Dr. Gregory L. Smith, the new associate editor at the FARMS Review (a publication in the process of changing names to Mormon Studies Review) has given me something interesting to write about here just before the “Circling the Wagons” conference in Salt Lake City in November. We’ve been in a bit of a lull, in case you hadn’t noticed, and his paper has surfaced on the internet in several places now, and it seems a good time to talk about it.
There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people. …For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, form a single body,….But now God has arranged the parts, every one of them, in the body according to his plan.
So there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or the head to the feet, “I don’t need you.” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are in fact indispensable, and the parts of the body that we think are less honorable are treated with special honor, and we make our less attractive parts more attractive. However, our attractive parts don’t need this.
But God has put the body together and has given special honor to the parts that lack it, so that there might be no disharmony in the body, but that its parts should have the same concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is praised, every part rejoices with it. – 1 Cor 12:6, 12, 18, 20-26
Smith published a 24-page article in the FARMS Review (FARMS Review: Volume 23, Issue 1, Pages 61–85) entitled, “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer” wherein he applauds Mormons for Marriage for reaching out in support of our GLBT friends and neighbors, while at the same time taking the opportunity to critique a handful of the site’s posts regarding Pres. Packer’s April 2010 conference remarks, now titled, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel.”
First, Smith notes that this site’s “opposition to the mistreatment of homosexuals” is laudable. In general he finds “…recent years have seen at least some of the casual cruelty and unthinking disdain inflicted upon this subset of God’s children become less acceptable. Even yet there is clearly work to do—for example, in opposing verbal and physical violence—that no one of goodwill would oppose.” (p.62)
Despite agreeing that it’s time we treat each other better, he still finds plenty to criticize and takes the opportunity to say to all of us,
“With no more authority than accrues to ‘fellowcitizens with the saints’ (Ephesians 2:19; D&C 20:53–54), I urge all who have erred to repent privately and publicly (Mosiah 27:35; D&C 42:90–92), trusting that God will be as merciful to them in their errors as he is to me in mine. If they choose not to, or insist they have done nothing wrong, the proximate and eternal consequences will be tragic, but not unexpected.” (p.84)
Most scholarly reviews don’t include calls to repentance like this. And, by his own admission, this well-footnoted paper may not be fully academic. “A purely academic review would likely end here,” Smith writes. Then he continues, “Elder Holland has remarked, however, that Pres. Packer’s response to instruction or exhortation is often to ask, ‘Therefore, what?’ I suspect, then, that Pres. Packer would tell me that as an aspiring disciple of the Master, I have a duty to conclude with my own answer to his question, though unlike him I can speak only for myself.” (p.84)
Taking up a sword on behalf of Pres. Packer, Smith’s primary complaint is that our site is hypocritical in saying we don’t allow criticisms to be published, but that apparently Pres. Packer is fair game for any and all critics, as evidenced primarily by the two blog posts referenced below.
[Mormons for Marriage]’s founders ought to either apologize and clean up their conduct online and in the media or be honest enough to concede that their behavior is not consistent with their purported aim to publicly oppose the church’s political activities while refraining from criticism of the church and its leaders. It is not clear to me that such a goal is feasible; it is, however, abundantly clear that [Mormons for Marriage] has failed to achieve it. If they intend to continue as at present, they ought at least to have the decency to admit that they are criticizing the church and its leaders. The issue is simply one of integrity. (p.84)
In the maelstrom of rhetoric that gave birth to Mormons for Marriage, it was nearly impossible to hold a civil conversation about homosexuality and marriage on the internet. Readers may recall frequent flame wars on other sites and arguments with one side likening marriage equality supports to Sons of Perdition and the other side castigating all believers as non-thinking bigots. This kind of “debate” is not what Mormons for Marriage needed. We needed a place where people could ask questions without fear of retribution, where people could share experiences coping with in-church politicking, where people could find support regardless of how they identify themselves and where people could share their personal, sometimes intimate, stories in an effort to build bridges of understanding.
As time has passed and as arguments have been heard and re-heard millions of times, the tension has lessened. There’s a fine line between having a hard conversation and having a hate-fest (or a love-fest). That is a line drawn and re-drawn every day by discussion moderators and editors alike. It is hard to have a conversation saying you disagree with someone’s ideas without explaining what those disagreements are. It is hard to express pain without sounding hurt or sometimes even lashing out. If every negative comment is seen as personal criticism (or, more harshly, an attack akin to stoning (p.84-85)), there would not be much to say on the topic of opposing discrimination. At Mormons for Marriage, we don’t see negative comments as personal criticism.
As a well-read researcher and medical professional, Smith is surely aware of the nature of scholarly criticism. Rigorous peer review is the standard for publication in any quality scholarly journal. All scholarly criticism requires critics to pick and choose portions of another’s work to point out flaws and strengths, but also demands accurate representation of another’s arguments and positions.
Scholars know that true scholarly criticism does not include personal attack and that expression of an opinion is not necessarily criticism, much less a frontal assault. Scholarly criticism examines arguments, methodologies, facts, logical flaws and conclusions. Often scholarly criticism includes strong differences of opinion, and scholars know that when they submit their work for publication, they open it up for debate, examination and criticism. Granted, comments on blogs are not regularly scholarly, and many lack carefully thought-out or cogent arguments for or against specific topics, but blogs are not scholarly journals; commenters are not degree-holding researchers.
The ephemeral and immediate nature of blog comments is regularly at odds with the need for scholarly documentation and thorough analysis, and finding a balance is challenging. Certainly there is room for strong opinion and tough examination in blog comments, however. One might ask whether it is reasonable to hold blog comments to the same rigorous standards as peer reviews.
What is criticism
What qualifies as criticism in Smith’s view? He writes,
“[Mormons for Marriage] ‘tolerates’ such statements as Compton’s insistence that ‘the Church definitely has a long, LONG way to go.’ Laura [Compton], 13 November 2010 (9:58 am), comment on “Latest LDS Instructions on GLBT Issues.” ) This strikes me as criticism. It certainly isn’t praise,…” (p.71)
While it may not be praise, is it criticism or observation? In context is part of a response to another, less-positive comment (which, like this one, is partially included in Smith’s paper as well) from CowboyII who wrote that “The LDS Church will never give homosexuals an equal status.” In addition to the frustrated dismay shown here, to which I responded there’s a long, LONG way to go, his comment also included pleasant surprise that homosexuals could hold church callings and receive temple ordinances.
Smith lines up parts of a number of comments to show his readers examples of poor treatment of Pres. Packer by Mormons for Marriage, calling this the “President Packer Treatment” (p.77). He appears to ascribe the opinions of commenters to Mormons for Marriage, perhaps because comments at the blog are moderated. More on that later.
Where is the “President Packer Treatment” coming from?
The two main posts Smith draws his conclusions from are:
-Why Would God Allow His Children to be Born Homosexual? As of today, there are 120 comments on the post – a relatively busy post for this site. It was written in reaction to the general angst expressed among LDS Conference watchers who listened to Pres. Packer’s talk and interpreted it to mean Pres. Packer was saying their homosexuality was not in-born.
-Edits to Boyd K Packer’s talk, another relatively popular article with 102 comments as of today. This post includes a comparison of the original and printed versions of his talk, and my first comment in that talk discusses some of the issues people focused on in their reactions to it.
Smith’s examples of how Pres. Packer was allowed to be criticized come primarily from the comments on these posts, not the actual posts themselves, and Smith took care to choose portions of comments (as noted above) that would best support his thesis that Mormons for Marriage does, indeed, allow criticism of church leaders and is a site in need of a course correction. Since Smith neglected to say when he accessed each of the posts, it is a bit difficult to know whether he saw all of the comments which now exist on the site, but the sites he did note access dates for were in the February-May, 2011 timeframe.
One more example from the comments critique, showing his careful editing: Smith presents this quote from Benjamin (Oct 3, 2010 10:53 p.m.), edited to remove the positive portions of Benjamin’s comments, some of which are included below. Smith’s version:“I am not really interested in reading another shame-based talk by Elder Packer. . . . It is unfortunate that when Elder Packer is given this topic to talk about his words are so rife with negativity and shame.” (p.73)
In context, in the first part of his comment, Benjamin identifies himself as a gay man who was profoundly and negatively affected by Pres. Packer’s “To The One”. Later on, Benjamin’s comment continues where Smith picks begins it (emphasis indicates portions used by Smith):
“I am not really interested in reading another shame-based talk by Elder Packer. I am sure I’ll probably force myself to look at it and see if there is some change in his worldview but I am doubtful that there will be as I have seen his modus operandi over the years and that has left me feeling nothing short of depressed. I’m sure God has called him to this calling for some special purpose. Many of his other talks about charity and other discussions have given me hope and have inspired me. It is unfortunate that when Elder Packer is given this topic to talk about his words are so rife with negativity and shame. It simply proves that he does not understand who we are. I do know God knows who we are and rejoices in the fact that His creations are diverse and beautiful. I believe one reason why we are created different is to humble those who think they know it all when in all reality they do not and never will as long as they continue thinking they do know all of God’s will on this subject. I believe our Father will continue sending His children who are “different” into LDS households until finally family truly becomes more important than the Church as an institution when the choice is put up to embrace your gay and lesbian children or reject them (and those they love) for the Church’s sake. Keeping that in mind what is the Church if not the members? The Church as an institution is made up of many families and gay and lesbian people are part of that tapestry. One day that tapestry will be celebrated as part of that beautiful quilt and not shamed as a mistake in the weave.”
And finally, one directly from me, with no indication by Smith that the comment actually begins half a sentence before where he picks it up, inserting his own capitalization. Smith’s version: “Many listeners got the distinct impression,” Compton tells us, “that Elder Packer was suggesting homosexuality is a choice. While that may be what he believes or understands, it is not in line with current church teachings which indicate General Authorities do not know what causes homosexuality.” (p.71)
The complete sentence: “Even though Elder Packer did not use the words “homosexual” or “gay” or “same-gender attraction”, because of the placement of the question, the references to the Proclamation and marriage equality referenda, the stories of gender confusion (which is regularly conflated with homosexuality within LDS circles), and the use of words like “unnatural” many listeners got the distinct impression that Elder Packer was suggesting homosexuality is a choice. While that may be what he believes or understands, it is not in line with current church teachings which indicate General Authorities do not know what causes homosexuality.”
The point was that Packer’s position, expressed in his standard slightly ambiguous euphemisms, did not seem to be in line with more current church teachings. This is a reasonable point to make, and it is quite possible that there are differences of opinion on this matter, even among the highest quorums of the Church, just as there are differences of opinion in our larger society.
The conversations, in context, are available for all to read and judge whether the overall tone is one of finger-pointing and castigation or whether it is one of an attempt to process difficult information, “calm fears,” and make sense of something that was hard to hear and understand. There might even be some comments supporting Pres. Packer in those pages.
Like letters to the editor or other public forum publications, the fact that comments appear on a website does not mean the site endorses the opinions shared, even though comments make it through moderation filters on any particular day. And, like listening to one end of a telephone conversation, it is often hard to tell what’s really happening when you only have access to a few snippets of information, as is the case when comments are removed from context and strung together in a static journal article and, in some cases at least, significantly misconstrued in order to prove a point.
Journal editors do not usually solicit letters to the editor representing a particular viewpoint, they work with what is sent in and publish what they have physical room for. Online publications don’t generally have space constraints, but they suffer from the same readership comment problems journals have: When conservatives dominate readership, conservative voices dominate the comments. When people who are hurting or distressed dominate readership, comments primarily reflect their hurt and distress.
The posts at Mormons for Marriage which dealt with Pres. Packer’s remarks were posts that necessarily attracted readers seeking solace or an opportunity to vent. As the redline post was the only place one could easily see the changes between Pres. Packer’s spoken text and the published version, traffic was unusually broad-based, but still leaning toward people interested in why an apostle would change a talk. Commenters supporting Pres. Packer were certainly a minority, but their thoughts are part of the record.
Building the historical record
Another of Smith’s critiques of these two posts is that they fail to address Pres. Packer’s previous statements about homosexuality. Had either post been lengthy footnoted and cross-referenced research pieces, an analysis of Pres. Packer’s previous statements would make sense. However, that was not the purpose of these pieces. Like many posts at Mormons for Marriage, the intention of the first piece, just eight short paragraphs long, was to be supportive of those who were immediately hurting as a result of hearing those words spoken over conference weekend.
The second piece was merely to document and address only the changes made in this particular talk. Since people were talking about the changes made, it was important to record them.
The nature of the ephemeral bits and bytes of the internet allows for both immediate emotional reactions and thoughtful analysis. Smith holds this first post to the standard of scholarly research and analysis and then proceeds to point out all the ways it is mere emotional reaction, easily knocking it down from a pedestal it should never have been placed on to begin with. It appears to be emotional reaction because it is emotional reaction. Had the post been a lengthy footnoted and cross-linked analysis of Pres. Packer’s historical stance on homosexuality, it might deserve such scholarly criticism.
Priesthood ordination vs. same-sex marriage
Smith points out several legitimate differences between the church’s stance on priesthood ordination and its stance on homosexuality (and same-sex marriage, in particular) in an effort to show how the issue of giving priesthood to all worthy men is significantly different from the issue of seeking marriage equality (pp. 75-77). As many often draw parallels between changes they’d like to see in the Church and this enormous shift and revelation that came in June, 1978, it makes sense for Smith to compare and contrast the two.
He neglects to note perhaps the biggest difference, however: Black people were not killing themselves because they could not hold the priesthood or enter temples. How many young gay people have killed themselves because of their interpretations of the church’s stance on homosexuality? How many live in fear that parents, spouses or friends will find out and disown them? One is too many. How many more suicide notes do we need to read that say things like, “I prayed and prayed. I tried and tried, but I didn’t change. I can’t try any longer.” How many more late-night calls to bishops and crisis hotlines will be made because somebody has been fighting [either a temptation or a tendency, depending on which talk you read] for 20 or 40 or 60 years and just can’t do it any longer?
Thankfully, LDS rhetoric surrounding homosexuality has softened quite a bit since the early 1970s and there are clear and specific efforts by church leaders to promote charity toward all. That shift from “Hope for Transgressors”to “God Loveth His Children” is an institutional big step. No longer do we hear about “crimes against nature, deviate behavior, perversion, or abominations. We hear about same-gender attraction, a much more benign description. Part of the reason that shift is happening is because people, especially GLBT people and their families, are stepping up to share their stories and experiences.
Many of those conversations began happening because the Church involved itself in supporting Proposition 8 (and other traditional marriage initiatives and constitutional amendments).
A final postscript
Smith suggests it is time for us at Mormons for Marriage to sit down, shut down and silence ourselves or leave. He writes,
“If my patients do not like what they hear, they might choose to remain silent or leave my practice. Likewise, those who differ with the united voice of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve might disagree silently or leave the church.” (p.83)
Thankfully, Smith is not the host at this banquet and while he can express his opinion about who should stay and who should go, it’s not his job to decide who is on Christ’s guest list. We can cut off body parts and walk around maimed in an effort to save our souls (p.83) or we can accept that each part of the body has a function and a purpose – even the body parts that seem at first to be useless or offensive. We can pull up the tares now, when they’re small, and burn them in a corner of the field, or we can let them grow along with the wheat and let the Master Gardner do the sifting. Maybe the reason God created gay people (and anyone else we regard as Other) is so that we can all learn how to find new ways to relate to and with one another.
Smith further suggests that to continue to allow a forum where people may come to express themselves and learn about the Church’s positions on homosexuality is to expose ourselves to hell fire in the future (p.83).
And yet, open discussion has great value:
If it keeps even one child from committing suicide,
If it means just one mother doesn’t have to worry that her son will question God’s love for him,
If it means just one father can understand his lesbian daughter’s spirituality and accept her children,
If it means just one bishop opens his door to a depressed HIV+ member and acts as Christ’s stand-in to embrace him fully and completely,
If it means just one Primary teacher changes a lesson because one of the children attending that day has two dads,
If it means just one gay activist thinks twice before labeling all Mormons as bigots,
Even if it makes Smith and others like him question my integrity, my support of priesthood leaders and my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, yes, these conversations have value. There are some things that just need to be said, and there are some forums that just need to exist and we all need to do it together.