Thursday, July 3, 2008

"It's a Free Country"

That's what I used to say to my brother when he objected to anything I did, like changing the TV channel, or throwing trash into his room. Even while abusing the phrase so flagrantly, we were always aware of what a momentous benefit it was to be living in one of the few truly free countries in the world. We learned about the precious privilege of freedom in social studies and history classes from first grade onwards, and we flamboyantly celebrated freedom each year on the Fourth of July.

In the upper-middle-class community where I grew up, students were given the opportunity to enter a Freedom contest every year by writing an original essay. I didn't keep mine, but I do remember one of my essays contained a quote from something I'd read in the Reader's Digest. In the story, a Soviet visitor was being shown around a U.S. city when he first arrived. His hosts pointed out some of the more interesting sites such as architectural landmarks, museums, universities. Each time, the Russian would reply that there were many similar places in his home country. The hosts soon tired of trying to impress the man. Then on their way home, the group stopped at a grocery store, and the Soviet visitor stood in the aisle in awe, tears running down his face as he gazed at rows and rows of food. Hundreds of boxes of cereal, many brands of canned vegetables, and a bakery where no one stood in line all day for a loaf of bread. This story impressed me and filled me with a sense of nationalistic pride. My young heart would nearly burst each year as I lay on grassy hillsides watching fireworks flare above me to the tunes of "America the Beautiful" or "The Star-Spangled Banner."

From a tender age, Americans are imbued with appreciation for our nation's freedom and the blessings of democracy and capitalism. We value them so highly we are willing to allow even those who do not believe in these precepts to speak and demonstrate against them. Living in such a pluralistic society gives us the special advantage of being able to understand paradigms. Perhaps I don't believe in socialism, for example, but I can comprehend the concept and see why those who hold certain views would behave or live the way they do. I wouldn't handle poisonous snakes, but I truly "get" the impulse of obscure Christian groups to demonstrate faith by putting themselves in a dangerous situation and placing their trust in a higher power. Likewise, I certainly hope that those not of my LDS religion might attempt to persuade me otherwise, but in the end respect my freedom to worship according to my conscience. If we want freedom of thought to exist in this country, we have to allow others to think differently than ourselves.

These beliefs place us in a precarious position. If the pendulum swings too far, we may find ourselves sanctioning pernicious practices that are truly harmful to society in the name of freedom. Might a vigilante be justified in killing child pornographers, for example? Can this vigilante also exterminate abortion doctors? Where does one draw the line?

This year we have seen how fuzzy the line of freedom can get in the case of the FLDS and Texas law enforcement. It has been difficult to determine if the YFZ group has crossed the line of harming women and children by their marriages to older men, or if this indeed is a situation where their religious paradigm is different but equally as valid as that of the majority.

This line of reasoning has led me to a more nuanced view of the Church's stand on same sex marriage. Many of you know that my personal beliefs support marriage for same sex couples, as well as provision for polygamous marriages. I see no harm coming from loving unions or from them using the word "marriage." I do wish that the Church would draw their line where it would not harm those who sincerely wish to live together without harm to themselves or others. I have no desire to wound those who I know to be sincere and loving. I wouldn't be surprised if a few years into the future the Church's stand on this will have greatly softened. But perhaps there is something I am unable to perceive in the mix. With all the pornography and child prostitution and the many evils that exist in today's society, should the line of freedom be drawn here to keep our society from descending into anarchy and licentiousness? This is a very real danger that comes from living in a free society.

To be clear, I haven't been convinced to throw my wholehearted support to the Church's efforts to define marriage. But I am starting to find a way to make sense of the paradigm.

As I celebrate freedom in the United States this Fourth of July, I wish to honor the many brands of cereals we have in the aisles of our grocery stores. I wish to salute each church on every corner of the streets of Summerville, South Carolina. I want to rejoice in the diverse colors and convictions of the people in my town and country. Let me see through their eyes for just an instant as I shake their hands. I want to stand in the aisle of the supermarket and cry at the amazing variety that I see.


Jo said...

Nice post. I am with you, I just can't feel threatened by adult people loving each other and I am trying to figure out a way to live the newest thing from the Church calling for political support against gay marriage. In my heart, I totally support them. I guess I will figure it out sometime.
Thanks for the post. I am grateful to live in America, even as I decry the genocide that went into building this nation. I am okay with paradox.

JayFlow22 said...

I enjoy the irony of America:
Puritans escaping religious persecutions from English Calvanists come to this land and cut the tongues out of Baptists b/c they don't share their flavor of doctrine.
Founding Fathers establishing a nation built of principles that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and then going home to have their slaves cook them dinner and pull the weeds from the garden.
Only true irony such as that can build such a great Nation.

Maraiya said...

Thank you for this post. I really enjoy reading your perspectives on these matters.

J G-W said...

I don't get the "if we allow gay marriage, we can't say no to child abuse and pornography" argument.

Since pornography and child abuse are not allowed in our same-sex married household, it seems pretty easy to me to draw the line.

Loving, consensual, mutual, nurturing relationships: Yes.

Exploitive, non-consensual, power-over, abusive, hurtful behavior: No.


Bored in Vernal said...

j g-w, Actually, I agree with you. It's just that I'm really struggling to find a way to integrate the recent First Presidency letter without having to say, "The prophet of God is just plain wrong." I don't want to have to say that. How are you handling this?

djinn said...

Denmark, the first country to allow gay marriage, just was ranked as the happiest country in the world.

"The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,"

As I understand, you're nowhere near CA, so you don't have to actively do anything.

J G-W said...

BiV - I know. This is my best effort to come to terms with this.

I remember talking to my bishop a year ago or so, and telling him that the Spirit was guiding me to be as true to my relationship with my partner as I would be to a legally married spouse. He asked me, "How do you reconcile this with your testimony of the Church?" I said simply, "I can't. I know what I know, I know what I need to do, and I am blessed for doing it."

It's not ultimately my responsibility to figure out how to reconcile this. I am what I am. I must live the way I must live. I love and respect President Monson and have a testimony that he is a prophet and that he's called by God. I am glad I don't have to do his job for him. But I think ultimately it is his job to make sense of this issue as it applies to the whole Church (and the world), not mine.

elaine said...

Well written, and refreshingly patriotic in a time when bashers are "cool" and abound...
As to the marriage issue, I think only God fully understands. After all, success at marriage in the LDS Church, true success, equals exaltation, the highest reward of all. We shouldn't expect it to be simple, even to understand.
Every action I do, maybe even every thought I think, has the potential to affect others. There is no such thing as a truly private choice. Someone very close to me has just gotten married in CA, to someone of the same gender. Of course this doesn't change my love or respect for him! Yet there is a level of sadness, there is.
I would submit maybe the ones being hurt the most are those who are denying themselves the possibility of overcoming, or "taking up the cross". No one needs to feel threatened by someone with this challenge, anymore than they should be threatened by someone with a gambling addiction, or a fetish for gossip, etc. I think same sex attraction must be the hardest thing to overcome, maybe than all of the above together. Yet there are many who choose to live celibate lives. I do not believe they do this out of fear. Homophobia is a phony term, rarely applicable, IMO. Few are truly afraid, many are self-righteous instead. Good we are not here to judge who is which!
But we are here to stand up for what we know is right, and only that. Bottom line? We should speak our conscience, which I have just done.
Thanks again for a refreshing and thought provoking post.

Crusty said...

Why not draw the line at allowing people to do what they want, as long as they don't physically harm a person or their property against their will? Everything else seems like it should be controlled by 'teach correct principles and let people govern themselves' or 'not by force but by gentle persuasion.'

According to Mormon theology, wasn't it Satan's plan to control people's behaviors and force them to do what was right? Conversely, wasn't it Jesus' plan to allow people to have free choice and have the chance to learn from their mistakes? Which laws do you think Jesus would support? If he supports a law, how would he enforce it? With force, by using a gun, handcuffs, and prison? Imagine Jesus coming to your house with a gun, telling you to pay taxes, or he's going to use his gun to force you to go to prison.

Bored in Vernal said...

Crusty, it might seem easy to draw a line in the sand, but in practice it is a bit more difficult. Were the FLDS group whose children were removed from their homes physically harming a person or their property against their will? Millions of Americans were undecided.

Crusty said...

Bored in Vernal,

The question is not 'where does the general public draw the line;' the question IS "where should YOU, personally, draw the line, and where would Jesus have drawn the line?"

I would think Jesus would have treated the FLDS like anyone else...he would teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.

By the way, I don't Jesus would support statutory rape laws for sex/marriage with girls under the age of 17. Until the last 50-100 years, most of his disciples married at around the age of 14-17; it was common practice in the world, until recently.