12 June 2011

To LDS Friends & Family

I'm about to ask you to do a difficult thing. It is to read something. Something you probably wouldn't otherwise run across, or choose to read even if you did see it.

So, with respect, I will remind you that Joseph Smith himself said "by proving contraries is truth made manifest." That means we can learn truth by comparing and contrasting competing, disputing and opposing positions on things. And so in that spirit, that's what I'm about to ask you to read. This will challenge some of your beliefs. But remember that Pres. J. Reuben Clark said if the church has the truth, then it can't be harmed. So there should be nothing to fear.

This article was written by a friend of mine and it's been picked up by a national news blog. Please read and give good faith consideration to what it says. It may make you uncomfortable. But it seeks to do what Joseph Smith said, make truth manifest by examining contraries. Nobody should be afraid of that.


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. It meant civility in the political arena; in other words, respecting the right of others to express their views, even if we do not agree with them. It meant treating all people with decency and respect. Such tolerance is an important and vital part of our American heritage.

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.


mohoguy said...

right on!

Kevin Rex and Family said...

For me, the first part of his talk was even more discouraging than all the political stuff you touched, though all of that was pretty bad, too. In the beginning of the article he tries to strengthen what I consider to be the very worst part of the Family Proclamation, which is that "gender is an essential characteristic" of the eternities. Elder Porter goes onto speculate that gender is even "woven into the fabric" of eternities and that men and women are not only biologically different, but different in some way that he makes up into the eternities. In my opinion, this shows that many of the Church's leaders haven't even moved past the equality for women issues, let alone moved onto the justice of equality for gays.