Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why I Stopped Outsourcing my Spirituality: Part 1

A Scene from My Past

It was another perfect day in southern California, but my heart was beating a little faster than normal as I walked down the street with my wife and Kim, our non-LDS neighbor who had recently moved into the area.  This was the pre-Prop-8 version of myself, and Kim was explaining her approach to choosing which church to attend, “The pastor at the last church I went to didn’t line up with my beliefs, so I’m still looking.”  The missionary in me smelled blood, but my wife was already on it, asking Kim what she thought about the Joseph Smith movie we had invited her and her husband to see with us the week before at the LA Temple visitors’ center.  “To be honest,” she said, “it didn’t really do much for us.”  I was both crestfallen and incredulous.  How could anyone watch that emotional production and not at least be moved to tears, even if not fully convinced that Joseph was a prophet?  But I simply said, “What do you mean?”  Kim went on, “Well, aside from the movie’s incomplete historical representation, I just don’t see prophets the same way that you do in the Mormon Church.  To me, prophets are rabble-rousers, occasionally moved by God to call people to repentance, but not to lead an institution.”  My wife was ready, “But how would the members of God’s church know His will without a prophet to lead them?  Wouldn’t that lead to confusion and chaos?”  Neither of us said it out loud, but my wife and I were both thinking about Kim’s continuing search for a church among so many differing options and the apparent confusion that was causing in her own life.  Kim’s response took us off guard, “No, I can receive revelation directly from God.  I already know what I believe, it’s just a matter of finding a church that most closely matches those beliefs.”  There was some additional back-and-forth on biblical prophets and priesthood authority, but there was no changing Kim’s view of what constitutes a prophet.  I summed up my thoughts later that evening to my wife, “Kim has deified her own conscience.”

Choosing Conscience over Obedience

Prop-ping Open My Mind

The first cracks in my worldview formed a few months later during the campaign for Proposition 8 in the summer and fall of 2008.  In the beginning, I was as gung-ho as they come.  I felt like I was being called up by the prophet to march in the first wave of a valiant army battling for morality – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show God my true mettle.  Many aspects of it weren’t too hard: putting the “Yes on 8” sign on my front lawn, taking flyers around the neighborhood, donating money to the campaign.  But it was true dedication that carried me through the worst part: going through page after page of phone numbers, making cold calls to pitch the virtues of the Yes on 8 campaign.  Sometimes the anxiety of those phone calls would actually induce nausea.  I would do one page and have to take a break of a few hours before I could face the next page.  When I was done, I’d think to myself, “See God, I am a faithful servant; you can trust me to do whatever you ask of me.”

But as the campaign went on, I had to confront some perspectives that gave me pause: an Internet conversation in which a woman explained her conviction that “It’s disingenuous to say you love me while you take away my rights at the same time,” a phone conversation with a kind and reasonable woman who challenged me to explain the real harm in gay marriage – together with my fumbling and inadequate response, and lastly, other members of my ward who quietly, but firmly, resisted the call to participate.  It was easy enough to write these people off as misguided, uninformed, or lacking in faith, but what was hardest to reconcile was the effect all of this was having on me personally.  I felt it was important for my motives to be pure, but when I examined them honestly, I realized that what I was feeling most strongly was a combination of fear and hostility.  By the end of the campaign, I felt like the other side was out to get me and my family.  These feelings were fueled by commercials warning that my kids would be forced to read gay-promoting books in school, vandalism at my local church meetinghouse, websites that tracked the names of those who donated to the Yes campaign, and finally, by hundreds of people marching and protesting at the LA temple.  I didn’t fully confront the mirror of my anger and fear until the last week of the campaign.  I was part of an early-morning team making a last-ditch effort to put campaign signs all over the place.  Standing in the median next to a freeway on-ramp, I bent up from placing a Yes on 8 sign to see a car coming around the bend.  The driver was giving me the bird with a nasty expression on his face.  Reflexively, I flipped him off in response.  In the seconds that followed, shame washed over me.  Wow, so this is what a soldier in the army of God had come to.

The Power of a Personal Connection

Proposition 8 succeeded, and, left to my own devices, I think I would have rationalized that my anger and fear were simply signs of my own fallibility; that even though my motives weren’t always pure, the cause was always just.  Most importantly, I had a get-out-of-jail-free card: even if I’m wrong, I thought, God will forgive me because I’m following His prophet.
Fortunately for me, I married well.  My wife, wrestling under the same feeling of disquiet, had cracked open her heart enough to discover an important truth: if there was a pure motive to our cause, we would only discover it by looking at things from our opponents’ point of view.  If, after honestly considering a homosexual’s perspective, we could conclude that our actions had yielded a net positive result, then we could feel peace about what we had done.  But we needed a perspective that we could really trust, and we had never met anyone who we knew to be gay.  She stumbled onto the perfect thing: a blog written by a gay Mormon who was still active and faithful in the Church.  After getting over the initial shock that such a thing even existed, I felt that we had found it – the means to settle once and for all the godliness of the Yes on 8 campaign.  If this gay Mormon could support the Church through Prop 8, than by gum, so could we.  

In the blog, we read about a young man who courageously came out to his ward during testimony meeting and was met with kindness and love.  We read about him attending his nephew’s baptism, and his family accepting his homosexuality with good-natured jokes about his camera bag looking like a purse.  There was no denying the sincerity of this man.  His awkward moments, deep feelings, and humor were completely endearing and fully authentic.  His stories seemed to support the idea that Mormonism could offer a safe and happy place for gays.  His continued faithfulness to the Church seemed to indicate that not all gays felt attacked and marginalized by the Church.  

But there were other things we read that sent shockwaves through our worldview.  The post that cracked open my brain the most was when he described the moment that he fully admitted to himself that he was attracted to men.
I was on my knees next to my bed with my face buried into my mattress. Thoughts raced through my head and my breathing was uncontrollable. I clenched my eyes shut as I fought what I would later recognize as a panic attack. Inaudibly, I repeated over and over again, “I’m not gay. I’m not gay.” 
No matter how many times I repeated the words it didn’t change anything. My stomach tightened into a rock. I would have probably felt better if I threw up, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I was too tense. I just felt like laying on the floor with the hope that if I was there long enough I would be completely forgotten and eventually cease to exist altogether. I was sixteen.
I had been watching a music video over our dial-up connection to the internet. It was a one hit wonder that six months later would be forgotten by nearly everyone, but I would remember it for years, because as I watched I caught myself looking at the male lead singer. I realized that I wasn’t just looking, I was looking. I freaked out and ran up into my room, closing the door behind me. Had it been the first time, I probably would have been able to write it off as curiosity, something, anything, but I knew that I was facing something that I had been trying to run away from for years. I was gay and I knew it.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  This certainly didn’t line up with how I had imagined that people “decided” to be gay.  It was supposed to be a perversion, some kind of alluring sinful indulgence.  But here I’m reading about a kid who wanted to cease to exist rather than confront the reality of his attraction?  Someone hadn’t been telling me the whole story.  And although this man was still active in the Church and living according to gospel principles, he was regularly experiencing gut-wrenching pain, especially in regard to the Church’s involvement on Prop 8.
I am deeply hurt and offended.  I can’t point to anyone individually, but the people that have caused me to feel emotionally heavy and dark are the two political groups currently fighting over Prop 8 in California.  I’ve always been Prop 8 Agnostic in my public communications and I continue to be so in the effort to not have my opinion sway anyone one way or another (as if that could happen). … So, I have decided that I am no longer going to read, watch, or participate in any more discussions, articles, or news stories related to Prop 8.  I realize that people feel that they should stand up for their beliefs and that’s fine, but I, however, can’t.  The issues are too close, the pain is too real, and I am too tired.
Something truly remarkable happened over the few days in which my wife and I read the blog: we changed a deeply-held ideology.  No amount of logic, facts, or reasoning could have done it.  Only getting to know someone personally had the power to soften our hearts in that way toward gays.  This is how it usually happens, though in most situations, it involves a family member or a close friend.  It speaks to the writing ability of the blog author that my wife and I were able to form that kind of connection with someone we never met face-to-face.  He said it very well himself:

There is still prejudice out there and we need to fight it.  The best way to do so as individuals is simply by people knowing that we exist.  People need to know that we are here.  People need to know one of us and, if by so knowing, they still hate gay people, they hate us for who we are and not for who they imagine us to be.  When we come out, the straight people will see the real “us” and the gay people still living in secrecy and shame will see that they have options and that the world isn’t as dark as it seems.  They will see that there is hope.
We had been looking for a perspective we could trust, and we succeeded.  What we hadn’t been counting on, though, was that we would discover we had been wrong.  With our fear of gay people erased, we researched other reasons for supporting a ban on non-traditional marriages.  None of the arguments held any water.  No evidence could be found to support the arguments against gay marriage; examined closely, it was all speculation and fear.  For a while, we tried to straddle the line by telling ourselves that we had still done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.  That it was still right that we had followed the prophet, even if we couldn’t understand the reasons.  

Dusting Off My Moral Compass

As the years passed, however, time brought the problems with our viewpoint into focus.  We recognized that very bad things have happened because of good people who silenced their moral feelings in deference to authority.  Even in the scriptures, we found examples of people who followed the established ecclesiastical authority to their own spiritual detriment.  It is so easy to read the scriptures and think, oh, well obviously King Noah’s priests were bad.  But the scriptures leave out the many good things that they certainly did as spiritual leaders.  No real person ever fits into the box of all bad or all good.  Caiaphas almost certainly got many of his judgments right, and probably did a lot of good for the community.  Recognizing his moral deficits would certainly have been very difficult from the perspective of a faithful Jew living at the time.  Especially so for the most orthodox or devout members of the congregation.  My wife and I realized that we had been blind to the warning in these scriptures: we also can fall prey to being too dependent on our leaders for our morality.  And we found examples in modern Church history as well.  Is there no accountability for those who justified prejudice against blacks during the days when it was preached that they had been “less valiant” in the pre-mortal life?  I can believe that God, in his mercy, makes allowances for culture and upbringing, but if it was me, I would have the hardest time forgiving myself – especially if I had silenced pangs of conscience in deference to a leader.

None of this is to say that our current Church leaders aren’t moral people.  On the contrary, I think that they are good, inspired men.  But they can never substitute for my conscience.  And I hope that they would agree.  Elder Christofferson certainly seemed to indicate that position in his most recent Conference talk:

God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama. God will not live our lives for us nor control us as if we were His puppets, as Lucifer once proposed to do. Nor will His prophets accept the role of “puppet master” in God’s place. Brigham Young stated: “I do not wish any Latter Day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ,—the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves.”
Interestingly, two of the other talks that Conference (here and here) went straight back to unquestioning obedience to authority.  You win some, you lose some, I guess.

Continued in Part 2

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