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Op-Ed: LDS leader delivered a confusing message to graduates

Published August 18, 2014 4:08 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last Thursday, Mormon Apostle Russell M. Nelson challenged Brigham Young University summer graduates to carry the heavy "burden of discipleship" by refusing to yield in their defense of traditional marriage. His statements communicated to graduates that their status as defenders of traditional marriage sets them apart from those who believe same-sex marriage should be legal.

Nelson argued, "History is not our judge. A secular society is not our judge. God is our judge!" And he distinguished the BYU graduates in the audience from those who heed "popular votes ... oft-quoted bloggers [and] pundits ... [or] lobbyists." He spoke of the importance of total fidelity within opposite-sex marriage and the evils of premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography and abuse. According to the LDS Church News, he also made the claim that "true intimacy is only experienced within the sacred union of a husband and wife."

Nelson's choice of a commencement ceremony to again assert the church's positions on sex, sexuality and marriage has been interpreted by some to be misplaced. His decision makes sense, however, as commencement speeches traditionally inspire graduates to go forward and reach their highest potentials. In Nelson's mind, the highest potential any graduate can attain is that of an obedient child of God who has the courage to follow God's will and withstand ungodly pressure that might deflate graduates' inherent worth.

Nelson's address and his decision to use this particular venue to make statements about sex and traditional marriage align with his paradigm that saints and defenders of the principles he believes God has dictated are superior to sinners and those who become less than saints by giving in to the pressures of society.

I assume that Nelson is a good and compassionate man who perhaps lacks experience interacting with LGBTQ and same-sex attracted Mormons and is not accountable for his mistaken belief that intimacy can be achieved in all opposite-sex marriages that are not marred by infidelity, pornography or abuse. I believe that if I were to ask him if he believes saints and defenders of traditional marriage are superior to sinners and those who "make moral what God has declared ... immoral," his answer would be a resounding, "No."

In his address, he offered that those he labels as sinners are "children of God [and] our brothers and sisters" and that we "value their rights and feelings."

The clash between Nelson's good intentions and likely belief in the equal value of all, and his subtext comparison between the superior worth of those who agree with his understanding of God's commands and the inferior worth of those who heed the values of society indicates to me that he may not be cognizant that his underlying message to graduates was that they will lose inherent value if they do not defend traditional marriage.

I will never know if this assumption about Nelson's potential lack of self-awareness is accurate. I do think, though, that as listeners we can strive to become aware of language, like Nelson's, that may inadvertently communicate that we will lose inherent value if we change.

It is not for me to advise others what to believe about God or his will regarding traditional marriage. I am not someone who does now nor ever will claim to speak for God. I do feel it is worth recommending that all seek to become aware of implied comparisons between those who believe in traditional marriage and those who accept same-sex marriage that deprecate either the former or the latter. Individual worth is not dependent upon belief or courage to be different. Individual worth is inherent.

Anne McMullin Peffer is the founder and president of Circling the Wagons Conferences for LGBTQ and same-sex attracted Mormons.