Friday, November 18, 2011

Obstacles to Change in the Church: Inspired and Enforced Ignorance

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how various speakers at the recent Circling the Wagons Conference in Salt Lake City encouraged LGBT members of the LDS Church and their allies to stay in the Church and to work for change from the “ground up.”  I then discussed one major obstacle to such change, i.e., that the Mormon Church has a theocratic, rather than a democratic polity. 

Some of the comments to that post were of a type I would have expected, particularly this one:

“A 'ground-up approach' would indicate that God's Church is a sorta democracy. We do not get to vote, in the Church, on what is right or wrong. It's God's KINGDOM not his DEMOCRACY. HE makes the decisions and lets us in on it through his Prophet.”

This comment points out another major obstacle to change within the Church, viz., the attitudes, prejudices, and ignorance of other members of the Church.

For example, in the comment I just quoted, the author obviously believes that Christ “tells” President Monson what to do, or in his/her words, the prophet “lets us in on” what Christ’s decisions are with respect to the running of the Church. 

With due respect, this is an uninformed and na├»ve view.  Anyone who knows anything about how the Church is run is aware that major decisions are made by consensus among the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency.  For example, even President Kimball couldn’t just say, “We’re going to allow blacks to hold the priesthood.”  That change had to go through years of tortuous negotiations, back and forth among various of the Brethren, waiting for certain of the apostles to either die or change their mind.

And would this person really believe that God himself told President Monson to wade into the Proposition 8 fiasco in California?  Probably.

Of course, there is bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance throughout society.  I think, however, that there are (at least) two major differences between general society (as well as other Christian denominations) and the LDS Church when it comes to LGBTQ issues. 

The first is that many members of the Church typically either (i) don’t do their own thinking but simply parrot what they think the Brethren have said on these issues and/or (ii) cloak their own prejudices and bigotry with the mantle of the “prophets” – in both cases appealing to a “higher truth” that trumps any other viewpoint. 

There are, for example, many otherwise well-meaning and wonderful members of the Church who simply accept what Spencer W. Kimball wrote and preached 40 years ago and haven’t tuned in to the more nuanced doctrinal positions that the Church has taken in more recent years to issues involving homosexuality.  These people might be open to learning and thinking differently if appropriate information was to be provided to them.

On the other hand, there are those members of the Church who stridently and militantly go forth to do combat against the godless hordes of homosexuals who are part of Satan’s great plan to destroy any decency or morality in society.  These persons revel in what President Kimball wrote.  They delight in using words like “abomination” and “disgusting” and phrases like “sin against nature.”  They cloak their own personal bigotry, prejudice and ignorance in the mantel of past prophets and then use misinterpreted biblical passages and “prophetic utterances” as clubs against those who are the targets of their righteous indignation.


Again, there is bigotry, ignorance and prejudice with respect to LGBT issues throughout society.  But the appeal to prophetic authority, to the TRUTH, makes these all the much more difficult to combat within the membership of the LDS Church, particularly when – as it sometimes happens – the persons holding such views are in positions of authority.

Which brings me to the second major difference between society in general (or other Christian denominations) and the LDS Church when it comes to LGBTQ issues, viz., the constant threat of Church discipline for those who express views on these issues that are deemed to be “not in harmony” with those of the Brethren (or the stake president).  This discipline can range from withholding a temple recommend, to disfellowshipment, to excommunication.

And what makes it doubly sinister is that the application of this discipline varies from ward to ward, from stake to stake, depending on a variety of factors.  For example, I have a very good friend who is relatively active in the LDS Church, is openly gay and lives in a more “progressive” area of Salt Lake City.  He believes in the Church, believes in the Restoration and believes that the Brethren, albeit human and flawed, are called of God to lead and guide the Lord’s Church. 

Nevertheless, this man was recently told by his bishop, in the course of a conversation about the Church’s stance toward homosexuality, that if he (my friend) lived in another stake, he would likely be called before a disciplinary council (i.e., put on trial by his local Church leaders) – not because of immoral conduct, but because of what he has said publicly about the Church and homosexuality.

I know of others here in the Salt Lake City area, not gay themselves but allies of their LGBT brothers and sisters, who live in different stakes who have had the privilege of attending the temple taken away because these members have refused to stop publicly advocating for gay marriage or otherwise supporting gay rights.

One hears other stories, such as the gay man who was disfellowshipped for stating over the pulpit at a fast and testimony meeting that he is gay.  At the same time, one reads accounts of others coming out in fast and testimony meetings in other parts of the country, and there are no adverse consequences.

These are formidable obstacles to change within the LDS Church, community and culture.  They may in some cases be insurmountable.  But for those who care enough to seek to effect change, it would appear that the very best tools they can use to combat ignorance and prejudice are (i) correct information (e.g., the latest scholarship about the true meaning of biblical passages that purport to condemn homosexuality; what they Brethren have really said and are saying about homosexuality; what science has to say about sexual orientation; what sociologists have to say about same-gender parents; etc), and (ii) (referencing Carol Lynn Pearson's talk  at the Circling the Wagons Conference about the hero’s journey) the elixir that gay Mormons and their friends, family members and allies bring back to the tribe from their hero’s journey, which in my view consists of  tolerance, enlightenment and authentic love.


  1. The truly dangerous thing for me is when one man's prejudice, because he is a prophet or apostle, has the force of authority. This happened with Brigham Young's racism and lead to over a hundred years of people being denied temple marriage or priesthood. George Q. Cannon published a report found that there was no doctrinal reason to deny blacks the priesthood, but it still took 18 more years before the change actually took place.

    This is not to say there wasn't change in the church from that time in the hearts and minds of members. I think most church members today are not influenced by Brigham Young or Ezra Taft Benson's racism (although in his case it was more a vehement anti-communism than racism that lead to condemnation of the civil right's movement). I think a lot of them are ignorant about it and don't question why up until 1978 people were denied exaltation based on the color of their skin.

    Well, people shouldn't be denied blessings or exaltation based on their sexual orientation either. That doesn't fit the God that is taught by Mormonism, a just loving God. Believe it or not, it's more like skin color than people thing. It's a trait that while not passed on to everyone like skin color, is definitely influenced by genetic factors. It's like other genetic traits in that way I suppose, like hair color, eye color. I suppose I could dye my hair, but I'd always be a red head. Same thing. I could act or pretend to be straight, but I'm still homosexually oriented underneath it all. It's not something I can control or change.

    And yet, Boyd K. Packer, Dallin H. Oaks, and I don't know how many others, make predjudiced remarks against gays and lesbians, people who don't get to pick their orientation. Packer is probably the worst offender, and it's unfortunate that his remarks are defended and explained because he's in a position of authority. I think that someday things will change at the top. But I think worrying about helping people become less homophobic, loving their neighbor more, all of these things are entirely possible within the framework of the current church doctrine and make up.

    Good post. I think that a lot of Mormons are actually more reasonable than your post reflects. Yet I've been in Utah, and seen the stubborness and outright obstinancy from members there at times, black and white thinking (which ironically is sometimes a characteristic of mental illness). There are Mormons in California, Utah, and all over the world who are open minded, liberal, and accepting. But I agree that the orthodoxy of the church is as you describe, and you are taught that if you aren't orthodox you are sinful.

    I think as a religion evolves, like Catholicism for example, you get different ideas, intellectual currents, and thinkers. And as the culture evolves, because being Mormon is pretty cultural, I think as a people we'll accept difference more. Mormonism is young. I have hope yet.

  2. Alex, I like your comment, but am confused by your statement that GQC worked up the report on blacks and the priesthood, 18 years before it was changed. Cannon died in 1901. Were you thinking of Hugh B Brown or someone else?

  3. Good post, as always.

    You may already be aware of this, but one thing that seems like a really good sign to me is that BYU's honor code was changed earlier this year so that the part on homosexuality no longer says anything against "advocacy" of homosexuality. You can read more about it here:

    I always thought that my family was super conservative and strict LDS, but as I have come out to them in the last couple weeks, I have been truly amazed at how accepting and open-minded they are--I think many of them are more enthusiastic about the idea of pursuing a same-sex relationship than I am at this point!

    I agree with Alex that most people in the Church are more reasonable than your post (or myself, for that matter) gives them credit for. The problem, I think, is just the taboo of homosexuality and the very skewed framing of the issue that prevents honest and open dialog that could very quickly lead to change. Judging just by what I see around me, I think this will change very fast--or at least faster than we expect it to.

    I think the only thing preventing change on the macro-level are the personal opinions of some of the leadership. The discord is very clear to me because you can find general authority statements (like speeches to Evergreen) that directly contradict the Church's own stated policy (as revealed, I suppose, by President Ostler), and Church policy statements seem formulated to allow for outdated views while not explicitly displacing them.

    I think change is inevitable, and what will precipitate it is simply dialog. The more people come out to their families and families realize the real nature of what we're dealing with here, the point of reckoning will be pushed forward.

  4. Oy Mark, sorry. It was Hugh B. Brown in 1969, which is 9 years. I believe I read that he started investigating the matter, preparing a report in 1960 or 1961 but I'll have to track down where I saw. I don't know why George Q Cannon came to mind...

  5. Trev, that's great to hear. My parents are coming around slowly, but it's been rough. My siblings however have been great.

    I've noticed that church policy has an interesting relationship with Evergreen. You have statements like "Some individuals are able to overcome these attractions and marry." Is that revealed truth or the opinion of a discredited and disreputable therapist (like A. Dean Byrd)? It gets confusing when you are looking to the leadership of the church for counsel and you get mixed signals and contradictory counsel. It makes you question the source.

    It gets even worse when Bishops then try to help people and they do things like send them to LDS family services for reparative therapy, pay for said therapy, do it without parental knowledge or consent. Maybe that's not standard practice, but it happened in my case. Bishops go to Evergreen for training, and find misinformation. At least as of 10 years ago. And this leads to them giving "inspired counsel" which is actually regurtitated garbage from Nikolosi, Byrd, and other Reparative therapists that don't know what they are talking about.

    Having been to Evergreen, I think the GA's feel like they are talking secretly to a group so they can let some private opinion in. These GA's are of course in positions of authority and leads to people believing what they say is authoritative. Cut out the source (Evergreen, Byrd, Robinson, Shirley Cox, whoever else the church tends to go to to get an answer it likes about the matter) and I think that the leadership won't feel as inclined to support outdated and misinformed positions.

  6. I think the best way to approach men over 55 (who are bishops, stake presidents) is to quote Mark E. Petersen's 1972 talk about Negroes. And then, simply wait for them to get it. I'll be trying this next weekend as I do my very best to explain to my new bishop why I recently married a fine upstanding active-in-church, powerful-testimonied RM.