A moral man cannot be patient
in the face of Injustice. . . .
A threat to justice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere.
–Martin Luther King
I begin with a confession of faith. I am a believer. I am a deeply committed disciple of Jesus Christ and a grateful member of his latter-day church and kingdom. The following quote from Emerson summarizes how I see myself: “All my opinions, affections, whimsies, are tinged with belief,–incline to that side. All that is generous, elegant, rich, wise, looks that way. But I cannot give reasons to a person of a different persuasion that are at all adequate to the force of my conviction. Yet when I fail to find the reason, my faith is not less.” I begin with this confession of faith and declaration of devotion because I am aware that some of the things I say in this presentation some may find uncomfortable. I do not wish them to be so, but I accept the fact that they might be and therefore want to affirm from the beginning my devotion and commitment of faith.
I have always thought it curious that when asked by Pilate, “What is truth?” Jesus did not answer, but rather stood silently before the man who held his fate in his hands. This was an opportunity for Jesus to answer one of the ultimate questions of human history, and yet he chose not to. Why? There may be various reasons, but I believe the most important was that he expected Pilate, as he expects us, to answer that question for himself. Pilate, facing Christ–the embodiment of “the truth, the way and the life”–, abdicated that choice and instead surrendered to the crowd the decision as to what truth was in this particular instance. Instead of following what his heart surely must have known, instead of stating, “The truth is, this holy man standing before me is innocent,” he asked the crowd, which included the Jewish ecclesiastical leaders, “What shall I do with this Jesus which is called Christ?” Their murderous response, “Crucify him!” swung history on its axis. Pilate was at least partially responsible for what happened on that fateful day, and no matter how many times he washed his hands, that particular truth would not change.
History is replete with examples of ideas that proved to be colossally wrong, that proved to be false even in the face of prevailing evidence to the contrary. Here are just a few of the most obvious ones: the sun revolves around the earth, women should be subservient to men, blacks are inferior to whites, mental disease is the result of demonic possession, and natural disasters are God’s punishment of sin. Some of these ideas endured for centuries and caused incalculable pain, suffering and death. Some persisted long after science and common sense proved them wrong. Some are still current in parts of the world, including in the United States—and in the Mormon Church.
Even in our enlightened and sophisticated era, wrong ideas persist, including in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. In an article titled, “Suspending Disbelief,” Linda Stone, a contemporary visionary thinker, cites examples of three scientists–Barbara McClintock, Stanley Pruisner and Barry Marshall—each of whom made important discoveries which were rejected by their respective scientific communities in spite of evidence supporting them. According to Stone, McClintock, who discovered “jumping genes,” “was ignored and ridiculed, by the scientific community, for thirty-two years before winning” the Nobel Prize in 1984. Prusiner also was widely criticized and ridiculed for his prion theory years before he won the Nobel Prize for it in 1982. Marshall, who theorized that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria rather than acid and stress (the prevailing theory), lamented, “Everyone was against me.”
Stone says, “Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and in some cases, even what we consider to be ‘factual,’ creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well. For example: Fire is hot; it can burn me if I touch it. [However,]These strongly held beliefs can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.”
In making a distinction between projective as opposed to reactive thinking, Stone says, “Progress in medicine was delayed while these ‘projective thinkers’ persisted, albeit on a slower and lonelier course.” She adds, “Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, ‘open-ended’ and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives.”
An example of a wrong, and immensely destructive idea that has persisted in modern and contemporary society, including in Mormon culture, is the idea that homosexuality is a chosen and changeable human condition. While this idea might have been understandable in a less enlightened era, especially in the absence of credible scientific research, its persistence has come at a high cost to individuals, families, congregations and to the Church itself.
The history of wrong ideas teaches us that myth and culture, including religious belief, can have a stronger influence on our cognitive, rational and even spiritual processes than both evidence and experience. It also teaches us that circumstantial evidence and subjective observations can be misleading. Thoreau said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” This statement might not make sense in a world of government health regulations, but it certainly made sense in Thoreau’s day when dairy farmers commonly diluted their milk with water in order to increase revenues. Seeing a fish swimming in milk, one could conclude either that fish do swim in milk or that something was fishy about the milk itself.
Such an observation would be even harder to comprehend if one belonged to a religion that taught that, contrary to what one observes in nature, God made fish to swim in milk and that if the fish died, it was the fault of the fish and not the milk. Perhaps this might be considered a silly example, but ponder its parallel in modern Mormon culture: contrary to the best scientific evidence from within the neurological, biological and psychotherapeutic communities and contrary to the personal witness of hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian saints, over the past several decades Mormons, including many leaders and therapists, have insisted with absolute certainty that sexual identity and orientation are both chosen and mutable. This has been reinforced with what I would characterize as brutal certainty, even at times with prophetic witness.
Consider the following examples:
A pamphlet, “Hope for Transgressors,” written by Apostles Spencer W. Kimball and Mark E. Peterson and published by the Church in 1970, uses such terms as the following in relation to homosexuality: “despicable,” “degrading,” “perversion,” “evil,” “folly,” “afflicted,” and “pollution.” It also states categorically that individuals “often can be helped to a total cure by a kindly Church official who understands.” Referring to a list of biblical scriptures marshaled to condemn homosexuality, this publication instructs leaders: “Reason might also be employed to convince the individual that there is no future for a homosexual. He may appear to ‘get by’ while young and attractive but the day will come in his life where there is nothing left but chaff and dust and barrenness and desolation”; “REMEMBER [in all caps]: Homosexuality CAN [again in caps] be cured. . . . God did not make people ‘that way.’”
The following year, “New Horizons for Homosexuals” (1971), authored by Apostle Kimball, reiterated that homosexuality “can be cured.” After affirming that certain Old Testament scriptures “Definitely and positively . . . apply to the homosexual,” Kimball states, “One of Satan’s strongest weapons is to make the victim believe that the practices [are] incurable regardless of one’s efforts. . . . Satan tells his victims that it is a natural way of life; that it is normal; that perverts are a different kind of people born ‘that way’ and that they cannot change. This is a base lie” (italics in original).
Lest his readers be tempted to regard such statements as his personal opinion, Kimball states, “I am not expressing my thoughts only, I am quoting the creator of the world. Truth is truth and needs no eloquent tongue nor brilliant brain to portray it. . . . I am expressing the truths of God as interpreted by six thousand years of the Lord’s prophets in addition to the Lord, himself, the Christ, the Savior, the Creator, the Redeemer” (15-16). As if this weren’t sufficient, Elder Kimball states, “If ten million rationalists combine to find out a truth they can never, worlds without end, find a truth unless they follow the path of truth.” (16). Moving from the general to the specific, he says to a particular young man with whom he had been counseling, “You are brilliant. Use your brains to think and ponder and explore but never presume ‘to counsel your God.’ and don’t presume to call black, white just because you think it is so. Do not presume to change vital, basic eternal truths. The truth is truth regardless of all accumulated opinions arrayed against it.” (17) To cement his argument, he compares the homosexual who seeks to hide his sin from God to Cain: “One cannot hide his perversions any more than Cain could his murder” (18), adding, “You should now make the superhuman effort to rid yourself of your master, the devil, Satan.”
Imagine how you might have felt had you been a young gay Latter-day Saint reading such words. It is difficult to imagine that you would not have felt unclean, condemned, perverted, and even evil. It is not hard to imagine that you would have doubted the love of God. It is impossible to imagine you holding on to your conviction that the desires you were feeling for members of your own gender were natural and that they were not a result of something evil and broken within you. My guess is that your awareness of the nature of your desires could not have withstood the phalanx of apostles, prophets, parents, stake presidents, bishops and even angels and divine beings arrayed against you.
As you struggled with feelings of worthlessness and condemnation, even damnation, a few years later, sitting in the priesthood session of general conference, listening to an address by Apostle Boyd K. Packer, called, “To Young Men Only,” you hear the following:
There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just ‘that way’ and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. . . . No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.” Once again, you are reminded that you are alone against an army of the righteous: “Go to . . . your parents, your bishop, the servants of the Lord, the angels of heaven and the Lord Jesus Christ. [They] will help redeem you from it.”
His words, “you are alone against an army of the righteous,” will haunt your dreams for years.
Having been bullied at school, at church and at seminary, you suddenly feel very unsafe when you hear him tell of an exchange he had with a missionary who had been approached by his gay companion. The missionary confesses, “I hit my companion.” Elder Packer reports, “Oh, is that all.” “But I floored him.” Elder Packer replies, “Well, thanks. Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well [sic] for a General Authority to solve the problem that way.” You are horrified when he adds, “I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself.”
The next year at a 12 stake fireside at BYU, you hear another address by Elder Packer titled “To the One.” As he speaks, you feel singled out, naked before this large gathering of fellow students. You wonder how many of them know about you and your strong desire for intimate connectedness with other young men, even a particular young man in your dorm. Once again you hear language that makes you fear, not only for your body, but for your very soul: “It is wrong! It is not desirable; it is unnatural; it is abnormal; it is an affliction. When practiced, it is immoral. It is a transgression.” Next, as he describes what you are as something that might be contagious, you find yourself instinctively moving away from those sitting around you.
As someone who has tried his whole life to be faithful, to live the gospel, you find yourself despairing when you hear him say, “Do not be misled by those who whisper that it is part of your nature and therefore right for you. That is false doctrine!” As with the words of other apostles you have read, you hear him call it a “disorder” that “is not unchangeable. It is not locked in.” As someone who has tried to change, tried to unlock the mystery of your unwanted feelings, you despair. As someone who has tried diligently to live the gospel and who has fought against being selfish, your confidence is shattered by what you hear next: what you are, he says, is the result of “a very typical form of selfishness.” Accepting the validity of his words, you attempt to take your own life—on more than one occasion.
When such efforts are unsuccessful, you determine to double and then triple your efforts to live so righteously that God will rid you of your unwanted desires, make you like your straight friends. You serve a mission and become assistant to the president because of your valiancy. When you return, you ask for additional callings In your ward and serve with distinction; you read the scriptures often and undertake special fasts; you attend the temple several times a week; you pray without ceasing, hoping that God will hear your prayers and grant your wish that he make you “normal.” This goes on year after year and yet you feel no change. Submitting to pressure from your family and church leaders, you finally marry but in spite of several years of noble efforts and fidelity in your marriage, you finally confess to your wife that you can no longer pretend to have the emotional connectedness required to make your marriage mutually fulfilling, and so you divorce. Nevertheless, you continue to be conflicted, torn between your deep sense of your identity and your desire to conform to what you have been taught.
Your parents, confused and disapproving of the failure of your marriage, confront you. When you finally muster the courage to tell them that you are gay, they are visibly shaken and express deep disappointment in you. Your mother reaches out to embrace you, but your father, who had also been in the priesthood session where Elder Packer spoke years before, recounts the apostle’s words and tells you how disappointed he is in you. You recognize that you can no longer be around your parents and your siblings, that you can no longer face their opprobrium, so you move to another state and try to get on with your life.
Now, Imagine it is decades later, April 2010, and you are listening once more to general conference as you do twice a year, even though you no longer go to church. Once again, you hear Elder Packer say words that have seared your conscience for as long as you can remember, “Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so.” You sigh and feel unworthiness wash over you as it has almost every day of your life. And then, during the closing session of conference, you hear President Dieter Uchtdorf say, “Many questions in life, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life.” These words are strange to your ears and you don’t know how to take them.
A short time later, you hear of a new website sponsored by the Church: mormonsandgays.org. At first, you think it must be a joke but when you Google it, you find it is indeed true. What your read both surprises and delights you:
- “No one fully knows the root causes of same-sex attraction”; “Attraction to those of the same sex . . . should not be viewed as a disease or illness”; and “One thing that’s always important is to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real, that they are authentic, that that we don’t deny that someone feels a certain way.” You wonder if the millennium has come while you were sleeping.
- Thinking about your own failed marriage, you read words you wish you had heard thirty years previously, “Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex.”
- Also, “There is much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God.”
- Finally, watching and listening to Apostle Quentin Cook’s message, you find it much more compassionate and hopeful than the messages you have heard in your life. He says,
I think the lesson that I learned from . . . [presiding over a stake where seventeen gay members died of AIDS] is that as a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate [than Latter-day Saints]. No family who has anybody who has a same-gender issue should exclude them from the family circle. They need to be part of the family circle. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and 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. I’m sorry, I feel very strongly about this as you can tell. I think it is a very important principle.
You write his words in your journal and stare at them in disbelief: “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.”
You recognize that these messages did not require a change in doctrine or a new revelation. They didn’t result from new scientific findings or new psychological or therapeutic insights. From your lifelong study of scripture, you recognize that their essential message is found abundantly in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, as well as in the teachings of Modern prophets and the foundational teachings of the world’s religions.
While you are disappointed at the website’s message about same-sex unions and marriages, for the first time you can remember a small ember of hope burns in your bosom.
Now, switching from that consciousness back to my own:
While one can be pleased that the message of love and acceptance found on the new website hopefully will result in more compassionate treatment of LGBT Mormons by ecclesiastical leaders, greater acceptance of our gay and lesbian saints by families and congregations, reduced depression and substance abuse among gays and lesbians, and fewer suicide attempts, one cannot ignore the enormous cost to individuals, families, congregations and the Church itself that has resulted from this message having been so long in coming. All of hurt, pain, sorrow and anguish; all of the divided families and disrupted congregations; all of the attempted and successful suicides cannot suddenly be erased, nor forgotten, no matter how welcome this new website and its primary messages are.
What is surprising is not how little we know on the subject of homosexuality, but how little we have wanted or tried to know. For the most part, over the last half century, ecclesiastical leaders, social scientists and therapists as well as members in general have both accepted unquestionably some of the prevailing incorrect ideas about same-sex orientation and identity (what I term convenient falsehoods) and at the same time have rejected categorically both scientific and therapeutic research that challenged or contradicted their established paradigm (inconvenient truths). Further, we have refused to even listen to, let alone take seriously what gay men and lesbians have been telling us about their own experience and virtually ignoring them as a research population. It is short of astonishing that the recent study conducted by Dr. William Bradshaw and his associates is the first credible scientific study of the attitudes and experiences of gay and lesbian Mormons. It is a condemnation of our blindness and arrogance that until this study no one bothered to gather and glean the insights from those most adversely affected by prevailing doctrine, policy and practice.
After reading the personal narratives of many hundreds of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints, Dr. Bradshaw came to the conclusion that of all of the cultures in the world in which one might deliberately choose to be gay, the Mormon community would be at the top of the most illogical. He says, “I have spent a long time investigating the published evidence from empirical studies, and I know that the overwhelming evidence strongly favors the position that sexual orientation is programmed by biological mechanisms. The evidence that it’s a choice or that it’s programmed by social or psychological forces is lacking.”
This was the same conclusion I came to twenty-five years ago while serving as bishop of the Los Angeles Single’s Ward in the 1980s. The LGBT members of my ward were not mentally ill, they were not masochists, they were not rebellious or libertine, they were not willfully disobedient. In fact, I found them the opposite: they had the values and virtues of being raised in good Latter-day Saint homes. They were mystified by having a condition they didn’t understand and said they did not choose. Most wanted desperately to rid themselves of unwanted desires, to prove their righteousness so they would be acceptable to their families and church. After listening to their loneliness, their confusion, their broken hearts, their desire to conform to Church standards, my heart broke with theirs. I believed them when they said they didn’t choose to be gay.
At the same time they were going through what I would characterize for many of them as existential despair and even tortured lives, many of their parents, accepting what they were told by leaders and therapists, were themselves tortured by the belief that they somehow had caused their children to be gay, were responsible for creating children who were anathema to their church and community by being either over-weaning mothers or cold and distant fathers. This too was a convenient falsehood.
As individual Latter-day Saints (members and leaders alike) and as scholars, social scientists and therapists, we need to exercise our responsibility to seek for and live by the truth (inconvenient or not) to the best of our ability, challenging axioms, questioning authoritative sources when they conflict with our own deepest sense of what is right, examining our own assumptions and biases, and seeking the guidance of the Spirit. We should hold in reserve the possibility that we may be wrong, that on this subject as well as many others, there may be more truth to discover and be revealed. As President Hugh B. Brown said to the students at BYU:
. . . while I believe all that God has revealed, I am not quite sure that I understand what he has revealed, and the fact that he has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead. . . . We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not. . . .
In relation to our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, I believe we have been guilty of emotional arrogance.
On this same occasion, President Brown said something I still find amazing, especially coming, as it did, from a member of the First Presidency speaking for the Church. His words are a challenge to all of us who would seek the truth: “Preserve . . . the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.”
Let me repeat that: “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.”
More than a hundred years ago, Elder B. H. Roberts asserted, “Not half–not one-hundredth part–not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world.” That’s an astonishing statement, especially for a general authority. As Roberts argued, “The watering and the weeding is going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain.” That more intelligent discipleship, according to Roberts, involves cooperating in the works of spirit as well as the mind.
As with nearly all subjects, we need to believe that on the subject of homosexuality as well as morality, God will “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” I believe that to some extent, except for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters themselves, all of us are responsible, to one degree or another, for the suffering and deaths resulting from both our insistence on an explanation of the nature of same-sex orientation and identity that ultimately was without foundation and, at the same time, our refusal to apply the most basic Christian principles in terms of our treatment of LGBT individuals. If, as Elder Cook states on the new Church’s website, “As a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate [than] Latter-day Saints,” it is important to note that we have not been. That is a reality of the past and to some extent the present; it is not necessarily prologue to the future, which is still in our hands—and our hearts.
Let me turn now to the theme of this conference, “Deepening the Conversation on Gays in the Church.” Not “Gays and the Church, but gays in the Church.” That small preposition is important because essentially over the past fifty or so years, not only has there been little conversation with our LGBT brothers and sisters, they have been out or the Church more than in it. This in spite of my experience that leads me to believe that most would have preferred to be in it had we created a more loving and accepting environment for them to be so. Most have not been there because they have not felt safe and because their experience has taught them they were more likely to find rejection, condemnation and heartbreak in our congregations.
Collectively, as members and leaders, we now have the chance to create a new beginning—for them and for us. I would like to suggest a few things that would make that possible and even accelerate it.
I suggest that the leaders of the Church could move things forward by doing the following:
- Making sure that the message of the Church’s website, mormonsandgays.org, is communicated directly to every stake and district president and to every bishop and branch president. I am surprised by the number of local leaders and therefore members who seem unaware of or unclear about the site and its messages. Individual bishops and stake presidents could take the initiative to do this on their own until formal processes are set in motion.
- Ensure that the information contained on the website is integrated into the curricular material for Sunday school, priesthood and relief society, young men and young women, and seminary and Institute.
- Until the new ethos is engrained in Church culture, make the messages of the new website the subject of general and stake conferences and leader training sessions as well articles in the Ensign and other Church publications.
- Make mormonsandgays.org more prominent on LDS.org (it is difficult to find at present).
- Encourage local leaders to seek out and invite LGBT members and their spouses, partners and children to church.
- Recognize and honor legal same-sex civil unions and marriages.
- Cease disciplining gays and lesbians living in long-term, committed relationships, especially if they are abiding by other church standards. Treat homosexuals the same way heterosexuals are treated.
That is, be proactive in creating a safe place within the Church so that a dialogue takes place from within. A dialogue is not possible without the participation of both partners. Essentially, for the past number of years we have carried out a monologue on this subject. That is no longer acceptable.
If the general authorities set the example, it will be easier for the members to follow. Here are some specific steps local leaders and members could take in order to ensure a better future for straights and gays:
- Familiarize yourself with the new website and call it to the attention of leaders and fellow members. Cite specific examples of loving and accepting messages.
- Ask local leaders to make the messages of the website the subject of stake conference and sacrament meeting talks as well as priesthood, relief society and young men’s and women’s lessons.
- Befriend gays and their families within your congregation. In a kind and yet certain way, counter any negative or homophobic remarks and behaviors. Call these to the attention of the bishop if necessary.
- Support positive messages and activities about gays within your school and community.
- With the approval of the bishop, help organize conversations between the gay and straight members of your congregation.
- Be particularly sensitive to children and adolescents who may need support.
In a discussion with students at the Berkeley Institute of Religion last year, I asked, “Whose Church is this?” They responded, “The Church of Jesus Christ.” I said, “There are two possessives in the name of the church—it is the Church of Jesus Christ, certainly, but it is also the Church of the Latter-day Saints. In other words, it is your church and mine. That means the Church is what we collectively make it out of our joint stewardship. As I once wrote to a friend, ‘Jesus is doing his part; we need to do ours.’”
Part of that stewardship requires us to forgive the Church and those who act in its name. Since we all must constantly ask the Lord to forgive us, we need to be forgiving of the Church and its leaders in regard to past statements, policies and behavior about homosexuality. Because the Church cannot possibly be all things to all people, it will at times in its policies and practices be hurtful to some. The idealist who wishes the Church to be always be an active agent for change based on the social and political realities in the United States and Europe will surely be disappointed. The realist, who may be more aware of the implications of social change for an international church, may be grateful for the degree to which the Church responds to social issues at all. Institutions are at best cumbersome and inefficient instruments of human progress. Nevertheless, in our more sober moments, we would agree that in spite of their limitations, organizations and institutions, including religious ones, can do much good. With our thoughtful and faithful engagement, they can do even more good.
Those of us who belong to the Church should keep in mind that as part of the kingdom of God on earth, it is an institution with a special destiny. In giving our allegiance to it, we pledge to commit our lives to making it as true a reflection as possible of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Our vision of its possibilities has to include the whole earth, including Africa, South America, and Asia–those places where the highest priority may be getting enough to eat. That means that we all have to work to make the Church a more responsive, more effective, and more charitable institution. We also need to forgive it when it fails to meet all our expectations and needs.
We tend to regard Church leaders as if they always lived at the highest stages of morality. Actually, Church leaders, like the rest of us, live at varying stages of morality. While they often respond from more advanced stages, at times bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, area presidents, and even general authorities respond from lower ones. They will on occasion act out of a moral perspective that seems and may actually be unenlightened and without charity. At times, as with past policies and teachings about LGBT issues, they may rise no higher than the prevailing understanding of their culture.
The truth is very rarely all in—even for prophets, as even a cursory review of Church history will confirm. We need to remind ourselves that as a Church, our doctrines and teaching have not always been consistent and stable. For example, in the nineteenth century, the Quorum of the Twelve tried to excommunicate one of its members, Apostle Orson Pratt, for teaching that God was omniscient since the rest of the Quorum contended that God was still progressing in knowledge. A little over a hundred years later, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in harmony with Orson Pratt’s understanding, condemned as one of the seven heresies of Mormonism what Elder Pratt’s fellow apostles and Brigham Young himself believed and taught. This example confirms the truth of Emerson’s dictum, “The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief . . . of the next. [From age to age] men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying.”
The Church has undergone various spiritual transformations from its beginning. I believe that the Church is less racist today than it was a decade ago. I also believe that there is a diminishing sexism in the Church. There is clearly less emphasis now on literal and legalistic aspects of Church governance, and there seems to be more emphasis on being a good church rather than being the only true church. I hope there is more emphasis on being Christian than being merely Mormon. But there are other ways in which the Church needs to grow and change. Women need to have a yet greater voice in the Church, a greater sense of their true equality before God and his priesthood leaders, and an enlarged hope not only that there is a place for them in the Church but a place for the Church in them. Our diverse and under-represented populations need to be empowered by the Church to play a central role in its divine mission, to have their cultural traditions honored on an equal basis with the dominant Eurocentric tradition that has shaped the Church to the present. And LGBT Latter-day Saints must be recognized as an essential population within the Church, welcomed into congregations, and celebrated for the unique contributions they can make in preparing the Lord’s people for his return. Alternative visions must also to be given voice and alternative voices given opportunities to shape the visions of the Church’s future. A tendency to silence these voices––feminine, diverse, intellectual, and gay––does not serve the Church or its ultimate mission well. Being more open to these voices is perhaps one of the ways in which the contemporary Church can evolve to a higher spiritual plane. Using Paul’s metaphor from 1 Corinthians, we are all essential parts of the body of Christ and it takes all of us to make up his kingdom.
One of the most reassuring scriptures in the Latter-day Saint cannon is found in 2 Nephi wherein Nephi says, “O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that His paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and He employeth no servant there” (9:41-42). In other words, the only person we have to give an accounting of our lives to is Jesus. Recently, I tried to imagine that scene. I saw myself cramming for that interview like I used to cram for exams in graduate school, staying up all night, studying madly, trying to guess the questions and preparing the answers. In my imagination, I carry a load of records into the interview, a catalogue of all of my good deeds on the top, a list of my transgressions in very small print on the bottom. I’m ready for the big exam, but Jesus does something I haven’t prepared for: he simply opens his bible to the 25th chapter of Matthew and asks me to read his words about giving or not giving “the least of these.” When I am finished, he turns to me and says, “There’s just one question, Bob, are you on my right hand or on my left?”
I began this address with a declaration of faith. I want to close by reaffirming that declaration and my devotion to the Church. My intention today has not been to criticize others but rather to understand and clarify, to call myself as well as my fellow saints to a higher standard in terms of our treatment of our LGBT members. In citing statements from certain general authorities, it has not been my intention to denigrate them. Admitting my own imperfections, I have never expected perfection from the leaders of the Church. Just as God sustains me in my various callings in spite of my weaknesses and limitations, so I sustain them in spite of their weaknesses and limitations. In the Preface to Comprehensive History of the Church, B. H. Roberts states, “The position [in this history] is not assumed that the men of the New Dispensation—its prophets, apostles, presidencies, and other leaders—are without faults or infallible, rather they are treated as men of like passions with their fellow men. . . . Bearing indeed a Heavenly treasure [the “delegated authority from God to teach the gospel and administer its ordinances of salvation to the children of men . . .”], they carried it in earthen vessels; and that earthliness, with their human limitations, was plainly manifested on many occasions and in various ways, both in personal conduct and in collective deportment.”
I am deeply committed to the truth of the Restoration. That is, I know that something powerful and transcendent happened when young Joseph walked into that grove of trees in 1820. Part of that conviction is related to the recognition that the spiritual fruit from that grove has taken root, both in my own heart and in the hearts of others all over the world where it has flowered like the white, luminous fruit on Lehi’s tree, which is, as the angel tells Nephi, the love of God. When I consider how much love has resulted from young Joseph’s courageous voyage into that foreboding wood, including the enormous blessing of love in my own life, I cannot pronounce it as anything but good, even though I acknowledge that, as with all human acts, sorrow and tragedy have also flowed from that astonishing vision of light and love. That is, such light is always filtered through the imperfect prisms of our mortal, fallen, natures. Nevertheless, it is light, however diminished by human limitations.
In the Book of Mormon, Christ calls us his children of light. I believe that in some way, there is a metaphysical if not a physical and spiritual connection between light and love, just as I believe we can choose to connect the light and love within us to the light and love that emanate from him. It is in magnifying that light and love that we have the greatest chance of entering into a dialogue with God and a dialogue with one another, including a deepened dialogue about and with our fellow LGBT members. May the Lord of light and love help us so to do.
Reasonable people can have differing and even opposing views on any number of subjects. What I am arguing is that we should not be so dogmatic in our assertions and that we should always be open to the possibility that on any subject we may be wrong.
We can’t reconcile these opposing doctrines any more than we can reconcile what Elders Kimball, Peterson and Packer said in the 1970’s with the messages on the Church’s new website. On the other hand,
May we open our hearts and minds and prepare our spirits to both receive and to accept those revealed truths, whether they are convenient or not, and to shed falsehoods, whether they are convenient or not.
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