The Scarlet Letter: Apostasy


“…if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom…”

The last few weeks have been agony.  On November 5th, the Church shifted its policy regarding LGBT members.  Now any LGBT person who is not celibate will be excommunicated for apostasy.  Many have voiced their unfailing support of the Church, based on the simple formula that the Church is led by a prophet; which means we are led by Christ himself.  Thus any policy, proclamation, general authority address, Ensign article, or conference talk is the Word of God.  Any degree of questioning is doubting, and doubting is seen as the beginning of apostasy.

Within a day of the policy change, I received the following from someone very close to me:

“The sudden weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth is comical.  There is nothing new here.  This was a minor update to the PH Leadership manual to clarify that which everyone already knows is the unambiguous policy of the Church.  I guess it is just a contrived opportunity for everyone unhappy with the Church to bash it…”

To say that I was stunned is an understatement.  The policy changes had floored me.  Literally taken my breath away.  Overnight, the delicate space that Wendy and I (and a host of others) have been trying to create for LGBTQ people in the Church evaporated into wisps of imagined hope.  The middle ground between the polarized ends of Prop 8 militancy and a vision of LGBTQ people sitting happily in pews within the loving embrace of a ward community disappeared.

There was a growing hope that there would be a place for LGBTQ people in the Church.  A comment of inclusion here.  A quote that ‘all are welcome’ there.  Bishops and Stake Presidencies in small corners of the Church were refusing to hold disciplinary councils for sexual orientation.  In short, there was a small number of safe LDS congregations for LGBTQ people.  But the hope of one person is a threat to the status quo of another.

When I originally read the book, The Scarlet Letter as a youth, I didn’t like it very much.  I didn’t appreciate its moral complexity.  People didn’t act in Christ-like ways.  The society judged in ways that subverted the Atonement and forgiveness.  While the rules of the society appeared to mirror my own understanding of sexual morality, everything about it in the book seemed wrong.  In short, while it appeared to reflect the letter of the law regarding chastity, the Spirit told me something very different.

I hadn’t reflected much on this book until recently.  But now, I see a direct correlation between the rigid, puritanical society of early America and the current environment in the Church toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  This situation has been magnified by the recent policy changes.  Few people have been able to verbalize why these changes have impacted them so much.  They are left feeling much as when I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time.  While seeming to defend our vision of the family and the law of chastity, something is very off.  There is confusion and a stupor of thought.  All feelings of peace, hope, and right flee.

Studying this book again has given me some much needed perspective on what is happening in the Church today.  Here are a few quotes from The Scarlet Letter that offer some insight:

  • “It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.”

As Mormons, we are a very insular society.  I love how this quote focuses on the value of expanding our ‘moral and intellectual health’ by getting to know people unlike ourselves.  Our greatest misunderstandings seem to come when we can’t see outside of ourselves.  As you get to know our wonderful LGBTQ brothers and sisters, you will find you have infinitely more in common with them than differences.

  • “When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived.”

Never have I heard more people who are vastly uneducated about LGBTQ people (or related issues) speak more definitively against a group of people.  For educational purposes, I highly recommend the following podcast.  It is the most comprehensive discussion to date regarding the science, biology, genetics, environment and social factors regarding homosexuality.

  • It is a good lesson – though it may often be a hard one – for a man… to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.”

There is an irony in our pursuit of the perfect family structure.  In aiming for an ideal, we trample those for whom the ideal isn’t an option or didn’t work out.  We find any criticism comical, contrived, or trumped up.  So those who are divorced, unable to conceive children, never married, or are LGBTQ get to stand outside that narrow circle, looking in.  From our safe space (and privilege) within the circle, we look out and say:

  • One day you will be able to have a marriage like ours that will enable you to go to the highest degree of heaven.
  • In heaven, you will be able to marry a worthy, polygamous husband since your marriage failed. (Even though polygamy is officially apostasy now).
  • Meanwhile, let’s keep your temple marriage intact until you find another suitable husband (just in case.) Regardless of whether your husband remarries, you get to stay sealed to your ex.
  • God will fix LGBTQ people so that they will be straight in the afterlife.

From outside the LDS circle, such statements and claims seem ‘utterly devoid of significance’ or veracity.  While I firmly support the ideals of those within the circle, we cannot act like our theology of salvation excludes those outside our perfect ‘Proclamation’ families.

  • “I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am!”  “No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

There are so many quotes within The Scarlet Letter that speak to the devastating effect of ‘the closet’ on people who are stuck there.  This is especially true for LGBTQ people.  How the suppression of identity crushes the soul!  This is not a characterization of choice or free agency.  The Scarlet Letter demonstrates the dangers of rejection, both in families and society.

  • “It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.”

Today, the equality of LGBTQ people in society and the love shown toward LGBTQ family members threatens the status quo of the Church.  Instead of re-evaluating the nuances of the law of chastity in light of things we didn’t understand before, the Church is doubling down on a path they hope will drive same sex couples, marriages and families out of the Church.  It is no mistake that the new policy mirrors the policy enacted to drive polygamy out of the Church.

In this moment, let us not allow this hateful policy to renew hostility toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Love will eventually win the day, even if that day is not today.

  • “She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”

The scarlet letter in the novel represents adultery.  However, in our modern Mormon context it is now applicable to apostasy.  It is a label intended to create shame, despair and solitude.  It is meant to separate a congregant from the flock and turn them out into a moral wilderness.  While not as tangible as a physical letter on clothing, it can be just as devastating and real as a brand seared into flesh.

The scarlet letter says that you are beyond the reach of Christ’s Atonement.  We use excommunication in much the same way.  It invalidates all of our covenants.  It severs us from family in an eternal sense.  As Mormons, we quibble about the difference between doctrine and policy.  Yet we give policy the power to void temple sealings.  Until 1978, we gave policy the power to deny races we deemed unworthy of the priesthood and temple blessings.  Perhaps such policies should just be done away with so we don’t have to disavow them in the future.

  • “Be it sin or no, I hate the man!”SexualMorality3

In The Scarlet Letter, this statement is said not of the adulterous man, but of the actual husband.  Though he is the one who upholds the law of chastity, he is probably the most despicable character portrayed in the book.  He is neglectful and abusive. He abandoned his wife long before she was accused of adultery.  What it teaches me of morality and chastity is that the quality of my marriage far exceeds the ordinance and covenants from which that marriage originated.  Whether my marriage is sealed in heaven is conditional on how I love and treat my wife.  Whether I am sealed to my children is conditional on how I care for and love them.  There is no protection for an abusive, hateful husband or father (wife or mother) simply by virtue of the covenant itself.  If it is not sealed by love and fidelity, the covenants we make are void.

  • “What a strange, sad man is he!” said the child, as if speaking partly to herself. “In the dark night-time, he calls us to him, and holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! And in the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, that the little brook would hardly wash it off!  But here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”

I find in this quote multiple lessons on morality.  The adulterous father expresses all the love and devotion of a true father, but society denies their ability to form a family.  It expresses the heartache of the child for him, one who has truly embodied the role of parent to her.  It also demonstrates the deep societal shame since they can only express their love in the deep forest.

This quote also highlights the inability of this man to find forgiveness.  It is one of the points in the story that just feels wrong.  If we believe in the power of the Atonement, why would any sin be beyond the grace of Christ?  It is immoral for us to create policies without a fully explored path for those who fall outside of that policy to partake in the Atonement of Christ.  To say that you will be fixed in the next life is entirely insufficient.  If celibacy is God’s will for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, where is their support for this immense burden?  By ignoring or casting them out, we are complicit and accountable for their blood.

“There was a listlessness in his gait, as if he saw no reason for taking one step further, nor felt any desire to do so, but would have been glad, could he be glad of anything, to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive for evermore. The leaves might bestrew him, and the soil gradually accumulate and form a little hillock over his frame, no matter whether there were life in it or no. Death was too definite an object to be wished for or avoided.”

  • “But it is a strange experience, to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests are within the control of individuals who neither love nor understand him.”

It is hard to believe that the new policy changes come from a loving Heavenly Father, or from those He has chosen to lead us.  Some people equate this to just a difference of opinion and the Church is well within its rights to set its own policies.  One difference is knowing what these words mean to those for whom they actually apply.  I know many on the edge of hope, praying that they might be acceptable.  Or even have a small portion of grace.  In effect, we have now limited the Atonement to only straight people and placed a scarlet letter of apostasy on those who are not.  Some will take their own lives in their grief. Others will be abandoned by their own families when that scarlet letter cannot be concealed anymore.  The spirit within me testifies that a loving God wouldn’t do this, to even the least of His children.

  • “Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance that it overflows upon the outward world.” 

When revelation is received regarding the Lord’s will for LGBTQ families, we will know it.  It will fill us with love and sunshine.  It’s radiance will fill us with peace and happiness.  This has not been not our experience with the current policy.

Elder Holland said in his 2013 General Conference address:

“Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved.  They do and they will.  In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.

So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with.  That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it.  So should we.  And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.  As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fullness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all.  Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.” (My emphasis added.)

It is revealing to say ‘what we know will always trump what we do not know.’  Let’s remember that this is a divine work in process and imperfect people are all God has to work with to lead His Church.  As challenging as it is for those of us who are LGBTQ (or have LGBTQ family), let’s ‘remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.’

Our current policies, doctrine, society and culture regarding our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are as off today as they were in The Scarlet Letter.


All unattributed quotes are by Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter.


Tom has also written:


10 comments for “The Scarlet Letter: Apostasy

Comments are closed.