Will LDS’s Incremental Approach To LGBT Issues Someday Lead To Bigger Changes?
November 14th, 2009
At least that’s how I interpret the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has placed a statement endorsing specific pro-LGBT legislation on their online LDS Newsroom:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared its support of nondiscrimination regulations that would extend protection in matters of housing and employment in Salt Lake City to those with same-sex attraction.
The Church said the Salt Lake City Council’s new nondiscrimination ordinance “is fair and reasonable” and balances fair housing and employment rights with the religious rights of the community.
It doesn’t get any bigger than this. Can you imagine the Vatican placing a similar statement on their web site or publishing it in L’Osservatore Romano?
The Church had released a similar statement last August offering support for limited LGBT civil rights measures, but that occurred at the same time that it was pumping millions into the fight to strip California’s LGBT citizens the right to marry. At the time, the statement was seen as nothing more than a fig-leaf to try to shield the Church from charges of bigotry. But Utah’s LGBT advocates took the Church at their word and pushed for the Common Ground Initiative, a series of LGBT protections put before Utah’s Mormon-dominated legislature that were modeled on the Mormon statement. The Common Ground initiative however was utterly crushed by Mormon legislators and never even made it out of committee.
This time, the Mormon hierarchy chose to put a tiny fraction of its influence officially behind the Salt Lake City non-discrimination ordinance. The tiny fraction was all that was needed though, because its implications go far beyond a city council vote that few believed was in doubt even without support from the Church. LDS spokesperson Michael Otterson’s statement before the Salt Lake City council — which the Mormon web site describes as “representing the position of the Church’s leadership” — puts the church fully on record for the first time in support of a specific piece of pro-LGBT legislation. This is huge in and of itself. What’s more, one high-ranking LDS leader, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has already hinted that the Church may very well support at least parts of the Common Ground Initiative when it is brought back to the state legislature.
If the Church follows through, this will truly be a historic step. More importantly, decades from now we may look back on this as a significant turning point for LGBT Mormons. That’s because Mormonism is very different from other popular religions in America in that it is the only major religion which reserves the authority to change a portion of its canonized texts according to ongoing revelations. And there is recent precedent for just such adjustments in their doctrines. Not long ago, Blacks were regarded as being under the curse of Ham, and thus denied full participation in the Church. Mormon scriptures still declare (2 Nephi 5:21):
For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
Having black skin was a mark of a curse. And according to the Book of Mormon, when the curse is lifted from a group of black-skinned people, their skins became white (3 Nephi 2:14-16):
And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites.
According to long-held Mormon doctrine, black skin was the mark of a curse that individuals acquired due to unfaithfulness in their pre-existence. And because they displayed the mark of that curse on their skins, Blacks were not permitted to enter into celestial marriages or the Priesthood. This also meant that their role in the celestial kingdom would be a lesser role — as eternal servants.
This teaching came under fire in the 1950s and 1960s during the civil rights struggle. Sports teams began boycotting Brigham Young University and the NAACP held protest marches in Salt Lake City, but the Church held steadfast to its teachings, saying that “it is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord.” When a few Mormons themselves began opposing their Church’s racial teachings, many were excommunicated or denied entry into the temple for important ceremonies. (Sound familiar?) But all that finally changed in 1978 when, acting on a brand new revelation, the LDS Church added an entry into the open canon of its scripture known as Doctrine and Covenants which finally granted Blacks full participation in the life of the Church.
And guess what? Nobody’s skin color changed.
This latest move by the Mormon church to actively support the non-Discrimination ordinance should rightly be seen as a very small step. No, they’re not about to grant celestial marriage to LGBT Mormons anytime soon, just as they resisted allowing celestial marriages for African-Americans. Right now, there’s still every indication that the Church will continue to vigorously oppose marriage equality with every resource at its disposal. They will give us many new reasons to harbor deep well-earned anger and justified suspicions for many years to come as they continue to try to enshrine their particular religious beliefs into secular law at our expense. For that we must always be vigilant and hold the Church accountable.
All that said, this is still cause for hope. This is a Church that isn’t hamstrung by a closed canon, and it has a long history of receiving new revelations to correct grievous wrongs. What’s to keep the Church sometime in the future from receiving another revelation — this time one that reconsiders the place of its own LGBT sons and daughters in the life of the Church and the celestial kingdom?
Such a change certainly won’t come any time soon; it’s still likely decades away, at least. But that very possibility makes this latest step in favor of pro-LGBT legislation, as small as it is for our liking but as huge as it is for the Church, reason to rejoice.