Monday, October 8, 2012

Elder Oaks: Form Over Substance and Hidden Messages

I am a father. I am divorced. I am gay.  For almost three decades, I dedicated my life to being the best husband, father and priesthood holder I could be – in other words, to living the Mormon “Plan of Happiness.” For these and other reasons, Elder Dallin Oaks’ talk at this past weekend’s LDS General Conference hit several nerves and left me shaking my head.

I carried on a debate within myself whether I should bother writing this post. Ultimately, as a gay man (who has a responsibility to speak out) and as a father of children who are and will be practicing LDS and will be starting their own families, I felt I should express my thoughts and feelings about the messages contained in Elder Oaks’ talk – if for no other reason that to articulate these thoughts and feelings in my own mind and heart.  

Oaks gave a talk about protecting children, and the overriding theme of his talk was that selfish adult interests are the cause of children suffering throughout the world. Some of the examples he listed – of malnourished children and of children being coerced into fighting in war-torn countries in Africa – are obvious, and I have no comment concerning these examples, except to point out that he could have listed others, such as child-trafficking and the sex trade. He also could have directed his condemnatory remarks to governments, policies and systemic problems that create and permit these deplorable conditions. But he did not do this.

Instead, Oaks focused the bulk of his talk on various issues and conditions that are more commonly found in more developed societies, such as abortion, child abuse and divorce, all of which he decried as being the result of adult selfishness. There were two aspects of this part of his talk which engendered strong feelings within me: first, his emphasis on form over substance; and second, the hidden messages contained within his remarks.

The Facilitators

As I listened to Oaks remarks, I was reminded of a passage of the patriarchal blessing I received many years ago that spoke of a woman coming into my life with whom I could go to the temple and be married for time and eternity “in order that” the children that would bless our union “may be born under the covenant.” There was always something about that sentence that always made me feel like a facilitator, a cog in a vast celestial machine. There was nothing about developing as a father or husband (let alone as a human being), about experiencing the “joys of family life,” etc. I was there to fulfill someone else’s purpose(s).

This is how I felt when I listened to Elder Oaks’ talk. He decried abortion and a shrinking birth rate because both serve to reduce the number of children coming into this world. Adults were not fulfilling their roles as facilitators for creating babies. They are being selfish.  

Yet, what would Oaks, speaking globally, have these adults do? Bring unwanted children into the world to suffer some of the conditions that he decries elsewhere in his talk? And closer to home, what would Oaks have LDS adults do? Have children. Never mind whether these adults are emotionally healthy and economically able to produce and rear these children.  

There are many things that could be said about this oft-repeated message for LDS couples to have children, but the message that I want to focus on is this: You (adult LDS) are facilitators. Your responsibility is to get married and have children. If you don’t get married, you’re not fulfilling God’s plan. If you get married and consciously choose not to have children or to limit the size of your family, you’re not fulfilling God’s plan.  

Once you get married and have these children, it is your responsibility to make sure that your marriage stays intact and that you raise these children to be stalwart, emotionally well-adjusted citizens of the kingdom. If you have “issues” which make it difficult for you to fulfill these responsibilities, that’s your problem. Turn to the Lord (I believe this is a near quote from Oaks' talk).  Fix it.

The Vise of Expectations and Reality:  Form over Substance

Elder Oaks’ talk highlighted, for me, what is a systemic problem in the LDS Church, i.e., with all the emphasis on marriage, family and children, there are precious little resources and support provided for accomplishing these goals.  There is little emphasis, either on the ward level or above, that focuses on nourishing parents, of recognizing their personal challenges, or of celebrating these parents’ roles as human beings with their own needs, desires and value apart from their role as parent.   

Rather, parents are expected to perform, and there is an unlimited amount of competition among LDS parents that preclude most from being honest about their real challenges, feelings and aspirations. And don’t even think about divorce. For years, this was so deeply engrained in me that I honestly felt like my entire adult life would be a failure if I were to divorce (especially since my own parents and siblings had all experienced divorce). And make sure that you never, ever be anything less that an ideal parent under all circumstances.

Elder Oaks’ talk evoked all these feelings in me because of my own experience. I see and have seen so many couples in the Church that are caught in a vise between the Church’s expectations and their own shortcomings (and aspirations for some form of individual worth). Repeating what I have already stated, this vise squeezes the life out of many parents. There is no nurturance (as was the case with Oaks’ talk), and parents are taught (as was the case in Oaks’ talk) to ignore their own “selfish” concerns and concentrate on the needs of their children. Then, when the pressure becomes too great and some parents snap or marriages breakdown, these unfortunates are too often cast aside as broken, selfish and unworthy. Form over substance.

To me, Oaks’ comments about cohabiting heterosexual couples and same-sex couples parenting children are a variation on this theme of form over substance. Never mind whether the love that these parents provide for their children is warm, nurturing and real – possibly far more so than in many heterosexual marriages – the fact that this love exists in a form that is judged invalid renders the love invalid. In other words, I frankly think, judging by his comments, that it is likely that it is impossible for Oaks to conceptualize the love of a parent for his or her child unless that love exists within the framework of a traditional marriage.  He pre-defines what “love” is and criticizes anyone or anything that does not fit within the parameters of that definition.

Hidden Messages

There is much more that could be written about “the vise,” but I want to conclude with a few words about another aspect of Oaks’ talk that I found very disturbing, albeit not surprising.

Oaks, who has carved out a niche for himself among the general authorities by making several speeches about so-called threats to religious freedom (as have members of the Catholic hierarchy and leaders of the so-called “family values” movement, begging the question of whether all of these comments are part of a coordinated strategy), made a point early in his talk that his comments were not “political.” But he then went on to make a number of statements about societal conditions that can only be seen as an attempt to influence public policy through the voting rights of the Church’s members.  (Note as well that Oaks prefaced his remarks by reminding his listeners that he is an apostle “to the world,” not just to the Church – the unspoken implication being that he is perfectly justified in attempting to influence the civic affairs of this and other countries (which he would defend as well as being an exercise of “freedom of religion”)).

In an address that reads more like a legal opinion than a spiritual address in which Oaks cited various “scholarly” studies and a columnist in the New York Times, he describes a long list of societal problems (to which he offers no solutions), and, again, the implicit message of his remarks is that something needs to be done in the civic arena do right these problems.

For example, Oaks decries what he terms as “no-fault divorce.” The unspoken assumption is that he wants to roll back the advances that have been made in family law over the past 40 years by once again making divorce laws more strict (look to the upcoming session of the Utah Legislature). As if this would somehow fix the “societal problem” of high divorce rates and the resulting bad effects on children (the stated theme of his address).

Oaks also decries the high number of children who are born to cohabiting couples. But he leaves unspoken how this “problem” should be addressed. He also turned his guns on the “social experiment” of children being raised by same-gender parents. He does not propose a “solution” to this social experiment, but the implication left in the minds of devout church members is that he favors laws that would make it more difficult, if not impossible for gay and lesbian couples to have children.  

Among other things that could be said about this statement and its implications, is that it is a perfect example of how the church encourages people, on the one hand, to be friendly to, (for example) gay couples in their neighborhood, but on the other hand encourages (implicitly and explicitly) their members to vote take away the rights of these same couples. And getting back to form over substance, Oaks warns about the potential effects on children of being raised by same-sex parents, yet he implicitly advocates policies that would make it more difficult for these parents to raise their children in a healthy wholesome environment.

In conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with Elder Oaks that society should protect and nurture children, and I believe it is perfectly appropriate for an apostle to encourage members of the LDS Church to do the same. But I personally believe that the best way to nurture and protect children is to nurture – whether as a church or a society – the adults who are tasked with caring for these children, rather than finding fault and criticizing these adults and politicizing the manner in which such care is provided.

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