Participating in a Privileged Club
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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