Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mormon Wars: Internet Porn, Gay Marriage, and Women Priests

Now is not the first time the Mormon Church has battled internal dissent, but this is gearing up to be a proper religious schism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (hereafter, LDS or Mormon) Church just held their 184th annual General Conference two weekends ago.  I wasn't at the Salt Lake City event, nor did I watch the 10-hour marathon on TV or the internet, but I heard it was a doozy.

In the midst of a ten-hour General Conference (an annual event where the LDS leadership broadcasts divine guidance to the fifteen million-odd Mormon global community), the octogenarian leadership warned against the "scourge of pornography" and exhorted its faithful to "defend their beliefs," which include the conviction that "marriage is between man and woman." 

Also at the General Conference, hundreds of Mormon women demanding the ordination of women tried to gain entrance to the (male-only) Priesthood Session.

Three factors are converging to create a perfect storm for the Mormon Church: (1) the wider American society is becoming more progressive at a very fast clip, (2) younger Mormons (like younger people in general) tend to be significantly more progressive than their elders, and (3), the very DNA of theChurch is patriarchy, heteronormativity, and traditional gender roles.  Indeed, the day-to-day functioning of the Church is based on unquestioning belief in, and obedience to, divine revelations generated by a hierarchy of (seriously elderly) male "elders."

For these or other reasons, the Church has encountered a crisis in its membership, particularly young people.  This is one of the reasons that the Church recently lowered its missionary age from 19 to 18 for men--to get more missionaries in the field.  Although the Church claims 15 million members around the world, only half of all Mormons are active churchgoers in the U.S. and only one-quarter of members outside of the U.S., meaning that the active Mormon community may be only 5 million strong.

The church leadership is clearly scared to death of these trends, as gay marriage is rapidly becoming normalized, women are beginning to demand that they also be given priesthood authority (currently reserved for Mormon men), and Church dictates on sexuality in general (as well as injunctions against alcohol, tobacco, R-rated movies, and so on) are increasingly seen as suggestions from the (lay) Mormon clergy rather than divine revelation from God.

In a previous blogpost, I explained that the Mormon Church, which lobbied powerfully against the legalization of gay marriage in many states in the 2000s and mobilized against the Equal Rights Amendment for women back in the 1970s, entered the political arena on these two issues not so much because they want to dictate the social behavior of non-Mormons, but to ensure that their own beliefs were not wildly out of step with that of the wider society.  This is because Mormons are both highly differentiated from general society, but also highly integrated into its institutions.  After all, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the current Senate Majority Leader are both devout Mormons.

These fights are fights for the life of the Church, as many younger Mormons in America have become inactive in the Church, and the growth in the Church has shifted away from the affluent (deeply-pocketed) West to the Global South.

The leadership has largely retrenched from overt political battles and is now focused on urging its flock to reject changing societal norms. "In the world, but not of it" is their guiding mantra.

Already back in 1993, Elder Boyd K. Packer (the archconservative current President of the Twelve Apostles and next in line for church presidency) declared that three dangers were influencing the Church faithful to "disobey" Mormon elders because they seem so "reasonable and right":

"The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars and intellectuals."

They are now engaged in a ferocious battle for the hearts and minds of the Mormon faithful.

Rearguard Battle #1: Internet Porn (aka Masturbation)

Let's take the LDS war on internet porn.  This is really a retread of the earlier LDS war on masturbation (once called "self-inflicted purging," this is still considered a serious sin by the Mormon Church, and admitting to it might prevent you from getting a temple recommend from your bishop should he choose to ask you about it).  

 A previous Mormon Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, famously railed against masturbation (Miracle of Forgiveness, 78):  

"[Masturbation] too often leads to grievous sin, even to that sin against nature, homosexuality.  For, done in private, it evolves often into mutual masturbation--practiced with another person of the same sex--and thence into total homosexuality."

True, this was decades ago. No Mormon leader today would suggest that masturbation might lead to homosexuality, any more than it would lead to insanity. This is because Americans today generally believe that masturbation is normal, if not healthy.  And many in the Mormon community increasingly agree with this position.  Thus, references to masturbation have quietly been expunged from official literature; a Church handbook instead exhorts the youth to

"never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person's body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else what arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body [emphasis mine]."

No explicit references to masturbation here, although the implication is clear.  Similarly, Mormon bishops (the equivalent of Protestant pastors or Catholic priests) routinely ask members of the Church, including children, whether they "follow the law of chastity." They may or may not enquire more specifically about their behavior, but Mormon faithful are increasingly creeped out by the idea of an adult male clergyman interrogating their children in private about their sexual activities.

The Church therefore turned its attention to pornography rather than masturbation, and even more recently, internet porn.  The reason is clear: this is a much more socially acceptable battle for the Mormon Church to wage.

The rebranding has been awkward at best. Earlier in the year, a video (that later went viral) by Student Services of Brigham Young University, Idaho (a Mormon university) used dramatized war scenes to hilariously suggest that confronting your roommate who watches internet porn amounts to leaving your wounded war buddy on the battlefield.  This must-see video is demented beyond belief.

Rearguard Battle #2: Gay Marriage

Meanwhile, the Mormon position on gay marriage has gone subterranean.  In the past few years, the Church has more-or-less abandoned overt efforts to oppose gay marriage after the considerable blow-back they received after funding the Proposition 8 movement to outlaw gay marriage in California in 2008; many pro-gay marriage activists picketed the Mormon Church, and many also called for the IRS to review the Church's tax-exempt status.  

The Church has largely given up the fight against legalization of gay marriage, and are now circling the wagons with the Mormon faithful to ensure that none of them think this is okay. In the previous (semi-annual) General Conference last October, Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated that human laws "cannot make moral what God has declared immoral."

The theme was repeated in this April's Conference, Apostle Neil L. Andersen stated (starting at 4:50) "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfilment of adult to more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared and nurtured." The video even shows how the Apostle used social media to argue his point against pro-gay marriage Mormon youth.  

(As an aside, such insubordination would never have been tolerated by a previous generation of Mormon leaders; offenders are likely to have been intimidated into silence, disfellowshipped or worse.)

The message: It does not matter what American laws say.  American laws are not God's laws.  And American values (where they deviate from God's laws) are not LDS values.

That does not mean the Church is not worried about American laws and values.  They understand that Mormon doctrine can deviate from wider social norms, but not too much.  They have therefore sought to craft a stance along the lines of "hate the sin, but love the sinner."  The result is a bizarrely convoluted position that (1) God *may* have given people "same-sex attraction," but (2) these things can change (either in this life or in the next), but (3) reparative therapy probably should not be tried (anymore), and so (4) gay people are to be accepted in the Church, but (5) they may not act on their gay impulses and must remain life-long celibates, unless (6) they marry an opposite sex partner (“mixed-orientation marriages”), but (7) only if they want to.

Some of these contradictory positions are represented on their new website. Despite their halting liberalization regarding the gay community, the Church has steadfastly proclaimed their absolute and unyielding opposition to gay marriage in the Church.  

Rearguard Action #3 The Fight over Women Priests

Finally, the Church is now being confronted by Ordain Women, a small but persistent movement of (mostly women) Mormon feminists, who insist that women be ordained to the priesthood.  This is a seriously no-go issue for the Church leadership (along with most of the membership), along the same lines as extending temple marriage to gay couples.   This is because the Mormon faith is based on strict adherence to patriarchal authority extending from the "First Presidency" (the Prophet and Two Counsellors), to the all-male "Quorum of the Twelve Apostles" to the all-male "Quorums of Seventies" to the all-male "Stake Presidencies" and "Ward Bishoprics."  Women leaders in the church are given positions over other women and girls, or welfare or music or family services--but do not have general leadership roles.  Patriarchal authority exists at family level as well, with the husband and father having the priesthood to preside over the family, give his wife and children blessings from God and even to heal the sick.  Boys as old as 12 are given a juvenile version of this priesthood authority.  

The patriarchal order is taken-for-granted in the Church, it is its DNA.  But a group of women are now trying to challenge this order for the past two conferences, last October and this April.  It could be the beginning of something new, but it may be decades before such a change is really made.

It is not inconceivable that women may eventually gain the priesthood in the Mormon Church.  It is a fascinating thought experiment, and possibly inevitable in the long run.  The problem (apart from the near-or-actual schism it might create) is that a Church that responds to its base begins to look a bit too democratic, a bit too voluntaristic.  It begins to lose its aura of divine guidance.  We may already know what such a Church might look like, for the the only surviving significant offshoot of the Mormon Church (founded by the son of the First Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., following his death) extended the priesthood to women already in 1984; women are now in top leadership positions.  In 2001, they changed their name to the Community of Christ, and last year extended the “sacrament of marriage” to include same-sex couples, allowing openly gay members to serve in the clergy.  These changes have led to multiple additional schisms and offshoots, with the core of the Church limping along at a quarter million members.

The Mormon Church really is between a rock and a hard place.  They can liberalize in order to stay relevant to its membership, but face schisms and outright defections by conservative adherents (the Reorganized Church model).  Or they could keep their conservative positions and possibly their adherents, but suffer increasingly inactivity by its members (the Catholic Church model).  

In truth, there are no good options.