Friday, February 17, 2012

False Priests Who Oppress

It doesn't come as a surprise that LDS church leaders will be marshaling the Mormon ranks in the fight to repeal marriage equality in Washington---which, just to recap, was enacted through the proper functioning of the legislature which represents the voice of the people of Washington. The referendum process is also a legitimate process under Washington law, of course. But for a completely undemocratic institution that claims to obey, honor and sustain the law, the LDS church's efforts don't seem to include much honoring or sustaining when things don't go their way.

The church has been down this road before. The church under Heber Grant fought tooth-and-nail to maintain Prohibition, yet saw Utah casting the deciding vote for its (justified) repeal. The vast majority of the apostles during the administration of David McKay (with the notable and vocal exception of Hugh B. Brown) believed the Civil Rights Movement was a communist conspiracy designed to undermine the Republic. Future president Ezra Benson spearheaded the communist conspiracy fear-stoking efforts. McKay tried to forge a middle path of sorts. The Civil Rights Act and successive laws to protect civil rights were enacted nonetheless. Under Spencer Kimball, the church used its wealth and membership to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. While the amendment was never enacted, the core protections it sought to make part of the Constitution have become part of the law at the federal, state and local levels. In this generation, under Gordon Hinckley and now Thomas Monson, the church has sought once again to achieve self-styled martyrdom on the hill of marriage equality.

Given the likely involvement of the LDS church in the unnecessary battle to repeal marriage equality in Washington, I'd like to re-frame some Mormonspeak:

If the Mormon church does in Washington the same thing which they have done in other states---giving the bitter fruit of fear---they should expect some displays of enmity. They should also expect that their gold and silver which they have used to buy up alliances and front groups, and spread falsehoods that oppress, may allow them to reign for a season. But the day will come when they, or at least a future generation, will weep at what they have done.

And all those millions spent on the "I'm a Mormon" campaign will be largely a waste, when people see what is most important to the LDS leadership: denying civil rights and dignity to historically oppressed groups. As I wrote several days ago: more paint, smaller corner.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Homosexual behavior is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality"

As the old guard continues to shout its hypocritical nonsense about how gay people and other godless heathens are trying to impose their values on society and how marriage equality is a war on religion, I'd like to take a moment to remind us of something important.

According to LDS theology and policy, living an open and fulfilling life as a gay person is physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, metaphysically, temporally and eternally WRONG. This belief system has disastrous impacts far beyond the mind of an individual believer or a community of believers. As an American, I will fight to ensure that the rights of religious and non-religious belief and expression are protected. As an American, I likewise will not stand aside while a person or a church hides behind religious piety to shame me for who I am as a gay person. I am more than "just a gay person." But being gay is as integral a part of me as the blood the flows through my body. I am a peaceful person. But, if provoked, I will fight for who I am.

The 2010 LDS Church Handbook of Instructions, Books 1 and 2 state the following:

"Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel. Those who persist in such behavior or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline. Homosexual behavior can be forgiven through sincere repentance."

Really? Contrary to the purposes of human sexuality??? Interesting that there is not a single evolutionary biologist or any other qualified scientist within the LDS church hierarchy that could make such a claim about the purposes of human sexuality with any degree of credibility or expertise. The church can do what it wants internally (although not without real-world impacts on people; more on that later). But the church really needs to get out of the business of making claims that involve science or biology (cf. Lamanite origins).

Yes, the LDS hierarchy has softened their rhetoric a bit. Well, mostly. We'll always have Boyd K. Packer to kick us around. While the LDS church is now stating its views about gay people in nicer terms, its policies and actions are still a load of crap. As I read elsewhere not long ago, it's "a kinder, gentler load of crap." There have also been a few examples of inclusion at the local level. Yay for incremental changes! That is, if you like your life to follow the rhythm of the slow drips of water torture.

Let's be clear. Under the official doctrine, policy and practice of the LDS church, all homosexual behavior is treated as sin. Contact between two straight people that is deemed perfectly appropriate is quite easily deemed inappropriate if it is between two gay people. (See "passionate kissing" by a committed couple. See also a gay couple married in New York who moves to Utah where that marriage is both unrecognized and shamed). The acts of gay people are deemed to deprive themselves and others of the joys of family life. The church will expel those who lead their lives differently.

Sin, either confessed or reported, usually means disciplinary action of some sort. While "repeated homosexuality activity" is no longer a heading under the section listing items that require a disciplinary council, such councils are still regularly held, especially in light of the handbook quote above. A person with creative discrimination could easily label same-sex marriage as apostasy and convene a mandatory council on that basis. Also, nearly every person who has been subjected to LDS church discipline for being gay or having gay sex has an annotation on their church membership record in what is a disturbingly perfect example of a modern-day Scarlet Letter.

This system of fear and subjugation permeates the entire membership of the church at every level. It is the foundation upon which LDS efforts to oppose gay marriage is built. It poisons family relationships. It destroys friendships. It fosters vitriol in social media. Despite platitudes that ostensibly encourage civil discourse, respect for opposing viewpoints and hopes for reconciliation, this system by its existence sends a far more powerful message than press releases or even statements by the former president of the church, Gordon Hinckley that called for compassion and openness. The platitudes are for public consumption only. The message the system sends is for the membership, to let them know how things really are.

This system proclaims that gay people are fundamentally flawed and should be feared as the harbingers of the downfall of civilized society. This system describes happily open gay people as enemies of human biology and sexuality. This system casts gay people as the generals in a make-believe war on religion (read: Christianity). That's quite a lot of power for a historically oppressed minority.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were also "enlightened" American slave owners who, within a fundamentally unjust system, treated their slaves with kindness and relative fairness. Others freed their slaves and fought for abolition. Yet the slave system continued for a LONG TIME in this country, accompanied by appeals to scriptural authority and long-standing tradition. And we still live amid its toxic fallout and the powerful sway that inhumanity has upon the minds of so many.

I'm all for civil discourse. I enjoy hearing people articulate opposing viewpoints. I rather like conversations with people whose views aren't exactly like my own. My impression is that most human beings do. For all of our violent past, we do pretty well when we talk with each other. Not at each other or past each other, but with each other.

I really think that's what most of this whole marriage equality thing is about. It's saying: Hey, straight people! Some of us gay people would like to be married like some of you are. Some of us won't get married, just like some of you won't. But we want the option. We want to live in society with you---to make sure it continues and gives people a fair chance at happiness. We want the legal protections along with the love. We want to build families. Some of those families will include kids, just like your families. Yeah, some of you are afraid. But it's gonna be okay. If you get too afraid, we're good at giving comforting hugs. We're used to dealing with fear. And we're pretty forgiving if you give us a chance. If you talk with us, walk with us and listen to our hopes and worries and dreams, you'll find that the purposes of marriage, family life, and yes, human sexuality, are broad enough to include us.

Also, we're just as boring as you are most evenings. Just a little more fabulous, that's all.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On Questioning, Thinking, and Wall Street Mormonism

Mormonism is not known for having a robust culture devoted to asking tough questions and engaging in critical thinking. It does have a robust culture devoted to making it appear that free thinking is valued. The reality is that being right is the chief value. More precisely, "being true" or "on the right side" is the chief value.

A well-known passage of Mormon scripture seems to encourage questioning: "But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong;..." (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8-9).

This passage originally was written in the context of Joseph Smith asking about whether Oliver Cowdery should be allowed to directly read/translate from the Golden Plates rather than merely acting as scribe as Joseph spoke. Over the years, it has been expanded to apply to "personal revelation" in general among Mormons. It is the ground-level model for how "personal revelation" is supposed to work: Think about it, study it, pray, and get your answer.

Trouble is, there is an expectation among most Mormons that there is a list of questions deemed appropriate, and a list of "right" answers to the limited number of "right" questions. Although most Mormons bristle at such a blunt assessment, the supreme governing principle in Mormonism can be expressed in three short words: "Follow The Prophet."

Yes, you'll find all sorts of statements about personal adaptation and sensitivity to local or individual circumstances. But it always comes down to "Follow The Prophet." Everyone has gotten the memo. And it's worth noting that "The Prophet" over the last few years has come to be understood as "The Prophets" PLURAL, encompassing all of those in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS church.

So, at the level at which questioning and answering really matter, the process is to 1) ask the "right" question, 2) study the "approved" materials, 3) pray in the "correct" pattern, 3) be ready to receive the "right" answer from the Holy Spirit, and 4) receive that "right" answer which will always be in line with what "The Prophets" are currently teaching.

A shorter version of this process (again, most active Mormons will bristle) is: 1) ask whether "The Prophets" are right, and 2) the Holy Spirit will tell you that "The Prophets" are right.

Many (although I'd guess not most) Mormons approach these matters a bit differently. They want to be involved in a thoughtful process to find what works for them in their unique, personal circumstances. They want to have direct, personal communion with the divine, including a communion that might involve answers that depart from official correlated Mormonism. There are some leaders, even in the higher ranks, who seem open to that approach---at least to some degree.

In a church-wide leadership training broadcast on February 11, 2012, Dieter Uchtdorf of the church's First Presidency stated:

"Brothers and Sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know, but couldn’t get past the massive, iron gate of what we thought we already knew."

Uchtdorf is beloved in the LDS church---especially among those whose approach to spirituality and religious life is more Main Street and less Wall Street, to put it into trendy rhetorical terms. He is seen as a hope for greater inclusion and openness within a culture of correlation and compliance. He seems to be at least willing to entertain the ideas that questioning is good and that unexpected answers can lead to unexpected goodness for individuals and for the church.

It is clear that the LDS apostles are not unified on this issue. 

During his interview for the 2007 PBS documentary, "The Mormons," Dallin Oaks stated: "I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord."

There is no indication whatsoever that Oaks has changed his mind about this. If anything, his stance has calcified.

Boyd Packer often speaks of personal revelation. His statements represent the views of the supermajority of Mormons who follow the list-of-appropriate-questions, list-of-correct-answers approach to religious life.

Uchtdorf's statement quoted above has a ring of openness to it. I wonder how far the church would allow people to question, and how open it is institutionally to answers that are not pre-determined. Questioning involves looking at things with a critical eye and being open to the unexpected. Otherwise, it's not questioning at all.

In the LDS church, all are free to think for themselves, so long as that thinking falls within the range of what leadership will allow. All are allowed to question, so long as the answers fall within the range deemed appropriate by the leadership and the prevailing views of LDS culture. Some members have leaders with a wide range, others not so much.

Personally, I'm troubled by how some might seek to use Uchtdorf's statement in a way he may not have intended. I can quite easily imagine someone starting from the assumption that someone knowing they are gay is not knowing at all, but rather a "massive, iron gate of what [they] thought [they] already knew." Twisted this way, a person can, for example, continue to believe that being gay is against God's plan and anyone who accepts themselves as gay is putting up a wall that separates them from the Holy Spirit. They can dismiss others as living behind an iron gate of doubt and apostasy. I don't believe Uchtdorf intended his message to be taken this way. But I'd bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney's money that it will be applied this way by large numbers of LDS church members who think of themselves as Main Street Mormons, but who in practice are Wall Street Mormons.

I appreciate Uchtdorf's efforts, his consistent optimism and his more reasonable approach to how the LDS church could be a positive role in a person's live. I'm glad that he is in the position he is and that his words resonate with so many people starving for something other than the "do what we say" approach of decades past. I hope that he and others like him find at least some success in creating greater space for the free spirits for whom Mormonism still resonates.

But I'm skeptical of how this will change a church and a culture so entrenched. I'm also skeptical about how easy it is to find those cool, hip, free spirit Mormons featured in the "I'm a Mormon" PR campaign. Especially those who have been Mormon for more than five years. For most Mormons, the message (sent and received) is still: Question and think for yourself, just don't ever say anything in public that could be taken as opposing "The Prophets" if you don't want a call from your bishop.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Equality and Dignity in the State of Washington

At this rate, the LDS church may have to declare Temple Square an independent city-state to protect it from the dangers of the rule of law.

The Washington State House of Representatives approved a marriage equality law by a 55 to 43 vote today, following passage of a similar measure in the Senate by a 28 to 21 margin. Governor Gregoire will sign the legislation in a matter of days. Equality opponents are certain to attempt to undo this act by proposing an anti-equality referendum for the ballot this November. But that doesn't matter today. Within a week's time, Washington will join the growing number of states and countries with marriage equality.

For anyone still wondering, this is what it looks like when the arc of the moral universe bends.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More Paint, Smaller Corner

In the least surprising move of the decade, the LDS church issued a statement regarding the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (2-1 by a three-judge panel) ruling that Proposition 8 violates the United States Constitution. 

One of the most interesting things about this and other statements by the LDS church regarding marriage equality is how a church that has no democratic process whatsoever as part of its organization or practices incessantly complains that a court performing its constitutional role is undermining democracy. The businessmen and lawyers who make up the bulk of the LDS hierarchy know that one of the pillars of the American republic is to protect the rights of a minority against a misguided majority vote. How quickly some Mormons forget their own history in appealing for the protection of the courts when majorities have engaged in fearmongering and un-American discrimination against them. This isn't just hypocrisy. It's continued willful ignorance and selective application of the law.

The LDS church's supply of paint seems to be endless. However, the corner keeps getting smaller. 

For the Court's decision in the Prop 8 case, click here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Standing Up to Blowhards with Tarnished Trumpets

You may have seen this article about how one Minnesota community treats its gay youth and how some are standing up to confront hate and violence. There are some striking similarities to how gay youth are treated in some predominantly Mormon communities. I guess this shouldn't be surprising as most of modern Mormonism continues to drift toward the cultural sensibilities of the conservative Evangelical movement and its apparent quest to politicize and polarize all things religious in American life.

I'm encouraged that even amid rabid bullying, growing numbers are standing up and revealing the bullies for who and what they are. The vilification and vitriol will likely continue in the foreseeable future. And while there are more and more safe places for LGBT youth (and adults) who have been rejected by their families and communities, there still aren't enough.

Zealots who create environments of rejection that reward bullying behavior have blood on their hands. And here's the real trouble: They don't mind that they have blood on their hands. They believe gay people have degraded themselves and are not worthy of full human life. They are fighting a modern-day Battle of Jericho. In their quest to "save civilization," they act like the violent children in Lord of the Flies.

Joshua 6:20-21
20 So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

All in the name of God. And blood. And horror on this earth.

Most gay people are just fine with conservative Evangelicals believing what they want and living their lives. I, for one, see no need to dictate (or legislate) to a peaceful person what they should believe and how they should live their life, even if I vehemently disagree with their beliefs and way of life. Even if I felt differently, civil society would rightly demand better of me. Sadly, most conservative Evangelicals refuse to allow gay people the right to be free from oppression and violence. So much for the Golden Rule or all that stuff about Christian love.

Fortunately, in the face of true love, more and more people are realizing something very important: That when anti-gay forces attempt to speak fear and loathing with the tongues of men and of angels, they have not love, and are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. Life as a gay person is far better, and worth much more than these blowhards with tarnished trumpets would have anyone believe.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Equality Opponents on the Defensive

It's high time that the forces of anti-equality are put on the defensive.

You probably know by now that the Washington State Senate recently passed a marriage equality bill. The House is almost certain to follow suit by an even greater margin. Governor Christine Gregoire will sign the final bill into law. As the ink begins to dry, marriage equality opponents will propose their ballot referendum seeking to undo a carefully considered legislative act --- one that reflects the growing understanding that the rights of our fellow citizens should be based on fairness, not on fear.

The purpose of any referendum in Washington will be to undo what was done by the duly elected representatives of the people of Washington. Generally, such acts are considered to be the will of the people. But not if you're the National Organization of Marriage. For them, the will of the people is what NOM says it is. Why practice democracy when you can pervert it? NOM and their allies have promised to take their assault on American values of fairness and civil rights wherever marriage equality is proposed. These bullies may have gotten their way when they were in high school. This isn't high school anymore. They may have gotten their way in past ballot measures around the country. Not this time.

We have the high ground. We have to keep it. The arc of the moral universe is bending. The people of Washington have a chance to be part of that process of bending toward justice.

I used to live in Washington, so this hit particularly close to home for me. It saddens me that so many equality opponents' emotional development froze in their teenage years and they seem lack the capacity to understand fairness in our civil society. That doesn't mean the rest of us will be beaten down by their bullying in adulthood. They're not just bullying us as LGBT people, they're bullying the rest of society as well. Even more disheartening is the fact that many equality opponents don't even realize they are at least complicit in denying basic human dignity to members of their family, their friends, their co-workers, their neighbors, and their fellow citizens.

What is so alarming about groups and individuals behind referendums to define civil rights is that they appear not to trust that a republic (at the state or national level) can properly function when an issue of public importance doesn't go their way. They are misusing the referendum process, even though they will surely comply with the technical requirements of that process. Efforts like this purport to protect the will of the people, but in reality they serve mostly to stoke the flames of mobocracy, based on intentional misinformation and fearmongering.

If marriage equality opponents want to change a law that was enacted in the proper way, after full and open debate, subject to time-honored parliamentary rules and procedures, they bear the burden of proving why the law should be different. They also bear the burden of showing their fellow Washingtonians why millions of dollars from outside the state should be allowed to help in their effort to undermine the integrity of the legislative process and restrict the civil rights of their fellow citizens. Most marriage equality opponents aren't bad people. But many don't think through to the consequences of their votes against equality.

Of course, the most vocal and voracious marriage equality opponents feast on fear. NOM, Focus on the Family, The Family Research Council, the American Family Association and similar groups are the hosts of all manner of anti-gay gluttony. They are skilled at serving cold dishes of misplaced feelings of "culture war" revenge slathered with a comforting gravy of family, faith and founding fathers. These feasts also feature bitter old wine in new bottles mixed with a syrup of carefully selected traditions. Equality opponents will feed the Washington electorate the usual nine-truths-and-a-lie slurry about what will happen when gay people are allowed to marry. They will be lavished with millions of dollars from outside Washington. A lot of people will think this is all delicious. But a growing number of people have more discerning palates.

This isn't 2008 California. This is 2012 Washington. However, it's almost inevitable that much of what happened in California in 2008 will be repeated in Washington in 2012. One example will be (almost certainly) a letter to Washington Mormons from the LDS First Presidency, read to every congregation, and posted in social media worldwide. This will be followed by pressure from local church leaders and influential local members on every Mormon in Washington to donate their time, talents and everything with which they believe God has blessed them to the building up of the forces of anti-equality and the establishment of the Christian equivalent of Sharia law as applied to marriage. If you think this is an overstatement, then look at the arguments advanced by equality opponents. They have made this about religious tradition. Gay rights groups have tried to focus on civil rights, fairness and love.

From now until November, Washingtonians will be bombarded by TV ads, telephone calls, social media messages, direct mailings and all sorts of information giving a variety of perspectives on marriage equality and the role of gay people in our society. Some will be convinced (or re-convinced) by these efforts. But what will make the most difference are the one-on-one interactions people have with those they love and trust. Then, when people take that ballot and pen in hand, they will think of what is right and fair, they will think of their fears, they will think of their hopes, they will picture the faces of their gay loved ones, and we will see what is most important in the minds and hearts of the people of the State of Washington.