The Mormon Church: Oppressed or Oppressor?
A brief history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' complicated relationship with persecution.
October 27 2016 5:15 AM EST
May 26 2023 2:04 PM EST
A brief history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' complicated relationship with persecution.
It's been a busy couple of weeks for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. On October 12 the church joined other religious leaders in writing to President Obama about protecting religious liberties. On October 17 the Big 12 Football Conference announced that contrary to rumors and hopes, it would not be expanding to include the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University. On October 19 The Economist ran a think piece about why Mormons break from other conservatives when it comes to supporting Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. And Tuesday, the church launched a new website for gay Mormons. Individually, these can seem like fairly innocuous stories. But when taken together, they reveal a fascinating pattern of how Mormons tend to see themselves as an oppressed group of people -- even as others can view Mormons as the oppressors.
Let's start with the Economist article. The thesis behind the piece is that Mormons tend to withhold support from Trump because of his proposals regarding Muslim refugees and Mexican immigrants, as it wasn't too long ago in the church's history that Mormons themselves were religious refugees.
"Above all, they are wary of a candidate who, even subliminally, plays on prejudices against vulnerable minorities," the article posits. "Despite the economic and political power they now enjoy, Mormons have a vivid recollection of what is like to be pariahs. Their faith was born in New York state, in 1830; their forebears moved westward over the subsequent years as they became highly unpopular in one place after another. Their founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844. After the Mormons settled in Utah and established a kind of theocracy, they were sharply at odds with the federal authorities, and the army fought a low-key military campaign in the 1850s to assert their authority over the state."
Mormons are not wrong in their feeling that they are a persecuted group. Early Mormons, much like many Muslims today, faced incredible violence as they were raped and murdered and chased out of their homeland. After having fled settlements in New York and then Ohio, they were chased out of Missouri because of opposition to their polygamous lifestyles, as well as to the electoral shift involved in the immigration of such a large and organized population (especially given Joseph Smith's strong abolitionist leanings in what was then a slave state). Gov. Lilburn Boggs signed the infamous "Extermination Order," declaring, "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace." The order was used to justify the murders of at least 18 unarmed men and boys, some of whom had surrendered, and hundreds more men, women, and children lost their lives fleeing the state during the harsh conditions of winter. These are stories Latter-Day Saints learn in Sunday School, and the idea of persecution in the name of God is at the core of Mormon cultural identity.
The Economist article completely missed one salient point, however: If Mormons truly see themselves as an oppressed minority group, why do they continue to oppress other minority groups? Granted, most LDS member are kind, generous, sturdy people who mean no harm. But as an institution, the church continues to harm minorities. Yes, the church has taken progressive stances on immigration and the refugee situation. But its recent history of oppression of LGBT people can overshadow those few commendable places where they've broken away from the Republican party line.
Among the many LDS affronts against LGBT people are the following: The church and its members donated millions of dollars and fought a hard fight in order to pass California's Proposition 22 in 2000 and Proposition 8 in 2008, both of which served to legally define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Brigham Young University students who have gay sex or are in same-sex relationships are still expelled from school. In 1976 electroshock therapy was performed on gay students to try to change their orientation. While this was not completely unheard of at certain other schools during that period, BYU notably has yet to issue any apology for the results of these horrific experiments. This past November, it was revealed that the church had made new rules regarding the children of gay people, stating that these children could not become baptized until they became adults and denounced their gay parents' relationships. These are not the actions of a group who think of themselves as sympathetic to the oppressed.
In fact, Mormons' history of oppressing others extends back further than their time oppressing LGBT people. Women have notably been treated as unequal, from the days of early church leaders' dozens of wives to today's notably all-male leadership at both global and local levels. It wasn't until 1978 that the church let black members hold the priesthood and be granted all the same ordinances as other members. Even in the 1800s, as fresh refugees building a new community in what is now the state of Utah, prominent Mormons led an army to one of the bloodiest massacres in U.S. history, killing hundreds of indigenous people from the Cache Valley who had grown desperate and violent after having been edged off their land by Mormon settlers. Mormon settlers also killed an entire wagon train of pioneers passing through southern Utah, including 120 men, women, and children. They spared only the 17 children who were below the age of 8 -- the Mormon age of accountability -- and attempted to raise those children as their own until the U.S. Army rescued them a few years later. Even when Mormons' wounds were fresh, they were inflicting wounds on others. Most of this is not taught in Sunday School.
Part of the problem here is a doctrinal one. Mormon women are absent from Mormon leadership because women are also largely absent from Mormon scripture. The Book of Mormon has three female characters with names: Sarai, Abish, and Isabel are a wife, a servant, and a harlot, respectively. The church's mythology on the origin of black people, until it was recently renounced (and denied), included the idea that they were the descendants of Biblical sinners like Cain and Ham, and also the idea that black people were less righteous in heaven before coming to earth. Still unrenounced (and possibly unrenounceable, as it's right there in the Book of Mormon) is the similar origin of Native Americans, whose brown skin is placed on them as a curse for being wicked in the Book of Mormon. With a dogma that otherizes women and minorities and a history of the oppression of those groups, it's almost unsurprising that the church would next set its sights on fighting against LGBT rights.
Which leads to the case of BYU's not being admitted to college football's Big 12. When it was announced earlier this year that the Big 12 was looking to expand its membership, BYU was considered a solid contender for a slot, an inclusion that would potentially earn the school millions of dollars and the clout to attract a broader range of players. Given that BYU has a fan base of loyal viewers wherever there are Mormons around the country, and that BYU's football team has performed relatively well, many expected the BYU Cougars to be invited to the conference.
However, LGBT advocacy groups, spearheaded by Athlete Ally, sent a letter to all of the Big 12 schools, urging them to pass on BYU due to its anti-LGBT honor code. The schools appear to have taken the issue seriously, with ESPN reporting, "The LGBT community's opposition to BYU because of its honor code has turned BYU's candidacy 'toxic,' as one Big 12 insider characterized it. 'Their appeal doesn't outweigh the baggage, even though the appeal is great,' another said. Earlier this month, Iowa State's student government passed a resolution opposing a BYU Big 12 invite, noting that 'BYU's discriminatory policies and practices are inconsistent with the values of the Big 12.'"
It has now been made official, and BYU is having to look at other plans. What's interesting is that this decision is clearly being made because of BYU's discrimination against LGBT people. But a case could be made that it's also the result of discrimination against Mormons. Several of the schools in the Big 12 are highly religious, and most are from red states not known for being friendly toward Mormons. At least one of the current teams in the Big 12 has a similarly anti-LGBT honor code, lending credence to the idea that that BYU's conference membership is just the latest iteration of Mormons' odd role as both oppressors and oppressed.
This dichotomy doesn't extend as far as the church would have us believe, however. In the letter to President Obama last week, the church, along with leaders from other religions, called for an official renunciation of the report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Liberties titled "Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles With Civil Liberties." That report stated in part that, "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance." In the letter of dissent, the religious groups claim, "Slandering ideas and arguments with which one disagrees as 'racism' or 'phobia' not only cheapens the meaning of those words, but can have a chilling effect on healthy debate over, or dissent from, the prevailing orthodoxy. ... We are one in demanding that no American citizen or institution be labeled by their government as bigoted because of their religious views, and dismissed from the political life of our nation for holding those views. And yet that is precisely what the Civil Rights Commission report does."
This group seems to be missing some basic logic or empathy on these issues. The phrase "religious freedom" has indeed come to stand for nothing more than a fight against LGBT rights in recent years. And in this case, the religious groups fall squarely on the side of the oppressors. LGBT advocacy groups are not calling for marriage or other rights to be taken away from religious people. We're only asking for the same rights to apply to us. We're trying to take away their right to discriminate against us. Demanding that LGBT groups continue to allow religious groups to get married while we ourselves are denied it is not a right; it's privilege.
And now the church has released a new website about how to be Mormon and gay. The site conspicuously avoids the use of the word "gay," favoring instead the complicated and euphemistic phrase "same-sex-attraction." It's replete with elderly church leaders telling us that if we're celibate we can be members of the church and go to heaven, as well as testimonial videos of lonely celibate gay Mormons and one mixed-orientation couple who are making their marriage work despite the fact that the husband is attracted to men and his wife is not one.
Tragically left out of the new Mormon and gay website is any mention of trans people, except for a backward answer in a "frequently asked questions" section: "Many of the general principles shared on this website (for example, the importance of inclusion and kindness) apply to Latter-day Saints who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender. However, same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria are very different. For example, those who experience gender dysphoria may or may not also experience same-sex attraction, and the majority of those who experience same-sex attraction do not desire to change their gender. From a psychological and ministerial perspective, the two are different." The problems with this answer, from the idea of even using the negative and outdated term "gender dysphoria" to the idea that all trans people want to "change their gender," are cringe-worthy and downright offensive.
Other aspects of the site are not much better. While on the surface this appears to be a tonal shift for the church, a deeper probe finds troubling ideas being peddled. Yes, the church should get some credit for dropping mention of reparative therapy, as has existed on the church's previous attempts at such a site. But we also find their discouragement of coming out, a subtle placement of responsibility for avoiding suicide on those having such thoughts, and an overall tone of loving gays even though they're sinners. Yes, that's a step forward tonally. But we're not looking for a tonal shift. We're looking for policy change.
The church still has not changed its stance on same-sex marriage. Just months ago it was spending money to fight marriage equality in Mexico. It still has not adequately addressed the rash of teen suicides in Utah that coincided with the hateful November 5 policy that discriminates against the children of gays. Nor have they reversed that policy. The website is an attempt to ameliorate its homophobic public image as it continues to hemorrhage young active members, all while they continue to petition the government for the right to discriminate against us. It would appear that the church's new website is more about saving face than about saving gay kids.
It's commendable that Utah is standing up to Donald Trump. It's wonderful that good Mormon people are remembering the times when their ancestors were a feared and persecuted minority group, and extending compassion when they see others persecuting marginalized groups now. But it's important for today's Mormons to recognize not only the times when they were persecuted, but also the times when they were the persecutors, and to look for ways in which they're still doing it. Young gay Mormons who feel compelled to take their own lives are not so different from those driven out of Missouri by the mobs.
For the sake of our young people, the church needs to change things. "We don't seek apologies, and we don't give them," church leader Dallin H. Oaks said to reporters in 2015. Maybe that's an easy place for them to start.
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