“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”― Rumi
Much will be written today and throughout the weekend about the “narrowness” and “cruelty” of the Mormon Church in its recently clarified ecclesiastical direction regarding same-sex marriage in its congregations. The shock was tangible on social media last night – “this breaks my heart. I don’t even know what to say” – “Just wrong. So wrong” – “This REALLY bothers me” – “This is incredibly sad” – “It’s hard to believe anyone would be this cruel and close minded” – “The Mormon leaders have gone mad with hatred” – “More Than Sick” – “Disgusting.”
And I get it. I’ve been researching and facilitating dialogue in this area for a decade now. And I know that from one telling of the story, the LDS Church has been “making great strides” in “softening its tone” and becoming “more inclusive and accepting” – fanning hopes among some for other adjustments and maybe even “additional revelation” in days to come.
And from within that narrative, this week’s actions feel like “twelve steps backward” after “two steps forward” as one person put it – and even “worse than Proposition 8!” another person declared.
Stipulations regarding the blessing and baptism of children, in particular, have been characterized as undeniably and inexcusably “callous” and “heartless” – with a striking sense in people’s comments that Mormon leaders are somehow taking out their hidden animus on helpless little kids (“TAKE THAT, you children of gay families!”) 
And yet – isn’t that what many people believe (or insinuate) to be happening? The more time I spend time in this dialogue, honestly, the more complex it becomes – with so very much more to understand. If I had a chance to sit down with someone frustrated about these decisions – ideally in Jay’s cozy living room – this is the question I would ask: Are you open to the possibility that Mormon leaders acted this week out of any other motive than animus and spite for the gay community? More broadly, are you open to the possibility that religious conservative individuals (and churches) have acted in recent years out of any motivation other than hate or fear?
I already know what the answer would be for a good number of people – absolutely not! One of the stand-out themes of my own research across thousands of online comments gathered since Proposition 8 is a category I’ve labeled simply, “Bafflement.” Despite the relative novelty of something like gay marriage, those questioning or opposing the effort are seen with a striking level of bafflement: “It never ceases to amaze me that conservatives could be so against gay marriage,” said one person – and another, “there are ZERO good counterarguments to gay marriage,” and another, “The arguments used against gays and gay marriage fail even the simplest tests of logic,” and another, “Old beliefs set in stone that can’t stand up to logic. Haven’t we all seen this a thousand times before?”
Alignment with the gay rights movement is almost categorically framed as both more logical and more enlightened, such as these comments following Windsor v. United States:
- “This is what a civilized country should do. Bravo to the intelligent people that passed this.”
- “Wow. America drags itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century on equal rights for gay people. Never thought I’d live to see it.”
- “The only thing that is annoying about this is that it took 17 years for America to wake up. What took you guys so long?!”
Those resisting these changes are often so framed as regressive – somehow wanting a “return to the Dark Ages” – or “fanatics” who are as “bad as the Taliban.”
Even the idea that a Supreme Court Justice would be stupid enough to question these changes, showed up frequently after the same court decision:
- “I really don’t get this. Incredible that ANYONE disagrees.”
- “Wow, 5-4? The decision should have been closer to 9 – zip.”
- “It’s a disgrace that it was still 5-4 along partisan lines.”
- “I really can’t believe how close this was. The 4 nay voters should be publicly shamed.”
One person described the decision as “a temporary victory for sanity.” As reflected above, the bafflement is great enough that insanity is hinted as one of the few possible (legitimate) explanations for dissent!
I detail these examples to make two simple points: First, how in heaven’s name are we supposed to have any sort of a productive conversation under these conditions?
Despite what some people hope, religious conservatives aren’t going away. Neither is the gay community. So what to do?
Perhaps it would be a step forward simply to recognize that genuine dialogue must entail the bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas. The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be “dialogue.” As Paulo Freire once said, “Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants.” 
Are you – whatever your stance – willing to support conditions that would allow for a dialogue that preserves space for legitimate, reasoned difference?
Secondly: Religious conservatives have often been criticized for the absolute certainty of their views – views that don’t always seem to make space for others to disagree…views that reflect a sense of superiority or judgmentalness to others.
To my progressive friends, I would ask: can we at least acknowledge this is happening on both sides? Can you appreciate that we religious conservatives are doing the best we can – navigating a world increasingly shaped by the passionate progressive convictions as to the righteousness and superiority of your own cause?
If so, then here’s a second question: Are you open to the possibility of a group of people who are (pretty much) loving and thoughtful folks – but who happen to believe different things than you do about identity, sexuality, the body, attraction, choice, change, acceptance, love, justice, equality, rights, laws, religion, God, eternity, family, marriage and even the ultimate well-being of children? In other words, are you open to the possibility that someone could disagree with you on any (or all of these) and not be stupid or hateful or wanting to hurt gay people or make little kids sad?
WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS, my progressive (and conservative) friends. It’s time to move beyond superficial and aggressive LGBT/religious conservative conversation – collectively leaving behind chronic disgust, resentment and yes, maybe even some of the bafflement (on both sides!) that others don’t happen to share our most cherished convictions.
It DOESN’T have to be this way. I know. I’ve experienced what a more nuanced and generous LGBT/religious conservative conversation feels like. And I’m writing to tell you that it’s worth fighting for!
I’m talking about a conversation where we actually ask each other real questions – instead of pseudo-questions – something like, “help me understand what else you think might be motivating the Mormon prophets in these recent decisions?” or “Help me understand why this decision by the Church today is so painful to you?”
Wouldn’t it be something if we could both hear each other out – I mean, really? (without any kind of subtle pressure to adopt each others’ views) I believe such a conversation could be healing to all of us.
Along the way, we could explore other aspects of the situation – such as contrasting views of identity that underlie and shape very different conclusions among people who experience same-sex attraction about how they want to live their lives (as well as contrasting views of the role of choice in identity formation, what it means to “accept” or “hate” people – all coming soon!)
I’m talking about a conversation where the goal is something more than jockeying to “educate” or “enlighten” or “convert” those who see things differently.
But what’s the point of that? (both sides ask) Even if I don’t convince anyone, I’ve already got those people figured out!
If we have any chance at all for a more productive conversation on these questions, people on both sides are going to have to do something hard: stay open to the possibility that there is more to learn, more to understand about those people.
It will be much easier, of course, to read all the articles about the Big Bad Mormons (or those Big Bad Gay Activists) – tending to our respective righteous indignations and planning our next strategic moves – to ‘keep up the pressure’ or ‘mount a better defense.’ I suspect a large portion of people (on both sides) cannot help but continue that path – fueled or addicted to their own resentments and unable to see past them.
If that’s you, then you will have stopped reading this blather by now. For the rest, I’m asking – even pleading with you – to hold onto the possibility of humanity across this divide and not give up on what a real conversation could mean for all of us….a conversation where we stop pretending the answers should be simple and obvious to everyone.
Whatever our feeling or questions or confusion, maybe we could at least agree that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on almost everything in this world – including recent actions by Mormon leadership (see 10 key, thoughtfully-held disagreements here).
As far as I’m concerned, it’s become a life or death issue for our body politic. We either learn to do this – or the hatred and polarization only spreads like a terminal cancer (and quickly).
Even in these heightened moments of conflict, I believe there are things we can learn together – precious things – that we will not learn on our own…in our own silos.
Rather than a paralyzing crisis, I’m persuaded these moments can become huge opportunities for huge learning – yes, on both sides!
I will warn you, however, that if you give this dialogue approach a try, it may suck you in. Sitting for a real conversation threatens to give you a glimpse of the beautiful humanity of ‘those people’ on the other side.
And that, I can promise, has the potential to change everything…
 I understand why this announcement would feel much more than administrative for so many in the LGBT community and for their families – and how, without further explanation, it seems both inexplicable and unsettling. I have witnessed how these moments can feel like body-blows and gut-punches to some. More than once I’ve seen people mentioning “this will put me over the edge…I’m leaving the church!” – watching some friends and family members do just that ever since Proposition 8. Whatever space, listening and love people need in this moment – and every moment – should be top priority. Better understanding this pain and how to further decrease suffering has been my own hope in this work.
 Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, p. 70.
 This is essentially the same question, by the way, I ask conservatives in my own community: Are you open to the possibility that someone could disagree with you and not be evil or demonic or stupid?
Depending on the answers to these many questions, of course, people may arrive at very different conclusions about how to work with same-sex attraction, how to relate to conservative religion and the idea church atmosphere. The take-away is that there are fundamentally different perspectives at play – without an awareness of which, this conversation becomes quickly toxic.
Even one whiff of an alternative viewpoint can suddenly open up a little more space to breathe together. To illustrate, here’s one perspective Kendall Wilcox just posted on Facebook – in an attempt to invite bridge-building:
“I was born into polygamy and couldn’t be baptized until I moved from my mothers home. I was never encouraged to leave and didn’t leave until after I was married. Not once did I feel different or not loved by the church, it’s members and leadership. In fact it was quite the opposite. I understood the reasoning behind it. My mother was also treated with nothing but kindness. My ward family loved her and so did the leadership with who interviewed me. I waited 8 yrs. I did everything a member did (minus temple work) I even had a calling. The church teaches nothing but to love others. I understand the reasoning behind this. Maybe because I went thru it myself.”
“Legally, if an organization can be shown to be interfering with a child and their relationship with their parents, a lawsuit can be brought against them. Even if a gay couple has consented to an underage child being baptized, that child would be learning that their parents’ marriage was something their new religion considered a sin. Can you imagine the confusion and heartache it could cause, plus the potential legal ramifications? This is not only to protect the church, but also those families. I truly believe it is meant to be merciful, not hateful.”
 Like I’m trying to do now! Most of my very best friends in the world are progressive, liberal people…and they have changed my life – inside and out.
 Charles Taylor called “pseudo-questions” – designed to make a statement and assertion, rather than to sincerely inquire.
 After ten years in the conversation, I feel I’m only beginning to appreciate the true nuance and complexity of these questions. My curiosity and questions have grown exponentially.