In January, Mike Cammock wrote a guest post at KiwiMormon entitled “There are no gays in heaven?” Among the many thoughts he shared, Cammock wrote the following regarding LDS leaders:
Mormonism’s insistence that “practicing homosexuality” is sin, especially within the bonds of a loving committed monogamous relationship, is indicative of a theological reality that Mormon leaders clearly believe, but never directly articulate: There Are No Gays In Heaven.
This seemed obvious to me. It seems obvious to me that Mormons in 2016 believe that obedient gays will be turned straight in the afterlife in the same way that Mormons several decades ago believed that obedient black people would be turned white in the afterlife. And yet, in his title, Cammock included a question mark, as if he was uncertain about this. In his post, he not only was uncertain about that conclusion, but he was uncertain as to whether such a position could be consistent with any formulation of the Gospel.
Elder David A. Bednar probably has never seen Cammock’s post, but as if to answer his question and to directly articulate what Mike only suspected (or feared), Bednar has provided the provocative response: There are no homosexual members of the church.
The video linked above was posted on Biblioteca SUD’s Facebook page late on Sunday evening. It features Elder Bednar’s answer to a Q&A session given to a Spanish-speaking audience from earlier in February. This stark and shocking answer — similar as it is to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments to Columbia University in September of 2007 that “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country” — came as the beginning of a response to the following question from Chile:
“How can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the Gospel?”
Elder Bednar’s response has taken the Mormon internet by storm, and it’s particular become a fertile ground for use of Facebook’s new “angry” reaction. I will not decline anyone his or her anger, but I also wanted to provide some thoughts as dispassionately as I could about the sort of philosophy and theology implied by Bednar’s statement (or in his following comments).
Elder Bednar Employs Person-First Language (Sorta) to Sexual Orientation
The first thing I noticed from Bednar’s comments was that it struck me as a very “person-first” framing. In case you aren’t familiar, according to Wikipedia:
People-first language is a type of linguistic prescription in English. It aims to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities and is sometimes referred to as a type of disability etiquette. People-first language can also be applied to any group that is defined by a condition rather than as a people: for example, “people who live on the street” rather than “homeless.”
The basic idea is to use a sentence structure that names the person first and the condition second, for example “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” or “disabled”, in order to emphasize that “they are people first”. Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., “asthmatic person” with “a person who has asthma.” Furthermore, the use of to be is deprecated in favor of using to have.
By using such a sentence structure, the speaker articulates the idea of a disability as a secondary attribute, not a characteristic of a person’s identity.
Person-first language has become relatively popular in certain accessibility circles, but it is not without its critics, of course. Some criticize person-first language simply on linguistic grounds — in English, adjectives characteristically come before nouns, and this isn’t meant to imply any dehumanization. And, one could certainly understand a social conservative criticizing this movement as another example of “political correctness” gone amok. And yet, there are some other opponents to this linguistic prescription.
As the wikipedia article also points out,
Critics of this rationale point out that separating the “person” from the “trait” implies that the trait is inherently bad or “less than”, and thus dehumanizes people with disabilities.
and would you guess who is also opposed to person first language? Turns out many disabled communities themselves oppose it. Deaf culture explicitly embraces “Deaf first language” as Deafness is seen as a positive identity and a source of pride. Additionally, there have been comments from organizations in support of blind people, autistic people, and so on.
It’s just as that wikipedia line says — person-first language often implies that a trait is bad or less-than.
And so, we can see what Elder Bednar is doing is something similar. He wants to establish a core identity as something of worth…like, say, being a child of God…and then separate traits that he views as inherently bad or “less than” (such as same-sex attraction) as non-core.
I recall telling people at several times that I didn’t think the “born this way” rhetoric would be effective at changing everyone’s mind…because ultimately, whether LGBT traits are chosen or inborn, the real distinction is whether one views these traits as good or neutral, or bad. If you’ve been in discussion on homosexuality on the internet for any length of time, you’ve likely heard people compare it to alcoholism or a propensity to violence — as much as this befuddles an LGBT person or LGBT ally, the disconnect here is that the person making this comparison views all of these traits as bad things. The LGBT ally cannot change this perception simply by arguing that sexual orientation is inborn.
Elder Bednar does not employ person-first language to gender
There are quite a few wrinkles in the previous section that complicate everything. For example, in a person-first linguistic setting, one’s worth is tied to their personhood…and everything other trait is an appendage that can neither upgrade nor degrade that basic worth.
But as was pointed out several times (and Elder Bednar emphasizes this several times in his answer, and even has a followup answer on this), in Mormonism, one’s basic worth isn’t as a person. One isn’t simply a child of God. Rather, one is always a son of God or a daughter of God, and this has theological and practical implications in Mormonism.
In this sense, gender roles and expectations relating heteronormative family ideals are baked into one’s core identity as a child of God, and any departure from those gender roles is dismissed as a trial of the flesh or is set up as an opposition to God’s order. This isn’t just LGBT, this is intersex. It’s not even just those things; it’s a failure to live into the sorts of role expectations that the church has for men vs. for women…men as fathers, husbands, and priesthood holders…women as mothers, wives, and…(what was the parallel equivalent to priesthood holder, again?) It could even be remaining single. As Bednar says:
Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the family is central to the Father’s plan for the eternal destiny and happiness of his children. That plan is halted in anything but a marriage between a man and a woman.
So, what about gays…err…those experiencing same-sex attraction?
Through Bednar’s rhetoric, a lot of other things that the church has done or advocated in the past make more sense. If we see the church as an organization that promotes an ideal for all sons and daughters of God — without respect for whether that ideal would fit someone or not — then it makes sense for the church to advocate for mixed-orientation marriages, even though we now know how much heartache this has caused (and continues to cause).
Quite simply, from Bednar’s logic, he cannot really offer anything to LGBT (err…those experiencing same-sex attraction) members other than assurance that they should remain obedient (or hope that in the afterlife, they will be able to participate in that most central aspect to the Father’s plan (the heteronormative family.)
Do Elder Bednar’s comments imply that every member is heterosexual deep down, or even that the Atonement will make people straight in the afterlife? Or does the church’s answer that people are agents to act and not be acted upon even make heterosexuality irrelevant? Why would anyone want to have an eternal heterosexual marriage unless, here or in the hereafter, they became straight?
Hopefully, this won’t be too much of a downer quote, but fellow W&T coblogger Mary Ann pointed me to this quotation from Robert Millet:
“In general we could say that men and women, in and out of the Church, have been taunted and titillated with views concerning man, woman, priesthood, and family that are at odds with the revealed word and thus with ‘things as they really are, and … as they really will be’ (Jacob 4:13) …. No person who revolts against the divinely established role and calling he or she was given before the foundations of this earth were laid can be happy or find real fulfillment, not here or in eternity.
I can only hope that vulnerable people will listen to their own senses of worth and value and do whatever they must to be OK with themselves before they listen to messages like these and come to internalize such hopeless messages.