Jacob Z. Hess
When it comes to “the loving thing to do,” we continue to reach very different conclusions in the American conversation on sexuality. Why? Our convictions about love, I argue below, arise directly from other convictions about happiness and identity itself...all of which explains contrasting evaluations of whose teachings are “loving” and whose are “destructive.”
With another Pride month upon us, rainbow flags everywhere remind us about who has decided to love gay people in their neighborhoods. But what does that really mean? And is it a question about which thoughtful, good-hearted people could legitimately, honestly disagree?
Maybe not. It’s become so common to equate support for the formalized gay rights movement with loving people more, that when a question or concern is raised about this same movement, it’s become almost automatic for (many) people to label the person raising the question as obviously “unloving.”
And when someone suggests (as I have) that it’s possible to love gay people in a different (perhaps even better) way than is being called for in the gay rights movement, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with the responses.
In a post last fall raising concern with messages teens have been hearing at the popular “LoveLoud” festival, I argued that genuine, sincere love for those with same-sex attraction doesn’t necessarily follow the rainbow flag – and that orthodox Christians “love gay people as much as [the activists on the left], even if these two groups “disagree on what that looks like and means.”
One person pushed back and suggested this claim was simply “ridiculous” – taking issue with the notion that orthodox believers can likewise possess and share sincere love for this community.
To my friends on the left, I would ask an honest question: why is that a ridiculous possibility? I’ve been thinking a lot about the push-back, and what underlies the suspicion about true love coming from devoted (not disaffected) believers within a faith community like my own. On one level, the resistance to that basic idea is a little hard to understand. After all, I don’t question the sincerity of love expressed by activists on the left, even though I have reservations whether their actions done-in-love are leading people to their highest happiness.
In the reverse direction, however, critics of religious orthodoxy seem unable to reciprocate. Why?
My own best answer to that resistance is that it arises from conclusions about other, bigger questions of “highest happiness” and identity itself. Partly, that emerges from profound differences in what we believe – and partly because we’re not very good at openly comparing these differences in any sort of productive way. One of my colleagues who works in abortion dialogue wrote the other day:
“The reason the pro-life movement does [what they do] comes from the inherent belief that life truly begins and has full value at the moment of conception and is an equal human being. If you have that intrinsic belief, of course any attempt to stop a pregnancy looks like murder.”
When you spell it out that way, the actions of pro-life advocates kind of make sense, right? And in a similar way, it might actually make (more) sense that someone would advocate abortion access if that person is starting from a very different conviction about life and conception.
So, in other words, when you believe X, Y kind of makes sense. Could some of that kind of algebraic clarity make a difference in our conversation about sexuality too?
In what follows, I break down as concisely and effectively as I know how at least some of the anatomy behind conflicting conclusions about love. I’d be curious to find out from readers (whatever conclusions you have personally reached in the broader conversation about sexuality) if opposing conclusions look any more understandable or reasonable once this back-structure becomes more clear.
Because as you will see below, depending on what we believe about identity and happiness, the loving thing to do really does look very, very different.
If you believe X, I can see why Y seems so “loving” to you…
If the anatomy of abortion disagreements arise from contrasting views of life, I would argue the anatomy of sexuality disagreements arise (first of all) from contrasting views of identity. For instance, if you are someone who believes (a) that experiencing same-sex attraction is fundamentally who someone is – e.g., largely immutable, and central to one’s core identity…then it shouldn’t be hard to understand why you also (naturally, predictably) come to believe (b) that same person’s happiness in life centers to a great degree on being able to live out that orientation and attraction (so essential and core to that person’s identity) in an unfettered, complete way.
It would similarly also make sense why “the loving thing to do” would be to advocate and even fight for the realization of that possibility. And when anyone questions these premises – or pushing back on the resulting activism – it becomes very-comprehensible why this might be experienced as very-much unloving.
From this perspective, then, it is pointing people away from orthodox religious teachings about sexuality that is the “loving thing to do.” And, once again, those who question the full embrace of one’s same-sex attraction as a defining guide for life (or raise public concern about implications of that decision) are perceived as doing great damage to people who have chosen to accept the prevailing ideas around sexuality and identity as the framework for their lives. From this vantage point, those actions of orthodox believers (however well-intentioned) not only feel unloving – but dangerous on a profound level.
Have I lost you yet? Let’s consider the contrast now: If you are someone who believes that (a) experiencing same-sex attraction is not fundamental to identity (and also, by the way, neither a disorder, a disease, sick, shameful or simply “chosen”)…If you believe that one’s core identity centers around something different, and deeper than sexual preferences, feelings or orientations, then it shouldn’t be hard to understand why you also (naturally, predictably) come to believe that (b) that same person’s happiness in life is not centrally tied to living out that attraction in a sexual and romantic way – and that, indeed, doing so can bring longer-term heartache and pain (especially if it covers over more fundamental elements of core identity).
If THAT’S what someone believes, then you can appreciate why it also makes sense from this vantage point why the “loving thing to do” would not be to fly the rainbow flag or embrace the invitation of the gay rights movement to “accept this as who I truly am.” It might also might make sense why we continue to encourage those who experience same-sex attraction to remain faithful to what prophets in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints call “the covenant path.”
From this perspective, it is pointing people towards these higher possibilities that is “the loving thing to do.” And yes, from this vantage point, those who question and attack any possibility of happiness on the covenant path are doing great damage to the people they are trying to help – leading them away from higher possibilities of exalting happiness, and stirring people up against that which is (most, truly) good. From where people like me stand, these kinds of actions (however well-intentioned) not only feel unloving – but dangerous on a profound level.
So, I ask again: who loves “gay people” the most?
As reviewed above, that all depends on what you think about identity (and happiness)! I’m still inclined to emphasize what seems to me the underlying, bedrock reality: namely, that most people are trying to be loving – at least on the level of core intent. I feel good giving people that – and really, do honestly believe it.
But if any of us (whatever it is you believe) are being honest about our feelings regarding longer-term consequences of our different convictions, we’d probably be equally forced to concede that none of us can see the real-life, personal results of the other side’s propositions as loving at all. In other words, once we talk details (beyond good intentions), we all ultimately end up agreeing that the actions of the other side are fundamentally not loving.
And that’s where a really productive conversation could start to take place: a transparent, open exploration of disagreements on what the “loving thing to do” really is…and how it arises. How I wish we could actually talk about this in society today…an honest conversation about what really divides us!
In summary: If you’ve adopted certain beliefs about identity and happiness, you’re going to end up concluding activists love gay people way more than orthodox religious leaders. And if you’ve adopted other beliefs about identity and happiness, you’re going to conclude that prophets (and other orthodox religious leaders) love gay people far more than critics leading them away from the highest blessings of God.
On that question, I’m not neutral. Despite public perceptions and fierce accusations otherwise, I deeply believe the message, guidance and teaching of living prophets embody the greatest, most loving message anyone could hear – no matter the details of their inner world.
You are a son or daughter of God. You are of infinite, eternal worth. You are loved, supported and sustained by a Father and Mother (and Brother) – Beings of infinite love and wisdom. And you have a future of endless joy ahead of you if you can learn to yield your own desires, hopes and dreams into Their hands.
That’s what I believe – and that’s why I continue to respectfully disagree with the activists, while encouraging people to consider the message of prophets.
So, if you’re trying to figure this stuff out, just remember: depending on what we believe about identity (and happiness), the loving thing to do looks really, profoundly different. If you believe X about identity, then one thing seems very loving. But if you believe Y about identity, something else seems very loving. Rather than just asking what feels “loving,” then – maybe we could all pay some more attention to what is actually true when it comes to happiness, identity (and lots of other stuff).
That’s a conversation that actually has a shot at getting us out of this mess. Why do I believe that? Because I’ve had that conversation for many years with many people who disagree with me on these bigger questions – and I’ve lived the real-life fruits of this kind of conversation for years: love, respect, appreciation, peace, and learning. Compared to the vitriol, accusation, suspicion and resentment that abounds with our prevailing who-is-loving-and-who-is-not conversation, that sounds a whole lot more fun to me. How about you?
 What I mean by that is it’s extremely rare to hear a sentiment from the secular (or religious) left, such as: “hey, I know you really do love gay people – we just have very different ideas on what it means to love.” That idea seems almost beyond people. Instead, you know how it goes – “too bad you are so hateful, bigoted, heterosexist, etc.”