Talking Back to a Mormon Elder: Religion versus Reality

I couldn’t have asked for a better neighbor. This man was like a grandfather to me. He was patient, even gracious, when I ran over his new barbecue grill with a riding lawnmower. He was a machinist and he could do amazing things with a piece of metal and the right tools. But he could be wrong about important things.

I have a very clear recollection of an argument I had with this neighbor when I was twelve or thirteen. I was sitting at his kitchen table, eating some cookies, and scribbling on the back of an envelope in an effort to make him see visually what I couldn’t persuade him of verbally.

We were arguing about what caused the seasons. When the earth was farther away from the sun, it was winter, he insisted.

Why then, I asked (being the little smartass that I was), were the seasons reversed in the hemispheres? If winter were caused by being a greater distance from the sun, then it should be winter everywhere at the same time.

He was not convinced.

Reality vs. Religious Construction

I thought of that argument with my neighbor, and about my frustration, while listening to Boyd K. Packer’s talk at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints this past Sunday.

I knew five minutes into this talk that it was going to set the bloggernacle abubble (as Joanna Brooks has already described here on RD). I put down the Sudoku puzzle I was fiddling with and paid attention. I was fascinated by it. And I was transported back to that kitchen table.

Here are the thoughts that went through my head during his talk, more or less, in order.

First, I think to myself, what do you do when religion tells you that the world is a certain way, but then you look out your window and discover that reality, inconveniently, belies your religious constructions?

I have some experience with Boyd K. Packer. I attended a BYU devotional in the early ’90s where he spoke at length about how homosexuality was “unnatural.” He asked at one point, rhetorically, why humans were the only species that exhibited these unnatural tendencies—and then he answered his own question by segueing into a discussion of free will and agency. I was disturbed by Elder Packer’s ignorance on this issue twenty years ago, and I was disturbed by his ignorance on the same topic on Saturday morning.

There really isn’t any need to revisit this debate. Homosexuality has been observed in elephants, bears, buffalo, caribou, dolphins, raccoons, dogs, bison, chickens, penguins, numerous fish, and too many reptiles, insects, and invertebrates to list. Black swans and mallards appear to be particularly unnatural (it is estimated that 25% of pairings of black swans are male-male; only slightly less for mallards). I had a friend that purchased a 50k breeding bull that had to be “put down” because of his economically questionable preference for steers. And then there are Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo that successfully hatched an egg they’d been given. And so on. In the case of humans, it’s been around for thousands of years (if not longer). Homosexuality is a part of nature—a part of the world that God created (if you believe that God created it)—and by any definition of the word, it’s natural.

Okay, I think, Elder Packer is old. He’s a product of a different time and place. He’s busy. He lives in a bubble. Whatever. Can’t I give him a pass on this one? Is it really that big of deal? Can’t he be wrong about the specifics here, but still be right in a larger sense?

But then I think that it is a big deal. He may be as well-meaning and as kind as my neighbor, but he doesn’t have the benefit of anonymity (and the issue is more important, and more personal, for a lot of people than an argument about the tilt of the earth’s axis). He operates from a position of authority and what he says carries weight. He’s asking millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to believe things about the real world—not the world of faith, hope, and charity where religious discussion is usually confined, but the real world where we all live and have to get along with each other—that are demonstrably false.

The Rainbow, in Black and White

“Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father,” asked Elder Packer at one point. Why would he create homosexuals, and then condemn them? For Elder Packer, the solution to this conundrum is to conclude that God didn’t (and doesn’t) create them. You see, there is no such thing as a homosexual, only people that “suffer” from same-sex attraction (as though it were equivalent to a head cold or an illness), or people that choose to participate in the homosexual “lifestyle,” etc. As a noun—as something innate, natural, and as central to human identity and function as heterosexuality—the word “homosexuality” doesn’t exist in the Mormon vocabulary. To admit that God creates gay people would represent a troubling theological inconvenience, to say the least.

There is no room for homosexuality in the orderly, tidy, and disciplined Mormon world where individuals are neatly placed in defined boxes and even rainbows are painted in black and white.

Elder Packer was careful to backstop his assertion that homosexuality (as a noun—not a head cold, a disability, or a choice) doesn’t exist by citing the Church’s 1995 declaration, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”—a proclamation that carries the weight of scripture, Elder Packer was careful to observe. It states in this document that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” And with that sentence, intersex individuals, individuals with ambiguous gender, and homosexuality all disappear from the realm of purposeful creation—they can only be recognized as tendencies, problems, or mistakes that God will correct somehow in the next life.

Those of us in the real world, however, can look out our windows and see that homosexuality is real. We know that gender is ambiguous (or problematic) in approximately 1 in every 2000 births. We ask the same question: “Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” Why would create them and then condemn then? I agree with Elder Packer that he wouldn’t—not a kind, loving God that is our literally our Father in heaven. Unlike Elder Packer, however, I believe the fault lies with us; not with them. The fault lies in our interpretation of God’s law and His will.

Back to my neighbor. I really thought my question about why the seasons are reversed would make him rethink his position. It didn’t. I’ve discovered that contradictory evidence doesn’t have the effect that I think it should in most cases. If homosexuality is a choice, for example, then it should be more prevalent where it is more socially acceptable, right? It doesn’t appear to be, however. If it’s a choice, then we shouldn’t see it throughout the animal kingdom, right? But we do. None of this seems to matter. So I drop it. I try to focus on the talk.

I can’t help trying to understand why Elder Packer is giving this talk. I’m a professor of strategic management, so I spend a good part of most work days talking about the why large companies do the things they do. I try to make two columns in my head—one for costs, one for benefits.

The costs. I think of young boys struggling with their emergent sexuality. I remember a man recounting his personal struggle to accept himself as gay and talking about the despair and horror of lying awake at night wondering who had made him—he couldn’t be God’s creation, he reasoned, because God wouldn’t have made him gay. I think of Carol Lynn Pearson’s book, No More Goodbyes, and I think of the cost in terms of suicides, abandonment, loss, and regret. The cost in human suffering of such a blithe marginalization of some of the most vulnerable among us is immense. We should add up the costs—and heft them carefully—before we decide pay such a high price for doctrinal purity.

This is the direct cost, but it is not the only cost. Aside from the human suffering it supports, Elder Packer’s view represents an open invitation for homosexuals to leave the Church (and to not let the door hit them on the way out). If we, as a community, value the fellowship and contributions of our gay brothers and sisters, then this sort of theological housekeeping doesn’t seem prudent.

Standing up and insisting that the sky is made of cotton candy—or in this case, the equivalent—that God doesn’t make gay people (he only makes people, some of which “choose” to engage in homosexual behavior) also represent a needless trial of faith for the average member. If an apostle, an individual who is entitled to direct inspiration and revelation from deity, can’t get the basic facts right—basic facts that should be gleaned from life experience, but can be verified in a casual visit to the public library—then how can we trust them to get other, perhaps more important matters, right?

We cannot change”

Less than three hours after Elder Packer’s talk, the Salt Lake Tribune ran the following headline on its Web site: “Apostle: Same-sex attraction can change.” It’s bad enough when Church members are boxed into a corner and obligated by their faith to deny their own sense of reality, but in an age when communication is nearly instantaneous (and when the Church is still struggling with the fallout from its support of Prop. 8 in California), headlines like these threaten to undermine the Church’s ability to achieve its organizational goals.

I also worry about the members that accept Elder Packer’s logic and reach the same conclusion—that being gay is a choice. What happens when these same members discover otherwise? There is often a real sense of betrayal when the world is discovered to be something other than that promised by a trusted religious leader.

“We cannot change; we will not change,” Elder Packer declared. Didn’t we hear something similar from another apostle during the Church’s struggle with the issue of blacks and the priesthood?

At the end of the talk, the “benefits” column was empty (and it still is).