Personally, I oppose gay marriage (along with John McCain, Barack Obama, and many other folks from all parts of the political spectrum; and, yes, I know Mr. Obama does not support proposition 8). I have tried to articulate my reasons and have found it a little bit tough. But that explanation is not my primary intent today. I will say that I view marriage as not only an agreement binding two consenting adults but as a covenant which receives the blessing of both God and the state and which is meant to furnish and then care for future generations. I believe gay marriage moves us away from marriage as a contract with society, God, our progenitors, and our progeny, and toward an insular view of marriage as only a contract between two people. I think that trend is worrisome.
As I said, however, that is not my reason for writing. I understand many people don’t agree with me. Further, I know many people both within the church and without believe that proposition 8 discriminates, that those with homosexual inclinations are a minority who need constitutional protection, and that proposition 8 would be a codification of unfounded prejudice. My purpose today is to address the difficult question of what these folks are to do: specifically, how should a member of the Church act when his heart seems to say he should do differently from what the Prophet counsels.
One group of those within the Church who oppose proposition 8 has even formed a website to tout their opposition (actually, a number of groups have done this, but I am most familiar with one such). The website, broadly speaking, makes two fundamental points. First, it emphasizes a human aspect of the question by introducing us, through writing and video interviews, to members (or former members) of the Church who feel same sex attraction: proposition 8, the site argues, relegates these folks to inferior status in the eyes of the law and drives these people from the Church—sad potential consequences, indeed. The second broad point the website makes is that no church member should “blindly” follow counsel from anyone, including the Prophets. The website wants us to understand that the brethren have consistently asked us to gain a testimony of their teachings and, the website contends, if you have not done so with regards to church counsel on proposition 8, and if you think or feel it is a bad idea, you should feel free to oppose the legislation.
I would like to address these two points:
I. With Regards to Compassion
A couple of weeks ago, a child from my primary class told me, “brother Johnson, on the way to church we were having a debate in the car about who was the nicest person in the ward, and I told everybody it was you.” I was flattered, kind of blushed, and didn’t know what to say. I’m sure it’s not true, but I share the line to support the notion that, I think, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m paying a lot of money and spending many hermitted hours in the library to become a doctor in large part because I care about people, all people: big people, little people, old people, young people, Mormons and not, gay and not, etc, etc, etc. I really want to help people; I’ve wanted to since I was young.
And I oppose same-sex marriage.
That doesn’t mean I hate folks who feel same sex attraction, or that I’m bigoted or discriminatory, or that I have anything personal against anyone with any different kind of sexual feelings. The question of gay marriage is complicated and has social, moral, legal, and governmental ramifications. It is true that the feelings of those who would like to enter into a homosexual marriage are important, but they are not the only consideration. That’s important to remember because if you think those feelings are the only thing that matter you’re likely to have a pretty low opinion of anyone who opposes gay marriage or supports proposition 8. A supporter of proposition 8 becomes a bigot or a prude—and that’s not fair. Indeed, many who support it may be well aware of those who wish to enter homosexual marriages, may feel a good degree of compassion and love towards them, and may, nonetheless, say, “for other convincing reasons, I support proposition 8.”
The point is: it is not impossible to love people who feel same sex attraction and to support proposition 8 at the same time. Christ, after all, loves all of us perfectly even though He often does not approve of things we do and even though He knows we should not have some things we want. To pretend that compassion requires acceptance of everything a person desires is to greatly oversimplify the matter and is unfair and, in a sense, prejudiced towards proponents of the proposition
II. About Prophets
When I’m not on a busy rotation, one of the first things I do in the morning is scan editorials, especially from The Washington Post. I read because I like to engage the authors. I agree with some of the authors most of the time and almost all the authors some of the time, but I will never find an author I agree with all the time, and that’s part of the fun. I read and I think: what do I think about this? Do I agree? Why not? Is this in line with my values? What I would write? And so on. In a sense, I’m kind of like Wall-E, the little robot in the latest Pixar movie. At that movie’s beginning, he is shown tirelessly completing his “waste allocation” like a mechanical Sisyphus—forever compacting and stacking the world’s endless garbage. As he works, however, he finds and keeps for himself little treasures that catch his eye—enshrining, back in his bunker, the resulting collection of his most valuable and beautiful odds and ends. When I read in the morning I am a little like him: a lot of what I read is either repetitive, wrong, or useless—but, every once in a while, I find a little nugget of truth that I add to my store of knowledge.
Many people, it seems, approach general conference (or other words from the brethren) in much the same way I approach the day’s menu of editorials. Now, to be fair, the Wall-E analogy is probably a bad one for most members of the Church listening to the brethren because most members probably like most of what they hear the brethren say—otherwise, why would someone remain a member? And, of course, no one is perfect in heeding all the counsel offered by the brethren. But the point of the Mormons for Marriage website seems to be that we should subject the counsel of the prophets to the same scrutiny to which I subject the words I read in the daily papers, choosing by our best judgment, just like I try to do, whether to accept or reject to counsel. True, MfM would add a spiritual component (after thinking about counsel, they argue, pray about it and see what your heart tells you), but the end result is still the same: analyze, ponder, pray and then do what your heart tells you, whether that is what the brethren preach or not.
Of course, the only time this becomes an issue is when a person feels he should do what the brethren counsel him not to do. In that case, the person must ask: will I follow the Prophet or will I follow my heart?—I cannot do both. And that is a hard question, especially when your heart seems to be responding to a call for compassion, as many would say is the case with proposition 8. It is, in fact, not much of a stretch for a thinking person to become convinced that the “intelligent,” “informed,” “kind,” or, even, “Christian” thing to do is to not do what the prophet counsels. It is fairly easy to begin to believe that those who follow the prophet are mere members of a herd—they are simply following the crowd (hence the worn-out phrase “blind obedience”), while those who “go against the grain” are doing so because of deeper compassion and more complete intellectual rigor.
That image of the herd moving mindlessly in lockstep, however, is an unfair characterization and a dangerous and disappointing generalization.
It is unfair first because it does not duly credit the depth and quality of the motivation of those who choose to follow the Prophet. It is true that a person may do something just because everyone else is doing it, but that does not mean that everyone who acts with the majority is doing it simply to follow the crowd. And, indeed, I wager that most folks in the Church follow the prophet not because it’s popular but because they are acting on faith.
So, even if you say I am opposing proposition 8 out of compassion, the response of many church members would be, not well, I follow the prophet no matter what he says, but, instead, I have faith the Prophet will lead us to life and salvation, my faith leads me to follow his counsel. That difference is important: the first would pit compassion against mindless lemming-like obedience, the second pits compassion against faith. In the first case, of course, compassion wins; but in the second case, even if you think compassion better than faith, you’re forced to admit that the call is really close and that faith is a wonderful and desirable virtue.
Still, even if a person who follows his heart in opposing the prophet concedes this point, he may be left saying: I understand the motivations of those who choose to follow the prophet on this matter, but I have thought about this issue, prayed about it, pondered it, read up, and tried to listen for the Spirit, and I have concluded that my actions—though they oppose the prophet on this issue—are what God wants me to do.
That is a very convincing argument. Indeed, in a postmodern world where each person is to seek and establish his own morality it seems the matter might warrant little more discussion. But a member of the Church, it seems to me, must be in but not of the postmodern world.
At some point, one has to ask: what is a prophet? Or, even better: why does the Lord give us prophets? As I alluded to above, some seem to conclude that prophets are like really good editorialists: wise and well-intentioned old folks: Because they are prophets, we regard their counsel with spiritual, not just secular, scrutiny, but we still accept or reject it as we see fit.
The problem is that by making this argument we end up robbing the prophet of the very mantle that sets him apart from other men. The more we come to see his counsel as optional, the more we dilute the idea of prophecy and revelation until, pretty soon, the prophets become, in our eyes, simply a few more well-meaning men who happen to guide us in religious matters.
Now, let me be clear: I know that an entire army of internet commentators could parade onto this site and produce a litany of strange-sounding quotes from general authorities of times past and then say well, obviously we shouldn’t always follow the prophet because look at this counsel. By and large, however, that kind of quote is an anomaly and/or opinion and not official church doctrine. What I mean to discuss here are the tenets and principles the brethren teach clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically—all of which apply to the counsel regarding gay marriage and proposition eight.
We sometimes refer to prophets as “watchmen on the tower.” This analogy teaches that prophets, because of their mantle within the priesthood, see things we do not see and understand things we do not understand. The very reason we have prophets is so they can lead us and instruct us in the way of life and salvation. Indeed, one could make the argument that the time a prophet is most important is precisely when he counsels you to do something you would not otherwise do. If the prophets only gave counsel with which we agreed there would be no need for them to live on the tower, so to speak—our own judgment and spiritual intuition would be enough to get us through. The purpose of having a prophet is that, through them, God can allow us to act as if we had wisdom which, for now, is beyond our grasp. For even with all our powers of both reason and spiritual/moral intuition, we will not always make the right decisions—our ways are not His, neither our thoughts His, after all. The moments when we are disagree with the prophets, then, may be the very times when the prophets are most necessary—even life- or society-saving.
Additionally, most members of the Church do not face a choice between following the Prophet and following the heart very often because usually both agree; consequently, in a sense, the opportunities to demonstrate faith by following the Prophet are few and precious. We should remember, also, that sometimes to Lord gives commands whose purpose may seem clear but whose true intent only He knows. Those who marched in Zion’s camp, for instance, thought they were on a military mission to redeem Zion; the truth that only appeared in retrospect, however, was that they were engaged in a journey to emphasize principles and purify souls—they thought they knew the business they were about, but the Lord accomplished other, different purposes.
As Elder Eyring once explained:
“Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel, but hold it close. If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear and I have been grateful.”
In the end, I think the most important word in Elder Eyring’s quote is “trust.” I follow the brethren not because I am blind, but because I believe they are prophets who see and understand things I do not—I trust them. I don’t think they are perfect, but I believe the God who speaks to them is and, when they act with one voice and give the same counsel clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically, I believe they really will lead me in the ways of life and salvation. My trust in them is bound up in my testimony of the prophet Joseph and in my intimate knowing of divinity and the tender mercies of the Father toward his children. When I raise my hand to sustain them, I do so because I believe they are God’s prophets, called to lead us to the Promised Land. Sometimes I may not understand their reasons. But that, I believe, is when it is most important to follow them. For that acting without understanding, that stepping into the darkness—even when our pondering, prayer, and soul-searching have failed to illuminate the steps before us—is one of the most important steps we take in the journey of faith because it requires a powerful and meaningful degree of humility that opens us to a kind of spiritual growth that is otherwise simply not possible.