Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Now what?

Every blogger has to face whether their blog has reached an end point. This can be for a variety of reasons. Two of the most common reasons seem to be: 1) The blog has come to a natural close, and 2) The blogger has moved beyond the blog's purpose. Obviously, my posts have tapered off. I have moved much further along in my post-Mormon journey, and I need to do some assessment as a writer.

It's time to grapple with the existential "whence, why, whither" questions related to this blog. So, dear blog followers and casual readers alike, please give me some feedback. I need to re-tool this blog or end it. This is an open invitation for you to leave your comments and suggestions about subject, focus, tone, design, or anything else you'd like to write. You can be nice or mean, diplomatic or blunt. I deal with all types at work every day. I'll be looking forward to your feedback. And if I don't get any, that will be a sign of its own.

And, since it is the season... Happy Pride!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Change, Interrupted. Love, Lost.

I made the comment below in a discussion about change in the LDS church (which some see as a transcendental wave about to wash upon the shores of Zion). I thought you, dear readers, might want to read it too.

Coming out, and trying to maintain relationships with those who have different beliefs, viewpoints and priorities, and giving time to people to work through their discomfort, misconceptions and prejudice are ALL important. Those things can lead to many good things on the interpersonal and community levels. It can even lead to positive change in the law and society at large. Those who love the church have chosen the path that works best for them.

Dissent---not loyal opposition, but solid and principled dissent---has just as much value and legitimacy. It's okay that we disagree and get into heated discussions. That's one of the beauties of human intelligence. Common ground can be a good thing. But it's not the only thing that changes hearts and minds. Rabble rousing makes a difference too. It can raise awareness in a person who would rather ignore their discomfort and live forever in their misconceptions.

The LDS church is ruled by 15 men who take church-wide action ONLY upon a unanimous vote in secret meetings. It is not ruled by consensus following open discussion of pressing issues in which the hearts and minds of the people can be expressed and shared. The LDS church's prevailing culture does not value challenging the brethren, questioning doctrine or thinking critically. The councils of the church, high and low, are dominated by those who adhere to this cultural imperative. Local distinctions are good to see, and their impact on people is not to be minimized. But those exceptions, distinctions and outlying circumstances should also be seen in the larger context, taking care to not let effusive optimism lead to disappointment, misinformation and misinterpretation.

Change at a doctrinal level in the LDS church comes ONLY after the hearts and minds of ALL FIFTEEN of the LDS apostles change. To the optimistic among us, that could come after they feel a full measure of genuine love toward their fellow human beings. To the more jaded among us, that could come when they see an existential threat to the church, which has a driving force behind major change in the past. Of course, both can happen. But the latter is generally the requirement, since there is usually at least one holdout among the 15 who ignores reason and compassion because he puts more value on the traditions of the past or simply fears openness.

That fact is the main barrier to any kind of change in the LDS church on any issue. That fact is a main reason why I no longer love or value the church as an institution, and why I am a vocal dissenter.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Platitudes Are Not Enough

As a dog to its vomit, here I am---again---writing about change within Mormonism. Change in the LDS church related to gay and transgender people in society must be at the doctrinal level. There is no other way for it to be anything less than crumbs dusted off the table of fellowship. I was tired of waiting for crumbs, so I left. I realize that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to stay, but I hope people who stay have both of their eyes open.

Andrew S at the Irresistible (Dis)Grace blog recently wrote an eloquent post that should burden and torment every Mormon leader and every Mormon in general. Here is what had the most impact for me:

"When we speak of chastity, the end goal of chastity is not celibacy. It is always a faithful, chaste marriage with children.... So, the lifelong expectancy of celibacy [for gay people] cannot be taken lightly in the Mormon tradition. Celibacy may be more desirable in the Mormon tradition than sexual sin, but celibacy is not ideal. A fully lived life of celibacy is not fully lived at all. It is a design flaw.
"Think about it. You have failed at one of the major purposes of your mortal existence. The solution? Not much in this life. Look forward to what comes after this mortal existence.

"In other words, when you have failed at life, what you’re supposed to do is just bide the rest of this time and wait (in hope and faith, but wait nevertheless) for this life to end."

There can be local leaders who bend or ignore ecclesiastical mandates and allow openly gay people to serve in quasi-leadership roles and/or show gay people respect in ways that church officialdom does not. There can be a multitude of examples of compassion by active LDS people toward gay people in their families, their congregations and their social circles. There can be philosophical discussion of how LDS doctrine has within it the possibilities for change or a shift in priorities. There can be LDS people who sincerely feel they have received a spiritual witness that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered is not anathema to God's will. No one needs to doubt the sincerity of any person who fits the descriptions above. (That is, unless there is an effort to mislead, even if with pious intent.)

Unless there is a complete transformation of how the church treats gay people across the board, not just the random and fortunate exceptions---both at the ground level and at the core of LDS theology---there will be nothing that the LDS church can offer gay people that cannot be found in better form elsewhere. Platitudes are not enough. Yet platitudes have been 99% of what has happened so far.

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.