The recent LDS handbook change has been troubling to many, including myself. I think it’s part of a much longer narrative that I will try to articulate. The Mormon people experienced fairly extreme persecution for a century, including exile, at least two instances of threatened genocide, occupation, disenfranchisement, and many other collective punishments. Some of this was for marriage practices that were out of the mainstream (an irony I will address later), and some for other, more theological reasons. Abuse and bullying always causes lasting damage. When the U.S. government finally forced the Mormon people to abandon polygamy, the Church began a campaign of assimilation, a century-long attempt to establish itself somewhat in the mainstream of Christendom, and its adherents as “normal”, even patriotic citizens. This quest for acceptance took many forms, including the embrace (often in excess) of militarism, capitalism, conservative politics (especially the republican party), bourgeois suburban lifestyles, etc. In it’s most baleful form, this impulse led to the adoption of Mormonism’s century-long racial policy, which Paul Reeve, in Religion of a Different Color demonstrates to be part of an attempt to demonstrate the “whiteness” of Mormons, in a country obsessed with race, that accused Mormons as being racially impure.
More recently, the “evangelical” movement has selected Mormonism as its prime target. Evangelicalism has been a potent force in American culture and politics for quite awhile now, but it really picked up steam in the ‘70s, when being “born again” became somewhat of a fad. Populist movements of this kind often feed off of fears, and usually dig up old fears, fears that have worked well in the past. Mormons were a reliable punching bag for the evangelical movement. Their main line of attack (among many) was to say that Mormons weren’t “Christians.” This attack was deeply troubling to the leadership and many of the laity of the LDS Church. After all, the name of this deity is included in the church’s official title. A lot of effort was put forth to try to quell this attack, to convince America and the world that Mormons are, indeed, Christians. I feel that this effort was misdirected and perhaps counterproductive and, in a strange way, played into the hands of the haters. I served a mission in California in the early ‘80s, in somewhat of the epicenter of the born again movement. After being told over and over again that, as a Mormon, I was not only not a Christian, but that I was going to hell, I finally asked several people, including evangelical clergymen, just what a Christian was in their lexicon. I was told that a Christian was no more nor less than a person who was born again, in the evangelical definition. It was then that I realized how slippery words are. That any Tom Dick or Harry can fabricate a definition for any group of phonemes, and if he or she repeats it often enough, people will start to accept it.
The Church’s embrace and leadership of the anti same sex marriage movement cannot be understood without understanding our legacy of persecution and the entirely understandable, if unfortunate, quest for acceptance. Once we were forced to abandon polygamy, we were desperate to establish ourselves as the most shining example of monogamy and the nuclear family. After being forced to abandon communitarianism, we went out of our way to establish our credentials as free marketeers. And when evangelicals questioned our Christianity, we contorted ourselves to court their favor, including the advocacy of doomed and dubious political causes.
I am a devoted and devout Mormon. True blue, through and through, as they say. I think the vicissitudes we are going through are, to some extent, the natural and understandable result of protracted bullying and persecution. I know a bit about bullying myself. I had a lot of opportunities to experience it growing up. I learned that appeasing bullies only makes them bolder. I learned that I was too weird to ever measure up to the kind of normalcy that kids and teens demand. I discovered that by being an even more authentic, even extreme version of myself, I could reject whatever crazy paradigm the dominant culture prescribed, and the bullies and haters had no basis on which to persecute me. In fact, they began to respect me because I had something, a secret paradigm that they were not party to. I’ve always felt that Mormons (and, pretty much everybody) should pursue this route. We are and have always been weird. Our religion is bold. It makes bold claims. It makes bold demands of its adherents, including highly restrictive health and sexual codes. We need to recognize that these are things that are unusual about us, but there is nothing wrong with being unusual. We just shouldn’t worry about non-Mormons buying into our unusual theology and rules. If they are interested in buying in, we have been very good at making information and resources available.
I have no more objection to a person not of my faith being married to another person of the same sex than I have of them drinking green tea. And I believe that we should think very seriously before denying access to saving and edifying ordinances to anyone, especially children.
The Mormon moment I have been seeking, is one in which we have a more accurate and positive view of ourselves in the world, one that embraces diversity. I was very heartened and moved by the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, because we were acknowledging and celebrating diversity within our people. The other Mormon moment I am anticipating is the one where we talk less of “they” and “them” and more of “we” and “us”. One of the most unique aspects of this church is its governance by the laity. Indeed, we have long denied a distinction between clergy and laity. It is my belief that the Church is divine, in every sense that Mormonism has claimed, but it is administered by humans of extremely limited abilities and foresight on every level. But, being a divine institution, I think it has an abundance of blessings and inspiration (more than it deserves often) on every level. I think that’s kind of awesome. It has the potential to foster the kind of humility and dependence on grace that all religions treasure.
And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.
In the early history of Mormonism, two names were used, The Church of Jesus Christ, and, The Church of the Latter-day Saints. These two were merged in the present name. This means that it is the church of two entities, the Savior, and the people that belong to the church, all of them. Joseph Smith stated that church governance was a hybrid of theocracy and democracy. It is my hope that the power and wisdom of the Latter-day Saints as a whole will shine forth and help us to work through our difficulties; that we will truly be a light on a hill; that we will be good to ourselves and others; that will focus on rolling forth the tremendous and glorious mission we have been tasked with and not get sidetracked; that Zion will put on its beautiful garments, etc.