Saturday, May 12, 2012

Conflation Station

Yesterday, I saw the headline "Mormon church softening on gay marriage" and just had to read. Since the media is usually a century or so behind in the way they talk about LDS issues, I wondered if maybe they were confusing the church-state tension over plural marriage then with gay marriage now? It seemed like as good an explanation as any other.

It turned out they were confused, but in a way that's actually more revealing. The article was about evolving church teachings about and for gay church members (which puts it only 15-20 years behind, not 100)--whoever wrote the headline just assumed that being comfortable with the idea that awesome people have different orientations automatically equates to support for gay marriage.

But in the case of the Church, it doesn't. As far as I can tell, the Church today is striving to be affirming toward (and increasingly sensitive to) same-sex-oriented members committed to celibacy, charitable and understanding to individuals who choose to pursue same-sex relationships (though uncompromising on the teaching that sex is only right in the context of faithful opposite-sex marriage), and to balance significant political opposition to gay marriage with support for the civil rights of gay people (in areas such as housing, employment, and protections from violence).

It's a fairly balanced, moderate position--on an issue where few people are able to recognize that such positions exist.

It seems to me that, sadly, America is moving toward a very binary views of gay rights. EITHER you are pro-LGBT: accepting all committed sexual relationships as equal, attending pride rallies, and (in the case of the T) seeing gender as a personal choice, OR you are anti-LGBT and pretty much in line with the Westboro Baptist Church in your view of LGBT people, only less vocal about it. The erroneous headline "Mormon Church softening on gay marriage" suggests to me that any mid-points are seen as evidence of a shift toward one pole or another, not as viable long-term positions.

If you're interested in how attitudes around this issue are evolving, take a look at the video in the article. Try not to get too offended--the useful thing is to identify to what the gap between Romney and the commentator is, not just to recognize that Romney's statements are being mischaracterized (I like to call it "uncharitably interpreted").

Romney seems to stand for a version of gay rights that recognizes prejudice against gays and attempts to redress it in general human rights areas. His goal is to treat people as people: to create, if you will, a sexual-orientation-blind society, where it's no one's business who you're attracted to and it's illegal to refuse to hire someone or rent them an apartment or anything like that on the basis of orientation. His points to gay members of his team to say that he works with people based on competence, not based on orientation. His comment about "later finding out" judicial appointees were gay is not, I think, some sort of excuse for having appointed gay judges, but rather an indication that "are you gay?" is not part of his background check or interview process. When hiring, Mitt Romney insists he simply doesn't care whether you're gay (and his track record seems to support that assertion). He finds the sin question irrelevant, probably, because it's sort of like finding out Romney believes drinking coffee is a sin and assuming that means he'll discriminate against people who drink coffee. Mitt Romney doesn't want to answer questions about sin in part because he believes in equal legal rights for sinners, from those who use four-letter words to those shop on Sunday to those who have sex outside of opposite-gender marriage.

I think the way Romney distinguishes between his support for gay rights and his opposition to gay marriage is in his insistence that marriage is, by definition, between a man and a woman. He would support the right of any man and any woman to marry each other--even if that man and woman are gay--but for obvious reasons, not many people are interested in that right. It's still worth noting, though, because it suggests that Romney doesn't see himself as offering gay Americans "some of the rights" of straight Americans: he genuinely believes he's offering to protect all the rights every American is equally entitled to. He just thinks that the right of any American, gay or straight or somewhere in-between, to marry a member of the same-sex is a new right, and it's one he doesn't support.

Now, I can understand that for many gay rights advocates, that sort of position is simply not enough. But it's a bit of a stretch to treat it as anti-gay and it's unfair (not to mention bizarre) to suggest from Romney's comments that he wants to distance himself from his judicial appointments of gay people--or, in Romney's terms, people who happen to be gay.

No one really benefits, I think, from trying to push Romney's position into a binary model of pro-gay or hateful.

And, since this is my religious blog, I will add that no one benefits when religious people cast the issue as pro- or anti-faith. Are we guilty of assuming that anyone who supports gay rights is also against our religious rights? If so, we need to repent. Because no one benefits from that sort of either-or thinking.


  1. I agree that everywhere I turn I'm being forced by the media to adopt some polar position. Ugh. I suppose if polarity sells papers, you tend to see the world through those lenses. If I were a member of congress, I'd resign too over the demise of the middle ground.

  2. Wait a minute. Hasn't it been illegal for a long time already to discriminate against people in housing, employment, etc.?

    1. Well, the 14th amendment barred the government from discriminating, but I don't think it was until the late 1960s that people started extended those laws into the private sector. And many of the non-discrimination laws about the private sector had language about race, but not necessarily about other things. Disability was added in many areas in the 1990s. Sexual orientation was voluntarily added by colleges and many businesses around the same time, but is still making its way into the law books now.

      To a certain extent, it's correct that Romney is in favor of protections that are already in place. But they're not as old as we'd like to think. And there is more many cities and states could (and probably ought) to do on this front.

  3. Nice job here, dissecting a very nuanced issue and where the church stands on it...

  4. Interesting article. If you are open to a discussion on semantics I might contend your use of the words "affirming toward" in this sentence:
    "As far as I can tell, the Church today is striving to be affirming toward (and increasingly sensitive to) same-sex-oriented members committed to celibacy, charitable..." Did you have particular reasoning for choosing those words?
    PS Jocelyn linked me here... I am increasingly interested in the core church doctrines regarding our LGBT brothers and sisters.

    1. CK,

      I can see why that word choice (which I did not consider deeply) is open for semantic contention. And I think the semantic discussion would be productive here.

      Typically in discussions of LGBT issues, "affirm" is used to describe a position of approving of the sexual choices that often go with different orientations. So in that sense, it's strange to use "affirming" and "celibate" in the same sentence. But because "affirm" also means supporting and validating more broadly, I think there is a real sense in which this has been taking place for about the past 15 years. That is, there was a time when homosexuality was only discussed in the church negatively in context of sexual acts. Since Pres. Hinckley, there's also been an official acknowledgement that same-sex orientation exists and that many very good and faithful members of the church are oriented toward members of the same sex.

      So...I'm not an official spokesperson or anything, but my sense on the core church concepts on this issue are as follows:
      1) Sexuality is sacred to opposite-gender marriage relationships designed to have vertical and horizontal dimensions (see my four-part series on gay marriage for a discussion of these terms:
      2) Some people are not sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex. We don't know why, but we do know that these people have the same dignity of all God's children and that those who live faithful lives are worthy of a special respect for their difficult choices.

      The piece I still see as missing is a way to talk about same-sex orientation as more than a trial. I mean, I think it's OK to talk about it as a trial or challenge, but I'd love to have a clearer way to express how that part of a person can also bring out blessings that might not be as easy to access otherwise, or how it might make them special tools in the hand of God.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Hi James,
    I am sorry that I keep deleting the same comment over and over but my ideas keep evolving throughout the day-so sorry! Your original post is a discussion on institutional policies of the church. So I think you are right to say that the church affirms celibacy outside of a heterosexual marriage. But on a personal level I think it is important to note we that we affirm, love and support each other (no matter sexual orientation) as fully integrated human beings.
    [[You can prob see my original comment in your html or something but I just re-worded that part.]]
    I love what you said, “I think it's OK to talk about it as a trial or challenge, but I'd love to have a clearer way to express how that part of a person can also bring out blessings that might not be as easy to access otherwise, or how it might make them special tools in the hand of God.” I believe that any honest expression of love, empathy, compassion, loyalty or kindness should be regarded with our most upright respect regardless of anyone’s sexual orientation so your last sentence really hits home for me.

  7. I discovered your web site via Google while looking for a related subject, lucky for me your web site came up, its a great website. I have bookmarked it in my Google bookmarks. You really are a phenomenal person with a brilliant mind!



Related Posts with Thumbnails