsroom press releases about actions taken in response to Covid-19 government orders: "good citizens." We're closing Sunday services to be good citizens. We're closing the temples to be good citizens. We're limiting the reopening of chapel services to be good citizens. Bednar repeats this phrase as his penultimate point. In other words, we disagree with everything about this (complying with no-gathering orders), but we're going to be good citizens. Why does the church position it this way? Why not, instead, position compliance solely on the basis of working to ensure public safety? Could it be that making such a dramatic change in the interest of member health completely negates the power of the priesthood? Or, again, could it be that the church is using Covid-19 to establish a "point" in its fight for more pressing religious liberties?
To be clear, key Covid-19-related church press releases DO indicate an interest in public safety. It isn't neglected as a priority -- of course we care about public safety. But compliance with no gathering orders is always conditioned, primarily, on being "good citizens." Something about that phrase really matters to the brethren. Why? Could it be that the church is playing a longer, legal or public relations, game here? Perhaps to bolster its standing, by noting over and over again, ability to unwillingly comply in the face of fascist and anti-Constitutional directives? As if to say, See, we can do it when there's a good reason...but on this other thing, we have to stand our ground. Remember, the church remains embroiled on many flanks in the fight to suppress the rights and privileges of LGBTQ people, whether it be with students at BYU, at church-owned businesses, or fighting tooth and nail on a global scale to protect its right to be loving bigots because, you know, The Proclamation.
Bednar complains about the risk of members "scattering" if large church meetings are withheld for too long. He's not wrong about that being a risk. But isn't this like the millionaire petitioning city council after raising sewer taxes by 1% -- which is, effectively, a poor tax? The church has, at its disposal, nothing short of "all the money in the world" and yet, as of the present day, has still done absolutely nothing virtuous with that money. Of note, how could that money potentially be used to redesign church buildings for socially distanced meetings, or support local businesses by hiring out deep cleaning and weekly/daily sanitizing services?
Coming out at this point in time, giving an odd lecture on the US Constitution (of all things, from an Apostle never trained in law, with a background in organizational behavior) in order to justify his main point -- that "no other freedom matters more than religious freedom" is a really hard pill to swallow. What about the freedom of free speech? Freedom from search and seizure? The right of due process of law? Freedom from tyranny? All of those are second fiddle to religious freedom? I have to conclude that the hypocrisy and overstating of the complaint about gathering is a deliberate move to address something else. I would be willing to bet a dollar that the good folks at Kirton McConkie are heavily involved in it, more so than any notion of prophetic foresight about the risk of trampling of religious freedom to meet in large gatherings.