Popularity and Principle


Neal A. Maxwell
In so many respects, the world’s ways head in opposite directions from gospel destinations. Because we are a covenant people, our behavioral loyalties are to be with the Lord.

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.

Granted, we do not deliberately seek reproach, which has its own ways of coming. Granted, too, pervasive righteousness will later reign triumphant on the earth. There was, also, happy and rare righteousness in the City of Enoch, where the principles of God were rightly popular within that special culture. Such is surely not today’s situation, however, even though there are so many good and honorable individuals in various races and nations.

If we are meek and have the gift of the Holy Ghost, we will not be subject to the manipulation of our appetites by the trendy. Deliberate manipulation—whether of nicotine, alcohol, or pornography—is real because “evils and designs … do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (D&C 89:4).

Given our contemporary context, no wonder President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency cautioned Church members not to put “popularity over principle.” Can we, for instance, decline attendance at an unsuitable movie as easily as declining alcohol? Can we withhold our laughter from a smutty joke as easily as refusing a cigarette?

While members live where they are almost always a distinct numerical minority, are we distinctive in the ways that really matter—distinctive without being smug?

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. Consider Pontius Pilate. He reluctantly pleased the mob by doing the “popular thing” in order to avoid a civil disturbance. Ironically, Pilate, a scant few years later, lost his status anyway because of a disturbance in Samaria.

As one looks at the sweep of human history, its lessons are so quickly forgotten. Illustratively, Winston Churchill chose as the theme for his final volume dealing with the history of World War II the prescient words, “How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and so Were able to Resume the Follies Which Had so Nearly Cost Them Their Life” (The Second World War, volume 6: Triumph and Tragedy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953, page ix).

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).

Even while bravely following correct principles, we should meekly strive to make those correct principles popular, rather than ourselves. Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve once spoke to General Authorities, who are so much blessed by and need the warm and sustaining ways of the members of the Church. He cautioned that “adulation can be our ruination.” Instructively, Jesus always deflected glory to the Father (see Moses 4:2; D&C 19:19).

Being popular can become narcotic. We can come to crave it and to need the frequent “fixes” brought by the world’s praise and caresses of recognition. A turned head bows much less easily.

Popularity is dangerous especially because it focuses us on ourselves rather than keeping us attentive to the needs of others. We become preoccupied with self and with being noticed, letting those in real need “pass by” us, and we “notice them not” (Morm. 8:39). It is a sad fact, therefore, that popularity gets in the way of our keeping both of the two great commandments! (see Matt. 22:36–40).

Of course we all need affectional security and to be loved! Yes, recognition can be healthy! Likewise, we are to enjoy life amid a like-minded community of Saints. But to like being liked for its own sake is unhealthy. Similarly, overmuch concern with public image can cause us to rearrange priorities rather than striving to have Jesus’ image in our countenance (see Alma 5:14, 19).

Yes, there is genuine value, too, in the Church’s being known widely and being genuinely respected for what it represents. There is real value as well in Church members bringing to bear their righteous and wise influence on certain challenges of the day. After all, as Church members and citizens, we are instructed to be “anxiously engaged” in good causes of our “own free will” (D&C 58:27). But the challenge is being “anxiously engaged” on the basis of correct principles, not on the basis of popularity.

Besides, those who are becoming more saintly will have their own spiritual attractiveness. They will not only receive special respect from the thoughtful and the observant but may even be able to rally the many kindred spirits in the earth. Many, though not members of the Church, lead decent, honorable, and good lives; they are kept from the full truth only “because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12).

Church members will be scattered upon the face of all the earth, though their dominions will be small. They will be “armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” (1 Ne. 14:14). The bestowal of that latter blessing exceeds in every way any benefits that can be bestowed by mortal popularity.

Jesus gave us the ending demographics: wide is the gate and popular and broad is the way that leads to destruction (see Matt. 7:13). The narrow and straight way that leads to salvation, alas, is the path less traveled by. Hence, there is no way we can both move with the herd and also move toward Jesus. Nevertheless, there are some who try to serve the Lord without offending the devil (see James E. Faust, Liahona, November 1995, page 2). Others want “to serve the Lord but only in an advisory capacity,” cautioned President Marion G. Romney.

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; emphasis added).

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).

[illustration] Detail from Lehi’s Dream, by Greg K. Olsen

[illustration] Detail from Lehi’s Dream, by Greg K. Olsen

[illustration] Detail from O Jerusalem, by Greg K. Olsen