A response to “Where will you go?”

Okay, so, the other day, I posted an open letter to Elder M. Russell Ballard, answering his question, “if you leave the church, where will you go?” A couple people responded, and one of my friends in particular left a comment with some really thoughtful points and questions. I felt like my friend’s comment deserved a more careful response than I wanted to give in a tiny Facebook reply box, so here we are, with another open letter.

It’s probably best to begin by reproducing the comment from my friend, who I will also refer to as M., because that’s his first initial too. I’ve lightly edited the comment for the purposes of protecting several people’s privacy.

I don’t read much that’s linked to on Facebook these days, but I read this. It was well-written and enlightening and very respectful, for which I commend you. However, there’s a couple things I feel like you left out.

First is the fact that you unequivocally WERE wanted in the Church — not unilaterally, certainly (unfortunately), but by many who knew your orientation and accepted you for it. Trying not to presume too much, I think I can list myself, [another friend], [another friend], Brother [Institute director] in that number. (I suspect others, but don’t know them well enough to put words in their mouths.) And while I can’t speak for Elder Ballard, who (I admit) has failed to convince me of profound sympathy for your situation, I believe there are leaders of the Church such as President Uchtdorf, Elder Holland who would count into that number if they knew you.

As a side note, I tried, in your latter Church-going phase, to make Elders’ Quorum a safe place where you could find nourishment to your soul. I tried to conduct lessons that would be open-minded and cater specifically to your interests, but I found you inattentive. I guess it was impossible for you to make your metaphorical mask such a precise filter as to let parts of the Church experience get through while blocking out the bigoted or insensitive comments. That is a shame, when I hope you knew that you could trust me and [another friend]. (Also, know that we were cringing alongside you when you got those kinds of comments in Sunday School, even if we didn’t know any better than you did how to challenge them.)

The other thing you left out is a genuine question I have. You acknowledge that your faith transition has left you devoid of answers about the afterlife … but what about the feelings of personal relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus that you used to have? That is what I don’t get about you and other friends who have similarly left the Church, because that’s what I can’t figure out what I would do with when I have moments of wanting to facepalm-and-abandon-the-Church myself. (And in defense of Elder Ballard, that’s what his talk was really about — not “where will you go if you leave the Church,” but “where will you go if you leave your personal relationship with Christ.”) If you could extend your blog post’s gracious attitude of self-opening to help me understand this too, I would appreciate it.

M., as I’ve said earlier, this is a good comment with careful thinking in it, and that’s why I’m going to respond quite carefully. I’m going to do it in several parts, and it’s kinda unfortunate that the first part is the sharpest:

#notallmormons / #yesallgays

I’d first like to focus on this part: “you unequivocally WERE wanted in the Church … by many who knew your orientation and accepted you for it.” To me, this comment basically says, #notallmormons; to that, I respond, #yesallgays.

As much as I valued (and value) the generosity of heart of my close friends in the ward, and as genuine as their welcome, love, and friendship were and are, their glasnost can’t make up for the systemic problems facing gay people in the church. The fact that I had close friends who knew me and loved me for who I am didn’t change the fact that the Proclamation on the Family is hanging on the walls, that the purpose of singles wards is to get young people to enter into marriage between a man and a woman, and that, again, any real relationship into which I might ever enter would be viewed as sinful at best and a literal threat to the fabric of society at worst.

Another friend of mine, a gay man who went to the same singles ward at the same time I did, put it this way:

While there are many kind and accepting members at church (yourself included), the overall culture of the church doesn’t want gays like myself and Spencer there. No matter how friendly everyone at church was how could anyone understand how isolating those 3 hours each Sunday could be when it focuses on marriage between a man and a woman and the traditional family and that any other goal was less at best and abhorrent & sinful at the worst. When Mormons lead the drive to block marriage equality why would I ever feel wanted there? Any lesson in Elder’s Quorum isn’t going to soothe the hurt that I felt inside.

(Btw, as a general word of warning to anyone reading this, anyone practicing historical revisionism and trying to claim that the church was not an integral part of the coalition supporting Proposition 8 will find their comment summarily deleted.)

Just like #notallmen ignores the very real problems of systemic misogyny and rape culture that #yesallwomen are forced to navigate on a daily basis, just because of the fact that they’re women, #notallmormons ignores the very real problems of systemic homophobia, heterosexism, and heteropatriarchial structures that #yesallgays are forced to navigate on a daily basis, just because of the fact that they’re gay.

M., I don’t want this section to sound like I’m calling you out. I know that you’re a genuine person and mean this in the best of ways. I hope, though, that this section helps you understand why #notallmormons is a really problematic response.

Be an ally

Okay, so what can accepting Mormons do? What’s a less problematic response? It really comes down to being an ally. M., you said: “Know that we were cringing alongside you when you got those kinds of comments in Sunday School, even if we didn’t know any better than you did how to challenge them.” Cringing is a good first step. The next step is to act.

Let me be clear: I knew exactly how I wanted to challenge “those kinds of comments in Sunday School.” In fact, I did challenge several of them. When I was teaching a lesson on one of those end chapters in the Book of Mormon (I forget if it was Moroni 9 or, like, Mormon 2-8), where all the Nephites and Lamanites are terrible and depraved and killing each other because of how terrible and sinful they are, and when one of the people in the class said that he was afraid that these things would start happening to our society because of how far society was trending away from the words of the prophets, especially on the subject of gay marriage, I shut that down. I said, okay, stop right there, there are many people (both outside and inside the church!) who support marriage equality because of their Christlike values of love, compassion, and equality. I asked this person, what would you say to those people? That conversation sort of went nowhere, and we moved on, but I had stood up for myself and for what I believe. (By the way, this exchange landed me in the bishop’s office, because someone in the class told the bishop that I was, basically, teaching heresy. Again, systemic issues, #yesallgays.)

M., my friend, that challenge could have come from you. It didn’t. It never came from anyone I knew, not in those moments, not in that setting.

I’m sure there are a hundred valid reasons for your silence. The next time you hear one of “those kinds of comments,” I challenge you, set those reasons aside and break your silence for your marginalized brothers and sisters. Be alert to any microaggressions, any “casual degradation of any socially marginalized group” (not just gay people!), and speak out against them.

If change is to come, it’ll come from within. I suspect that the only way the church will ever transcend its institutionalized homophobia is as a result of grassroots efforts from the inside. I’m not on the inside now (if I ever really was) and so I can’t do it. There are those gay people who have remained in the church because they see it as their calling to help the church change. I couldn’t sustainably be one of those people, though I tried for a damn long time. Please aid those people in their efforts. If you don’t know any of those people, then become an agent of change yourself.

I appreciated your efforts in this direction. I did notice that your lessons tended to be more open-minded than others, and I was not unappreciative (though usually by the time Elders’ Quorum meetings rolled around at the end of church, I had already weathered two hours of heightened anxiety, and was thus probably out of energy to really engage). Please build on those efforts.

For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that the leaders of the church will ever really listen to gay people. If change is to come, I think, it will be because our straight allies came on board.

Good without God

The other big question you asked, M., was about my current religious beliefs. Once I left the church, I finally had the freedom to really figure out what I, personally, thought about God and Jesus and religion and whatever. As I said in the previous post, now I was in charge. I wasn’t listening to anybody anymore about what I should believe. This was frightening and freeing in equal measure.

Early on in this process, I had already started to question whether or not I actually believed in God to begin with. This was a really scary question for me to ask myself, because I had always believed in God, particularly as the center of my moral commitments. I wondered how my atheist / agnostic friends (and I had several!) were able to reconcile this dilemma. One of them recommended to me this really good book called Good Without God. The author, Greg Epstein, carefully and sensitively explores the topic of secular humanist morality, without really attacking religion in the vitriolic way that, say, Richard Dawkins (who is frankly kind of a dick) does. I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want to understand my moral philosophy, and that of literally billions of other nonreligious people, this is a good place to start.

I was a grad student when all of this stuff was going on. If grad school teaches you one thing, it’s to subject everything to really careful scrutiny. I did this with my religious beliefs. I’m going to elide a lot of sausage-making here and just tell you that at the end of this process, I came up with the following list of sort of key beliefs:

  • I doubt that God exists, but we have no way of knowing that I find epistemologically sound;
  • I doubt that there is an afterlife, but we have no way of knowing that I find epistemologically sound;
  • I know for damn sure that here and now, I am alive;
  • I believe in “whoosh moments” (I think this term was introduced here but I also think I first read about it in Good Without God, linked earlier) – moments in which an experience suddenly becomes transcendent – and thus always strive to be present to allow myself to experience them;
  • I believe that humans are capable of both incredible goodness and incredible badness, and I see it as my purpose to strive for the former and to encourage others to do the same.

Monuments and memorials

I think the last two points are both important and kinda inscrutable, so let me illustrate. I went to Washington, D.C. last summer for a conference. Of course I had to do the tourist thing and go to the National Mall and look at all the monuments. I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, shiny black stone inscribed with the names of 58,000 people who lost their lives in, frankly, a pointless and bloody war. I saw the Korean War Veterans Memorial, commemorating, frankly, another pointless and bloody war. I saw the National World War II memorial, commemorating an entirely justified but equally bloody war.

These memorials were hard on me. They were a reminder of the darkness lurking at the bottom of the human mind. What does it say about us as humans that these are the things we write into stone? What does it say about us that there are so damn many of them? What does it say about us that we chose to fight so many pointless wars? What does it say about us that we had to fight a war against an ideology of racial superiority? That such an abhorrent ideology could gain such political power that it became a force that required the blood of millions and the atom bomb – the most awful (awe-ful?) perversion of elemental forces we clever-ass monkeys have ever come up with – to stop it? That, even after all that, that ideology didn’t go away? That someone is running today for the presidency on an ethnonationalist platform that could have come straight out of Hitler’s playbook?

I went to the Lincoln Memorial. That was a little bit better. In there, the words written in stone are words “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” words about “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” words hoping to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” But even so, this wasn’t much better. We still had to fight a war to end slavery. What does that say about us?

But then I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. This is a man who was dedicated to “justice, democracy, hope, and love.” The words in the stones are much brighter here. Dr. King challenged us to be our best selves. He told us that only love drives out hate. He told us “to love peace and sacrifice for it.” He told us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He reminded us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He challenged “every nation [to] develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” He challenged every person: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” He challenged us “to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

That, my friend, was a whoosh moment. That was a reminder of the incredible goodness of which we are capable. That was a reminder of the heights to which the human mind can soar. That was a reminder of what I am capable of, if I try.

I cried at that memorial. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m crying as I write this. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced.

I hope this helps clarify where I am now, and what I believe in. I hope that you’ll believe me when I say that I’m centered and moral and happy. I hope that you don’t think of me as lacking something because I no longer believe in God. I hope that you understand, and that you’ll act on that understanding.

Yours sincerely, your friend,
Spencer.

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