Kendall Wilcox is a documentary filmmaker and Mormon LGBT community organizer. He’s working on a project called Far Between – which explores what it means to be gay and Mormon – and he’s a contributor to the podcast Out in Zion, which attempts to deepen the conversation intersecting membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Wilcox is gay and an active member of the LDS Church.
The story of “The Policy” and the Mormon community’s diverse responses to it is best framed in terms of moral authority; who possesses it and how it is exercised. In this specific case, the story is about how the policy impacted that authority in the hearts of the members. It highlights a debate over categorical versus consequential morality, a debate that is alive and kicking within the Mormon faith community. The policy change seems to have been an attempt on the part of the Brethren of the church to exert both their moral authority and ecclesiastical authority to define and defend the doctrines of chastity and marriage. But just because they have the ecclesiastical authority to institute the policy does not mean it is a moral thing to do and for many, this act eroded what moral authority they had given to their church leaders on these issues.
But of course this elicited diverse reactions from the membership.
“Same as it ever was…”
The most common reaction from members of the church was that it reinforced the moral authority of the Prophet and Apostles of the church. It did this not only because the policy changes aligned with these members’ understanding of existing doctrines but also because – as token of their devotion to God – they deeply value their own unwavering support of anything the Brethren say or do. This was – of course – the expected outcome from members, on the part of the Brethren. Further, for the leadership of the church and those who agree with this policy change, it is understood as an act of compassion because it is an expression of true doctrine that when followed, can bring all of God’s children to salvation and exaltation. What could be a more compassionate expression of love?
For many in this group, the policy and President Nelson’s description of it as a near-revelation was an inevitable next step in the story. And President Nelson was the inevitable mouthpiece for this assertion. From the beginning of the story, the insinuation was always that the policy was tantamount to prophetic pronouncement – not quite doctrine but as close as we’re going get these days.
As an aside, this group does not tend to know or have close relationships with LGBT members or they have formed very firm, categorial opinions about this issue and their devotion to the church.
“The final straw…”
For a much smaller group of members, the policy was a “final straw” that broke any and all confidence they might have had in the moral authority of the church and the Brethren. This drove them to leave the church, once and for all. Their feelings might best be expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Courtney Martin’s words, “… when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless…” and “What horror we manifest when we cloak ourselves in abstract morality.” To this group of members, this policy felt like a message given only in the name of authority based on an abstract morality rather than a message given with a voice of compassion inspired by deep empathy. The consequence of this message is reminiscent of the old English saying, “the more you squeeze, the more sand disappears between your fingers.” Thus, most in this group of members chose to resign their membership in both quiet and loud ways.
This group tended to know LGBT people in their families or communities or were themselves LGBT members. Still others were not closely connected to LGBT people but had developed strong opinions about the issue.
For another, even smaller, group of members the policy ”just did not fit” their understanding of the gospel of Christ – or it represented a moral inconsistency with how they had experienced the gospel of Christ. For them, the policy actually eroded a significant amount of moral authority they had afforded to the leaders of the church and rendered them changed followers who chose to remain in the church but with a different relationship to the leadership and their moral authority. An irony seems to have played out for many in this subset of members. The leadership of the church attempted to consolidate their moral authority by enacting the policy but instead, in the eyes of some, they weakened their moral authority.
While this a group of members is likely the minority, it represents maybe the most salient and constructive response to the policy. Many members in this subset remain in the church in an effort to help redeem the church from itself. They are finding ways to make the Mormon religious experience more relevant, engaging, humane, and meaningful. They recognize that becoming invested in too simple of a moral story about the world can dehumanize our perceptions of others and strangle our spiritual progression. They hope to replace what has come to feel like a rigid and brittle reliance on creed, with an open-ended faith (and it’s companion doubt), and to replace fundamentalist-style discipline with worship that is both “boots-on-the-ground” and transcendent. They hope to replace empty religious habits with the hard work of love and thus restore deep and marvelous meaning to their spiritual journeys. They hope to change the institutional church so that it speaks in the name of a moral authority that is predicated on Christlike compassion.
They are the ‘changed followers’ who choose to remain inside the faith yet reside on the edge of the inside, responding with fierce compassion to the hard realities of loving LGBT people and the gospel of Christ. They remain and challenge what they see as indefensible policies but do so from a place of faithful questioning and generous orthodoxy, because as Anabaptist Mennonite theologian Sara Wenger Shenk has said, ”…it is precisely those who are most deeply immersed in the beauty and wisdom of the tradition who have the best capacity to change it in ways that ring true with its core convictions.”
Many in this group recognize that the underlying assumptions of the policy on children do not align with the realities of the situation. They admit how the policy wording might make sense when applied to children of polygamists because there is a possibility that these children might grow up and choose to engage in the practice of heterosexual polygamist marriage as adults and therefore would need to disavow the practice – for themselves. But since 97% of the population is heterosexual, it does not make sense to assume that the children of a same sex marriage would even think of entering a same sex marriage themselves – because they are not gay. So members of this group are left wondering, what exactly does it mean or look like to for a heterosexual child of a same sex couple to “disavow the practice of same sex marriage”?
This group knows this conflict will not end anytime soon. They in invested in the long game. They know the rift will continue to grow along civilizational questions about the mind and will of God, questions of prophecy and prophetic fallibility, and profound disagreements about the true nature of Christlike love. But they also wonder how many lives will be shattered in the process.
“Moral authority versus ecclesiastical authority…”
These varying responses further revealed contrasting definitions of love as well as conflicting notions of moral and ecclesiastical authority. This is a common debate in any social movement impacting civilizational questions. What defines true authority in this context? Is it priesthood calling and keys or is ultimate authority inextricably tied to what our conscience tells us when we look each other in the eyes and empathize? In the LDS experience, is categorical or consequential morality given the ultimate authority? Is it Empathy or Divine decree? (Yes, it would be best if these two always coincided, but in this case, for many, they do not.)
In the LDS Church, authority is granted to those who are given and honor the priesthood, and it is expected that in acting with that authority and the guidance of the Divine, what is done and said will also be imbued with virtue and inherent morality. Yet, at times, Church leaders may forget that a large part of the power or authority they truly have is whatever members of the Church are willing to give them and not just the authority they feel they possess by virtue of the laying on of hands and priesthood lineage. So again, with the policy, many members experienced deep conflicts on the question of moral authority versus priesthood authority in the leadership of the church because the policy seems so devoid of virtues like compassion and empathy. According to LDS scripture, moral authority and ecclesiastical authority can be maintained ONLY by exercising them in accordance with virtues that are the very basis of morality (obedience, charity, compassion, empathy, etc etc). And if authority is not exercised in virtuous and moral ways? Again LDS Church scripture explains, “behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority…”
For my part, I would like the leaders of the Church to more thoroughly demonstrate that they have done the work to genuinely and accurately empathize with the lived experience of being lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender or genderqueer. And by empathy I mean Christlike empathy – proactively allowing the feelings, thoughts, and lived experiences of others to inhabit our own souls sufficient that we obtain a visceral familiarity with their existence. That is real empathy. It is not a passive virtue. It is not sympathy or pity. It is not feeling bad for someone. It is not even crying with someone. It is not agreeing with someone. It is not abandoning your own feelings or beliefs in deference to others’. It’s just empathy. And it takes real intention and real work and practice.
I would like the leaders of the Church to demonstrate through word and deed that they are earnestly pleading in prayer, like so many of us have been doing, with honest and open-ended questions to God about the correctness or incorrectness of the current interpretations of the law of chastity and principles of eternal marriage.
I want to know if and how they experience conflicts between empathy for LGBTQ people (both our sorrows and joys) and belief in the current interpretations of the doctrines and policies of the church. This does not inherently mean that with enough empathy, they or God will change current church doctrines. But if their accurate empathy were to engender compassion, then their words and deeds would reflect it.
I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and hesitate to insinuate that they are not genuinely trying to empathize, but the policy changes lead me to feel that there is no way they have done the sincere work to empathize with LGBTQ people. The policy changes demonstrate to me a woeful and intentional lack of understanding of what it is truly like to be LGBTQ, let alone what it means to be LGBTQ and Mormon.
These policy changes demonstrate a disconnect in the sacred relationship are called to live in. They reveal a priority on the part of the Brethren to defend a creed rather than to live in and nurture a relationship. They have reduced this relationship down to an issue that divides rather than accepting it as a shared human experience to be reasoned through together. I find that to be an enormous moral lapse – a lapse that can’t help but erode the moral authority of their actions. This is _not_ to say they and the Church are entirely morally bankrupt, they are just imperfect and on their own spiritual journey of progression like the rest of us. But when they attempt to exercise authority or power over the Church, its members, and doctrines without the requisite virtues of empathy and compassion, “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…”
But I take this escalation of the gay/Mormon conflict as reason, more than ever, to remain in the Church, in the religious relationship. I stay and acknowledge that this is a complex, shared human experience. We are all implicated in this. It is further incentive for me to provide as many stories and experiences of LGBTQ people and their loved ones as possible – as content for the leaders of the Church to empathize with. Again, this is not done with the intention of changing the doctrine or beliefs but to do my part in this faith community and shared human experience by providing one another with ample opportunity to understand and truly empathize with one another. I feel like that is part of my moral responsibility to this relationship and so it’s the best and least I can do.
Then maybe we will change the Mormon culture just enough that top leaders can feel sufficiently filled with empathy and humility as well as feel safe and comfortable enough to ask God if their understandings of the doctrines are truly unchangeable. That’s my part of the relationship.