Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mormons Leading the Way

I'm tempted to snark, but instead I will just be grateful that the LDS Church appears poised to support a series of expansive Utah gay rights measures (soon to go into effect in Salt Lake City, also proposed for state-wide application).
The LDS Church's unexpected endorsement of two Salt Lake City gay-rights measures has many observers wondering if another surprise could follow: a friendlier reception in the 2010 Legislature for such protections statewide.

Even an LDS apostle -- continuing the string of stunners --thinks Salt Lake City's ordinances could be a model.

"Anything good is shareable," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in an interview Wednesday, referring to Salt Lake City's new policy aimed at protecting gay and transgender residents from discrimination.

He praised the efforts of Mormon officials and gay-rights leaders who sat down to discuss the issue before the church's endorsement.

"Everybody ought to have the freedom to frame the statutes the way they want," he said. "But at least the process and the good will and working at it, certainly that could be modeled anywhere and even elements of the statute."

At a public hearing Tuesday, church spokesman Michael Otterson expressed strong support for ordinances that, starting in April, will ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment. Salt Lake City, home to the worldwide faith's headquarters, approved the statutes in a unanimous City Council vote.

It is an interesting turnabout from an entity that took the lead in opposing gay marriage (most recently in California's Prop. 8 campaign). They insist that the two positions are not in conflict. But I have to admit I'm curious whether or not this is, at least in part, a defensive measure in response to the immense backlash the LDS took after their role in California (a backlash which, I must say, I think was entirely deserved). Most churches can count on a strong base of fellow Christian conservatives to back them up against charges of bigotry, but the LDS has, at best, a shaky relationship with mainstream evangelical Protestantism, and thus were left more vulnerable. I'm wondering if we're seeing the fruits of that.

But regardless of the chain of causation, I'm happy for the gays and lesbians in Utah who are a step closer to equality, and I'm happy that the LDS has chosen to intervene on the side of angels this side.



Seth R. said...

The LDS relationship with the Christian Right has always been uneasy. We share similar social concerns, but differ in the details on most of them.

For instance, the LDS Church has been growing progressively more sympathetic to the dilemmas confronting homosexuals over the years. Ironically, the couple years prior to Proposition 8, there was significant outreach being made to homosexual Mormons. Major leaders were making statements condemning parents who "disown" homosexual children. Some were acknowledging that homosexuality may not be voluntary. Finally, there were many statements declaring that simply having homosexual feelings and tendencies was not a "sin" per se (although they were not and are not budging an inch on defining homosexual sexual acts as "sins").

These were very significant changes in stance, and a matter of a lot of debate and comment among Mormon bloggers who follow this stuff.

But - quite frankly - no one really paid much attention to us or our Church until Mitt Romney ran for president. So most people are unaware of this softening trend within the Mormon Church.

When the LDS Church drew its line in the sand at gay marriage with Prop 8, those on the side of gay marriage were largely ignorant of these trends within the LDS Church simply because - until Prop 8 - they had no reason to pay attention to Mormonism at all.

But Mormon insiders knew about them, and we were all quite worried that the angry backlash from the gay community would simply result in a hardening of opinion in LDS leadership and undo a lot of the positive steps that had been made in making the Church a more welcoming place for those confronting the issue of homosexual feelings. I, and many others, are relieved by the news of this stance in support of the city ordinance - because it indicates that the door is still open to mutual respect and understanding and the gay backlash has not completely closed it.

The LDS Church simply does not take the same hardline stance that other conservative religions in America have. There is room to work with Mormons and they aren't completely unreasonable if you approach them right.

Seth R. said...

Similarly on abortion - we oppose abortion, but for very different reasons than Evangelicals or Catholics and others.

We oppose abortion because it is viewed as an unwillingness for some people to take responsibility for their own choices, and because we hold the procreative process very sacred. We feel that freely available abortion disrespects the power to create life (a power we associate with divinity).

But we don't call abortion "murder" or push for it to be labeled such as a church.

Sure, you'll find individual Mormons who have been listening to "Focus on the Family" broadcasts and individually call it "murder." But you never hear the "murder" catch-phrase from LDS leadership. They'll always talk about accountability and the need to respect the procreative process. But calls to outlaw abortion as "murder?"


This is why the LDS Church officially allows abortions in certain circumstances - such as rape, or serious threat to the health of the mother. This is not a concession that religions who define abortion as murder find easy to make. But the LDS Church makes it quite willingly.

We also do not officially hold "life" to begin at conception. We believe that human identity pre-exists the moment of conception and that fetal gestation is a process of life growing. We don't pick a cut-off date where a fetus is officially a "person" or not.

This is why you'll find key Mormon senators like Hatch supporting embryonic stem cell research. We don't feel like we're "saving lives" by preventing disposal of frozen embryos. Stem cell research gets a variety of reactions in Utah, but nowhere near the unified disapproval among the religious you find in other conservative religions.

So that's another area where we appear to be on board with the Christian Right, but are really just allies on limited issues. We haven't, as a church, embraced the full agenda. And again, there is a lot more room for reaching across the divide with Mormons than with other elements of the Christian Right.

Finally, on public education issues like evolution or school prayer - Mormons just don't seem to care as much as their Evangelical counterparts.

For one thing, we're kind of private about our own religious observance, and don't like the way some Evangelicals like to publicly rub everyone's noses in their own religiosity. One of the key lawsuits challenging school prayer came from a Mormon kid in Tennessee who was sick of having to put up with Southern Baptist prayers in his own school. So we're just not really on board with this one.

Likewise with evolution. The statements of LDS leadership on evolution are all over the place. Some oppose it, some feel it is compatible with our notion of God, and the Church, as a whole, refuses to take a stance on the issue. Recent statements from top leadership have indicated that we ought to leave science to do its job and let religion do its job.

Individual Mormons may vary on this depending on their level of education. But evolution is taught at LDS-owned Brigham Young University and its science faculty is almost unanimously pro-evolution. Most of the graduates from those programs are as well (my wife being one of them).

On top of that, you have the historic antagonism of Mormonism with other Christian faiths.

So it's an uneasy alliance with some shared goals and values. But we are very different in other respects. People who assume the LDS and the Christian Right are the same thing are probably going to be surprised when push comes to shove. We really aren't the same thing - even if many of our individual members have embraced the Christian Right agenda.

PG said...

Seth R.,

I have several friends from law school who are Mormon, which is what motivated me to back away from some of the more scapegoating reactions to Prop. 8 in CA and now Prop. 1 in Maine. I was getting emails about going to protest Prop. 8's passage, which I might have done had the emails not said that the site of the protest would be in front of a Mormon temple. Similarly, I joined a Facebook group to advocate for better enforcement of the prohibition on tax-exemption organizations' engaging in political advocacy, but had to drop out when I saw how many people were using it as an occasion for Mormon-bashing.

It's funny how liberals and progressives figure that acquaintance and familiarity with LGB folks will change minds about same-sex marriage, without factoring in how acquaintance and familiarity with people who belong to a church that's officially opposed to SSM will affect one's willingness to attack all members of that group.

Seth R. said...


I was pretty ambiguous about same sex marriage myself.

My own position was to articulate a libertarian stance of "let's get government out of the marriage license business entirely." You can read the details in a blog post I published the summer prior to Proposition 8 here:

So I really didn't feel I was on either side.

But I can tell you that it put my back up having to respond to all the left-wing viciousness that was thrown Mormons' way after the election. It made it hard for me to feel quite so warm toward the movement - although did give it a good try (and still am trying).

In any case, I think that the LDS Church can probably be pushed as far as to support some sort of civil union law. But they're likely going to be stubborn about "marriage."