I’ll never forget the day I walked across the quad at the University of Illinois and stopped at the booth of a Christian club on campus. As soon as they found out I was a Latter-day Saint, their demeanor quickly changed from friendly outreach to a terse warning about my soul.
Why the hostility?
Certainly, my theological differences with some Christians are meaningful. Additional sacred scripture? Ongoing revelation from living prophets on the earth today? The truth about these questions matters a lot. But as those who have spent time in Evangelical-Latter-day Saint dialogue will attest, few questions are more challenging than contrasting beliefs about who we are.
Are we creatures formed out of nothing by a God who is — and always will be — fundamentally distinct from us in nature? Or are we literal children of heavenly parents with a once-in-an-eternity opportunity in this life to become more like them (gradually, iteratively) in every possible way?
When two communities disagree so profoundly about something so personal, can we expect anything more than being at each other’s throats?
You bet we can. Far more significant than that one moment on campus were vibrant friendships I developed with two local pastors who supported joint efforts to raise awareness about the harms of pornography among university students. Pastors Gary Grogan and Wayne Wager both opened their hearts to me — ministering to me when my brother passed away from cancer. And to this day, they check up on me and keep our growing family in their prayers.
There are few people I’ve ever felt more love from than Pastor Grogan — even while still disagreeing profoundly about the doctrinal issues above. Could Latter-day Saint-Evangelical mutual cooperation be a model for how to navigate disagreements about identity when it comes to gender and sexuality?
I think so. Just ask Tracy Hollister and Arthur Peña, two additional dear friends in my life who identify as lesbian and gay. I met both of them during my time on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, each becoming close partners over the years in efforts to gather LGBTQ and religious conservatives together in friendship and to promote a more generous conversation where we can understand each other better.
Outside my own family, there are few people in the world I’d rather spend time with than these two. They’ve slept under my roof, read stories to my boys and prayed from a distance for my sick baby girl. They’ve meant so much to me and brought so much good into my life I can hardly think of them without getting emotional. Even so, yes — we still have many profound disagreements over sexuality, religion and identity itself.
After so many positive experiences with them, I can’t help but wonder: Why does this kind of friendship seem so very hard in our world today? Is it really because we haven’t simply learned to love each other enough?
On some level, that’s clearly true. Any good Christian will confess to the arduous, life-long challenge of receiving the full gift of charity, even the “pure love of Christ.” We can hardly spend enough time focusing on the spiritual gift described as the “greatest of all” without which we are “nothing.”
But it’s not a greater fullness of charity that certain activists are demanding these days. If they were, there might be a little more patience with the inevitably long-term refinement process involved for all of us. You might also hear more acknowledgement of the simple fact that human beings have disagreed about the nature of love and identity for thousands of years — with poets and mystics, prophets and scientists grappling together for many centuries over these profound questions.
Our precious “civic ecosystem” where we can grapple over competing perspectives on all these important questions continues to shrink fast in America today. In fact, the terms we now take for granted in our national conversation about sexuality largely disallow disagreements and mutual respect from the outset. You’ve heard it before:
“So, do you love people … or not? … Do you believe in tolerance and inclusion … or not? … Are you a person willing to accept me for who I really am ... or not?”
That’s not a conversation about competing views of love or identity. It’s not even a conversation. It’s a demand to comply. Among other things, this framing makes basic conversations and friendships spanning these disagreements very hard. Instead of healthy, loving space for meaningful differences in how we see ourselves, too often the disagreements alone are cast as damning evidence for a failure to love.
In recent years, several senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken about sexuality at Brigham Young University. In each talk, they’ve emphasized the need to exercise greater levels of Christian love toward each other, including toward those who experience same-sex attraction.
No, they do not redefine marriage or identity in a way that many activists wish. They uphold the long-standing scriptural teachings on marriage. With a Christian understanding of the covenant path and eternal possibilities, to do otherwise would not be loving. And so the real question for Christendom in all ages is not how prophets will respond when people react to such teachings, but rather how people will respond to prophets, as they emphasize and clarify (once again) their witness of God’s commandments, including those that involve identity, sexuality and family.
Whenever Christian faith leaders dissent from the sexual orthodoxy in America today, we see the answer to this key question play out on social media. Outrage. Condemnations. Character attacks. Twitter and Facebook pulsating with rage.
To portray such faith leaders as hateful, many of whom have dedicated their lives to service, is a feat of remarkable imagination. But that’s precisely how our larger national conversation is encouraging people to perceive anyone who raises their voice in defense of Judeo-Christian doctrine around marriage and family.
What’s the answer to all this heartache and hostility? Is there a way to find peace even amidst this kind of intensely personal disagreement?
It starts — it has to start — with being honest with each other about a simple reality. Namely, this: Human beings disagree about identity and love. They always have, and they likely always will.
Is that okay? And can we love each other despite this?
I certainly hope so. If not for some higher reason, do it for your own sanity and emotional health. Compared with the angst of chronic tension and animosity, life is a whole lot sweeter when we let go of the idea that everyone has to see the world (and even ourselves) the way we do in order to merit mutual respect and dignity.
That’s not true. And deep in our gut, we all know it.
Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, “You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is ”The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”