By Eli McCann (also published at his blog www.itjustgetsstranger.com )
A few years ago the nation recognized a new phase for my community. They called it “the Mormon Moment.” Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a number of significant events took place that put Mormons in the spotlight, largely in a very positive way.
I think it began around the time of the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. It built up over the course of that decade. Members of the church seemed to be in the spotlight everywhere. Music, politics on the highest level, movies, reality TV, business, etc.
And for us Mormons, this was incredibly exciting. The generation just below me is probably the first generation to not really remember a time before the “Mormon Moment.” In their lifetimes, the church and the culture that trails it has always been relatively well-known in America. But I remember a time when it was almost shocking to hear the word “Mormon” on TV.
There were never any movies about Mormons. No characters in TV shows that shared our faith. And in fact, back then pretty much every Mormon could proudly list all of the “famous” Mormons in existence since the beginning of time. These included Donny Osmond and a slew of people who were not actually Mormons but who kind of seemed like Mormons and so someone started a rumor about them and the rest of the community just latched on. Because this was before the Internets when you could go somewhere to verify.
Now a mention of the church on CNN hardly catches my ear. I consume media all the time with Mormons in it and it doesn’t really phase me. The idea that a Mormon could be the leader of the free world isn’t farcical anymore (because when I was a kid, such an idea was farcical).
Some people have claimed that the Moment died. That it passed with Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid.
I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that Mormons have fallen out of the spotlight. But I think it feels like the Moment has passed because it has been covered up by a much more dramatic era of Mormon history. Something that I’ll tepidly call “the Mormon Crisis.”
Maybe because the Mormon Moment forced my community to face questions from a whole new segment of society, the Mormons have had to deal with struggle in a way that I think has not really happened on this scale for a long time, or maybe ever before.
Mormons have had to suddenly and dramatically face really difficult questions about how to reconcile gospel, church, and culture, which many have begun to recognize for the first time do not perfectly mirror one another. Emotional strain has resulted when church policy seems to face off with practical experience. And severe cognitive dissonance has engulfed so many who have struggled to find a way to live “correctly” when two seemingly conflicting things somehow both feel right and wrong at the same time.
It seems that the majority of the conflict surrounds or at least somehow involves the ever-growing wonder about how to approach and think about the “gay question.”
It used to be easy. It used to be the case that virtually all of society treated gay people like garbage. Discounted their feelings. Invalidated their realities. And so when a church we loved condemned a trodden segment of society, we could confidently and figuratively pump our fists in the air in the name of “righteousness” and keep that segment trodden, right along with the majority.
To be fair, some church leaders, even during that awful time, encouraged Mormons to view the issue in a more compassionate way. Not all leaders, mind you. But a few of the very significant and influential ones did. This included long-time president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, a man who I think was nearly perfect and who made great strides in the ’90s and early 2000s getting the community to at least acknowledge that gay people were real, that we should love them, and that ostracizing and disowning is ungodly.
Interestingly, it was for these teachings that President Hinckley’s funeral was picketed in 2008 by the Westboro Baptist hatemongers.
But even still, Mormons, who largly-admiringly believe that there is value in following difficult counsel from those who they have come to determine are inspired leaders, didn’t have a very difficult time shifting in this way. That’s not to say that my community immediately embraced the idea that gay people should be loved. But they at least didn’t feel conflicted between showing kindness to their gay family members AND somehow following prophetic counsel.
But that peaceful shift could only last for so long. Because with the societal shifts over time, those same Mormons started to have to face much more difficult questions. Like how do we stay true to our religion when we feel that doing so sometimes feels inequitable? Or what do we tell our gay sons and daughters who are so miserable being inside the church that they are actually becoming suicidal?
The usual “church activity makes you happy” and “counsel from the pulpit is infallible” eternal truths suddenly started to seem to have some holes. And the dialogue in the church community about how to approach and deal with this question has become very heated and confusing.
I have a great and deep-seated love and respect for the church and its leaders. But I feel like I need to say that I think the church organization and our culture have done an absolutely terrible job handling this issue. I think it’s important for a lot of innocent people that that be recognized.
This doesn’t make me question my entire belief structure. I’ve never believed the church was perfect. It doesn’t even proclaim to be. I just have a clear example now of the organization’s imperfection. An imperfection I hope it corrects so as to do even greater good in the world than it already does.
The church has relentlessly stated that the “gay lifestyle” is unacceptable. But it has totally failed to show gay people a reasonable alternative or make room for those who disagree on this issue in practice.
Notice, I said “reasonable.”
I often imagine the conversation between the church and gay people to sound like this:
Church: God wants you to get married.
Gay: Ok. I’m gay. So should I marry a man?
Church: No. You are a man. And marriage is between a man and a woman.
Gay: Ok. So should I marry a woman?
Church: No. You shouldn’t do that to someone. You would ruin her life.
Gay: I completely agree. And I don’t want to do that anyway. But God wants me to get married?
Church: Yes. He wants us all to get married and have families.
Gay: And it would be wrong for me to marry a woman?
Church: Yes. How dare you consider the thought.
Gay: Then I’ll just marry a man.
Church: No. That’s wrong. Homosexuality is a sin. Marriage is between a man and a woman.
Gay: Yes. But if either way is wrong then I might as well marry someone I can actually love and feel fulfilled with.
Church: If you do, you are no longer welcome in this church. BUT WE STILL LOVE YOU.
Gay: Well then what does God want from me?
Church: God wants you to get married.
Gay: But I shouldn’t marry a man or a woman, according to you. So what’s my alternative?
Church: Well. It’s not part of God’s plan. But we guess you’ll just have to stay single and alone for the rest of your life.
Gay: Oh is that all?
Church: Yes. Now if you’ll please excuse us, we the leaders of the church need to get back to our spouses and children for some family time.
It’s a gross simplification of a much more complex conversation. And perhaps the biggest flaw in presenting it this way is that it doesn’t account for the fact that church leaders often, if not always, are keenly aware that the counsel they are providing is difficult and that the situation is sensitive. But I know many gay people in the church who feel like this is the conversation they have been having.
What ends up happening, then, is that folks who have never been in the shoes of the people they govern demand an all-or-nothing face-off between gays and the church. Stay here, alone and miserable, or find someone to love and lose everything.
Young gay Mormons are thrust out of their faith, taught to believe that failing to follow church policy on this issue strips them of the opportunity to receive any blessings from God or true fellowship from those who proclaim to follow Him. When departing from church teaching on this one BIG issue leads to such harsh treatment, there is suddenly very little motivation to follow any standards that have previously governed the young gay person’s life. But increasingly, young gay Mormons are determining that they don’t want to go the way of generations past who stayed in the church and were ostracized, if not in word, at least in deed, and lived out their lives unfulfilled and lonely.
I understand that that isn’t the experience of every person in the history of the church. And I have no doubt that some have navigated the course peacefully and would be happy to testify to that. And I hope that I haven’t discounted those types of experiences, inasmuch as they exist.
But the purpose of this writing is to suggest a possible reason that young gay Mormons are falling away from their families and faiths by the thousands. There is a reason that many of them end up directionless, confused, and bitter toward the church and community they once tried so hard to love.
And that reason is that not enough people are actually listening. Perspective has been lost on this. Obsession over traditional idealism has saturated policy so much that there is no longer room for compassion and understanding and open-mindedness in that policy. The kind of open-mindedness that could prevent so many people from spiraling out of control into a lonely course of self-destruction after discovering the impracticality of following that policy and lacking the support system to discover an alternative path.
And everyone is a casualty in this crisis. Some more than others. But everyone suffers.
I’m talking about the parents who don’t know how to convince their child that there is a God who loves him when rhetoric repeated from a pulpit by those who represent that God make the child feel hated.
I’m talking about friends of gay people who love their faith but don’t know how to continue in that faith when strict allegiance to it feels grossly uncompassionate.
And I’m talking about those young gay people who have spent a lifetime so far trying to fit in to a church and community that has mocked, judged, and condemned them, all in the name of righteousness.
I don’t know exactly what the answer should be to all of this. But I suspect that my community and the church leaders could do a much better job at compassionately considering the pain and impracticality of the proposed courses. I imagine that there is a much better alternative than telling gay people that they do not belong if they seek same-sex companionship and only letting them feel like they kind of belong if they don’t. And I have to believe that there is a better solution than approaching the situation in a way that is causing people to feel they have to tow the line or totally leave.
If the church is going to wander the Earth proclaiming to be for “everyone,” then I think it needs to act like it’s for everyone. I think it needs to focus on its incredibly beautiful and pure doctrines of selflessness, and service, and charity, and sacrifice, and embrace anyone who tries to live those doctrines on whatever level and in whatever capacity they are able.
This probably starts with at least ceasing the unnecessary and unproductive rhetoric about the “evils” of same-gender companionship. And it certainly extends as far as actually embracing those around us who don’t face the exact same life and choices we do. It means embracing them in deed and not just in word. And it means doing so to create a safe and truely charitable environment for every sincere soul to live in, regardless of their life circumstances.
It’s not going to be an easy evolution. But it’s a necessary one. And one that would help a wonderful organization do much greater good. And that’s not such a bad thing.
~It Just Gets Stranger