Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Sense of Decency

I've been trying to put Boyd K. Packer's Oct 3, 2010 general conference talk into some context. I've reflected on a few things in Mormon history and American history (those being to of the most significant parts of my heritage and experience) that might help me do so. I've also read several responses of others out there in the Mohosphere. In my last post, I suggested there were two main options in response to Packer's talk. Because of how Mormon culture deals with controversy, I thought at the time that we should just put this talk on the shelf, ride out the firestorm and hope that we can re-establish the kind of dialogue occurring in the Oakland California Stake which culminated in some supportive words by Elder Marlin Jensen.
I've changed my mind. I think we have to seize this moment. We need to acknowledge what Packer said and challenge it. We need to discuss the impacts his kind of thinking has on the youth, on single adults and on married adults who are working through what their sexuality means for their lives. We need to discuss the impacts on the families and friends of GLBT people however they identify. We need to face this head on and decide that no matter what the brethren say, they are not dealing with this in a thoughtful, compassionate way. At least not yet. But we can be thoughtful and compassionate, both of which are sometimes very difficult.
One blogger asked his fellow Mohos to point out examples from Packer's talk on October 3 that were hurtful or hateful. This blogger said he listened to Packer's talk twice and did not hear such things. I have four examples to cite from Packer's talk that are hurtful and hateful:
1) Packer conflates homosexuality and pornography. He uses the logical fallacy of guilt-by-association and his general lack of clarity to affix the label of “addiction” to both homosexuality and pornography. This shows a lack of understanding (perhaps even a lack of willingness to understand) the realities of addiction and the real-life experiences of gay people. He doesn’t even bother to attempt to distinguish between orientation and behavior. He merely talks of “tendencies” as though being gay is as simple as liking the color yellow or preferring chocolate ice cream. Such lack of thoughtfulness by the next in line to the presidency of the church is hurtful.
2) His statement: "[The full expression of love] is to be shared only and solely between man and woman, husband and wife, with that one who is our companion forever. On this the gospel is very plain." This denies any legitimacy to committed same-sex couples; it also seems to suggest that heterosexual couples not sealed in the temple have a less-than-legitimate marriage. He may not have intended that, but knowing first-hand how the general authorities labor over and revise their talks, I take it he meant to say it this way.
3) His statement: "Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father." So, he is saying that my self-awareness of being gay is a delusion, and my actually being gay is impure and unnatural. God gives us all sorts of things to deal with in this life, as has been pointed out by other bloggers. Sometimes, we are given good things in our life which others see as bad to help us build inner strength and to challenge unquestioned social "standards" which are man-made or which are derived from imperfect interpretations of universal laws. Two examples of this in my life are being gay and being committed to critical thinking. Some see these things as good. Some see them as troublesome. I see it as living a life of truth. Boyd Packer is on record as saying that “some things that are true are not very useful." I don’t understand how a rational person could hold to such a belief.
4) His statement: "History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day." Actually, history demonstrates the opposite. Humanity has legalized “that which is basically wrong or evil” on many occasions. However, I will grant that when people try to legislate something that is basically wrong or evil, pain is one result. Here are two examples of how Boyd's concept of history doesn't add up:
First: Societies throughout human history have enshrined in their laws the evil practice of human slavery. Even the Bible discusses how to treat slaves rather than condemning the practice. The original U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, established that slaves were 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation in Congress. That it was later changed does not alter the fact that something basically wrong and immoral was once the law, a purportedly divine one at that. Thankfully, in the relatively recent past, societies changed their laws to reflect the fact that slavery is wrong. Thus, society changed the moral standard by law to reflect what is right and good.
Ironically, Quentin Cook mentioned slavery in his talk during the conference. I presume he didn’t know that Brigham Young at one time held slaves in the Territory of Deseret. The history of the church is a bit more mixed on this issue than we are led to believe. So is the church’s record regarding interracial relationships, which is my next example.
Second: For centuries, people have used both religious and secular arguments to decry interracial marriage as wrong and unnatural. Most states had laws specifically banning interracial marriage. Eventually, through the legislative process or through the courts, those laws began to change. Some states clung to the old morally wrong laws. It took action by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967(!) to make the final, binding and morally right decision to strike down those laws and bring the entire nation into line with what was right as a matter of rational thought, morality and human dignity.
Even after this, church leaders---including Packer---still warned of the “dangers” of interracial marriage. These “dangers” included marital strife and negative social effects children from such marriage would experience. So, rather than counsel against racial prejudice, church members were counseled to avoid interracial marriages for the sake of the children. Does anyone see any parallels here???
Societies have paid the price for treating their fellow human beings as less than fully human. Individuals, families, communities and entire nations have experienced pain and penalties for maintaining moral standards that are wrong. Other than appeals to tradition (which themselves involve selective memory of what the traditions have actually entailed), and self-serving interpretations of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, we have not been shown in any rational way that respects human dignity how gay relationships are inherently morally wrong.
I was struck by the lack of decency displayed by Packer in his talk, which was a culmination of so many of his past tirades. To be sure, he has spoken with eloquence and kindness on other subjects. He has devoted his life to church service. I presume he has been a dutiful husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. His commitment to his beliefs is clear. He speaks his mind fervently and sincerely. He is not evil. But he is willfully ignorant.
It’s important to realize that Packer is not speaking about private matters here. He is a public figure on whose words millions of active Mormons rely to guide their personal lives and their actions toward their fellow human beings. Packer doesn't get a pass on this talk because he is a product of a different era or because he has strong opinions or because he believes he is speaking out of love or because he inartfully spoke his mind or because he lives in the Bubblenacle where groupthink passes for thoughtfulness. He’s a human being, just like the rest of us, but he is held to a higher standard because of his position. When public figures speak, they must consider how their words will be perceived and used. This is especially true for public figures who are charged with preaching the gospel of Christ, which at its most fundamental is about faith, hope and love.
Anita Bryant fervently believed she was speaking out of love during her campaign of homophobic hate in the 1970s, the legacy of which lives on today. (Proponents of Prop 8 echoed her "Save the Children" campaign in their campaign literature and ads on TV and the web). A sampling of her words then: Exhibit A: "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards." Exhibit B: "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children." Bryant said repeatedly that she prayed for homosexuals. My stomach turns just trying to imagine the content of those prayers. Her steaming pile of reckless hate still casts its stench even after it has been mostly repudiated.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy sincerely believed he was serving the public good by conducting his public witch hunt for supposed communists in the 1950s. The epic exchange between McCarthy and U.S. Army Chief Counsel Joseph N. Welch gave the country a view into how committed McCarthy was to his bitter cause. During Welch's televised testimony, McCarthy, without prior announcement, started to publicly assassinate the character of a junior lawyer, Fred Fisher, who was under Welch's supervision. Welch's comments are as relevant today as they ever were. Some excerpts:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad.... I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough.
Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
McCarthy continued to castigate Fisher. But Welch refused to answer any further questions about him. In the wake of being exposed as the fear-mongering it was, McCarthy's crusade began to fade. But untold damage had been done. The effects of McCarthy's actions linger today and his tactics are still used, now with even more subtlety.
I fear that well-meaning but utterly misguided zealots are continuing to inflict damage on gay people still within the church. Many of us are living life outside the church. But we still care for those still inside Mormondom, whatever their individual circumstances and views about their sexuality may be. The reason I “can’t leave it alone” is because I don’t want others to be beaten down as long as I allowed myself to be. A lot has been said in the Mohosphere about not internalizing the homophobia in Packer’s talk and the words of others like him. I wholeheartedly agree. But in doing so, and in modeling that for others, we can’t sweep this talk aside too quickly.
I don't think Boyd Packer was trying to show a lack of decency in his talk or in the other words he's said that have been hurtful. Rather, I think it either doesn't matter to him because his sense of duty trumps his interest in decency or he has lost sight of what being decent to others looks like in reality.

The church has had to uncomfortably live with many racist statements by Brigham Young, who, no doubt, was certain that he was preaching fundamental doctrine about which he felt strongly. (I wish the church would repudiate those statements instead of sweeping them under the rug. But it is not my place to do that. Only the brethren can make those decisions.) The church will also have to uncomfortably live with the myriad statements made by Packer and other leaders that have thrown gay people under the bus. I have no doubt they have been certain that they were preaching fundamental doctrine about which they felt strongly. They believe they are soldiers in a war for the souls of men. They believe they have the truth in its purest form. I take them at their word that they believe to their very core that the survival of civilization is at stake. I know this because the brethren have been preaching this in one form or another since the church was organized. Others have been preaching it for longer than that. And yet, civilization lumbers along, with all its complexity and beauty. Doom is not upon us unless we create it ourselves.
Packer’s comments on Sunday further complicate the already difficult emotional challenges within Mormon families with gay family members. He tells priesthood leaders to use their authority to “cast out evil influences,” thereby granting dangerous license to leaders and giving false assurance to people who are seeking counsel that will actually help. By using his position to make pronouncements that are out of line with what seem to be a “we’re not sure about the cause” approach by the church, he has undermined efforts at the local levels of the church to create meaningful dialogue between people of different perspectives and experience. These things are not only hurtful and hateful. They are profoundly sad. It’s noteworthy that no one even attempted to soften the effect of Packer’s words at the end of the conference. At the very least, failing to strike a different tone was a missed opportunity.
Boyd K. Packer has looked back to a darker time and has driven a pillar of salt into a wound that was only beginning to heal. I repeat my hope that other leaders and the membership of the church will do what they can to remove the salt and look forward with compassion and decency. Until that happens, we need to keep talking about this and not let it be swept under a rug in the name of "sustaining our leaders" because even if they are praying for revelation about the role of gay people in the church, right now they aren't asking the right questions and do not yet have the full measure of empathy and compassion to be true ministers to all the people.
Let the brethren say what they need to say in general conference, in press releases, in talks to Evergreen conferences, in their private discussions. As individual Mormons, let us say what we need to say to each other at the local level. Some of us are outside the church. Some of us are still involved. We all have influence somewhere. We can all find ways to engage in the conversation that needs to happen. I’ve posted Carol Lynn Pearson's poem "I'll Walk With You" as a fixture here on my blog. Every time I’ve shared this poem with someone, I’ve seen its positive effect. It shows what love really is: reaching out to each other in genuine fellowship. There are thousands of other things we can do. This isn't about changing the church. It’s about changing how we see each other. It's about reconnecting as human beings and resisting the easier path of divisiveness.
It's up to us to reclaim the sense of decency innate in us as individuals and as a community.


  1. In some ways, the talk was kind of a wake up call that everybody needed to what is still lacking in the discourse, namely, respect for the non-straight community by some in the conservative ranks (not that it doesn't go both ways, but you catch my drift).

  2. Thanks gents!

    @BLB: I like your perspective that the talk is a wake up call. Hopefully, people will stay awake and the discourse expands with more voices and more ideas.

    @Mr. C: Good to see you around. Hope you and Mme C and C Jr. are all doing well.

  3. thanks again Pablo.

    your call to compassionate reason is irresistible.

    and a special thanks for taking a moment to seek to understand where BKP and his Brethren are coming from and acknowledging them as full human beings who mean well yet fall short in fulfilling their self-proclaimed callings as representatives of Christ.

    may we all remember to put empathy first in our engagements and reactions to other human beings. doing so could actually pull us back from the cruel and insensitive battle lines that only leave us scarred and blinded.

  4. I always appreciate your posts. Thank you for this one.

    I also agree that we must continue to talk about these issues. They have made their official stance more then clear and they really don't need to reiterate it. With each restatement they do just open the wound up wider.

    I also really appreciate your call for compassion and love. We really have no capacity to love at all if we can't love people who are different from us. It is something I need to work on myself sometimes.

  5. Beautifully written. Great read!