Mormons, Incremental Progress and Wingnut Distress

For years, it was easy for the opponents of gay civil rights under the cloak of religion, by means of an unquestioned assumption that this was “clearly” opposed by Scripture and religious tradition. From this perspective, any suggestion of support for protection from discrimination (let alone actual marriage) was presented as support for sinful decadence, or even as an attack on religion itself.  There have been welcome signs of change in this perspective in recent years.  As social and natural scientists have shown that  a homoerotic orientation  is entirely natural in human and animal societies, as modern bible scholars and theologians have shown that the traditional religious hostility has been based on false assumptions and need revisions, it becomes increasingly more difficult for people of sincere and open-minded religious faith to repeat the old slogans without questioning.  This is why the Episcopalians and Lutherans over the past summer were able to take important decisions supporting the ordination of openly lesbian and gay clergy (including bishops), and to move towards the recognition of church recognition of same sex unions, including (for the Swedish Lutherans) full church weddings. The US Presbyterians and Methodists have not yet gone that far, rejecting similar proposals in their own assemblies, but are clearly moving in the same direction.

Other denominations, most notably the LDS, Catholics and evangelicals, have been more intransigent, but even with these there have been important signs of change. The Catholic official stance has been firmly against marriage rights, as notoriously demonstrated in California and in Maine, but elsewhere has led to some tortured knots. The UK bishops strenuously opposed civil partnerships when they were introduced here some years ago, but the Portuguese argued in favour of such civil unions as an alternative to marriage when this was raised in the Portuguese parliament earlier this year. The bishop of Portland tried after the Maine vote to put out a hand of friendship, claiming (correctly) that church teaching opposes discrimination even as it opposes gay marriage, but the Vatican famously refused to support the UN declaration favouring decriminalization, stating that this would somehow lend credence to marriage rights.  Meanwhile, the faithful as a whole a re way ahead of the power elite in the church. Most US Catholics now support some form of legal recognition of same sex unions, and do not see homosexuality in itself as morally wrong .

I see this confusion and double speak among the oligarchy as encouraging, as evidence that they are finally recognising  that their previous unqualified opposition to all things gay  is no longer tenable, and that they need to find some way to balance their own earlier intransigence against clear dissent from the church at large – tacit recognition that they no longer have the support of the sensus fidelium.

LDS temple, salt Lake City

This week, we saw similar signs from the Mormon church, who were such staunch allies alongside the Catholic establishment in the fight over H8 in California.  Now, in a landmark small but significant step, the elders of the LDS threw their support in favour of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Salt Lake City, which subsequently passed. (There is now talk of a similar state-wide move being prepared: if the church supported the ordinance in Salt Lake City, hoe can they oppose it for Utah state? If such legislation can get the support of the LDS church, how can religious right try to oppose it?)

At Box Turtle Bulletin, there are two useful articles on this development.  This first, a slighter  but fun piece, simply points out how some of the most vociferous of the wingnuts are up in arms over this.  (If the LDS can upset the likes of Peter La Barbera for their support of gay issues, there must surely be some good in it.)   The main article though is more thoughtful, collaborating my own view that there is an important movement toward change on the part of the Christian churches as a whole, but these  changes are gradual and incremental, rather than obvious and dramatic.  This does not change the important fact though that the change is there and inexorable. As these more tolerant views become more prominent in leadership positions, and as the grassroots progressives become more vocal and visible, the religious camp will increasingly fracture into two halves:  one, comprising those who are genuinely motivated by Christian  principles (including that of justice and love) will move in the direction of seeking compromise and tolerance for those with a different interpretation of religious requirements.  The other, intransigent rump, will be exposed as motivated not by religious faith but by some very unChristian hate and bigotry.  The battle will then move out of the religious sphere, and more firmly into the political.  It will then be far more difficult than it has been in recent years for religious figures to wade into political battles over civil rights.

Here are some extracts from the Box Turtle Bulletin:

Will LDS’s Incremental Approach To LGBT Issues Someday Lead To Bigger Changes?

At least that’s how I interpret the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has placed a statement endorsing specific pro-LGBT legislation on their online LDS Newsroom.


It doesn’t get any bigger than this. Can you imagine the Vatican placing a similar statement on their web site or publishing it inL’Osservatore Romano?

The Church had released a similar statement last August offering support for limited LGBT civil rights measures, but that occurred at the same time that it was pumping millions into the fight to strip California’s LGBT citizens the right to marry.

This time, the Mormon hierarchy chose to put a tiny fraction of its influence officially behind the Salt Lake City non-discrimination ordinance. The tiny fraction was all that was needed though, because its implications go far beyond a city council vote that few believed was in doubt even without support from the Church. LDS spokesperson Michael Otterson’s statement before the Salt Lake City council — which the Mormon web site describes as “representing the position of the Church’s leadership” — puts the church fully on record for the first time in support of a specific piece of pro-LGBT legislation. This is huge in and of itself.

…decades from now we may look back on this as a significant turning point for LGBT Mormons. That’s because Mormonism is very different from other popular religions in America in that it is the only major religion which reserves the authority to change a portion of its canonized texts according to ongoing revelations.

(The stance on  the black race is one dramatic evidence of such a change.)   I would point out though that the Catholic Magisterium also supports adjustments to standard teaching in the light of ongoing revelation through new knowledge and experience, which should support adjusting their sexual theology. The Vatican theologians just don;t like to broadcast the fact, although many other theologians have been saying so for years.   Personally, I am intrigued by another aspect of the LDS turnaround.

In the wake of the California vote, the LDS came under a great deal of attack and fierce criticism, form their own members and form others for their meddling in a political battle, and for diverting tax-free church funds to the cause. In Maine this year, the Catholic establishment was visible in its support for Prop 1, but I saw no reports of Mormon involvement. Just days before the recent LDS decision, a petition of protest was delivered, in a dramatic and widely publicised move, to the LDS headquarters. Could it be that this turnaround is in part a response to very visible criticism?

(Read the full Box Turtle piece here)


Other writers are also describing this as important.  Bill Lindsey at Bilgrimage has a wonderfully helpful piece on his personal observations in Salt Lake City, which he has visited regularly over many years, and notes that he has seen a distinct change in attitude since the outrage over Prop 8.

Andrew Sullivan  at “The Daily Dish” urges that we should be clear in our congratulations to the church elders for facing up to the obligation to face up to basic legal protection, while demurring sincerely, out of religious conviction, on marriage itself. Sullivan states (and I agree) that we should accept and respect their religious convictions here, even while we disagree.To illustrate the scale of this turnaround, he also draws a comparison with the Catholic church, inviting us to imagine the impact if this move had come out of the Vatican.

At Commonweal, the entire article is called “Compare and Contrast“, elaborating on this theme of Sullivan’s.

Read all these reflections on a an important change by the LDS, and reflect yourself on its significance.

Now, how can we get our Catholic bishops to be equally sensitive in responding to the visible anger and protest within their church?


2 Responses to “Mormons, Incremental Progress and Wingnut Distress”

  1. Phillip Clark Says:

    This is indeed encouraging news! Even if the process moves along ever so slowly, even within Catholicism, things look as if they are starting to change for the better (impelled by a bottom up sense of discovery and enlightenment).

    The problem with Catholicism is that most of the leaders in Rome, at least the ones who believe that it has been declare as such, look at the Church’s teaching on homosexuality as something that’s infallible (even though it hasn’t been defined ex cathedra as such). So, this is why some leaders of the Church are so opposed to or are afraid to suggest taking another look at this matter.

    Perhaps when the shepherds of the Church realize that this is not really an issue that’s been infallibly defined, only an assumption that Joseph Ratzinger has strongly tried to defend, they will see that taking another look at it won’t reduce their credibility among the People of God but will only strengthen it!

    Also, the support of civil unions but the bishops of Portugal is very promising, if only the USCCB would do the same and stop cutting off their noses to spite their faces in D.C. =/

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Correct, Phillip, but another element we have to deal with is the extraordinary we pay to these self-selected leaders in Rome. Not only do they like to speak as if every utterance is infallible, we sometimes see how individual local bishops set themselves up as authorities empowered to censor even their own colleagues they disagree with.

      Reading the history of the papacy by a reputable scholar like Eamonn Duffy has been an eye-opener for me. Not only did the early popes not claim to be infallible, popes and bishops regularly excommunicated each other in a constant series of power struggles – with each other, and with the secular princes and emperors of the time.

      One argument for the supposed infallibility is that God “must have” arranged matters so that his anointed spokesmen “could not” err. Any reading of papal history by writers other than Vatican apologists immediately demolishes that line of “reasoning”

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