Revisionism: The Sin (and Doctrine) of the Ages
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.