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Since announced in 1995 General Conference, the Proclamation to the World on the Family has gone from principles widely embraced as sensible measures for the common good to something baffling and even threatening to many in society today. While it remains an inspired roadmap for those seeking to understand God’s plan of salvation, more and more people over recent years have engaged in an exercise of picking apart and deconstructing the document’s origins in a way that dismisses and actively questions its message.
What is it exactly that has led so many to see a single document with such profound suspicion in a relatively short space of time?
Rapid changes in social practice and policy are the most obvious answer. I’d like to propose here a little more attention to the larger meta-narrative accompanying those same changes. Critiques on the proclamation have never happened in a vacuum – set against a conversational backdrop and interpretive framework that has become widely embraced as simple reality, and not even worth discussing anymore.
Prevailing terms of public conversation. For example, it has become almost universally taken for granted that rapid social changes around sexual practices and identities represent a natural step forward – a civil rights advancement – for society. While certainly an expanded societal pluralism has fostered greater mutual appreciation, an ideology of ongoing liberation from structural oppression has now become the de facto, virtually unquestioned starting point for most public discussions about sexuality today.
Elder Neil L. Anderson raised a different perspective in our most recent general conference – one that underscores an interesting and important difference in overall framing implicit in Latter-day Saint teaching. Mid-point in his talk, he said this:
In my lifetime, we have seen a dramatic change in the world’s beliefs about many of the principles taught in the proclamation. During my teenage and early married years, many in the world walked away from the Lord’s standard we call the law of chastity, that sexual relations are to occur only between a man and a woman who are lawfully married. In my 20s and 30s, many walked away from the sacred protection of the unborn, as abortion became more acceptable. In more recent years, many have walked away from God’s law that marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman.
Rather than positioning rapid social changes as squarely within the history of progressive advancement of civil rights alone, Elder Anderson highlights here another context often ignored: the intensifying rejection of God’s word connected with the advancing sexual revolution.
This contrast in overall framing is significant, partly because narratives are so significant. Rather than just telling stories, it’s clear that human beings also live stories they’ve come to embrace as true and real. And for individuals, young and old, who have taken civil rights as the proper (and often exclusive) backdrop for conversations about sexuality today, there are many ways this chosen narrative influences what they consider, believe and do (and don’t do, believe and consider) – especially in relation to faith and family.
This oppression framework also influences larger public conversation and the space for religious perspectives to be raised on these same questions. After all, who are we to stand in the way of a march for expanded civil rights?
The waning of collective curiosity. The moral force of civil rights is, no doubt, one reason why the goodness-of-fit between this larger framework and questions of sexuality today has been so rarely questioned (and why our concerns can be so easily dismissed).
Admittedly, I used to be full of my own curiosity about interesting differences in how associated questions might be understood and approached (e.g., what role does choice play in our evolving understanding of our identities; how have the words acceptance, compassion, or inclusivity come to mean such different things to thoughtful, good-hearted people?)
I also used to really think many other people would find these contrasts interesting, which is why I started a blog called FlirtingwithCuriosity.org years back. But all that shifted for me upon discovering how profoundly uninterested many in society have become in regards to exploring any of this. Although I’ve experienced many times for myself the power of productive, open-hearted conversation between folks who disagree on these important questions, it eventually dawned on me why so many people weren’t interested in this kind of a spacious, less adversarial conversation.
The fact of the matter is: a narrower, more pointed public conversation centered on sorting out who is loving (or not), inclusive (or not) and tolerant (or not) has been remarkably effective in advancing a certain cause and convincing many of its superior goodness, despite fundamental misrepresentations it consistently makes of Christian views (see longer explanation here).
A conversation with results. As evidenced by statistics over the last decade, these pointed, accusing terms of conversation have worked well in convincing multitudes of Americans that the entire LGBT movement is inspired and deserving of virtually unconditional support. In the same moment, this same beguiling conversational frame has helped convince many of these same multitudes that orthodox religious beliefs and practices are suspect.
“I just can’t support a Church that is hurting gay kids.”
How many of us have heard something like this over recent years?
As unfair as that may sound, it really is what many have come to believe.
But why? That’s the question I’m suggesting can only be answered fully by more careful attention to the subtle, but profound influence of a dominant civil rights framework focused on rights denied, justice unfulfilled, and equality subverted – along with the identity of these precious children taken for granted as an obvious given.
Pressurizing the conversation. While many of us have worked to preserve space, patience, and freedom required in a healthy public discourse, activists have often invoked just the opposite – bringing impatience, growing pressure, and relentless legal challenge. Behind that aggressive conversion campaign is a level of absolutist certainty about big human questions that is striking. For instance, while questions of identity and love have been debated for thousands of years (with no consensus agreement in sight), families with a child experiencing same-sex attraction can hardly go online without hearing from activists insisting: we know who your child is, the only question is whether others will be loving-enough-to-accept that!
In short, once we’ve accepted these broader terms of conversation, there just isn’t a lot of space for a truly pluralistic, open exchange where people can consider other views of personal identity, especially those involving profound transformations of self. Rather than simply “discovering an obvious identity,” Christ calls us to a stretching, exalting process of evolving as eternal beings who are delivered, cleansed, and changed as “new creatures in Christ.”
All that, I would argue, is far too easily overlooked and even taken as insulting within a narrative that sees identity as a simple given, and other crucial concepts (such as acceptance, inclusivity and compassion) defined in a shouldn’t-that-be-obvious-to-anyone-with-a-heart sort of way. And once that entire framing is taken for granted and set in place, the conversation kind of just goes on its own and arrives where you might expect – predictably, almost algorithmically.
This is the modern fight for civil rights =>
That’s clearly something I should be supporting =>
But wait, who are those cruel people opposing this advancement of justice and equality?
The right answer to that formula has become frighteningly simple (cue references to “heteronormative” bias, “straight supremacy,” white nationalism, etc.).
Inviting a bigger conversation. On this important question of bigotry, President Russell M. Nelson is quoted in his recent biography as saying, “There are those who label us [as] bigots, but the bigots are those who don’t allow us to feel as we feel but want us to allow them to feel as they feel.”[i]
Why can’t our critics see their own aggression? Because they’ve adopted a narrative convincing them that we are the aggressors. By virtue of believing something fundamentally different about who they are – and who they can become – our community of prophet-led believers has come to feel like a visceral threat not simply to a broader cultural movement, but also to a personal sense of self for many.[ii]
But what if we speak the truth about human identity and eternal possibilities? After referring to the responsibility and calling they feel as prophets to “teach the Father’s requirements for exaltation in the celestial kingdom,” President Nelson acknowledged in a powerful recent talk, “in doing so, sometimes we are accused of being uncaring,” before asking, “But wouldn’t it be far more uncaring for us not to tell the truth – not to teach what God has revealed?”
I pray our critics, including some who used to be among us as brothers and sisters, will hear with fresh ears our collective witness – and open their hearts just long enough to consider the stunning possibility that the prophets are seeing this clearly – and speaking ahead of the times, not behind.
If none of this is persuasive enough, I plead with our critics to consider this invitation from President Nelson: “Ask your Heavenly Father if we truly are the Lord’s prophets and prophets. Ask if we have received revelation on this and other matters.”
If you’re convinced we’re full of it, please at least allow a Divine third-party arbiter the chance to convince you otherwise!
Having said all this, I admittedly fear that many have become so deeply convicted of the righteousness of their new cause and mission that they can hardly consider anymore another way of thinking.
Is the same thing true of us? No. We will hear out the hearts of those who disagree. Even if we end up still diverging in our conclusions, we will adamantly not seek to shut their voices out of public discourse.
Yet many critical voices seek to do just that to us.
In this way, many wonderful people have become blinded to the goodness and beauty they used to see in the “cause of Christians” (Alma 48:10). Isn’t this precisely what we’ve been learning recently from the poetic Apostle Paul?
The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness….The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him (1 Corinthians 1: 22-23; 2:14)
How again can God’s truth be so easily dismissed as “foolishness,” then and now? I’ve argued here it’s because the larger narratives they adopt lead them to see (mis-see) truth in this way – writing it off as mere insult or absurdity.
Another way to follow Christ. If that’s true, then maybe it’s time to stop engaging in conversation with the terms provided by critics. Maybe it’s time to do as Jesus frequently did – and redirect conversation towards a framework that will allow the full truth to be more readily considered. That means insisting upon and working towards a bigger conversation in which the truth of the Proclamation may not be so quickly dismissed by those around the world who could still be powerfully blessed by its words.
What would that look like? And how could we pursue it?
We might start by reminding people that human beings have disagreed widely about questions of love and identity for thousands of years – and that our modern black-and-white sorting into who is “loving (or not), compassionate (or not), bigoted (or not)” is remarkably, frighteningly limited by those standards.
My experience has been that for most people, the light bulb goes on in that moment, as they readily agree something isn’t quite right with the larger public conversation today.
We can also reassure people that a bigger conversation wouldn’t disallow attention to civil rights, as much as call for a more nuanced civil rights frame, allowing space for philosophical and theological disagreements that go well beyond its exclusive boundaries. This more complex view of civil rights would make healthy democratic space for ongoing deliberation, and provide a check on the tendency to automatically interpret any concerns raised as lamentable resistance to “justice, equality, basic rights, etc.”
This is not an honest picture of our disagreements, and we need to let people know that – at least if we seriously hope to see public conversation take into account the sincere teachings of latter-day prophets. If we shrink from this task and are forced to continue forward within the current predominant framework, it seems to me that prophetic teachings have little chance at being understood, considered and explored legitimately, at least with any nuance. In this way, the outcome of conversation becomes almost predetermined.
This is true for big or small questions. When a woman in Heber city persuaded the city to fly rainbow flags throughout the community, one could imagine a reasonable conversation ensuing between people with sincere disagreements about sexuality, identity, public funds, etc.
Instead, the resulting public discussion was predictable:
- Flag advocate as a brave, forward-thinker advancing civil rights: “I just felt very moved that it was time for us … in my community, and Utah as a whole, to look past some of the older thoughts and beliefs and start saying we care more about people than we care about what happens behind closed doors.”
- City leaders flummoxed that anyone would disagree: “Mayor Kelleen Potter, who gave the Pride flags the official stamp of approval, said she’s been surprised by the volume of feedback on the matter. She said she viewed the flags as a commemoration of a civil rights issue.”
- Those with concerns portrayed as quaint, small-minded and retrograde (see social media feeding frenzy).
What else could those in Heber City with concerns have done?
Just what Elder Anderson and President Nelson have most recently done: lovingly, respectfully pointing out another framework in which our beliefs and values – and the Proclamation itself – can have legitimate space to be understood.
From that latter frame, we also might have a shot at a productive conversation – one with space for disagreement, and one that presumes thoughtful, good-hearted citizens on both sides. By contrast, from a particularly narrow (or exclusive) civil rights frame, there’s not much more you can expect, beyond more of the same: pressure, accusation and intensifying demands.
Let’s be courageous and clear with those around us. For the Latter-day Saints, as our prophets are demonstrating, this is not just about civil rights. It’s also about God’s ancient and exalting plans for the human family – which includes all of us, no matter what’s going on inside or around us.
Let’s make sure people know that. And let’s make sure we know that too.
Note to commentators: When you share reflections or responses to this below, please consider not just the trends and movement I’ve identified above, but also our brothers and sisters who deeply, intimately wrestle with these same questions. I’ve tried to do that above, doing my best to keep in mind the real, beating-hearts for whom this matters most. I’m for sure imperfect at this, as you will be. But let’s at least try – seeking to follow the same gentle spirit out of which President Nelson and our other leaders speak: humble, loving, respectful, but still clear. There are many who now disagree with us, but who can one day see what we are seeing, IF they don’t get lost in the fear, sorrow and anger. Let’s make it as easy as we possibly can for others to find that path back, by avoiding Culture War Talk, and language that insinuates conscious malevolence even among our enemies. There’s a huge difference between seeing someone as deeply mistaken vs. deeply ignorant, despicable and evil. And I’m convinced that a good start to all the above is simply making space where thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree, explore and learn from each other (including in our comment sections!) (: Thanks for hearing me out.
[ii] Does this mean productive exchange is impossible between those who have come to believe such fundamentally different things about identity, sexuality, choice, change, the body, and eternity? No, no, no! Once again, I’ve experienced rich, loving conversations for a decade with people who still – to this day, disagree with my view on all of the above. And yet we love each other, and exchange holiday greetings.
Why can’t this become the norm of our community exchange? That’s been my hope. Too many, however, are convinced this would threaten further societal progress – and that unless they keep the pressure on, things won’t go the way they hope.
I believe they’re wrong about that, in dangerous fashion. In an honest, open public discussion, truth is made manifest – and we find ways to make progress together. We find compromises such as Utah legislators exemplified powerfully in recent years. We could do a lot more of that in the future, if people were willing.
I’m afraid they are not. I believe the Saints are willing to go there, but many others have been persuaded dialogue is weakness, and compromise a betrayal. And particularly in our larger political atmosphere, many have become even more convinced that people of orthodox faith represent “the great barrier” to the social progress they desire.