Thursday, July 20, 2006

The “Gay Question”: Private Preference or Public Policy

I must admit shock and trepidation several Sundays ago when I heard the First Presidency’s letter read to me regarding their position on the same-sex marriage debate. Of course I knew of their advocacy for anti-gay marriage initiatives but had never heard explicit encouragement that members join their cause. I need not remind that this political contest has bathed the country in passionate sentiments—fear and anxiety from the right, accusations of bad faith from the left, and a general misunderstanding by all. Social healing, not further civil estrangement, is in order.

My purpose in writing this essay is to pen, once and for all, my position on the matter. I would implore those on the right to consider the opposition’s arguments (though I present but a few of them) rather than couching them in the vague and mystifying language of the “philosophies of men"—that you seriously consider them as pointing toward crucial, substantive components of justice.

A brief look at the Church’s history quickly reveals disturbing similarities between the anti-polygamy crusades of the 1870s-1890s and today’s campaign to prohibit gay marriage. Just as U.S. society became inflamed about a marginal group practicing plural marriage in what was still an obscure part of the country, today’s civil society is up in arms regarding attempts to legalize gay marriage. Stereotypes of marginals as well as violence abound in both epochs and the state is used to “correct” those outside the mainstream. I would ask what the difference is between Congress’ 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act and the Defense of Marriage Amendment? The former act revoked several civil rights of polygamist Church members including the right to vote, serve on juries, and hold public office. Similarly, gays today face the denial of many freedoms such as health benefits, and partner hospital visitation, inheritance, and adoption rights. Both bills define marriage as between one man and one woman. Both were drafted in defense of the “public good” and “in defense of the family.” Both involved “the moral question.” And both were intended to redefine the public sphere to the benefit of many and the exclusion of some (Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 220-225, 246). The tragic difference between the anti-polygamy bill and today’s Defense of Marriage Amendment is where the Church stands on the issue. In the former period, the Church was the victim; it perceived a great injustice (see Brother Faust’s comments below) and sought to be left alone under the pretense of state’s rights and constitutionally guaranteed civil freedoms. Today the Church has sided with those who would limit civil rights and abrogate locally defined marriage standards (state’s rights such as that of Massachusetts). Now that the Church is well-accepted the tide of oppression is turned on others. And I expect our LDS ancestors are tossing in their graves at the congruence between yesterday’s persecuted and today’s persecutors.

It is tragic that when any culture or creed has endured outcast and emerges as a meaningful figure in public life, it mimics its oppressors. It judges, it condemns, it proscribes, perhaps in an effort to secure its newly-won power from the undermining effect of being shared. Perhaps it arises from a sense of vengeance; unable to afflict its oppressors it makes marginals suffer even as it suffered. Mormons have learned well from its detractors. In our modern society, to jeer often merits more legitimacy and respect than to include. An absence of our systemic and wide-spread persecution has made us forget sympathy for minority victims. Indeed we have become a proud minority if we cannot grant to other small groups the same respect we demanded in the nineteenth-century: to be accepted as fellow citizens subject to the same laws, entitled to the same rights as our fellows. Most of all, we asked to be permitted to live "according to the dictates of our own conscience" freely and unmolested (as in Kirtland and Nauvoo), or to be left alone (in early Utah epoch) by the American state. LDS sensibilities toward others have changed drastically with their unofficial incorporation into the Republican Party. Being “in” has made us forget what it was like to be “out.”

When and if the Church finds itself newly disenfranchised from the political process (or at least in disfavor with the state) I hope the lesson will not be lost on the Church leadership, especially if the government begins restricting LDS ways of life. Our leaders will have reinforced the model for dealing with those outside the mainstream: wield the state against their rights, justified as favoring the public good.

But plain hypocrisy is not sufficient to prohibit a certain action. There must be more. One might argue that faith in our leaders should compel our support for this amendment, regardless of convincing reasons. Yet appeals to simply “obey our leaders” or even “follow the prophet” fall alarmingly short of any legitimate account of just action. We must return to Socrates’ timeless question found in the Euthyphro: Is an act commanded by the gods because it is just, or is it just because the gods command it? To extrapolate, belief that what is just is only so because Church leaders mandate it belies an arbitrariness bereft of morality. But if leaders command something because it is just, then a moral standard exists independent of those leaders. And if such a standard indeed exists, it surely can be explained. Let me be clear. When a religious institution attempts to influence public policy the matter is political as much or more as it is religious. Faith in our leaders may be necessary on religious matters but it is inappropriate on political concerns. Democracy ought to operate on reasoned debate followed by a vote. I need not remind that simple obedience to church leaders compromises a citizen’s independence. If members blindly obey it can be charged that the First Presidency holds more than three votes (the same as three ordinary citizens); they command a voting bloc. Democracy wanes as oligarchy (or theocracy) emerges.

Democracy is founded on at least some commitment to pluralism. The limits on what citizens can of right do are always in question. The hallmark of genuine democracy is the majority’s restraint in enforcing personal preferences onto minority citizens. Bluntly stated, this so-called Defense of Marriage Amendment is an egregious instance of majority tyranny. The complication here is many members of the Church make no distinction between private and public moral codes. Many claim their personal preferences (beliefs) should be universalized. Regarding the “gay question,” the greatest problem hampering LDS notions of justice is the discursive element: it is difficult for many Mormons to conceive of morality as something beyond the bedroom, to put it crudely, above the waistline. I would argue that average members, including Church leaders, lack a commitment to pluralism, and consequently, to genuine democracy.

I offer that to establish a legitimate public moral code—one that avoids majority tyranny and/or does not arbitrarily impose one’s beliefs on others—a distinction must be made between consensual and nonconsensual acts. Nonconsensual acts must be restricted because they interfere with others’ free action. Included in these prohibitive acts would be child abuse (in all its forms), theft, rape, murder, etc. Consensual acts are those that do not compromise the rights of others. In this respect gay rights (marriage, adoption, safety from harassment, etc.) ought to be respected by all because they do not conflict with others’ rights. These rights are legitimate in spite of the “perceived injustices” (again see Brother Faust’s comments below) some heterosexuals claim. These individuals argue that their marriage rights are in some way threatened by gay marriage. What they assert, and what the Brethren call for, is the vindication of a privilege since not all couples would enjoy legal recognition. Privilege chips away at pluralism. Privilege is antithetical to democracy.

Here we should also question the merits of statist projects. It has long been curious to me why it is presumed as just for the state to regulate the most intimate of relations. After all, the state is nothing more than a rotational interest group. During election season politicians promise to use the state for their constituency’s benefit, often as a weapon against the opposition. The state is the final bane to genuine democracy. What’s more, state policy is a fickle standard as gains made by one group may be overturned by another in just two to four years. I am also curious what utility the Brethren think banning gay marriage will serve. If Church leaders expect banning said institution will yield fewer gay people they are credulous. If they believe it will appease God, they have yet to declare as much. Again I warn that to demonstrate bad faith civilly in using the state to proscribe consensual practice is akin to drilling a hole in our collective hull; gays will sink, along with everyone else. The method of exclusion is not lost on the Church’s enemies. In fact, I know of no better practice to generate animosity. If the Brethren want our support on this issue they must explain why statist projects are legitimate and why the same prescription used against gays will not be turned on us. Now here I might be accused of contradiction. If I am wary of others using the state as society’s final arbiter, then why care about legalizing gay marriage? Simply put, I have a hierarchy of preferences. A stateless society would truly warm my heart, but while states exist I prefer tolerable to intolerable ones.

But I digress. Elder Nelson’s comments a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. grossly misrepresent Church realities. Mormons are in fact not “firmly united” that “the sanctity of marriage and family constitutes the spiritual undergirding of lasting and successful societies.” Moreover, I am curious as to how Brother Nelson could have assumed members’ political opinions without first polling us. Even within this Church there exists a religious left. Instead of a particular conception of marriage, some of us believe that respecting of difference and publicly enabling the pursuit of happiness for all, is critical to “lasting and successful societies.” We further reject the double-speak utilized by Nelson and other Church leaders that supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage does not “reduce our regard for individuals who choose to live by other standards” (,15503,4028-1-23503,00.html). I defer to Rousseau who put it best: “Those who distinguish between civil and theological intolerance are mistaken in my opinion. The two intolerances are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people one believes to be damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them; one must absolutely bring them back or torment them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it is impossible for it not to have some civil effect; and as soon as it does, the Sovereign [meaning the citizenry] is no longer Sovereign, even in the temporal sphere: from then on Priests are the true masters; Kings are but their officers” (Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. and trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 151).

But Church doctrine does not in fact define marriage exclusively as between one man and one woman. Religious (though not legal) marriages continue to be solemnized in temples today that consist of multiple partners (due to death or divorce). Plural marriage remains alive and well in God’s houses. In this respect “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” has aspects of a partisan tract meant to align Church leaders with fellow anti-gay marriage crusaders. The proclamation coyly sidesteps the issue of plural marriage by simply stating that marriage between a member of each sex is ordained of God. It in no way precludes unions between one man and several women. What’s more, the Church leadership has at no point used the prophetic “thus saith the Lord” in regard to this proposed amendment, establishing that God commands every Church member’s support. Until such time I claim my duty to consult my own conscience on the matter. If at some future date this Presidency invokes God’s name as part of this crusade, the issue, of course, remains between God and I. In either case, the Church leadership should remain neutral on all political issues, including “moral issues,” else differentiate between opinion and godly mandate.

Church leaders often present their opinions regarding social matters without distinguishing between their human thoughts and utterances received directly from God. June’s First Presidency Message of the Ensign is a case-and-point. Brother Faust’s cynical jab at “intellectual voices that profess sophistication and superiority” is most telling; Church leaders often become queasy when hard questions are asked them. But unlike some, many of us use intellectualism to act justly, not for self-aggrandizement. In “Voice of the Spirit,” Brother Faust denigrates “murmuring voices that conjure up perceived injustices.” One can only speculate as to what those mistaken perceptions could be. Members wanting to keep in step with the Brethren might be tempted to make the most conservative of interpretations of such a vague remark; many might consider gay rights, women’s liberation, human rights, and workers’ grievance (to name a few) as instances of “perceived injustices.” Skip to page five and one learns that Brother Faust sides with David Ben-Gurion’s unsubstantiated assertion that Leon Trotsky “was no leader because he had no purpose.” Here Brother Faust presumes his priestly authority will substantiate what is otherwise barren of reasoned argument, and bereft of evidence. Connecting both statements can only lead to one conclusion: the working-class’ feeling of entitlement to the means of production (Trotsky’s position) is also a “perceived injustice” (dare I say a “false consciousness?”), one that credits the Russian Communist with a lack of “purpose” (James E. Faust, “Voice of the Spirit,” Ensign, June, 2006, 3-6). Hazy statements are perhaps the worst of leader oversights as they enable the pious to imagine the most stringent of godly demands, good-heartedly supposing they come from the very mouth of the Lord. Again, if members of the Church are choosing to “follow the prophet” and vote against gay marriage (regardless of misgivings or a tickled conscience), this constitutes a political bloc at the First Presidency’s disposal—a grievous affront to democratic principles.

Worse still, a common failing in Church policy has been to shun broader visions of justice. This is evident in past official positions on issues ranging from the Equal Rights Amendment to unjust wars to Prohibition. The failure to support ERA is particularly tragic. Because Church leaders could not accept the positions of some segments of the day’s social movements (lesbian separatists for instance), it withdrew all support. Many in the Church feared to be lumped with bad company; they deigned not sup with “sinners.” Broader conceptions of justice are crucial when the Church as an institution steps outside the religious sphere to engage in political activity. Without some universal standard for justice the Church is doomed to act (as it sometimes has) arbitrarily and provincially. As I have attempted to argue above, democracy is one crucial area the Church has been most ambiguous about and it is intimately related to concerns about justice generally and the gay marriage issue specifically. Here I refer to genuine democracy, not its perverted republican substitute. My purpose here is to provoke the Church membership to define their position, once and for all, on democracy. Sadly, any endorsement of democracy would seem to require significant changes within the Church’s structure ranging from directly democratic congregations to women administering the priesthood outside temples. On the contrary, arguing the superiority of theocracy may well provoke pandemonium within the Church, deteriorating its image without. Either way I urge all members to escape luke-warm positions. But I would emphasize that nowhere is the need for a distinction between personal preference and public policy more evident than in the Church’s position on the “gay question.”

This essay in no way invalidates my testimony or convictions regarding this Church and Gospel. My aim is to build, not to destroy. I continue to support and believe in the Brethren’s apostolic stewardship even as I at times disagree with their execution of the same.


Jeff said...

Beautiful post! This is the most well written piece I've seen on this subject, and I have read many. I agree with your statements down to the minutest detail.

Anonymous said...

" would implore those on the right to consider the opposition’s arguments (though I present but a few of them) rather than couching them in the vague and mystifying language of the “philosophies of men"

Why should we pay more attention to you than you do to the Prophets?

-Adam Greenwood

Steven B said...

Why should we pay more attention to you than you do to the Prophets?

We can dialogue because this is a civil issue and we do not live in a theocracy.

larscapo said...

Many thanks to Jeff and Steven for your encouraging comments. It's nice to get them on my first post. Constructive criticism is of course always welcome. Which brings me to your comments, Adam. I would echo Steven's comment and say I answer your question on paragraphs 6, 11, 12, 13 (and to a more limited extent in 3, 5, 8, and 9). But since you're quoting only from paragraph 2, hmm . . . :)

mellancollyeyes said...

This is beautiful! I am so inspired and also grateful to see that I am not the only one who feels uncomfortable with the Church leaders telling the members how to vote.

I've always believe that one can separate religious from political beliefs (obviously only up to a certain point, but I believe that point is a long ways away). For example, when Church members argue with me about how I can support gay rights but remain a member of the church and claim to still believe everything, I point out that I believe in the freedom of speech and the right to assembly that the Constitution guarantees us, but I do not in any way endorse or believe in the views of such groups as the KKK or the neo-Nazis. However, the simple fact that I do not agree with them does not invalidate their right to freedom of speech and assembly. Much in the same way, those who oppose the gay lifestyle and homosexuality can still believe in the concept of equal rights and anti-discrimination for ALL people.

One problem I see is that most people (not just Church members, but all people) fail to realize that gay people are discriminated against, and not just in the fact that they can't marry. In no state is a gay person protected from being fired, being passed over for a promotion, being refused medical care (outside of an ER, where they MUST treat you), being refused service in a restaurant, etc. We are still able to discriminate against homosexuals in the most insidious ways--they are not protected by laws for some of the most basic things. Most people are unaware of the vast discrimination that faces homosexuals, and when these examples are pointed out to them, even the most anti-gay-rights people are shocked to find out that a person who has done absolutely nothing but excellent work at his or her job can be fired simply for being gay and that the employee would have no legal rights to sue the employer for discrimination.

These rights are all bound up with gay marriage rights, which seems to be the problem for most people. Everyone focuses on the one aspect of gay rights--marriage--and misses out on all the other rights that they are denied.

I loved your post--it's beautiful and it's intelligent and it asks the questions no one wants to ask. Keep posting!