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Why Is It “Big News” That Believers Are Motivated by Love?

What is it about the idea that religious communities are motivated by love that is so surprising as to constitute front page news? 

Following a talk by the President of the Church of Jesus Christ at BYU earlier this fall, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a headline that said: “Love was behind church’s LGBT policy and its reversal, Latter-day Saint President Russell Nelson says.”

In that talk, President Nelson emphasized that Church teachings on sexuality and recent policy adjustments were motivated by love: “Because the Father and the Son love us with infinite, perfect love, and because They know we cannot see everything They see, They have given us laws that will guide and protect us”—noting that “God’s laws are motivated entirely by His infinite love for us and His desire for us to become all we can become.” 

The Salt Lake Tribune’s headline hints at a kind of incredulity that love could be behind both the Church’s 2015 LGBT baptism policy and its reversal. But, what is so unbelievable about the idea that love would be the motivating force behind policies with which there may be disagreement?

Recently, I ran across comments on twitter by a Latter-day Saint historian who took issue with what he felt were Utah’s overly onerous work requirements  for receiving medicaid. He made many important points worthy of consideration. But then he concluded: “the whole thing is immoral and inhumane and Utah legislators should be ashamed of themselves. But that is nothing new. The cruelty, to them, is the point.” 

Is it really fair, or reasonable, to assume that cruelty is the animating force motivating public officials who take positions we dislike? Have we lost the ability in our current American discourse to disagree on policies without impugning the motives of those who see things differently?

Even when people say, directly, that they’re motivated by love, others are quick to express strong skepticism. This was evident in the online denouncements following President Nelson’s talk, epitomized by this comment: “You can attempt to justify your actions through your so-called ‘love,’ but we know better. Until you are willing to embrace the legitimacy of our queer experiences as God does your so-called ‘love’ for queer families is empty.”

To be sure, anyone trying honestly to follow Jesus knows that receiving the “pure love of Christ” is a lifelong work that requires ongoing renovation of heart and mind. That doesn’t seem to be the kind of internal growth many critics are referring to here, though. For those who hope to see a fundamental revision in how orthodox believers see identity and sexuality, progress in a deeper level of Christian charity is simply not enough. A million times over in the last decade, religious teachings have thus been portrayed as inherently unloving and hateful – even when that is the motivation openly expressed.   

Could these widespread perceptions hold a clue for the question I started with – how and why so many have arrived at a place where it’s hard to even conceive of believers, or anyone with whom we might disagree, as “loving”?

The power of an overpowering story. Let’s just say, as a thought experiment, that all your current, personal beliefs about the world around you stayed the same—with two specific exceptions. 

  1. You became personally convinced (if you aren’t already) that a subset of the human family had a distinctive identity that was in inherent and direct conflict with prevailing Judeo-Christian teachings around gender and marriage—this, based on particular sexual orientations, romantic attractions, or gender identities you came to accept as enduring indicators of who people fundamentally are (and always will be).
  2. You also became convinced that the pain of this specific group of individuals was directly related to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of other individuals who did not fully accept these new understandings of identity. Consequently, you came to believe that the main way to reduce the suffering of people you now saw as “sexual minorities” was to ensure that they weren’t perturbed by the threatening influence of these religious communities. 

Admittedly, some reading this likely already believe these two propositions. (This is no thought experiment for you.) For others, however, this will feel like a brand new head space—a state of mind and heart you’re not accustomed to experiencing. 

Are you able to let yourself consider what it would be like to embrace these two propositions? Once you really let them soak in a little, take a deep breath—and then listen to or read a message like President Nelson’s once more. 

Does it feel so loving to you (Even if he says that’s what motivates him)?

Not really. Not with that story in your head (or the emotions that such a story can invoke in any of our hearts).

We only see what we can see, and feel what we can feel. And when filtered through these two propositions, what you see, what you feel, and what you experience is, I would argue, influenced in a somewhat predictable fashion. What feels honestly and legitimately loving to us is experienced by you as something very different: ongoing, relentless hostility from orthodox believers toward a beleaguered, marginalized community. 

How could you not be frustrated—even outraged—with that kind of vision of what’s happening? That is, if you earnestly believed what many activists have come to sincerely believe themselves, I’m saying you would almost certainly feel this same outrage and hurt. Fair enough?

Another pair of lenses. But what if you don’t believe these two ideas about identity and suffering? What if you see each of these propositions as somehow incomplete, insufficient, and untrue? For example:

  1. Instead of a fundamentally different group of distinct human beings who cannot, by any means, relate healthily and happily to systems or institutions that idealize male-female relationships, what if you see these same individuals as brothers and sisters with the same fundamental potential as anyone else to be a disciple of Christ and follow a covenant pathway of exalting progression?
  2. And rather than seeing the pain in these same individuals arising from a simple lack of community acceptance of how they see themselves, what if you understand associated suffering as quite a bit more complex and multi-faceted? That is, in addition to the stumblings of religious believers (misplaced words, incomplete charity), you also paid serious attention to many other factors potentially playing significant roles in this suffering.

What would these alternative lenses now mean as you turn your gaze to the same ongoing, public discussions about sexuality? 

Should it be surprising that you wouldn’t see, feel, and experience the same things you would from that first lens? For instance, rather than fundamentally different kinds of human beings, it would be (and is) natural from this vantage point to see those with unique experiences of sexuality as brothers and sisters—fellow wanderers in a fallen world. And instead of seeing religious leaders as despicable aggressors, you would see clearly the degree to which faith communities in America today have come to feel similar to the gay community, but in reverse: ongoing, relentless hostility from activists towards beleaguered, marginalized religious communities. 

So, who is right? Whose fears are legitimate—and whose are naive? Whose visions of societal progress are inspired—and whose are dangerous? Whose pain is most worrisome to consider and prioritize, and whose ought to be dismissed as a distraction? 

Or we could instead ask: How can we feel good about either of these binary options? Could it be that both kinds of fears, pains, and visions need to be seriously considered?

Clearly, all these questions are worth discussing, with the right answer equally important in their own right. But sometimes, we wonder if we aren’t missing something even more important than settling on the “full truth”: namely, the visceral experience of aching pain, fear, and sorrow common to us all. 

What if we could empathize with the fear, the pain, and the hope of those on ‘the other side’ of these questions even if we didn’t agree with their conceptualizations of reality? What if we could mourn and suffer with them, and even extend a hand of comfort, without having to simultaneously agree with how they see the universe, God, or themselves?  

Imagine that for a moment. What might that mean for every one of us? Could it, perhaps, allow us to glimpse an earnest love motivating almost everyone in unique ways, albeit filtered through our different beliefs about reality?

A call to war. If so, that’s clearly far from the atmosphere currently surrounding us today. Christians are told by critics with increasing fervor that if they were to truly love the gay and lesbian community, then they would take central responsibility for causing them great pain due to their core beliefs and faith practices. This has become an ascendant thesis of many activists today, grounded in the core propositions outlined earlier. 

And with this impassioned message, activists have been successful in convincing many to adopt these same core propositions and associated accusations. In mission terms, their conquest of mass conversions has been nothing short of remarkable.

Can you blame Christian communities, then, for being threatened by the continuing inroads these insurgent progressive missionaries are making—drawing away hundreds from our midst, alongside mounting legal and cultural pressure on our institutions? 

Even with this sense of palpable threat, believers ought still to concede that left-leaning brothers and sisters are pursuing their aims with noble intentions—sincerely believing their efforts will, for instance, reduce suicide and increase happiness. And no doubt, if these efforts truly did reduce suicide and promote lasting peace and happiness, we would be joining them in the next parade or protest. 

But we don’t believe this to be the case. And that’s the point. These efforts you see as reducing suffering and pain, we see differently. In many ways, our faith community has concern that the very path many of you are inviting teens and adults to follow will increase their despair long-term—and remove people from the lasting, deepest peace we all so dearly need. 

And the path to arriving there is what we try to keep sharing with the world. 

Christian love as a plausible alternative. It does seem mighty hard for secular observers today to comprehend any other way to think about a loving alternative path to what the gay community advocates. One left-leaning friend opined recently, “Yes, I’ve heard from some religious people that it just doesn’t feel loving to them to accept behavior they see as harmful.” 

By the tone of her voice and the perplexity on her face, it was clear how nonsensical this possibility felt to her: Seriously, you can’t just embrace who someone sees themselves to be, and how they want to love?

Yes, when you frame it all like this, it all seems so no-brainer. And our resistance to it can seem anything but “loving.” Compared to the “you are wonderful exactly as you are” approach to love, another progressive friend told me recently that he “hasn’t heard any other plausible articulation of love from the right.”

So, please consider this with fresh eyes: There is immense and infinite goodness in you right now as a literal child of God in the spirit. But to suggest or persuade someone to embrace whatever current configurations of thoughts and feelings someone has (however deep) as right, good, and “perfect” holds this immense risk: missing out on the evolution God promises to every follower in their heart and mind. 

This is not a subtle pitch for “conversion therapy.” It’s simply highlighting the pathway of Christian conversion, period—what Paul calls becoming a “new creature,” and Alma receiving a “mighty change.” 

That process, in our view, is frequently being short-circuited and waylaid by the rhetoric of the LGBT community which often effectively strips people of their faith to move along that path. Is that a loving thing to do? 

Not for us. It’s the direct opposite of a loving thing to do, in our view.

That’s why we’re going to continue speaking out and do our best to persuade people to see another perspective (precisely because we share your interest in reducing suffering and promoting the highest happiness). Once again, despite and very much within our disagreements, perhaps we could find a strange, but legitimate unity in our common desire for happiness, just as we might in our universal grappling with pain.

Instead of that, however, loud voices all around call us to war—a vicious, ongoing campaign of attrition, suspicion, and accusation. Although this is neither inevitable nor necessary, it is sadly what many have come to take for granted.

But that doesn’t have to include all of us! It’s never been a requirement of love to believe the same things about God, the world, or ourselves. So, if you’d like to opt-out of the cultural war on every hand—regardless of your beliefs—there is a solid place to stand: resting on (1) our mutual desire to reduce suffering and increase happiness; (2) along with our acknowledgment of the preciousness of human life itself and the infinite worth of the souls we’re seeking to care for together, in our different ways. 

Imagine all these other questions (about which we will continue to disagree for a long time) being laid to the side for a moment while we take a deep breath together in a common place: the space between us. Like the famous Christmas Day soccer game in a 1914 war zone, imagine if we could find each other again in that space, even if only for a moment. 

It might not mean a whole lot. It might just be a passing moment.

Or it might just change everything.

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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