13 September 2009

Mormons And Catholics on Gay Marriage, And Whether Disagreement Is Apostasy

A group called Catholics For Marriage Equality in Maine is exercising its right of free speech to advocate a position on Maine's upcoming marriage equality referendum which is different from that urged by local Catholic clergy. Part of its efforts include an on-line petition "affirming that the Church can define marriage as it wishes for its members but that marriage as a civil right is the prerogative of the state to define."

That's about as succinct a statement as I've ever seen of the principle at issue here and, more importantly, of the concept I think most Mormons fail to grasp.

Mormons are urged to become involved politically and to vote their consciences after careful study of the issues on any ballot. L. Whitney Clayton, one of the Church's main spokesmen during the Prop 8 campaign, stated publicly that Mormons were free to disagree with Church leaders on same-sex marriage if they wished. So when I see blog posts like Evan's worrying about whether his disagreement means apostasy, or read of excommunication being imposed because of statements on blogs, or see a Youtube video of a bishop cutting off the microphone of a member who dared to actually take Elder Clayton up on his assurance, I think there's reason to worry about whether the Church actually walks the talk, and whether it can tolerate any disagreement even from members in good standing. I am disturbed by the mere existence of the euphemistically named Strengthening Church Members Committee (created by the extremely right-wing and John Birch Society supporter Ezra Taft Benson) and hate even having to think about whether I should be afraid of my own church if I simply express my opinions. I respect church leadership and do not desire to stir up needless confrontation, disrespect or disagreement. But they are not God Himself, and if they invite me to approach God directly for personal revelation and guidance for my own life, then that is what I'll do, and "let the consequence follow." Like Job, "till I die I will not remove my integrity from me" (Job 27:5). My covenants are with God, not with the institutional church.

God is not afraid for us to question and debate with Him. "Come, let us reason together," he said in Isaiah 1:18. "Reasoning together" IMHO means there's a give and take, stating positions, discussing disagreements. The Lord asks us questions (Doc. & Cov. 50:13), why should we be afraid to ask questions of and even disagree with Him? Abraham did so; he engaged in lengthy disagreement with the Lord and after protracted negotiation persuaded Him to change his mind about destroying Sodom. When my children disagree with me and question me honestly, I honor their integrity and praise them for their independent thought and discernment. I reward them for their effort to grow and understand, I don't punish them for presumption. The God I believe in would do the same for us, I think.

In preaching on Ezekiel 14, Joseph Smith analogized the Latter-day Saints to ancient Israel and said that "the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men" in the church, and that if they "were depending on the Prophet" they were "hence . . . darkened in their minds" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 237). Leaders of the church have repeatedly urged members to seek answers for themselves and not ride on the coattails of anyone else's testimony. Of course, the standard traditional Mormon conclusion is that anyone who does this "the right way" will automatically get inspiration and answers to prayer that fall exactly into line with whatever any church leader says. Departures from that standard are not tolerated well. But if we are to take the church at its word, then the church itself must make allowance for such variations. After all, inspiration can't be controlled or correlated and there is no guarantee as to its outcome (John 3:8).

With that in mind, I return to the Catholics in Maine and have shamelessly stolen a page from their playbook. They have prepared a public statement which I think goes well for Latter-day Saints in any other state who support marriage equality and don't believe their faithfulness to gospel principles is compromised by so doing. Since this issue will be on the ballot again in California, I'll use that state as a model, but this statement could work for any state. I think something like this statement could help more Latter-day Saints understand why they should not feel threatened by, and indeed, can feel good about, same-sex marriage. Here it is, revised to fit an LDS context:

As faithful Latter-day Saints of the State of California, we believe that the right of every citizen to practice freedom of religion is based on the principle of respect for the dignity of each individual. Without that guarantee, the danger of one religious tradition or doctrine dominating another threatens all and protects none. We have been on the receiving end of such threats in the past, and integrity requires that we not forget the suffering that ensued.

Making the equality of citizens not only an ideal but a living truth, we affirm the decision of the California Supreme Court to end marriage discrimination by ruling that the California state constitution's equal protection provisions must allow civil marriage for same-sex couples. Our declaration of conscience is based on the following:

The American principle of the separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Constitution to ensure that no particular religious perspective would be imposed on our pluralistic society.

LDS teaching on social justice has been central to the building of a just society, creating awareness of diversity in the human family, calling us to lives of respect for one another, not just grudging tolerance.

We remember that Latter-day Saints were once denied civil rights, treated with suspicion, ridiculed because of our sacred rituals, and questioned as to our allegiance to the United States because of our own version of "non-traditional marriage." The memory of that tragic history we suffered ourselves challenges us to remain vigilant whenever bigotry and injustice enters into public discourse.

Same-sex civil marriage does not in any way coerce any religious faith or tradition to change its beliefs or doctrine or alter its traditional marriage practices.

We know that God is a most gracious and wonderful Creator. Many of us have gay and lesbian relatives and friends. We value the love and commitment we witness in their relationships; their devotion to each other and their children. Civil marriage bestows the dignity and equality called for in our nation’s highest ideals, “the inherent natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As Latter-day Saints who affirm as doctrine our obligation to obey, honor and sustain the law, and whose scriptures confirm our belief that it is not "just to mingle religious influence with civil government" (Doc. & Cov. 134:9), we have an obligation to differentiate between sacramental marriage and civil marriage. Therefore, we perceive that same-sex civil marriage poses no threat to our Church. While we respect the authority and integrity of the Church in matters of faith, our prayers and discernment have brought us to a new openness on this issue. We do not ask the Church to perform same-sex marriages. We do implore the Church to honor the State’s prerogative to authorize civil marriages for our gay and lesbian family and friends.

Grateful for the gift of our faith and the ways that we have been nourished by faith throughout our lives, and also grateful for our citizenship in America and in this State, we sign this statement as faithful LDS citizens of California.


Evan said...


What an interesting time we live in...Thank you so much for that, Alan.

The Wife said...

I like it!

Ned said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for succinctly stating exactly what I have been trying to understand within my own brain. (if that makes any sense)

Moms for Equality said...

Fabulously said! I appreciate your perspective and especially loved your comparison with you and your children to you and God "When my children disagree with me and question me honestly, I honor their integrity and praise them for their independent thought and discernment. I reward them for their effort to grow and understand, I don't punish them for presumption. The God I believe in would do the same for us, I think."

I think with you. Thanks for this wonderful post.

Linda- www.MomsForEquality.com