This is a guest post by Jacob Hess, PhD, author of A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse. Jacob is also on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation. He blogs at Unthinkable.cc
Standing in the middle of 30,000 people, it’s hard – even impossible – to imagine that something could be wrong with what’s happening. It’s even more difficult to imagine that such passionate work may, in lasting ways, make things worse for the very teens we’re all worried about.
But, for reasons outlined below, that’s exactly what I believe is happening with Dan Reynolds’s Love Loud festival – an initiative so the rage that Utah businesses and political leaders, Mormon celebrities, and increasing numbers of millennials have come to rally behind it, with messages like this:
“Love is love. Stop hate. Spread kindness and acceptance. Prevent suicide. Start saving lives”
How could anyone possibly be concerned with such a cause? What kind of a heart of darkness is required to question a call to love more loudly?
Our non-conversation. The terms of our prevailing “conversation” about love, sexuality, faith, suicide and identity these days don’t leave much space for disagreement:
- “Are you going to be a loving person?”
- “Are you compassionate, inclusive, and accepting?”
- “Do you care about civil rights and equal justice?”
- “Are you willing to discriminate and hold onto bigotry?”
- “Do you really care about gay kids taking their lives?”
I’ve begun calling this conversational frame what it most fundamentally is: dishonest.
The central problem is this: in people’s zeal and frustration, actual disagreements are no longer being described fairly and accurately – setting up a conversation not actually designed to openly hear out and explore. Instead, the “talking” becomes simply a vehicle for endless education and awareness raising.
This shows up pretty clearly in Dan’s film celebrating the history of his own festival. At one point in the early conceptualizing of Love Loud, he admits at hoping to find “a place where they can be a little more educated” [they = the Mormons].
But he’s candid about his worry – that “you can’t come in and say you’re wrong” or “you’re stupid, let me educate you.”
So what do they settle on? “Maybe say, let’s talk.”
Despite his wariness to portray Love Loud as educational, Dan can’t seem to help himself in disclosing his ultimate intentions: “Maybe we can’t force the church to change, but maybe by raising more awareness and making more and more Mormons in their heart feel like, this isn’t right, maybe that’s what will make the change.”
And this: “My goal is to change this in the church. And not to say that I can change the church, but at least to bring together a ton of people who are Mormon who have said, you know, we’ve had enough with this!”
One activist quoted in the film said it more crassly: “If I can get Mormon moms off their temple shift to fall in love with someone [popular], then it’s game over.”
Despite that carefully parsed marketing aimed at “starting a conversation,” that’s not what this is really about, is it?
At one point, Dan pauses to reflect on whether, in fact – his band’s influence could exceed that of the church: “I’ve never thought about how big the church is vs. the band, and how influential the church is vs. the band. I guess if I really stand back and look at it, the band’s reach is millions and millions.”
Rather than a dialogue among different perspectives, clearly this “conversation” is more of a monological vehicle to promote a particular message. And what is that message?
In what follows, I highlight three key themes of Love Loud’s message – pointing out multiple ways in which truth is stretched and deformed. This is done to such a remarkable, troubling degree that it ought to be plainly evident, rather than widely overlooked.
#1. If you’re one of those loving people, then what does that make me? In both 2017 and 2018 festivals, there have been some truthful, positive messages shared, such as this from Tim Cooke: “I come to deliver a simple message…You are a gift to the world. A unique and special gift…Your life matters.”[ref]Another inspiring part: “I know that life can be dark and heavy, and sometimes might seem unreasonable and unbearable, but just as night turns to day, know that darkness is always followed by light….Life will get better.”[/ref]
Or this from the Lieutenant Governor of Utah: “We need you to stay. You are loved….We meet you wherever you are…and you are of infinite worth.”
These are messages everyone agrees upon – and could potentially rally around…so why don’t we? Because after all, love already exists across ideological differences, right?
While that seems pretty obvious to most, it’s not at all clear to Reynolds and his team. From their vantage point (and this is no exaggeration), the world could be divided into two groups of people: You’ve got “those people who love”…and then you’ve got those other people.
Which are you?
Thus, we heard things in the festival like:
- “Look at all these persons who accept you!” (compared to those other people)
- “There are people who love you and support you here” (unlike those who don’t)
- “I love the LGBT community!” (unlike some other people)
And Dan’s wife remarks in the documentary that, “People love to hate” (unlike me!!)
Now in fairness, sometimes orthodox believers have been guilty of drawing similarly stark lines[ref]Aka, you can only feel the Holy Ghost if you’re like us, or the only people who feel peace and happiness are people who live like us. While those ought to be called into question, I’ve never yet heard anyone ever argue that Christians are the only people who are loving. Do we believe Dan Reynolds & Tyler Glenn love gay teens? Of course. They just disagree with us about what love actually means. (Once again, however, that’s not something Love Loud folks seem able to reciprocate with).[/ref] – but nothing quite so deformed and aggressive as this. Even Kendall Wilcox (co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges) pushed back on some of the prevailing rhetoric recently, cautioning against “simplistic assertions that [Mormon] doctrine and its custodians are ‘just wrong, mean, hateful, etc.’” and “well-intended but ultimately trite slogans like ‘no sides, only love’ or ‘I chose love’ – as if religious adherents do not love.” He described these as “an impoverished way of seeing the overall situation” and argued, “it is more complex than that. It just is.”
By comparison, Dan says in his film, “You start to feel upset that it’s so blatantly obvious. Look how obvious this is! Of course, we have to love and accept everybody. C’mon guys!”[ref]Continuing this theme, another scene in the documentary captures a moment with Dan’s former wife and daughter:
“Do you know what daddy’s doing? He’s putting on a festival because he wants people to understand. Do you know what being gay is? Remember when we talked about that? Remember how boys can love boys and girls can love girls?
Little daughter (4 or 5): “Yeah, And sometimes girls want to be boys and boys want to be girls.”
Aja: “Yeah, and remember that I told you sometimes people can be mean to that person and so we have to protect that person, huh? So the festival is called Love Loud because it means love everybody, no matter what.” [Take away? This is so simple that even a child can understand, right?][/ref]
It’s that “no duh” attitude that propels a flood of remarkably simplistic rhetoric willing to paint those who see things differently, not simply as holding another view – but, instead, as either ignorant or hateful (or both).
The response to any pushback becomes a kind of “oh well” shrug. For instance, after his family shows concern with his comments in a national interview, Dan admits, “my family saw it and it’s been a little difficult and it’s making them look like bigots.”
“Making them look like bigots”…yes, Dan – that’s a problem.
It’s called lying.
The truth is that orthodox Mormons love gay people as much as you. But they disagree on what that looks like and means.[ref]See, for instance: What exactly is meant in saying we ‘accept’ or ‘support’ or ‘affirm’ or ‘love’ or are ‘compassionate’? Is the LGBT-religious conservative conversation primarily about whether to love people (or not)? Does God Love Us Just as We Are? “Two ways for parents to support a child identifying as lgbt/ssa”[/ref]
Why not simply acknowledge that…and then talk about it?
#2 The great accusation. At a high point of the most recent concert, Dan made a poignant speech where he declared, “I wear a ring on my hand every day given to me by a mother of a child who took his life…because of religious guilt.”[ref]He goes on to say, “I wear this every day. This is my passion, I will fight for this with my heart…not with anger.”[/ref]
Those four words get tacked onto statements about suicide by Reynolds on multiple occasions, passed along as a kind of self-evident truth about what’s happening:
Because – Of – Religious – Guilt.
On the film’s homepage, a discussion of suicide likewise insists that “there is an obvious connection between that and the Mormon faith.”
If you’re looking for a source, Reynolds provides one: John Dehlin, the most public dissident of Mormonism in the world today.
According to Dehlin (and his imbalanced research), the increase in teen suicide is not the result of complex factors (as virtually all mental health professionals would acknowledge) – but instead, a reflection of a “war on LGBT people” instigated by the Latter-day Saints.
If beneath the kind veneer of the Church of Jesus Christ, we are, in fact, hating on kids, Dan turns to some soul-searching about what naturally would follow: “I think people wonder, why even associate with Mormonism if it is causing this much harm. Why not just walk away and be done?”[ref]“I still feel guilt that I was just, like, a silent person, you know. … If I’m passive, if I just stand back and say I don’t want to talk about Mormonism, then I’m standing for bigotry.” Dan continues, “I hold regret about that to this day. I wish I could go back and knock on all those doors. I wish that I could re-knock them and tell them that I was wrong. I can’t do that. All I can do is come forward today and say that I’m sincerely sorry. Love is love. Love is love. Love is love!”[/ref]
At this point, Reynolds portrays himself as a kind of hero, “I’m not going to just walk away and let the house on fire burn. I’d rather do all that I can with this lucky spot that I’ve been put in to hopefully put out a fire.”
Speaker after speaker accordingly praise Dan for his bravery, with Dana Goldberg declaring, “This community has a warrior fighting for them – each and every day” – calling him a “voice to be heard over all the hate” who is standing up to “lots of horrible messages and lies about LGBT coming from people in power.”[ref]John Dehlin frames a narrative of Mormons who really secretly do want to love…but who are being asked to betray that by prophet leaders: “A lot of Mormons are really good hearted loving kind charitable people who want what’s right and they want to be kind and loving and tolerant, but they have leaders that are telling them what to think and how to behave.” Troy Williams has echoed the same, “In their heart of hearts, Mormons are a kind people who want to do good in the world.”[/ref]
From this vantage point, Utah is redefined as a mission field in urgent need of correction[ref]If by that, you mean improving the level of empathy, compassion and tenderness in our conversations and interactions, that’s something we can all get behind! (<em>a la</em> many talks about the same from General Conference). But clearly that’s not what Dan means. The change inferred here is an ideological and institutional one – dissolving any doctrinal opposition to embracing an identity and life path revolving almost entirely around one’s sexual orientation.[/ref] – a “community that desperately needs [the Love Loud message]” – simply by virtue of being “heavily Mormon.”
To join forces with this brave, new movement is, speakers insist, all about “bravery.” Love becomes something you do in opposition to religious mandates otherwise: “Loving your child is an act of bravery” once speaker declared, “when your church is telling you not to…”
[Never mind that there’s not a shred of evidence that the Church of Jesus Christ has told any parent ever to not love their child…it’s a great sound-bite, isn’t it? Anything for the cause!]
To punctuate and underscore the urgency of these efforts, painful accounts of suicide are presented in distinctive ways. For instance, the story of Stockton Powers is told in the film – a Utah teen who took his life in 2016. Those close to the situation know that Stockton’s experience, like all of our experience, was complex.[ref]One individual close to the situation acknowledged to us that there were a number of other factors leading up to his death (including some kind of drug and difficulties in a romantic connection) – none of which were acknowledged in the film.[/ref]
That’s not the story portrayed in the film, however. What we hear is something much more digestible, and on-message: “The rest of society around him, from church to school to government kept sending messages to Stockton that he was less than. I could sense his frustrations and his anger and his fears….in the culture there…he was a sinner.”
As another person noted at the festival, “Being gay in an orthodox family is a very difficult path…[and] can be very dangerous.”
Is there anything else to talk about when it comes to teen suicide?
Apparently not.[ref]Of course, this is ridiculous – with many other factors deserving consideration, including several with compelling explanations for playing a role in the suicide increase in Utah. I’ve written extensively about one of these factors here – and separately detailed why simplistic rhetoric around these suicides might be making the problem worse.[/ref]
#3. We know the (real) truth about who you are! What’s the core, personal message of Love Loud to the many teens who are struggling?
Forget about what all those other people have told you, we know who you really are!
As one speaker said, “It’s very important to listen to your own heart – and don’t listen to what anyone else has to say.”
Sounds like great advice for kids trying to make their way in a darkening world: ignore what others (you used to trust) are telling you, and just trust you!
At the first Love Loud festival, Dan brought up a young girl on stage who had tried to “come out” in sacrament meeting: “I was invited here to share my truth. I believe I was made the way I am all parts of me by my Heavenly Parents. They did not mess up when they gave me brown eyes or made me to be gay. I want to love myself and not feel shame!”
Savannah has been vaunted as an innocent martyr to the cause ever since – held up as a model of courage and authenticity.[ref]As one speaker referred to her, “Savannah who at 12 came out at church” – before adding, “We need to make sure that when our children are speaking their truth, we do not silence them ever.”[/ref] Reflecting on his experience at the concert, one gay-identifying man in the audience said:
“15 yrs ago I was a student at BYU and I was coming out and I was suicidal and I’m here and I got a hug from a 13 yr old who said that God loves her because He made her gay. It took me until I was 30. I don’t have to try to be better! God made me exactly as I am! I am the best that I can be! ..It’s been the most amazing thing. I feel like I’m in a dream right now!”
“I am the best that I can be”…“I don’t have to try to be better.”
Underscoring this message, Reynolds, Vagabond and others sang at the concert, “I will never change my ways” and “I’m never changing who I am” – with Dan later adding in a speech, “Who they are is unchangeable!”
Other speakers and singers frequently insisted, “you are enough!” – with one adding, “All the love you will ever need is inside you.” Another person who declared, “You are fabulous. You are great. And you are worthy” plead for people to work till they can find enough “self love” that they “can look and go, I am an awesome person!”[ref]As Carmen Carrera put it, “You have to first develop self-love and learn what self-love is….becoming comfortable in who you are, understanding who you are- then letting it flow. Letting people in to who you are.”[/ref]
Other songs openly encouraged people to “play with fire” and “cross the line,” without “think[ing] twice” – “cause hesitation just might change your mind.”[ref]AW’s Runaway: “All your life you stayed tame – Safe and sound is how you played the game – The time has come to rearrange – It’s time to take a chance and make a change – Don’t hold back – Don’t think twice – ‘Cause hesitation just might change your mind – Play with fire – Cross the line – And rest your racing head right next to mine – Close your eyes, hold me tight – Trust in what it feels like – Runnin’ every red light – And we can’t slow down.”[/ref]
It would be hard to imagine an aggregation of messages more at odds with what Jesus Christ himself actually taught.
As Christians the world over know, the Lord Himself taught:
- “My grace is sufficient” (e.g., we are not enough…not without Him).
- “Watch and pray always” (in other words, think twice…be careful with your choices).
Rather than seeking to “Find your truth, speak your truth, live your truth,” Jesus says, “I am the truth.”
And especially, Jesus taught of the unavoidable need for all human beings everywhere to repent and be “born again.” As Jesus tells Alma the younger: “All mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.”[ref]Also, “And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (aka, without this you will be prevented from receiving the absolute greatest of love and joy in the future).[/ref]
Honest question: Is that a hateful message – or the most loving message in all of eternity?
It sounds like we disagree about that. If so, why not talk about it?
A new mission. As we’ve established, this is about more than conversation. It’s about conversion.
As Dan declares in his film, “A determined Mormon is a scary thing, I can tell you that, because they don’t stop.” He continued, “I knocked on a hundred doors to get to one door. I knocked thousands of doors on a mission. If there is one thing I can guarantee, it’s that I will continue to knock this door until somebody answers.”
In one interview with ABC, Dan jokes about how he figured that even conservative religious folks would come to a rock concert – “and then they come in, and we’re like, ‘lock the gates up!’”
Troy Williams was quoted as saying that the true effect of the Love Loud event was driven home, “when he was approached by a former LDS mission companion, a devout Mormon, who brought his entire family, including his 15-year-old gay son, to Rice-Eccles Stadium.”[ref]Desiring to persuade others of something you believe to be good, of course, is not only not a problem – it’s an important and valuable part of a pluralistic society. The issue here is that Latter-day Saint teens are being persuaded that the light they are to be and share with the world requires them to adopt a message antagonistic to the faith community that has provided meaning in their lives to this point.[/ref]
Throughout the festival runs a hope that this can reach more and more Mormons (especially the teens). “You being brave gives other people permission to be brave” one speaker declared. Others encouraged youth to “find your tribe” and to say, “if I stand alone, I will speak my truth. If I lose my friends or family, I have to speak my truth.”
Another speaker encouraged people to be “vocal and explain who they [the teens] are” – declaring, “be a voice to that younger generation who’s going through it…” Clearly inspired, one participant responded, “I’m going to be powerful, that light – and I’m going to get there.”
As one speaker exulted, “Let us scream it to the skies until they hear us. Let’s show it in the way we act, walk, treat people…It’s everything.”
The Love Loud commentator chimed in, “That’s why we’ve got to continue spreading this positivity and love. Being that lonely, I don’t want any kid to have to deal with.”
Neither do we, Dan.
But despite your stated hope to start a “conversation that is the beginning to mending hearts and building bridges” – listen carefully: You are doing the opposite of that.
You are causing conflict, exacerbating tensions, and widening divisions. And you are drawing people away from families – and their faith….singing about it all along the way.
In early middle age Germany, legend speaks of a piper dressed in multicolored (“pied”) clothing who came to the town of Hamelin with a promise of catching rats. Instead, he turned his musical instrument’s magical power on their children, luring them away from the safety of home.
Legend has now become real-life.
A better approach. The good news is this: A solution to these problems does not require accusation, deception and endless conflict. There’s something far more effective at preserving lives, promoting well-being and increasing happiness.
It starts with more basic honesty – and sensible space to disagree. Without that space, there will never be peace. Imagine for a moment, a conversation where we:
- Acknowledged our disagreements about love
- Carefully explored different perspectives on suicide
- Gently turned towards our different views of human identity (in relation to sexuality, faith, etc.)
Consider how productive, and interesting, and fun that conversation could be (for all of us!) So why not go there?
The only reason I can find is this: that level of honesty would not achieve activist goals of persuasion and growth to their movement. And perhaps secondarily, a more honest conversation wouldn’t rationalize the deep resentments underlying many of these efforts nearly so well.
Lying loudly. At one point, Dan paused to pointedly respond to the perception that he’s driven by hostility towards Mormonism – launching into a speech about his passion being exclusively to save lives. In the course of that speech, Dan repeatedly denied being motivated by animosity:
- “Please don’t mistake my passion for this for anger…”
- “I don’t have anger in my heart towards religion..”
- “I don’t have anger in my heart toward anyone. What I have is passion.”
- “This is my passion, I will fight for this with my heart…not with anger.”
- “I don’t have anger..”
- “There’s no anger – I promise. It’s just love.”
- “And I promise all these people involved today, it’s not anger. It’s love. It’s just love. It’s just passion – a desire to not lose our youth.”
It’s well-known that those living a deception must continually parade more and more evidence before their eyes – speaking about it almost obsessively, louder and louder….over and over. And here in the space of a few minutes, Dan insisted seven different times that he was filled with nothing other than passion and love.
Should we believe him?
No way. The central byproduct of anger is lies – and Love Loudly is full of them. We’ve touched on five above:
- That Love Loud is really about having a conversation.
- That only one side of this conversation truly cares about these kids.
- That the cause of an increase in teen suicide is clear.
- That these gay teens are perfect and don’t have any need of change.
- That anger is not motivating this initiative in any way.
Dear Dan, et al….stop lying (loudly) about your former brothers and sisters.
The 30,000 people who joined you in rocking out a few weeks back may not realize these things…but in your heart, you know everything I’ve just said is true.
And one day, you will have to admit it to find peace again.
In the meanwhile, for all those who want to have a productive conversation, it’s available (and it’s tons of fun!)
It really is.[ref]There’s a reason I’ve had hundreds of thousands of views on my series about the LGBT-religious conservative conversation. People are hungry for a better conversation – and just plain confused at how to get there![/ref] And get this: it will save lives too!