Given last Thursday’s launch of the Church’s new website addressing same-sex attraction and gay issues, I’m going to take a brief break from the multi-part conversation I started in my previous post. There’s been no shortage of news media about Mormons and homosexuality since the Church launched MormonsAndGays.org, appropriately titled “Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction.”
Immediately following the Thursday 8:30am launch of the site, and in the days since then, there’s been a flurry of commentary about the website in news media outlets from the Washington Post to Slate Magazine to the Huffington Post (see a sampling of additional media on a previous NL post).
As a part of that media inquiry about the new tone the Church is taking on gay issues, CNN wanted to explore it as part of a Sunday morning feature called “Faces of Faith.” And because my profile was one of those included on the Church’s new website, I was asked if I’d be willing to participate. The way it was initially described to me was that it would be additional profile of my personal experience, so I agreed (I don’t like others speaking for my beliefs and experiences, so I don’t want to speak for others’ either—and I certainly can’t speak for the Church).
The plot thickened, however, when they conveniently told me minutes before I went on that I would be sharing the time with a “gay ex-Mormon” so that the discussion was “balanced”, but they didn’t say who. Now, I’m all in favor of balance, but I don’t know if the last-minute notification was an oversight, correction of a miscommunication, or something intentional, and I don’t want to accuse CNN of anything because they were a pleasure to work with, but it certainly wasn’t what I was anticipating. As you’ll see in the clip below, the “time sharer” was Justin Utley, a gentleman fairly close to my age with whom I briefly attended an Evergreen-affiliate support group in Provo, UT, about 10 years ago.
I wasn’t in love with how it turned out (I had no point of visual reference and I’m not at all used to media interviews like this so my eyes are all over the place—and my lips were really chapped!… I couldn’t find my Carmex and “the other leading brand” just isn’t as good. Just sayin.) but here’s the video, which I’ll follow with a debrief:
It’s been interesting to sit with this and digest what happened. I’ve been involved in many many different types of conversations around this issue with people from all points of view for well over a decade now, and there are lots of reasonable people from all perspectives who can engage the topic intelligently and respectfully, and I enjoy the nuanced and textured conversations, including with those who disagree with me, but I still have so little experience with news media and I certainly don’t to soundbites well.
Encouraging Acceptance and Love
There are a couple pieces to this that I think are interesting. One is this sort of de facto assumption that to accept and love someone means that you agree with them or that you approve of or affirm certain life choices (as opposed to affirming and honoring their right to make such choices)—and, thus, that the Church’s call for compassion and conversation and acceptance of people, loving them unconditionally and embracing friendship and relationship with them whatever their beliefs might be or wherever they may be in their life path, is perceived as a step toward affirmation or moral approval of gay relationships. Which strikes me as incredibly non-discerning.
As a brief parenthetical, I want to acknowledge that some Church members get a little antsy about the term “unconditional love” because of what they think it implies, and I’m well aware of the article addressing the topic, but I would respectfully offer the alternative perspective that God’s love, Divine love, can correctly be characterized as unconditional and that it’s absolutely the right word choice—we just have to understand what unconditional love really implies. One of my favorite thoughts on God’s love is by Brad Wilcox from his chapter in Voices of Hope:
“[T]he love of God and Christ is not like a good grade to be given to those who earn it. They love us—not because we are always good, but because They are. It is part of their character. They love those they serve and succor and they serve and succor each of us without ceasing.”
Unconditional love is just that: loving others without placing condition on that love. As the apostle John noted, “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” Because God is love, He can’t not love—it’s the very essence of His being. And if we are to become love as He is love, then it must become the very essence of our beings as well. True love is not permissive, and true love is intelligent—and it always has the good of the recipient in mind. Sometimes love requires us to open our mouths and sometimes it requires us to keep them shut; and sometimes love would requires us to bestow blessing and privilege and sometimes it requires us to withhold them.
As a faith community, we’re doing a remarkably better job at balancing unconditional love and compassion toward ourselves and others with conviction in and fidelity to revealed truths. And I add ourselves in there because it’s just as much a struggle to balance how we treat and relate to ourselves. It’s a difficult tension and most people tend to err on one side or the other—toward being exclusive, unempathetic and uncompassionate (which leads to shame within and pride without) or toward being permissive, with a belief that to truly love and accept someone means you affirm and embrace any choice they might make. In Buddhist thought, this kind of permissive love isn’t pure love at all and is considered a delusion. C.S. Lewis offered the following insight on this kind of love:
“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness- the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven- a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. . . . I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.” (The Problem of Pain, pp.31-32)
True love, or charity, the pure love of Christ, “seeketh not her own” (Moroni 7:45). While the natural man would primarily seek people who are like us—“birds of a feather flock together,” the saying goes—charity seeks out those who are different, those who are not like us. As I mentioned in the video, I very much see this website as a huge step toward helping us as a Church body, a community of believers, grow into a more compassionate and empathic relationship with those who experience same-sex attraction, whether they choose to be in a gay relationship and perhaps leave the Church or whether they seek to find resolution within the framework of Church teachings on chastity and marriage. Whatever our differences, we’re people first, children of God first, and once we’ve drawn that circle around “us” as us, we can then have meaningful conversations around our differences.
I see this as a huge and positive step toward opening and encouraging important conversations around an issue that has been too taboo for too long, with our cultural attitudes too prone to facilitating shame—and, thus, emotional isolation and, thus, for many, suicidal ideation and, thus, for some (and any is too many) suicide. I don’t, however, see this as a step toward doctrinal inclusion or affirmation of gay or lesbian relationships. And I’m willing to go on the record as saying I’m fully convinced that those who believe or hope this will be the case are definitively wrong—beautiful and wonderful people, but wrong nonetheless.
Support Groups are Not Reparative Therapy
Another piece I wanted to address in relation to the CNN interview is actually related to my previous post and some thoughts on the topic of “reparative therapy” and “sexual reorientation” that I’ll discuss in more depth later. I’m not necessarily a proponent of reparative therapy as there are some assumptions that I find theoretically problematic, but I also find the way most people in our lay cultural dialogue talk about it to be really stupid and ill-informed and as a means to make some kind of pejorative and propaganda-esque point. This particular exchange being demonstrative of that. But, before I unpack this a bit, I also want to go on the record as saying that while I haven’t had contact or spoken with Justin in years, I thought he was a great guy back when I knew him. I really liked him, and he’s a remarkably talented musician. And while I’m not willing to argue with him, publicly or privately, I certainly don’t have any negative feelings toward him.
At one point in this exchange, Justin made the comment that he and I attended “Ex-gay therapy… Evergreen therapy… reparative therapy through the Church”. Say what?…!?… *facepalm* We attended the Provo Evergreen-affiliate support group for a brief time—two months maybe. I know I attended for only a couple of months and my memory is that he attended for an even shorter period of time, but I don’t know for sure. I just know that he started later than I did and I don’t know if he kept attending when I stopped. And then we periodically hung out with a similar group of friends for some period of time after that.
Now, to unpack… First, I’ve only on very rare occasions heard Latter-day Saints use the term “ex-gay”, and I don’t think I heard it once during the time we attended the group we did. That’s more of an evangelical Christian/Exodus term—one that’s fairly antiquated at that and I’m not sure how much even evangelical ministries even use it anymore. Perhaps some do but I certainly don’t hear it much.
Second, Evergreen is not “the Church” (there’s been an unofficial relationship with the Church, evidenced by the Church’s willingness to appoint a General Authority to address their annual conference, but my sense is that there’s been mixed feelings even in higher-level leadership about that relationship); Evergreen-affiliate groups aren’t even really Evergreen (they’re independent support groups that meet some base-level standard of organization established by Evergreen in order for them to make referrals); and Evergreen-affiliate support groups are not therapy. There wasn’t anything about it that was even all that therapeutic for me other than it was one of my first experiences meeting other guys who experienced SSA who were trying to follow Church teachings, which was initially very helpful. When the positive of that ended and I started to feel stagnant, my attendance ended as well. One thing I can say definitively is that it wasn’t “Ex-gay reparative therapy through the Church”.
Since different Evergreen-affiliate support groups operate somewhat differently, with perhaps even the Provo group varying over time, I can only speak for the brief time Justin and I attended that particular group together, but during each weekly 2-hour meeting we spent the first hour with people rotating to teach a sort of gospel/inspirational lesson and then the second hour we were divided into “rendering” subgroups where each guy had an opportunity to discuss/process their week, what it primarily turned toward was accountability around masturbation and pornography use.
Participating on the CNN feature wasn’t a bad experience but I’m not sure what exactly to make of it either. There wasn’t time to address the topic in any meaningful way, but I know I wasn’t willing to get sucked in to any red herring topics like whether or not Evergreen support groups are “reparative therapy through the Church” or whether or not Justin should have attended more therapy—so I elected to ignore the comments and choose to say at least a short piece of what I was initially told to prepare. In the end, I’m glad I did it.