Will fancy fonts and word clouds convince the youth?

On a recent post at BCC, a commenter stated that in his stake at a recent meeting with a Q&A session with a general authority, two of the seven questions asked were how to get youth to accept the church’s stance on homosexuality. [1]  This is a question that I have wondered about myself as a mother of teens who likewise don’t agree that homosexuality is the dire threat the church portrays. They have been consistently taught in school that being gay is innate and acceptable, that gay kids should be treated with respect, and that bullying will not be tolerated and is morally wrong. [2]  As a result of the world in which they live, they do not inherently feel homosexuality is shameful, and they have friends in school who openly self-identify as gay.  This is a pretty big change from the era in which I was raised and an even bigger change from when my parents were raised.

From that comment thread, BJJLawKate said:

“The phrasing of the question itself is so revealing–it reveals that the speaker is hyperfocused on getting the youth to just accept the teachings and to stop questioning and thinking about this complex issue. . . Why do we discount their questions without truly examining the issues? Why are we so focused on them just accepting our views? . . . We teach them that they can pray, but apparently only for confirmation of an established doctrine. At least, that is how it seems. Shouldn’t we teach them that they can pray for insight and understanding? Shouldn’t we teach them, by our responses, that their viewpoints have value, that they are worth listening to–and seriously considering? . . . Our youth are smart. This sentiment may not be said to their faces, but they know that that is the underlying motive (“get them to accept”) by how we answer their questions.”

The Nature of Prejudice

You had me at Fox News.

Several years ago I went through a corporate training to help us expose the nature of our deeply held beliefs, our prejudices and biases.  An activity in the training illustrated the difficulty of creating a negative bias against something about which we have no prejudice.  We were partnered with another person at random and asked to identify an aspect of the person’s appearance or clothing that was neutral to us.  We then had to manufacture reasons that we disliked it.  It was possible to say negative things, but because we didn’t believe them, we were not capable of being convincing.  Many people doing this activity laughed aloud at how hollow their words sounded as they pretended to dislike something that didn’t bother them at all.

If young people today don’t have a natural bias against homosexuality like prior generations did, how do we get them to embrace the church’s stance that was created with that cultural bias to back it?  Rather than examine whether we should attempt this (personally I don’t think we should), I’d like to set that concern aside and ask how it could be done, realistically.

The Church’s Stance

First of all, what is the church’s current stance on homosexuality?  It has shifted over time, and there seem to be some alternate views.  Here’s the church’s current stance in a nutshell:

  • Some people are born gay. [3]
  • All people need to follow the law of chastity which prohibits sex outside of marriage. [4]
  • Gay people can remain celibate for life or marry heterosexuals. [5]
  • The church is against gay marriage because of a belief that children are entitled to parents of two different genders. [6]

What is prejudice?

Where are the straight people rainbows? Unfair!

Prejudice is a pre-judgment; having an opinion about someone, something or a group of people prior to and therefore not based on experience.  The difficulty with a stance on homosexuality is that it is nearly impossible to separate a stance on homosexuality (behavior) without it being a stance on homosexuals (people), at least for those people whose rights and status are in question.

The word is often used to refer to preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people or a person because of gender, political opinion, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, language, nationality or other personal characteristics. In this case, it refers to a positive or negative evaluation of another person based on their perceived group membership. Prejudice can also refer to unfounded beliefs and may include “any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence”.  [7]

One popular theory is that prejudice is a normal part of cognitive development in which groups of people are categorized.  Theories abound as to the basis for categorization: authoritarian thinking, in-group / out-group categorization, or hierarchical categorization when resources are limited.  There are similarities between these theories.  For example, people who are strongly authoritarian see the world as more rigid; social order helps them make sense of their world. [8]

Since the 1970s, prejudice has been seen as a byproduct of  in-group / out-group thinking.  For heterosexuals, homosexual feelings are unfamiliar, “other.”  Some heterosexual individuals may not be able to imagine engaging in homosexual acts without revulsion. [9]  A third form of categorization is based on perceived competition for limited resources mythologizes some groups as more deserving of those resources; this model sounds similar to the LDS statement “we preach the ideal,” meaning that some types of families are considered more valid than others [10].  This is related to our belief that marriage is child-centric, and that human children need a parent of each sex for ideal development.

Gay Marriage as a Threat

There are four categories to the types of threat that outgroups are seen to pose:

  • Realistic Threats.  This is actual competition for limited resources.  For example, if the government only issued one million marriage licenses per year and gay marriage would take some of these limited licenses from heterosexual couples, that would be a “realistic threat.”  Likewise, if heterosexual couples were being turned down for adoptions that were instead going to homosexual couples, that would constitute a “realistic threat.”
  • Symbolic Threats.  This is when two groups have different values that are incompatible and cannot co-exist. Some Christians view gay marriage as a symbolic threat; they feel they are compromising their values if they uphold laws that require equal recognition and treatment for gay marriages which they believe are sanctioned by God; therefore, their desire to adhere to the law may conflict with what they consider to be a “higher law” or God’s law.
  • Intergroup Anxiety.  This means that interactions between members of the two groups feel uncomfortable and uneasy because of perceptions of incompatibility between the groups; historical interactions may have been fraught with tension, creating discomfort.  Christian Crandall and Amy Eshleman explained the justification-suppression model which states that people face a conflict between a desire to express prejudice while maintaining a positive self-concept.  This requires justification of the dislike for the outgroup to preserve the self-concept of the person acting in prejudice.
  • Negative Stereotypes.  Perceptions based on fear or anger that the individuals of an outgroup all possess some negative or threatening qualities, such as violent behavior or dishonesty.  This can also bolster the self-concept of the person expressing prejudice by making the prejudice feel justified.
The war of the tee shirt slogans

In general, gay marriage is seen by LDS people as a symbolic threat.  There is no clear cut competition for limited resources involved, although there has been some angst expressed over adoption policies; these threats have generally been couched in terms of not wanting to be required to perform marriages or adoptions that put children in the care of a homosexual couple.  Gay marriage is viewed as an untested social experiment with possible unforeseen consequences.  The simple fact is that young people are less invested in existing social structures than older people are, so this argument is a tough sell with millenials.  And it’s about the best argument we have.

Reducing Prejudice

Prejudice is reduced through contact.  As in the case of my own children, contact with openly gay friends from a young age who are protected from bullying has resulted in them identifying with homosexuals and not seeing them as an outgroup, but as an integral part of a multi-cultural society.  Historically, the only reason it was easy to see homosexuals as an outgroup was because they were often shamed into hiding their identity.  While everyone knew some gay people, they may not have known that those people were gay.

There are six conditions necessary for contact with an outgroup to fully eliminate prejudice, and while not all six of these have happened equally, there is progress across all of them:  1) mutual interdependence between the ingroup and outgroup, 2) common goals, 3) equal status, 4) frequent opportunities for informal contact, 5) multiple contacts between groups, and 6) social norms of equality must exist.  LDS people with gay family members quickly discover that the church’s stance on homosexuality is problematic because they know a gay person intimately on an equal footing and have lived in mutual interdependence with them. Most LDS families are unwilling to blame the family member for their inherent sexual orientation and are unwilling to consider that person as outcast forever.  A recent Salt Lake Tribune article even talks about E. Christofferson of the Q12 who has an openly gay brother.

The only way to counter the erosion of prejudice within Mormonism is to isolate our young people from knowing gay people, to maintain unequal status between gay people and straight people, and to point to and even exaggerate conflicting goals.  But these tactics are on borrowed time if young people are in public schools where norms are shifting to more acceptance or if they happen to have a gay sibling.

Contact with openly gay people breaks down prejudice in the following ways:

  • Enhanced knowledge.  Rather than relying on inaccurate accounts or stereotypes, they have first hand experience.
  • Reduced anxiety.  They are comfortable around gay people because of their experience.
  • Increased empathy.  They have relationships with gay people and have listened to their concerns.
Isn’t this incest?

In answer to the original question, how do we get young people to accept the church’s stance on homosexuality, they only solution is really to do what we’ve been doing already with the existing poor results.  I’m reminded of the lyrics to the Rogers & Hammerstein song from South Pacific “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

We can’t manufacture prejudice where society has already removed it unless we cease to participate in society altogether, which would be a serious impediment to missionary work.  Millenials as a generation already feel a natural disconnect with religion and suspicion of the morals of preceding generations.  Trying to create a prejudice that society no longer fosters will only further erode trust in organized religion.

What do you suggest as an answer to the question?



[1] I wasn’t clear from the phrasing whether the congregation asked the questions or the visiting authorities did.  However, the comment indicated that no clear, convincing solution was provided.

[2] They’ve attended school in both Arizona and Singapore.  Arizona is a deeply red state; I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many of the teachers are carrying guns.  And in Singapore homosexuality is still technically illegal, but the country is fully committed to multi-culturalism, and the American school my kids attended was very American in terms of its values.  Is it possible that Utah is still insulated enough to maintain an anti-gay environment?  Perhaps.  But that’s not the case elsewhere if so, and the majority of US church members live outside of Utah.

[3] This has only been part of the official stance since the mid 90s, and there may not be general consensus among the Q15.  If you are gay, this means that while there is some acknowledgment that your identity and sexual orientation is (perhaps) innate, there have been plenty of statements to the contrary, that it’s a choice, and that you are sinful for choosing it.  What your local lay clergy or fellow saints may say is a crap shoot.

[4] Although policing of homosexual behavior has been stronger than for heterosexuals.  For example, gay couples at BYU are not permitted to hold hands, although holding hands does not violate the law of chastity.  Anything other than openly hetero-normative behavior is not allowed at BYU.  This is a double standard obvious to most millenials.

[5] Thus being gay is seen as a disability or inherent disadvantage, a trial one must bear for life.  This narrative is one that millenials consistently reject.  Lady Gaga beats old white dudes for message clarity:  “I was born this way, and God makes no mistakes.”  Plus you can’t dance to the Proclamation on the Family.

[6] Although obviously, sometimes parents are single due to divorce or death of a spouse; there is a bit of a double standard in allowing for these exceptions but not homosexuality.  Gay parents have disproportionately adopted children who otherwise would not have been adopted, so the question remains whether the church’s stance is that gay adoption is inferior to perpetual foster care.  In the church’s eyes, though, you are seen as an unfit parent unless you marry an opposite sex heterosexual partner.

[7] While not all discussion about homosexuality is irrational, many arguments against it are.  For example, my millenial son was presented with an article in a BYU class that equated homosexuality with bestiality or marrying a rock.  Presenting arguments like this as anything other than laughable undermines the church’s stance with millenials who know that homosexuality exists among other species, nobody is asking to marry a rock, and that it’s insulting to equate a gay person with a dog.

[8] Theodor Adorno believed prejudice stemmed from an authoritarian personality. Adorno described authoritarians as “rigid thinkers who obeyed authority, saw the world as black and white, and enforced strict adherence to social rules and hierarchies.”  Adorno believed people with authoritarian personalities were the most likely to be prejudiced against groups of lower status.  Plous, S. “The Psychology of Prejudice.” Understanding Prejudice.org. Web. 07 Apr. 2011

[9] Revulsion makes rational discussion less likely.  Being raised in an environment without shame toward homosexuality, something people of my generation can’t say, millenials don’t find homosexual sex particularly shameful or revolting.  Their parents having sex is another matter.

[10] Something like man+woman biological parents > man+woman adoptive parents > single female biological parent (heterosexual) > single male biological parent (heterosexual) > single female adoptive parent (heterosexual) > single male adoptive parent (heterosexual) > dead > gay adoptive parents > pedophile adoption.  According to some people, maybe dead should move up the hierarchy in that list.  These assumptions are based on a belief that being gay is being less than, being unfit, being invalid.  Millenials simply don’t believe that.