Mormon People Versus Mormon ChurchBy: Andrew S
Most of us have heard the expression, “The Church is perfect, but the people are not.” Or some variation thereof that dichotomizes “the church” or “the gospel” and “the people.”
But what if we flipped this arrangement around?
I’m not saying that we should consider people perfect. But to paraphrase (heavily) something John Larsen said in a Mormon Expression podcast episode, maybe we could say that the people are progressing, but the church isn’t.
A CNN Belief Blog post by Dan Merica, entitled “Gay rights activists see Mormons softening attitudes toward their community“, inspired this post. The post goes over several events that stirred the Mormon internet community when they occurred. To summarize the article, here are some of the events discussed:
- Former Bishop Kevin Kloosterman’s apology to GLBT people at the Mormon Stories “Circling the Wagons” conference.
- The BYU “Understanding Same-Gender Attraction” Group’s “It Gets Better” video (which also was the topic of my last article at Wheat & Tares).
- Openly gay Mitch Mayne’s calling as executive secretary, which was at the time reported in such an ambiguous way that people wondered if he were instead called as Bishop.
One thing you might have noticed…and that I definitely noticed, when the article was recapping and when these various events happened…is that each of the parties involved is just an “average Joe” member of the church. Maybe I’m just not connected in the MoHosphere (actually, that is definitely the case), but it seemed to me that these people weren’t really all that well-known until their moments in the spot light.
But what this article does is privilege the actions and efforts of individual “average Joes” as being representative of Mormonism. In other words, Kevin Kloosterman can be put side by side with Church head of P.R. Michael Purdy when trying to tell a story about the church.
And speaking of Purdy, what is the official church’s response?
Church spokesman Michael Purdy would not comment on whether church members are changing their stance toward gay and lesbian issues but said in an e-mail message: “In the Church, we strive to follow Jesus Christ who showed immense love and compassion towards all of God’s children.”
Purdy wrote, “If members are becoming more loving and Christ-like toward others then this can only be a positive development.”
I find this an intriguing response. The first part is quite expected…obviously, Purdy is not going to say that church members or the church is changing the stance toward gay and lesbian issues. And of course, Purdy has to make the statement that Mormons follow Jesus too, and as a result, Mormons show love and compassion (whatever that means) toward all of God’s children.
But it’s the second part that’s really interesting. If members are becoming more loving and Christ-like toward others then this can only be a positive development.
Stated like this, this appears to be a implied rehashing of that old line: the church is perfect, but the people are not. In the church, imperfect people strive to follow Jesus, but sometimes we mess up. But if members are finally becoming more loving and Christ-like toward others, then good for the members!
With a statement like this, Purdy could easily classify every “negative” action toward anyone (gays, feminists, whomever) as being the members’ failure to be loving and Christ-like. But every “positive” action can be classified as members getting with the program, so to speak.
But whatever the case is, I’d imagine that the church still probably takes a harder line position than many of these people. As the article continues:
But church officials pushed back against the perception that the Proposition 8 backlash has provoked a Mormon softening on gay and lesbian issues.
“Many positive relationships have come from the Church’s experience in supporting traditional marriage in California,” Purdy, the church spokesman, said in an e-mail exchange with CNN.
Purdy draws a distinction between being against same-sex marriage and against equality for gays and lesbians.
He reiterated that the church was “strongly on the record as supporting traditional marriage,” but he said its stance should never be used as justification for violence or unkindness.
“The Church’s doctrine has not changed but we certainly believe you can be Christ-like, loving and civil, while advocating a strongly held moral position such as supporting traditional marriage,” Purdy wrote in an e-mail message.
“We do not believe that strong support of traditional marriage is anti-gay,” he wrote. “We love and cherish our brothers and sisters who experience same gender attraction. They are children of God.”
If there’s one thing that many thoughtful, blogging liberal Mormons could agree upon that Purdy cannot, it would probably be that right or wrong, the church’s efforts in promoting Prop 8 were a PR nightmare. Or worse, as Mitch Mayne is quoted in the article:
Mayne said he believes the challenge is to convince church leaders that they don’t ever have to excommunicate gay members.
And he said the Proposition 8 campaign was the “least Christ-like thing we have ever done as a church.”
“Not only did we alienate gays and lesbians, but we alienated their parents, their friends, those who support them – the ripple effect went way beyond the gay community, and I don’t think we were prepared for such a negative fallout,” Mayne said. “I think the church deserved the black eye they received.”
Notice what Mayne does in his statements. Again, he sharply divides members from the Church. He is trying to convince church leaders that they don’t have to excommunicate gay members, and he talks about the harm that Prop 8 did to people (gays and lesbians, families, friends, etc.,)…but he separates this pain from the “black eye” that the church received (that he says it deserved.)
One thing that problematizes everything, though, is the fact that the members don’t move in lock step with one another. While we can point out members will progressive attitudes who are acting on those attitudes, we can also point to members who very much believe in the church’s current stance and who have far more traditional views. From last week’s discussion the It Gets Better video, Douglas made a comment in particular:
I am utterly revolted that the Church’s stance on homosexuality could be perceived as “evolving” towards acceptance as a legitimate alternative. Pernicious nonsense.
It’s one thing to be sensitive to the struggles that LGBT members go through in dealing with their sexual desires (re: “pre-versions” as the fictional Col. “Bat” Guano put it in “Dr. Strangelove”). I see no problem with differentiating between the inclination (which is a challenge, not a sin of itself) versus the (mis)behavior.
Methinks, though, at some point faithful members have to make a choice between being popular versus doing the right thing. Or as the hymn sez it, “Who is on the LORD’s side, WHO?”
The thing is, Douglas isn’t alone in thinking this. So as we move forward, we can’t neatly divide “the Church” from “the members,” because members themselves have different positions on these issues. So, keeping all of this in mind, here are the
Questions for Today
- What do you think of dichotomies like “the people” vs “the church” or “the gospel”? In what ways are those accurate ways of describing two different things?
- Should “ordinary” members be the primary representatives for the church when it comes to news articles?
- As a continuation of question 2, do you think it is problematic for the press to draw conclusions based on “exceptional” ordinary members? That is, those “average Joe” members who nevertheless are unorthodox in their approach or beliefs?