I?ve just received one of those little email alerts from a marriage movement group. Apparently certain NGOs want a UN human rights conference to declare that one cannot make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation without violating human rights. The group, United Families International, is opposing the declaration despite the notorious toothlessness of the UN on the sound principle that a rotten apple is still a rotten apple even if no one?s going to make you eat it, and the even sounder principle that the american courts can?t be trusted not to pluck rotten apples from the international tree. The group is apparently infested with Mormons?the maligned meridianmagazine.com has my email alert masquerading as an article here?but, though a fellow traveler, I do not choose at this moment to reiterate the Mormon message on gay marriage, gay rights, or gay relationships. I have my mind on a different kind of strange bedfellows.
It was at just such a UN conference that BYU?s Richard G. Wilkins made his famous stand, supported by Muslim and Latin Catholic delegates.
The story, told in the book Sacred Duty, has the following broad outlines. Through a series of providences–including the manner of his invitation, billing, the intervention of some Saints from Africa who were official delegates, the backbone of various Latin American and Muslin delegates–and though beset by opposition–vituperation, procedural trickery, an assault–Wilkins catalyzed a coalition at the 1996 Habitat Conference in Istanbul. The coalition was able to remove language supporting abortion and the encouragement of diverse family forms as human rights. Instead, they inserted language that called on governments to support traditional family arrangements.
The coalition succeeded because Muslim blocs, Latin American blocs, and the third world bloc refused to support the conference declaration without the changes. Wilkins and the proliferation of Mormon groups have continued to cultivate these ties. Strange bedfellows indeed! Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, and protestants are willing to take the strong stand they do on these moral issus because they are convinced of the rightness of their respective religious traditions, including the moral witness of those traditions. It hardly needs pointing out that those traditions are inescapably at loggerheads. Yet these coalitions have formed and are continuing to form.
The same process is occurring nationally. Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants are lessening their hostilities and increasing their rapprochement. Various religious traditions are starting to explore the Catholic natural law heritage as a sort of common ground and the attention is in some way reciprocated. A Southern Baptist leader made the remarkable statement of John Paul that ‘you [Catholics] finally have got yourself a Pope who knows how to Pope.’ Large cracks are developing in the anti-Mormon wall. Now all of this is impressionistic and conclusory and these impressions and conclusions describe trends, not ends, and all the other caveats. Still something is going on. And as the Wilkins story shows, that something is in large part the perception of a common threat. We see the Devil enthroned in the institutions of the age and us in need of friends. So we make them.
I wonder as a servant what to make of these tentative alliances? I do not think God is adverse to them as such. I read the biblical prophecies of Ephraim and Judah putting aside their quarrels as predicting one example of a match-made-by-enemies. So what good might He purpose in these alliances now? The obvious answer is the good that we seek in opposing abortion and in supporting the family is a good that He also cherishes. The danger is in making this cause The Cause, as if it were the whole of the gospel. This danger always lies in any enterprise where one must struggle and that has some holiness to it. The danger is more so when our comrades in the struggle don’t share the rest of the gospel with us. Ironically we may dam up some of the most precious parts of the gospel to avoid washing down the bridges we’ve just built with them. This would be a waste, the bridges, yes, but the dam would be more of a waste yet. I testify that ending gay marriage and abortion and divorce and all the rest would be the victory of a thousand years, but all of it a mess of pottage compared to Christ crucified, risen on the 3rd day, revealed in the grove and in the temples thereafter, and leading the Saints onward in great Kingdom to lay themselves at the Father’s feet. Building the bridge without building the dam is a real challenge.
Now I do think its true that these rapprochements may give us missionary opportunities, in a way. Our faith will be more of a stumbling block and an indigestible problem for people who know us and like us, and we’ll conversely have more chances to share. That seems to be the theory of the Church in other areas, and I don’t see why here. Yet I don’t know if the theory is correct. I’m haunted by my own shrinking-violet experience which suggests that we members actually aren’t very good at preaching to people we’ve already formed relationships with on other grounds. We feel that the relationship is valuable in itself, not just a means to a missionary end, and so we hesitate to harm it by trying to shift it from the other grounds to gospel grounds. That fear is doubled, trebled, made fourfold, when the basis of the relationship is a shared moral conviction that the attempt at preaching threatens: to our friend, the moral conviction is part of a comprehensive religious world view that our overt preaching would appear to overthrow. Even without preaching, our too visible living of our faith can in a sense threaten the basis of relationship. Finally, of course, even if we could successfully ally and convert, such actions would ruin future alliance. Other faiths would see themselves as more threatened by our friendship then by the antagonism of the world. The risks vary with the intensity of the perceived outside threat, of course, but in practice I just don’t see Mormons doing a whole lot of conversion in this way. The missionary opportunities won’t become missionary moments.
In a sense, to defend our particularism and its moral witness we find ourselves making alliances that also require us to conceal our particularism. This is a dilemma that requires a divine touch. I’m glad I don’t have to negotiate it alone. After all, I think there may yet be a great deal of of unity and brotherhood to be found. Forced to cling together in fear of the surrounding secularism and gross immorality, we may yet cling together in love.