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.”
Sometimes we can be more concerned about perception than reality. We don’t want to appear to be harsh or unloving so we go along with it all. For instance, we tolerate the horror of parents fostering transgender identities in children even to the extent of surgery and hormones which are now allowed by law in at least one state. On the other hand if we are more concerned about the [long-term, eternal] health of these children, we are chastised for holding the line against the culture drift that seems to have become a flood.
Sometimes we must accept the accusation of being harsh and unloving because there are better, more loving ways to spend our energy than engaging in dialogues where reason is not sufficient reason and emotion rules
Fantastic examination and presentation of a contentious issue. Thank you, Jacob.
I also appreciate Pat’s comment. Those of us who have received the revelations concerning man’s purpose and potential have a duty to oppose damning social doctrines despite how the world reacts. Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required.
I read an article recently that talked about love and the whole “love is love” mantra that people like to throw out. You’ve outlined a bit of how the definition and understanding of what love is can cause differences. I have certainly felt that in our family dynamic for the last 10 years.
I have a gay sibling whom I love dearly. I don’t love the choices that have been made. It’s caused a lot of contention in our family. I don’t like being labeled as unloving — I’m just not going to yield the belief I have in the commandments and words of the prophets for the philosophies of the world. I don’t enable bad choices. There are absolute rights and absolute wrongs in the world. You are not unloving for following the absolute truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or keeping His commandments, and sustaining and defending the His Church and prophets.
Elder Maxwell taught that in the end if we have not chosen Jesus Christ (and His covenant path) it doesn’t matter what we have chosen. It takes a lot of faith and discipline to walk the covenant path, no matter what your particular struggles are. This is what the Savior teaches, in John 14:15-18:
“If ye love me, keep my commandments.
16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
I count on and depend on the Spirit of Truth to do exactly as Christ said to comfort me and dwell with me. We all can depend on the Comforter as we keep the commandments and believe in and sustain the prophets.
I agree with your central premise. This is how I (not always successfully) try to approach others on divisive topics.
My only caveat would be the use of the term ‘loving.’ One of the lessons I have learned as a parent and as a family member of several mentally ill people (and by parenting books, therapists, etc.) is that when someone comes to me upset/angered/emotional/in-distress/with-a-huge-problem, I should not give them my opinion. My job is to empathize in the hard moments, to support *them* in working through the problem.
So for me loving = empathizing, letting it be about them rather than about me and my opinions.
The guidance and the-law-is-this should come later. Often much later and in small bites unless the person asks for more. And only if I’ve worked myself into a place of being able to really, truly understand their experience from their perspective. (Repeating back their experience to them for them to correct, is a great way to do this.)
If we switch out the word ‘loving’ LGBTQ for the word ‘compassionately empathizing with’ LGBTQ do the arguments all still work? I don’t know.
Fabulous explanation and analogy. Thank you for sharing!! It’s helpful to me to be more focused on the “I’m struggling with keeping the Law of Chastity” framework of sexual attraction, because almost everyone can relate, whether experiencing heterosexual or homosexual attraction. We are all supposed to overcome the “natural man”, and following the prophet along the covenant path is the way to do it with the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
I wish I could agree that the questioning by “activists on the left” of the sincerity of love expressed by faithful members of the Church was just a simple misunderstanding.
Thank you Jacob.
JL, I sincerely love my family members who have made choices I believe will harm them. They might question the sincerity of my love because the culture they have embraced tells them that the only valid love not only respects their right to choose but actively embraces and rejoices in the choice. I try to avoid further alienation and so far the communication and association has survived. But I cannot rejoice in choices that I know are harmful.
I would add that there is a considerable diversity in the definition of “love” that plays into this. Greg Baer’s writings point out the wide variety of expectations that people of all ages and stages have as to what the primary or most essential characteristic of being loved, or being loving is. For some it is approval, others being understood, others trust and freedom to choose, others advocacy, others validation, others empowerment, others the giving of gifts, others compassion, others fondness, others ready willingness to assist, others accepting in spite of known faults, others championing, others defending, etc. etc. etc. For each, if the primary characteristic most important to him or her is missing, it isn’t real love.
You can even see this in our church’s theology as some apostles have given talks about how Gods love is unconditional and others about how it is not, and, as you read their discourses, finding that the difference in their declarations is primarily due to the definition and characteristics of love that they are assuming.
I think this difference in the definition of love also plays into the dialogue you write about, as different people have differing opinions as to what primary characteristics are required in a person’s response to another to make that response qualify as love. Not only is there the difference in assumptions about identity and happiness on both sides of this discussion that you point out, there is also a wide variety of assumptions about what truly constitutes love.
1. I agree with your basic argument.
2. However, you shouldn’t ignore the fact that a large number of religious leaders are pretty transparently NOT “loving” gay people by any set of criteria, including the one you are attributing to them. I’m happy to concede that your argument probably does apply to (current) LDS leaders, but the unwillingness of many gay rights activists to give them the benefit of the doubt stems in part from historical memory around how prior generations of leaders didn’t always speak about LGBT folk in the same way.
Peter Kreeft deals with this topic in his book “How to Win the Culture War.” I bought a copy for just over $5 including s/h, used on Amazon. He has a couple excerpts on his web site at peterkreeft.com.
He writes from the Catholic perspective, and sounds somewhat like our prophets.
His answer to how to win the culture war: be saints.
It’s a short book, and well worth it. (So as not to trigger the spam filter, I’ll put the urls to the excepts in the next comment.)
There is some overlap between those two articles.
A couple of selling points of his book:
It contains a dialogue that he had with a gay activist.
He has a couple sections of C.S. Lewis/Screwtape type speeches and “instructions” that illustrate the forces and strategies that we are up against.
Our ward showed the church’s film to adult Sunday school class showing the Mackintosh family’s journey to understanding how to love their son, despite differences in belief. What a prime example that took everyone into consideration—gratitude for the timely story: https://www.mormonchannel.org/watch/collection/mormon-and-gay/the-mackintoshs-story-a-son-comes-out-and-a-family-loves
Recent conversation with my daughter sparked by ‘pride’ flags and glitter decoratored everywhere, including on some church youth:
Well, first, you need to be careful expressing what you believe because as much as some people talk about love is love, they will be very mean and misjudge you if you aren’t careful in how you speak.
The vicious judgmental, religious condemnation and scoring they accuse you of, is exactly how you will be treated by many of them.
So sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth shut, that’s even what Jesus did in the face of his vicious accusers.
But if you feel like it’s appropriate to say something always always always start with these two concepts:
We are all children of God. God is our Father.
And He loves us.
Always start with that. Then you can teach that God’s work and his Glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
His entire purpose is helping us to become like him.
Now think of two people, eternally married on earth and exalted in the heavens.
The union of those two will likely result in children on Earth, who will have more children who will have more children. Eternally. Forever. Children without number and eternally worlds without end. All because it starts with a mother and father. Two individuals in some ways physical opposites, or compliments come together and an infinite number of lives results.
Think of two nice people who think of themselves as gay. No matter how nice and good they act in other ways in their life they will end just as two people. Just the very same two.
Eternal lives for infinity on one hand. Or an ending of just the same two you started with.
Which is more loving and a greater amount of love across all time? Which is more loving to a Father who was in the beginning of mankind across every generation and whose entire glory is connected to more, not less, immortal and eternal children who become his co-equal?
Two never become more than two. Or two become infinite and eternal.
Which of those two is greater love?
Does it ever just make sense to say, “love is love”, when you understand that?
Not said in conversation, but clear to me and all the prophets as far as I can tell.
The literal reality of our existence across generations of time and mortality and for those with an eye of faith into all eternity is undeniable. We only exist because this pattern has been carried out. For the faithful, this world is one of many without number and only exists because of that eternal pattern. It will continue worlds without end.
Now what could be more evil in God’s sight when you understand that reality?
People who would act to end that progression deliberately through murder or violence.
People who would distort and corrupt that progression across the generations with their various destructive pathologies.
In reality, the first is just a subset of the second.
We don’t need much sophistry to explain that 1+1 = 1 +1, while 1+1= eternity is a greater form of love and anything less than that is evil in God’s sight.
Thanks, everyone. Some belated, brief responses.
MB – Great point about the variety of views of love. Huge part of this conversation – and deserving of a lot more attention. To have space to explore the nuances you describe would be welcome and powerful – a vast improvement over the “are you loving or not” conversation frame out there.
Aaron – point well taken. Yes, those should be acknowledged – and not overlooked. I agree.
Joyce – I loved this! “I count on and depend on the Spirit of Truth to do exactly as Christ said to comfort me and dwell with me.”
And Patricia – this too was beautiful and well-said: “I sincerely love my family members who have made choices I believe will harm them. They might question the sincerity of my love because the culture they have embraced tells them that the only valid love not only respects their right to choose but actively embraces and rejoices in the choice.”
Lehcarjt – I’m in agreement with the value of deep listening and empathy. However, my experience is that this prerequisite you describe for our sharing (“only if I’ve worked myself into a place of being able to really, truly understand their experience from their perspective”) has become a seemingly bottomless accusation among some activists that goes well beyond our simply not understanding. In other words, those holding an orthodox christian view can get accused of “not having sufficient empathy” or “just not understanding gay people” DESPITE lots and lots of listening…simply because they do not align themselves with the dominant cultural narrative.
Rozy – I agree that would be a better frame for the entire conversation!
Libcon – powerful illustration of precisely what I was getting at. Thank you!
“Which is more loving and a greater amount of love across all time?”
That’s exactly it, brother. Well said.