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This is going to be a long, meandering post, but there’s a reason why: I want to give as full a context as possible to my position.
Let me start off by saying that, due to my own personal spiritual experiences, I believe the following:
- God the Father exists.
- His divine son Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world and rose from the dead.
- Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only church with the proper authority to act in God’s name.
- The current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and their predecessors, were called to their positions by revelation from God.
You may or may not believe any or all of those. For the purposes of this post, however, they should be considered axiomatic. They form the basis of my perspective, and there is no point in trying to dissuade me from them. With regard to the rest of this post, however, I am open to being persuaded that I am wrong in my opinions and interpretations.
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them…(Abraham 3:25 in the Pearl of Great Price, a Mormon book of scripture)
We Mormons believe that, prior to being born into a mortal life on Earth, human beings existed as spirits and lived with our Heavenly Father. He decided to create the Earth and send us down here in order to test whether we would be obedient to his will (among other reasons). Because very few people would be disobedient if they could remember that earlier life and that this life is a test, our memories of our pre-mortal lives have been blocked. Obviously, because people’s lives are different, not everyone faces the same obstacles in life. Different people are tested in different ways. Different people will face different challenges. That might seem unfair, but God is just, merciful, and omniscient, so he can take those differences into account.
Essentially, this life is a test of character — at the most fundamental level, what kind of person are you?
Some of the tests of obedience make a lot of sense even to people who don’t believe in God. The commandments against murder, stealing, and lying, for example, are all focused on not doing harm to other people. Then there are commandments involving doing good for others: honor your parents, give to those in need, help each other, and so on.
Then there are commandments that don’t make much sense to people who don’t believe in God: keep the sabbath day holy, pray, and so forth.
The commandment that perhaps does the most to distinguish Mormons from the rest of the world is the Word of Wisdom, which commands members of the Church not to use tobacco, or to drink coffee, tea, or alcoholic beverages. Many Mormons see the Word of Wisdom as a commandment regarding health, and when interpreted as such, many non-believers can understand it as having a rational basis. But I don’t think that’s the primary reason to obey it. Occasionally there will be a scientific study that shows health benefits to drinking red wine, or coffee, or tea. (I don’t recall seeing any research demonstrating the health benefits of smoking, but maybe there is some.) If your primary reason for following the Word of Wisdom is your health, then you might think there’s no harm in having a healthy glass of wine. That would be a rational thing to do if there were no Word of Wisdom (and if you were careful about not driving drunk, and so forth.) But since the test of life on Earth is a test of obedience, the question is whether you will follow God’s commandment even when there is scientific evidence for the health benefits of not following the commandment. And, if you believe the axiomatic points I laid out at the beginning of this blog post, the rational thing to do is to obey the commandment.
Up to this point, I haven’t said anything that would be considered very controversial within the Mormon community. But I was just laying the foundation for the rest of this post, which deals with my opinions on some controversial issues.
I was born in 1967. At that time, blacks were not allowed to be ordained to the priesthood in the Mormon church. I can remember being very happy when, in 1978, President Kimball received revelation from God that that time had come to extend the priesthood to all worthy males regardless of race.
All my life, there have been people asking why blacks could not be ordained to the priesthood until 1978, and why women still cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Years ago, after thinking about and discussing the subject quite a bit, I came back once again to Abraham 3:25: This life is a test of our willingness to obey God. I concluded that for blacks before 1978, and for women, part of that test is whether you are willing to be a faithful member of the church and to follow God’s commandments even when you cannot be ordained to the priesthood. (Similarly, with both the beginning of the practice of plural marriage and the end of the practice, there was a test of people’s willingness to obey God.)
However, in the last few years I have come to believe that there is another, more important test involved: How would men with the authority of the priesthood act towards those who, under church policy, were not eligible to hold the priesthood?
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. … No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned[.]
(Doctrine and Covenants 121:39, 41)
A recent statement on the official LDS Church website about race and the priesthood acknowledges that past leaders of the church sometimes promulgated racist theories about why blacks were not permitted to hold the priesthood. The statement specifically disavows all such theories. Let me emphasize that saying past leaders made mistakes does not contradict my axioms from the beginning of this post. Prophets and apostles are human, and thus prone to human errors, including racism, sexism, and other prejudices. (There is no Mormon doctrine of prophetic infallibility.)
Is the current prohibition on ordaining females to the priesthood similar to the prohibition on blacks, one that will eventually be lifted by revelation, with an eventual disavowal of sexist rationales that people currently use to explain it? I don’t know. I do know that if that time ever comes, I will have absolutely no objection to ordaining women. But in any case, one of our responsibilities as men who hold the priesthood is to never to use the fact that we hold the priesthood to in any way denigrate women. I believe God is watching us to see whether, as sad experience shows is likely, we will abuse our authority. (During one discussion of the subject, I even imagined a future General Conference talk in which the president of the Church announced that the Lord was so displeased with the way men had shirked their responsibilities and abused their authority that he was taking the priesthood away from men and giving it to women. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but if it did, I would obediently follow.)
Another change that has happened in my lifetime is the shift in attitudes towards and knowledge about homosexuality. As I was growing up in the 1970s-1980s, many of those who advocated for gay rights referred to being gay as a “lifestyle choice.” This implied that it was something people should be free to choose, and that laws against homosexual behavior should be repealed. On a theoretical level, that actually dovetailed fairly well with statements by church leaders that homosexuality was an example of people letting their lusts lead them into perversions. If being gay was a choice, I had no problem with the idea that God considered it a sinful choice.
Over the past couple of decades, though, there has been a lot of evidence that for most homosexuals, sexual orientation is not a choice. Leaders of the church have implicitly acknowledged this by making a distinction between same-sex attraction, which is not considered sinful per se, and homosexual behavior, which is. Now, it is true that people with same-sex attraction still have the choice as to whether they will engage in homosexual behavior, and so in that sense there still is a “lifestyle choice.” And, as with the issues discussed above, I believe that the Church’s prohibition on homosexual activity is a test for those who have same-sex attraction.
But, similarly, I think the prohibition presents a great test for those of us who are heterosexual. And I’m not alone in thinking that:
However, the Church firmly believes that all people are equally beloved children of God and deserve to be treated with love and respect. Church apostle Elder Quentin L. Cook stated, “As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.” [LDS.org page about Same-Sex Attraction]
Have we as Mormons in general succeeded in doing that? Unfortunately, based on the perception of many of my non-Mormon friends, we seem to be failing. They seem to equate “Mormon Church” with “hatred for gays,” not “love and compassion.” Most of that, of course, comes from the fact that the Church is seen as being in the forefront of the opposition to same-sex marriage, due to its support of Proposition 8 in California, among other things.
As a speculative fiction writer, I can certainly come up with some speculative ideas about how the legalization of gay marriage could damage the institution of marriage. But I can also see ways in which legalized gay marriage could actually be a good thing for the institution. Frankly, if it were not for the fact that the Church was so adamantly opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, I probably would have begun to favor it a couple of years ago for some of the reasons outlined in “A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” at Reason.com. At this point, the only reasons I have for not endorsing the legalization of same-sex marriage is my desire to not contradict the leaders of the Church on a moral issue they have emphasized as being of great importance, and the possibility that the Lord has revealed to them that there will be dire consequences from such legalization.
I started working on this blog post several months ago. In the intervening time, two events occurred that caused me to think more about the subject: a federal judge overturned Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage, and the Church released the statement about race and the priesthood.
I was already convinced that the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage was basically inevitable; the judge’s decision made a shorter timeline seem likely (and the Supreme Court’s stay of the decision then made a longer timeline likely.) That doesn’t mean that the battle wasn’t worth fighting. Many members of the Church chose to follow the counsel of the leaders of the Church even when doing so made them unpopular among their peers, and I believe that will be counted unto them as righteousness. But in the long term, same-sex marriage is happening now in several states, and eventually will be legal in all of them (unless there is a dramatic and unlikely shift in the attitudes of the younger generations). Like it or not, that is the reality that the Church will be facing in the future. And I began to wonder how the Church would deal with real-life situations involving same-sex marriage. (As a side note: one of my wife’s cousins, whom I have not met, was one of the people who entered into a same-sex marriage during the brief few days during which it was legal in Utah. My wife said she wished she could have gone — a sentiment that is perfectly in keeping with the Church’s statement about expressing love, compassion and outreach, and not excluding or being disrespectful to those who choose a different lifestyle.)
For example, let’s assume there’s a legally married lesbian couple, Anne and Betty, who have an eight-year-old son, Charlie (conceived through artificial insemination). One day the missionaries knock on their door, and Anne lets them in. They teach her and Charlie about the gospel, and they both read the Book of Mormon and gain testimonies of it. That is what we want, isn’t it? To share the gospel and have people accept it. Now, because the Church teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful, in order to be baptized and become worthy to go to the temple, Anne would have to refrain from engaging in such behavior. That might be difficult, but people have given up many sins in order to join the Church, and with God all things are possible. But, given the Church’s position that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, would Anne need to legally divorce Betty in order to be in good standing with the Church? Given what we know about the trauma of divorce on children, is that really the best thing for Charlie? (And it’s not enough to say that Anne could remain married to Betty as long as they didn’t have sexual relations. Betty, who is not joining the Church, would quite likely divorce Anne in that case.)
Just as the prohibition on blacks receiving the priesthood made missionary work to convert blacks and civil rights supporters much more difficult, the Church’s stance against same-sex marriage makes missionary work to convert gays and gay-rights supporters much more difficult. (And if you’re willing to just write them off as not worth saving, I want to remind you that they are just as much children of God as you are, and “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.“) If that is the will of God, then so be it. But one of the great advantages of a Church that believes in modern revelation is that God can reveal new doctrines: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (Articles of Faith 1:9)
The commandments regarding what the Church should accept as legal marriages and what sexual relations are sinful have changed more than once during the history of the Church from 1830 to today. In fact, we know that in the case of plural marriage, God commanded the Church to stop performing plural marriages at least in part because of the legal pressures the Church and its members faced:
The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead? (from Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto, printed beneath Official Declaration 1)
We are not yet anywhere near that point in terms of legal pressure on the Church and its members. And I hope we never will be. But the standard to which the Church now adheres so strongly — marriage is between one man and one woman — is one that the Lord commanded of us in response to the moral standards of wider society. Similarly, the revelation on the priesthood came as society changed and discrimination against blacks came to be seen as morally wrong.
It is at least possible that in a future time, as same-sex marriage becomes accepted through most of American society just as interracial marriage is today, the societal pressures against those who discriminate against gays could become similar to the pressures in the 1970s against those who discriminated against blacks. At such a time, is it possible that God might reveal that homosexual behavior is no longer to be considered sinful as long as it is confined to the bounds of a legal marriage? I say yes, it is possible, because I would not presume to limit what God can reveal. At that point, the testing of homosexuals by the commandment against homosexual behavior would be over. Meanwhile, such a revelation might be a test of the faithfulness of members of the Church, to see whether they are willing to abide by it: “…[Y]e shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God. For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith.” (Doctrine & Covenants 98:11-12)
But what about The Family: A Proclamation to the World? In recent months, the Church has instructed members to look to the proclamation when faced with questions regarding same-sex marriage. It seems pretty clear on the subject that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and sexual activity should be confined to such marriages. Furthermore, it talks about gender being an eternal characteristic of our spirits.
(To go off on a tangent for a moment: It is actually easier under current LDS doctrine to deal with the issue of transsexuals than homosexuals. The proclamation states “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Unless you believe there are blind spirits, deaf spirits, etc., there are obviously many ways in which our physical mortal bodies can fall short of being a perfect match for our spiritual bodies, including, for example, children born with genitalia of both sexes. Such mismatches are part of the test of mortal existence. The current practice within the Church seems to be to treat transsexualism as a problem of the mind, and that transsexuals should try to conform to the gender of their natural physical bodies. However, it would not present any doctrinal problems to consider transsexualism as a problem of mismatch between the gender of the spirit and the gender of the body. If that were the case, we would expect the perfected immortal body in the resurrection to match the eternal gender of the spirit, and therefore expecting transsexuals to conform to the gender of their imperfect mortal body would seem to be denying the eternal nature of gender. End of tangent.)
Newer revelation can supersede previous statements by Church leaders. And, so far, the proclamation has not been placed into the LDS canon of scripture. But is there a place for same-sex marriage within the Church without overturning the proclamation? I think it’s possible. Under the proclamation, marriage between a man and a woman for the purpose of having children is considered to be the ideal familial arrangement to which members of the Church should aspire:
The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.
However, the proclamation recognizes that not all families will match that ideal: “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” If a husband or wife is incapable of having children, the Church doesn’t consider the couple to not be a family. A single or divorced parent with children still make up a family in the eyes of the Church, even though the children can’t be “reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” Thus, the proclamation is not a definition of family, but rather a declaration of the ideal of family. It is also generally recognized within the Church that the ideal form of marriage is an eternal marriage in the temple. But that doesn’t mean the Church won’t recognize non-eternal marriages performed by civil or religious authorities. As far as the regulation of sexual behavior is concerned, we prefer that a man and woman get married, even if it’s not the ideal form of marriage, rather than have sex outside the bonds of marriage.
Therefore, as the evidence that homosexual orientation is not a matter of choice builds up, and as more and more gays get married, isn’t it possible that eventually homosexual orientation may be recognized by the Church as one of the “other circumstances [that] may necessitate individual adaptation”? As far as the regulation of sexual behavior is concerned, isn’t it preferable that gays get married, even if it’s not the ideal form of marriage, rather than have sex outside the bond of marriage? Isn’t it preferable that children being raised by a gay couple (something that is already happening without same-sex marriage) get the additional stability marriage could bring, even if we as a Church don’t consider that the ideal arrangement?
As I mentioned before, I started working on this blog post months ago. When I started, my main purpose was to explain how my thinking with regard to homosexuals and same-sex marriage had evolved, and how I felt that we as Mormons needed to focus more on treating gays with love and respect. However, I did not feel that it would be right for me to endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage, as that would imply I felt the leaders of the Church were wrong on the issue.
And then the Church released its statement on race and the priesthood, basically acknowledging that the past positions of Church leaders may have been based on the prejudices of the times. And I began to wonder to what extent the position of current Church leaders regarding same-sex marriage might have been influenced by the prejudices of the times in which they have lived. They are not perfect, just as the leaders before them were not perfect. That does not mean they are not called by God to lead his Church; it only means that they are mortal.
After many long hours of thought and prayer wrestling with this issue, I have decided that these are my current positions on the issues:
- All homosexual behavior should be considered sinful until such a time, if ever, that the Lord sees fit to reveal otherwise through the leaders of the Church. Because it would make the lives of gays easier, and improve the chances for sharing the gospel with gays and those who care about them, I hope that someday the Lord does see fit to do so.
- For the Church to accept same-sex marriages as valid for the purposes of the Church would require revelation from the Lord to the leaders of the Church. Because it would make the lives of gays easier, and improve the chances for sharing the gospel with gays and those who care about them, I hope that someday the Lord does see fit to do so.
- From my (admittedly limited) perspective, at this point the pros of legalizing same-sex marriage appear to outweigh the cons, so that if Church leaders had not taken a position on same-sex marriage, I would favor legalization.
- The doctrines of the Church do not prohibit me from endorsing the legalization of same-sex marriage in a civil context.
- I believe that Utah and other states should pass legislation to allow same-sex marriage, while protecting the religious freedom rights of individuals and religious institutions to not be forced to support such marriages.
I want to make it clear that I hold these positions in humility, and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong. If it comes down to a choice between being a temple-recommend-holding member of the Church or continuing to hold these positions, I am willing to recant any or all of them, because I believe items 1-5 from the beginning of this post.