Monday, September 20, 2010

Civility is also Advanced Citizenship

If you thought my last post was too sharp, you might want to pass on this one. If you liked it... This is the right place, drive on. (Oh, and this is a long post. But it’s my blog, so there you go.)
Dallin Oaks, one of the twelve apostles of the church, gave a speech on Constitution Day (Sep 17) about, ostensibly, the Constitution. It was more than that though. It also addressed "judicial activism"---a term I loathe because only people on the losing side of a matter before the court truly favor judicial passivity. Can we just stop using the term, please? It's meaningless, divisive and doesn't advance the interests of civil political discourse which was another major point of Oaks' talk. It's pretty clear that the chief underlying purpose of his speech was to deal with the fallout from the church's involvement in the firestorm over gay marriage. In my last post, I wrote about the need for dialogue between people of differing views. Here's a chance for me to contribute to that process, since Elder Oaks and I don't exactly see eye to eye.
From the conclusion of his speech: "If representative government is to function effectively under our constitutions, we must have civility in political discourse. We currently have an excess of ugliness and contentiousness in our communications on many political issues. I don’t need to give examples; we have all been exposed to it, and some of us have occasionally been part of it. We all bear some responsibility for the current political polarization and the stalemates that have resulted from it. We ought to tone it down. Meaningful debate and discussion about policies, programs, and procedures is essential to a democratic society. But contentiousness for the sake of division is bad for democracy. It is bad for law observance. It is bad for neighborly relations. And it is particularly destructive as an example for the rising generation, who, if not taught better, will perpetuate and magnify its ugliness and divisiveness for generations to come."
Call me an ungrateful malcontent, but Oaks' comments about civility are too little too late. He's trying to engage in the civil discussion that a true prophet, seer and revelator should have realized was needed many years ago. And exactly who is being contentious for the sake of division? Please don't misunderstand me. I've wanted for a long time, and still want, the discourse on all issues in the public sphere to be more civil, more rational, and more focused on our common humanity. But most people in the Western Hemisphere have moved on to sing a new tune about the place of gay people in human society. The church needs to catch up and recognize that if it continues to ignore daily life in the real world it risks becoming irrelevant.
I agree that we can tone it down. I think we can also turn down the volume. But here's the problem. What we really need is to play a new song. The same, tired strains aren't doing us any good. If gay marriage is a study in advanced citizenship as I suggested not long ago, civility in public discourse is a graduate-level course. For over a decade, the church has hidden behind "broad coalitions," violated election regulations, used vitriolic surrogates to engage in fear-mongering, distortion and misinformation and manipulated members into donating money and time to political campaigns by directly referencing the language of the temple covenant regarding the law of consecration. For far longer than that, the church has vilified gay people as dangerous, subversive and a threat to civilization. They're wrong. And I think they know it.
Perhaps the better angels of human nature have finally become a driving force in the minds and hearts of some within the hierarchy of the church. Maybe they are beginning to see the humanity of their gay family members and friends. But I can't help but think that the church's relative silence about the federal lawsuits involving Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act and this public address by Oaks are due mostly to the fact that the church is paying a heavy price in the realm of public relations. If the church’s position on gay marriage was so divine, correct and unimpeachable, why didn't a single LDS lawyer offer his or her talents as an advocate to the cause of defending Prop 8 in a court of law? [Crickets chirping.] And were there no LDS expert witnesses on the matter who could testify, subject to the rules of evidence and the rigors of cross-examination? There certainly seemed to be a lot of experts during the Prop 8 campaign and the similar campaigns that preceded it. [More crickets chirping, even more audibly.]

This isn't just about gay marriage. It's about fear of gay people. But when the dust of Prop 8 settled and people began to see the base motives, the public relations tide began to turn against the church. Too many people have gay family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors who they love and respect. It takes time, and there is often a price to pay, but as the Mormon hymn says, "Though the mountains depart and the earth's fountains burst, truth, the sum of existence will weather the worst. Eternal, unchanged evermore." And the truth is, gay people are normal. The court didn't make it up, it didn't subvert the voice of the voters. It simply recognized the truth, just as are growing numbers of people.
My instinct is to view Oaks' words as PR damage control. However, if there is more talk like this in general conference in a couple of weeks, if church leaders foster a more open environment within the church (including the church's online presence, both official and unofficial), and if there are tangible initiatives by the church to engage in meaningful discourse with the GLBT community and with people of various opinions and viewpoints, then I'll begin to believe this isn't just about PR. A few talks and press releases about civil political discourse will not contain the firestorm the church has unleashed and stoked since the late 1990s. For now, I'll take Oaks at his word and hope for productive dialogue. But I'm going to take a "trust but verify" approach to this.
From sad personal experience and based on the church's checkered history in the political sphere, I'm pretty jaded about the motives of the hierarchy of the church regarding issues of public importance. Not that you could tell that from my blog. It’s also possible that Oaks fancies himself as an elder of Israel rescuing the U.S. Constitution as it hangs by a thread. (I’ve been to the National Archives and seen with my own eyes that the Constitution is written on paper, not on a piece of Captain Moroni’s coat. Ergo, no threads to hang from.) I have to give Elder Oaks credit: he delivered his words from the bully pulpit of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Well played.
Here’s a thought: if it was good enough for Brigham Young to hold debates in the Tabernacle, let’s do it again. The church may not like gambling, but they’re all in on this one. If the leaders of the church at the highest level are serious about open discourse about political matters in a civil society, then they have to be serious about doing so in a public forum, subject to alternative points of view in real time. That’s how we do things in the real America. You know, the one founded on the rule of law. As one of the historical centers of public gatherings in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle would be the perfect place for such a discussion. We could all pause with awe to listen to a pin drop when someone makes a particularly salient or compelling point. And the economy of the Salt Lake Valley would get a boost from all the people who would want to attend such an event. It's a win-win.
So, for what little my small voice might be worth, I call on the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to host a public debate on the role of gay people in society in the Tabernacle within one year’s time. With enough notice, I’m sure Ted Olson and David Boies could be persuaded to present. Maybe we can get someone from the Family Research Council to show up as well (with or without a “luggage assistant”). The church can designate whoever it wants to present its perspective. 
Interestingly, Oaks quotes an eloquent statement about patriotism from Adlai Stevenson: "What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? . . . A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." I wholeheartedly agree. Stevenson is perhaps one of the most underestimated and under-appreciated statesman in the history of the United States. 
I think some more of Stevenson’s eloquent insights can help us better understand the topics at hand. First: "I believe that if we really want human brotherhood to spread and increase until it makes life safe and sane, we must also be certain that there is no one true faith or path by which it may spread." So, brethren, maybe you can tone down the "we're right and you're wrong because we’re the one true church" rhetoric, and allow for the possibility that a marriage between two men or two women isn't going to doom the earth to a fiery end. (Note: Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont haven’t been destroyed by plagues, deluges or locusts. Neither have Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Just something to keep in mind.) It sounds trite, but it’s true: If you don’t like gay marriage, then don’t get one.
Second: "I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance." I can forgive the church's missteps and horrific treatment of the sons and daughters of God who are gay. The related issue is whether the church is willing to be redeemed of its ignorance regarding the realities of life for gay people. Newsflash for the Brethren: Gay people don’t need to be healed from their “affliction,” “burden” or “problem.” Please back off the sad, tired notion that “gay” isn’t a legitimate word for self-identification. Maybe some people don’t want to use it. Fine. They don’t have to. But if you get to use the words “saint,” “apostle” or “prophet” for your identity, I think you might wish to consider, just maybe, pretty please with sugar on top, allowing me privilege of using the word GAY to describe myself.
And a final quote from Stevenson: "Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the wall until his back is up against it." Acceptance of gay people as full, normal, valuable members of society--just the way we are---is the handwriting on the wall. If those sustained by many Mormons as prophets, seers and revelators can come down to earth for just a moment to associate with us mere mortals, perhaps they can more clearly read what is so clearly and painstakingly written on the wall. Having eyes, see ye not, brethren? Please open your eyes, your ears, your minds, your hearts. Stop backing yourselves against the wall. Lead your people to stop backing themselves against the wall. Let us reason together. We're waiting, but we can't wait forever.
(Oh, and Elder Oaks, next time you might want to look into what Adlai Stevenson stood for before you quote him to lend credibility to a thesis he would use his last breath to oppose. He’s way out of your league.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


At the risk of stepping into a big mess, or creating one, I'm offering up this start-of-the-season post.
I believe it is vital to have dialogue between people of different viewpoints, even when that is painful. Sometimes, conversations, blog posts, comments and the like stray into vilification and retribution. Kind of a "I'm hurting, so I'll hurt you" dynamic. I've experienced this first-hand.
For years, I have spoken with and read the words of people who feel hurt when the church is criticized. I understand the visceral emotions that come to the fore when a person's tribe is verbally assaulted or ridiculed. As a gay Mormon, those feelings for me are particularly complex and strong, because I have lived my life in the minefield where those two tribes overlap. My two tribes basically hate each other. Many true-believing Mormons (TBMs) kick around gay people. Many in the gay community kick around the church and its members. So, I've been kicked around plenty, including sometimes kicking myself, and have landed on several exploding mines in that field where contempt is the dominant crop already to harvest.
Because this blog is mostly about working through my feelings about the church, the gospel, the intersection of the two, church leaders, and specifically about what it has meant to me to be both gay and Mormon, I write more than a few things critical of the church and those who lead it. But in criticizing, I try not to be mean-spirited. Like anyone, I lash out emotionally sometimes, and I don't shy away from pointing out inconsistencies or what I perceive to be hypocrisy. There's no doubt that I can be a bit snarky and more than a bit sarcastic at times. But I'm not going to apologize for that. Though it can be painful, I try to be open to the inconsistencies and hypocrisy in myself that I find or that others point out to me (I will apologize for those things, of course) and do whatever I can to improve myself. 
Critical thinking and analysis are very important to me. It's what works best for me as I endeavor to become a better person and improve the groups and institutions of which I'm a part. I feel very frustrated when others view honest, thoughtful criticism as offensive or intentionally hurtful when there is no such intent. Having grown up Mormon, I know firsthand how thin-skinned some Mormons are. Ironic, considering what so many early Mormons endured. And for a people who are taught to shun face cards, many Mormons play the victim card far too often and far too quickly.
Here's the thing: blogging, religion, personal relationships, emotions, and life itself are not part of some game---including the ever-popular blame game. It's about people. Real people working to find meaning in their lives in ways that work for them and work through their emotions the best they can. In finding that meaning and in working through those emotions, there are going to be some disagreements. There's going to be some shouting. There will be times when we feel threatened, vulnerable and uncertain, when the way we articulate our feelings may unintentionally sting or provoke others. People may be hyperbolic at times, at least in part because, from their perspective, no one seems to be willing to listen if they talk in a mellow, temperate way. 
The point is, we all want to be understood, acknowledged for who we are, accepted for the good that we can bring into this world. When it comes to the church, its leaders and its members, gay Mormons have been misunderstood, swept aside and rejected for so long (both overtly and subtly) that it's no wonder that many gay Mormon blogs are a little angsty sometimes. But then again, so are most episodes of Oprah, or the guests on Larry King, or talks in general conference, or ward council meetings. The list goes on.
Some of us Mohos can seem a little bitter at times too. But when raw mustard greens are piled on top of your plate of delicious food, it's kinda hard to avoid the bitter. And it's tricky to explain why the meal at the table of the church doesn't taste the same to you as it does to the people who didn't get the heap of raw mustard greens. Don't get me wrong, I actually like mustard greens. But not when they aren't balanced with the rest of the meal or when the chefs keep trying to convince me they've given me chocolate mousse.
Anyone who has actually lived life has probably felt like a total mess at least once. None of us really need that to be pointed out to us, like was done to me by a bishop nearly ten years ago when he told me, "We had such high hopes for you before this happened." He was referring to me being gay. (Thanks, bishop.) I used to be really angry about that. Now I just feel sad for him and hope his perspective has changed. During that angry phase, if someone told me that it upsets them when people "blame the church," I would have dismissed them as just another part of the flawed system and unjust culture of the church. Obviously, it's more complicated than that. They're confronting issues of identity regarding the church. I'm doing the same, but with an added layer of complexity. 
Another thing I'd like for my TBM friends to understand is that trying to explain a cause and effect relationship isn't always about blame. Sometimes, it's simply about struggling to make sense of a difficult journey. Often, a person who perceives someone's intent as laying blame exposes their own hang-ups, insecurities and level of self-awareness to a far greater extent than they realize. And even if that someone is laying blame at the feet of an individual, group or institution, it is unwise to jump too quickly to the conclusion that the blame is unjustified. The reasons for the blame, and the visceral reaction to such blaming, are much more important to understand than the blame itself. Examining that is how positive change (both personal and institutional) begins.
Many Mormons feel hurt when people criticize the church. Sometimes I do too, even amidst all my issues with the church. I also feel hurt when people criticize others simply for being gay. But I try to feel those pains as though they are the type that come from cleaning a wound rather than the type that come from an initial injury. Maybe I'm finally at a point in my life where I'm more willing to recognize the old wounds, clean them up, remove the toxins and infection, and accept the kinds of healing that really work for me.
Yes, the church does good in the lives of its members and in the world. I have felt it. I have seen it. I treasure the good I have experienced in it. The church has also bared its teeth, bitten me, chewed me up and spit me out, and then expected me to thank it for the favor. 
We're all trying to make a better home in which to enjoy the banquet of life and find sanctuary and love. So if, in imperfect attempts to work through feelings, point out wrongs, suggest ways to do better and find ways to heal, I or others tear off some wallpaper or break through a wall that doesn't support anything or add a window into a room previously closed off and ignored in the church, please TBMs, cut us some slack. We'll try to do the same.