The Spiritual Challenge in Mormon Political Support for Gay Marriage

It is a relief that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now publicly encouraging members of the Church to study out the issues, make up their own minds, and act and vote according to the dictates of their own conscience, in relation to extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. This occurred most dramatically in recent letters sent out by the LDS stake presidencies of Hawaii that acknowledged in a non-stigmatizing way that members of the Church stand on both sides of this issue. It is also a relief that Church leaders are now publicly acknowledging that even in California during the Prop 8 campaign, when letters from the First Presidency of the Church were directing members to contribute time and talents to ensuring that Prop 8 passed, support for Prop 8 was not a litmus test of faithfulness. In other words, we are now made to understand, members of the Church have always had the right to support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and have always had the right to determine how and where to invest their time and talents on this political issue, and to vote according to their conscience. What a relief.

I listened carefully to the letters read over the pulpits of Minnesota LDS wards in 2012 during the campaign related to Amendment 1 (a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota). These letters urged members to study the issues out, make up their own minds, and decide for themselves how best to get involved in this political issue. I know many Mormons who opposed Amendment 1, and who worked in the campaign to defeat it. These members were clearly following the counsel they’d received over the pulpit from Church leaders every bit as much as members who supported Amendment 1.

I remember, though, how gingerly members of the Church approached this subject. Many assumed, based on what happened in California during the Prop 8 campaign, that support for marriage equality might be considered lack of faith or disobedience to the Brethren. I could quote to them verbatim what had been written to the contrary in the letters read over Minnesota pulpits, but many members of the Church still worried and wondered if “studying the issues out” really meant that as members of the Church in good standing they weren’t still supposed to draw the conclusion than that marriage equality for gay couples should be opposed.

I spoke to one member of my ward about this issue, and he shared a painful story with me. He told me how he had taken the counsel of the First Presidency during Prop 8 to heart. He personally did not like the idea of voting to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. But, he reasoned, the Brethren may know things about this issue that I do not. He took it as a matter of faith. And acting in faith, he voted against his conscience. He believed that after the election, following a well known LDS principle of faith, he would receive a confirmation that he had done the right thing. Knowledge comes after we exercise faith. That’s how he reasoned.

He told me, however, that after the election, after Prop 8 passed, he did not receive a confirmation that he had done the right thing. Quite the opposite. He said he felt sick to his stomach. He felt disgusted with himself for doing something he believed to be wrong, something that now was going to harm thousands of his fellow citizens. And he vowed to himself, “Never again. Never again will I do something just because the Brethren tell me to do it, when doing so violates my conscience. It’s not worth it.” He committed himself from then on to support marriage equality for all families — not just heterosexual families. No matter what Church leaders said or did.

There has been much discussion about the “cost” the LDS Church paid for its political support of Prop 8. There’s been discussion about the financial cost (decreased giving to the Church, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars spent on a campaign that ultimately failed important judicial tests of fairness), the impact on membership (members leaving the Church over this, painful divisions that turned family member against family member and ward member against ward member, prospective members refusing to talk to the missionaries and refusing to join), and the social cost (protests against the Church in California and elsewhere, and the harm to the Church’s public image).

But there hasn’t been enough discussion, in my opinion, about the moral cost. The spiritual cost. The cost in Church members’ feelings of betrayal after Prop 8. My friend’s story poignantly illustrates those costs which in my opinion are far, far higher.

I should add that, while we can all — Mormon and non-Mormon — draw a sigh of relief that the Church has affirmed the principle of separation of Church and state, it must surely be disquieting to many to consider how many Mormons would readily have embraced a denial of this principle, how many Mormons — whether or not they were sanctioned by Salt Lake — did make political opposition to marriage equality a litmus test for faith. That the Church is now officially saying they were wrong to do so should only partially alleviate whatever disquiet that might inspire.

Nevertheless…. It is a relief that LDS Church leadership is slowing backing away from this political issue. I am glad that the news is slowly but surely getting out that Mormons may support full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples and their families.


Yet and still… I am not satisfied with where things stand. And here is why.

I think the best way to explain it would be to say that if I were an atheist, I would be quite happy and completely satisfied with where things stand. Because if a Mormon says, “I believe that there is no marriage equality for gays in Heaven; but so far as matters are concerned in the political realm here on earth, I support marriage equality,” if I were an atheist I would say, “Well, Mormons support me in the only realm that matters.”

But I am not an atheist. I am a believing Mormon. And to a believing Mormon, a statement such as the one I’ve given as an example is not comforting at all. In fact, it is as disquieting and as discomforting as any statement possibly could be. First of all it is discomforting because to a believing Mormon it is the same as saying, “Here in the temporal realm — the realm which is really just the wink of an eye in the span of eternity — I support your equality; but I believe that where and when it really matters — in eternity — you will not and never can be equal.” And it is disquieting because, again, from the view point of a believing Mormon, if you are my brother or sister and you really care about me, you must care about my eternal welfare. If you really believe that there’s no good place for a same-sex married couple in eternity, I’d rather you be honest about it here in this realm where there’s opportunity to do something about it. I would say supporting politically in the temporal realm something that you see as disabling in the eternal realm means you have not very carefully thought out the full implications of your beliefs.

What about a more nuanced statement of belief? What if our hypothetical Mormon supporter of marriage equality justifies their support in this way: “I believe that God does have a special place in his plan for heterosexual couples; that plan is clearly spelled out in scripture and in the teachings of living prophets. I’m not sure how gay and lesbian people fit into this plan. I know that gay and lesbian people exist. I know that many have discerned — often at great personal cost — that the best thing for them is to be in committed same-sex relationships, and that marriage is an enormous benefit to them in their efforts to live moral lives and protect their loved ones. I know they are God’s children, and I know God loves them just as much as he loves his heterosexual children, and I don’t believe in a God who would make people a certain way and then punish them for building happy lives that are harmonious with the way he’s created them. So even though I’m not aware of anything from scriptures or the current teachings of living prophets that explicitly tells us what place gay and lesbian people have in God’s eternal plan, I trust that they fit in there somehow, and just how they fit will hopefully sometime soon be revealed to us. And in the meantime, I trust their individual discernment process; I honor the sanctity of their lives and their right and ability to make decisions that they’ve determined to be best for them. And I think it’s wrong, therefore, to treat them unequally under the law. And that’s why I fully support marriage for gay and lesbian couples!”

That more nuanced statement I personally live with very comfortably. I think it is a good statement of my own position.  Yet I recognize that even here there is still stress and struggle. For many gay and lesbian Mormons, not knowing is a luxury they can’t afford. If you are a believing Mormon, eternity means everything, and to be on the wrong side of eternity is to lose everything of value that this life — even this temporal life — has to offer.

I personally have found a way forward that works for me, partly because God has spoken to me very clearly about the course I should pursue in my personal life. I am very comfortable where I am in my relationship with God, in my testimony of the Church (which includes an understanding of how truth unfolds line-upon-line, and an understanding of how a key part of our Heavenly Parents’ plan involves delegation and agency), and in my relationship with the Church (which is challenging because of my excommunicated status, but nonetheless a blessing to me).  I’m finding a way forward in the way of faith, hope, charity and patience those relationships both with God and with the Church teach me.

But I’m also gradually becoming aware that my way forward cannot and should not work for everybody. We speak of the Church as the body of Christ, and we understand each member of that body having diverse gifts — some of us having gifts of knowledge and others of us having gifts of faith; some of us having gifts of community and others of us having gifts of the courage to go it alone; all of us having unique ways of knowing what we know, and varying abilities to live with ambiguity or cognitive dissonance.

Some of us are in deep pain because of the dogmatism of those who claim to know things about the eternal realm that I think they actually don’t know. But far too many of us are also in deep, deep pain and suffering because of the not knowing. We are getting better at addressing the suffering of the former, but are still not adequately addressing the suffering of the latter. I have to say that regardless of how nuanced your position, therefore, saying “I believe X about eternity, but I’m willing to take position Y in relation to temporal, political issues” must still be unsatisfying if you are concerned about that suffering.

I would say, as a Latter-day Saint, if you take your baptismal covenants seriously, you cannot be unconcerned about that suffering. And I would say, if you are concerned, as I am, there are three things we can do.

First, pray.

Second, be with those who suffer. Bear their burdens with them. Make them know that as long as they suffer, you cannot be fully at ease in your soul, and that you will do what you can to alleviate their suffering.

Third, do something to alleviate that suffering. Talk. Ask questions. Listen. Share. Connect. Build community. Make sure that the voices of those who suffer are being heard.

Third, pray.

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