Part I. Stirring Up the Saints
Jacob Z. Hess
Note: At a time when many are turning to their faith for consolation that brighter days are ahead, others unable to do so. This two-part essay series (see Part II here) examines one force I believe has had a corrosive impact on many people’s faith – and yet, has received only sporadic scrutiny. By considering more forthrightly both the history and nature of this force in some depth, I hope people can find ways to extricate themselves from its influence.
If Latter-day Saints were confused to see students protesting at BYU earlier this year, they should be.
After all, these were active members of the Church of Jesus Christ protesting. How does a committed Latter-day Saint arrive at a place of being willing to shout loud demands in Provo or in front of the Church office building?
If you were following the story, you likely heard one answer from the 8 or 9 articles about the rallies in the Salt Lake Tribune (if you missed their live stream of the protests).
Here’s another answer.
Two kinds of listening. When I started writing about the possibility of a more productive conversation between religious conservatives and the gay community several years ago, I was intrigued to discover a Latter-day Saint-specific Facebook community called “Mormons Building Bridges” that seemed to have similar hopes. “Wonderful,” I thought – “a group in my own faith community working to build bridges on this hardest of disagreements … these are definitely my people!”
So, you can imagine my surprise at the tepid response in the MBB community to a series of essays exploring ways to deepen understanding across these disagreements – met largely with a mixture of annoyance, indifference and sometimes outright contempt.
By comparison, when someone posted something that began, “You’ll never believe what my Bishop just told me…” or “This guy said the stupidest thing in Sunday School today…” the outpouring was overwhelming – with pages upon pages of indignation and eager elaboration.
We all know, of course, how good it can feel to simply be heard in our painful moments. And to their credit, that’s what many in this group have undoubtedly aspired to do all along: offer a listening ear and an empathetic heart to anyone with questions, concerns or struggles in this area.
That kind of listening is important for all of us – no question. Not all listening is the same, however – and certainly not equally conducive to genuine reconciliation and healing. Most of us know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a conversation-turned-into-venting-session. And so we know from experience how it’s possible for anger-fueled conversations like this to exacerbate and amplify the pain – rather than help people work through painful feelings.
Recent years have forced us to grapple more as a society with the ways in which online venting and grievance can spread-and-escalate in troubling ways. In his book “Love Your Enemies,” Arthur Brooks describes social media as a “contempt machine” that makes it “extraordinarily easy to join crusades, express solidarity and outrage.”
Of course, there are things to be frustrated about in America – even to the point of appropriate outrage. And it’s true that anger can help people rise to fight for what is true, like Captain Moroni’s anger at Amalickiah’s legitimate threat to freedom in his day. That anger is not the same thing, however, as those on the other side – who were described as “exceedingly wroth” and “gathered together against their brethren.”
That’s kind of how this whole effort in MBB and allied organizations has felt to many orthodox members of the Church. I’m not the only one who has been frequently shocked to see the level of contempt, disdain and suspicion directed at prophet leaders online in recent years, including and especially in a forum of Latter-day Saints dedicated to bridge building.
In my time observing and participating in the group, it hasn’t been unusual for someone to chime in and say something like, “hey, isn’t this supposed to be about bridge building? Why is there so much Church bashing going on here?”
When that happens, one of the moderators has usually made clear that “mean-spirited” or “condemning” remarks, and “bashing” are all restricted in the Mormons Building Bridges group – with equal encouragement given towards curiosity, compassion, empathy and understanding. That kind of facilitation is more than what you see in many online groups – and the leaders of MBB deserve credit for that.
Are these kinds of statements tearing into the Church anomalous comments that somehow got past the filters?
No, they’re not. Even though the form of healthy dialogue has been in place, the larger cultural and ideological dynamics surrounding MBB have, I would argue, ensured that these “bridge-building” efforts have been saturated by a strong, seemingly endless critique of orthodox Latter-day Saint teaching and praxis – sometimes, yes, despite the ongoing facilitation of its leaders.
There’s nothing wrong with holding a strong critique, of course – unless that becomes endemic throughout an effort portrayed publicly as caring about “dialogue” or “building bridges.”
By definition, dialogue involves the “bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas” – and cannot be reduced, in the words of Paulo Freire, to “the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants.” As I’ve written in the past “the moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be dialogue.”
That’s been my concern. Rather than building a two-way bridge between Latter-day Saints and the gay community – a bridge with generous space for competing self-understandings – it seem to me that something very different has taken place in these online efforts.
Bridge-building as activism. It was perhaps inevitable within the larger cultural momentum of this last decade that even peace-making and dialogue would be taken up as tools for larger activism.
From my interactions with the founders of MBB, I believe this implicit, almost-reflexive activism running throughout what they have presented as bridge-building reflects not some premeditated scheme, as much as an honest estimation on their part for how best to advance a cause they believe is inspired. From that vantage point, the word “bridging” comes to refer not so much to cultivating dialogue as much as integrating people(s) considered to be fundamentally different kinds of human beings – namely gay people and trans people into a “heteronormative” Church they insist was designed for “straight people.”
This doesn’t mean there was a desire for antagonism or disinterest in deepening understanding from the beginning. As a friend involved in the early days of MBB wrote me: “My sense from many who marched in the first SLC parade was that they wanted to show that many and hopefully most members, want to reach out with love in order to gain greater understanding….the people I talked to in the earliest days weren’t trying to set themselves up in opposition to the Church, they were active members who wanted something to happen that they weren’t seeing occur within our meetinghouses and weren’t hearing over the pulpit, effectively they wanted to add to their gospel experience, not detract from it.”
This man continued, “My sense from many of my earlier conversations was that most of these folks believed we could be much more welcoming…without changing doctrine, but it did require a willingness to open minds, hearts and arms. In that spirit, these folks, I believe, saw themselves as an urgent part of the Great Commission, that they wanted to create congregations where more who wanted to know and follow Christ would find a home.”
I don’t doubt the sincerity of these early motivations or higher aspirations. In actual practice, I’m just suggesting that their efforts played out in a way that had inadvertent, troubling consequences. And in this case, I’m highlighting ways that “bridging” came to be the label for ongoing efforts to align Church membership, policy and practice with new, underappreciated truths about sexuality. While Latter-day Saints and Christians are indeed under a “great commission” to share Christ’s gospel with all the world, this has often felt like a mission in the reverse direction – preaching to fellow believers who have not yet fully embraced this new message of love and inclusivity.
A new civil rights movement. Over the last two decades, the conversation about gay rights has almost always been framed around civil rights – a framework that has largely gone unquestioned to any significant degree. As author Rod Dreher wrote in his 2015 best-selling book the Benedict Option, “Tying the gay rights cause to the civil rights movement was a strategic masterstroke. Though homosexuality and race are two very different phenomena, the media took the equivalence for granted and rarely if ever gave opposing voices a chance to be heard.”
Rather than pursuing a discussion about competing ideas, ideals or moral perspectives, this framework shifted the conversation to one centered on the liberation of an oppressed people who were now owning, without apology, their true, core identity. And they were asking America to accept this new truth about who they really were as well.
And wow, did America respond! Regardless of what you thought of it, the sea change in public attitudes was historic – and has become further, dramatic evidence for supporters of the rightness of this cause. While these advocates saw growing societal popularity as strong validation of its goodness, other orthodox believers have often wondered, “since when has popularity in the world been a sign for something being true, good, or right?”
Whatever your feeling about the larger movement, however, it’s important to acknowledge that some of the evolutions we’ve seen are absolutely valuable and needed – especially the pushing back against widespread disdain that has existed among many against those who experience same-sex attraction. The violence perpetrated against these, our brothers and sisters, is real: from the thousands sent to Nazi death camps to a long history of gay persecution in world history, including hundreds of attacks on gay men and women throughout U.S. history.
Violence and bullying are (or should be) matters of unshakeable solidarity – and if this was simply about ensuring greater safety and more loving, respectful space, I believe most Latter-day Saints would have had very little issue rising in support. But it’s clear this movement has gone well beyond that to an array of revisions proposed across virtually every element of society – including to the worship of faith communities like our own.
Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us so much, though. Once you take for granted that groups of fundamentally different kinds of human beings exist based on sexual orientation, it becomes second nature to look outward and see society set up in many wrong ways. Marriage laws were just the start – with demands made of business and employment policies, speech guidelines, and even basic divisions over bathrooms.
Throughout this all, a critical stance was repeatedly cast on the influence of orthodox religious communities. Instead of a beacon of hope to the world, orthodox interpretations of Judeo-Christian teaching were soon recast as lamentably oppressive – and in need of direct, persistent confrontation and challenge. Rather than troubling in any way, all of this was consistently framed as nothing more than a natural extension of the beloved 60’s civil rights movement, and the next evolution in the long “arc of the moral universe” that was inevitably “bend[ing] towards justice.”
Summarizing the ethos driving these social justice movements, David Brooks summarized: “Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.”
That – if you believe it – calls for a very different set of actions needed to heal society. Instead of focusing on individual improvements we all need to make towards a better society, attention has been consumed with all the ways Those People need to change in order for us to be happy. Demanding that change, in a variety of ways, began to occupy center stage in people’s daily awareness.
Rather than exploring together meaningful differences in how equally thoughtful, good-hearted people think about and approach ideas like love and compassion – or identity itself – this oppression ideology trained its focus on identifying Those People not sufficiently loving or harboring bigotry – a mentality that became the de facto framework for virtually all public discussion and media reports.
The litmus tests of where people stood were oh-so-simple: So, do you believe in civil rights for all…or not? Are you a loving person…or not? Are you inclusive and compassionate…or not?
Given America’s intense historical memories around civil rights battles in the South, the power of this larger frame was tremendous. In the wake of relatively recent changes in the Church of Jesus Christ relative to race and the priesthood, many Latter-day Saints began taking for granted that this movement presaged the next big policy shift.
It cannot be overstated how profound an effect the dominance of this framework has had on everything that followed. As Randall Terry once said, “He who frames the question, wins the debate.” And theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s suggestion about why conservative Christians lost the 1970’s debate around abortion has special applicability here as well: “By ceding the terms of the debate, the debate got framed in ways that made the failure of conservative Christianity a foregone conclusion.”
By squarely positioning this new advocacy over gay rights as a modern-day inheritor of the legacy of Martin Luther King, leaders of this new movement effectively sliced through (and discarded) any number of important, and arguably essential conversations about contrasting views of identity, sexuality, rights, and love.
And those who disagreed? Instead of fostering space where equally sincere, well-meaning people might explore differences in perspective, public discussion took a sharp, more punitive turn.
Dealing with dissenters. With civil rights as the larger, unquestioned starting point for conversation, the stage was set to see anyone harboring questions or concerns about these rapid social changes in a specific way. Indeed, those who did raise concerns came to be quickly, even reflexively framed in not just a disapproving light – but a historically damning one.
More than just holding philosophical differences in terms of marriage, sexuality, and identity, those opposed to this new cause became almost universally framed (whether overtly or implicitly) as fighting against the very values of freedom and equality that make us American. “One day, we’ll look back on this sad prejudice much like we now do with the KKK,” became a reflection common to many newly mobilized in this new, exhilarating cause.
And for all the rest of us? Just like that: Entire communities of religious believers and whole canons of sacred text were reframed as reflecting unfortunate “heteronormativity” and lamentable bigotry. In this way, orthodox believers the world over rapidly became defined in many people’s eyes by endemic “hate” against a group of marginalized people finally asserting their true identities and demanding their natural rights.
How could anyone be so hateful, unaccepting, uncompassionate, intolerant, and ignorant enough to oppose something that important?
Convincing the Saints. Despite the growing popularity of gay rights as a moral, civil rights cause in America, those leading these activist efforts have understood well that religious communities across the nation would have many questions about these changes, including perhaps especially members of the Church of Jesus Christ. After all, few communities on earth were more devoted to proclaiming our common identity as literal spirit children of Heavenly Parents, along with the male-female marriage that unites (and creates) exalted beings in the eternities.
Despite such theological obstacles, this new truth had to be shared and hearts needed to be changed. And to reach a peculiar people significantly behind the curve when it came to embracing this new movement, MBB and other allied organizations went to work translating the predominant, popular narrative on sexuality into terms Latter-day Saints would find more palatable.
A new set of vocabulary was introduced to unfamiliar members: ally, homophobic, heteronormative, cisgender, queer, pansexual, trans, transitioning, inclusive, etc. And popular Latter-day Saint texts – from the Proclamation on the Family to youth materials – began to be deconstructed or reimagined. For instance, convinced that the Strength of Youth was only applicable to one kind of child (the straight kind), one passionate activist went to work revising this popular youth pamphlet to be applicable to this other kind of a teen: “For the Strength of Queer Youth.”
It was the sharing of personal stories, however, that came to constitute the most persuasive element of everything happening online. More than brief snippets of yet-another-conversation-with-a-bigot, it was the ongoing stream of coming out narratives that packed the biggest punch. Once someone came out and announced the core truth about “who they really were,” people around them were strongly encouraged to actively and loudly embrace that same truth. Those who did so adopted some of these new honorifics – “ally, compassionate, inclusive,” etc. In many cases, personally knowing someone who was gay started a rippling socialization process with dramatic effect, including poignant testimonies of sharp reversals in heart and mind – leading many to profess finally arriving at a place of true love and compassion.
This ongoing stream of curated new-reports, commentary, and personal stories became a convincing, persuasive force online – all of which, of course, was presented in this particular group as simply Latter-day Saints “building bridges” with the gay community.
Throughout this all, implicit accusations continued – embedded frequently within expressions of “belonging” or “acceptance” shared by a growing chorus of activist-saints. Thus, when an organizer of a large MBB-allied Encircle event said that young members of the LGBTQ+ community will feel “like you have a place to belong,” or a participating student said, “there are people who are going to accept me for who I am” the implied message about those other people and places was clear. And in frequent online comments like, “I’m lucky to have found a Bishop who is compassionate…hey everyone, if you’re looking for a ward that is inclusive, come join me” the implied message about those other bishops and wards was not hard to miss.
Earlier this year, when a mother was unwittingly cast center stage in the BYU rally and her son said, “It showed there are adults, and parents, out there that are supporting the LGBTQ community,” the accusation towards those other adults not passing out hugs on the quad needed no further explication. And when columnist Robert Gehrke opined in the Salt Lake Tribune, “at least there are still some Mormons I know who are compassionate,” we all recognized this as more than simply a compliment.
Lest all these insinuations weren’t abundantly clear, many others took it upon themselves to spell out the message further. As a way to fulfill their personal part in helping move people in the right direction, fellow brothers and sisters began calling out (especially online) any words or behavior not in line with the ideals of this new movement.
This stream of “you wouldn’t believe what someone said in my Sunday school class today” commentary was aggregated in groups like MBB for full effect. Anything supportive of the movement became showcased, celebrated and widely shared – while anything even mildly critical of the same movement was derided and picked apart….including minute details of the sacred canon, practice and history of the Church of Jesus Christ when it came to sexuality.
Yes, this is what “deconstructing a system” looks like.
Things questioned, things unquestioned. As this kind of call-out behavior expanded online, it yielded what is described above – almost a ceaseless critical scrutiny of the teachings and practices of orthodox faith communities. There was, however, little to no comparable public scrutiny of the teachings and proposals set forth by leaders of the gay rights movement itself. Despite the fact that these new teachings, new vocabularies, and new life philosophies continued having enormous, transformative influence on the individuals and families embracing them (and in the most precious, personal and sensitive matters of all), I have always found it remarkable the degree to which all these real-life consequences – and the new narratives of life, identity and sexuality prompting them – have received so little acknowledgment and attention publicly – or among the gay rights movement itself. Hardly considered, for instance, are questions such as:
Is our message about identity we’re sharing with youth (largely centered on sexuality) a true one – truer than the identity messages many were raised with in faith communities (largely centered on spirituality)?
Are the long-term fruits of this message we are sharing genuinely good – leading to deeper well-being and happiness over people’s lifetimes as a whole (and beyond)? Are there any ways this message may be contributing to the destabilization of other valuable things – including existing family relationships and faith itself?
Could some of the despair, confusion and anxiety felt by gay-identifying youth (and adults) be arising, in part, from an impossible dilemma they been persuaded encapsulates their life as a whole – one positioning their identity as irreconcilably at odds with their faith?
None of this seemed to receive much sustained attention from movement leaders (or fellow believers taking up the cause). Instead, this distinctive belief system around identity and sexuality became widely accepted by many as self-evident, even while the parallel belief systems previously held for years were quickly and fiercely challenged as suspect:
- The Proclamation to the World on the Family? A political, strategic document.
- Covenant marriage? A heteronormative ritual clearly not applicable to everyone.
- The plan of salvation laid out in scripture? Also, disappointingly limited in application to only one kind of human being.
- For the Strength of Youth? Helpful for only one kind of child.
Can you see how powerful this belief system – once embraced as true – slices through and effectively shatters what used to be believed?
And again, beware to those who dared dissent – especially publicly. Human beings like to be liked…including religious ones. So, gentle believers the world over cringed to think about being called haters or bigoted. Many people I spoke with were terrified of this – and most simply stopped saying anything online.
Nearly half of Americans today admitting to self-censoring online. For some activists, that may be seen as a triumph? And, for sure, some of the worry prompting such silence was clearly justified – with implicit (and overt) accusations repeating themselves day and night.
With all this enormous pressure, exactly the opposite of high-quality public discourse emerged – and with exactly the opposite results. Ask yourself: what happens when you combine a strongly persuasive dominant narrative with harsh dismissal of dissenting voices, and little to no critical public scrutiny of the core tenets behind it all?
Mass persuasion. Conversion, rather than conversation.
I would propose all the above as a significant backdrop for why many Latter-day Saints were led first awkwardly, then eagerly to adopt this new narrative – with remarkably consistent rippling effects that followed for faith, family, and individual trajectories.
I summarize those briefly before closing.
Discovering true love. Far more than the relentlessness of messaging or the threat of disagreement, I would argue the most effective mechanism of pressure and persuasion was a larger conversation that hardly acknowledged actual disagreements that existed – a fundamental dishonesty that has effectively functioned as a strong lever to exert influence on minds and hearts (If you’re interested in the rationale behind this serious claim, I break it down in this video).
Of course, thoughtful differences exist between good-hearted people, including and especially when it comes to something as fundamental as love. Who really loves gay people the most? That’s hardly a question even explored – since the larger rhetoric takes for granted the orthodox believers do not, and must be actively and continually fought until they do.
In all these ways, like so many around them, more and more Latter-day Saints came to find that logic irresistible – especially when presented as reflecting the true spirit of Christ. Indeed, rather than an insurgent, orthogonally-situated view of identity and sexuality, many came to take for granted that they were learning new truths reflecting a higher, more advanced, and inspired level of love and understanding.
The changes were often dramatic. For instance, one parent of a teen who adopted this new identity said, “All the things I was taught about the pre-existence and the celestial kingdom have had to change.” As I’ve detailed elsewhere, once a child came out many Latter-day Saint parents reported giving up almost immediately on any possibility of their child following the covenant path.
The dramatic ways this new socialization unfolded are as diverse as the individual pathways of those embracing this new story. What all of these adopters had in common was this: a strong conviction that this dominant narrative about gay rights was right, true and good – so convinced of its inspiration that any dissenting voice, however prophetic they may once have seemed, were dismissed, deconstructed, and even condemned.
In Latter-day Saint terms, these people professed to have discovered a harbinger of new revelation in advance of prophetic leaders, taking it upon themselves to courageously stand up to lead the way for others to follow. In the same moment, what they used to know and believe about identity, sexuality and marriage, naturally became experienced as wrong-headed and harmful.
The pain of these shifts has been achingly real and wrenching. Writing about having her faith rocked, one mother said, “I started sobbing. I sobbed and sobbed until I thought I couldn’t sob anymore.” Despite such pain, whatever suffering or consequences arose for faith or family were framed as not only worth it, but inevitable – hearkening to motifs of aching sacrifice for the cause of truth that Christians have embraced for millennia.
For many, however, it was not peace that followed in the wake of these sacrifices – but more confusion and unsettledness.
And something else too.
Valorizing the anger. Frustration often grew in this climate as well, and perhaps understandably. Indeed, once you see the church as stubbornly clinging to harmful, hateful ideology from the past – and once you are persuaded these very convictions are at the heart of suffering you see all around you (and in youth especially), how could you not be frustrated?!
Painful emotions, however, don’t explain themselves. They need a story, like everything else we experience. And as philosopher C. Terry Warner has written, anger has a unique quality of demanding self-justifying stories to go along with it. As he details in his book Bonds That Make Us Free, once the resentment is present, we really have only two options: do something to allow it to pass or distort the whole world to justify that feeling.
In the mounting frustration that came to characterize these online communities, there is abundant evidence of the latter course. Policies are proof of hatred. Ongoing teachings are obvious causes of suicide. And in all its many, unending details, the Church itself is an unending source of both anger and despair.
That’s the kind of thing that members and leaders of MBB and allied organizations have repeated many thousands of times over this last decade, until they verily believe it. And it’s here these activist organizations may have left their deepest, most spiritually destructive mark: in the heavily promoted larger narrative to help people explain and make sense of the growing frustration they were feeling.
Instead of exploring some of the complex sources of anger – and considering ways in which their own activist narrative might be influencing these intensifying emotions – the narrative was almost always the same: The pain, the suffering, the anger, the suicides – are virtually all the fault of Those People not yet embracing this higher enlightenment, acceptance and love.
That is not an overstatement.
Fueled by these kinds of strongly held perceptions, resentment grew and grew, and across more and more people. Propelled by this accentuation and amplification of grievance, many who saturated in the MBB narrative went on to live out its logical conclusion.
Fomenting mass faith crisis. What do you get when you adopt the prevailing narrative of the gay rights movement as a Latter-day Saint?
Faith crisis. Pretty much always. One leads to the other – seemingly without fail.
A => B
Why would you believe in leaders that are “hateful” to gay kids or “causing” so much of their suffering?
I sure wouldn’t. And neither do most who come to believe this larger narrative of sexuality, identity, body, choice, God, etc.
In their landmark 2010 book, “Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides & Unites Us,” Drs. Putnam and Campbell have found that millennials with tolerant and open views on homosexuality were more than twice as likely to be religious nones as their statistically similar peers with conservative or traditionalist views on homosexuality. In place of whatever feelings they had before, these researchers found these social patterns were leading many young people to regard religion, in their words, as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and too political.”
But why again? Because these people were now seeing the truth of these faiths more clearly? Or because they had been persuaded – some might say radicalized – to see religions as merely an oppressive influence in the world?
This is certainly not the way faith struggles are discussed in a community like MBB. Indeed, many of these people have insisted over the years that they are keeping people in the Church, and even saving lives.
In some case, I’m sure they are right. But for all the reasons outlined above, I’m convinced that the larger, broader impact of their work has been making it harder – much harder – to stay in the Church for many. And as I’ve written about at length in the past (here, here, here and here), I also believe they’ve made it harder to stay alive.
Departures from the Church and life itself are both explained as having the same cause. It’s the Church’s fault that many people are suicidal and the Church’s fault so many are being driven away. The kind of painful grappling with faith so common in their community is thus highlighted as more of an inevitable result of coming to accept the reality of one’s identity as a gay human being (or that of a loved one) within such an unaccepting atmosphere. In other words, once you accept this new truth about who you are and the life you have ahead of you (in the face of a faith community and larger culture you now see as clearly hostile to your identity and standing in the way of your happiness), some acute grappling with faith – and lots of other things – is just an unfortunate, painful necessity. [This piece by data scientist, Dr. Stephen Cranney summarizes well the statistical case for skepticism about these relentless, and hyper-simplified accusations against the Church].
Rather than an inevitable crisis of faith, I believe it’s time to consider these many stories as reflections of faith injury – where one’s attachment to something previously held as precious and good has been dearly wounded.
None of the foregoing is to deny the positive intentions of many involved in this movement – leaders and participants alike. No doubt, in most cases, the people who first arrived at MBB and allied organizations were largely motivated by a desire to understand more and love better those identifying as LGBT+ or who experienced same-sex attracted. But for many, that evolved into something more (or less), and for heartbreakingly predictable reasons.
Even so, many would surely protest that they are still “active” and “committed.” But I would ask: what percentage of the nearly 8,500 members of Mormons Building Bridges can still openly support prophetic teaching on the family – or prophetic authority to speak truth at all?
Not many. So much of what used to be precious – general conference, temples, missions, covenants, scripture – is undoubtedly much more difficult to stomach for many of these brothers and sisters.
Because of new truth they have discovered?
No, because of new ideology they have embraced – which, when adopted and lived out, would lead anyone to see and experience things in a completely different way. Rather than spreading joy and peace, I argue this has spawned casualties in every direction, including:
- Faithful, active members of the Church growing hardened against prophets of God and everything they teach and encourage.
- Precious marriages abandoned by men and women insisting they had discovered their true selves and must, therefore, follow after their “higher happiness” – however painful that may be to children and spouses left behind.
- Beautiful marriages never initiated due to the same men and women convinced that they could never-ever find happiness with one of the many remarkable singles seeking a partner – (and furthermore persuaded that to even attempt so would be “cruel”).
- Precious teens in early developing years so convinced that their true selves were antithetical to everything Latter-day Saint, that they felt compelled to leave behind much of what had given them deeper meaning, hope and purpose in life.
- When some of these same beautiful teens (and adults) tragically choose to end their lives, the entire blame has often gone squarely on the institution that teaches all to hope for eternal possibilities of exalted living in God’s presence – with little to no scrutiny of the voices convincing that child to walk away from that very message, and the institution that proclaims it to the world.
I recognize these are serious charges laid out here. But if they’re true (and I believe they are) we need to talk about them forthrightly, openly, and right now.
And through this all, I’m drawing attention here to one plain fact: This above is not – and never should have been called – “bridge-building.”
A more accurate name is war or revolution. With casualties – both physically and spiritually – that have been dreadfully real.
I’m not the only one making this kind of a claim. Self-identified gay Marxist Christian, Arthur Peña writes, “Whether they know it or not, gay-affirming people have declared war on the church (Catholic or Mormon, as well as on those Protestant churches–both liberal and conservative–which are still trying to defend ‘Biblical Authority’). And Rod Dreher writes with alarm about these new narratives of sexuality undermining Christian faith as they penetrate into the larger church – calling this ideology “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war.” And Russell Moore’s 2014 address on “Slow Motion Sexual Revolutionaries” also described the ways in which Christian doctrine has been colonized by the sexual revolution.
In sharp contrast to the widespread narrative portraying leaders of this movement as a modern inheritors to the civil rights movement, I have laid out another view of the work of MBB and allied organizations – making the case for why these organizations have mass-produced attachment injury for the many they have persuaded to adopt their higher narrative of overflowing love and, by default, to then hold their previous faith in contempt.
The conversion work that started in organizations like MBB is now expanding even farther than before. Thanks to the foundational translation work they started, others have given their lives in the same larger service. This ranges from gentle, seemingly innocuous efforts of Encircle and Papa Ostler’s work, to more dramatic examples of Dan Reynolds and Tyler Glenn reaching literally millions with what is presented as a hopeful, encouraging message.
Why, then, do active Latter-day Saints march in protest against Latter-day Saint teaching?
Because of this.
Why do many of these same Latter-day Saints turn away from the Church of Jesus Christ?
Because of this.
Heartbreaking realities. To recap: What do you get when you combine immense cultural pressure, uncritical embrace of a brand-new narrative of sexual identity, a conversation pre-loaded to certain outcomes, intensifying scrutiny on all things religious, and unending accusation, anger, and activism?
Except in some Orwellian world where “war” is “peace,” none of the above can be honestly construed as a bridge-building sincerely aimed at peace and understanding – or even healthy public discourse generally.
And it doesn’t take a dialogue expert to know that this set-up doesn’t bode well for a balanced conversation – e.g., one where different views receive an equal hearing. As I’ve detailed here and elsewhere, the set-up of the larger discussion leaves little real possibility that honest differences really worth talking about would be seriously considered.
And they haven’t been. Instead, the very terms of the conversation predispose a kind of stillborn discussion – dead on arrival.
For those exhausted by the relentless attack-and-defend that has permeated this conversation, for those weary of chronic anger gripping their insides, is there a way out?
In Part II, I describe what a bridge back to fellowship and peace might look like for those who have once adopted the Mormons Building Bridges narrative – starting with a more forthright account of the narrative itself.
Bridge-building as bridge-building. To close part one, I would simply ask a question especially relevant in our tumultuous 2020: Is true bridge-building on this issue even possible?
Of course, it is. I’ve witnessed and experienced many examples of it for nearly two decades now – with many people who continue to be forever dear to me, even while still disagreeing about these matters. Soon after the earthquake hit Utah, I received three personal messages of people concerned about how I was doing: my graduate advisor Wendy, my long-time conversation partner Tracy, and my co-author Arthur.
All of them identify as gay or lesbian. And each of them is among the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. They have taught me much, and are dear to me (and I know I am to them as well).
There is another way! A way to have a more productive, fair, and honest conversation that acknowledges our actual disagreements – namely: that we have come to very different conclusions about identity, sexuality, right, the body, choice, and God.
Is that really so hard? NOT as hard, I guarantee, as the grating, jarring, soul-depleting conversation we’ve been engaged in for two decades as a nation.
When authentic dialogue happens, though, it always includes sincere space for ideological diversity – and competing ideas about who we are, and what life is about.
From that vantage point, if we’re going to build a “bridge” between these understandings, let’s make it a real-life honest-to-goodness bridge. Not the trojan horse variety.
Once more, to “build a bridge” is qualitatively different than “laying siege” or “making war.” They cannot happen simultaneously. It’s either one, or the other. Take your pick.
Rather than bridge-building-as-activism, this is about an intentional, sincere shift towards bridge-building-as-bridge-building. It’s been clear over the years that there are some natural leaders in the gay rights community that know this intuitively and could make this happen. And there’s some additional best practice when it comes to dialogue that could help any community or organization move in this direction.
I believe these gentle, dialogic practices will one day fill the earth (along with everything else good and true and beautiful in the world). My prayer is that brothers and sisters who have embraced a narrative of contempt towards the Church of Christ under the auspices of “bridge-building” will be able to see clearly what has happened – and move beyond that corrosive mindset to a welcome, beautiful re-integration into our community and a rebirth of their own precious faith.
Jacob Hess is the author of 14 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and sociopolitical issues – and has (co)authored four books: You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong; Once Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore; A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse & The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints. His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York was featured on This American Life and honored by Public Conversations Project. Jacob has worked for many years with Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation – and helped create the Red Blue Dictionary and the Respect and Rebellion Project. He was invited in 2019 to be a Bridging Fellow at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center.
 In fairness, leaders like Brigham Young called Saints to gather truth wherever it existed and “bring it to Zion.” More than exclusively receiving truth from prophetic leadership, this does, in fact, hint at the value of normal members aggregating additional light and knowledge and offering it up not just to the world, but to the Church too. [As Brigham Young put it, “Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion” (DBY, 248).]
I have also made efforts to gather more truth to our faith community – drawing attention to the benefits of mindfulness and dialogue – along with the inadvertent, even tragic consequences of uncritically embracing an approach to mental health reflecting undue influence from pharmaceutical companies.
Done prayerfully and with the right spirit, I’m convinced that God is pleased with such efforts to serve the body of Christ. That’s what I understand as, at least, the initial intentions of MBB leadership – which explains why they’ve likely been flummoxed at the poor reception many of their efforts have received from people like myself: Isn’t this just about loving people? So, what’s the big deal then?
But, of course, it’s more than that. And I think they know that.
 The circumstances leading to individuals finally being willing to own this new truth were detailed online in groups like MBB in a steady stream of poignant narratives, complete with exquisite details of varied family member responses and the mixture of relief and other emotions individuals personally felt. That these declarations being made by out-of-the-closet individuals were reflections of their truest selves was taken for granted – and widely met online with effusive praise and overwhelming validation.
 This quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. is inscribed on the King Memorial in Washington, D.C.,
 Although meaningful differences exist in policy and approach, when it comes to the overall narrative of identity, sexuality, love, choice, body, MBB = Encircle = USGA = Mama Dragons = ALL = Listen, Learn & Love, etc. Affirmation deserves a category of its own, because of some impressive things they sought to do under John Gustav-Wrathall’s leadership to make more explicit space for diverse trajectories in how people navigate faith.
 Narratives are jealous masters. And, it turns out, it’s often impossible to embrace two of them at the same time. Once a new narrative settles in, we cannot help but see everything else (in our past or present or future) out of these new lenses.
 As the passions inflamed in the American conversation, one could argue that MBB became a gathering place for Latter-day Saints disgruntled with the direction of current leadership – and interested in change. But it’s not just those people that gathered. It was people seeking understanding, empathy and compassion – for whom MBB became a place of radicalization into very different emotions and intentions.
 These efforts lie on a spectrum of how explicit they are about threats on faith this movement represents. Although Encircle, and Papa Ostler’s “Listen, Learn & Love” efforts are gentle, and less confrontational – they share the same essential message described throughout this essay, with the same taken for granted narrative on identity. One primary difference, as I see it, is that these more gentle efforts don’t play out the implications fully of this narrative – including the threat on faith.
 I was first sensitized to the possibility of a pre-loaded conversation in my writing about public conversation about mental health – and how it often reflects certain narratives favorable to industry. That’s why we’re still talking about chemical imbalances, rather than brain changeability – and why amidst our current suicide crisis, we’re still primarily investing in addressing the problems of “stigma” and “undertreatment.” The fact that these concepts were promoted heavily by industry, and function to create conditions favorable to their products, is largely invisible to most people. Indeed, the fact that opioid manufacturers are being sued for deceptively influencing a similarly fraught conversation is hardly on the radar in our conversation about depression and suicide.
 The clash of movements was never clearer to me than in a single exchange on the MBB platform about a new convert in the Church of Jesus Christ – a back-and-forth that epitomizes in my mind the inadvertent, yet lasting damage this community has inflicted. Imagine in your mind’s eye the excitement and hope many new converts feel as they join the Church of Jesus Christ. Then read the exchange:
Original post: “How would you proceed with a recent LGBT convert who somehow did not know that the church doesn’t have room doctrinally for LGBT people?” Referring to her own relationship to this person, the individual continued, “I feel terrible that I didn’t reach out to get to know them well enough to know they were LGBT, but it’s not only my failing, and it’s not just mine to address. Still, suggestions would be appreciated.”
- “How has the person reacted to the news?”
- “Tell them about Community of Christ. They fully support the LGBTQ community.”
- “Too bad the church doesn’t have something similar to an annulment.”
The original poster responds:
“Thanks everyone. I hope to meet with her soon and will report back. I [heard] there were tears [when she saw the mormonsandgays website]. I don’t know. I plan to just listen, listen. I want to tell her that she is 100% welcome to stay -and- change her mind at any point -and- that no one would expect her to stay and hear her soul and her nature misunderstood and denigrated -and- that if she stays her presence is a witness that God wants and speaks to gay people and that they fill a hole in the church -and- that I brought the instructions for name removal -and- that I’m sorry this didn’t come up etc., etc. I want to just listen, but I am so curious why she didn’t ask about how the church views LGBT. I would think (please correct me) this would be an important question for an LGBT person to ask during the teaching process.” [emphasis mine].
Jon Gustav-Wrathall provided thoughtful advice, as usual. And I added, “Seems to me you might, inadvertently, be hastening the departure of someone newly baptized from the Church. ‘I brought the instructions for name removal…’? Certainly the Mormons and Gay website is intended to send the opposite message from your interpretation – e.g., that there is a place for everyone, right? If so, at the very least, you might make sure she knows that there really could be a valuable place for her in the Church.”
The exchange illustrates so much about the online activism in the Latter-day Saint community: great passion to help, yet little awareness of the degree to which they are adopting and perpetuating a narrative that distances people from their spiritual homes.
Including for this precious, new convert.
I don’t know what happened to this woman. I pray she didn’t allow this jarring exchange to slice her away from the peace she had felt in baptism. And if she did, I hope she can find her way back.
In the meanwhile, I believe that conversations like this have estranged thousands – maybe tens of thousands. That’s why I felt a need to write this.
 For instance, Lee Beckstead, Jim Struve & Jerry Buie (Reconciliation & Growth Project), Jay Jacobsen (Circling the Wagons) and John Gustav-Wrathall (Affirmation). Although I clearly have concerns with their larger work in the world, I’ve had lovely, productive exchanges with Jen Blair (Mama Dragons) and Erica Munson / Kendall Wilcox (Mormons Building Bridges) as well.
 Similar to what happens among well-intentioned (but ideologically monolithic) research teams, a dialogue effort that is philosophically monolithic inevitably creates terms of the conversation that align with those views. From Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue” to the Obama-era Health Care Town Halls, the obviousness of this influence is especially clear historically speaking. This led Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman a number of years ago to argue that when it came to conversation design, “no single entity with a stake in the substantive outcome of the deliberation should be the main designer or guarantor of the process (Kadlec, A., & Friedman, W. (2007). Deliberative democracy and the problem of power. Journal of Public Deliberation, 3, A8. p. 7). The best example of this I have ever found is Lee Beckstead’s Reconciliation & Growth Project.