I have recently been asked by a few friends how I square my support of marriage equality with my membership in a church that is vehemently anti-marriage equality. Other supporters of marriage equality in the church have said that its best to remain quiet on the issue because “its not worth dying on the hill” for it. In other words, stay quiet and avoid excommunication until the church softens its position. However, I am a person of little consequence and doubt that my dissent on this one issue of conscience will result in my excommunication. Nevertheless, I will be somewhat measured with my words in the case I am going to make publicly. In other words, I feel more strongly about this than the following words will convey.
My faith is something intensely personal. My faith is irrational – because those things I believe in and hope for are unknowable. Faith is belief despite the absence of knowledge. In other words, faith is acceptance of unknowable ‘truth’. Truth is in quotation marks because it really can be anything. I have long been taught that you can only have real faith in true principles. The question then becomes: who determines what unknowable truths are real and fake?
Despite the clarity that many religious people profess to experience, the answer to this question is often relative. Members of my church will claim that our Prophet determines what truths are real and fake. Other church leaders do the same for their congregations. No matter how strong one’s convictions, faith cannot be anything but relative. Faith is curious. It can change, grow, be lost and be found. It cannot, however, be imposed. No matter how much you share your personal faith, it cannot be given to someone else unless they work to find it on their own.
For the sake of brevity: faith is personal and faith is relative.
One would think that this should be obvious. The evidence is everywhere. Sincere people believe in severely divergent principles and ways of living. Unfortunately, these differences are perceived in absolute terms – the other is wrong, primitive, evil, stupid, misled, misunderstands or is otherwise inferior. When it comes to religion, one cannot simply be different. Answers regarding the nature and purpose of existence, the purpose of religion, are either correct or they are not. The convergence of unknowable relativism and the rigid absolutism of religion creates something of a dilemma for many objective people of faith.
Many religions are old and come from time periods where certain behaviors are not simply unacceptable but downright wrong and evil by today’s standards. Racism, misogyny, infant genital mutilation, slavery, genocide, holy war and many other terrible things were advanced and kept alive, even well beyond their expiration date, by religion. Many people of faith would rather ignore or otherwise gloss over the atrocities committed by their religion of choice (not granting the same privilege to other institutions and instead using such acts as evidence to discredit ‘competing’ faiths). Ultimately one must ask: ‘How much of this am I required to accept?’
The honest answer is none. Despite the pressures of culture, one is not required to accept religion or faith. I would further assert that one should not accept any religion on the basis of cultural inducement. (Although I fully acknowledge that acceptance might be required for self preservation.) As a matter of personal opinion, I do not think that religion is an all or nothing proposition. One is not required to either accept every teaching and opinion of one’s religious hierarchy or reject all teachings. I, for one, have difficulty accepting that Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for three days. I similarly have trouble accepting that God and Satan conspired to intervene in Job’s life. Every religion constructs or relies upon a certain degree of mythology to teach principle and instruct adherents about how to live life. And all religious people ultimately have to pick and choose the principles by which they live. Even fundamentalists, in many cases, can’t keep all the rules.
The process by which we pick and choose the principles we live by is determined by culture and other social forces, education and experience. This is an important process to acknowledge because it determines how we, religious people, experience both religion and life. Simply, by some arbitrary process that is unique to us as individuals we pick and chose how to live religion because we cannot be perfect all of the time. There is no single right way to live faithfully even within one religion.
I would call this relativism. The ‘right’ way to experience and live a religion is something one decides based on factors that are individual and not shared by everyone. Even the absolutes, in Mormonism in particular, are things that one must have a personal testimony of before action is required. Mandates on conscience and behavior are determined by what one believes. Without belief a religion has no influence over conscience – no matter how absolutely true a religion deems something to be. As a result, I would argue that it is the responsibility of the faithful to remember the possibility, and even the likelihood, that you might be wrong.
My perspective here is that faith and doubt have a symbiotic relationship. I am of the belief that one cannot have faith without acknowledgement that there is no evidence for said belief. If there was evidence then one might assert that there is a certain degree of knowledge and therefore faith is not possible. In essence, my view is, faith emerges from doubt. Doubt is healthy. Doubt encourages learning. Doubt strengthens faith. It is said that one cannot be saved in ignorance. In my view, nothing is more ignorant than willfully disengaging with empirical reality in order to occupy the walled garden of religiosity. Remember we are to be in the world – we just tend to focus on the ‘not of’ it bit.
I hope I have not lost you by now, because I am about to make my argument for marriage equality.
I don’t know everything – but I know enough to know that I don’t. I have a personal faith that percolates throughout my life and, in many ways, frames my reality and the personal decisions I make. Nevertheless, I can say with a certainty that my faith is not knowledge. I know that I do not know the things I believe. (I hope that makes sense). I cannot, therefore, in good conscience support structures, policies and ideologies that translate something unknowable into a scheme that restricts and restrains people from exercising the same right to pursue happiness according to the dictates of their conscience.
I cannot take what is not tangible in my mind and heart and impose it on someone else’s tangible reality. Because I have learned to embrace my personal doubts, I strongly believe that my faith ends where other people’s reality begins. My faith is constructive and builds people up and calls them to be their best selves. Why, then, would I sully my faith by using it as a means to restrict someone else’s pursuit of their best self? Surely I do not know what is best for others when I have not and cannot walk a mile in their shoes. It is best, therefore, to err on the side of equality and justice. For if I am wrong in my faith, and that is a real possibility, I would long regret having used an incorrect belief to prevent another from accessing the fulness of their happiness while alive.
I think my feelings about civil equality for gays and lesbians stems from difficulty accepting the previous positions of some church leaders on similar issues. For example, slavery was legal in the Utah Territory. At the time, Utah was a theocratic territory in everything but name when the decision was made. And then there are quotes like this about the civil rights movement from General Conference addresses:
“First of all, we must not place the blame upon Negroes. They are merely the unfortunate group that has been selected by professional Communist agitators to be used as the primary source of cannon fodder. Not one in a thousand Americans-black or white-really understands the full implications of today’s civil rights agitation. The planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists, and most of those are white men who fully intend to destroy America by spilling Negro blood, rather than their own.”
Clearly, we know enough to now understand that Martin Luther King was not the pawn of a Communist movement. I could post all sorts of quotes, letters and general conference talks that would now seem to us absurdly racist and offensive but I am not going to do that here. The history of the church on these issues is pretty clear as it was not that long ago.
Simply, we are led by men with opinions. They are prone to express them from time to time. Sometimes their opinions, like ours, are wrongheaded and sometimes they are not. The certainty of the language from the Church and church leaders regarding race, civil rights, and interracial marriage gives me pause whenever political positions are taken by the church and church officials about civil rights issues. I, personally, defer to evidence and the well being of those most affected by a policy change, in this case couples who love each other and want to enter a civil contract with one another, rather than the opinions of men I respect. After all, we are all entitled to our own personal testimony regarding doctrine and, frankly, I do not have one on this issue.
There is enough ugliness in the world. That two people should love each other and want to share their life and love together is something positive and the prevention of such should not be a means by which we generate political animus towards a partisan cause or general disenfranchisement. Fundamental to the pursuit of happiness, I believe, is the ability to share your life with the people you love. Allowing gay couples to make the civil contract of marriage with each other does nothing more than expand this fundamental right to pursue happiness to the relatively small minority of people who strongly desire to formalize their commitment to each other.