Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Understanding “Understanding the Handbook”

One week after the LDS Church’s new policies on same-sex couples and the children of same-sex partners caused quite a kerfuffle, Michael Otterson, the Managing Director of Church Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued a public statement. The statement was titled “Understanding the Handbook,” referring to the Church Handbook of Instructions, which is the official policy guide and operating manual for the church. What follows is my response to that statement. The statement will be shared in its entirety throughout the course of this blog post, although I will stop after every paragraph or so to share my commentary. The indented block quotations are, of course, taken from the LDS Church’s public statement itself. Let us begin:

If there’s one thing that virtually all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus Christ’s tender love of children. Both the Bible and Book of Mormon deliver touching accounts of His love for “little ones,” blessing them and forbidding His disciples from keeping children from Him.

Good. The LDS Church is aware of the parallel many people have drawn between the church’s new policies and what happens in the tenth chapter of Mark in the Bible. In case you don’t know, this is a passage of scripture in which Jesus’ chosen disciples try to shoo away the many children that are flocking to see him, as if those children are a nuisance. Jesus rebukes his disciples, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (v. 14). The fact that it’s the disciples who need correcting is rather poignant, of course, and I’m sure the LDS Church is grimacing at just how easily and unflatteringly this whole snafu can be likened to this passage from Mark. And so, with this opening paragraph, the church tries to gain control of the narrative by implying that they agree with Mark’s sentiments—and hence must not be guilty of doing what they are accused of.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the family is reverenced and children are its centerpiece. Yet last week an instructional letter from Church leadership addressing the sensitive topic of how to respond to same-sex relationships sparked a wave of inquiries from Church members. Most of the questions were about children.

I’m amazed how often the LDS Church tries to do something I see my own children do, which is to make something true by fiat. “Be careful or you’ll break that,” says the parent. “No, I won’t,” says the child. And in the child’s mind, it really is that simple. They won’t break something simply because they’ve decided they won’t. That’s all it takes. And that’s the gimmick at play in the first sentence of the paragraph directly above. The LDS Church says it reverences the family and makes children a “centerpiece,” so there you go! It must be true! How can you complain about that? The lyrics of a popular ballad by 1990s hard rock group Extreme seem apropos here: “More than words / is all I ever needed you to show / Then you wouldn’t have to say / that you love me / ‘cause I’d already know.”

Because the letter was an instructional document to leadership throughout the world, and not a Church-wide announcement through LDS.org or through Church Public Affairs, there was no additional information or context on the usual Church websites. That prompted questions from many Church members, who were mostly reading media headlines portraying the instructions as a rejection of children and refusal to name babies. Members understandably had specific questions about how the announced change might affect their loved ones.

No additional information or context? What additional information or context do you really need? The new policies are pretty much just lists of rules. It’s the rules themselves that are the problem. Make a rule that the children of black parents cannot be baptized and we don’t really need any more “context” to know there’s absolutely nothing okay about it.

The episode demonstrates clearly the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information. The Church quickly responded to many of those concerns with a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. By the end of the weekend, that interview had been viewed by millions.

Translation: “It’s your fault if you were offended or found the new policies objectionable. We didn’t do anything wrong. You did! The only reason someone could be bothered is if that person is going about this all wrong. The problem is most definitely not us!” Note that we are several paragraphs in and not getting anywhere in terms of making sense of or defending the new policies. All the LDS Church has done thus far is say “all we do is love people” (without really backing up the claim) and “if you’re upset, it’s your fault”—classic victim blaming. Granted, as the Managing Director of Church Public Affairs, Otterson can dish this stuff up with a smooth enough coating that many people won’t even realize what they’re swallowing. But spit it out and take a look—there’s little substance here. Otterson cites a videotaped interview with LDS Church Apostle D. Todd Christofferson as providing answers to many of the questions people have raised—which, in my opinion, it did not do—but that’s just hand-waving. Otterson tries to obscure this fact by announcing that millions of people have now watched the video—which means what, exactly? I don’t know. But that’s an impressive number, right? So, surely that means the video answers a lot of questions and does so satisfactorily. Right? Right???

Today, a letter clarifying what the Handbook changes mean and do not mean has been posted on the primary Church website, LDS.org.
One difficulty was a general lack of understanding of the Handbook itself, which is a guide for lay leaders of the church in 30,000 congregations across the world. A purpose of the Handbook is to provide bishops and other leaders with a standard reference point when they make decisions. Because it is a policy and procedural manual, the Handbook is not written in language that is necessarily contextual or explanatory. Church leaders are encouraged to use the Handbook in conjunction with the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Sensitivity to individual circumstances is learned through the Spirit, Christ’s teachings and example as found in the scriptures, from talks and teachings of General Authorities, and from the leaders’ own experience and exposure to real-life situations. No handbook can answer every question or address every circumstance.

I might discuss the “clarifying” letter in a future blog post. For now, let’s stick with this press release. This paragraph I see as particularly sly. I believe that it is deliberately designed to give the impression that the new policies aren’t as harsh as they appear because they aren’t necessarily binding, and because ultimately the Holy Ghost will determine in each case what precisely happens—and who can argue with the Holy Ghost? The paragraph suggests that there is a lot of flexibility, and that the Handbook is just one small piece of the puzzle—next to but outranked by the teachings of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit, etc.—as ecclesiastical leaders decide how best to tend to their flocks. Sadly, I think the paragraph is purposely misleading. This may sound like paranoia on my part, but there is precedence for what I’m saying. Consider other lines of thought familiar to Mormons: teach by the Spirit, but stick to the lesson manual; rely on personal revelation, but only insofar as it conforms to what church leaders tell you. I see a persistent mistrust of church members to rely on their own consciences and spiritual sensitivities. The bottom line seems to be always to fall in line with the church. So, yes, by all means, rely on the Holy Ghost when applying the policies outlined in the Church Handbook of Instructions—but only insofar as doing so conforms to those policies. If you ever think the Holy Ghost is telling you to go against policy—well, stick to the Handbook. (“Follow the Handbook, follow the Handbook, follow the Handbook, it knows the way!”) All the talk in the press release about the Handbook not having any context is beside the point because the dictates of the Handbook do not require context. For example, one policy states: if a child has a parent who is in a same-sex marriage, that child cannot receive a baby blessing. What other context matters? Does it matter what brand of shampoo the parents use? What is the LDS Church pretending will make a difference here? You cannot come up with a scenario involving a child with a parent in a same-sex marriage where any other details are going to change the fact that the child is, according to the policy as stated, prohibited from receiving a baby blessing.1   Throwing in language to suggest the matter isn’t already decided is meant only to distract and to assuage complaints. It is disingenuous and manipulative.

Here are the key points to understand as background to the recent changes and additions to the leaders’ Handbook:
• It is not a sin simply to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Some faithful members of the Church experience those attractions yet participate in the Church without breaking the Lord’s commandments. They serve missions and attend the temple. The Church teaches its members to embrace these brothers and sisters and encourage them in their faithful lives in the Church.
• There is no change in the doctrinal position that sexual relations between people of the same sex are sinful.
• There is new information in the Handbook that addresses a narrow range of situations involving the children of same-sex couples.

I don’t see how this information is helpful. I honestly think it’s meant to distract from the issue immediately at hand. As for the claim that the Handbook addresses only a “narrow range of situations,” I once again feel the Church is trying to mislead. What’s so narrow about it? Is it narrow because the new policies only touch a handful of items: baby blessings, baptism, confirmation, participating in the priesthood, and the serving of missions? From birth to adulthood, that pretty much covers the gamut of benchmarks and rites of passage that most members of the LDS Church experience. Denying all of these things to all children who fit the description in the Handbook hardly qualifies as a “narrow range of situations.” It’s offensive to suggest otherwise.

With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the Church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders. In particular, Church leaders are concerned for children–whether biologically born to one of the partners, adopted or medically conceived.

Unless you’re looking at things from the macro level, the legalization of same-sex marriage is not that new in many countries other than the United States. I believe the LDS Church is making changes now only because it is becoming particularly relevant to the U.S. Rarely does the church seem to care about things that don’t affect us here in good ol’ ‘Merica, often Utah specifically. You can bet your bottom dollar that if an issue is going to affect Utah, that issue is what these modern-day prophets, seers, and revelators—for the whole world, mind you—will be talking about. If it’s not hitting close to Utah—meh. Regardless, I’m offended that the church keeps couching things in terms of concern for the children. I think that is blatant bull crap. I hate to think what other organizations have excluded and discriminated against certain groups—of innocent persons, no less—“for their own good.” That’s a red flag if ever there was one.

In reality, very few same-sex couples would bring children for the formal Church ordinance of naming and blessing, since this creates a formal membership record. But Church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug-of-war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.

I’m quite bothered by the first sentence above. I don’t get it when harming or discriminating against people is justified by saying you’re only doing it to a few. Not when it’s possible to do it to none. It’s sort of like saying, “In reality, very few people of color would bring their business to this restaurant owned by racists, so it doesn't really matter that the restaurant only lets white people order certain items off the menu.” What does the amount of people harmed by the policy have to do with it being okay to cause that harm? And finally, the tug-of-war remark. As countless others have pointed out, this excuse just doesn’t fly. There are numerous ways in which families can and do diverge from the official teachings of the LDS Church, and yet the children of those families are not excluded from any of the practices now being denied to the children of same-sex couples. The post hoc nature of the proffered excuse is pitiful.

This next paragraph needs to be taken a bit at a time. I’ll go even more slowly here.

This sensitivity to family circumstances is practiced elsewhere. For example, the Church doesn’t baptize minor children without parental consent, even if the children want to be associated with their LDS friends.

Okay. But what if both or all of the child’s parents want and/or support the baptism? Is the child excluded then? Only if the child’s parents are gay, per the new policy.

A married man or woman isn’t baptized if the spouse objects.

But what if each party in the marriage wants and/or supports the baptism? Is anyone excluded then? Only if the person’s parents are gay, per the new policy.

Missionaries don’t proselytize in most Muslim countries or in Israel, where there are particular sensitivities with family.

Almost any instance of trying to convert somebody away from their religion involves “sensitivities with family.” Can you honestly tell me the restriction on proselytizing in these particular areas does not stem from either legal or severe social backlashes that the LDS Church itself would face, rather than from the LDS Church’s overwhelming sensitivity to families???

In some African and other nations where polygamy is practiced, anyone whose parents practice polygamy needs special permission for baptism so they know that a practice that is culturally acceptable for many in the region is not acceptable in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Special permission, but they aren’t barred from baptism altogether. Not unless their parents are gay, per the new policy, that is. But regardless, what do any of the “parallels” offered in this paragraph of the church’s press release have to do with prohibiting innocent babies from being blessed? The answer: not a damn thing.

Of course, there are always situations that fall outside general guidelines and principles, which is why local leaders may ask for guidance from more senior leaders in particular cases where they may have questions.

Finally, near the end of the press release, something is said that actually seems useful for those wondering about the Handbook. Of course, it has little or nothing to do with the scandalous policies that actually inspired the LDS Church to send out this press release. So, again, how is this helpful? It’s not, really.

Let’s take the final paragraph a bit at a time, as well.

The vast majority of Church members understand that there has been no doctrinal change with regard to LGBT issues. Church doctrine is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone complain that doctrine has changed. I think most people understand that this is pure policy … although I appreciate the LDS Church pointing out that one way we can tell this was a policy change rather than a doctrinal change is because doctrine is consistent with the example of Jesus Christ, which this policy clearly isn’t. Okay, okay, I’m sure that’s not what they meant. But isn’t that almost what’s implied, in a rather comical way?

There is a strong tendency today for many to talk of Jesus Christ as if His teachings on love were somehow inconsistent with his teachings on divine commandments. Of course the Savior’s love was never withheld from anyone and His words on the cross exemplify that. But, He also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected Him.

I honestly don’t know what “clear doctrine” the LDS Church is referring to. I certainly don’t remember Jesus teaching anything about shunning or forbidding people to come unto him. Quite the contrary. In fact, some of Jesus’ clearest teachings were specifically about children and the importance of including them. If that weren’t enough, Jesus was perhaps at his most clear when he instructed us to love God and our neighbors. How in the world is this new policy doing anything remotely loving?

That is where Church leaders stand today – holding firm to the doctrinal position of right and wrong, while extending love to all people.

I’m sure comparing church leaders to Jesus is an effective rhetorical tool, but again, it takes more than saying something to make it true. You’re not extending love to everyone just because you say you are.

Church members who believe in modern prophets and apostles understand and appreciate the intent of their leaders to guide the Church through the complexities of diverse societies and rapidly changing social circumstances.

Another low blow. Here, the LDS Church insinuates that anyone who complains about the new policies does not believe in modern prophets and apostles. This is a cheap way to (try to) win an argument. It seeks to delegitimize any dissenting voices from the start, allowing those voices to be ignored because they can’t possibly come from “faithful” or “believing” members of the church. No doubt this is how many Mormons will treat those who oppose the new policies, dismissing them as woefully misguided, if not literally under the influence of Satan. It’s a conversation stopper and nothing more.

Make no mistake, there is plenty of manipulation in this press release. Don’t fall for it.

Since I started writing this blog post, the LDS Church has altered the policy under the guise of “clarification.” The new version of the policy forbids a child from these ordinances only if the child’s primary residence is with the same-sex couple. This does not affect, in any meaningful way, the heart of the criticisms raised by my blog post.

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