What is conscience?
As I understand it, conscience is the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one's conduct or motives, which also impels one toward right. I remember telling investigators on my mission that conscience was the influence of the Holy Spirit, guiding them to do what is right. I know that's not doctrinal, but it was a useful way to explain to people how they could be guided to do the right and moral thing in their lives. And it was effective in showing people how something within them could enable them to align their lives with God's will.
This has been on my mind a lot of late. Over on L's blog, Scot and L are having a discussion about it that was sparked by L's post on Idolatry. Scot has also written recently about his struggle with conscience as a gay teen at Boys State. And in another online forum where I am a regular participant, there was a discussion that began with the question of how we would respond if forced to choose between our religion or our country. One of the participants said that he'd choose neither. He would instead choose his conscience.
Scot's story in particular reminded me of when I was new to New York City and had just been called to serve on the high council of our LDS stake in Brooklyn. I've written this story there, but I'd like to revisit it here as well.
The stake presidency knew I worked in public relations, so they gave me the stake public affairs portfolio as well as a ward assignment not long after I was called. This was in 1999, and there was talk in conservative circles here in New York of organizing a campaign against same-sex marriage, which was assumed to be on its way. The church had become active in this, and there was an unofficial coordinator who worked with all of the stake public affairs representatives in the area. I was handed a thick file documenting what action had been taken and what action was under consideration. I was encouraged to draft e-mails and letters to members of the state legislature, and to cultivate support for action against gay marriage in the wards in my stake.
I dragged my feet on it. I did not want to do it. At the time I convinced myself that I just didn't know where I stood on these issues for gay people (since I wasn't one!) and I even voiced some of my discomfort to a member of the stake presidency in a very private, very cautious way. He encouraged me to do my best, but the implication that I should do my best in support of the church's position was clear.
A few months later, before I had a chance to do anything, I was release from the High Council and called as bishop. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with the same-sex marriage politics, because I was so conflicted about it. But then, in the last two years of my tenure as bishop, same-sex marriage politics REALLY began to heat up and I started to worry about the Church asking me to do something that would deepen my inner conflict, which had begun to intensify. But they never did.
Fast forward to earlier this year. The LDS Church did, finally, ask its bishops and branch presidents to read a letter to their congregations affirming the Church's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and asked its members to write to their elected representatives in Washington to express their support for such an amendment.
I wonder what I would have done if I had been the one presiding over the ward in Brooklyn earlier this year. Would I have read that letter? I don't know. It's hard for me now to think that I would, but I suspect I would have felt duty bound. Perhaps I would have excused myself from conducting the meeting that day so that one of my counselors would have been the one to give voice to the letter. I certainly can't imagine that I would have flatly refused to do it, and never mind making my reasons for not doing it public. In an interesting twist, though, the letter was read in my old ward in Brooklyn, which my family and I left in the summer of 2005, the same Sunday that most people in the ward found out that I was gay and that KK and I were getting divorced. I guess I ended up taking a stand against the Church's political statement after all. But it was not an act of conscience. It was a convergence of events that can be seen as a public statement of sorts.
Acts of conscience require some sort of action, often in opposition to or in support of someone or something else. My conscience -- my inner sense of what is right and wrong -- has been the guiding force that has moved me away from the LDS Church, and it is my conscience that consistently tells me that it is the right thing for me. Some might look at that and, because it conflicts with their faith or their world view, conclude that I am misguided, or that in choosing conscience I am rejecting God's plan for me and following a path that is false or harmful or immoral. Ultimately I think that says more about the person making that conclusion than it does about me. (Though I live with a certain amount of discomfort knowing that some friends and family likely think this about me. We all want to be validated.)
Whatever we think of other people's choices, I think most of us would agree that choosing not to follow one's conscience often leads to feelings of regret and unhappiness. My Mormon experience taught me to listen to the still small voice. I'm grateful for that learning.