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Preserving Heteronormativity in the LDS Church

November 6, 2015

If you aren’t keeping up with Mormonism right now, then your venture into many progressive Mormon sites might appear something like:

Troy walks into room with pizza...to discover that the room is on fire

What’s the fire this time? The LDS Church has modified its policies to make being in a same-sex marriage apostasy.

“What’s the big deal with that?” you might ask. After all, Mormonism has not been known to be friendly to gay people in same-sex relationships.

Well, one thing that’s new is that by defining being in a same-sex marriage as apostasy, disciplinary action is required. It is not something that is at the discretion of local leaders.

…but that’s not all. Check out this image regarding the children:

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.

A lot of people are far more upset about this language regarding children than anything else.

Certainly, there are plenty of people expressing their displeasure at this. There is plenty of shock, plenty of betrayal. Plenty of confusion. There is also expressions of faith even amidst those negative emotions. And from those who are not necessarily feeling shocked or confused, there are apologetic speculations for why this policy has been made, as well as historical analysis and comparisons (e.g., on similar policies made to the children of polygamous families.) By Common Consent has already posted 4 or 5 articles on the subject (all with the comments closed, of course), so I don’t suppose I can offer much to the discussion.

But I did want to reflect on one thing.

When I think about the most spiritual, the most religious people I know — the people with respect to whom I think, “Maybe there is something more to things…” one of the people I think of is John Gustav-Wrathall. I know a lot of people cannot comprehend him. He is an out gay man who has been with his husband for two decades (even if the law has only recognized that comparatively recently), and he has been excommunicated for it (he was an apostate before it was cool!), and yet…he still has a full testimony of the church. He still attends and engages.

From a secular perspective, it’s easy to say that this reflect poorly on him. It’s easy to say that he must be deluded or that he must suffer from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome or something. Who would stay in such an environment? Isn’t excommunication the surest sign that the church doesn’t want someone?

By nature I am too charitable to take such a cynical perspective. Even though I do not personally see any compelling reason to believe in God (or to believe that any God would be behind Mormonism), I recognize that it’s possible that some sort of spiritual component is needed to “understand” where John GW is coming from — and of course, he who has written about his experiences several times would say the same.

John has said frequently that he has faith that the LDS can change — but that such change will depend on the engagement of LGBT Mormons who can engage with the faith credibly, but who can also testify of their experience as LGBT individuals. Even after first hearing about the new handbook policies, he has stated:

…I ache right now at the thought of a husband and a son permanently alienated from the Church that I love. I am shocked that because of our love, they might be forbidden to come unto Christ.

And yet, I can’t feel hopeless or despondent about this. A lot of people I know were hoping to see the Church’s stance on homosexuality change gradually toward greater openness, with a first step being bishops simply welcoming same-sex couples to worship without excommunicating them. I have always known, deep down inside, that progress would not occur in this way.

There has been deep and dramatic change in the LDS Church in relation to this issue: not in terms of policy or doctrine, but in terms of attitudes. Mormons have crossed a threshold that is making it increasingly impossible for them to think of their gay family members, neighbors and friends as “other,” as “apostate.” A critical mass of Mormons know first hand that our love doesn’t look that much different from theirs, that our families are as much a shelter from the storm for us as theirs are for them. They’ve seen our hopes and dreams, and our faith, our love for Jesus Christ intertwined with our love for our families. They’ve only just started to come to grips with the cognitive dissonance that realization is creating.

This attitude shift would require engagement by LGBT folks…even if they are excommunicated, as John has been. Truly, they show their faith by their works.

This sentiment struck me particularly when I read the following from a recent post at Times & Seasons that Rosalynde Welch wrote:

…The other possible rationale for Church leadership could be a forward-oriented desire to preserve the doctrine and cultural character of the Church in the future. Perhaps they look at the lessons of accommodation over the past half-century and realize that yes, in many cases when Mormon culture changes, usually in response to larger cultural change in the US, the doctrine does eventually follow — on the priesthood ban, birth control, working mothers, and any number of other issues. In order to preserve the purity of the doctrine over time, they realize they must preserve a traditional (that is, exclusively heterosexual) Mormon marriage culture now. I think it is quite clear that a live-and-let-live approach to gay families in the church — don’t excommunicate them, withhold temple recommends and priesthood privileges, but allow them to participate otherwise to whatever extent they choose and welcome their children as full members — would indeed over time, even a pretty short time, lead to growing acceptance of gay marriage in Mormon culture. So these steps are intended to safeguard the family culture of 2015 into the future, by limiting exposure to gay families in ward settings.

I find the latter explanation much harder to swallow but also harder to refute. I recognize that my own position, itself deeply shaped by a Mormon ethos — valuing a traditional family culture in both the Church and society at large and suspecting that ungendering marriage will contribute to the ongoing decline in that culture; but favoring the live-and-let-live approach outlined above and unconflicted about socializing with and celebrating gay families in my circle — is unstable. I want my cake — a robust culture of conjugal marriage and child-rearing to aid my children in finding mates and raising families — and I want to eat it, too — that is, I want to freely welcome all shapes and sorts within the walls of the church.  It’s one thing for an individual to live with this kind of basic incoherence in her worldview; it’s another thing for a huge, slow-to-change institution to build its policies over this fault line.

So, it seems that the two sides here are the church, which believes that with sufficient disciplinary actions, the voice of LGBT Mormons can be stifled, and folks like John, who believe that by engaging even after disciplinary actions have been taken, no matter what the pain, the voice of LGBT Mormons will still resonate.

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4 Comments
  1. In addition to all of the explanations circulating for excommunicating married homosexuals, may I offer another: to avoid forced change to the chastity covenant in the temple liturgy.

    The chastity covenant in my great-grandfather’s time would have been along the lines of “will have no sexual connection with any of the Daughters of Eve, except for my wives who have been given me by the Holy Priesthood.”

    After The Raid and subsequent events, the covenant was changed to “except with my wife, to whom I am legally and lawfully married.”

    The “legally and lawfully” language remains to the present day, although the rest of the covenant has morphed by deleting specific reference to heterosexual intercourse, to any sexual intercourse, to any sexual activity.

    So, now that two homosexual people can be “legally and lawfully” married – and I suppose a triad or more of heterosexual people’s marital privileges won’t be too far in the future – yet another change in the sexual liturgy would be in order. Unless – unless gays can be defined out of polite LDS society by defining them as heretics (or apostates, in LDS misuse of the term). Heretics have no rights, certainly no rights to be associated with the Saints.

    Hence the required excommunications, lest some clueless bishop carefully search the scriptures (and his handbook before this change), and conclude that the two faithful, legally and lawfully married men in front of him should be recommended for a temple sealing.

    All of which says nothing about why the children of gay parents are included in this interdiction – unless those in charge of such things continue to believe that – like polygamy – same-sex attraction is a choice, and that children of gay parents are presumed to be gay themselves.

  2. Lee Williams permalink

    Thank you Andrew for your thoughtful analysis (as always on everything you address).
    Perhaps it is understandable to squirm in pained disbelief and enunciate endless tortured rationales as to the why’s and whats and so forth of this new “dictate” so as to still be able to cling – hope beyond hope – to the belief that God is somehow the mover and maker of this remarkably ugly decision. But only if belief in Mormonism is more important than faith in God. The clarity of that distinction is freedom. To know that God would never do this. That heaven does not have LDS emblazoned on its gates.

    The church has blatantly and in a mean spirited manner stepped in way over it’s understanding on this profoundly complex human issue and it will backfire much like their fiasco on prop 8 did. This will deeply trouble people spiritually on all sides of this issue much more than they realize. Going against the basic sense of what is right and wrong, going against the bonds of true love, going against what Jesus himself said about children and “forbid them not” cannot in the short or long term serve the church or it’s members well. Unholy doctrine cannot endure.

    The pain and suffering this will inflict on hearts and souls of many will haunt the church for years to come. The children are clearly in the cross hairs as the first hostages of this unholy war against gay Mormons. That the church would use this mechanism of hostage taking of children is despicable beyond the pale. To accomplish what? At their ugliest and most vile actions taken against gays in the past, this church has not truly “cured” or changed a single individual from being homosexual to a heterosexual. This current dastardly pronouncement will do nothing more than inflict more pain and suffering. It will not “cure” or change anyone. It is clearly aimed at destroying bonds of “love”, at undermining relationships, at inflicting rejection, ostracism, and isolation. As though they can bully the parents into repentance and into heaven by issuing this threat to the eternal fate of their children. If there is a God, she will have no part in this !

  3. Lee,

    I wanted to address one thing in particular from your comment. You write:

    Perhaps it is understandable to squirm in pained disbelief and enunciate endless tortured rationales as to the why’s and whats and so forth of this new “dictate” so as to still be able to cling – hope beyond hope – to the belief that God is somehow the mover and maker of this remarkably ugly decision. But only if belief in Mormonism is more important than faith in God. The clarity of that distinction is freedom. To know that God would never do this. That heaven does not have LDS emblazoned on its gates.

    I think this goes beyond Mormonism, but it’s not very simple “to know that God would never do this.” From a position as an atheist, what I see is that *many* theists hold these kinds of views. The most committed, religious people in many religious communities tend to be the most socially conservative people. This is not to say I don’t know profoundly religious liberal people, just that there is a good reason why religion is associated with these sorts of ideas.

    So, I can’t say I know that God would never do this. I don’t know God, but I know that a whole lot of people who claim to be driven and inspired and motivated by their belief in God see nothing wrong with these sorts of policies and rhetoric.

    Going against the basic sense of what is right and wrong, going against the bonds of true love, going against what Jesus himself said about children and “forbid them not” cannot in the short or long term serve the church or it’s members well. Unholy doctrine cannot endure.

    Even if the particulars in this situation may vary, I am struck that different people have very different views of what is right and wrong — it cannot be assumed that we all have the same sense. It’s easy for me to see the church losing liberal members and then consolidating as a more conservative church.

    But conservative churches still appear to be doing a whole lot better than liberal ones. I mean, sure, a lot of people are giving up religion altogether, but that doesn’t speak to highly for your God.

    • A large part of the reason for conservative churches’ success, at least in the United States, is demographics. “White flight” from cities created a ton of enclaves of angry suburban white people, who wanted to sequester themselves and their kids away from scary racial diversity.

      The suburbanization of America in the 20th century thus drew a lot of people away from more diverse and accepting churches inside the cities, and created massive growth opportunities for conservative teachers to preach “separation” and “holiness” to a group to whom this made sense.

      The radicalization of the middle east, meanwhile, is IIRC largely a problem created by the US’ intervention. And not only in the sense of their civilian slaughter creating resistance; they have a history of deposing more tolerant elected leaders, and helping dictators like the Taliban come into power.

      Conservative ideology thrives in a climate of fear, and it expresses itself with religion when that is a tool that’s available to it.

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