Thursday, June 26, 2008

The letter from Salt Lake

About a month ago I predicted that the church would be a bit lower key when it came to opposing marriage equality than it was in 2000. I was wrong. This prompted me to rethink the situation. Here's what I came up with.

Over the past century and a half the LDS Church has evolved from its freewheeling, charismatic 19th century roots into an authoritarian bureaucracy. Like all authoritarian bureaucracies, its primary motivator is self-preservation. For bureaucracies self-preservation will typically trump all other goals, including the organization's stated mission.

A good example of this is the case of the Roman Catholic Church and its abuse scandal. Some Catholic priests sexually abused children. The Catholic Church suppressed the evidence, quietly transferred the offending priests to other parishes (where many repeated their crimes) and engaged in a pattern of character assassination against abuse victims who spoke out. When all of this eventually came to light, many Catholics felt profoundly betrayed by their church. What had happened, in retrospect, isn't hard to understand: the Catholic church placed bureaucratic self-preservation above the needs and best interests of the people it was supposedly serving.

Despite its outsized, exclusive claims of inspiration, the behavior of the LDS Church can often be explained by the sociology of bureaucracy. I can think of several examples where the LDS Church has acted for self-preservation. One is the fairly widespread practice of secrecy and cover-up when high-ranking LDS men commit crimes such as sexual abuse. The Church would often rather keep up appearances than deal with a scandal, even if that means throwing victims of abuse under the bus. If you study authoritarian bureaucracies you can pretty much predict how this will play out. (It's really no surprise that the LDS Church is as open to self-criticism as the Kremlin.)

Now back to the marriage issue. I propose that the LDS Church's opposition to gay marriage is defensive, part of its impulse for self-preservation. The insight is that the rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with it. You can see this in the lack of coherence of the practical arguments against marriage equality. Pretty much everyone can see that gay marriage will be good for gay people. It will provide stability, comfort, companionship and economic benefits. Most can see that gay marriage won't hurt straight people, since they will be absolutely unaffected by their neighbors' new found ability to marry. The problem is that gay marriage will hurt the abstract idea of "traditional marriage."

The Church will absolutely be disadvantaged if their view of marriage no longer lines up with that of the mainstream culture. The more these views diverge the more the Church will be labeled as intolerant. Leaders of the Church are well aware that the tide of public opinion, especially among young people, is changing on this issue. They are under pressure similar to what they experienced in the early stages of the civil rights movement and the women's movement. This is bad PR. (Did I mention that authoritarian bureaucracies are very sensitive to bad PR?)

As they did with civil rights and equality for women, the Church wants to slow things down. Bureaucracies are followers, not leaders. This was certainly the case with the LDS Church and racial equality. It was (and to some extent still is) the case with equality for women. In both of these cases the hard work of moral self-examination and change was done outside of the Church. The Church only adopted these changes when the cost of not doing so became intolerable.

Thus, it should not surprise us that the that the First Presidency's letter contains no words of reconciliation, no sympathy for the LDS families with gay sons or daughters, no compassion for those who followed the Church's now discontinued advice to enter into mixed-orientation marriages as therapy. The recent letter mentions no compromise measures or ways to mitigate the impact of this issue on the lives of church members. There's a siege mentality going on here, and consequently no room for generosity.

The saddest part of this is that the Church now seems to be more accepting of gay promiscuity than same-sex committed partnership. You don't see the Church attempting to criminalize gay promiscuity, just committed gay families. Again, the reason is simple: PR. Gay promiscuity is good PR for the Church. It proves the Church's point that homosexuality is sinful and damaging. Stable gay families who take their children to kindergarten are bad PR for the Church. They show that Church's position is a bigoted relic of a bygone era.

So we are left with the paradox that Church is promoting policies that would destabilize gay relationships and push people back to the gay demimonde of decades past. This affects not only gay people; it affects their LDS family members and friends and children. In essence, the Church is prioritizing its own interests above that of its people. This is a betrayal. The Church is acting as if it values itself, its absolute authority and its institutions above the welfare of its members. No sermonizing about the sanctity of marriage can wipe away this unpleasant fact. The members of the church, and not just the gay ones, have been betrayed.

As with the clerical abuse scandal of the Catholics, it is cold comfort that the LDS Church's actions are easy to understand. We are still left with a jolting, almost breathtaking sense of betrayal by a trusted institution.


Mr. Fob said...

A well-articulated analysis. It's frustrating to me that things that seem so plain and clear from an outside perspective are at best blurry to those on the inside who don't want to see it.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hey Mr. Fob!

The simplest explanation is, depressingly, often the strongest explanation.

I feel betrayed by the Church's current actions. It's the feeling of being sold down the river.

Matt Thurston said...

Thanks for your articulate comments over at Sunstone Blog. Especially appreciate your recent comment #111. I fear for the spiritual and emotional sanity of Shelly's gay son.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your support. Send me an e-mail? My address is in my blogger profile.