Saturday, October 23, 2004

Popularity and Principle

This talk from Neal A. Maxwell, entitled "Popularity and Principle" was in the August 1996 Liahona. It gave me some small comfort, knowing that I will not likely be very popular when my stand for the truth makes some people uncomfortable. My goal is not ever to make anyone uncomfortable, but just to simply be obedient to the Lord's directive to speak up for truth "at all times and in all places." Here are some choice parts of that marvelous talk:

There are real dangers—subtle and obvious—when members fall into lockstep with the world’s ways. In so many respects, the world’s ways head in opposite directions from gospel destinations. Moreover, as a covenant people, our behavioral loyalties are to be with the Lord, not with the Caesars of this world. But the tugs of the world are real and persistent. Besides, following the fashions of the world is merely to pursue eventual obsolescence, "for the fashion of this world passeth away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Typically, President Brigham Young spoke sternly concerning popularity and what can be its ruining acclaim: "I do not want 'Mormonism' to become popular … I would rather pass through all the misery and sorrow, the troubles and trials of the Saints, than to have the religion of Christ become popular with the world" (in Journal of Discourses, 10:297).

President N. Eldon Tanner cautioned, "This craving for praise and popularity too often controls actions, and as [people] succumb they find themselves bending their character when they think they are only taking a bow" (Ensign, November 1975, page 76). Furthermore, not only must we forgo erosive popularity, but we are to be unsurprised when "at that day shall he [Satan] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good" (2 Ne. 28:20). Church standards remain constant in a time when some actually call good evil and evil good! (see Isa. 5:20). No wonder the Latter-day Saints "must be kept where the finger of scorn can be pointed at them" (Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 12:272). Since there is not much chance that the fingers of scorn will be diverted, we should "“[heed] them not" (1 Ne. 8:33). Ironically, among those pointing fingers of scorn are a few that once grasped the iron rod. As Lehi envisioned, these defectors become ashamed, fall away, and become aligned with the popular taunting multitude in the great and spacious building (see 1 Ne. 8:27, 33).

Popularity can overwhelm the individual’s inner sentinel, or conscience, which stands guard over his soul by sounding inconvenient and uninvited alarms. If becoming popular requires participating in the follies and the fashions of the world, it is too big a price to pay for fleeting approval…. Some things are popular precisely because they make no demands upon the individual and produce a false sense of freedom. Yet there is no real liberty in license and no real emancipation by avoiding personal responsibilities. The world’s intellectual pressures are relentless, too! Elder Albert E. Bowen of the Quorum of the Twelve observed how some, "to gain favor, to enhance [their] popularity, to avoid giving offense, … have adopted the theories of men and tried to integrate them with the teachings of the Son of God, and they will not mix" (in Conference Report, April 1952, page 66).

We cannot improve the world if we are conformed to the world (see Rom. 12:2). The gospel represents constancy amid change, not compliant adaptation to changing fashions and trends. Firm followers of Jesus, therefore, will not be mere chameleons—adapting their colors to match the ever-changing circumstances by simply blending in. Ours is a day when "every man walketh in his own way" (D&C 1:16). Thus, there is also a special need to consider how dangerous pleasing oneself can be; it may be the most dangerous form of preening, lulling us into the fatal illusion one commentator aptly described: "For if God is a socially conscious political being whose views invariably correspond to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving" (Eugene D. Genovese, "Pilgrim’s Progress," The New Republic, 11 May 1992, page 38).

Popularity detached from principle requires playing ever eagerly to the world’s gallery. One day, however, that currently popular place will be strangely empty, its occupants having departed to become part of that glorious but sober scene when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ! (see Philip. 2:10-11).
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