01 October 2010

The Mormon Dilemma and Why Prop 8 May Have Been Good After All

Here's my latest guest column at Brody's Notes and Scribbles, which you can also read here.

The recent rapid-fire of suicides by priceless, gifted, irreplaceable and relentlessly bullied young gay people has jump-started public reflection on why so much homophobia seems so furiously resistant to persuasion toward the kinder, gentler approach many of its practitioners' churches ought to teach. History is no stranger to Christians inflicting incalculable suffering on others in the name of Jesus, so we're seeing just the latest chapter in a long tradition. Many Christian churches seem to indirectly foster such hate and homophobia by their obsessive focus on the sinfulness of same-sex relationships and their fear-mongering that civilization itself is at stake in the fight against The Gays. And many critics of such churches are revving up their demands for such churches to back off, admit their complicity in so many gay suicides, and repent for the damage they've done.

Others have spoken passionately about broader Christian traditions in this respect. And, as usual, the Mormons are in a category of their own. They led the fight for Proposition 8 and their money made its passage possible. To most Prop 8 opponents, the Mormons are just a quirky cult with an unusually virulent strain of homophobia. But the real reasons for that aren't as apparent. In the wake of these recent suicides and calls for Christian churches to back off behavior that fosters such lethal bullying, Mormons are actually stuck in a far more difficult situation than most of their opponents imagine as regards this issue.

Niceness is a cardinal Mormon virtue. Mormons hate, hate, HATE to think of themselves as the bad guys. Within their own theological framework, there is genuine encouragement to be kind and compassionate and forgiving. I've seen this countless times, and some of the most truly Christlike people I've ever met are active Mormons. This focus on being nice, combined with a religious/social worldview that can easily occupy every waking moment, combined to produce much genuine puzzlement and dismay among the rank & file after Prop 8 passed. "Why do they hate us so much" was an honest question for many Mormons, who simply didn't comprehend what life was like outside the Mormon culture and world view. They were simply defending morality; how could they possibly be the bad guys?

But Mormons are stuck, you see, between that genuine desire to be nice & kind, on one hand, and a theology which enshrines heterosexual marriage in a Mormon temple as not only the pinnacle of life's achievement but also an essential, non-negotiable requirement to get into the highest degree of heaven and live with God eternally. If you don't have such a marriage, you ain't gettin' in. There are other tiers in the Mormon heaven, but Mormons all aspire to the top level and treat all other possibilities with a mix of pity and regret. Because everybody is supposed to want--and be able to get to--the top level.

There is no explanation anywhere within Mormon theology for homosexuality. None of the three books of scripture unique to the Mormon canon ever mentions it. Thus, Mormon leaders have relied historically for their condemnations of homosexuality on the same half-dozen oblique and questionable Bible verses the rest of Christianity uses against The Gays.

But with a twist. Mormon church presidents are regarded as living prophets. Thus, to the Mormon faithful, when their church president speaks, it is the same as if God Himself spoke. This belief trumps all other considerations in the Mormon mind. There's an old joke that says the Catholics say the pope is infallible but don't really believe it, and the Mormons say their prophet isn't infalliable but don't really believe it. It's funny, but it's largely true. Even if an active Mormon privately questions something the prophet says, if they can't resolve the quandary they usually end up complying anyway, thinking "well, he's the prophet, he must know something I don't."

So when we combine that attitude of presumed prophetic infallibility with the belief that heterosexual temple marriage is an absolute and indispensable requirement for achieving the only heaven where families can be together forever, it's easily seen why many Mormons are so passionately opposed to homosexuality and marriage equality. It's not just that "the Bible tells me so," which is sufficient justification for other Christians. It's that AND the fact that "the prophet tells me so," AND their view that gay relationships strike at the very heart of life's ultimate purpose and literally destroy the eternal destiny of Mormon families. And if their society legitimizes those relationships, many Mormons fear their children will be lost to that belief and thus be lost to their parents forever.

That is very powerful stuff.

And that is also why this issue is far more painful for many Mormons than most non-Mormons realize. More and more Mormons are starting to seriously question the actions of their church in the Prop 8 debacle. They see their children, friends, relatives coming out of the closet--active Mormons themselves who've summoned the courage to buck their church's culture and be true to themselves. These brave souls volunteer for the front line on this issue that is so impossibly irreconcilable within current Mormon theology. The ostracism they risk is not just a social thing for this life--it is, to the conservative Mormon mind, volunteering for eternal damnation. Yet many honest, kind, and nice straight Mormons can't, when they think about it, quite accept that God would so condemn their children, friends and relatives on that basis. They are caught between what their hearts whisper and the official orthodoxy of their church's teachings. And official Mormondom does not tolerate cognitive dissonance well, especially when it speaks out.

This has produced the latest flavor of Mormon belief about homosexuality (by my count, this is Version 4 or 5 over the past century): it's okay to be gay but you can't act on it. Shouldn't be surprising that the Mormons and the Catholics synched up to push Prop 8. But this latest band-aid over a gaping doctrinal hole does nothing to resolve the ultimate dilemma: honest Mormon hearts see the impossibly painful contradiction between their theology--which can't explain gay people and whose whole eternal structure is threatened by their existence--and the tears and fears and aching hearts of their gay children and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who want only to be able to love the way they believe God meant them to. Heart and head don't match. More and more Mormons are understanding that "be gay but don't act on it" means "give up all hope of happiness." Faced with such dilemmas, as I said before, most Mormons will default to following the prophet because they think that's safest. "He must know something we don't."

But the doubts don't go away. And as best I can tell, the questions among the Mormon rank & file about their church and gay issues are growing. Quietly, at grass-roots levels, but they do seem to be growing. I expect that will continue. Somehow, someday, the gap in Mormon theology has got to be filled. It would be one of the great jokes of American history if Mormon muscle to pass Prop 8 ultimately yielded nationwide constitutional recognition of marriage equality rights, even in Utah, which would thus force the Mormon church itself to accommodate same-sex marriages. Maybe then God will speak to the Mormon prophet and fill in the eternal picture. And maybe then the real purpose for pushing Prop 8 will finally be clear. The irony: priceless.


Lisa said...

I am in awe of this post.

Seriously awesome <3

TGD said...

I love the way you wrote this. I've been wanted to write something like this to try to explain to people the way the Mormons see it but I tend to get curmudgeony and end up not posting it. Something like this needs to be explained with out curmudgeon.

I think I'll just refer everyone to this post or the one on Brody's Notes and Scribbles.

Anonymous said...

This well written piece is just wishful thinking. If there is a gap in the theology of Mormonism on the topic of gay marriage, the same gap exists when it comes to "living in sin." Is the Church going to knuckle under on its insistence that its members live the Law of Chastity when heterosexual fornication is involved? I don't think so. And if it ever does, I'll know the Church is false. I might just as well have remained the Baptist of my youth with its "anything goes" attitudes. A church with shifting morals is a truly worthless church.