Americans have always disagreed about a lot of things—even fiercely. At our best moments as a nation, we have been a place where space existed to seek to work through these differences as one people. And at our worst moments, animosities have flared up over serious differences even to the point of violence.
At the heart of ongoing tensions over gay rights have always been important, sensitive disagreements—about identity, sexuality, God, love, etc. Rather than seeing these differences as honest disagreements between otherwise thoughtful, good-hearted men and women, however, it’s far too easy in today’s political climate to see something else—a kind of malevolence or ill-will—driving the differences.
This spring BYU updated its honor code to remove specific language detailing concerns with same-sex romantic relationships, putting it more in line with other Church-owned schools and the faith’s general handbook. Some wondered if this was a sign that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had changed its moral stance on amorous same-sex relationships. On March 4, the Church clarified that it had not—prompting some who over-interpreted the initial change to accuse the Church of a “flip-flop.”
It seems to us the especially complex nature of these sensitive questions argues for the crucial importance of fostering a conversation where all voices are heard and different perspectives welcome—including different views of love and identity. In a speech on the BYU campus the day prior to the clarification, President M. Russell Ballard called for space for greater respect and understanding, speaking out against “anger, ill feelings, distrust, hate, and demonizing one another.”
A very different call for a very different kind of conversation continues to issue from prominent media voices and others online, however—one that insists that disagreement on these matters is arising from a source of hatred.
Reflecting much of online rhetoric, two students were cited as saying, “I thought BYU cared about me” and “I feel so incredibly stupid to have believed BYU cared about me or anyone else.”
And after calling BYU’s communications “callous and cruel,” Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke mused, “frankly, I’ve never understood why LGBTQ students would want to attend a school that treats them less-than-human.”
“Less than human”?
Such rhetoric overlooks the true complexity involved in these matters—dismissing a civilization-wide, century-spanning question that continues to divide so many thoughtful people. Yet Gehrke and many like him seem to believe the question has only one legitimate, acceptable answer—and if you don’t agree with that answer, you are not good-hearted.
Even the left-leaning wing of the Supreme Court wouldn’t go as far as Gehrke – referring to traditional Judeo-Christian views on marriage in the Obergefell ruling, “This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people.”
In fairness, communications on these matters have been unclear. And in that vacuum, false interpretations of what the changes mean have been widely circulated.
Yet this lack of clarity should press us all towards more understanding—not less. And to insinuate ill-will in those attempting clarification only makes matters worse.
What might help, then? How about acknowledging that we don’t actually disagree on whether love is important—or human beings matter. Let’s be honest about that first.
Where our differences arise is in how best to care for human beings we all consider precious (and all want to better love). Once the conversation re-centers on this evident reality, it can become productive, interesting, and even edifying.
For instance, different perspectives on love could be appreciated as arising from distinctive views of identity as well. In other words, once you decide who someone fundamentally is, it informs how you think they should be supported and what they need to be happy.
It won’t be anytime soon that we reach widespread agreement on identity or how we care for others—with important differences likely to remain for some time. On one hand, voices like Mr. Gehrke promote the idea that our “true selves” center on the details of our “romantic feelings.” Speaking on this same theme of “understand[ing] your true identity and your purpose,” President Ballard had this to say: “You are and have always been a son or daughter of God, with spiritual roots in eternity. You are, first and foremost, and always will be a spiritual child of God.”
President Ballard went on to suggest that this foundational fact of heavenly parentage was not just “my truth” or “your truth.” “It is eternal truth, written in big, bold, capital letters. Understanding this truth—really understanding and embracing it—is life-changing. It gives you an extraordinary identity that no one can ever take away from you. But more than that, it should give you an enormous feeling of value and a sense of your infinite worth. Finally, it provides you a divine, noble, and worthy purpose in life.”
This is not to deny, of course, the value of different internal experiences and feelings as part of navigating our full identity—or the best pathway for our lives ahead. But compared to other narratives and commentary about identity, President Ballard’s comments underscore a distinctive difference in prioritization of what matters most.
If these differences about who we are or how we should best love aren’t likely to go away, the critical question then becomes whether we will make space for all these differences to co-exist…or not?
The quickest way to evaporate that space for disagreement is to accuse those holding another perspective of being a hater or a liar. Others have hinted that the initial lack of clarity about the honor code was a strategic “bait and switch” to expose people further.
Nonsense. There are no kids in inhumane cages at BYU—nor are there traps being set to lure people into unsafe places.
If there are traps being set, it’s a larger discourse that frames a conversation that is virtually impossible to have—a conversation that draws far too many into a state of aching accusation and chronic acrimony.
Is there not suspicion enough—and to spare?
Let’s be honest with each other—and fair. And let’s follow wise leaders inviting us to show compassion and sensitivity to those who disagree.
That’s the best of America. And if we’re to believe prophetic counsel, it’s also what Jesus asks of us all too.