Mormonism, Christianity and Queer Politics
Someone recently brought to my attention an atheist post about how “Jesus was not a queer ally,” how the writer “canâ€™t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously” and “why queer spaces must remain secular.” The post covers a lot of important nuances. Looking briefly at my past writings about the intersection between Mormonism and queerness, the someone (who I just met) thought that I might be a good person to critically respond to the above post.
Well, besides the fact that I don’t really feel I have much of a stake in the matter these days, my writings also tend to demonstrate that, indeed as a whole, queer spaces and queer politics do function best when they are secular (and not Christian).
Particularly when it comes to Mormonism. The nail in the coffin for me, looking back, is when in 2012 Mormons started marching in Pride parades and the vast majority of “progressive Mormons” were celebratory about the convergence. Two years later, the institution is as heteropatriarchal as ever, and the rhetoric of inclusion makes it just that much harder to work against the institution’s anti-gayness. It’s constantly an uphill battle with Mormons… they want to “love,” but they can’t support this or that because of their beliefs, including the very welcoming of same-sex couples into their church community.
While my personal sense is that Jesus himself was a “queer ally,” unlike the atheist blogger who thinks this is “absurdly generous,” either way I agree with the blogger that Jesus’ allyship is meaningless if the consequence of Christianity was a global spread of homophobia:
Itâ€™s not Jesusâ€™ fault Christians have twisted and ignored his words, one might argue. Itâ€™s entirely his fault. When your lifeâ€™s work is to broadcast your views, particularly if you mean to build a church on them, it falls to you to make them unmistakable â€“ and when people whose lifeâ€™s work is obeying you do just what you oppose, you may well be in the wrong job.
A counterclaim emerges in my mind that would argue that late-20th century “taming” of destructive LGBT behaviors (too much alcoholism, too much sex, too many STDs) is a result of a kind of infused religiosity (now gays have babies and marry, and stay in on Friday nights and play boardgames).
My own feeling is a sense of nostalgia for the radical queer politics of the 1960s that called for things like public sex and alternative family structures in relation to today’s tamed queers who are good consumers, good parents (in married coupledoms), and good Christians. It’s a similar kind of nostalgia for radical race-based organizers like Malcolm X who were unpalatable for most people at the time, but far more critical of the broken system as a whole. Instead, society upholds Martin Luther King’s notion of “love/inclusion,” even though 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, racial violence remains. This is not a slight on MLK, just as I wouldn’t slight Jesus…it’s just that at some point, one has to step back and see how “love/inclusion” has actually played out: white flight from underfunded inner cities, the “war on drugs” and the prison-industrial complex.
Consider Apostle Dallin Oaks’ words regarding gay rights in the 1980s:
The public will see the debate as a question of tolerance of persons who are different, like other minorities. Perceiving the issue in those terms, the public will vote for tolerance. But if the legislative issue is posed in terms of whether the public has a right to exclude from certain kinds of employment persons who engage in (and will teach practices the majority wish to exclude for the good of society such as abnormal sexual practices that present demonstrable threats to youth, public health, and procreation), the gay rights proposal will lose. (â€œPrinciples to Govern Possible Public Statement on Legislation Affecting Rights of Homosexuals,â€ 1984)
With its top-down structure there’s no doubt in my mind that Mormon leaders will continue to manipulate “love/inclusion” to keep the central structure in tact.
Arguably still, gay-affirming, more democratic forms of Christianity (not Mormonism) are a powerful force in the US today, or else gay marriage would not have gotten as far as it has; that is to say, gay marriage was never a 100% secular vs 100% religious debate, but made legal and social headway only with religious allies at the forefront. But again, I agree with the atheist blogger that “secularization allows genuine plurality,” so that God might be at the center of some people’s queer politics, but probably shouldn’t be wed to queer politics as a general rule for everyone.
“counterclaim emerges in my mind that would argue that late-20th century â€œtamingâ€ of destructive LGBT behaviors (too much alcoholism, too much sex, too many STDs) is a result of a kind of infused religiosity (now gays have babies and marry, and stay in on Friday nights and play boardgames).”
Um, this is wrong on so many levels. The first premise is a very reductive reading of recent history – obviously, there was (and still is BTW) a young urban gay male sub-culture that prioritizes sex as recreation but you conflate that with alcoholism and STD’s and imply some sort of causality. It’s possible to have lots of sex with many partners while using condoms to avoid STD’s and there is no necessary connection between sex and alcoholism. The second premise is similarly reductive and assumes that the two groups you have basically essentialized and constructed for your argument are mutually exclusive. Lots of gay men are married, with or without children, and have never played board games. They may or may not be monogamous or they may have restrict their partying to one weekend a month. You also ignore differences along a life course – many gay men, like straight men and women, behave differently at various stages of development – they date and have sex with various partners until they settle down with a mate. This pattern may re-occur when relationships end. Finally, since when does religion have a monopoly on marriage, children, and boardgames? I think its very telling that even though you have left the LDS church you apparently still retain a sense of mormon exceptionalism – Saints are paragons of virtue but the gentiles, not so much.
Heh, it’s satirical reductionism, and given that I introduced it as a counterclaim, it’s not my view (though I can understand the confusion because I worded it “to my mind”). In fact, I got the idea of this from a particular gay Mormon who does, to my mind =p, engage in reductionism in order to uphold, as you rightfully call it, Mormon exceptionalism. In other words, I agree with you.
Following up on etseq’s point, I think you’re conflating “settled family lifestyle” with “religious lifestyle” and “single lifestyle” with “destructive lifestyle”. I think both of these equations should be questioned. For the first one, religious leaders can try to take credit for stable families, but it’s not clear it’s merited. And for the second, there are plenty of destructive behaviors associated with stable family life (staying with an abusive partner, having more kids than you can support, alcoholism). We should encourage a more nuanced analysis that specifically targets destructive behaviors instead of placing value judgements on neutral lifestyle choices.
So true. This reflects my personal experience.
I will grant, however, that there probably is an inverse correlation between alcohol use and board games. Specifically, in my experience, adults who don’t drink are far more likely to invite over other adults for an evening of board games, while adults who drink are less inclined to plan specific activities (eg. board games) when inviting people over.
OTOH, the whole “game night” thing may just be a Mormon cultural thing — but I think it’s related to not drinking. You have to have some kind of social lubricant so that you don’t run out of topics and spend the evening in awkward silence.
Well, speaking of nuance:
In fact, many gay people continue to have various kinds of intimate/sexual relationships with people even after, and in some cases not until they “settle down with a mate” (thereby raising the question of what is implied by the idiom “settling down”).
Anyhow, most forms of Christianity I’m familiar with are just now beginning to accept (in the last 20 years or so) the “monogamous same-sex couple,” and my sense is because it is thought to mimic in the “best way possible” hetero coupledoms because of the narrative that being gay is “not a choice.” To me, this whole schema is not great for queer politics, even if it’s the kind of narrative that has made same-sex marriage palatable to Americans (excluding Mormons whose leaders have painted them into a theological corner). Since faith groups tend to accept the “unacceptable” only incrementally, I can see how religious leaders might feel they’re the source (at least, bastions) of stability, including the stable family.
To change the subject, have you run across this coming highbrow entertainment from TLC.
While there is all sorts of variation, I think that humans, as a species, have a biological sex drive and a biological desire to pair-bond. Forget Christianity, what was going on in the Pleistocene?
We are social animals with the capacity to create culture (alas, boardgames and/or religion). Here’s to a non-hierarchical, egalitarian future at a large group level.
“Pair bonding” is an interesting way to put it, cuz it takes socially constructed “marriage” out of the equation but still asserts a general naturalness about monogamy (or monogamy+). But just because as people get older and settle down with one doesn’t mean there’s anything [purely] natural about it. Plenty of social factors go into maintaining monogamy as a norm past a certain age (when there’s children, for example), and plenty of older folks will tell you long after they settled down that their pair bonds met “natural” ends, but they remained in them out of habit. Humans have promiscuity built into them as much as pair-bonding, so it’s unreasonable to privilege one over the other.
Promiscuity and pair-bonding are two different subjects.
Many individuals in species thought to be strictly monogamous, have been found due to genetic testing, to engage in sexual activity outside the pair-bond.
As for what is “natural”, I suspect, we are using different definitions.
Humans do all sorts of things naturally, including pair-bonding and also creating society. Society can have rules that serve society (and/or the power elites) which are unnatural.
An unnatural requirement, because it is an artificial creation of society and found only there, would be having a gay and straight person in a lifelong monogamous pair-bond.
Whether such an arrangement is “unreasonable” is another discussion.
Well, I definitely agree there’s nothing natural about mixed-orientation marriages. But on pair-bonding for the species, here’s quotes from biological anthropologists:
â€œ(A)s our forebears adopted life on the dangerous ground, pair-bonding became imperative for females and practical for males. And monogamy â€“ the human habit of forming a pair-bond with one individual at a time â€“ evolved.â€ (Helen Fisher 2004)
â€œSeveral types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together.â€ (Chris Ryan & Cacilda JethÃ¡ 2010)
â€œWe are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species eitherâ€¦. What we are, officially, â€¦ is a tragically confused species.â€ (Robert Sapolsky)
“Anyhow, most forms of Christianity Iâ€™m familiar with are just now beginning to accept (in the last 20 years or so) the â€œmonogamous same-sex couple,â€ and my sense is because it is thought to mimic in the â€œbest way possibleâ€ hetero coupledoms because of the narrative that being gay is â€œnot a choice.â€ To me, this whole schema is not great for queer politics, even if itâ€™s the kind of narrative that has made same-sex marriage palatable to Americans”
Ah, I see the problem – queer theory, when applied outside of very narrow, elitist academic discourses, makes for bad social and political analysis. “queer politics” is to gay rights as “critical race theory” is to the civil rights movement or anarchism is to mainstream leftish politics. Queer theory embeds many normative assumptions that the vast majority of LGBTs would strongly object to, specifically a patronizing species of “false consciousness” that implies they lack political agency because their political views are deemed insufficiently radical by the self-appointed queer theorists.
@10: Is the point of your comment that what I’m saying is unpalatable to you because you find LGBT politics today to be just fine?
One doesn’t have to turn to “theory” to be dissatisfied with the world as it presently is, and in fact, most don’t.
Yup, you have the critical theory rhetoric down pat, including its tendentious and condescending elitism. Queer critics want to have their populist cake on the one hand whilst condemn the gay prols for the sins of essentialism, assimilation, and neoliberalism on the other. Be as radical as you want but argue in good faith rather than playing theoretical games that obscure these claims with a veneer of post-structuralist obscurantism. Be as utopian as you want but drop the attitude – it hasn’t helped advance radical politics or the left in general over the last few decades. Smug contrarianism obviously has some sort of emotional appeal….
Generally queer theorists aren’t “self-appointed,” but become who they are because they are supported by other queer people. This isn’t to say that at some point, theory doesn’t often become “post-structuralist obscurantism,” as you say. No, it does often become this.
But, for example, I wrote an essay for Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought where one of the things I did was recognize that Eve Sedgwick’s dialectic about universalizing/minoritizing discourse for homosexuality is present in how Mormons and Mormon apostles talk about homosexuality. The goal of the essay was not to do theory for theory’s sake, but to provide a tool for people to understand social behavior (alongside other topics, like a link between homosexuality and women’s ordination, etc). Apparently, the editors agreed with this use of queer theory.
My problem with “born that way” logic comes from own life and my studies about Mormonism. “Born that way” is basically the “minorizing” logic — and what is clear is that conservatives can/have adapted to it (“you might be born that way, but you don’t have to live that way” — in essence, Judith Butler’s idea of performativity adopted by the Church! Again, another place where 1990s queer theory seems useful/relevant.
My reasons for “condeming the gay prols” are well-founded. I’ve written on gay rights as a vehicle to expand private property, including the private property of spaces like the Church who use such laws to legally solidify their own anti-gay spaces through “religious exemption.” I’ve also written on the problems of Mormons in Pride parades as a sign of increased atomization of queers and LGBT politics (yes, via neoliberalism — it’s not a coincidence that with legalized gay marriage comes a significant increase in LGBTs who vote Republican.)
It would take a long time to lay out what I mean by “queer politics” (it’s certainly not LGBT politics + inexplicable theory).
I think this illustrates the condescension that etseq is talking about @12. There was nothing in my comment that suggested that I needed to have this point explained to me. Shall I return the favor by patiently explaining to you that straight and bisexual people also have a variety of possible relationship models…?
You’re the one who framed it in terms of staying in on Friday nights and playing board games.
It’s very likely that this is what made the issue of marriage equality go from being a non-starter to a majority opinion in less than a generation. It’s an issue that’s very easy for straight people to understand: “Aha, they’re in love and want to make a life together — same as I feel about my (opposite-sex) spouse.”
However, to suggest that gay people are entering committed relationships because they want to ape straight people (thinking heterosexual ideals represent the â€œbest way possibleâ€) is incredibly insulting to gay people and gay relationships.
Basically, I’m noting that even in faiths that accept gay marriage, there’s still a requirement for monogamy. The feeling of “Aha, theyâ€™re in love and want to make a life together â€” same as I feel about my (opposite-sex) spouse” has to fit a particular structure (within the faith’s bylaws) where simply the opposite-gender partner is switched out for the same-gender one, but all else remains the same (hence, the “it’s the same as I feel…”).
But older queer politics was not about the same feelings as straight people; it was about being different, and feeling differently, and acting differently. This is what I lament when I satirically say “now gays have babies and marry, and stay in on Friday nights and play boardgames.”
While gays in Mormon culture largely fight for being the “same” as their brethren, and even gays in America fight for this with same-sex marriage, what if the fight should be in the opposite direction? As in, “We’re different, racial others are different, native history is different, which is why all of this is bull****?” Instead, there’s this constant fight for inclusivity into the faith community, the nation, etc.
C’mon, surely as an ex-Mormon you get what I’m saying here… :p
Sure, but the law doesn’t require it. Marriage equality is about giving families civil protection.
Faiths can believe whatever they want to about marriage. Religions neither invented marriage nor own the copyright. They would like to pretend otherwise, but I don’t think it’s helpful to treat their claim as if it had any merit.
Every movement has this type of tension between embracing and rejecting differences. I talked about this with respect to feminism a while ago:
I also wrote about this dilemma with respect to homosexuality in a book review just two weeks ago.
Right, but even if you meant it as a joke, it comes off as dismissive and derisive of other people’s choices, hence divisive.
Here, I think you missed my point @14. I said that even if the parallels with the straight experience are what won the issue in the hearts of straight voters, that doesn’t mean that the LGBT people fighting for their rights were motivated by a desire to assimilate or erase their differences.
Sedgwick was an overrated literary theorist who assumed that she could deduce certain empirical truths, similar to those of social science, from a very circumscribed study of literature.
I hate to break it to you but the opposite of “minoritizing”, no matter how mystical you define it, is mere wishful thinking. Sexuality is not magic or some ineffable category that is immune from scientific study. You can split hairs, dwell on the fuzzy edge cases, re-define words to contradict their common meanings, or just ignore science, but gay people are a minority, sexuality is fixed for the vast majority of people very early in life (if not before birth), and we have no reason to believe these “facts” are mere historical or cultural constructions.
Feel free to lash out at the gay prols for what you deem their stupidity, their lack of theoretical sophistication, or their historical myopia but own your elitism. Gay politics seems to be doing quite well without your monday morning quarterbacking!
Thanks for the great comment.
Hmm…I have heard this case made (that “our [gay] marriage is both the same and different from traditional marriage”), but often from people in their 40s and 50s. Note that these people have the insight of both a time before social acceptance of gay relationships and after it, so they place themselves in this dualistic outlook. Younger folks, as you mention in your book review, have perhaps “lost something precious by having it too easy.” And this “precious” (other than the “One Ring to rule them all”) is perhaps a more astute sensibility about being “not normal.” Their marriages are simply “marriages.”
The other day I was talking with a friend about his open relationship with his husband, and he noted how even among his secular gay friends, conversations about polyamory (still a non-standard form of kinship) are pretty muted. Generally he finds that people just “don’t get it,” even though this was a standard sensibility among gays only a few decades ago. So, I think this goes beyond simply “choices” that people make, but social forces that influence thinking. Again, back in the 1960s, gay people weren’t pushing for marriage, and their kinship reflected that lack of a focus.
Maybe it’s hard for folks to think about polyamory when they’re still looking for “the one,” but the history of love and marriage tells us that “the one” is indeed a social construction. So, I don’t think the “switching out the opposite-sex partner for the same-sex one” is necessarily just a religious thing, although I’d be curious to know how much religious input (that centralizes in the public realm particular forms of family and kinship) has effected social understandings of gay marriage, even among secular gay people.
In terms of religion as the origin or not-origin of marriage, I’m pretty sure marriage predates the religious/secular divide. Marriage in prehistory was primarily about kinship ties, and then institutionalized religions and the state got involved. Thus, I think it’s just as appropriate to turn to faiths as it is to turn to the state to understand what gay marriage is and where it came from.
Until I get sense that you’re actually engaging with me, instead of carrying out a haphazard vendetta against poststructuralism or whatever, I’m not sure there’s much reason to respond.
Pretty good article on the TLC show: “Your Husband Is Definitely Gay: TLCâ€™s Painful Portrait of Mormonism”