“So many things are happening within the Church and LDS culture that indicate a broadening understanding of the variety of sexual orientations and a more civil approach to addressing it.”
by Trevor Cook
This month’s Ensign (March 2014) carried a partial reprint of a Brigham Young University-Idaho devotional address by Elder Tad R. Callister titled “The Lord’s Standard of Morality .” When I read it, I was shocked at the apparent distance of the non-heterosexual Latter-day Saint’s experience from the thoughts or understanding of even as high a church leader as this member of the Presidency of the Seventy.
Elder Callister’s brief section headed as “Same-Gender Relationships” centers on a prescription: “Those with same-gender tendencies have a duty (1) to abstain from immoral relationships and (2) do all within their power to avail themselves of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement.”
With no other context, the phrase “same-gender tendencies” could reasonably be interpreted as tendencies one holds in common with others of his or her same gender. Here, it can only be understood as referring to sexuality because of an earlier paragraph’s mention of “same-gender relationship[s]” being inconsistent with “God’s eternal pattern” and the culturally LDS association of the phrase “same-gender” with homosexuality. Such vague and imprecise phrasing rhetorically denies the significance of real and valued feelings of gays, lesbians, and others. Within this discursive framework, genuine feelings of love, affection, and goodwill do not spring from a natural physical orientation toward or even an “attraction” for those of the same-sex; rather, they are the illusions of a “tendency” that results not in real relationships but some sort of inherently different and morally reprehensible “same-gender relationship.” Elder Callister thus rhetorically deliberately dismisses the actual feelings and experience of his professed audience.
But, what is wrong with the counsel “(1) to abstain from immoral relationships and (2) do all within [your] power to avail [yourselves] of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement”? On the surface, nothing. Indeed, is this not what all disciples of Christ should be striving to do? The problem, again, stems from the statement’s discursive and cultural context.
The mainstream Church culture embodied in the official Ensign magazine idealizes the heterosexual pairing as key to earthly and eternal happiness in a way that implies that full earthly happiness is virtually out of reach for those who cannot meet that standard for whatever reason–be they gay, divorced, or otherwise unattached. Elder Callister condemns “same gender relationship[s]” as “inconsistent with God’s eternal pattern…” and then warns those with “same-gender tendencies” to “abstain from immoral relationships,” conforming to the cultural precedent of denying those on the high side of the Kinsey scale (those mostly or exclusively romantically attracted to those of the same sex) a “righteous” opportunity for full earthly happiness. The failure–as always–to provide a constructive alternative to those in this dilemma beyond simply rejecting their natural ability to participate in wholesome and meaningful (but “sinful”) relationships belies a likely lack of genuine empathy on the part of the speaker.
The implicit logic behind the exhortation that those “with same-gender tendencies… do all within their power to avail themselves of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement” is even more pernicious. According to the common understanding of the Plan of Salvation, all people sin, and everyone should avail themselves of these atoning powers. However, a “duty” unique to “those with same-gender tendencies” implies special sinfulness inherent in this population. Their duty is to be “refined” and “perfected” in this area, despite their “worthiness” to hold Church positions and receive temple recommends when they do not act on their “tendencies.” This counsel, following the previous paragraph’s assertion that “…[the] Atonement has the capacity in this life or the life to come to… convert our weaknesses and imperfections into strengths,” plainly connotes an idea of changeability of sexual orientation prevalent in the cultural tradition of the Church.
Elder Callister’s observation of the changing power of the Atonement coming into effect “in this life or the life to come” as well as his pointed designation of an “interim” between when temple recommend “worthy” members begin to “avail themselves” of atoning power and when they are finally “refined” and “perfected” feels to me like yet another denial of any opportunity for real earthly happiness, again with no constructive advice for handling the situation other than to wait it out.
So many things are happening within the Church and LDS culture that indicate a broadening understanding of the variety of sexual orientations and a more civil approach to addressing it: the grassroots formation of organizations like Mormons Building Bridges , the launch of the Church’s official website mormonsandgays.org, increasing fellowship of LGBT members and investigators in many localities, and increasing participation of openly LGBT individuals and couples in the Church, among others. Elder Callister’s published address is a sad reminder of the tradition of misunderstanding and deliberate self-distancing from the non-heterosexual experience that has prevailed among modern Church leadership and that the new understanding seems to be slowly displacing.