Doing some good in the world

I made the following remarks at a dinner celebrating Dialogue’s fortieth anniversary, held in Salt Lake City on September 22, 2006.

I consider it one of the signal honors of my life to serve as editor of this distinguished journal. I undertook the task knowing it would be a great challenge. I had no notion of doing more that leaving its tradition intact when I am through with my designated five years of service. That remains my ambition. I hope I have met the challenge so far. I recognize how completely dependent I am on others. I am deeply grateful for the indispensable contribution of my fellow workers on the editorial and production teams and for the support and encouragement of the members of Dialogue’s board of directors. Clearly, I am a part of a cooperative effort. My purpose is to be guided by collective rather than my private values. For one thing, I am appointed by Dialogue’s board of directors. Once a year, they exclude me from a half hour session of a board meeting to discuss my performance. For another thing, not only do I depend enormously on my subordinate editors and production workers but also on the expert reviewers who voluntarily referee submissions. Finally, all of us, the board of directors, the editorial team, our expert reviewers, and I myself try hard to judge what our readers value. Dialogue has a constituency. I judge that Dialogue’s subscribers share many of my personal biases–but by no means all of them. The goal is to appeal to a variety of interests, both liberal and conservative, without offending deeply felt taboos. In an attempt to achieve this balance, I have assumed a caution and conservatism as editor quite unlike what I will call the brash, friendly irreverence I often display in my essays and speeches.

A part of Dialogue’s tradition includes the hope that the journal does some good in the Mormon world, a hope that Dialogue contributes to, rather than detracts from, Mormonism. It is easy enough to cite Dialogue articles that have been on the cutting edge of Mormon studies. What is more difficult is ascertaining whether those articles or any others have worked to make the persons who call themselves Mormons more civilized or tolerant or thoughtful.

With that caveat in mind, I will cite an essay from Dialogue which I believe will influence Mormonism for the good. The essay, appearing in the fall 2005 issue, is titled “Getting Out/Staying In: One Mormon Straight/Gay Marriage,” which may be viewed by visiting the Past Issue Selections on the Dialogue website. It is actually an extended essay consisting of four short essays. Ben Christensen, the author of the first and the last essays is in many ways a typical young Mormon man: he is fully active in the Church, he has served a mission, he has married in the temple, and he loves his wife and their children deeply. However, as he also declares, he is gay, as he disclosed to Jessie, his wife-to-be, before they became formally engaged. He has known for years of his same-sex attraction, has prayed, counseled with church leaders, done every possible thing to eradicate this attraction. He has not acted upon his homosexual attraction, nor does he intend to. But he is tired of hiding it, tired of pretending to be heterosexual when he isn’t. On the one hand, he argues that “people who happen to be attracted to their own gender shouldn’t be made to feel any worse than people who happen to be attracted to the opposite gender” (125). On the other hand, he resents being called politically incorrect for venturing into “what is usually considered the exclusive territory of straight men–to marry a woman and have a family…” (127).

The case against gay/straight marriages is presented in two subsequent essays by Ron Schow, a professor at Idaho State University, and Marybeth Raynes, a well-known Salt Lake therapist. Both speak respectfully of Ben and Jessie and wish them well, granting that they have some chance of success, yet declaring that on the whole, gay/straight marriages are doomed to failure. Schow emphasizes that persons who are bi-sexual rather than entirely gay have the greatest chance of succeeding in marriage and also in reparative therapy. Both Schow and Raynes decry the practice by some local church leaders of counseling gay persons to marry as a cure for homosexuality.

Wherein might this extended essay, “Getting Out/Staying In: One Mormon Straight/Gay Marriage,” be influential beyond the usual readership of the journal?

In early August of 2006, the Salt Lake Tribune published a feature article in its weekly religion section about Ben and Jessie and their family (“Mixed-orientation LDS couples count on commitment, work and love to beat the odds”). According to the article, which was authored by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Ben and Jessie remain optimistic about the success of an admittedly difficult relationship. Before marrying, they “talked a lot about it. They prayed about it. They both felt it was what God wanted them to do. Now Ben and Jessie have two children, 3-year-old Sophie and 2-month-old Timothy. They have shared their experiences with other Mormon mixed-orientation couples who have established a community in cyberspace. In the past year, Web logs dealing with their issues have proliferated. The conversations are wide-ranging, poignant and often eloquent.” The Tribune article goes on to discuss the challenges confronting gay/straight marriages, citing statements both for and against. It is worth noting that several color photographs accompany the Tribune article, showing Ben and Jessie and their children in happy–and very typical–domestic scenes.

Wherein does this concern Dialogue? The Tribune article cites the extended Dialogue article in some detail. I suspect that it was the Dialogue article that first called Ben and Jessie to Peggy Stack Fletcher’s attention in the first place. Dialogue’s fundamental intent, to present both sides of important Mormon issues, has been amplified enormously by the Tribune article. Readers by the tens of thousands have been made aware of the promises and perils of a Mormon gay/straight marriage. Neither the Tribune article nor the Dialogue article take a stand on the issue. Rather, they inform readers and leave readers to make their own judgment.

Having said that, I will add a personal judgment about the value to setting forth an issue in such a way that partisans on either side consider the case for the opposite side as it is made by its proponents. Understanding adversaries from their own declaration tends to liberalize. It may not convert anyone from the position she or he originally held. But at least it is likely to increase that person’s respect for those who believe otherwise. It will help us accept those with whom we disagree as our friends and neighbors. It will, in short, make us more tolerant, more magnanimous, more civilized.

Comments

  1. Levi–you have gifts is grace and gentleness, which benefit _Dialogue_ tremendously (and actually follow the tradition of MANY graceful, gentle editors).

    I read all of the SSA essays with great interest. My husband’s family clearly has a “gay gene” somewhere in the mix. Bruce has a gay brother, gay cousins, and had a closeted gay uncle whose behavior brought a huge family scandal I learned of from outside sources. So this issue matters deeply to me.

    At the time I read those particular pieces in _Dialogue_, I was working with a student who had come out to me in an essay. He was trying so hard to combat his desires with scriptures, prayer, etc., and genuinely thought that the issue would soon, miraculously go away. He even invited me to fast and pray for him on a designated day when all of his family would be doing the same. I did as he asked, but I knew very well that his SSA would not find a quick or even a comfortable resolution in the framework offered by official LDS teachings.

    I referred him to the writings of Bob Rees and Carol Lyn Pearson, and even supplied their e-mail addresses. (This student will have an essay in Carol Lyn’s upcoming book.) Because I teach at BYU, I did feel constrained in what I could say or resources I could suggest. After all, this young man was also working with his bishop.

    My personal feelings about SSA are pretty liberal, and whether or not I indicated that to my student, I’m sure he picked up on it. He continues to report in to me.

    I thought each of the essays in the _Dialogue_ issue you refer to was thoughtful and important. I was particularly interested in Ben’s two-parter–the first essay having been written much earlier than the second. I am really grateful that _Dialogue_ deals with SSA exactly as I would hope and expect–with grace and gentleness.

  2. Well said, Levi. The need for more tolerance and magnanimity is as relevant and important today as it was 40 years ago. Many of yesterday’s battles for tolerance have been fought and won, but new battles seem to arise with each new generation. Hope Dialogue is around for another 40 years of civilizing influence.

    For those of us who live out of state and couldn’t attend the Dialogue 40-Year Anniversary, was it recorded or transcribed? Or will any of the remarks be available in future issues of Dialogue?

  3. This is not intended to be a negative post, so please don’t construe it as such.

    Where are Dialogue’s primary centers of influence and participation? My guess is it’s probably 70% Utah/ID/AZ. with large clusters in major markets like NY, DC, and LA.

    So, what are Dialogue’s plans to have any impact on Mormonism outside Utah, both in the US or internationally? Is the intent to influence Utah Mormonism and then hope that it filters “out” to the rest of the Church via migration/GA talks/news coverage of issues?

  4. Levi–great party, great talk. We were delighted to be able to attend. The other Brother Peterson gave a rousing speech as well. At the very least you should do a Sunstone style recording of the talks for people to download via MP3, if say the road to transcription were difficult.

    #3, Boston represented another cluster of Dialogue interest. I would think that indigenous solutions would be somewhat more compelling for addressing the concerns of international saints. Perhaps Dialogue could provide some training and guidance for indigenous efforts? (I was going to say “incubator”, but I worry that business jargon has so infiltrated our speech that we are losing our ability to communicate).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    FWIW I think Levi has done a fine job in his stewardship over Dialogue.

    I agree with his self-perception that he has shown a greater openness to more conservative elements than might be to his personal taste. Sort of the ideological inverse of how JFS and ETB weren’t the unmitigated disasters liberals feared when they finally ascended to the presidency of the church. (grin)

  6. Levi Peterson says:

    Queno:

    Dialogue has a long-standing interest in international and multi-cultural expressions of Mormonism. In 1970, in a section titled “The World Church,” the journal carried an essay by Wesley W. Craig, Jr., “The Church in Latin America: Progress and Challenge,” 5, No.3 (Fall 1970): 66-74. In 1982 it carried an article by Garth N. Jones, “Spreading the Gospel in Indonesia: Organizational Obstacles and Opportunities,” 15, No.4 (Winter 1982): 79-90. In 1992, it carried Douglas F. Tobler, “Before the Wall Fell: Mormons in the German Democratic Republic, 1945-89,” 25, No.4 (Winter 1992): 11-30

    In 1996, an entire issue, under the guest editorship of Armand Mauss, was devoted to “the assumption that the future of Mormonism in the next century depends largely on what happens outside North America.” “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” 29, no.1 (Spring 1996): 5 (1-7.)

    In 2005 Dialogue began an extended series on the international Church, featuring one or more articles on that topic appearing in a number of issues. See Walter van Beek’s “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An ‘Afro-European’ view on Religious Colonization” 38, no. 4 (Winter, 2005): 3-36.

    The winter 2006 issue, due out a little before Thanksgiving, will have the following articles dealing with the international Church: Raymon M. Kuehne’s “How Missionaries Entered East Germany: The 1988 Monson-Honecker Meeting” and Jiro Numano’s “Perseverance amid Paradox: The Struggle of the LDS Church in Japan Today.”

  7. Levi Peterson says:

    Kevin:

    I like that ideological inverse anology you draw in your comment above. It flatters me.

  8. Levi, in reading your autobiography, I noticed many times you wondered if maybe you were gay. I laughed, didn’t take it too seriously, wondered if all men wonder if they’re gay.

    But how much do your own personal concerns color what you said in this speech? I’m not asking if you’re gay, I would ask that right out, I’m assuming you’re not. I just wondered if it changed your perspective.

  9. RE: international stuff. The idea of a Euro Mormon Studies group is being discussed as we speak…

  10. Levi Peterson says:

    annegb:

    I don’t think my anxiety over the possibility of being gay gave me my empathy for homosexual persons. It has been my close friendship with both gays and lesbians that persuaded me that they have no choice in the matter. And that being so, it seems a barbaric, unchristian cruelty to persecute them and require them to live a closeted life. And, yes, that conviction had something to do with the publication of the Straight/Gay Marriage essays in Dialogue. I actually do believe that the debate between Ben (and, by implication, Jessie) on the one side and Ron Schow and Marybeth Raynes on the other side will make proponents of either side more understanidng and compassionate toward the other.

    We will publish a well written, well documented article entitled “Against Same-Sex Marriage” in the summer 2007 Dialogue amd a rebuttal to it in the fall 2007 issue. I won’t hide here the fact that my personal bias is on the side of allowing same sex marriage. I feel deeply that doing so will strengthen, not undermine, the traditional family. But it is not my place to editorialize in Dialogue on that topic.

  11. In the new movie “Man of the Year”, Tom Dobbs (played by Robin Williams) wraps up the debate about same sex marriage once and for all:

    “You want an amendment against same-sex marriage. Anyone who’s ever been married knows it always the same sex!”

  12. I’m taking the family relations class and we were going over the proclamation today and one thing I noticed is that it says GENDER is, oh, whatever it says. It later says something about marriage between a man and a woman, which I agree with.

    But I wonder if a distinction can be made about gender, since people who are gay are not always gender confused. But what if they are? What about that?

  13. I’m not sure if anyone is still following the comments on this post, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents and back up Levi’s claim that Dialogue has done some good, particularly in this case. My wife and I have come into contact with dozens of gay Mormons in a variety of situations (married, celibate, in gay relationships, pursuing gay relationships) as a result of this series of essays. Levi’s decision to make the series available online has brought this discussion to hundreds, if not thousands, of people who otherwise might not have found it. As Peggy pointed out in the Trib article, the gay Mormon community has a growing online presence.

    I never intended to convince anyone that all gay Mormons should marry heterosexually, but rather to open up some discussion on the matter, and I have definitely seen that happen. I’m particularly glad that Levi thought to invite Ron and Marybeth to respond to my essay, and to let me respond in turn, as that gave us a chance to collectively provide a broader picture of the situation. Now, as a result of the Trib article that was a result of the Dialogue articles, my wife and I are going to be interviewed on Salt Lake’s Fox13 News–we’ll see what (if any) good comes of that.

    I appreciate Levi’s dedication to making Dialogue live up to its name, providing a forum to discuss Mormon thought from a variety of perspectives.

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