Zion Canyon and The Theology of Sin
Notes on religion, Mormonism and the politics and theology of a coming culture war in the United States. I wrote these notes in 2002, just before the issue of gay marriage became a national issue.
A lot of people I know have read the book, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. The book was about the strange views and violence that fundamentalism inflicts on a people. The book was written in the context of the Mormon fundamentalists of Southwestern Utah, but a lot of people came away from the book with the affirmation that mormons are crazy, nuts and deranged.
That accusation, of course, is false. Mormons are great people, most of them live a beautiful, healthy life, and even though their Book of Mormon and their Joseph Smith are a little wacky, the fact is, so are the texts and prophets of any other religion, especially from the viewpoint of somebody else.
This is a story about my own experiences with the Mormons of Southwestern Utah, fundamentalism, and the Christian right. It is also the story of the Gay Mormon, the fabled National Park in Utah, Zion Canyon, and the Zion Narrows.
The story of Zion Canyon actually begins in Nevada. It's a small town on the border of Utah called Mesquite. I stay in this town often en route to Utah, because the hotel rooms are cheap.
One evening, I sat down at the blackjack table. Gambling in Mesquite never draws the same crowds as Las Vegas, making it quiet and pleasant. Even in the evening, the tables can be empty. This one certainly was, so I talked it up with the dealer, who was losing to me. She was older than the female dealers in Las Vegas, but still the casino hooked her up in a skimpy top and high heels and a short skirt. Appalling, but then, Las Vegas also exports its older female dealers - without the looks and only the skills, they find employment here on the Nevada-Utah border much easier.
Since no one was around, Ramona felt free to tell me about life in Mesquite. "I can finally own land for my horses," she said. "That is what life is all about, some land and lots of trails." She talked about the Indian heiroglyphics in the area, and the summer heat. And, "I'd say about eighty percent of the young people gambling here are Mormons from Utah. They come across the border to be bad. To drink and smoke and do everything they can't get away with in Utah."
"The town of Mesquite actually has a lot of Mormons too. It creates a lot of problems for us, especially for my son."
I asked her why. "Well, the thing to do if your a Mormon kid in Mesquite is to have this bumper sticker. It's just a little sticker, but it says S.T.L."
"And what does it mean?"
"Not sure exactly, something like 'Shine the Light.' But what it is, is a way for the Mormons in the area to know each other, know whose on their side. The problem is that the cops go around leaving those cars alone. But my son, he's not a Mormon. They pull him over all the time because he doesn't have the sticker."
"Does your son maybe attract the cops for any other reason?"
"Well, he's a kid, you know. He's got long hair, I don't know."
I enjoyed talking to Ramona, but I was a bit suspicious of her story. Maybe her son was a trouble maker in his own right, and certainly I never noticed any of those stickers myself. But I did want to learn a little more about those Mormon youths who cross the border, to be sinful. I said goodbye to Ramona and wandered around the casino-hotels. I had a fresh wad of cash, plenty of time.
I found an escalator in one of the hotels, and then some sort of bar, where young people were buying drinks and chain-smoking. I sat down and ordered a beer, and read my book.
I watched the background noise of these mormons while glancing from my book. The result was not so peculiar, because mormon youth are no different from anywhere else. The guys were making advances on the girls, some were buying expensive drinks and blowing smoke rings. I remembered that movie, The Devil's Playground, a documentary about the Amish tradition of sending Amish teens to experiment with the outside world, doing whatever they wish. Drugs, rock music. It's called rumspringa, and these children who are more or less cut off from the outside world quickly adopt all the customs of the outside world, and perhaps even more so than outside people themselves. If the music is crass, like rap, they adopt it. If the drug is hard, like meth, it's their drug of choice.
But most of these Amish folks, like the Mormon sinners of Southwestern Utah, go back and accept their staid life - shunning what they enjoyed, affirmed in their belief after their ludicrous binges that the way is righteous.
What I see next is something I never quite forget. In any teen gathering, there is a group of inside-outsiders. The people who are accepted by the crowd, but slighter more alternative, and usually forming smaller groups on the periphery of the gathering. Even these Mormon alternative kids wear dark clothes. The one guy - tall, gawky, talking to the girls with his hands flailing in the air. They may not know it yet, but this teenage boy is a homosexual Mormon.
I rarely feel sorry for gay folks. In fact, like all straight men, I naturally grew up cringing a bit by the whole thing. Its natural for us straight folk to be a bit homophobic, at least as teens ourselves. We evolved that way for obvious reasons. Evolution wants to steer us toward reproduction.
But this guy, telling these girls some story, this guy has a hard life ahead of him. I can already see it - in the closet for another ten or fifteen years. Playing it straight, slowly becoming more and more closed off to his own people. His interests are urban, he longs for the intellectual stimulation of those girls from his teen years - but they married and are showing, and they stay indoors most of the time now. The gay mormon's life will be hell.
And for the gay Mormon, things will only get worse - because the Mormons of Southwestern Utah are some of the most aggressive anti-gay folks in the country.
I wake the next morning with that singular passion that all travelers carry with them - to go. And so I do, towards Zion Canyon in Southwestern Utah. I've conveniently forgotten my observations from the night before; I am no social commentator, I am just a landscape photographer. There are stereotypes even about people like me. The landscape photographer is patient, and yet also a bore. He is rural, and poor, but fakes the suburban life. He seeks what a thousand before him did.
My goal in Zion Canyon is to wade slowly up the Virgin Narrows, a segment of the Virgin River which tunnels into a slot canyon - the most famous slot canyon in the world. The entire stretch is sixteen miles. Hikers hoping to wade this entire stretch begin upriver. I'm carrying a forty pound camera pack. I hope only to wade as far upriver as the day will take me.
The walk up these famed waters is beyond enjoyable. This narrow slot of wind and water is the most famous for a reason - the colors of spring, the color of the southwest, the steep cliffs: this narrow swatch of Americana is simply unbelievable.
The wade upriver, however, is also an inward pursuit. After the first mile, all the gentle-mannered tourists turn back, and the canyon goes empty. My sloshy steps echo.
My thoughts turn to that guy - you know, the gay mormon.
As an American, I'm kind of predisposed to travails of the suppressed. That gay mormon, he's just bugging me.
Every step up the Virgin narrows is slow. The river in Spring is ripe, the threat of a deadly flood is real. Each step is a wander into destiny. But, okay, - this is what I am thinking - the gay guy - what does his religion really say about him? Should his religion hold him back?
Flash forward to my desk a couple weeks later and the agenda is finding out if American religions should be so firm in doing all the things they do to attempt to change, regulate and shun the gay folks life.
The world of homosexuality politics is incredibly entertaining. And for those of you who think this is an odd subject, or that it is completely irrelevant, don't forget that the issue dominated America's most recent election. Voters in the United States voted more on the issue of family values than any other issue. And the only family values issue in 2004 was whether gay folks should be allowed to get married. The case against is entirely a religious case.
But I love religious texts. I have read many of them, and I am always wary about how groups imagine the meaning in ancient texts to explore some weird component of their religious views.
Before I open my religious texts, however, I read up on the history of Zion Canyon itself.
Zion Canyon's modern inhabitants were nineteenth century Mormons who had been instructed by the prophet Brigham Young to inhabit the area. These settlers farmed the land in the beautiful valley for twenty years and are reported to have fallen in love with this magnificent canyon. When Brigham Young came to check up on their progress, he was aghast.
The Mormons of Zion Canyon were drinking, smoking, playing cards.
The settlers had called their canyon 'Zion', after the description in the Old Testament Book of Psalms:
Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth,
Is Mount Zion in the far north,
The city of the great King. (Psalms 48)
But to Brigham Young, this surely was no Zion, for the people of Zion Canyon were sinful. So he declared the name of the place 'Not Zion' and the name stuck.
But upon designating the area a National Monument, the US Government chose the safe name - Munkuntuweap Canyon, a politically safe ode to the early Indian inhabitants.
Years later, when the monument became a national park, the park name changed to Zion, and there was no outcry from the Mormons of Utah.
I open my evolution texts and I ask myself, what is homosexuality? I ask this because the religious people who want to legislate against homosexuals have to convince us that homosexuality is a disease, and/or it is a result of bad parenting.
But by definition, both of these instances are impossible. The word was invented by a German researcher, and it means simply someone who is born with a sexual preference for their own kind.
Nobody knows exactly how or what creates homosexuality, and certainly it is not purely a genetic trait, as homosexuals rarely reproduce. Although scientists in the field are always pursuing the elusive origin of homosexuality, there is only one kind of 'scientist' who claims to know the truth - 'scientists' funded by, or a part of, religious organizations.
But real science says, we just don't know yet. And, that idea is kind of nice. I hope scientists can never explain sexuality in a few formulas.
However, there is one key piece of evidence that indicates that homosexuality is likely a condition some men and women are born with: Homosexuality occurs in equal numbers in every race and population throughout history. In every society, homosexuality pops up at about 1-2 percent of the population. Religious 'scientists', like Jeffrey Satinover, want to convince us that homosexuality is a result of bad parenting or a failing society. But if homosexuality is consistent and shows up in every population at the same level, then surely this is entirely false, because bad parenting and societal downfalls do not occur equally across society and history.
There are two more likely explanations for homosexuality, and one of those is simply that it is some sort of genetic accident that continues to appear in humanity. More likely, homosexuality is another example of some excess baggage of our evolution. If you look at simpler life forms, the barnacles for example, you'll see that many species have an evolutionary history of switching from heterosexuality to hermaphrotism to homosexuality or even asexual reproduction. The ability for a creature to mutate quickly in a sexual manner was a benefit to species' in a constantly changing world. As species' populations rose and fell, hermaphrotism or asexuality may have fluctuated as the ideal condition for the species to survive.
Mankind is very much a new species on Earth, and to some extent we still have a wide range of mutating characteristics. Although studies suggest that homosexuality is not directly passed down genetically, or as a function of a genetic trait, there is reason to believe it is hardwired into our genes as some sort of ancient, and essentially useless, biological trait.
It turns out that a lot of rural Christians are absolutely convinced that homosexuality is sinful, and typically they'll first direct us to the old testament or torah. They will say clearly, the old testament says homosexuality is wrong and a sin.
But if somebody is born homosexual, how can a religion seriously call that person sinful? Because homosexuality, first of all, is not an act but just a type of sexuality. Even if somebody is theoretically able to adopt homosexuality, it is clear to anybody familiar with homosexuals that their behaviors are so unique that it is impossible for them to just turn themselves that way.
Still, strangely, a lot of Christians believe that homosexuality is something that you just turn on, that society turns you into, or that your bad parents force you into. What I tell these people is that we heterosexuals could never, ever force ourselves to engage in homosexual acts. I tell them that people, everywhere on Earth, have very, very similar tastes in everything from architecture to food. Everywhere you go, people basically have the same preferences for things like food tastes and colors. So why do Christians believe that a guy who is at one time attracted to women can just switch over. Sexuality, like our tastes and preferences for other things, is something we carry with us throughout our life.
Neatly hidden away it may be, but both mainstream Christianity and Mormonism may nod to homosexuality in their earliest years, although in very different ways.
Today, Mormons are among the strongest anti-homosexual groups in America. But curiously Mormon founder Joseph Smith was completely accepting of homosexuality. He, in fact, believed Mormonism to be a sexually liberating religion, which is why polygamy was so important to him. In a eulogy to a fallen gay man, Smith says:
"...to bring it to the understanding, it would be upon the same principle as though two who were vary friends indeed should lie down upon the same bed at night locked in each other's embrace talking of their love and should awake in the morning together. They could immediately renew their conversation of love even while rising from their bed, but if they were alone in separate partments they could not as readily salute each other as though they were together..."
There is really no basis for the weird views of modern Mormons on homosexuality. It certainly isn't in the Book of Mormon. I wonder sometimes if how a mormon reacts to homosexuals is God testing them.
The relationship between the beginning of Christianity and homosexuality is less clear. The New Testament sought to distance itself with all the rules of the Old Testament. Similarly, Christians have distanced themselves from all the specific religious rules of the Old Testament: masturbation is no longer sinful, women appearing in public during menstration is no longer sinful, sex during menstration is no longer sinful, having sex with a non-Jew is no longer sinful. But one of the Old Testament laws clearly still has Christians causing a stir: the one presumably regarding homosexuality.
The only mention of homosexuality in the New Testament was written by Paul:
"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." - Romans 1:26-27
The Apostle Paul was, as Christianity itself was, focused on the excesses of the Roman world. This quote, from a letter to them, was basically what Christianity was all about. To unite the Jews and Gentiles against the power of excess and social decay, Rome.
Rome was already bloated, wealthy, and seeing the decay that a welfare state brings. People gorged on food and lavished on excess. Strange as it may seem, but man-on-man acts among heterosexuals was encouraged among the elite. There is no question that this behavior is borne of sickness. Today it exists primarily in our prisons and has nothing to do with homosexuality.
So for Paul to assess all this as a part of social decline was probably accurate. But even more revealing is the revelation that the Apostle Paul was quite possibly homosexual himself.
The Apostle Paul was deeply self-aware and ashamed of his body. He has strong emotions and talks freely about sexual issues. To say that Paul might have been gay is not to try to instill scandal. Rather, his own words seem to guide us toward this possibility:
And to help me keep from being too elated by the abundance of revelation, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I sought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Homosexuals in Paul's era may have been executed, so if Paul was gay, surely he was confused by it, threatened by it. He spoke constantly of a sexual itch which could not be cured. He also mentioned homosexuality as being vile and unnatural. He saw it as a way of God punishing, or testing men. Perhaps it was God testing him, and this is why he was such a zealous man.
Christianity's strange war on homosexuality seems to be strengthening in its fervor, but I sense that is largely because they are already losing the battle. Christian groups have taken the war against gay rights to the battlefield of science. But none of the science is peer-reviewed, and none of it is credible in any way. The trick, in waging a scientific battle over homosexuality, is to simply produce as much material as possible. Thousands of Christian websites (many of them very slimy) compete for search engine positioning on terms like 'are people born gay?'
All these websites refer to the same 'science', they quote the same studies; they refer to each other as experts. Drill down, and there is no actual scientific source. There is no science.
But what's important, in proving this sort of thing to regular Americans, is quantity. And quantity, even if its all fictional, seems to be working. Twenty-five percent of all Americans believe in a form of Christianity which places high emphasis on a coming rapture; this group, roughly known as evangelicals, believe, more or less, in the inerrancy of the New Testament.
A politically motivated fellow needs only to constantly point out the Apostle Paul's few statements on homosexuality over and over again, and suddently, you have the largest voting block in the country, ready and willing.
I never thought much about things like gay marriage. What a waste of time. But after looking at all these propaganda science sites, I started to think about it a bit. Gay people are the most qualified to judge whether they are born gay or whether it is a product of their own cultural downfall. Since there is no baseline for the answers, shouldn't we defer to them on the subject?
And since gay folks already have the burden of living a life in the shadows, and since we are questioning whether we have the right to deny them the priveleges we offer ourselves, doesn't the scientific burden of proof become that much higher for the Christians who are attempting to disrupt their lives?
In the end, its not even so much about gay marriage. In the end, its about parents - and society - identifying a young persons' homosexuality when it becomes clear, and working to make that child's life as comfortable as we make our heterosexual children's lives. Most of the behavior that some Christians view down on (the black leather pants, the grungy urban lifestyle, the drugs, AIDS, etc) are not inherent qualities of gay people, but qualities universal to people who are pushed to the periphery of society.
I'm walking through the narrow canyon. Now the Virgin River's slot canyon has become so narrow that the echoes of my feet crunching against the river rocks seem to bounce in every direction. I just cannot imagine what fixates christians and mormons to gay people. Jesus and Joseph, they were both big on hanging with the persecuted types. And that's really what its all about.