While returning to the US for Christmas, I looked at the selection of movies on my United Airlines flight and noted that one of their many films dealt with a specific religion, mine. The film, Believer, had this description (listed also at UnitedPrivateScreening.com):
Believer follows Mormon Dan Reynolds, frontman for the Grammy® Award-winning band Imagine Dragons, as he takes on a new mission to explore how the Mormon Church treats its LGBTQ members.
One can easily guess that this documentary, tracing Dan’s decision to launch the LoveLoud festival in Utah to support LGBTQ people, is intended to be critical of the Church. It was critical, but I’ll have to admit I thought it was well done, interesting, and made some important points. I enjoyed much of the film, in spite of occasional serious objections to what was said. Further, I really enjoyed learning more about Dan Reynolds and his life. I found him to be quite likable and was especially impressed with his wife (now ex-wife, sadly), Aja Volkman. Both are fascinating people. I am deeply sorry that they are now divorced.
|Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a big fan of popular music and have only been to a few big-name concerts in my life, mostly in my youth, including John Denver, Elton John, Seals and Croft, and most recently, Imagine Dragons, which two of my sons introduced me to. The Imagine Dragons concert was a couple years ago in Shanghai. Spectacular! I’ve only bought a tiny handful of rock albums, with Imagine Dragons being the latest (purchased a few years before the concert) and perhaps my most listened to. So I’m a fan of Imagine Dragons. I am also a fan and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And in spite of being frequently condemned for my stance as a conservative Latter-day Saint, which apparently makes me a troglodyte and hater of all things progressive, I count among my friends several people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender and value my time and association with them, in spite of many differences and some things I cannot adequately understand based on my inexperience and my views.
Second, I hope all of us, whatever our social, political, or religious beliefs, will love and be kind to those who are LGBTQ. May we all oppose hate. I want those with suicidal thoughts to get the support and love they need, and to know that their lives matter. I will agree with John Dehlin on this point. (If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)
As for opposing hate, however, I worry that some seem to define hate as any anything they disagree with when it comes to their political or social agenda. To question a redefinition of marriage will be inappropriately viewed as hate by some, along with opposition to unrestricted abortion and a host of other programs, policies, and agendas. The inability of people on both sides of many issues to have civil conversations with political, social, or religious opponents is highly troubling to me. There can be well-reasoned alternative views founded on something other than hate. Ironically, some troubling displays of hate, anger, and outright violence in our society can be found among groups loudly proclaiming their opposition to what they call hate.
Third, my initial thought was curiosity about United Airlines and their selection criteria. Was there now a new and welcome openness about religion in their offerings, with a variety of films dealing with specific religions? As I thumbed through their extensive list of offerings, I didn’t see anything that might be viewed as a critical expose of, say, the problems in certain variations of Islam or Islam’s attitudes and treatments of LGBTQ members. Was this some kind of oversight at United? Maybe that will be next month.
I also didn’t notice any films offered that delve into problems within Catholicism or the harms critics might ascribe to Evangelical Protestantism and their attitudes on LGBTQ issues. Buddhism, Shintoism, Jainism, Daoism, etc. all have their problems or weaknesses, but I didn’t see any documentaries to help shame them into healthy progress. It looked like the faith often improperly called “Mormonism” is the only religious topic that United wishes to offer their viewers. Were they also playing “Meet the Mormons” (or “Meet the People Formerly Known as Mormons”)? No, the sole selection related to religion, as far as I could tell, was one that is designed to be critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In this day of hyper-sensitive efforts to not offend others, criticizing my religion always seems like the only safe exception. For those concerned about LGBTQ issues, it should be obvious that there are larger Christian groups with similar views and large religious groups outside of Christianity with harsher views. But I suppose they lack famous rock stars among their members willing to take them on. For that, the likeable and influential Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons may be a true pioneer, and perhaps this film will be the first step in United’s own pioneering efforts to bring religious debate into their entertainment mix. I am anxious to see what other religions might be targeted on future flights, but suspect there will be many more frequent flyer miles to go before I sleep through those films.
The Right Dragon to Slay? Imagine More Data
Now about the film itself. As likable as Dan Reynolds is and as interesting as the documentary was (I loved seeing Dan’s household and family up close), and as glad I was to see some of the positive results that Reynolds’ LoveLoud festival has brought, there were some bold statements that I feel are misleading. From the beginning to the end, there are assertions that the Church and its policies are to blame for the high suicide rate among LGBTQ people in Utah. This goes without saying for many of our critics, but it also may go without solid evidence. There may be some improper assertions about the cause when there can be many complex factors. On the other hand, there definitely is a problem in Utah that needs more attention, whatever the cause, and if LoveLoud is helping Utahans to be more aware of the problem and the need for more steps to address it, then that’s terrific.
The film begins with and often repeats the statement that youth suicides have skyrocketed in Utah, and then implies or directly alleges elsewhere that the Church is to blame–a statement that is not necessarily fair or scientifically supportable. Then we have John Dehlin, featured prominently in the film, a man famed for his opposition to the Church and his tactics of encouraging criticism in others, claiming that no other place in the country has seen the tripling of suicide rates seen in Utah, and that it all began around 2007/2008, the time “when the Church declares war” on LGBTQ people. Over and over, we are told that it is the Church that is causing so many LGBTQ people in Utah to commit suicide, and that bold and brave efforts are needed to pressure the Church and educate its members so that we can, as Reynolds put it, finally get the Prophet to go pray and “get a revelation” to reverse the backward and dangerous policies of the Church and thus help the Church to do the obviously right thing.
The graph below is shown in the film as Dehlin talks about the rapid rise in suicide rates in Utah allegedly due to Church policies. This comes from the blog post, Daniel Parkinson and Michael Barker, “The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide,” Rational Faiths, Feb 25, 2016. This post compiles a variety of evidences that seek to link Church policies and culture with Utah’s suicide problem and should be considered as we seek to understand the issues and causes of the crisis. What I find puzzling is that Dehlin insists that Utah’s serious spike in suicides in 2007-2008 with the support for Proposition 8, but it looks like 2012 is the critical year. Perhaps there is some other study that make 2007-2008 look more dramatic in its impact, but this chart doesn’t seem to fit the rhetoric. But again, regardless of the cause, that’s an ugly curve that should make all of us more aware of the risks that our youth may face.
|Chart used in the film from Parkinson and Barker. Click to enlarge.
Suicide in any group is a complex factor. In my view, it is not enough to say that half of Utah (51%) is LDS, and therefore Utah’s high suicide rate must be due to the Church, as seems to be the approach a time or two in the film. The first obvious question that must be asked is how does suicide rate among LGBTQ people vary as a function of religious affiliation and religious activity within that affiliation? Is suicide uniquely high for Latter-day Saints only? For active Latter-day Saints only? For those in active LDS families? Do the non-LDS people of Utah have much lower suicide rates? For all the quoting of statistics in the film, a plausible case against the Church is not presented. John Dehlin in a highly staged Skype video call with Dan Reynolds quotes Edmund Burke and calls for good men like Reynolds to stand up against evil (the Church or its policies), but is the Church really the source of increased suicides? Is the Church the evil dragon that brave warriors like Reynolds must fight? Perhaps we need to imagine fewer dragons and obtain more data to actually understand causes and cures, otherwise we may slay the wrong creature.
First, though, whatever the cause, the issue of suicide among LGBTQ youth is alarming, but it’s not just a Utah problem. Summarizing several studies across the US, the Trevor Project lists the following findings:
- LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
- LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
- Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth.
- Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.
- In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
- LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
The last point is an important one for any family with LGB youth, LDS or otherwise. Rejection and hate will hurt. Love is essential. I can cite my own parents as a wonderful example of acceptance of love toward one of my brothers who left the Church. I believe their steady love has been a valuable factor for him, as it has been for me in my own life in times of trouble. If Dan Reynolds’ work helps LDS families remember to love their children even when they are surprised and saddened by the direction they go, whether it involves sexuality or any other issue, much good can be done.
While policies regarding same-sex marriage in the Church may understandably contribute to stress and a sense of rejection for some, the broad issue of elevated suicide for LGBTQ people is not unique to Utah Latter-day Saints or conservative Christian religions. It’s far more extensive and complicated than that. But as noted with the Parkinson and Barker report cited above, there are some indications from a variety of angles that can be used to link the Church to the problem, but here I worry that activism can influence too much of the analysis.
As a reminder of the complex nature of the issues before us and the difficulty of ascribing causation to observed trends, consider Sweden. Sweden, of course, is widely proclaimed as a progressive society and is a nation where LDS shaming and BYU expulsions are negligible factors. Nevertheless, suicide among same-sex couples is significantly higher than for opposite-sex couples. Peer-reviewed research on this issue was recently published by Charlotte Björkenstam et al. in “Suicide in married couples in Sweden: Is the risk greater in same-sex couples?,” European Journal of Epidemiology 31/7 (July 2016): 685–690. Here is the abstract:
Minority sexual orientation is a predictor of suicide ideation and attempts, though its association with suicide mortality is less clear. We capitalize on Sweden’s extensively linked databases, to investigate whether, among married individuals, same-sex marriage is associated with suicide. Using a population-based register design, we analyzed suicide risk among same-sex married women and men (n = 6456), as compared to different-sex married women and men (n = 1181723) in Sweden. We selected all newly partnered or married individuals in the intervening time between 1/1/1996 and 12/31/2009 and followed them with regard to suicide until 12/31/2011. Multivariate Poisson regression was used to calculate adjusted incidence risk ratios (IRR) with 95 % confidence intervals (CI). The risk of suicide was higher among same-sex married individuals as compared to different-sex married individuals (IRR 2.7, 95 % CI 1.5–4.8), after adjustment for time at risk and socioeconomic confounding. Sex-stratified analyses showed a tentatively elevated risk for same-sex married women (IRR 2.5, 95 % CI 0.8–7.7) as compared to different-sex married women. Among same-sex married men the suicide risk was nearly three-fold greater as compared to different-sex married (IRR 2.895 % CI 1.5–5.5). This holds true also after adjustment for HIV status. Even in a country with a comparatively tolerant climate regarding homosexuality such as Sweden, same-sex married individuals evidence a higher risk for suicide than other married individuals. (emphasis added)
This threefold increase in suicide for same-sex married men vs different-sex married couples in Sweden is consistent with 2015 data reported for gay/lesbian/bisexual youth in Wyoming, a state with significant LDS influence (11.6%):
In 2015 , Wyoming High School students who self-identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were significantly more likely to report they had seriously considered attempting suicide (54%) or had attempted suicide (37%) in the past twelve months compared to students who identified as heterosexual (16 % and 11% respectively).
For suicidal thoughts, comparing gay, lesbian, and bisexual students we have 54% vs. 16%, slighter over threefold, and for attempted suicide, we have 37% vs. 11%, also over three times as great in Wyoming.
Regarding US data, Mike Parker writes in “Gay Youth Suicides in Utah,” FAIRLDS.org, October 11, 2017:
If it’s true that Mormonism is driving youth suicides in Utah, then we should see a similar suicide rate among youth in other states dominated by religions that are similarly opposed to gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage. But we don’t: The suicide rates for ages 10 to 24 in Georgia (9.18, #33), South Carolina (9.91, #29), West Virginia (8.88, #37), Alabama (9.56, #32), and all other Southern states as well, are all lower than Utah’s rate. Religious acceptance of homosexuality is at least as low in those states as it is in Utah; why the dramatic difference in youth suicide?
And the reverse must also be true: States with broad acceptance of gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage must have lower rates of teenage/young adult suicides than Utah; right? Then why does fairly liberal Colorado (16.69, #5) rank just barely ahead of Utah? And why does South Dakota (25.22, #2) differ so much from North Dakota (7.81, #42), when the two states have nearly identical cultures? And why has Utah seen teen/young adult suicides increase by 66% between 2001 and 2015, but Oregon (+78%) and Washington state (+68%), where gays are supposedly warmly embraced, have had higher rates of increase in youth suicide in the same time period?
And, most telling of all, why has the national suicide rate for teens/young adults gone from 6.95 in 2001 to 9.15 in 2015 (an increase of 32%), when acceptance of the gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage have increased dramatically throughout the United States during the same period? Wouldn’t we expect to see a decrease in the nationwide suicide rate of youths, including gay youths?
The problem here is that suicide is complex, and rarely boils down to a single issue. The narrative that Utah culture and religion are a significant cause of teen suicides in the state isn’t backed up by the evidence, does a disservice to the people of the State of Utah, and does a disservice to people of faith.
To review US data, see the CDC report on suicides by state in the US. Utah ranks high, along with all of its neighbors, whether conservative or liberal. What I wish we had was more data on the specific faiths and level of religious activity among the victims of suicide, combined with data on LGBTQ victims. Is such data available anywhere now? I haven’t seen it. However, I am aware of data suggesting that states legalizing same-sex marriage before 2015 saw a 7% decrease in high-school student suicide attempts, with roughly a 14% decrease for LGBTQ students. See Julia Raifman et al., “Difference-in-Differences Analysis of the Association Between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts,” JAMA Pediatrics 171/4 (April 2017): 350-356; doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4529. Causality is debatable, but it’s consistent with a positive legal environment having some helpful impact.
But for the specific challenges found in Utah and within the Church, can we really properly say that LDS policies are the key problem? Is suicide in Utah among LDS LGB youth truly higher than for non-LDS LGB youth? And if so, is there anything of substance to show a link to the Church as the right target to pursue? I would welcome more data.
Something More in the Motivations Behind the Film? A Minor Aside
Reynolds is presented as a warrior for truth and love whose motivation to stand up against the policies of the Church was motivated by his big heart. This motivation appears to be relatively recent, starting with his marriage where lesbian friends of his wife refused to attend a marriage to a Latter-day Saints due to the Church’s support for Proposition 8. After the startling discovery that being LDS was highly offensive to his wife’s dear friends, there was gradual recognition that suicide among LGBTQ people is way too high in Utah and allegedly caused by the Church.
Reynolds’ journey includes a series of encounters with tragic stories, including that of a young man at BYU who was expelled for violating the moral code by having sex with his girlfriend. As I recall, this may have been just once or a few times, followed by confession of the sin. I don’t know the details behind the decision so cannot judge whether the consequences were overly harsh, though (of course) it sounds that way as presented. Depressed after being ousted from BYU, the young man committed suicide.
I agree that this suicide was a terrible, tragic result and wish it could have been avoided. I do not agree that abandoning the moral code that we believe comes from God is the way to deal with such tragedies or to enhance the overall mental and physical well-being of BYU students. I’m all for increased resources and attention to those facing disappointment and grief, whether it’s from repercussions of violating the honor code or failing academically or encountering other sorrows that shatter our dreams. Love and support is needed by all of us in our most painful times. But the existence of or the potential for such pain doesn’t mean that the rules or systems we may collide with need to go.
I am puzzled as to why the film neglected to point out that Reynolds, like the expelled student he mourns, was also kicked out of BYU for the same reason, or possibly a more egregious form of that reason. In the opening moments of Dan Reynolds’ interview by Ellen DeGeneres, he openly explains that he is upset at the Church for kicking him out of BYU after having had sex with his girlfriend for four years. That would seem to be highly relevant to the film since he has raised a similar case as an example of what’s wrong with the Church. Was this information withheld to reduce the chance that the target audience might suspect that Reynolds’ has a long-standing grudge against the Church’s moral code? Is there fear that an LDS audience might think he wants to change not only Church policies relating to homosexuality or same-sex marriage but the law of chastity in general?
In his interview, he criticizes the Church for the “needless shame and guilt” it caused him and causes others when they clash with such moral codes (of course, if unwilling to abide by the honor code, students have always been free to go to any other university where laxer standards exist). “Why is this thing that feels right also something that gets me kicked out of college and shames me and my community and made me feel all this guilt?” This is a question that can be asked by those caught up in numerous behaviors that religions besides ours view as unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful, harmful to society, etc. From gambling to drug abuse to pedophilia, the world’s vices can “feel right” at the time and can bring guilt and shame when consequences follow.
Reynolds said that this painful experience of being expelled was his first recognition that he felt something in the Church needed to change. It apparently wasn’t more love for LGBTQ people that he suddenly felt was needed at that time, but would seem to be an abandonment of the Church’s fundamental teachings on the law of chastity. Is his target the law of chastity per se? Or perhaps moral codes in general and consequences for breaking them? Or is his target simply just the Church? I don’t know. Based on the film, Dan’s motivations for speaking against the Church’s policies seem driven by sincere concern for LGBTQ people who are at elevated risk for suicide.
May his efforts with the LoveLoud festival reduce suicide risk in Utah and elsewhere, and help all of us be more sensitive to the risks and sorrows that others may face.
Religion and Suicide
The assumption that shame from religious policies increases suicide is repeated in the film and in many other sources, but in my opinion without reliable data. In fact, such assertions fly in the face of evidence showing positive impact of religion in reducing suicide risk for those who attend faithfully. Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University, and Director of the Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing at Harvard’s Institute of Quantitative Social Science, explains in “Does Religious Participation Contribute to Human Flourishing?” at Big Questions Online:
[R]ecent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Psychiatry and in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine indicates that regular religious-service attendance is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including: a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression. These studies, from my colleagues and me in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study of approximately one hundred thousand nurses with data collected over several decades. The results confirm associations between religious-service attendance and health previously reported in the research literature.
But does this also apply specifically to Latter-day Saints? I hope so, but again, I would welcome more data. Fortunately, suicide rates versus levels of activity in the Church your young males was explored in a previous study (kudos to John Mansfield for this tip). See Sterling C. Hilton, Gilbert W. Fellingham, and Joseph L. Lyon, “Suicide Rates and Religious Commitment in Young Adult Males in Utah,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 155/5 (March 1, 2002): 413–419, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/155.5.413. Here is the abstract:
Previous studies have used population data to demonstrate an inverse association between suicide rates and religious commitment. This report examines Utah suicide rates for young men aged 15–34 years, stratified by their membership in and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the predominant religion in Utah. All state death records for males from 1991 to 1995 were obtained and linked to LDS church deceased membership records to obtain a measure of religious commitment that is not self-reported. Religious commitment for LDS church members was determined by age-appropriate priesthood office. Of the 27,738 male deaths reported, 15,555 (56%) linked to an LDS church record using a probabilistic linking program. Using active (high religious commitment) LDS as the reference group, the less-active (low religious commitment) LDS group had relative risks of suicide ranging from 3.28 (ages 15–19 years) to 7.64 (ages 25–29 years); nonmembers of the LDS church had relative risks ranging from 3.43 (ages 15–19 years) to 6.27 (ages 20–24 years). Although the mechanism of the association is unclear, higher levels of religiosity appear to be inversely associated with suicide. [emphasis added]
Also consider Kanita Dervic, M.D., et al., “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dec 2004; https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2303. Abstract:
OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim’s social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention. METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.
RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.
On the other hand, a study of Austrians indicated that the impact of religion, often found to be helpful in reducing suicide, can also be a risk factor. See Karl Kralovec et al., “Religion and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Austrians,” Journal of Religion and Health, 53/2 (April 2014): 413–423. Their study of the effect of religion on suicide risk in a sample of 358 lesbian, gay and bisexual Austrians found “religion was associated with higher scores of internalized homophobia, but with fewer suicide attempts. Our data indicate that religion might be both a risk and a protective factor against suicidality in religiously affiliated sexual minority individuals.” Also see NPR’s summary of several studies, including some mentioned above, that suggest that tolerant legislation on same-sex marriage can have a helpful impact on suicide among LGB youth, though the problem remains severe.
Religion, policies, family response, peer response, state and local environments, and a host of other factors can have an impact on suicide for youth and for LGB youth in particular. There’s a problem that needs more attention, more love, and more data. Religion’s role may be much more positive than commonly recognized, in spite of the tendency by some to assume that the Church’s failure to support gay marriage inherently represents hate that makes many young people more likely to commit suicide. Of course, at the same time I can agree that such policies can be viewed as horrific by those they most affect and can contribute to anger and a sense of rejection. If that is contributing to suicide in populations already at risk for elevated suicide, then I am deeply sorry. Do such risks outweigh the helpful benefits of religious faith that can greatly reduce suicide? What are the real factors causing the complex results we see? For such issues, more data and fewer hasty conclusions are needed, in my opinion. But in any case, more kindness and love to those around us is always needed.
Overall, Believer is a highly interesting and entertaining documentary, though I’m not convinced Reynolds really counts as a believer, nor that he has picked the right dragon to slay. It’s quite a coup for John Dehlin, so congrats to him for scoring such a major media victory, and while I disagree with John on many issues, I will gladly agree on the need to elevate our attention and kindness to those at risk in our midst.
Related resource: “Suicide in the United States,” Wikipedia.