From One Broken Saint To Another: The Messages We Give our Youth

By Kalani Tonga Tukuafu (also published at Feminist Mormon Housewives blog under the title ‘Why “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” Doesn’t Work for Me’

These days, there is much ado about modesty rhetoric. People hotly debate both sides of the issue, with some claiming that “modest is hottest” and women should dress in a manner that will help young men keep their thoughts pure, while others believe that this concept is damaging and objectifying and is inappropriate to teach to young girls. Don’t worry…this is not another modesty post. I don’t know that I have anything to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said by a hundred other people in a hundred other ways on a hundred other blogs. But, a modesty debate on my friend’s Facebook page did start the mental juices flowing in a different direction, and that eventually led me to write this post. The following is a small portion of the conversation we had. It is one person’s response to the idea that leaders need to be more responsible for the content they teach young women/young men/primary children.

“Ok, um, I had the lesson of the chewing gum thing from my own bishop. But to me the lesson was about MY choices and to do your best to stay pure for temple marriage… My point being, yeah you can blame the teacher, but you can also blame the taught. Because we are taught to pray for ourselves what is true and what is not.” (emphasis added)

For very personal reasons, this comment struck a chord deep in my heart. I posted a brief response on my friend’s page and then left the conversation, but the feelings this comment stirred have been simmering inside me ever since.

“…you can also blame the taught.”

No. A thousand times no. And here’s why.

When I was maybe 12 years old, a well-meaning young women’s leader with some very outdated information taught us a lesson on temple marriage. To be honest, I don’t remember the details of most lessons I learned in young women’s, but for reasons that will soon be obvious, I recall the specific content of this one. On this particular Sunday, I heard something that changed the way I viewed myself, and altered the way I viewed marriage. It was a concept I had not been exposed to previously: the idea that LDS men and women should seek to marry within their own race or culture.

As the product of an interracial marriage (my dad is Tongan and my mom’s family is mostly Swedish), hearing that Heavenly Father did not approve of my parents’ marriage was, as I’m sure you can imagine, rather distressing. I was a bright kid. I had been taught right from wrong and knew how to think for myself. Nevertheless, for reasons most Mormons can probably understand, I did not immediately question what my leader taught me at this time. Instead, I internalized this new knowledge and took it a step further by deciding somewhere in the deep, dark depths of my soul that if Heavenly Father disapproved of interracial marriages, this meant that any marriage I entered into would be unacceptable since I brought that interracial aspect into any relationship simply by being biracial. No matter who I chose to marry, we were already in an interracial relationship because I was interracial in and of myself. I remember feeling so confused and conflicted because on the one hand, I loved my mixed background and I was intensely proud of who I am, but on the other hand, I felt like there was a part of me that, through no fault of my own, made me inherently and irrevocably flawed.

I’ve often said that I wish I had more blind faith. I think my life would be so much easier if I didn’t ask so many questions, if I could just take the “this is just the way it is” answer and run with it. But, alas, this is not who I am. I inevitably feel compelled to dig deeper in an attempt to satisfy my need to understand. So, as I puzzled over the idea that God doesn’t approve of interracial marriages, I started digging. I was appalled by what I found. The following quotes were among those I happened across in my search:

“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”
–Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 10, p. 110

“Your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and white races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs until now…there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.”
–LDS First Presidency (George Albert Smith), letter to Virgil H. Sponberg (critic of the anti-black ban), May 5, 1947, quoted in Lester E. Bush, Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview, p. 42

Although these quotes dealt specifically with black-white interracial marriages, in my heart I didn’t differentiate. My dad was dark, my mom was not. In my mind, this put me in the same category as those Brigham Young said deserved “death on the spot.” However, like every good Mormon, I learned to “shelf” these quotes…to set them to the side or put them “on the shelf” along with those other hard things I didn’t understand. So, up on the shelf they went, to sit with the likes of polygamy, ministering angels, and “you will never be tempted past that which ye can bear,” until some glorious future date when hopefully all would be resolved and I would understand. But, something happened fairly recently that caused me to take these quotes back down, dust them off, and reexamine them.

It took me years and, frankly, therapy, to realize that I have carried this sense of being innately flawed into my adulthood. After my marriage fell apart, I remember telling my counselor, “I feel like I can walk into a room full of perfectly wonderful, amazing, good men who all find me attractive, and the only one I will be attracted to is the one with the most emotional baggage.” My counselor looked me in the eye and said, “Yes. Because you feel like their baggage makes yours ok.” And, he was absolutely right. By choosing someone with more baggage than I had, I was essentially letting myself off the hook for being unacceptable (in God’s eyes) for marriage. I learned at 12 years old that God wants us to marry within our own race, realized that because I was already biracial I didn’t have the ability to marry within my own race, and so I subconsciously sought out men who had more undesirable traits than I did in an effort to make my inadequacy “ok.” What I learned when I was 12 years old started me down a path that I truly believe has affected my entire life.

I know that this blog post is jumping all over the place. Modesty rhetoric, interracial marriage, and now I want to talk about homosexuality. This post is kind of a ticking time bomb filled with controversial Mormon topics. I’ve struggled with whether to divulge my feelings for several reasons, but all of those reasons boil down to fear. I’ve been afraid to disappoint my family. I think of my parents and my siblings and my children and I desperately want to make them proud, to spare them from feeling embarrassment because of something I’ve said. I’ve also been afraid to lose my calling. I currently teach Relief Society, and I adore this calling. I feel like I am able to do good and uplift and serve my sisters. This calling makes me feel useful and competent in the adult world, which is something of a rarity in my daily life that is currently filled with diaper changes and feeding babies and substitute teaching at local elementary schools. I love teaching Relief Society, and I’m afraid to lose it. Along those same lines, I’ve been terrified that I could lose my temple recommend. I waited until I was 34 years old to become endowed. I fought my way through doubt and sadness and pain and confusion, and emerged fully prepared to make the covenants required in the temple. I love the temple, even if it simultaneously brings me joy and sorrow. I want to be there, even though I have to once again “shelf” some of those things that I just don’t understand. And, finally, I’ve been afraid of backlash from the LGBTQ community. Recently, I watched as comments from a couple of blog posts on LGBTQ/ally issues kind of blew up. Members of the LGBTQ community were divided, with some saying that allies should stop trying to monopolize the conversation when they don’t really know how it feels or what the issues really are, and others saying that allies should continue to speak up. I almost used this upheaval as a cop out for remaining silent. I said to myself, “See?! Even those you hope to support don’t want you to say anything. Seriously, you should just shut up.” I took their feelings to heart, and I hope that those who feel that allies should wait to speak until spoken to do not see this post as an unwelcome intrusion. Voicing my opinion about homosexuality is scary. I feel like I have a lot to lose. But, I decided that I am no longer willing to let fear silence my voice, and I feel like I owe it to my 12 year old self to speak up. So, here I am.

Here’s the thing about the church’s current stance on homosexuality: it doesn’t work for me. As someone who has felt the pain and confusion of feeling like I am viewed by God as inherently flawed, “love the sinner, hate the sin” just doesn’t work for me. As someone who has felt like no matter who I married, it would not be acceptable to God just because of who I am, this stance doesn’t work for me. We tell our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, “I love you…except for this big part of you that is completely and irretrievably interwoven into the fabric of your soul. I hate that part because it is sinful. But, really, I do love you.” No, sorry, that doesn’t work for me.

So, where does that put me? Am I still on the Lord’s side? I hope that I am. I think there is a place for everyone in the church. I believe in erring on the side of love and on the side of compassion. I do not believe that homosexuality is a choice, and just like I don’t believe that Brigham Young had the final word regarding interracial marriage, I have hope that our current stance regarding homosexuality is not the final word. The amazing thing about our church is its ability to adapt, to change, and to grow. I look at our current attitude towards interracial marriage and I am so grateful for our ability to change and grow. I am grateful that my girls will not be taught by some well-meaning youth leader that loving someone of a different race is unacceptable. But, as peaceful as I feel about the fact that we no longer teach that those who intermarry should be put to death, years later I can still feel and see the effects of being inadvertently told that I was fundamentally defective. And, knowing how that felt for me, it absolutely crushes my soul to think about what we are telling our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I know that this is an old topic. I know that the same things have been rehashed over and over and over again. But, if you could go back and take that young women’s leader’s place, what would you say to my 12 year old self? Would you spare her years of feeling inadequate and unlovable due to circumstances beyond her control? I hope you answered yes. I love the church. I love the gospel. I don’t understand the current stance we’ve taken on homosexuality, and yet I desperately want to be on the Lord’s side. I don’t want to be the cause of another person’s belief that he or she is inherently flawed. I don’t want to be the one that tells another brother or sister, “I love you, but…” I cannot be the one to teach this, and we most certainly cannot “blame the taught” if our teachings cause them to grow up feeling like they are profoundly broken just by being who they are. I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe that we can do better.lovehate


I’m a lifelong Mormon, and a single mom of 5, with 4 children that are 3 or younger. I have a BA in History from BYU, and played volleyball at both BYU and the University of Utah. Before my four youngest were born, I taught 9th grade and coached varsity volleyball; now, I substitute teach so that I have the freedom to take time off when my littles get sick. I’m currently living in the Houston, Texas area, and grew up in Dallas.

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