Saturday, April 20, 2013

Gay Marriage is the Third Rail of the Mormon Church

The Latter-Day-Saint (LDS or Mormon) Church has a policy of remaining apolitical; they only venture in when a political issue is deemed of crucial interest to the Church and its community.  It is in this spirit that the Church has been fighting the legalization of gay marriage through various ballot initiatives since 1995—weighing in on local battles over gay marriage in the states of Hawaii, Alaska, and most famously, California (where they sent armies of activists and spend over 20 million dollars to push through Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage).

However, the changing tide in public opinion on gay marriage has led the Church to rethink its strategy.

Whereas in 2008, the church leadership mobilized its membership to funnel around 20 million dollars and sent a small volunteer army to campaign on behalf of Prop 8, they remained silent in 2012, and members of the Church only sent a tiny fraction of that amount to finance similar efforts.  It would seem, especially with a new campaign  to increase tolerance for gay people in the Mormon community, changes in the Church Handbook of Instructions for the lay priesthood, and exhortations by the leadership to be more tolerant, that the Church is attempting to break new ground toward accepting its gay members (rather than trying to "cure" them and push them into straight marriages).  According to an activist who spoke with Mother Jones

"It seems like the [Mormon] hierarchy has pulled the plug and is no longer taking the lead in the fight to stop same-sex marriage," says Fred Karger, the LGBT activist who first exposed the church's major role in the passage of Prop. 8. "The Mormon Church has lost so many members and suffered such a black eye because of all its anti-gay activities that they really had no choice. I am hopeful that the Catholic Church cannot be far behind."

However, despite a very positive movement toward accepting and integrating the gay community into the Church, the concessions themselves are very limited.  The new official stance is that “same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on it is,” that being gay is probably not a choice, and that discrimination against gay people is strongly condemned; moreover, gay people are very welcome in the Mormon Church ( 

What does this mean for gay Mormons?  Basically, gay “feelings” are not a sin, but gay “behavior” is.  This means that it is okay to be gay in the Mormon Church, but only if you remain celibate and faithful to the Church's teachings until you die (at which point, God will fix the whole gay thing in the afterlife?).  It means no eternal marriage, no romantic or sexual partnering whatsoever.  It means a kind of ordained order of openly gay monks.  

Guys, this just isn’t going to work...

Obviously, this is just the beginning of the struggle within the Mormon Church, and it is likely to be a long one. It took until 1978 for the Mormon leadership to open the priesthood to black members of the Church (not just in the U.S., but worldwide).  So it will probably take a very long time for gay members of the Church to receive all the rights that straight members receive.  Nor is this likely to be an easy ride for either gay or straight members of the Church.  This is because the Church cannot simply widen the tent to accept gay couples in the Mormon Church.  Many many things would have to change in Mormon doctrine before full equality could be achieved.

A week ago I met an LDS lecturer at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, who explained to me that, although he was a devout member of the Church, he had a gay daughter whom he loved and therefore struggled with the Church’s position on LGBTQ issues.  He felt that there was insufficient acceptance for gay members of the Church and that things were not moving fast enough in this area.  However, when asked about the likelihood that the Church would eventually accept gay marriage, he thought this may never happen (and wasn't even sure that it should).

Despite signs of softening on gay marriage, the Church appears to have taken this fight underground.  In view of changing mores on sexuality (63 percent of the public now supports gay marriage or civil unions according to a recent poll), the Church has concluded that public resistance to gay marriage makes them look very bad.  Therefore, no more commercials, no more funding against such efforts, certainly no vocal opposition on the steps of the Supreme Court as it debates the constitutionality of California’s Prop 13 and federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  This does not mean, however, that they have dropped the fight; they are just more quiet about it.  The Church has in fact submitted two amicus curie briefs in support of the defense of these two laws; the DOMA brief reads in part:

“Our theological perspectives, though often differing, converge to support the proposition that the traditional, opposite-sex definition of marriage in the civil law is not only constitutional but essential to the welfare of families, children, and society.”

You see, the Mormon Church understands the threat of gay marriage for what it is—something that will eventually demand reform of the Church itself.  Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier blogpost, gay marriage does pose a very real threat to the patriarchal establishment of both the Catholic and Mormon Churches, which were, uncoincidentally, the two churches that provided most of the funding in favor of California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage.

The threat to the Catholic Church lies mainly in the legitimacy of their all-male ecclesiastical hierarchy.  Like the Catholics, the Mormon Church has an all-male ecclesiastical hierarchy PLUS a highly-institutionalized heterosexual cosmology, as they have hetereosexual (and sometimes polygamous) marriage in the hereinafter as well as eternal procreation.  Gay marriage fundamentally challenges all of that.  

To begin with, it’s important to know how rigid gender roles are in the Mormon Church.  Assuming they are in good standing, all boys over 12 receive the Aaronic priesthood, and all men over 18 receive the Melchizedek Priesthood.  Women get callings in the Church as well (nearly every position in the Church is lay), but they do not get any special authority from God.  From an LDS manual on the priesthood

“Through the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood, we can consecrate oil, bless the sick, confer the priesthood and the gift of the Holy Ghost, ordain others to priesthood offices, dedicate graves, give blessings of comfort, bestow father’s blessings on our children, and participate in the higher temple ordinances.”

The gist of the Mormon cosmology is that God was once a man who is married to our Heavenly Mother (or Mothers), who, through the principle of Eternal Progression, eventually became god and goddesses themselves and created a world that was populated with their children (us). This means that this earth is just one of many, many planets that were created by and presided over by their own gods and goddesses.  Prophet Ezra R. Snow in 1840 poetically encapsulated this worldview: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be.” 

Mormons teach that we may thus all become gods and goddesses over the course of many many years in the afterlife, provided that we fulfill all the requirements of getting to the Celestial Kingdom (Heaven).  Mormons are raised to believe that the critical prerequisite for eternal exaltation is to get married in the temple and become sealed to that one special person “for time and all eternity.”  Once both partners are dead, they are reunited in the spirit world and (provided that both make it into the Celestial Kingdom), they are ready to begin their journey to godhood. 

According to the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, “Except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, ...they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection. But those who are married by the power and authority of the Priesthood in this life, and continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost, will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 300–301).

Heterosexual marriage is thus the foundation not only of the LDS Church on this Earth, but of all eternity—including the pre-existence and the afterlife.  Milton R. Hunter, member of the First Council of the Seventy, clarified a century after the founder’s death

“Later the Prophet Joseph explained what the revelation [D&C 132] meant by the statement, "which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever." He pointed out that the Gods were to be parents of spirit-children just as our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother were the parents of the people of this earth” (Hunter, Pearl of Great Price Commentary, 144-145).

He also wrote, “The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that this continuation of "the seeds" forever and ever, meant the power of procreation; in other words, the power to beget spirit children on the same principle as we were born to our Heavenly Parents, God the Eternal Father and our Eternal Mother. Therefore, a man cannot receive the highest exaltation without a woman, his wife, nor can a woman be exalted without her husband. That is the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the plan of salvation" (Milton R. Hunter, LDS Conference Report, April 1949, 71).

Heterosexual marriage is thus the crucial building block not only of the Church structure and community, but also of the Eternal Order.  This is a patriarchal order and a heterosexual order, based on clear differences between men and women.  Men preside over the family, using the blessings of the priesthood to protect and care for his wife and children, while the mother takes primary responsibility to rear the children.

On the role of women, former President and Prophet Gordon B.Hinckley said, “[The] ability and willingness properly to rear children, the gift to love, and eagerness … to express it in soul development, make motherhood the noblest office or calling in the world. She who can paint a masterpiece or write a book that will influence millions deserves the admiration and the plaudits of mankind; but she who rears successfully a family of healthy, beautiful sons and daughters, whose influence will be felt through generations to come, … deserves the highest honor that man can give, and the choicest blessings of God” (Gospel Ideals [1954], 453-54)

In 1995 the First Presidency issued the Proclamation to the World, which states that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In an "equal partnership," "fathers are to “preside over their families in love and righteousness and are to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”

Ask yourself: how does a gay couple fit into this cosmology?  How would eternal procreation work in this scenario?  Who would have the priesthood to preside over the family?  Both (in the case of gay men) or neither (in the case of gay women)? Assuming that the Mormon Church attempts to convert a gay couple (or single people, for that matter), what do they say? "Please be a member of our Church where you cannot receive the same ordinances as straight couples, where you cannot be sealed for time and eternity, and where we may not even recognize your marriage (but where, if you remain single and faithful, you might become straight in the afterlife)?  The other alternative--full equality--requires seismic doctrinal shifts in temple ordinances and the Mormon cosmology.  It would also call into question why priesthood is given to men and not to women.

This is why a normally politically passive Mormon Church threw everything it had at gay marriage.  Because once gay marriage is normalized in the wider society, then the Mormon Church has to explain to the world and to its members why gay members of the Church cannot marry, and when married, why they can’t be sealed to one another for time and eternity in the temple. 

The LDS Church sees gay marriage for what it is—a threat to the very core of their teachings and identity.