Revisionism: The Sin (and Doctrine) of the Ages

Apologetics Boyd Packer Homosexuality LGBT

About 15 months ago, I published a pieceon MSP, the first of series of posts exploring issues related to mixed-orientation marriages, that generated a number of comments by someone who identified himself as An Inner Light. I subsequently found out that this person is Joshua Johanson, a youngish Mormon who is married to a woman but admits publicly and loudly that he has same-sex attraction (SSA).

What greatly disturbed me at the time about Johansons comments to my piece was what I viewed as his apologetic historical revisionism of the teachings of the LDS Church concerning homosexuality in the 70s and 80s, particularly the teachings of Spencer W. Kimball and Boyd K. Packer. Johansons position, briefly stated, was that Church leaders have never condemned homosexuality per se (i.e., sexual orientation), only the practice of engaging in lustful homosexual sex acts. He argued that Kimballs teachings as well as Packers infamous speeches in the late 70s (as well as his October 2010 address) were misinterpreted by the men and women who heard and read his remarks.

The following are a couple of choice excerpts from his comments:

When [President Spencer W.] Kimball said homosexuality can be overcome in a few months, he wasnt talking about becoming straight because that concept didnt exist back then. He was talking about not having gay sex. People say that the churchs position has changed because the vocabulary has changed, not because the doctrine has changed.

[T]here are people who misinterpreted Kimball back then just as the news reports show people misinterpreted Packer now. I have no doubt that many people, including many bishops counseling gay men to get married, misinterpret many comments.

At the time, I took strong exception to his position, because to me it was revisionism, plain and simple. To me, Johanson in the process of proving (mainly to himself) that the Churchs position on homosexuality has never changed; it was just misunderstood was minimizing what for generations of Mormon men were deeply significant statements and teachings teachings that altered their lives and conveyed that to have same-sex attractions was sinful, dirty and (to use Packers recent phrase) impure and unnatural.

As I commented at that time, to advance a theory that the Church didnt really teach what it did in fact teach, that it was all semantics, minimized the trauma that countless men went through and are still feeling the effects of. It relieved the Church of responsibility for what it did, and it relieved the modern thinking member of the Church of responsibility for contemplating WHY the doctrine has changed so significantly over the past few decades.

I didnt think much more about Johanson until a little over a week ago, when I read that he had make a presentation at the recent annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) held in the Salt Lake area. I found a transcript of his remarks online, entitled Navigating the Labyrinth of Homosexual Desire (note not Homosexuality, but Desire) and saw that he was repeating and amplifying comments that he had made over a year ago.

[M]any people, Johanson wrote, fault President Kimball for saying homosexuality can be changed. Understanding that homosexuality has multiple meanings, we can look at the context and determine he was referring to homosexual behavior. Take this quote for example about homosexuality: If one has such desires and tendencies, he overcomes them the same as if he had the urge toward petting or fornication or adultery. The Lord condemns and forbids this practice with a vigor equal to his condemnation of adultery and other such sex acts. He refers to homosexuality as both a practice and a sex act, not as an attraction.

After asserting that thousands of people misinterpreted Elder Packers comments in his 2010 October conference address, Johanson writes: In previous statements, Packer had made it clear that simply having same-sex attraction is not a sin. Why would he change now? This is what Kimball taught, and this is what the Church teaches now. There hasnt been a major change in doctrine like some people suggest.

In a sense, I dont care what Johanson believes or says (and I am fully aware that his views do not necessarily represent the views of current leaders of the Church). But his revisionism deliberately and consciously ignores the deeply painful and traumatic experiences of thousands of Latter-day Saint men and women who struggled with same-sex attraction, who listened to leaders such as Kimball and Packer and saw themselves as virtually less than human in the secret chambers of their own hearts. For Johanson to dismiss these experiences as misunderstandings and to in effect blame these persons for their own misunderstandings this is insufferable.

A few months ago, I received an email from a guy I know who is about my age, is married (to a woman) and is gay. We have corresponded for well over a year. By way of background, he was raised in the Church, but knew he was gay. He came out for a number of years (or, as many might put it, lived the gay lifestyle), but then met a woman with whom he felt he could make a life and live the Plan of Happiness (i.e., be a devout heterosexual Mormon). They got married and had children. Now, however, though he loves his wife, he feels deeply conflicted.

I was cleaning out some old magazines and books, he wrote, when I came across an issue of the Ensign dated November 1980 (conference issue). On page 94 there is an article by President Spencer W. Kimball entitled “President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality.” I want to quote some parts.

He then went on to quote extracts of President Kimballs address, including a quote that Johanson used in his FAIR presentation:

The unholy transgression of homosexuality is either rapidly growing or tolerance is giving it wider publicity. If one has such desires and tendencies, he overcomes them the same as if he had the urge toward petting or fornication or adultery [C]ontrary to the belief and statement of many people, this sin, like fornication, is overcomable and forgivable, but again, only upon a deep and abiding repentance, which means total abandonment and complete transformation of thought and act The fact that some governments and some churches and numerous corrupted individuals have tried to reduce such behavior from criminal offense to personal privilege does not change the nature nor the seriousness of the practice. This heinous homosexual sin is of the ages I am pressed to speak of it boldly so that no youth in the Church will ever have any question in his mind as to the illicit and diabolical nature of this perverse program God made me that way, some say, as they rationalize and excuse themselves for their perversions. I cant help it, they add. This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God, and does he think God to be that way?

My friend then went on to describe the visceral, unexpected reaction he had upon reading Kimballs words:

This makes me sick and I started shaking when I read it again for the first time in many years. Is it any wonder so many of us fought with ourselves for so long? Is it any wonder we put on the mask and thought if we acted the way we were told to that eventually we could be cured? If the church really wanted to change, really wanted to heal wounds, then they would recant these types of messages and extend an olive branch to the downtrodden. Instead we just get a general love the sinner but not the sin. Or the equally loving hey, you’re OK just they way you are, just don’t act on it. It makes me realize how hard I fought, and why I fought. I wanted to please the prophet, my prophet. In the end I was just betrayed. I’m sorry could go a long way towards healing old wounds, but it won’t happen.

When I wrote this friend a week ago to tell him about Johansons FAIR presentation, he responded:

[This] almost brings me to tears, and makes me angry as hell. To be marginalized as though none of this ever happened, or that if it did happen it was just misunderstood. My god what are they thinking?! It is so frustrating to always come back to the same place. It is always my (our) fault. Not only was it my fault when I was fighting being gay, it is now my fault again because I misunderstood what the prophets were saying! Never ever did I hear one word about how it was ok to be attracted to men. There was never a distinction between feelings and actions. I think maybe that was one reason it was relatively easy to act out when I was younger. I was already evil and broken by having those feelings, so having a sexual encounter was really no different.

I am quite confident that hundreds, if not thousands, of men could give similar testimonies and share similar reactions concerning this revisionist, apologetic view of the Churchs teachings regarding homosexuality that affected men not only of my generation, but have continued to impact men down to the present day. I have blogged here about my own contemporary reaction of Kimballs words, and testimony that the effects were not limited to my generation is evidenced by the following comment left on my blog:

I went to the MTC in 2004. I spoke of my gay feelings with a leader. I was then given and required to read The Miracle of Forgiveness.” That book is explicit and clear on how the church and its leaders thought about homosexuality. It made me feel even more hopeless and dirty. I knew God would never help me as long as I was gay. So I vowed to serve my mission on my own- without God’s help, to prove to him that I was worthy of the miracle of being cured. Anytime something went wrong, I assumed it was my fault for being gay. Not that I was acting on it at all… just because I knew that God knew. In Mormonism, I could never accept what I could not change- I am Gay.

People say that the Miracle of Forgiveness has been pulled by the church and no longer used. That Kimball admitted to the over-the-top harshness of his book on his deathbed. They were saying this back when I went to the MTC. The truth is, they were still using it as required reading for anyone with gay feelings. Why? No matter how it is reworded to sound more politically correct, this is the view the church has accepted for a long long time. Being gay is like being a murderer. It is better that a gay man never had been born. That’s what I believed about myself- even as I went about Korea trying to teach the gospel I thought I loved.

As offensive as is the revisionism, as maddening as it is to be accused now of having misinterpreted the words of the leaders of the Church, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the type of apologetics advocated by Johanson and his ilk (such as FAIR) is the likely effect that this has now today on young gay men and women and on their parents and family members.

I dont doubt that a number of parents of LDS youth who are struggling with same-sex attraction were either present at the FAIR conference or have read Johansons comments, and the take-away messages are: the Church has never changed its position on homosexuality; it is ok to experience same-sex attraction, but this doesnt mean that your son or daughter is gay or lesbian (which terms, in any event, should never ever be used as nouns); these feelings of attraction dont say anything about your son or daughters innate sexuality; God doesnt have homosexual sons and daughters; feelings of attraction (or affection or love) to members of your own gender can and should be ignored or overcome and treated as sin.

The problem with these take-aways is that they are all lies at worst, gross misrepresentations at best. The true take-away: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

12 thoughts on “Revisionism: The Sin (and Doctrine) of the Ages

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I know what I heard. And these leaders know how their errors have been understood but never bothered to clarify…this is the same strategy apologist use with the BOM…. “We never taught that all the native Americans were lamanites…you just misunderstood.”

    Uh yeah they did. Ask what everyone in the pews believe and the ones issuing my temple recommend… Homosexuality was vehemently warned against and promised to be overcome with righteousness.

  2. I saw your posts at Beyond the Closet Door, and I was thinking about writing an article somewhere about how I see this phenomenon as being a primary after effect of correlation…the way that correlation works…whenever the church changes course with respect to a particular doctrine or practice or belief, the old doctrine or practice goes out the memory hole. Notice how the church rarely repudiates things? Even when it does repudiate stuff, it’s relatively evasive about what it is repudiating (in response to Randy Bott’s racially ignorant comments, the Mormon Newsroom said the church opposes racism in any form…but it didn’t condemn the ban itself as racist. Rather, it said that *we don’t know why the ban existed*.)

    Because the church simply “refs undoctrines” the teachings and practices of yesteryear, anyone who grew up in a different era are either ignorant or willfully misinformed about the events of yesteryear (e.g., there are people who literally don’t know the priesthood ban existed. There are people who literally don’t know about electroshock therapy. And as you note, there are people who will not admit what was taught in the past about homosexuality…feelings, not just actions.)

    I feel like we need really solid historical research…and we need to really raise awareness of sources that document the history well. The church will not be forthright about its own history, so someone else must.

  3. Amen brother. You are spot on. The church organizational standard of honesty is much much lower than the standard expected of it’s members. And in truth there is no standard of honesty for the top leaders. Lying for the Lord is so ingrained that they do it without thinking and pat themselves on the back for being so honest!

    There is a great line in the movie/play “The History Boys”, where their teacher says, “It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

    His point is that in the memorial we change history to be what we want to remember, not what it was. The church does this all the time from it’s visitor’s centers to it’s magazines and conference talks. Give it the spin you want and do it long enough and people begin to believe that was the way it really happened.

  4. @1, 2 and 3: Thanks for your comments. Although I do not take issue with comments about the church leadership, what I was focusing on in my piece was the rank and file who are putting themselves out there as revisionists.

    @2

    I feel like we need really solid historical researchand we need to really raise awareness of sources that document the history well. The church will not be forthright about its own history, so someone else must.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    @3 Thanks for sharing that quote from the History Boys. And of course those who create the monument, those who organize the commemoration, control and shape the story to meet their own needs. With the passage of time, the true story is forgotten – unless someone steps forward to challenge.

    I don’t want to stretch the racism analogy too far, but I have thought about the use of code words. If someone were to stand before a group of African-Americans of various ages, from teens to octogenarians, and use certain vocabulary, a different message would likely be received by the seniors as opposed to the teenagers. The reason: the teenagers have not been raised in the same environment as the seniors. The old folks know what it was like; the code words are ingrained in their consciousness. When they hear the words, thoughts, feelings and memories are triggered, whereas the teens likely don’t experience this.

    Similarly, perhaps, those of an older generation know what was taught because we experienced it. Thus, when we heard Packer use well-known code words in his talk, we knew exactly what he was referring to. Younger gays, however, were not raised in the same milieu and do not have the same response. In fact, perversely, the response of some of them is to defend the offensive language, claiming that those who heard differently are misinterpreting it.

    Thus the need, as Andrew has pointed out, of testimony, of sharing what really happened, what was really said, and how we really felt. Truth.

  5. I am thinking of the true integrators of science and religion, the geo-centrists.(supposedly 20% of Americans believe the sun revolves around earth)
    The Geo Centrist professionals have their conferences, where they give papers for their journals. And what could any scientist say to them when they already have the truth.

    The only thing I can think of is to keep presenting measurements to the 20%, and maybe some of them will look.

  6. It would make no sense for Kimball to be talking about only gay sex while all this conversion therapy is going on around him as a direct application of his words as a church leader. Does Johanson think that not only do people today mistake what Kimball “really” meant, but also the people at the time? Does he believe Kimball sat on his hands and let others interpret his words to mean something “stricter?” It just seems like Johanson can’t stomach that Kimball would call him a “pervert” for “letting” himself be attracted to the same-gender.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see his behavior to be particularly unique among gay Mormons — it’s a defense mechanism. Just the other day, I was reading through the Facebook Same-gender Attraction group at BYU, and noticed how eager some of the members were to let critical bystanders know that, “no, our school does not kick you out for being public about your same-sex attraction; only if you ‘act’ on it.” On the one hand, it’s good that the atmosphere has changed such that being “out” at BYU is a regular enough occurrence to take pride in, but it’s also dangerous to forget that it hasn’t always been that way (the policy change is quite recent: 2007).

    Speaking of BYU’s policy change, wouldn’t it strike Johanson as odd that BYU wouldn’t let people be “out” — considering (as he would argue) even as early as Kimball’s era, “attractions” weren’t a sin, only “acting” on it was? Or it could it be that BYU’s old policy found its roots in Kimball’s era when same-sex attraction was considered sinful? There’s a homework assignment for him.

  7. It would be interesting to pull all the talks and old handbooks and then put that body of work together. Then, ask people of different generations to respond (gay and straight) and share what they took away from it. As a generational testimony to what was taught, and informative to those who came after, I think a study like that could go a long way towards closing a divide in understanding and experience.

  8. Julia @ 7: That’s a good idea. Particularly since, until recently, there was little possibility for there to be a collective gay Mormon history inside the Church. Since we’re now in a period where being “out” and in the Church is not a problem, there should be some collective discussion.

    If you ask me, here’s the abridged history:

    50s/60s/70s: it’s evil

    80’s: it’s evil and it’s disrupting marriages

    90’s: the attractions are normal. acting on them is what is evil.

    00’s: when we said the attractions are “normal,” we meant in “this” life…not the next life. they’re gone in the next life. also, it’s really not good to talk about this so much.

    10’s: okay, maybe talking about it is fine. but don’t act on it!

  9. @2 —

    I feel like we need really solid historical researchand we need to really raise awareness of sources that document the history well. The church will not be forthright about its own history, so someone else must.

    I assume you’re aware that if you do this, your efforts will be considered “anti-Mormon” by believers.

  10. re 10,

    chanson,

    A post has been bubbling in my head since Sunstone about that very reality…but since I haven’t even written the post that lays the framework, I can’t really write that post.

  11. As much as I hate to say it, because I don’t like to speak ill of anyone: Joshua Johansen is dining out on being the LDS Conversion Therapy posterchild. I’ve known this since he posted (some might define it as trolling) at MormonsforMarriage, a pro-marriage equality website based in Northern California that was established by an LDS woman in direct opposition to the church’s involvement in funding CA’s Proposition 8. Johansen made it very plain that he felt that allowing same-sex couples to get married meant that he would not be allowed to remain married to a woman — despite being unable to articulate how this was even remotely so.

    I read his speech to FAIR and it was full of the same old and oft-debunked nonsense that he used to spout on M4M. He didn’t care how much new information was lobbed at him then, and clearly doesn’t now. He likes being the center of attention, because he enjoys feeling like a victim. Go back and re-read the speech and see what he says about his wife: she’s a PhD who is giving up her position to be a SAHM — certainly her right — but he whines about how she’s victimized by people who don’t understand why she would want to sacrifice all of that education. (I’m not sure they’re wrong, but that’s an argument gor another time). Joshua’s a victim, Mrs. Joshua’s a victim … the beat goes on. As long as Joshua’s at the center of the dancefloor, that’s all he cares about.

    I’m a straight, married, middle-aged woman. I know a whole lot of gay and lesbian folk who used to be married to straight spouses. I have a friend whose husband just came out to her after 20 years of marriage. Her life is ruined. Joshua’s argument that since Mrs. Joshua knew he was gay beforehand that it’s all good? I want to see how well that’s holding up in 15 or so years …

    I’m sorry to say that I lost patience with Joshua’s self-promotion a long while ago … because, IMO, that’s all it really is or ever has been.

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