When the news broke that same-sex couples in Utah were lining up at the Salt Lake County courthouse to marry, a collective "what?" erupted from court watchers and pundits. Really? Utah? It's the most Republican state, having gone red in every presidential election since 1968. Utah? Are you sure?
Though the overturning of the state's constitutional ban was the action of a federal judge and not the electorate, nevertheless it happened in a state where religion influences politics to an outsized degree. Over 62% of Utah's population is Mormon, and in 2008 exit polls, 75% of voters in Utah elections identified as Mormon. What the church says, covertly and overtly, often determines the political course of the state.
But Mormonism is unlike other, older religions. Its capacity for change has rescued it from collapse in the past, and it might make Utah, the reddest of states, a uniquely safe haven for gay and lesbian couples.
Mormonism is a relatively conservative faith that has been opaque to many outsiders--many of whom still imagined polygamist compounds--at least until Comedy Central's South Park, The Book of Mormon on Broadway, HBO's Big Love, and the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. Still, the prevailing stereotype is one of blond, all-American Pollyannas with big families who don't smoke, drink, or watch R-rated movies. And it's pretty widely known that they aren't so cool with the gays.
Not so long ago, the Mormon Church excommunicated many members for self-identifying as gay or lesbian. In recent years, the religion's policy has been refined to be of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" variety, with the view that same-sex attraction is aberrant, but one can be a good Mormon if one never acts on that attraction. The church has been outspoken in its opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, and the state of Utah has followed suit politically. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog summarized Tim Chambless, a political science professor at the University of Utah, as saying, "Today, a majority of Mormon voters in Utah have two nonnegotiable litmus tests... abortion and same-sex marriage."
Image credit: Museum of Church and Art, Salt Lake City, 1913, Artist Unknown
Above: Mormon settles in the Utah Territory in the 1860s.
The Mormon Church spent lots of money (approximately $20 million), time, and effort bussing church members to the doorsteps of California voters to convince them to vote in favor of Prop. 8, effectively leading the charge against gay couples having the equal right to marry. But public opinion was changing rapidly across the nation and the church experienced significant backlash, so much so that it has had to step back from its leadership role, one it shared with the Catholic Church, in battling marriage equality. 2012 Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger, a gay activist who has been exposing the church's role in Prop. 8, told Mother Jones magazine, "It seems like the [Mormon] hierarchy has pulled the plug and is no longer taking the lead in the fight to stop same-sex marriage. The Mormon Church has lost so many members and suffered such a black eye because of all its antigay activities that they really had no choice. I am hopeful that the Catholic Church can- not be far behind."
The criticism the church has felt isn't entirely from outside the faith. A minor revolution has been happening inside the Mormon Church. LGBT Mormons who once faced excommunication or self-deportation from their communities are now coming out in greater numbers, embracing their sexual orientations while refusing to abandon Mormonism. Utah is an exceedingly family-friendly place, and some families that were once pressured to throw their gay kids out of the house (though this still happens) have decided to embrace their children. This more humane treatment of LGBTs, as both the families and neighbors of Mormons, was demonstrated when 300 straight LDS members marched for the first time ever in support of LGBTs in the 2012 Utah Pride parade. It was a show of solidarity that would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago.
And though Utah poll figures supporting same-sex marriage have not historically been as high as the national average, polling since the overturn of the state's marriage ban show support for the right of same-sex couples to wed to be at an all-time high of 48%--20% higher than just two years ago.
Marriage equality will become the law of the land, and antigay discrimination will certainly fade. Are Mormons seeing the writing on the wall? Wouldn't it behoove the LDS church to get on the right side of history now, while it can?
It could happen. Mormonism is a unique religion in its Americanness, in its flexibility, and in its ability to alter its trajectory if the conditions necessitate. It has done so in the past, with its relationship to polygamy and the racial makeup of its leadership, and it could move like no other conservative religion toward an embrace of LGBTs.
Image credit: "Mormon Family" By Andrew J. Russel, 1864-1869, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Above: Mormon supporters of LGBT rights march in the 2012 Utah Pride parade.
Mormonism is a young faith, one that began in 1830, when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. He described that book as his translation of a set of golden plates describing the lost Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization. Several books, including the Old and New Testaments and the Book of Mormon, comprise the religion's scriptural canon, but so does the word of the president of the church (Smith was the first; Thomas S. Monson is the current president), who is a living prophet and is sanctioned to receive divine revelation. Such revelation can clarify existing doctrine, or it can establish new canon law. Having a living prophet makes this church very unlike mainstream protestant sects, orthodox Christian faiths, and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church is the greatest of the Christian examples to which one might compare Mormonism. There have been 21 ecumenical councils in 1,700 years, convened to determine church matters not explicitly laid out in the Bible (like "what is the holy spirit?"), and they've slowly shaped the religion. Earlier councils determined greater dogmatic matters, and more recent ones (like the First and Second Vatican councils) have had less latitude and answered increasingly smaller questions. If history is a guide, not much about Catholicism is likely to change in the next council.
The Catholic Church is akin to a giant, sculpted marble temple. It's been shaped and carved and buttressed and calcified by 2,000 years of preaching, doctrine, and papacy. But the earth upon which it rests doesn't lie still. The tectonic plates of human experience are undulating beneath it, and the Catholic Church finds itself trying to repair cracks in its foundation caused by the geological movement of divorce, who gets excommunicated, contraception, who is a heretic, and so on.
On the contrary, Mormonism is less than 200 years old, and is reshaped by contemporary prophecy. In that respect it is like a modern, earthquake-resistant edifice. When the tectonic plates of modernity shift beneath it, its flexibility could allow the structure to absorb the impact. Standing side by side, the marble palace, however ornate and vaunted, will crack if the earth shears too much beneath it. The modern building could withstand the shifts.
Not long after the church was founded, the ability to change course became paramount. Polygamy began shortly after the religion was introduced, and it was an essential element of Mormon life in the 1800s. It was established as a practice that mirrored marriage in heaven, according to Smith, and church leaders encouraged men in good standing to restore the practice of biblical patriarchs and take a second, third, or additional wives, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A letter from Smith in 1831 points to a possible divine revelation establishing polygamy, but whatever the mechanism, polygamy became widespread among the faithful.
Image credit: Jennifer Bunker/Affirmation Left: Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
In 1852, not long after Mormons established a theocratic state in the Utah Territory, they publicly declared that plural marriage was a central Mormon belief. Other Americans considered the practice deviant and it angered the United States government, which waged a legal and occasionally violent military campaign against the settlers for nearly 40 years. Between 1857 and 1887, President James Buchanan sent U.S. forces to Utah, Congress passed a series of laws outlawing polygamy, the government froze the church's assets, dis- enfranchised polygamists, and declared all children of polygamy to be illegitimate. With the very survival of Mormonism on the line, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a document now called the Woodruff Manifesto in 1890, ending polygamy as a church policy. The issuing of the manifesto, a result of Woodruff's revelatory experiences, got the government off the church's back and was key to its survival.
Similarly, revelation changed the course of the religion in the late 1970s. During the very early years of Mormonism, men of black African descent were included in the priesthood (what the church defines as the power and authority given to men by God). When Brigham Young took over the leadership of the LDS church on the occasion of Smith's death in 1847, blacks were excluded from leadership, and were barred from the priesthood until 1978.
In the 1970s, Mormonism expanded rapidly, and church president Spencer W. Kimball announced that new temples would be built across the globe, including, in March of 1975, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Determining eligibility for the priesthood, if men of black African ancestry were excluded, became problematic when considering Brazil's mutiethnic population, and the policy became embarrassing for the church.
During a prayer meeting of the church's highest leadership bodies, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "The Spirit of the Lord rested upon us all," wrote Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Quorum. "From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. The message was that the time had now come to offer the fullness of the everlasting gospel, including celestial marriage, and the priesthood, and the blessings of the temple, to all men, without reference to race or color, solely on the basis of personal worthiness."
In one significant meeting the church reversed a discriminatory policy based on race. The revelation expanded the religion to parts of the globe it hadn't before been able to reach. And the church now claims more than 14 million members worldwide.
But could gays and lesbians benefit from church leadership listening again for the word of God? Clue that indicate the church might do so were seen in the candidacy of Mitt Romney. Few things could have cemented the religion in the mainstream of American culture like having the world's most prominent head of state be a Mormon. His campaign was high-stakes for the church.
Yet Romney shied away from discussing his faith on the stump. Mormonism was a high hurdle for many evangelicals to traverse in order to support the Republican nominee. The religion happily accepts some of the stereotypes about its members--that they live cleanly, are good-natured, and have large families--and those traits Romney was happy to showcase, with his clean-shaven, smiling sons and their families often surrounding him on the road to the general election. Yet questions about whether Mormonism is truly a Christian church (many evangelicals believe it is not) and vague ideas about polygamy were major problems that Romney's campaign needed to face if it was to galvanize conservative Christian voters who might opt to stay home on Election Day, rather than pulling the lever for a Mormon.
Interestingly, the LDS church's response was to demystify Mormonism. The "I'm a Mormon" campaign, as seen on the official church website, attempts to enact a tactic proven to be successful before, most notably by LGBT rights groups. When you get to know people in the flesh, rather than as abstract notions, aspects of those individuals' personal lives, including their religion--or their partners' genders--become less spooky. The fact that this tactic was best demonstrated by post-Prop. 8 equality groups in California and in other states with ballot measures supporting marriage equality cannot be lost on Mormon leaders.
Image credit: Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Above: the LDS temple in Salt Lake City.
The Mormon Church is very interested in public opinion and likeability; growth of the church relies on making a positive impression on potential converts. Ultimately, Romney and the Mormon Church were shown to be palatable enough for Romney to run as the Republican candidate for the presidency--the most visible any Mormon has ever been on the international stage. It's a lot closer to the White House than Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann ever got, and though they're both arguably to the right of Romney politically, their Christianity, however frighteningly repressive, was never challenged.
Another clue can be found in the church's family-friendliness and its' bringing LGBT kids back into the fold. Why not LGBT parents? Salt Lake City has the highest rate of same-sex households with children of any metro area in the country, at 26%. Gay Mormon kids have significantly higher rates of suicide than gay non-Mormon kids. Many are still thrown out of their homes when they come out to their parents, and Utah foster parents often won't take in LGBT kids. About 40% of Salt Lake City's homeless young people are LGBT. If Mormons were to support the right of gay parents with kids to marry, and support LGBT kids by not kicking them out or attempting to make them straight, those would be enormously family-friendly changes.
Many LGBT Mormons want to stay in the church, and their families and friends want to support them. It is within the church's power to become the world's first truly 21st-century global religion, accepting of same-sex marriage, and fully embracing of LGBT members of that faith. Will it listen for the word of God?