Gay policy: Test for church leaders?

Milgrim test
Is the LDS Church’s requirement of its leaders to carry out its new gay policy akin to a psychological test of inflicting pain? Photo courtesy Collections of Alexandra Milgram

“Who will pull the switch?”

That was a question of “rah,” a Feminist Mormon Housewives blogger. He compared the un-Christian, hypocritical and marginalizing gay policy to a psychological test of just how many folks will inflict pain — even if it’s totally wrong — and for how long. In this case, those folks are church leaders.

As “rah” writes, comparing the gay policy to an “experiment”:

All of us should have our primary thoughts focused on the welfare and feelings of the LGBTQ members/non-members and their children who are being most directly affected by the Church’s new policy. I have been proud, so proud, of so much of our faith community from across the spectrum who while often experiencing their own dismay, shaken faith or deep questions have prioritized reaching out to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those in need of comfort.  I don’t want this post to take away from this as a primary focus.

There is, however, another set of directly impacted individuals whose feelings, voices and actions over the next few weeks and months will matter a lot – those who will be asked by the church to directly carry out the policy – namely bishoprics, stake presidencies and of course, primary presidencies. Because I am a LDS man of certain age, education and professional attainment, I could easily have been one of the men in the ecclesiastical roles now being asked to enforce these policies [1]. I have deep connections, friendship and great respect for many of my peers that are currently sitting on the stands.  I know many of their hearts, their dedication and their sacrifices given to their call to minister.  For some this will be a severe test of conscious that pits loyalty and obedience to a church they love against their own internal moral compasses.  (Note: If you are one of those leaders for whom this policy makes perfect sense or causes you no moral dissonance this post isn’t for you or about you. I am not trying to change your mind about that.)  Some have speculated that for many this will constitute an “Abrahamic Test” (but please read here why this is the falsest of equivalents).  I propose the more correct framing is as one of their own personal and very Mormon “Milgram Moment” – their heart-wrenching version of the infamous Milgram experiment which posed it subject the basic question – “How much harm are you wiling to do someone because some in authority directed you to?”

The Milgram experiments are among the most famous psychological experiments ever performed.  I will describe the experiment briefly for those who need a refresher or haven’t learned about it before.  (More historical context, details and sources can be found in this endnote [2]. ) In the Milgram experiment, a subject entered a room where he and another participant were “randomly” assigned to be either the “learner” or the “teacher”.  In reality, the subject was always assigned to be the “teacher” and the other person in the room was an actor.  The “teacher” was then set in front of an impressive electrical panel with a series of switches marked with increasing levels of voltage.  The experimenter in a lab coat would instruct the “teacher” to do a simple word memory game with the “learner” who in the most iconic set up was in another room where he could only be heard and not seen.  Each time the “learner” got an answer wrong the experimenter instructed the subject to give an electric shock to the “learner”. For each wrong answer the voltage was increased. The top voltage was marked “Danger, Severe Shock.”

What the experiment was designed to test was just how far an average American would go before they refused to administer any more shocks.  They used the same voice recordings and as voltage increased the “learner” began to cry out, then whimper, then before 150 volts, the “learner” complained of a heart problem and asked to stop. The man in the lab coat was instructed to use the same script to encourage the “teacher” to continue – “Please continue”; “The experiment must go on, “You must continue” etc.

Before the experiment Milgram polled a broad array of psychologists and sociologists and had them guess what percentage of subjects would follow instructions to the very end.  The consensus estimate was 2-3 percent, basically the prevailing estimate of the number of sociopaths in society.  The final results rocked the country.  Almost 75 percent of all subjects, even after hearing the screams, cries and pleas of the “learner” pushed the final button.  Many of these sessions were recorded on video [3].  Please watch this short excerpt and look at the man struggling with the decision obey or stop. It isn’t that most subjects gleefully or unconcernedly push the button. Most subjects, like this one, were racked with doubt, guilt and cognitive dissonance.

This is exactly how I imagine many of my Mormon brothers and sisters feel right now at the thought they will be asked to actively seek out happily married LBGTQ members for excommunication, deny baptisms to their children and according to reports deny them their mission calls and even send them home retroactively.  I think especially of the lay clergy in my area of San Francisco and the Northwest, many of whom have spent the last two years actively reaching out to the gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the area with love, kindness and inclusion. One of the pillars of this effort was the understanding that the stakes and wards would use their discretion and wouldn’t seek to actively discipline or excommunicate those that came to attend, unless the individual desired this action.  Today, these same faithful leaders have now been instructed with the handbook change to do the opposite and have been instructed to hold mandatory disciplinary hearings on grounds of apostacy for these individuals.  Others will have to sit across from the children of past, often church encouraged, mix-orientation marriages and tell the kids that they can not be baptized until they are 18 years old.  Still others will be asked to tell 18 year olds that they are not worthy of baptism unless they move out of their gay parents’ homes and renounce their unions.  Many of these leaders will cry, drop to their knees in anguished prayer, turn to scripture and ultimately look themselves in the mirror and ask, “Will I do what I have been instructed?” Instead of a man in a white lab coat there will be a man in dark sports coat and a white shirt and tie standing next to them.  Instead of the authority of science it will be the authority of God which will be invoked. They will be asked to “please continue”, told that “this experiment must go on.” Unlike the Milgram experiment, though, the learners are not confederates and the spiritual, psychological and social shocks being administered are all too real [5]. (To read real stories click here and here or search #sufferthechildren on Twitter.)

But here is my message to those brave men and women. You don’t have to do it. You can take your hand off the switch. You can stand up and walk out of that room.  You can refuse “to continue.” This doesn’t mean you have to resign from the church or even resign from your calling – though some may ultimately choose to do the latter.  It doesn’t mean you have to reject the church or its leaders as divinely inspired. You simply have to say, “No, I will not do this thing. I will not participate in your experiment.” You can petition and explain your unwillingness. You can invoke D&C 121 and require your local leaders to convince you “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” that this policy deserves your compliance. Any attempt to compel you through invoking only obedience to their or another’s priesthood office falls under censure that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” and “amen to the Priesthood of that man” (D&C 121:36-42).

Maybe it is exactly this moment the Lord foresaw when setting up the laws of the church to be governed “by common consent” (D&C 26:2).  If not this moment, then for what moment were these scriptures written?  If a leader or member who in good faith, in tune with the Spirit and through prayer can not find Christ or the Good News in these actions, cannot exercise his or her moral agency to question, appeal and ultimately demur and remain in good standing with the Church even if released from their calling – what part of their moral agency hasn’t he given up to this admittedly imperfect and fallible institution?

There is precedence for this type of faithful action against ill-conceived policy [5]. And there is plentiful support from our founding prophets and scripture that come down on the side of privileging one’s deep moral belief and inspiration over leader’s directive. Here is just one:

“What a pity it would be, if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken the influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.” (Brigham Young,Journal of Discourses, v. 9, p. 150)

So again this is my plea to those who are deeply conflicted about your role in implementing this policy. Listen carefully to the Spirit. Check your own moral compass.  Rely on your direct relationship with the God.  And if you feel this policy is inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ, if the Spirit directs, if your Conscience demands it – express your moral agency and refuse to do this because those in authority over you – no matter how well meaning, no matter how certain themselves – ask it of you.  Do what is right and let the consequences follow.  Please,

“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:45-46)

No one wants to believe they would ever have pushed Milgram’s switch. None of us want to be believe we would have been pressured into joining John D. Lee and his posse.  I recognize that this is easier for me to write because at the moment I am not in the position where I must make this choice.  I hope I would do what I feel to be right thing though I shudder in remembering times in my life where I have preferenced obedience to abstract rules over the real needs of real people. I hope this time would be different but I can not know.

Let me leave you with a one last insight from Milgram’s lab. A little known fact about the study is that every subject who was willing to administer the 150 volt shock, which came after the “learner” asked for the experiment to stop due to pain and his heart problem, ultimately chose to deliver the potentially fatal shock of 450 volts.  Every. Single. One. The only subjects to refuse, refused very early on when asked to administer lower levels of pain.  The farther you walk down the road of obeying harmful orders the harder, not easier it will get, to use your moral agency.  Given the outcry both in and out of the church, this experiment may come to an eventual merciful end.

I dearly hope so. I am sure many of those in positions of responsibility are praying for the same thing. And word is that leaders have been told that “clarifications are coming”.  Let’s see what they are but if they just pull back the voltage a little, the same questions will remain, the same questions as the Milgram’s subjects, questions that plagued many for the rest of their lives –  “How could I have done such a thing?  How could I have ignored my own conscience and the Spirit weighing on my soul?”

But it will be worse. This is no lab experiment. The spiritual and emotional damage to a child or a brother or sister may not be able to be fully undone. These are not fake shocks to a disembodied voice. These are children of God.  It is my prayer that each of us faced with difficult questions will have the strenght and courage to follow the Light of Christ, the Spirit and our own morality, wherever that may lead.


[1] In the past 4 years I have been explicitly told that I was in serious consideration to be extended a calling in two different bishoprics – even though my activity and belief status were not exactly the stuff of Ensign articles.

[2] Following WWII, social scientists and the public became understandably obsessed to understand how so many German citizens could have acted against basic moral principles and actively participated in the Nazi regimes program of ethnic cleansing.  Americans, including most social scientists, believed that Americans could never be pressured in such large numbers to behave the way many German citizens did.  Stanley Milgram, a prominent Yale psychologist designed the experiment with this in mind.  In reality, the study can’t tell anyone whether they would do the extreme things many Nazi’s were asked to do, however, they do demonstrate how powerful implied authority can be in getting people to harm others.  While most methodological critiques have failed invalidate the study, there is still a robust debate about exactly what the studies show in terms of mechanisms.  For more details on the experiments, including these critiques see here, here, and here – links in order from most general to most detailed/academic.  For the most recent replication of the study, see here.   For a replication where subjects were asked to shock real puppies, and did, see here.

[3] You can see Milgram’s own documentary, “Obedience”, that uses some of this footage here.

[4] There was a time when these were more than metaphorical shocks.  Read here about the electroshock therapy experiments undertaken at BYU in the 1970s.

[5] In 1982, bishops and stake presidents refused to enforce efforts by the church to delve deeply into the sexual lives of those under their steward ship, leading to the quick rescinding of a very specific, signed First Presidency letter to do so.  Couples all over the church quietly ignored condemnation and council regarding birth control until the leaders changed the rhetoric and handbooks to place these decisions squarely back in the hands of the couple.


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