Thursday, January 29, 2015

LDS Leaders Hold "Historic" Press Conference to Announce Support for Gay Rights, and Critics Suggest Mormons Are Punking the Media: My Response

As you may have read, this week top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints issued a statement saying the following:

We call on local, state and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation — protections which are not available in many parts of the country.

Peggy Fletcher Stack and Robert Gehrke report on this Mormon statement for Religion News Service (and Salt Lake Tribune); they're my source for the preceding citation. As Brady McCombs and Rachel Zoll indicate for AP, the LDS statement supporting the rights of LGBT citizens is a a "kind of" statement. In arguing that LGBT citizens should enjoy rights equal to those of all other citizens in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations, the Mormon statement prioritizes "religious freedom."

It prioritizes Mormon religious freedom — the right of Mormons and other people of faith to choose to discriminate in all those and other areas, insofar as they claim a religious warrant to do so. And so journalist Samantha Allen, who grew up Mormon, views the media-hyped LDS statement as a bait-and-switch statement akin to the ones she remembers from her childhood, after the Mormon church acceded to widespread public pressure and stopped discriminating against priesthood candidates on racial grounds: she suggests that what church leaders are actually doing with their much-ballyhooed statement is giving the impression that they "pledge basic support for the humane treatment of the marginalized while supporting their exclusion through every other means possible."

Allen concludes,

These recurring disclaimers about religious freedom reveal this announcement for what it really is: a craven bid to hang on to as much power as possible before full LGBT equality becomes a political and cultural reality. Now that the Mormon Church seems more or less resigned to the impending probability of nationwide same-sex marriage, this renewed focus on discrimination under the guise of religious freedom is the only thing they have left and by God, Jesus, and Joseph Smith, are they going to white-knuckle it.

Lorri L. Jean reminds us of the backdrop against which Mormons are eager to refurbish their image as a religious community bent on attacking gay folks and removing rights from them: 

The Mormon Church has been on a major campaign to rehabilitate its image after it was exposed as the driving force behind the passage of Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that repealed the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in California.

And yet, as she notes, even as top leaders of the LDS church make a public announcement that they deplore discrimination against LGBT folks and want to protect their rights, 

They're working federally and in states across the nation to pass broad exemptions to non-discrimination laws that effectively gut civil rights protections under the guise of protecting religious freedoms. And right now in the Idaho statehouse, and elsewhere around the country, they're fighting new anti-discrimination bills by saying they infringe on religious freedoms.

In the view of Brooke P. Hunter, what Mormon leaders are seeking to do with their announcement this week is to punk the press:

The Mormon church punked the national press yesterday by calling a press conference purportedly about their support of some basic rights for LGBTQ people. The press conference was, in fact, mostly about defending Mormons' right to discriminate.

In choosing this tactic — a splashy national media announcement that appears to step in the direction of supporting the human rights of a marginalized community, while actually advancing the bogus "religious freedom" argument for discrimination anytime, anyplace, because God says — I wonder if LDS leaders have not taken a leaf from the book of the Catholic hierarchy. I wonder, in fact, if they're not being directly coached by the spin-machine that is now running the Vatican media show, a machine operated by former Fox News employee (and Opus Dei member) Greg Burke.

Appear benign. Appear with it. But keep the resistance to the human rights of gay folks firm as you deploy the "religious freedom" smokescreen: this has been the formula of top leaders of the Catholic church for some time now, and no less so under the current pope. 

As the Vatican colloquium on the family this past November, which brought together top Mormon and Catholic leaders along with leaders of other religious groups committed to opposing the human rights of LGBT folks around the world (see here, here, here, and here), reminds us, Mormon and Catholic leaders have formed an alliance around these issues. And so it would hardly be outside the realm of possibility that LDS leaders are aping Catholic ones in trying to manage media coverage of their resistance to gay rights, in trying to package that resistance as faux tolerance and pretend benignity, even as their announcements about their newfound tolerance and benignity drive home the point that "religious freedom" must allow any and all forms of anti-gay discrimination a religious group demands.

What catches my eye in this week's "historic" Mormon press conference is the way in which Mormon leaders kept harping on how sex outside marriage between a man and a woman is against God's law, and therefore . . . . This is the heart of the Catholic argument, too.

Implicitly, such arguments mount claims that the fundamental human rights of a minority group can be ignored by people of faith as long as people of faith appeal to a "law" of God that trumps human rights — even as these same people of faith profess to stand in support of human rights. The logic that governs the approach of Mormon and Catholic leaders to the question of the human rights of LGBT people is entirely wrongheaded, it seems to me.

It's premised on viewing gay human beings as sexual objects, as people whose primary intent in seeking the right to marry is sexual. The decision of heterosexual people to marry is never viewed in the same way by the leaders of these churches, and so there's a prima facie problem of prejudice built into the very way in which these church leaders want to construe gay human beings and their hope to enjoy rights and privileges accorded to everyone else in society — the protections that legal marriage offers to them and their families, the social entrée, etc. 

If one recognizes that gay people are human beings and that they aspire to human rights because they are human like everyone else, another logic should immediately be in play, it seems to me. The question becomes not whether gay people are hypersexed reprobates seeking marital sanction for illicit sexual activity: it becomes whether gay people are human beings seeking rights and privileges that protect them and their families and make their lives more livable, more humane.

The moment one glimpses this logic, the intent to construe gay people as sexual objects flies out the window, I think. And the humanity of those people that church teachings objectify by viewing them through the optic of sex acts begins to shine forth.

Neither the Catholic church, in its official teaching, nor the LDS church, in its teaching, is there yet. Neither can be there until what is warped in these churches's official teaching about human sexuality at a very fundamental level — warped because it reduces the question of sexual relationship to sexual activity — is addressed critically and honestly.

Until that's done, talk about human rights in these religious communities will continue to be hot-air talk, since the humanity of those who are gay is not addressed at the most fundamental level possible, as a starting point, in how these religious communities talk about human sexuality.

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