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Participating in a Privileged Club

February 8, 2013

So, there’s something I’ve noticed recently from the liberal Mormon-sphere…there have been people recognizing that their participation in the LDS church is possible (or fruitful) because they have all sorts of privileges that the church caters to. If they did not have such privileges, then they would not be able to see themselves as drawing as much value from the organization — and so they understand how others lacking said privileges might decide to leave.

Maybe you don’t get what I’m saying when I talk in the abstract like this. Well, let’s take John Dehlin. This guy has recently gone on podcast record in saying that he will be returning to church. But in one of the 23489234 Facebook group posts about John’s journey, John responded in part by linking to his 2012 Sunstone Why I Stay talk (pdf alert). Here’s the relevant section for this discussion:

Over the years, many have said to me, “Come on John. Just play along. The church is good, even if it isn’t true. Just keep quiet about the tough stuff. The ends justify the means.”

My answer to them is this: if everyone were to have had my privileged upbringing as a white middle class straight believing Mormon male, then maybe I could sit silently. But not everybody has had this experience. I think of the many young gay and lesbian members who have become spiritually exiled, or even committed suicide because they believed, very literally, in the teachings of good or otherwise well-intentioned men like Spencer W. Kimball or President Packer. Or the feminists who feel marginalized or shamed for wanting a career, for desiring more of a say in important church matters that impact them, or for simply wearing a sleeveless shirt. Or the many young couples who rushed into suboptimal marriages at the urging of their mission presidents and parents. Or the members of African and Native American ancestry who were taught their whole lives that their beautiful skin color was the result of a curse by God. Or of the increasing number of disaffected church members who harbor justified feelings of anger and betrayal because they did not have the opportunity to fully understand what they were committing to in the church BEFORE covenanting to consecrate all of their time, money and resources (their lives, basically) at the ages of 19 or 21 – and who, as a result, have been sorely mistreated by their loved ones, even though their disbelief and/or disaffection rests on understandable, and very legitimate ground.

Some people simply cannot stay in this church and remain healthy – and the pain that they experience, at our hand, after making such a difficult and often courageous decision to leave (most often out of integrity) – that pain that we inflict up on them is unacceptable. And so I just can’t stay quiet about the difficult aspects of Mormonism — if it means writing all of these people off as necessary casualties for the cause. If a loving God is at the head of this church, then there has to be a way for Mormonism to generate less casualties in its wake. This is partly what Mormon Stories Podcast has been about – seeing if we can find a way to create less human casualties as a church.

Another post that is relevant for this discussion comes from John C. at By Common Consent: A darn shame.

Here are relevant sections:

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that my gay friends investigate the church. This sickens me. As far as I can tell (a very limited distance), to join the church as a member of the LGBT community is to consign yourself to misery.  Since we are, that we might have joy, I cannot suggest it.

Think about what Mormonism is:  It offers a path to gain direct access to God. It allows one to consider the eternities and to contemplate achieving one’s full potential.  It provides a way to connect all your loved ones, living and dead, in a great community of charity and belief.  It is the catalyst (I believe) for the creation of the kingdom of God on Earth. And there is a whole set of people out there whom, I believe, it will only make miserable.

Both John C. and John D. stick with the church and draw benefit from it. But both recognize that there are problems with how the church treats various groups (e.g., gay folks, women outside of the housewife-taking-care-of-the-kids role expectation, racial minorities, folks who can’t believe the way the church or people within the church expect) — and they recognize that if someone doesn’t have certain privileges: gender, orientation, racial, etc. — then various issues in the church can be deal breakers.

…but of course, John C and John D aren’t leaving the church over this. Even as they recognize the privilege from which they benefit, and recognize the disadvantageous position those without privilege are in, for themselves, they are just going to live with the benefits of privilege.

When I read this, my gut reaction is that there’s something wrong with this attitude. But I don’t know if that’s really the case.

My gut reaction is that these folks are saying, “Hey, I got mine, so I don’t care about the rest.”

…but that’s definitely not fair. I mean, John D isn’t saying, “I don’t care.” He’s saying, to the contrary, I can’t stay quiet about the difficult aspects of Mormonism. So, his answer brings with this an idea: perhaps the church can be changed enough that it will be just as great for people lacking various privileges as it is for him.

And John C. is saying, given that some of the benefits of the Mormon church don’t work for gay folks, he’s not going to try to subject them to the pain. So, that’s another answer that isn’t “I don’t care.”

And another thought strikes me. Even though my gut reaction is to say that they should abandon their privilege rather than exploit it, it seems to me that this isn’t how things work anywhere else. I mean, I have immense socioeconomic privilege living in America. I recognize that this comes at a cost to many people across the world. But I don’t spend all of my time and energies giving up the fruits of my privilege. No, I live my life, even though I am aware that my things are possible because of someone else’s suffering.

As I read elsewhere from one of the many blog posts my social justice blogging friend shares on Facebook, one can enjoy problematic media while recognizing it’s problematic. In fact, part of the process of doing this responsibly means recognizing that there are problems with the media…and that’s something that both Johns are doing here.

…an interesting followup discussion for the same point, however, would be the response from many (as evidenced in the comments to John C’s post) that the liberal believer is coming at things from a wrong angle. While the liberal member sees the institution and religion as having contingent value (e.g., it’s valuable if you are [insert traits here]), the not-as-liberal members argue from a position that Mormonism is intrinsically valuable — even if you aren’t x, y, or z, then the church is for you, because really, lacking x, y, and z might mean that you need to be changed to eventually *have* those things.

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15 Comments
  1. With the recent “Earthly Father, Heavenly Father” video making the rounds, I thought “wow, what a beautiful and inspiring video for the 5% of the world that is the male half of a dual-parent, single-income family that is able to provide for and protect their family in that way.
    For everyone else, what an artfully done guilt trip they just got! How beautifully they were just marginalized.

    Honestly, I look at many people I love who fit the “mormon mold” (middle class, white, nuclear families, all heterosexuals) and think “the church is GOOD for them. they are better people in it, because of it, than they would be without it”.
    Then I look at myself, or a gay friend, an infertile friend, a single friend, a liberal friend, a feminist friend, an uneducated friend…. and just think “get out! run away! this church is not for you!”

    You almost must consider that many who stay int he church despite seeing that it is problematic for the less privileged, stay BECAUSE they want to bring about change, they want to help make it work for those who don’t have the choice to leave (and yes, there are many who would/should leave the church but if you really believe it’s true, fully leaving simply isn’t an option). John D, for instance, has managed to actually CHANGE the church, right up to the top. He nearly burnt himself out doing so, but kudos to him for sticking around to help make the church what it should be.
    I just don’t have that kind of energy:)

  2. Jenn,

    Great comment…I had many of the same thoughts from the “Earthly Father, Heavenly Father” video.

    As for your last paragraph, I definitely see hints of that from John Dehlin’s comments. He’s big on trying to change things, and for him, to be effective at that requires that he be active in the church. And yep, he’s definitely seemed to make some splashes — although with quite a bit of interpersonal costs…glad to see that he’s refocusing on his family.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    The problem is Andrew – I don’t just draw benefits from the LDS Church. It also causes a lot of strains and demands on my life. It has restricted me a great deal.

    This isn’t some utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. It’s about human meaning. I’m in the LDS Church because it provides my life with meaning. It’s part of my identity and who I am.

    I would take a crappy life filled with personal meaning over a pointless, but contented life. And I realize I live in a society filled with people for whom this stance is utterly incomprehensible. Privileged, idle America is full of the pointlessly contented, and meaninglessly happy.

    Of course, the designation of “white middle class straight male” is mind-numbingly cliche. Commence gag reflex.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    I think whether John realizes it or not – he’s subconsciously come to a similar conclusion:

    Contentment is not enough. It’s never enough.

  5. Seth,

    OK, OK, let’s go with what you say: “I’m in the LDS Church because it provides my life with meaning. It’s part of my identity and who I am.

    I’m just saying that the conclusion I keep seeing drawn by many liberal types is that the meaning provided by the church tends to only be suitable or resonant with a given subset of people. Outside of that subset, the meaning provided by the church reaches increasingly greater levels of lack of fit — and I mean, yeah, if we’re supposed to be changing (as conservative folks tend to counter…), then it would be expected to experience some lack of fit…but the real issue is that everyone doesn’t want the end goal that the church establishes in its narrative. So people see the “meaning” the church supposes, and think NOT ONLY that they don’t really fit that, but also…why would they want to *become* that?

    I think your discussion of meaning vs contentedness misses the point and doesn’t really describe what’s happening. I mean, I’m going to venture and say that the “meaning” that you speak of provides some sort of satisfaction in your life. And I’m sure that you’ll squirm around all sorts of terms (e.g., you probably wouldn’t say it makes you “content” or “happy” or whatever), but I don’t think that you’re going to take any meaning *just because* it’s meaning. Meaning has value because it is satisfying — if only because it seems to make sense to us of our situation and surroundings.

    So, I think when you say that you’d rather live a crappy life with personal meaning…you’re saying that the personal meaning has positive value *in spite of* and *as an ameliorating factor against* the crappy life.

    If this is the case, then the question is: does the meaning the LDS church provides similarly satisfy all of its members or the nonmembers who could potentially become members? I think people are saying no. And I’m saying it’s because the LDS church doesn’t really know how to construct a credible narrative for certain groups of people.

    …and another question: if someone rejects the meaning proposition of the LDS church, does that mean that they are abandoning any sort of meaning in exchange simply for contentedness?

    I don’t think so. I think that the “contentedness” they seek or find is the contentedness of finding/discovering/constructing/whatevering a meaning that is appropriate for them (if only in a sense that it’s a *goal* that they actually *want*.)

  6. Seth R. permalink

    Well, I think it’s true that the meaning isn’t necessarily there in equal measure for everyone (if at all for some).

    But a part of me is wondering – why is that bad?

    More and more, I’ve started to see the LDS Church as really one of the last defenses of the family against a monotonous and relentless assault by what I call “the exceptions to the rule.” It’s one of the few institutions left that even has a prayer of preserving united male-female parity in common cause with a shared goal of heterosexual child-rearing and parental modeling.

    The rest of society, frankly, doesn’t give a toss about this model and is in many cases actively seeking to abolish it. And it’s done in the name of preserving the feelings (not even rights – just plain old good feelings) of “the exceptions.” A tiny minority that doesn’t want to feel left out – and therefore demands that the definition of the norm be redefined to include them somehow.

    A part of me feels sympathetic for them. But another part of me is simply fed up and wants to say –

    You know what – this church is about families.

    You’re single? Well, you’re welcome – and we’ll do what we can. But tough beans. We’re not going to stop being a family church just so you feel like you fit in better.

    This church is about the union of the male and female identity.

    You’re a gay couple – well, I’m not closing the door entirely on theological possibilities for you. I’m willing to try quite hard to reconcile the situation you find yourself in. But tough beans. Our theology is the union of male and female and we’re not going to change that just so you can feel better about yourself.

    Because something is being lost here.

    In the attempt to level everything in society – the refuge for the majority of kids in America is being annihilated. Just so adults can avoid discomfort (and I do mean discomfort), kids are being kicked aside into the rubbish heap.

    This isn’t about keeping gays out. It’s about preserving a refuge for the rearing of children with mixed gender models, and the proper unification of the DIFFERENT sexes.

    These goals are simply too vital, too crucial, too fragile, and too important for me to neglect them in favor of concern for singles, homosexuals, and so forth any longer.

    It’s not about standing against something. It’s about standing FOR something far more vital. And yes – that means people will be left out. I’m willing to work hard to combat that, But at a certain level, you just can’t do anything more for the exceptions. Especially not with “the rule” is under such relentless assault that it threatens to vanish entirely.

    The ugly truth is that you can’t be everything for everyone. And that’s just the way life is.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    And I really hate saying this stuff. Because I do actually feel really bad for those left out. I do.

    But I just feel worse about what is being lost by so many more people.

  8. Given the reaction of the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which I believe is heavily weighted towards church members, it IS about keeping the gays out. It is interesting that the BSA council with the largest Mormon membership is incapable of following the church’s own advice per mormonsandgays.org, which is to not ban the gay family member. Why are they acting that way? Because keeping the gays out of the church is so ingrained that in their thoughts that they have not realized that the church started moving away from Spencer W. Kimball’s brand of gay policies in 1992.

    There are plenty of other religious organizations that are carrying the husband-and-wife-only banner besides the Mormon church. Maybe that is not the case in some states, but it is certainly the situation in the south where I live. The church has essentially no influence here. Take a look at the Republicn primaries and also at how quickly the party dropped Romney after the election if you want to see the limited influence exerted by the church in the south.

  9. Seth,

    I guess the problem is that the church claims to be true for *everyone*, not just those with various privileges. I guess if there’s a “monotonous and relentless assault” by “exceptions to the rule,” it’s because these exceptions are pointing out how inadequate the family as the church conceives it is. The family as par church standards simply doesn’t match the reality of what many people’s would consider to be *their* family, or even the kind of family that they want to have.

    I think your comment has a lot of things that need to be teased out. So, there’s “meaning.” There’s “feeling left out.” There’s “the norm.” Etc., These things are related, but also different. In other words, because the norm leaves people feeling left out, it does not suffice as a source of meaning for many folks. In their pursuit of meaning, they are going to challenge the norm, accordingly.

    So earlier you were all for meaning…but here, you don’t care as much that this particular construction of meaning leaves some people high and dry. Even more, you present their attempts to forge a different system of meaning as being an “assault.”

    I think it’s interesting — when it’s “meaning” that you agree with, then that’s “meaning.” But when it’s meaning that you disagree with, then that’s just people trying to “feel better about themselves”

    Never do you ever think about a) the possibility of growth and challenge in different narratives other than, “Well, fit yourself in this straight married family mold” or b) the possibility that a church can advocate multiple paths. Like, the church can *only* be about the union of male and female — nothing else is possible alongside that.

    I think that that sort of rigidity is what causes the “assault,” if such an assault is the case. If you want it to be zero sum, then people will make it zero sum.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    For some reason, WordPress decided to use an old ID I use for a hobby website. You can delete the above and use this comment instead:

    I think that is as simple as stating that not all meaning is created equal Andrew. The needs of some are simply more important than the needs of others. And some needs are far more vital than others.

    In fact, you don’t even need to call them “needs.” Say the wants of some are more important than the wants of others if you like.

  11. Seth,

    The needs of some are simply more important than the needs of others. And some needs are far more vital than others.

    Yeahhhh…see, this ain’t going to fly. Like, *even if one concedes your point*, there isn’t any reason for someone who has been deemed to have less important or less vital needs to accept that without challenge.

    Hence, there are indeed challenges.

  12. Seth R. permalink

    Well, yes?

    Of course people are going to disagree. But it does simply point out that there are reasons – possibly good ones – for an organization NOT accommodating everyone within it the same. And depending on how compelling its argument is, it can provide reason to support it – even for people who aren’t the focus of its paradigm (for example, all those podcast interviews the FAIR blog posted of homosexuals within the church that support its current stance).

    I was never trying to make the point that this ends the debate somehow.

  13. Seth,

    The discomfort experienced is all on your end.

    TBMs are *uncomfortable* accepting two guys as married. They are *uncomfortable* having their son’s boyfriend under their roof. And they are *uncomfortable* letting their trans daughter live in their home after she turns 18.

    To ameliorate this discomfort, they reject and exclude people in ways which have material consequences. Right now they’re fighting for nondiscrimination legislation that would allow any Mormon to fire or deny housing to an LGBT person based on their “religious beliefs.” They’re also apparently fighting to make gay Mormons second-class citizens from cradle to grave, or at least make liars out of all the teenage ones in Boy Scouting.

    TBMs try to shut down awareness efforts as “activism” with an “agenda,” as trying to “convert” people to a “lifestyle,” as “attacks” on “the family.” Even as they belong to a church which went out of its way to *destroy families* in California, and which sends tens of thousands of missionaries worldwide to convert people to their lifestyle.

    As a trans woman with more than one significant other (of multiple genders), I don’t particularly care if others think that I’m weird. I do care that I can’t marry both of my partners, because immigration law is trying to force me to choose one or the other. I do care about being yelled and preached at on the bus, by the driver, about how I’m going to hell. And I do care about being denied medical care by paramedics and first responders, who are disgusted by *that thing* and know that if they just let *it* die no one will punish them for it.

    I am *completely okay* with the Mormon family. I’m completely okay with husbands and wives raising 2.5 children and separating out the responsibilities however they want. I am *extremely* pro-the-traditional-family.

    I just wish that you weren’t anti-me.

  14. Seth R. permalink

    Taryn very little you’ve related has much to do with what I think about the situation or how I feel about gays.

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