By Michael Barker
The first part of my essay will center around the deconstruction and the complication of that idea. The latter part will address some of the more specific arguments against same-sex marriage and homosexuality within the context of Mormonism.
One of the unique features of Mormonism is that it is an early religious movement. As such, we (as well as religious scholars) are privileged to see our religious community push and pull as it makes a place for itself at the table with older religious traditions. With any new religious movement, it has to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable beliefs and practices. Those that fall outside of what is acceptable are considered unorthodox (wrong belief) or unorthoprax (wrong behaviors).
Orthodox belief is usually circumscribed by what traditionally has been called doctrine. Doctrine is usually seen as a set of beliefs, and to a lesser extent, behaviors that do not change. Catholicism provides a framework in which to evaluate the idea of Church doctrine as it makes a distinction between Church Doctrine and Discipline. Allow me to provide a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
The Catholic Catechism:
“This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church’s Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium. It is intended to serve “as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries”(The Catholic Catechism, Prologue, Part III).
The Doctrine of the Trinity as found in The Catholic Catechism:
“We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple (Catholic Cathechism, Part I, section 2).
The Doctrine of the Trinity, of course is based upon the Nicene Creed which did not take form until the year 325 C.E. That is three hundred years after the ministry of Jesus Christ. It took three centuries for this doctrine to be vetted out.
”…discipline” as an “instruction, system of teaching or of law, given under the authority of the Church [which] can be changed with the approval of proper authority, as opposed to doctrine, which is unchangeable” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, pg. 334).
An example would be, prior to Vatican II, the pre-Communion fast extended from midnight until the time one received Communion; no food or water were to be consumed. This discipline was relaxed first to a three-hour fast and then to the one-hour fast the Catholic church now observes.
So, what was the purpose of this exercise of looking outside our tradition for clarification?
- To offer some frame work of seeing how long it can take for a church’s doctrine to take shape and form.
- To offer clarification of how an older tradition views doctrine (which is infallible and cannot change) and discipline, which can change.
Now, in Mormonism we have a similar framework as Jenny alluded to. We use the word policyinstead of discipline. The word Doctrine we do use the same as Catholics, but how Catholicism has arrived at what is and isn’t doctrine is quite explicit:
“…It occurs even more clearly both when the bishops by a collegial act (as in Ecumenical Councils), together with their visible Head, define a doctrine to be held, and when the Roman Pontiff “speaks ex cathedra,” that is, when, exercising the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, through his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church”(Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine On the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day MYSTERIUM ECCLESIA Issued by Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith June 24, 1973).
So…um what is Mormon doctrine?
In the April 2012 General Conference, Elder Christoffersen attempted to elucidate what makes Mormon Doctrine:
“…but in the Church today, just as anciently, establishing the doctrine of Christ or correcting doctrinal deviations is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority…At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” (Elder Todd Christofferson, April 2012 General Conference, The Doctrine of Christ).
Interesting that he explicitly stated that there have been “doctrinal deviations”. Are we to understand that statement as meaning we have held to beliefs in the past as being doctrinal when they weren’t? Or are we to understand it as meaning doctrine can change? Are those two questions essentially the same thing?
Elder Christofferson then went on to quote J. Reuben Clark quoting Brigham Young (as we know, a very Mormonie thing to do!):
“To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. …
“… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest”(J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words, 10).
Do you see the quandary in which the membership is still left? It still isn’t clear. How do we know when a “prophet is speaking as a prophet”? How do we know when the “Lord is going to talk now”? It appears the onus is upon the membership. But what if I don’t receive the confirmation of a doctrine and you have? As presented, the argument appears to be circular: “You will know the doctrine is true because the Holy Spirit will confirm it to you. But if you don’t get the confirmation, well, you must be wrong.”
Catholicism has a clear way of vetting out its doctrine as outlined earlier, but us Mormons really don’t.
Mormonism and Creeds
Many doctrines of traditional Christianity are contained in their creeds. This is what Joseph Smith had to say about creeds and is probably why Mormons don’t have a creed:
“[Unlike the Latter-day Saints] Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church.I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled…It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 288).
Joseph also said:
“..I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints … are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time…” (Joseph Smith, January 1843, History of the Church, 5:215; from “History of the Church” (manuscript), book D-1, p. 1433, Church Archives).
So, does Mormonism have Doctrine? I think so, however it is not found in creeds. It is usually not explicit in canonized scripture either; we get doctrine from interpretation of scripture. Perhaps the realization of the ebb and flow of Mormon doctrine is what led Deseret Book to cease publication of Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s book, Mormon Doctrine last year. It seems that Mormonism rejected Elder McConkie’s attempt to systematize our theology; some argue that the LDS philosopher and scholar, Dr. Adam Miller, is attempting to systematize our theology again.
I think we would all agree that ongoing revelation is a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This allows for policy and, dare I say, doctrinal change. We see this quite explicitly with what was once called, the negro problem. In 1852, Brigham Young stated the following to the Church membership in the Tabernacle:
“Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him cannot hold the priesthood … I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true & they know it. The Negro cannot hold one particle of Government … if any man mingles his seed with the seed of Cane the only way he could get rid of it or have salvation would be to come forward & have his head cut off & spill his blood upon the ground. It would also take the life of his children.” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p. 97)
Now, for those yelling, “This was policy!!! Not doctrine!!!”, the following are statements from the LDS First Presidency, clarifying that the “Negro doctrine” was really doctrine, not policy:
“The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization…” (August 17, 1949, the LDS First Presidency)
“Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God….” (December 15, 1969, the LDS First Presidency)
On June 1978, this “Negro doctrine” was changed by revelation.
In a 1978 CES fireside Elder Bruce R. McConkie famously said:
“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.”
Now onto polygamy…nah, I’ll leave that one alone. OK, let’s discuss Brigham Young’s Adam-God Doctrine. Nope. Too easy. Okay, okay, let’s talk about Blood Atonement then. We’ll leave that one alone too; like shooting fish in a barrel. You see, “Mormon doctrine” becomes “Mormon policy” only after the doctrine is no longer considered doctrine and we become embarrassed because of it. Case in point – our racist doctrine on blacks, Blood Atonement, Adam-God doctrine.
So this brings us to a great question. What is the role and nature of doctrine? For there is propositional content within Mormon-Christianity and that creates tension. What is its point? The Epistle of James 2:19 states:
“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.”
The devils probably have a better grasp on doctrine than we and that will not save them.
But doctrine is not completely irrelevant. So what roles do doctrines play then? Are they indicators that we are in the truth? Or are they categories by which we are to live? Probably the latter. They are probably supposed to be reflexions of reality that are to be appropriated by us and structure our lives and our understanding in ways that change what we are. They are more of a reflection of personal existential realities, not just abstract cognitive events that are loosely connected somehow. Docrine(s)ends up being less about knowing the truth than being the truth.
A Straw-man Argument
Before I conclude, let me bring up a few things that need addressing. We have all heard it said, “Gays just have to be celibate. There is no difference in regards to these expectations with homosexual and heterosexual members. Heterosexuals are expected to remain celibate until marriage.”
There are two problems with this line of logic:
Heterosexual members can hold to the possibility of, at some point, fully expressing their heterosexual attractions in a sexual union that occurs within the bonds of marriage. As Jenny stated above, homosexuals cannot hold to this hope in the LDS Church. They must be celibate for the rest of their lives. As a married heterosexual, this to me is incomprehensible.
Secondly, a heterosexual can express heterosexual attraction. A straight man can hold his straight girlfriend’s hand. A straight girl can rub her straight boyfriend’s back during Sacrament Meeting. A straight couple can even hug and kiss.
MormonsandGays.org states on its homepage:
“The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.”
Now think about this. “…but acting on it is.” For my more conservative, traditional-believing friends, think about this. How would you respond if you saw a homosexual man holding his partner’s hand during Sacrament Meeting? How would you respond if you saw a homosexual man lightly rubbing his partner’s back in Sacrament Meeting? How would you respond if you saw a homosexual man putting his head on his partner’s shoulder during Sacrament Meeting? How would you respond if you saw a homosexual man lightly peck his partner on the lips in the church foyer?
Do you see what I am saying? We are not merely requiring our gay brothers and sisters to abstain from sexual intercourse, we are requiring them to abstain from all expressions of affection toward a member of the same sex.
As Mormons we believe in Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. My question is, “What does this love look like when speaking of our gay brothers and sisters?” This is a troubling question because our record on this count is far from Christlike. According to a recent Pew Forum study, the public perceives Mormons and Muslims as being equally hostile towards gays; and the public sees Mormons as being more hostile towards gays compared to Catholics and Evangelical Christians 1,2.
The Vanguard of Marriage
Recently I have wondered why the LDS Church has decided to be the vanguard of opposite-gender marriage. There are so many other pressing issues in which we could focus our energies: poverty, income inequality, homelessness. The institutional concern with same-sex marriage seems to be a concern of middle-class white America. It reminds me of an essay I read recently by BYU professor, Richard Johnson:
“Every semester several students in my social problems course at BYU propose that the extent or seriousness of certain social problems represents a sign that the world is about to end and the Millennium is near. …they see the traditional and highly publicized problems of crime, violence, drug abuse, and sexual deviance as the primary (or only) indicators of sin and evil…they perceive America as now experiencing unprecedented levels of crime, violence, drug abuse, and sexual deviance.
“Several aspects of this line of thought strike me as rather narrow-minded. First, it seems rather narrow and presumptuous for Americans to evaluate the condition of the entire human race and the fate of the planet on the basis of their perceptions of America’s social problems and moral climate…the criteria used to judge the “badness” of American society (sex, drugs, crime, and violence) seem narrow. I cannot remember a single student, for example, who has based a conclusion about “the evil that is rampant in society” on observations about poverty, homelessness, or income inequality, to name a few possible alternative measures…there seems to be a narrow view as to where and when social problems or “evil” have existed throughout time and space. The parochial view that ”everything must be worse here and now” seems to have been adopted by yet another generation of Americans…
“…It seems to me that if we are serious about contemplating the moral state of contemporary American society, we might gain valuable insight by broadening the measure of morality beyond the traditional sins (crime, sex, drugs, violence) to include such variables as poverty, homelessness, and socioeconomic inequality”(click here to read entire essay)
I have heard the argument that those who pick and choose what they will believe and don’t believe are “cafeteria or buffet Mormons”. This of course is a derogatory term. But aren’t all of us buffet-Mormons? There is a natural tension between what we perceive as doctrine and our lived Mormon experience. To resolve that tension, we might fall to the doctrinal side at times, and other times we fall to the side of our lived religious experience. For those within our faith community that advocate for change in regards to gays, they are doing so from a place of faith; they are falling to the side of their lived religious experience. They are doing so because of a deep God-given sense of justice and equality.
You see, we are all cafeteria Mormons. At least that’s what a recent Pew Research Study found.3
Same Sex Sealings
I have heard the argument, that the idea that the Church will be forced to marry homosexuals in the temple. This is only an American Church concern. Most countries separate the civil wedding ceremony from the temple sealing. It seems like a simple answer to this unfounded concern.
So this was a fun mental exercise right? What’s the point?
I am hesitant to state that doctrine never changes. I am also hesitant to state the Church’s view on same-sex marriage is doctrinal. I should be hesitant to declare and demand that I am right. However, my lived Mormon life and interactions with homosexuals, lends me to believe that the Church will eventually change on this issue. I want the Church to be a safer place for our gay members and it presently is not. Gay Mormon teens are still committing suicide because of their inability to reconcile their faith with who they are. This problem has been acknowledged by the LDS Church4,5. But what are we doing about it? I as well as the more conservative Mormons should practice more of what Nathaniel Givens calls Epistemic Humility, when approaching this problem.
Could I be wrong? Sure, but they could be wrong too.
Many have observed that, “Our Heavenly father has His finger on the fast-forward button when it comes to the gay issue.” Just think, no other conservative church has a website dealing specifically with this issue like the LDS Church does (mormonsandgays.org). From its home page we read:
“No one fully knows the root causes of same-sex attraction. Each experience is different. Latter-day Saints recognize the enormous complexity of this matter. We simply don’t have all the answers. Attraction to those of the same sex, however, should not be viewed as a disease or illness.”
Such a web-site and such a statement would not have existed five, let alone ten or thirty years ago. In fact, President Boyd K. Packer condoned violence against gays in the October 1976 Priesthood session of General Conference:
“…it is time to vigorously resist.
While I was in a mission on one occasion, a missionary said he had something to confess. I was very worried because he just could not get himself to tell me what he had done.
After patient encouragement he finally blurted out, ‘I hit my companion.’
‘Oh, is that all,’ I said in great relief.
‘But I floored him,’ he said.
After learning a little more [that the companion was gay], my response was ‘Well, thanks. Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way’.
I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it.”
Do you see what I am saying? Things are a changin’.
For some, change isn’t fast enough. To those I say, remember that large institutions are naturally conservative and naturally move slowly. For some, it is too fast. To those I would say that deep within the Mormon ethos is the idea of ongoing revelation. And by definition, revelation explicitly means change. In her essay, Jenny said, “If they are truly prophets, they would not and could not change the doctrine, no matter how many people clamor for the change.” I would argue the opposite. Because we have prophets, doctrine can and will change as we receive further light and knowledge.
Just as a scientist might discover a scientific truth that has been in existence since before the beginning of time and space, so our prophets will discover truths that our Heavenly Parents reveal to them. I wonder if our Heavenly Parents are waiting for the membership to be ready to receive further revelation on this subject before giving further revelation. This of course would bring up the issue of the morality of God waiting on us when so many are suffering. But that is another post for another time.
Remember, our Heavenly Parents love their liberal Mormons. Also remember, our Heavenly Parents love their conservative Mormons too.
1Click here to read the overview Pew Research Study. Here is a snipett from the subtitle, “Religion”:
“Religion is a difficult terrain for many LGBT adults. Lopsided majorities describe the Muslim religion (84%), the Mormon Church (83%), the Catholic Church (79%) and evangelical churches (73%) as unfriendly toward people who are LGBT. They have more mixed views of the Jewish religion and mainline Protestant churches, with fewer than half of LGBT adults describing those religions as unfriendly, one-in-ten describing each of them as friendly and the rest saying they are neutral.”
2Click here to read to read Chapter Six of the same survey. The following is under the subtitle, “Feeling Unwelcome in Religious Communities”:
“Many LBGT adults see major religious institutions as unfriendly toward them. And as shown in Chapter 2 on social acceptance, about three-in-ten LGBT adults (29%) say they personally have been made to feel unwelcome in a church or religious organization.”
More than eight-in-ten LGBT adults surveyed say the Muslim religion (84%) is unfriendly to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, while less than 1% say the Muslim religion is friendly and 13% consider it neutral. Perceptions of the Mormon Church are similar, with 83% of LGBT respondents saying the Mormon Church is unfriendly toward them. About eight-in-ten (79%) consider the Catholic Church unfriendly, and 73% say the same about evangelical churches. By comparison, the Jewish religion and non-evangelical (mainline) Protestant churches are seen as less hostile, although many more LGBT adults consider these institutions to be unfriendly than friendly toward them. Roughly half of the LGBT adults surveyed say the Jewish religion (47%) is unfriendly toward the LGBT population, just one-in-ten say the Jewish religion is friendly and about four-in-ten (41%) say it is neutral. Perceptions of non-evangelical Protestant churches are similar; 44% of LGBT adults say these churches are unfriendly, 10% say they are friendly and 43% say they are neutral.
3Click here to read a recent Pew Research study showing a fifth of Mormons doubt some Church teaching).
4Click here to read an article released by the LDS Church News in which it states:
“…the most at-risk teenagers [for suicide] are: Those who have gender identity problems and have had a personal crisis. The largest single group of teen suicides, about one-third of the total, are from this group…Those who feel hopelessness on a continuing basis.
5Click here to read the LDS Church-owned, Deseret News article about Utah’s youth suicide epidemic.