LDS Conference October 1971- Shame, the Potemkin ’50s, and Generational Wonders

This is my latest contribution to the ongoing General Conference Odyssey project. My previous posts in this series can be found here. Posts by other bloggers writing about the October 1971 General Conference today are linked at the end of this post.  You can also visit the project group on Facebook.

Today we are writing about the Sunday Morning Session of the October 1971 Conference.

There were a number of excellent talks given in the Sunday Morning Session of October 1971 that I wish I had time to talk about, but I am going to focus today on a talk titled “Where Art Thou?” in which President N. Eldon Tanner spoke extensively about the scriptural account of Adam and Eve.


He noted that after Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit that God had forbidden and hidden themselves, God’s called to Adam asking, “Where art thou?” President Tanner observes:

When God said ‘Where art thou?’ he knew where Adam was. With his omniscience he knew what had taken place, but he was calling Adam to consider the seriousness of his actions and to report to him. But Adam had hidden himself because he was ashamed.

We are all like Adam in that when we partake of ‘forbidden fruits’ or do the things we are commanded not to do, we are ashamed, and we draw away from the Church and from God and hide ourselves, and if we continue in sin, the Spirit of God withdraws from us.

Interestingly, the words “shame” and “ashamed” derive from Indo-European roots related to “covering” or “shroud.” So when Adam and Eve attempt to cover their nakedness, you might say that they are “ashamed” in a very literal way.

It is difficult to draw a bright line between the concepts of shame, guilt, regret, and embarrassment. Some people have tried to impose more strict definitions in which shame is specifically a feeling caused by others, while guilt is a feeling arising from self evaluation. Others suggest that shame arises from violating socially imposed norms, but that guilt comes from violating one’s own norms. Others suggest that shame involves an evaluation of a person (I am bad), but that guilt is an evaluation of a actions (I did something bad).

I’m not sure that it is possible to even identify what is purely social and what is strictly personal; or where the line lies between who one is and what one does. It is complex, and reducing them to distinct, atomic definitions feels artificial to me. Self and society are always interacting in a complex feedback loop.

For some people, the very idea of shame has become very controversial in recent years. It is not uncommon for people condemn various kinds of “shaming.” But the universal condemnation of shame seems to often depend on the kinds of reductive, artificial definitions mentioned above. Because they consider shame strictly an externally imposed attack on identity or self, their solution is to reject the external norms.

As President Tanner mentions in his talk, it is true that shame often drives a wedge between those who have partaken of “forbidden fruits” and the church, God, and the Holy Spirit. But the solution is not therefore to reject all norms or rules that appear to be externally imposed so as to not cause shame. Some rules really are merely cultural and can be changed for abandoned. But commandments given by a loving God are based upon our fundamental identities as His children and are intended to guide us to act consistent with our true selves. (See my previous thoughts here: Authenticity vs Your Best Self.)

When God asks Adam and Eve, “Where art thou?” He knows the answer. As President Tanner says, it was a chance for Adam to overcome his own fear and confront himself. God already knows exactly what we have done and how far we have fallen short. Hiding is not going to help. The antidote to shame is not defiance, abolishing norms, or rewriting the commandments; the antidote to shame is humility.

Later on in his address, President Tanner mentioned something else that stood out to me:

I was impressed the other day when I read an article on the family. The author said that juvenile crimes of the times do not reflect on the great body of the young people involved as much as they reflect on the manner in which the adult population is discharging its responsibility. This observation was voiced recently by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Ontario, Canada. The group that is causing most of the trouble, he contends, is the product of the undisciplined homes and irresponsible parents.

At the time when President Tanner was speaking, the sexual revolution and the drug culture were still in full swing. But these observations cited by President Tanner suggest that the moral upheaval of the late ’60s and early ’70s might have roots in the ’40s and ’50s. Even though the ’50s are sometimes looked at as a kind of ideal time of family stability and cultural morality, I sometimes wonder if the ’50s might have really been a kind of “Potemkin Village.” I could be wrong. But it seems like something must have gone wrong in the late ’40s and through the ’50s with families that laid the foundation for the sexual revolution and rise of the drug culture in the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps it is related to a deferred effect of World War II.

In any case, President Tanner did seem to agree with the notion that those who were most involved with the trouble were the consequence of “undisciplined homes and irresponsible parents.”

Jumping forward from the era when President Tanner spoke these words to our own decade, during his address to the Colloquium on the Marriage at the Vatican in November of 2014, President Henry B. Eyring, in explaining how to bring about a “renaissance of happy marriages and productive families,” suggested that the process was generational. He quoted the late President of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, who said:

We cannot effect a turnaround in a day or a month or a year. But with enough effort, we can begin a turnaround within a generation, and accomplish wonders within two generations.

Elder Eyring said that in the mean time, “such a renaissance will require people to try for the ideal—and to keep trying even when the happy result is slow to come and when loud voices mock the effort.

The leaders of the church seem to be operating on a larger time scale than most of the rest of us. When we are thinking in terms of years or maybe a decade, they seem to be thinking in terms of generations.

What we are doing today as mothers and fathers may not result in visible fruits for two or three generations. It takes faith to follow the direction of the prophets now when the full consequences of our actions may not be evident until the end of our lives, or even after.

President Tanner explains:

Sometimes we do not understand why it is necessary for us to keep the commandments and do certain things to receive certain blessings, except that the Lord commanded it. […] But if by faith we obey his commandments, we will receive the promised blessings. Jesus said that unless we become as little children, who have such great faith, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. We must learn to have explicit faith.

We must look forward with faith and think generationally, especially as fathers and mothers. As President Hinckley said, we can begin a turnaround in a generation, and accomplish wonders within two.

Other bloggers writing today about the Sunday Morning Session of the October 1971 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints:

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