Wednesday, June 8, 2011

LDS message for Pride

Timed for the annual gay pride celebrations, the LDS Church's official magazine, the Ensign, has an anti-gay manifesto in its current issue.

The article is written by Elder Bruce D. Porter a General Authority who was formerly a political science professor at BYU. The article's subject is political, not spiritual.

Placing political op-ed pieces in the Church's educational materials is not a good idea. In fact, mixing politics with religion, in general, is a bad idea. It results in bad politics and bad religion.

Three things struck me when reading the piece. First, there's the virulence of its anti-gay sentiment. The article contains no words of compassion, just condemnation and a call to political action against families the Church doesn't approve of. Then there's the cowardice. The article doesn't mention gay people by name, and it doesn't use the term homosexuality. It is written entirely using code words. And finally, the article repeatedly claims victim status for the Church. It evades all responsibility for the disaster that was Proposition 8.

You can read the essay for yourself, but I will respond to a few of the most egregious parts.

The first four paragraphs lay the foundation of a straw man argument. Porter presents as controversial the completely uncontroversial position that the family is an important social institution. (Can you see where this is going yet?) After this set up, Porter gets ready to attack his straw man:

[M]any of society’s leaders and opinion-makers increasingly seem to have lost their bearings when it comes to understanding the vital importance of the family.


We live in a day ... when good is called evil and evil good. Those who defend the traditional family ... are mocked and ridiculed. On the other hand, those ... who seek to redefine the very essence of what a family is, are praised and upheld as champions of tolerance. Truly, the world has turned upside down.


For the record, those of us who are on the receiving end of the Church's political campaigns do not mock the Church. We disagree with the Church's political actions, and we are harmed by the practical consequences of those actions. There's a difference between disagreeing and mocking, even if the Church doesn't see it.

As for the argument that proponents of marriage equality want to "redefine the very essence of what a family is," one can also ask if President Kimball redefined "the very essence" of LDS priesthood in 1978. Extending the rights and benefits of marriage to a small minority of people has no effect on existing marriages, just as giving the LDS priesthood to blacks did not "redefine" the priesthood already held by others.

As usual, just exactly how same-sex marriage is an attack on the traditional family or on traditional marriage is not explained, it is merely taken for granted. For a thorough discussion of these issues, I would recommend to Elder Porter the transcript of the federal court case that overturned Prop. 8 in California. (Why was Elder Porter, an expert from BYU, not a witness at that trial?)

Next, Porter dismisses tolerance as a virtue while simultaneously accusing any who engage in debate over gay issues as intolerant:

Latter-day Saints are often accused of narrow-mindedness or lack of tolerance and compassion because of our belief in following precise standards of moral behavior as set forth by God’s prophets.... Until recently in our national history, tolerance referred to racial and religious non-discrimination....

Today, however, the world is in danger of abandoning all sense of absolute right or wrong, all morality and virtue, replacing them with an all-encompassing “tolerance” that no longer means what it once meant. An extreme definition of tolerance is now widespread that implicitly or explicitly endorses the right of every person to choose their own morality, even their own “truth,” as though morality and truth were mere matters of personal preference. This extreme tolerance culminates in a refusal to recognize any fixed standards or draw moral distinctions of any kind. Few dare say no to the “almighty self” or suggest that some so-called “lifestyles” may be destructive, contrary to higher law, or simply wrong.

When tolerance is so inflated out of all proportions, it means the death of virtue, for the essence of morality is to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong. All virtue requires saying no firmly and courageously to all that is morally bankrupt.

I don't know where to begin with this kind of twisted and self-serving statement. First of all, the Church is hardly in a position to bring up racial tolerance. Its racist policies were firmly in place within recent memory (I grew up with them), and it used virtually the same language in arguing against civil rights for blacks as it now uses for gay people! The argument, then as now, was (mis)framed in terms of morality and supporting families.

Now, as then, the Church seems unable to distinguish between what influence it should exert over civil laws and the influence it has over religious laws. Why isn't Elder Porter railing against the evils of alcohol and coffee? Where's the Church's support for a referendum that would outlaw alcoholic beverages and Starbucks? And if religious views are so important to respect, where's Elder Porter's support of gay-affirming churches who want to bless gay unions?

The theme of Mormons-as-victims continues:

Curiously enough, this new modern tolerance is often a one-way street. Those who practice it expect everyone to tolerate them in anything they say or do, but show no tolerance themselves toward those who express differing viewpoints or defend traditional morality. Indeed, their intolerance is often most barbed toward those of religious conviction.

In other words, Porter thinks the right of free expression is stifled by open political debate. Porter confuses the right of free expression with an (imagined) right to say whatever one wants without having others who disagree get their chance to present their own arguments. But, apparently, the opinions of others (including those actually harmed by the Church's political actions) don't matter. According the Porter, the Church knows better than the people whose lives it seeks to disrupt:

By defending the traditional family [i.e., legislating against families the Church doesn't approve of], Latter-day Saints bless all people whether others recognize it now or not.

Excuse me for not extending my thanks as I watch my partner lose his right to live in the same country as me due to the Church's efforts to "bless" my life whether I recognize it or not. Please, spare yourselves the effort! The Church is accruing some pretty bad karma with its effort to 'bless' people like me by attacking the one thing in our lives we care most about: our families.

In the middle of all the politics, Elder Porter does bring up one religious point. However, it's the heretical idea that has recently been introduced by LDS leaders to the effect that God's love is conditional.

God’s love is sometimes described as unconditional.... But while God’s love is all-encompassing, His blessings are highly conditional, including the very blessing of being able to feel and experience His love.

[This is an example of bad religion, and it's not coincidental that it is linked to unjust politics.]

Finally, it's back to politics for the wrap-up, with a call to political action:
The Church is a small institution compared with the world at large. Nevertheless, the Latter-day Saints as a people should not underestimate the power of our example, nor our capacity to persuade public opinion, reverse negative trends, or invite seeking souls to enter the gate and walk the Lord’s chosen way. We ought to give our best efforts, in cooperation with like-minded persons and institutions, to defend the family and raise a voice of warning and of invitation to the world. The Lord expects us to do this, and in doing so to ignore the mocking and scorn of those in the great and spacious building, where is housed the pride of the world.

The sense of persecution is just breathtaking, and in case you missed it, the call to "give our best efforts" means to donate money, and to do this "in cooperation with like-minded persons and institutions" means to give money to groups like the National Organization for Marriage, a political organization that was created by the Church to get Prop. 8 on the ballot in California. (Elder Holland's son Matthew was a member of the original board of directors.)

But there's more:

May we as members of the Church rise up and assume our divinely appointed role as a light to the nations. May we sacrifice and labor to rear a generation strong enough to resist the siren songs of popular culture, a generation filled with the Holy Ghost so that they may discern the difference between good and evil, between legitimate tolerance and moral surrender.

Many younger LDS people are not okay with this message. It is not "popular culture" that makes young Mormons sensitive to the plight of their gay peers; it is an emerging sense of justice. I know many devout members of the Church who are heartbroken over the harmful ideas that Elder Porter repeats here. Many members are ashamed of what their Church is doing, and rightly so.

Elder Porter, please know that demeaning someone else's family does not strengthen your own.

I thought things were changing with these folks. Apparently, they are not. Is the Church warming up for the fight in Minnesota in 2012?

There is a silver lining here. It's clear that Elder Porter's op-ed sermon is very defensive. He knows that the Church's position is unpopular with many members of the Church and that its involvement in Prop. 8 was a PR disaster. The subtext of the article is a sense of panic that the Church is losing this one.


Anonymous said...

I recently talked with a friend who has "connections" and said that the 12 ignored advice to stay away from Prop 8. They have apparently continued to ignore this advice.

But like you, I see a silver lining. At least they are exposed to alternative views, unlike the Bush inner circle which would only reinforce wrong decisions--the emperor's new clothes syndrome.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi santorio,

Yes, you get the sense in this article that they are "doubling down."

It's a shame, though, because the leadership might be running the Church into the ground with this out-of-touch attitude. Young people are leaving in droves.

I'd love it if you posted what you heard from your "connection" about this issue.

Pablo said...

Excellent post. Thank you! If only the LDS church hierarchy had ears to hear the points you make and eyes to see the beauty in the lives of those they seem hell-bent on diminishing. Instead, they speak in code language because they can't bear to show respect to people they see as living lives of no legitimacy.

I completely agree that there is a silver lining in the defensive tone and overall sense of panic. I also think there is substantial fear within the plush environs of the Church Administration Building. However, that fear and panic seems only to serve to calcify the hierarchy's position.

I appreciate Santorio's insight here. But it saddens me that such accomplished, intelligent and otherwise compassionate men are so blinded by adherence to dogma that they are unified in opposition to a reasonable approach to the role of gay people in society. It is said that the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles make no move until there is complete unanimity. If that's the case here, are there any reasonable voices left among the top 15? If there are, it seems they are being browbeaten into submission or making compromises that history will prove to be shameful.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Pablo,

Thanks for commenting.

I thought it was funny that Porter complained that it's no longer acceptable in polite society to "suggest that some so-called 'lifestyles' may be destructive." He uses one of the most derogatory constructions I can imagine. It combines a dismissive modifier ("so-called"), scare quotes and the pejorative term lifestyle in one short phrase! That's three different ways to indicate distain. Actually, it's four if you count the fact that Porter also invokes the discredited pseudoscience of right-wing Christianist hate groups (tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center) when he calls gay relationships "destructive." [For the record, enduring same-sex pair bonds are life-giving and extremely fulfilling for gay people, just as opposite-sex pair bonds are for straight people.] Porter does not attempt any kind of bridge building with those who don't share his politics. His essay is purely an statement of aggression toward against people he has identified as enemies and the "other."

My own theory is that this article is a case of a corporate subordinate (a minor General Authority) saying what he thinks the big guns (the Twelve) would want to hear. Except for President Packer and Dallin Oaks on one of his bad days, the top brass tends to be a bit more circumspect in its use of language. Some (Elder Holland and President Uchtdorf) even make attempts a conciliatory speech from time to time. Also, the folks at LDS Newsroom tend to use language these days that is less combative.

I'm not sure the leadership of the Church is as unified on this topic as people think they are. At least that's my reading. Like the mass exodus of young adults from the Church (at rates that exceed 80%), I think the leadership is flummoxed and does not know how to react to the gay issue. Its current actions on both issues are reactionary rather than forward looking.

Sean said...

We see public politicking like this all the time now with various church leaders trying to climb the ladder of Mormon patriarchy.

The other reality that I'm sure "the brethren" are keenly aware of is that Mormonism and all its claims of absolute truth are under the fine microscope of modern rational thought. The church is threatened by being dismantled by its own exaggerations as well as its own members.

The ship is taking on water and they know it. Men who have made fortunes and received great civic and political powers at the hand of LDS belief and culture aren't going to relish it going away, even if they really do believe "its true." The immaterial (BOM archaeology, DNA etc.) can no longer be immaterial when fact trumps faith.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for your comment. Yeah, we often hear statements like "the Church thinks that ..." when in fact organizational dynamics are at play. There are constituencies for various ideas and factions within the leadership. Career ambitions definitely play a role in these dynamics. (Ask any returned missionary about ladder climbing by mission presidents.)

Chino Blanco said...

Hey MHH,

Timothy Berman has posted an apologetic response to your review:

At the very least, you might want to pop round Berman's place and let him know it was you that wrote the review of Porter's Ensign piece.

Neal said...

I was very disappointed in the Ensign article as well and agree that is was a poor attempt to make a statement without really addressing the subject directly. If you're going to oppose something, then come out and say it! Don't beat around the bush. Enough with the sugar-coated inuendos.

I also get tired of hearing about the "gay threat" to the family when the real threats are divorce, drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Those are far more prevelant in Mormon households than anyone wants to admit, and more far-reaching in effect than a few gays getting married. Focus on what matters for a change.

And I'm still waiting for Pres. Monson to weigh in on gay issues. I don't think he's said a single word on the subject to date...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chino Blanco,

Thanks for the tip.

Hi Neal,

Yeah, I'm with you on this. Gay-friendly Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the U.S. Socially conservative Texas has the highest. Anti-depressants are prescribed in Utah at approximately twice the national average.

One of the problem's with the Church's argument is the lack of cause and effect. Yes, we have social problems. No, they are not caused by the existence of gay people.

Thanks for your comment.

Timothy R. Berman said...

I made the correction. Thank you for informing me as to who the original author was.

Steven B said...

What is going on here is the same thing the church leaders did when they put together the Proclamation on the Family; Take a generic treatise about The Family and, infuse it with language that subtly and indirectly refers to gay people, and then use it to clobber gay people with.

As such, this article is especially insidious because it subtly links gay people to the parade of horribles from the select scripture references: " . . . covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents . . . iniquity shall abound . . . Woe unto them . . ." etc.. The acceptance of LGBT people in society has no direct relationship to these generic evils, yet the myth is again perpetuated that gay people and their families are not only a threat to society and to The Family, but deserve inclusion in the list of latter-day perils and horribles foretold by ancient prophets.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Steven,

Sad, isn't it?

Dan said...

Pretty ridiculous article. I read it and thought that I should do what you do did to it, but I just don't have the energy to fight their bull anymore. Thanks for doing so, when I became too lazy.

And I started to read that "response" that Chino posted. It's so pathetic I didn't read past the first couple of lines.

Ian said...

One thing I'd point out to the writers of this manifesto is, against their complaint that "good is called evil and evil good," that that's not necessarily a bad thing. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, we often need to reevaluate the values that we are brought up with, and that this may result in "what was commonly regarded as evil [...] recognized as good." As an example, equal rights would have been thought of as absolutely evil just five hundred years ago, but now it's one of our most dearly held virtues (at least, for those who aren't bigoted).


Brad Carmack said...

Thanks for the analysis.

"Excuse me for not extending my thanks as I watch my partner lose his right to live in the same country as me due to the Church's efforts to "bless" my life whether I recognize it or not. Please, spare yourselves the effort! The Church is accruing some pretty bad karma with its effort to 'bless' people like me by attacking the one thing in our lives we care most about: our families."

Very strong point.

I was also amused by the coupling of his excoriation of tolerance-induced aggression toward the church with his dismissive, condemning treatment of those who disagree with him. Hypocritical seems an accurate description. Demonizing your opposition- neither a great way to make friends nor an effective means of persuading those who are on the other side.

You made some other supported claims. Thanks for pointing out the article.

MoHoHawaii said...

Dan-- Thanks for stopping by!

Ian-- Great point. The Western establishment used to think human slavery was just fine. There's plenty of justification for it in the Bible.

Brad-- Thanks for your support, not just here but more broadly. You do a great job!

Anonymous said...

i LOVE your blog. please keep doing what you do so well! :)