Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Driving Brother Dallin

Last week I broke up with Comcast. Other escapees from the same serial abuser have already sent commiserating messages. Extending the wildly inappropriate metaphor, I’m not just another victim of groping by a media titan. No, I cut the cable cord to Comcast after encountering customer service so horrifyingly bad it triggered PTSD symptoms. Twice.

Nevertheless, Comcast is not a villain, merely a nonsensical conglomerate. In addition to 30 Rock's East Coast Television and Microwave Programming division, Comcast operates a cable company with a well-earned reputation for terrible customer service. Fortunately, Comcast appears to be an outlier. The cable giant’s spectacular inhospitality far exceeds routine consumer abuse. In particular, my PTSD experiences with Comcast taught us that I only flip out in response to terrible service when it has a reality-denying totalitarian message.

Over the last few months I've blogged about several actual villains, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Much of my distress today is rooted in trauma the Mormon church inflicted during my awkward gay youth. You can read about some of my gay Mormon experiences on this blog, most recently on the occasion of another homophobic conference talk by church leader Dallin Oaks. You can also see several of my pre-blog public Facebooks rants from November 2015, where I described my visceral reaction to the Mormons’ vindictive policy withholding baptism from the children of married gay parents.

Many of my friends and family are Mormons of one kind or another. Other readers may also be bothered by my relentlessly snarky tone toward some very specific aspects of the Mormons' religious beliefs and practice. In any other context I would try much harder not to give offense to anyone. But I refuse to be silent about the evil I endured. 

Nevertheless, I strive to avoid collateral damage, and to minimize references I know would cause needless pain or embarrassment. Most importantly, I've tried to be transparent and accurate  refusing to reduce the complexity of Mormon ideas and experience to a facile caricature. 

In spite of everything, I’m surprisingly hopeful about the Mormons’ long-term outlook. I find myself in strange harmony with my doppeler-and-friend John Gustav-Wrathall. John is Executive Director of Affirmation, the nonprofit organization serving LGBT Mormons. This month he wept with the many families wounded by Elder Oaks’ disappointingly predictable words. But John’s response to the Mormons’ overall conference message is relentlessly hopeful. 

John was a history major at BYU when I was studying English. He knows the Mormons ultimately abandoned their supposedly "eternal" doctrines of polygamy and white supremacy when each became untenable. The illogic of the church's historic relationship with the gays likewise is on a collision course with itself. A critical mass of Mormons already recognizes the quavering voice of a few elderly Brethren conflicts with self-evident Truth. Eventually an inspired Prophet will hear God speak to His and Her people today.

Mormons pride themselves on their largely volunteer leadership. They have no paid local clergy. Instead, beginning at age twelve, all “worthy young men” are eligible to be ordained as members of the priesthood hierarchy. Boys and men have a lifetime of opportunities to lead the flock, including female Mormon sheep of all ages. Only a very small percentage of Mormons make a career out of it, however, primarily a few dozen General Authorities in Salt Lake and their army of bureaucratic civil servants. The three-member First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles are at the top of the priesthood pyramid.

This is a photo of Dallin Oaks sermonizing, no doubt about family values. He’s a member of the Mormon Church’s gerontocratic Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Brother Dallin, aged 85, is second in line to become Mormon Prophet upon the death of ailing President Thomas S. Monson, aged 90. The only man ahead of Oaks in the apostolic succession is his four-weeks-more-senior-but-eight-years-older colleague Russell M. Nelson, aged 93. As always, the climb to the Mormon pinnacle is a slow race against time itself.

This would probably be a good time to remind everyone that prior to 1978, only “worthy young men with no African blood were eligible for priesthood ordination. Like most Mormons over age 45, I remember with joy when God told then-Prophet Spencer W. Kimball it was time for the Mormons to lift their racial ban. It was an honor when BYU named me as a Spencer W. Kimball Scholar three years later.

When President Kimball called Dallin Oaks and Russell Nelson as Apostles in 1984, I was on my mission in Seoul, Korea. (Hmm, I just realized I was serving at the time with my only missionary companion who turned out to be gay years later.) President Kimball ordained Elder Nelson immediately after announcing both appointments. Brother Dallin lost out on a few weeks of apostolic seniority because he had to finish a writing project for his prior job first. This happens to me all the time.

Historically, top Mormon leaders were bland bearded men called to full-time service in one of two ways: (1) be born into the interlocked clan of Mormon aristocracy, with a surname like Smith, Young, Hinkley, Medici, or Borgia; or (2) display Yes, Minister­-grade bureaucratic skills while rising through the ranks of Utah’s equivalent to the Vatican Curia.

Nowadays, there is third alternative path to power in the Mormon hierarchy: achieve Mitt Romney-esque success in a high-powered private career. This trend began when President Kimball, the media-savvy first Prophet of the global era, made a splash by simultaneously calling two new celebrity fishers of men:  Dr. Nelson, a world-famous heart surgeon, and Justice Dallin Oaks, then serving as a member of the Utah Supreme Court.

The “lawyer” label is neither an accolade nor an insult. Identifying someone as an attorney merely states a fact. However, the specific kind of a lawyer you choose to become reveals a lot about you.

James E. Faust, previously the Mormons’ highest-ranking attorney, died ten years ago. I remember President Faust as one of those quietly impressive members of the Greatest Generation – he married his high school sweetheart while home on leave during World War II, attended law school on the G.I. Bill, and devoted himself to family and public service. Unlike your stereotypical Mormon leader, President Faust was a lifelong Democrat. In fact, before leaving private practice for fulltime church work, he served as campaign manager for the same veteran senator Orrin Hatch started his own long career by unseating a few years later. Faust was a bridge-building state legislator, a successful business leader, and the Utah state bar president. Obviously, President Faust was a transactional lawyer, not a litigator like Dallin Oaks and me.

Brother Dallin is part of the lost generation sandwiched between those quiet World War II vets and their loud Baby Boomer children. He’s a very different kind of attorney from President Faust. After graduating from law school at the University of Chicago, Oaks clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren and practiced at a big law firm in Chicago. As a lawyer, Brother Dallin zealously advocated for his clients by skillfully framing persuasive legal arguments. During the 1960s, Oaks was a law school professor and administrator at U of C before his appointment as President of Brigham Young University in 1971.

“Legalism” is the philosophy of strict adherence to the letter (but not the spirit) of the law. Mormonism is a very legalistic religion – sometimes it feels like the whole Jesus/New Testament thing never happened. Unsurprisingly, the Brethren often rely on Brother Dallin to deliver the church’s legal message. But his lawyerliness really shines through in his sophistry, which is “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.”

Brother Dallin left BYU the year before I arrived, capping his pre-apostolic legal career as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court. During the early 1980s, his name was on the short list of men who might have been on the United States Supreme Court. Instead, someone handed President Reagan a very thin binder of female Arizona intermediate appellate court judges, all named Sandra Day O’Connor.

Mormons recognize it’s a terrible faux pas to refer to someone like Dallin H. Oaks as “Brother Dallin,” rather than “Elder Oaks.” However, I’m not making a passive-aggressive dig. Nor am I merely alluding to the title of the Oscar-winning film about racial reconciliation between Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. Rather, calling our lawyer/apostle “Brother Dallin” is a nod to this blog's mental soundtrack.

My subconscious tends to add suitable background music to the story of my life. While reading Brother Dallin’s anti-gay sermons, I kept hearing a tune with a group of women repeatedly singing “Brother Brigham says…” But I couldn’t hear the substance of Brigham Young’s counsel in each line, and I couldn’t remember where I picked up this man-splaining song. 

How did anyone write anything before the Internet? No wonder Shakespeare and Dickens just made shit up. It took me only a few seconds online to discover the provenance of “Brother Brigham Says,” including a link to sheet music confirming this was the tune I'd been hearing. The song comes from the historical musical Because of Elizabeth, which the church commissioned in honor of its “Monument to Women” sculpture garden in Nauvoo, Illinois. President Kimball dedicated the Monument to Women in 1978, the same year he received his revelation extending the priesthood to black men and boys.

I first visited Nauvoo the following summer, when our group of Utah high school theater geeks volunteered as the tech crew for the annual City of Joseph Nauvoo Pageant. I returned to Nauvoo twenty years later when I worked at the ACLU of Illinois as Director of the LGBT Rights Project. After most of the Mormons left in the 1840s, Nauvoo became a sleepy rural town. Then the Mormons came back a century later, restored a few buildings, and turned Nauvoo into a “Colonial Williamsburg”-style tourist attraction / proselytizing trap.

Mormons sustain each of the individual members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.” However, the President of the Mormon church is “the Prophet.” Since 1830, the Mormons’ prophetic mantle has been re-tailored to fit each of the sixteen men pictured above.

Joseph Smith, who claimed to see God and later produced the Book of Mormon, was the first Mormon Prophet. Brother Joseph was a charismatic, visionary, strange man. He founded Nauvoo after the Mormons were driven out of Ohio and Missouri by murderous neighbors. A few years later, an Illinois mob shot and killed the Prophet.

Joseph Smith led the church for its action-packed first fourteen years. He was bursting with visions and revelations. Joseph Smith’s death in 1844 amid continuing attacks by their neighbors left the Mormons in disarray. Characteristically ambiguous, Joseph sent mixed messages about who would succeed him, and the saints split into various factions. The largest group followed Brigham Young, the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Joseph's revelations were so prolific God also set up various other quorums with three, seven, fifteen, fifty, and seventy members, which complicated things for Brigham Young. But not for long.

Brother Brigham was God’s dude on Earth for the next thirty-three years. He was a very different kind of leader compared to Joseph Smith, yet exactly the shepherd his demoralized flock needed. Young took Joseph Smith’s wild visions and translated them for a practical world. He held his grieving people together, then led them from Nauvoo across the prairies and mountains all the way out of the country. After the United States stole Utah and the rest of the West from Mexico three years later, Brother Brigham pragmatically became territorial governor.

History recognizes Brigham Young as an American Moses. As soon as they arrived in Salt Lake and unpacked their handcarts and covered wagons, Brother Brigham would send pioneer immigrants like my Scottish ancestors to places like remote Cache Valley, inspiring them to make their own little corner of the desert blossom like a rose. 

We use the same word “prophet” to describe someone with two different kinds of vision. First, prophets should forecast the future with exceptional precision. Being human requires us to make constant predictions, which we all do with varying degrees of accuracy, clarity, and disinterest. As Nate Silver writes, good predictors discern the signal from the background noise. A great predictor – a prophet – consistently anticipates the future, hopefully prophesying for the benefit of his or her people.

Second, a true prophet is someone who not only sees a better tomorrow, but also inspires other people to see that same future. This is what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the day before he was assassinated:
We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. 
Like Joseph Smith and Spencer W. Kimball, some of Brother Brigham’s sayings turned out to be complete bullshit. None of these great men was perfect. But Brigham Young was right a lot more than he was wrong, and he said everything with such inspired passion, curiosity, and love his people followed him to the ends of the earth.

When I first saw the Mormons’ “Monument to Women” in 1979, I was too na├»ve to recognize it was actually a Monument to Patriarchy – consisting of statues running the entire gamut of women’s divine roles from obedient bride, to fertile womb, to exhausted homemaker. The chorus of women in my head singing “Brother Brigham Says” is a reminder that man-splaining is the prime example of one of the most pernicious of logical fallacies: “appeal to authority.”  

One definition of a fallacy is “any argument that’s not as strong as it thinks it is.” Ultimately, the proposition you are arguing for either is correct or it’s not. A fallacious argument does not increase your chances of being right. Instead, it gives you a bauble to distract people away from their search for truth.

Appealing to authority is not fallacious when the cited source is responsible for determining the correct answer to a particular question. For example, it is emphatically the province of the United States Supreme Court to say what the law is. When a judge in Alabama cites United States v. Windsor for the proposition that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, it’s because the Supreme Court’s ruling is binding on every American judge as the Supreme Law of the Land. The Ontario High Court’s earlier marriage equality decision in Halpern v. Canada reached a similar conclusion, but it can be cited by an American court only as “persuasive authority.” Similarly, when I say we’re having spaghetti for dinner, it’s true just because I’m the parent. The kids’ clamoring to order takeout from Boomers is merely persuasive.

In most other situations, however, an authority figure’s opinion is simply one kind of evidence offered in support of the advocate’s proposed conclusion. Regardless of credentials, an authoritative statement standing alone is never dispositive. Depending on the subject matter, the conflicting evidence, the authority’s expertise, and the effectiveness of the presentation, her views may be more or less convincing. My children have learned to trust my pronouncements on numerous topics, from hygiene to grammar to the sequence of British monarchs since 1066. But they also realize it’s safe to ignore what I say on a handful of other less important subjects, such as pop music and dating.

My friend Mick has PTSD. He served three tours of duty as an Army Ranger medic in Afghanistan. Coming out about his disability is pretty straightforward, even without a handy prop like a wheelchair or white cane.

Unlike Mick, I’m a middle-aged single dad, writer/lawyer, and minivan chauffeur. Not the face you expected to see on your World Mental Health Day poster last week. Yet when my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD in November 2015, I knew I had to be just as open about my disability as I am about my sexual orientation.

Talking about mental illness is hard. Explaining Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is particularly challenging, because it involves both the original traumatic experience as well as the specific circumstances you encountered months or years later that triggered stress symptoms. By the time you’ve gone on to share your psychobabble theory about how the two events are connected, most audiences are completely lost.

Sure enough, my early coming out attempts were terribly awkward. No doubt many listeners were mystified as I tried to connect my embarrassing hair-pulling today to both my supervisor’s officious abuse yesterday and the Mormons’ dehumanizing message thirty years ago. Fortunately, most people hearing my story nevertheless responded with compassion. Only a handful of villains recoiled in horror or disgust.

A couple of months after my diagnosis, I was moved by a story on NPR about newly-appointed Washington State Representative Noel Frame. She identified herself as an “abuse survivor” who “manages my own mental health with medication every single day,” and who chooses to “share these details” in order to “help people.” Using Representative Frame’s model, I came up with my own pithy coming out speech, and I avoid delving into extraneous details with strangers.

Still, sometimes the traumatic details are so powerful they speak for themselves. I’d like to share two representative samples of the message I heard as a gay Mormon youth.

Even without the plaque from BYU, President Spencer W. Kimball would be one of my personal heroes. He had a few crackpot ideas about things like Native Americans and food storage. But he was a tirelessly loving man with an inspiring voice, and he looked and sounded just like Yoda. The priesthood revelation in 1978 is far and away Mormondom’s most prophetic event in in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that President Kimball single-handedly did more damage to me and countless other LGBT Mormons than anyone or anything before the Prop 8 campaign in 2008. I can't believe I still have his book.

As Bryce Cook recently wrote in his comprehensive history of the divide between the Mormons and the gays:
Spencer W. Kimball’s popular book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, first published in 1969, devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality, entitled “Crime Against Nature.” As one LDS historian explained, “[This chapter] is the earliest and most comprehensive treatment on homosexuality by an apostle, and the foundation from which Mormon thought, policy and political action on homosexuality grew for the past 45 years.” Kimball described homosexuality and homosexuals using terms such as, “ugly,” “repugnant,” “ever-deepening degeneracy,” “evil,” “pervert,” deviant,” and “weaklings.” He taught that it was a spiritual disease that could be “cured,” and to those who felt otherwise, he responded: “How can you say the door cannot be opened until your knuckles are bloody, till your head is bruised, till your muscles are sore? It can be done.” This “curable-disease” mindset – based on obsolete psychological thought from the 1950s and 1960s – was embraced by Kimball and other church leaders because it aligned with their spiritual views of homosexuality. They believed that homosexuality was a psychological or spiritual malady that could be cured through intense repentance, self-mastery and even marriage to the opposite sex. This belief informed the church’s ecclesiastical approach and training of leaders, as well as Mormon mental-health therapists, for years to come – and it was probably the most psychologically and spiritually damaging of all the church’s teachings on homosexuality
President Kimball's outdated views still attract powerful adherents. Lawyers, even. From an influential sermon Brother Dallin delivered in 1996:
We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice in respect to the critically important matter of sexual behavior…. 
The differing perspectives of scientific evidence and religious doctrine can be likened to the difference between studying about an automobile by observing its operation and disassembling and analyzing its various parts or by reading the operator’s manual written by the manufacturer. Much can be learned by observation and analysis, but that method will yield only partial knowledge of the function and potential of a machine. The best and most complete knowledge about the operation and potential of a machine will be revealed by studying the manual written by its manufacturer. The operator’s manual for our bodies and souls is the scriptures, written by the God who created us and interpreted by his prophets. These are the best sources of knowledge about the purpose of life and the behavior and thoughts we should cultivate in order to live in happiness and to achieve our divine destiny.

When I first read Brother Dallin’s anti-LGBT “operator manual” sermon, I was thrilled. At the time, I was a fulltime gay rights lawyer with the ACLU. Nothing excites an advocate more than discovering his opponent’s entire argument is based on an easily discredited fallacy.

Often when you challenge an appeal to authority, you rely on some skeleton from the expert’s past. This can lead to your own fallacious reasoning – J. Edgar Hoover’s file of dirt on Martin Luther King did not alter the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Or you end up creating more ambiguity. Does the fact that Spencer W. Kimball was wrong on Indians and women but right on blacks make it more or less likely that he was wrong on gays, too?

As Bryce Cook outlines in his historical essay, the best response to President Kimball’s outdated “cure” model is the same as Galileo’s response when the Inquisition insisted the sun revolves around the earth: experience. For decades, LGBT Mormons and their families have described the actual impact of sexual orientation in their lives. It does not feel like “degeneracy” and “evil,” except when you've been scarred by unrelentingly hateful messages. It is not something that can be “cured” by electric shocks, demeaning therapy, or doomed marriages. Indeed, the Mormon church finally admits you can’t pray the gay away, although too many saints still die in the attempt.

Even the Catholic Church admitted Galileo was right all along. Eventually. That’s what happens when you stop insisting something is true just because you said so, long after everyone else has embraced the truth.

Experience is also the best response to Brother Dallin’s fallacious “operator manual” appeal to authority. But I’m fond of countering his message with a more persuasive analogy:
Suppose you buy a sporty new Miata. Mine was green with black leather trim. This was before I had children and needed a back seat. (The minivan is overkill.) I’m from a generation that learned in our teens how to drive a stick shift. We wouldn’t dream of buying a sports car with automatic transmission - that’s an oxymoron. 
Suppose you get home and read the operator’s manual from cover to cover, because you are a compulsive reader, and you can’t go driving yet because you are the first person in Seattle to pick up his brand new convertible during a snow storm. 
Now suppose the operator’s manual repeatedly says your car has an automatic transmission. The all-knowing manufacturer even includes a handy diagram showing exactly how your transmission works, and tells you how to go from Park to Drive. 
My question for Brother Dallin: How long do you expect me to keep following your manual and pretending my car has an automatic transmission before I finally try shifting gears myself? 

When I was at Brigham Young University, I performed in numerous plays at the Hale Center Theatre in Salt Lake, from Kiss & Tell to Little Red Riding Hood. However, the role I played most often was Paul, the mouthy teen-aged son of a Protestant minister whose family learns about the Mormon church in Are the Meadowlarks Still Singing?

Theater founders Ruth and Nathan Hale wrote Meadowlarks as a Mormon missionary tool. Each Sunday evening, year after year, we would perform for church groups on the set of whatever normal play was currently running at the theatre. This can be awkward when you're about to exit and you suddenly realize a door won't open.

By this time President Kimball had died, and his successor Ezra Taft Benson was the Prophet. President Benson, who had served as Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, was an outspoken conservative and promoter of the xenophobic John Birch Society. During President Kimball’s convalescent final years, liberal Mormons would mutter about whether it was wrong to pray for God to hurry and call President Benson home before he got in charge and wrecked everything.

They needn’t have worried. After forty years of apostolic fire and brimstone, when President Benson assumed the prophetic mantle he devoted his ministry to a message of love and kindness.

When it comes to the gay issue, perhaps Dallin Oaks will be a Mormon “Nixon in China.” Perhaps, if he lives long enough to be President of the Church, and if he lives well enough to become a real Prophet, Brother Dallin will be the one listening when God says the Mormons are finally ready for the truth.

I loved the Hales and their theater. Thirty years later, I think of them every time I take the stage with Vancouver Men’s Chorus, because Ruth, Nathan, and their innumerable offspring taught me so much about both performing and life. But the highlight of my years at Hale Center Theater was probably the Sunday when Ezra Taft Benson attended Meadowlarks. At the point in the play where someone talks about God's “continuing revelation” to the Prophet in Salt Lake City, I could feel everyone on stage and in the audience struggling not to turn and look at President Benson.

I had the role in our didactic play with the most humorous lines, which I milked for all they were worth. On his way out, the Prophet came up to me and gushed “You were great!” I’ve counted that as the Mormon equivalent of a papal indulgence, and never looked back.

E pur si muove

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