A VOICE FROM THE DUST: EUGENE ENGLAND AND THE ART OF CHANGING MINDS
By Ben Cook
How often have you been able to change someone’s mind on an important political issue? For many of us, it is an unusually difficult, if not impossible, task. But Eugene England had a unique gift in his ability to change minds. One of the most striking examples of this happened a few years after he had passed away.
The incident involved an LDS classmate of mine in law school, a politically liberal professor, and the issue of gay marriage.
My classmate Dave enrolled in a small, seminar-style course about violence. One day the professor handed out an article she had written that was under review for publication in the Yale Law Journal. She wanted the class to read it and come prepared to discuss it the next class session. Among other things, the article asserted that opposition to gay marriage was a form of violence and anyone who opposed gay marriage was bigoted and guilty of committing violence against gay people.
During the next class discussion, Dave spoke up to contend that you can oppose gay marriage without being a bigot. Other students vigorously attacked Dave’s position, and to exacerbate his unpleasant spot there was an ex-Mormon student in the class who knew Dave was a Mormon. She dragged theLDSChurchinto the discussion, and Dave found himself trying to fend off attacks against not only his position but also against the church.
I ran into Dave right after the class. Battleworn and fatigued, he informed me of what happened. Searching for consolation, I thought about Eugene England’s address to an audience of gay Mormons (and gay ex-Mormons), “On Living the Gospel,” in which England very honestly explores his conflicting and evolving beliefs about homosexuality and how to reconcile his testimony of Jesus Christ and what he believed was a Christlike approach to homosexuality with his testimony of the Church being led by a divinely inspired prophet.Englandopens the essay with the following:
When I was quite young I had two spiritual experiences that set the course and tone of much of my life. The first occurred one June morning when I was about eight, while my father and I were kneeling in the knee-high green wheat on our dry farm inIdaho. He was asking protection of the developing crop from hail and drought and wind and consecrating it all to the Lord, promising to use all we earned from it in buildingZion. I suddenly felt a strong, almost physical, presence which seemed to me a confirmation from Jesus Christ that he was pleased with that consecration. That feeling of approval, a burning in my bosom and fire in my bones, was as real as anything I have experienced and has never entirely left me. It has come back again and again to serve as the touchstone by which I have judged among the choices and issues and conflicts of my life: My actions, decisions, and ideas that have brought to me feelings most close to that one long ago have been the ones I have trusted most and have been the ones that I have later been convinced were the best—the ones that Jesus Christ most approves….
He goes on to describe another related experience he had a few years later at a stake conference. Elder Harold Lee was speaking and began giving the stake an apostolic blessing. England describes feeling that same, powerful spiritual witness he felt in the wheat field, this time confirming to him that Elder Lee was Christ’s apostle and that the LDS Church was Christ’s church.
Englandthen moves into a discussion on homophobia in American and Mormon culture. He describes how in the mid 1990s he came to hope that perhaps the best approach for the church would be to allow same-sex partnerships “as the best alternative for gays in this life, while holding to the ideal of heterosexual eternal marriage for all at some far future point in the next life.” He admits this position became untenable as the church began to take official stands against gay marriage. He then summarizes his dilemma:
The feeling I had a few years ago, that [the Church’s] staying quiet on the issue of legal same-sex partnerships and waiting patiently on the Lord and society to move us to the point we could live the higher law of unconditional love—that feeling was confirmed by the spirit of Christ I felt as a boy in that wheat field. But because of the similar feeling I had as a teenager in that Stake Conference, while receiving an apostolic blessing, and subsequent experiences and feelings that have confirmed that one, I also believe that the article on “Same-Gender Attraction” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the October 1995 Ensign speaks to us with his special apostolic authority and that the letter of the First Presidency and Twelve condemning same-sex marriage is both binding on me and an expression of the will of the Lord at this time. That phrase “at this time” is of course crucial to any resolution of the dilemma I have just stated: that my two core convictions about Christ and the Church give somewhat opposed results, that stable same-sex partnerships would be better than the choice of celibacy or excommunication but that the official Church position must be supported.
While holding out hope that the Church will eventually change its position,England concludes:
My spiritual experiences have formed a core of my being that has required, for me to have integrity, that I recommend celibacy to gay Mormons as long as that is the Church’s position, and that is not easy, certainly not popular among many of you whose good will I value.
I emailed the essay to Dave, who read it and then, to my surprise, forwarded it to his professor. Her response was quite remarkable. She said that she had been very deeply moved byEngland’s honest exploration of his beliefs, and admitted being brought to tears by his spiritual experience in the wheat field with his father.
Then came the miracle. She informed Dave that because of England’s essay, she had changed her mind and had contacted Yale to notify them that she would be revising the article to allow that not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot.
I am deeply grateful for Eugene England and the powerful, positive influence he continues to exert both inside and outside the Church.