I went in to have a conference with one of my professors a few days ago. While we were discussing my final paper, I noticed that she had a picture of the Salt Lake temple on her bulletin board. So when we were done I said rather inquisitively, “you have a picture of the Mormon temple on your board.” To which my professor responded, “yeah, I guess I had better take it down now.”
I was taken aback. Why would my professor assume that she needed to remove this picture of the Mormon temple? The answer, of course, came to me quickly: my professor immediately assumed that with my observation came an implicit critique of the now infamous “Proposition 8,” California’s recent constitutional ban on gay marriage, and that like her I was upset with the Mormon involvement in that vote. I hurried to explain myself, “well, you don’t necessarily have to take it down… I ask because I’m a Mormon… I’m from Utah. I was just curious why you might have the picture there.” After an awkward moment where both of us wondered if in our misunderstanding we had seriously offended the other, she told me that her mother was one of the writers on PBS’s production of The Mormons, a production that was generally well received by people of the LDS faith and thought to be both insightful and honest.
So here was a woman who as far as I could tell was not religious, certainly not a Mormon, but who had enough pride in her mother’s work that she had bothered to pin this flier to her board. And if I interpret our conversation correctly, she at one time felt an affinity for the Mormon faith because it is so misunderstood. The Mormons, she might have said six months ago, really aren’t all that different, and they’re clearly making an effort to not be seen as insular or “odd.” Now, however, when reminded of this Mormon symbol in her office, her first thought was to take it down, despite the fact that for her it was a symbol filial pride and not religion.
This is what Mormons have lost–the cost of their funding of proposition 8. Here was someone who was more than willing to approach Mormon culture with an open mind, and while I doubt she’d ever consider the religion, she felt a sympathy for the Mormon faith, a faith that has been unfairly reduced to HBO specials and punch lines on South Park. She wanted to give Mormons what every religious, ethnic, political, and social group wants: to be considered in all of their complexity–warts and all, yes, but at least with the possibility that open-minded people will see the good in the “all” as well.
Some of my Mormon friends might say, so what? She’s a liberal professor in a liberal field teaching at a liberal university. Why would we expect any reaction other than a kneejerk condemnation of Mormons after proposition 8 and the gay/lesbian reaction to its passage? To which I would respond by pointing out just how much is lost when a liberal professor in a liberal field at a liberal university changes her attitude about the Mormon faith and culture from empathetic to antagonistic. Scholars in the humanities, and literature in particular, are at best suspicious of religion and at worst openly hostile towards it. Despite the sometimes thinly veiled antagonism I have felt because I believe in a fundamentalist Christian faith (“fundamentalist” is an adjective in this case, not a noun), I have never apologized for my beliefs–which for a graduate of the University of Utah is hard to do. That the Mormon faith and culture had an ally in such a liberal environment is not something to be scoffed at. But now that ally is gone.
I don’t know what the answer is to the conflict between homosexuality and the Mormon faith. I’m fine with my religion dictating theological and moral principles, but I get nervous when any organized religion, my own included, extends their influence into civil matters. In this case, the Mormon faith seems to have crossed the line between “we do not” to “thou shalt not,” and I have to wonder what the consequences will be for Mormons who are more than willing to follow the leadership of the church on spiritual matters, but not on civic ones.
Despite her sincere invitation to return and talk more about religion and my paper, I haven’t gone back to see if my professor took down her picture of the Salt Lake temple. I would, but I’m just not sure how to go about apologizing for my beliefs.