Thursday, February 24, 2011

For a Mess of Pottage

I've gone back and forth about whether to write on Dallin Oaks' speech to an audience at Chapman University School of Law. I'm a bit late, but I've decided to enter the fray. Many others have written excellent posts responding to Oaks and have corrected the record in the wake of a staggering number of misrepresentations in that speech. They have my thanks, as do many of those who commented. In particular, my friend Rob has written an outstanding series of posts. I recommend all eight posts in that series; start with number one. My comment to Rob's last post is what finally tipped the scales in favor of publishing my own post.
It seems that Oaks' once sound legal mind has been compromised in a quest to joust political windmills. In all sincerity, I feel very sad to witness this. This is not a flippant ad hominem attack. Here is a man who deserves credit for a very distinguished and multifaceted legal career. He has been a lawyer, a clerk to a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a law professor, interim dean of a law school, a Utah Supreme Court justice, and was once on the short list of possible U.S. Supreme Court nominees. Given his background, we should have high expectations regarding his understanding of the law and his ability to present cogent arguments supported by facts. Of course, we all fall short sometimes. Heaven knows, I do. But Oaks' speech on February 4, 2011 is a dive into an abyss. Why do I say that? Because
Judge Judy hears better evidence on her TV show than we heard in Oaks' speech. Higher sophistication in the grammar of the speaker does not enhance the truthfulness or weight of the content. Unless you count smoke and mirrors. If Oaks read the cases he cited in his speech, he knowingly misrepresented the facts. We mere mortals call that dishonesty. If he didn't read the cases and instead relied on the summaries produced by groups like Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council regarding the examples he gives in his speech (or relied on summaries from poorly trained or untrained assistants) Oaks should have known that such information was unreliable and required confirmation, especially given his years of experience as a lawyer and judge who I presume has at least some understanding of the concepts of constructive knowledge, credibility and candor. To rely on dubious sources and pass their information along is also a form of dishonesty.
Let's face it, if someone without legal training had given that speech, we might be inclined to give him or her a pass. Oaks doesn't get a pass.
This isn't about a difference of opinion, legal perspective or political philosophy. Reasonable people can honestly disagree about the role of religion in society, the jurisprudence of the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the Constitution, and the way in which we balance competing legal interests and rights. This is about truth and fairness---of which there was precious little in Dallin Oaks' speech. 
Even the most casual reader of this blog will pick up on the fact that my worldview is dramatically different than that of Dallin H. Oaks. Different strokes for different folks. Diversity of views and opinions make this country great. Misrepresenting facts and fear mongering do not. And self-serving speechification cannot substitute for open and forthright dialogue. 
Oaks' speech is yet another pitiful example of what seems to be a willful failure to use basic logic and sound reasoning. To be sure, his speech scratched the itching ears of many and stoked the fires in the bellies of self-appointed culture warriors. There's little doubt that it made others' ears bleed. Everyone is going to have a different reaction. Fine. But we're not talking about Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh---or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Oaks is in the upper echelon of leadership in a worldwide church.
So I ask, is this the proper role for a man called to be a special witness of Jesus Christ? If the focus of his duty is to protect the interests of the church as an institution and preserve its corporate brand, he has played his role well. But if the purpose of his ministry as an apostle is to lift up the hands that hang down, strengthen the feeble knees and ponder the questions that begin with "When saw we thee an hungered," how does this speech advance those pursuits?
The tragic conclusion to draw is that Dallin Oaks has abandoned his training and experience in favor of reckless pontification and undisciplined punditry. We should all be sad, and a little angry, that he has sold his credibility, both as a jurist and as a minister, for a mess of tasteless political pottage.


  1. What I find interesting about my own experience (as an academic) is how the critical thinking necessary to put forth such an argument with solid examples is strongly discouraged as the "intellectuals" are demonized. Sure, we're encouraged to get an education, but not to the point that we might demand the same level of scrutiny in our religion. Working in the humanities really brought that to my attention in big ways.

  2. Thanks, Pablo, for your interesting and perceptive take on Oaks' speech. His repeated forays into this area are a classic example of how the very religion that he is apparently trying to protect is cheapened and degraded when trying to cloak it in the protection of the state.