By Scott H
“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” George Carlin
“Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. And that which does not edify is not of God, and is darkness.” D&C 50:22-23
It has been said that whoever frames the debate, wins the argument. Religion, when it becomes a forum for a debate of ideas, is particularly prone to “framing”. Religious terms are expansive, fluid and abstract. It is easy to take for granted that any two people are going to vary only in the degree in which they view terms such as “faith”, “God” and “worthiness” in different lights, not whether in fact there is disagreement. On a personal level, I’ve had incredibly edifying experiences when I’ve listened to others’ perceptions of the meaning behind foundational religious. At my worst, however, I’ve at times used the ambiguity of a term, not to promote understanding but to accomplish a personal agenda. For instance, when discussing religion with a highly educated acquaintance, I was posed with the question “do Mormons believe that you must be baptized Mormon to go to heaven”. I answered, “No, in fact we believe that very few people will actually go to hell”. My answer, according to my unique definition of heaven, hell, and baptism was technically accurate. But it was incomplete to the point of being disingenuous. The biggest problem with my answer wasn’t my brevity, but my motives. I was attempting to satisfy my egoic need to appear universally minded as opposed religiously fundamentalist.
In certain cases, our lack of exposure to people of other faiths leads to genuine misunderstandings. Many theological misunderstandings are the results of siloed groups becoming “separated by a common language” where terms are just similar enough to cause people to talk past each other without recognizing the language barrier. Through concerted and honest efforts, these dialogic gaps can be bridged. I’m thinking of the great work done by Stephen E. Robinson, Craig Blomberg and others in engaging in theological discussions about how Mormons and Evangelicals view typical Christian themes such as grace and works.
What was successful about the “How Wide the Divide” book and lecture series was that an entrenched institutional battle was transformed into a personified, individual mediation. Institutions have positions, not dialogue. Some institutions are limited in their ability to define the terms in the debate, either because the institution is more reliant on common, universal idioms (ie governments) or because the realm of authority of the institution has developed generally accepted definitions that deal more in the concrete than in the abstract (ie science).
In the Mormon church it is perhaps not surprising that in the process of becoming a peculiar people, we have produced a peculiar lexicon. It is also, perhaps not surprising that the church and institutions which recognize and further church authority use language as a means to further an agenda, even at the expense of the transparency and understanding that is lost when “speaker of the word” and “hearer of the word” are effectively hearing and speaking different words.
A few examples of how this happen at an individual level. We sometimes choose to view those members who disagree with certain teachings as “prideful” because we’ve defined pride as “enmity with God (and his chosen representatives)”. We sometimes choose to define honest discussion of differing views as “the spirit of contention”. At an institutional level, the church has at times argued that the term “Christian” should be wide enough to include all who believe, regardless of affiliation, while the term “Mormon” should be narrow enough to exclude all who don’t affiliate with the Brighamite branch of restorationism, regardless of belief in the founding tenants of Mormonism.
I was reminded of this very human, very Mormon technique of defining terms to win an argument when I recently read a news release by Tyler Moore of North Star entitled: “Clarifying North Stars Position on Changing Orientation”. I was struck by how this article framed its position by simultaneously utilizing a very broad definition of one term (“gospel”), and a very narrow definition of another (“reparative therapy”).
The term “gospel” appears nine times in North Star’s statement. Perhaps if I were to appear at a church event and ask someone to define “the gospel” I could draw a few chuckles. When I was a new Elder in the Mission Training Center, one of my teachers had us circle 3 Nephi 27, verses 13 through 21. The set of verses begin and end with Jesus stating “this is my gospel”. This narrow definition of the gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, love) is found at other times in the standard works, along with admonitions not to declare the gospel to be more or less than what Jesus taught it to be.
It became clear to me while reading the North Star statement that they were relying on a much broader definition of gospel than that which Jesus is quoted as providing in the LDS scriptures, which say nothing of finding peace and love in committed same gender relationships. Rather, “the gospel” according to North Star is closely linked in most of the time with the term “covenants”.
North Star takes no official position on the origin or mutability of homosexual feelings and attractions but supports all efforts consistent with the gospel that help individuals live in more full harmony with their covenants
Now, as a baptized, confirmed, ordained and endowed man, I can think of no covenant that I have made that makes any mention to same gender relationships. Thus, the “gospel” of North Star is limited not by the definition of the gospel as found in the standard works, nor by the explicit language of the covenants that they marry with the gospel, but by the current institutional limitations on participation in covenants by LGBT individuals. The problem with this definition is that this particular gospel will of necessity be anything but “everlasting” as institutional approaches to homosexuality within the church are changing with increasing rapidity. The problem is that by defining the gospel as meaning “those current approaches to homosexuality that have been enshrined in church newsroom articles and the church handbook” as opposed to “the good news of Christ” as found in LDS scriptures, the “gospel” is no longer an anchor but a weather vane, shifting just as quickly as the winds of change among the current leadership will allow. Furthermore, this “redefinition” of the term gospel allows them to put God’s stamp of approval on their approach – after all, it is “gospel” – and who can argue with the gospel?
While the “gospel” of North Star has been greatly amplified in its meaning, North Star seems to be avoiding the third rail of “reparative therapy” by squishing the term into the smallest box available.
While many who attend the weekend find it highly therapeutic, it is a peer-led program and this position accurately reflects Steven’s view that the Journey Into Manhood weekend is not a form of reparative therapy, which, if accurately understood, is a specific and specialized therapeutic modality with a narrow set of assumptions developed by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi and employed by very few outside of Nicolosi’s Los Angeles-based clinic.
Reparative therapy is now the subject of a landmark lawsuit brought by Michael Ferguson and the Southern Poverty Law Center against JONAH (“Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality” or “Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing”, depending where you look on their website). Incidentally, Michael, a former Mormon met his counselor at a Journey Into Manhood event. While the North Star statement preceded the announcement of the lawsuit by a couple of weeks, the writing is on the wall for reparative therapy and the organizations that support it. An institution’s primary motive is often survival, so the stance isn’t surprising.
But if North Star isn’t trying to change gay people so that they aren’t gay, then what are they trying to do? “North Star supports all efforts consistent with the gospel that help individuals live in more full harmony with their covenants…. North Star holds that the power and grace of Christ enables each individual to renounce behavior and manage thoughts that will prevent him or her from returning into His presence” (emphasis added).
I’m not a therapist, and I don’t claim to have any specialized knowledge in clinical approaches to homosexuality. But perhaps other lay people can forgive me for failing to understand how supporting all efforts to renounce gay behavior and manage gay thoughts is different from supporting “reparative therapy”. Especially for an organization that has counseled that: “Identifying yourself primarily by your sexual feelings, whether gay or straight, has been discouraged by our leaders”. If the gay experience is completely encapsulated by your feelings or behaviors, then how is a renunciation of gay behavior and thoughts anything but a complete renunciation of a person’s “gay-ness”?
As a straight man whose affiliation with Mormonism is as thin as a thread, I recognize that my perspective of the LGBT Mormon experience is woefully inadequate. I mean no personal attack, and I sincerely hope that I have not misrepresented North Star or its leadership. Many individuals that I respect, including contributors of this blog, have spoken positively of their experiences with North Star. However, I do strongly believe that we if we are to build bridges of understanding on the issue of the LGBT experience within Mormonism, no one should lay claim to inviolate terms that are simple reductions for the purpose of winning an argument. North Star and other organizations are laying claim to the term gospel while eschewing the term reparative therapy. A rational discussion of the common language that separates us may help us discover that the wider “reparative therapy” shoe may fit the North Star foot better than the narrow “gospel” shoe that is looking a bit too snug.