The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

April 4, 2013

Thomas Sabo | An unwanted chapter in ‘Book of America’

— “You can’t handle the truth!”

Many Americans will recognize the iconic line shouted by Jack Nicholson at Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men.” But this time, it will be an unspoken comment when the Supreme Court justices hand down their decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

They will understand, and perhaps lament, the decision’s role in writing a critical chapter in the book the people of America are writing and its connection to the wildly popular play “The Book of Mormon.”

In the play, two fresh-out-of-the-box Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Arnold Cunningham, are sent to Africa to reveal to the natives how the truth of the book can improve their lives.

At first, it seems a problem when Arnold admits that he has never read “The Book of Mormon.” He does, however, have a wild imagination and a gift for lying.

It turns out that these primitive people of Africa would rather believe Arnold’s lies than anything that might be in the book.

The Supreme Court justices realize a growing majority of contemporary Americans are cut from the same cloth.

The justices won’t be the first group to determine the role of same-sex marriage.  The United Methodist Church, among others, has already been there, done that.

In an effort to keep world-wide Methodists on the same page, the church holds a general conference on a cycle of eight years. Elected representatives gather to rethink God’s will. After discussion, debate, argument and, at the most recent conference, protest reminiscent of ’60s America, their decisions are written into a guide book for Methodist living: “The Book of Discipline.”

The issue that seems to divide Methodists more than any other is human sexuality and same-sex marriage. At last year’s general conference, after strong emotional arguments for and against same-sex marriage, and, yes, a marching protest with placards that sent discussion into recess, the majority of delegates voted that the church’s stance on same-sex marriage should not change: It is against God’s will.

The majority of votes came from primitive societies located in places such as Africa, where people read the Bible and believe that it is God’s will that unnatural sex be considered a sin.

Sin, of course, is not a pleasant word, and many Americans don’t like unpleasant words attached to their behavior. A psychologist will tell you that if you don’t like what a word says about your behavior, you either have to change your behavior or the word. It is easier to change the word.

In “The Book of Mormon” Elder Price attempts to convert an evil general by reading to him from the book. When he has heard enough, the general smiles and pushes the book up an opening in the missionary’s lower back. Disgruntled progressive Methodists, opposed to the stance on same-sex marriage, do the same to the church with “The Book of Discipline.” 

Last year, in a national news story, a UM church in the Midwest was confronted with a problem: Two people of the same sex asked the minister to marry them. The minister was female. After some prayer and soul-searching, she decided it was time to come out. She announced to her congregation she was a practicing lesbian and, in clear conscience, could not deny the marriage.

God’s regulations for proper moral conduct are, of course, defined for Methodists by a book, the Bible. However, the Bible needs to be interpreted (hmm, recently a Punxsutawney groundhog handler took responsibility for “misinterpreting” the rodent’s decision about an early spring). 

Methodists in conservative areas such as those in parts of Africa don’t necessarily interpret the Bible the same as their liberated brothers and sisters in America.

The Midwest UMC had to decide what to do. They reasoned that if this minister were in a platonic relationship, not engaging in unnatural sex, God would find same-sex relationships acceptable. To know if this minister’s relationship was not platonic, she would have to voluntarily say or be asked.

The church took the position of the United States military on private sexual orientation: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  

Although not saying or asking seems to not follow Christ’s dictum that “the truth will make you free,” there was no evidence the woman was a sinner; she continues to be a practicing minister.

Whether there is a truth and its role in a happy life is a core issue in “The Book of Mormon.”

The play ends with Elder Price having an epiphany: He sees himself as a victim of church brainwashing like the Moonies of decades ago.

The curtain comes down with the newly converted Mormons singing a new song with their missionary saviors.

The big change is that, at the beginning of the play, the missionaries were holding up “The Book of Mormon.” At the end, their truth is contained in “The Book of Arnold.”

With their decision on DOMA, the justices will enable, and rue, a chapter  that freedom-from-religion thinkers are writing in “The Book of America.”

Thomas A. Sabo of Johnstown is a former newsman and former English teacher in the Westmont Hilltop district.

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