June 22, 2010
Mormons, Gays and Prop 8
No one is, or ever could be, excluded from the circle of God’s love or the extended arms of His Church, for we are all His beloved sons and daughters. As President Hinckley said: “Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters”—God Loveth His Children, official LDS Church pamphlet
“The attitude of our tradition and of Reform Judaism toward homosexuals is clear… Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future, which is assured by a family… we canot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a ‘marriage’ within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. A rabbi cannot, therefore, participate in the ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, October 1985
“Those who advocate homosexual marriage have not, in the opinion of our majority, met their burden of proof. That is, their arguments do not succeed in overcoming the opposition to this practice found in both the Jewish and the Western traditions…While we Reform Jews have departed from traditional practice in many areas, we continue to ‘abhor’ virtually all of the sexual prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18 and 20 as destructive of the Jewish conception of a life of holiness and morality…[To sanctify a same-sex marriage] would be a revolutionary step, one which would sunder us from all Jewish tradition, including our own, down to the most recent times.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996
I went to see the movie “8:The Mormon Proposition” on opening night in West Hollywood, a gay enclave in Los Angeles. Most of the 50 or so moviegoers were same-sex couples, and I was curious to observe their reactions to the anti-Mormon film. I didn’t have long to wait. The documentary’s opening scenes featured two young ex-Mormon men describing their courtship and eventual wedding in San Francisco on the first day that gays could legally marry in California. As they described their joy at finally being able to marry the person they loved after years of rejection, alienation, and heartache, the sounds of sniffles and muffled sobs filled the theater. Clearly their story had hit a nerve with the people around me, who undoubtedly had their own stories of rejection to share. This poignant moment alone was well worth the ticket price. I was also touched by the last part of the film, which examined the miserable lives of some gay teens in Utah. Unfortunately, the disingenuous “cry for an open dialogue” that appears on the film’s posters is likely to go unheeded by Mormons, who will understandably take offense at the film’s biased and dishonest portrayal of LDS beliefs and attitudes towards gays.
Full disclosure: if you had asked me before the Prop 8 campaign which issues I cared most about, gay marriage would not have made my top 50 list. Come to think of it, it still wouldn’t. A person’s sexual preference has always been irrelevant to me and, I suspect, to most Mormons as well. Like all Mormons I know, I oppose discrimination against gays in education, housing, and employment. I also support the designation of gays as a protected group for the purposes of hate crimes legislation (another Mormon who did was former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, who co-sponsored a hate crimes inclusion bill for gays with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy). When the President of the LDS Church, a man whom I regard as a modern Moses, asked Church members in California to contribute their time and means to the Prop 8 campaign, I dutifully made a contribution, emceed a town hall meeting on Prop 8, arranged a few interfaith meetings, discussed our theology with a journalist at the request of a local Mormon leader, and generally gave little thought to gay marriage until Election Day, when I went online from South Africa to view the national and statewide results. It wasn’t until gay activists stormed the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles a few days later that the issue became a front burner one for me.
Now for full disclosure of LDS beliefs on homosexuality. [Note to “8” producers: if you’re going to belittle our beliefs, at least make sure that you accurately state them. Given all of the ex-Mormons involved in your project, I have to conclude that your distortion of our theology was deliberate]. Like many faiths, including Judaism, the LDS Church does not take a position on the cause(s) of sexual orientation. Mormons are free to believe that homosexuality is innate, a choice, a predisposition, or all three. Based on my discussions with gays, I firmly believe that in almost all cases they are either born with same-sex attraction or develop it at a very early age. I’ve found that people who believe otherwise usually have had few if any meaningful interactions with gays. I’d be willing to bet serious money that most Mormons in California agree with me.
In addition, Mormons do not believe that having homosexual feelings is sinful, so long as there is no accompanying sexual expression of those feelings (the identical restriction is placed on unmarried straights). Gays who remain chaste can and do serve in callings in the Church, worship in our temples, teach Sunday School, and enrich the lives of their fellow members. You won’t get this from the film, but unlike some other conservative Christians, Mormons are not in the business of condemning others to hell or pronouncing God’s judgments upon them. God alone will judge us, and we leave it up to Him to determine the final disposition of a soul. Finally, I am unaware of a religious belief system that is so diametrically opposed to homophobia. We believe that everyone who has been or will be born on earth is literally a spirit child of God, our brother or sister. We believe that we all lived together with God before this life, fought on the side of good against evil in the War in Heaven, and chose to come to earth. Needless to say, these fundamental beliefs leave absolutely no room for hatred of others, regardless of their race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or religion. A Mormon bigot should be an oxymoron, and Mormons who hate gays are hypocrites. Am I denying that there are Mormon homophobes? Of course not. Any organization of 14 million members is bound to have self-righteous bigots in its ranks, and we do have our share. However, it is deceitful to attempt to portray these people as representing the majority of straight Mormons, who regard gays as their spiritual siblings.
One major flaw in the film is the lack of context for the LDS Church’s long-standing opposition to gay marriage and promotion of gay relationships. To hear the anti-Prop 8 folks talk, the Mormon Church seems to be obsessed with gays. In fact, the Church opposes all sexual expression outside of male-female marriage, including pornography, adultery, fornication, and homosexual relationships, all of which it considers to be serious sins. Most of these practices do not have public advocates. There is no American Association of Adulterers, for example. [If there were, you can bet that the Church would oppose its efforts to promote infidelity]. However, there is an organized gay lobby, and while the Church has consistently opposed gay marriage, it has not opposed gays’ efforts to secure employment, housing, or educational rights (as a church that truly hated gays would have done). It might surprise some readers to learn that modern Mormon scriptures (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price), which strongly denounce sexual immorality, do not mention homosexuality by name. While I have heard plenty of sermons advocating chastity, I have yet to hear one that singles out sexually active gays. Truth be told, the sexual sin that is denounced in stronger terms than any other also has an organized lobby, albeit one with a lower profile: pornography is harshly condemned by LDS leaders, and anti-pornography groups always count Mormons among their ranks.
The desire of gays to marry makes perfect sense. On a certain level I’m envious of those who have found a life partner, something I have yet to do. It also makes sense that gays would regard marriage as a civil right, which explains their outrage over the Prop 8 vote. If I thought that millions of Californians were actively conspiring to deny civil rights to their fellow citizens, I’d be marching in the streets as well. That said, I cannot empathize with the bigots in the gay community who attempt to portray people of faith who oppose gay marriage as homophobic haters. This is nonsense. As the above quotes show, even the leading rabbis of the Reform movement (the most liberal of Judaism’s three major movements) were opposed to performing Jewish same-sex wedding ceremonies until 2000, when they stopped citing Jewish law and tradition in their responsa on the subject, appealing instead to a sense of “justice,” “human dignity” and civil rights. During the Prop 8 public debate, every Orthodox rabbi who publicly cited Jewish law was criticized by a Reform counterpart who used entirely secular arguments. Were major Reform rabbis who opposed Jewish sanctification of gay marriages until this decade all a bunch of homophobes? Are Orthodox Jews seething with hatred against gays because they insist on following the dictates of Jewish law and tradition? How exactly does violating the Torah’s sexual prohibitions enhance human dignity? Is there an example in the Hebrew Bible or Talmud to support this? People whose deeply-held religious beliefs are incompatible with gay marriage deserve better than to be tagged with puerile labels by people holding a different point of view.
Far from encouraging dialogue, the documentary left me with a feeling of frustration and sadness. Unfortunately, this is an issue on which the two sides will never begin to agree. In the aftermath of Prop 8, a gay pastor and I set up a meeting of gay religious leaders and their LDS counterparts to see whether we could start a dialogue. The Mormons were unprepared for the raw emotion on display, and the meeting quickly fell apart. The low point came when an impassioned gay rabbi threw his marriage certificate down on the table and invited the Mormons to tear it up, then invoked his parents’ suffering in a concentration camp in an ill-considered effort to justify his marriage to another man. We were all speechless. While the LDS leaders tried to emphasize their warm feelings towards gays, all the people across the table wanted to discuss was the violation of their “civil rights.” They even tried to bring up the “separation of church and state” red herring. As we pointed out, no Mormon congregation in the state had done nearly as much to promote our cause as gay churches and synagogues had done to promote theirs. Unless they wanted to disenfranchise Mormons, Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Muslims, and other Prop 8 supporters, they should admit that we have as much right as they do to promote our values and to vote accordingly. While tax-exempt religious organizations are not allowed to sponsor political candidates, they can certainly encourage their members to support initiatives that enshrine their values into law. The church/state separation principle has to do with government endorsement or prohibition of religion, not with the right of churches to support moral causes.
That the LDS Church was singled out for scrutiny by election officials responding to a targeted complaint doesn’t bother me in the least. After all, if we’re willing to raise tens of millions of dollars for a cause, we should be willing to take the heat from our opponents when they lose. If we fund the commercials, even indirectly, then we’re responsible for their content. However, the threats to Mormons’ jobs and “outing” of their Prop 8 contributions are less justifiable. I was the target of such efforts, and am pleased to report that Jews from several movements defended me when bigots tried to get me fired. Most of my defenders disagreed with me on gay marriage, but they were first and foremost opposed to intolerance.
I have a final thought. Mormons would do well to make an extra effort to combat anti-gay bigotry in our community. It is intolerable to think that a “good” Mormon parent would disown his child because of her sexual orientation, regardless of whether she is chaste. It is also wrong for a Mormon to condemn gays as people or to regard them as anything less than God’s children created in His image. One of the questions that is asked of members who wish to enter our temples is the following: “Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?” How can a parent who disowns his child for being gay qualify for a temple recommend? We all have things we can work on in our lives, and we do not have to condone people’s lifestyles in order to make them feel welcome at our services and activities. Jesus Christ loved everyone, and we have an obligation to do so as well. I long for the day when a Mormon’s anti-gay feelings will be seen as a severe character defect instead of a slight eccentricity. I know that members of my stake (= diocese) are actively looking for service projects that they can perform with local gay organizations, and we hope to identify one or two ASAP. We don’t have to agree on gay marriage in order to work together to improve the world. While it’s relatively easy to splice together anti-Mormon clips and lash out at the Church, the real work of promoting dialogue is a lot harder—and ultimately more rewarding. I am optimistic that there are members of the gay community who are as committed to promoting understanding as “8”‘s producers are to undermining it.