Monday, November 17, 2008

The Tipping Point
Speculating the Unspeculatable

If you had asked me a year ago--and several people did, at one time or another--whether I thought the Mormon church would ever change its position on homosexuality, I would have said (a) I don't care, (b) I don't know, and (c) probably not. Once I left the church I ceased to care what they believe because it doesn't affect me, at least not directly. Honestly, I believe the church's teachings on homosexuality do horrible damage to gay people in and out of the church by teaching that who we are is a lie, but I suppose I see that as something so far out of my control that it's not worth my time and energy worrying about. I had come to recognize lies for lies and truths for truths, and I've seen countless other people do the same. It's rarely a painless journey but hell, nothing is.

Even the fact that the church regularly told its members to vote for anti-gay legislation didn't concern me too much, because it's not like Mormons make up a significant portion of the voting population in many areas of the world. The past six months have proven me wrong in my assumption about the extent of Mormons' potential influence on secular legislation, but even now I'm not particularly invested in the church announcing that same-sex relationships are just as valid in the eyes of God as opposite-sex relationships. They're welcome to go on believing that homosexual behavior is sinful, so long as they learn to keep the legal codification of that belief within the bounds of their own membership.

So today my answers (a) and (b) remain the same, but I'm no longer so sure about (c). My belief that the LDS church was unlikely to ever change its stance on homosexuality was based in the same reasons most Mormons will give: the eternal nature of gender and family relationships are so entwined in basic Mormon doctrine that it would be impossible to pull the beliefs about homosexuality out without unraveling the entire belief system.

I began to question this assumption, though, a couple months ago when Scot posted about a talk given in 1954 by an LDS apostle in which pretty much the same arguments the church uses to oppose same-sex marriage today were used to oppose mixed-race marriage then. It's really quite jarring to read the racist rhetoric used in talks like this one--I was born a year after the revelation that gave black men the priesthood and so have seen very little of this side of the church's history. To think that church leaders could talk like this at BYU or in General Conference, and that people just accepted it, is both apalling and enlightening. One can't help but wonder if fifty years from now Mormons will be just as appalled by the heterosexist rhetoric used in today's fireside devotionals and conference talks.

It's hard to imagine how the church would reconcile acceptance of homosexual relationships with the rest of their doctrine, but I'm sure it was once just as hard to imagine how a God who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" would change his position on plural marriage or on the exclusion of the "descendants of Cain" from the priesthood. The common explanation of those changes now, looking back, is that the church changed policy, not doctrine, or that it was just a matter of the Saints misunderstanding God's will. I doubt, though, that those Saints would find your opinion any less heretical if you were to go back in time and tell them this.

Over the past several weeks I've developed a theory: In order to survive an institution must evolve; the LDS church has shown this ability to evolve and thus has thrived over the past century and a half. One of the church's virtues, in fact, is its ability to change, based on the doctrine of continuing revelation. If not, it would have died out a century ago. There came a time when in order to survive the church needed to change its position on plural marriage; the world at large simply wouldn't tolerate a church that continued to practice a marriage system that had mostly died out in Western civilization centuries earlier. It changed and it survived. Later, there came a time when the world at large would not tolerate a church that continued to deny some of its members the most basic and essential rites of its doctrine (i.e. eternal marriage) based simply on their race. This is not to say that anyone was going to step in and take away the church's right to practice its beliefs, but that people would not want to associate with a church they saw as racist, and so the membership would dwindle away to nothing. The church changed and it survived.

Curious to see if the facts supported this theory, I looked up the historical growth rate of the church and found this on Wikipedia:

At first glance the graph supports my theory. Right around 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, there's a rapid decline in the growth rate, which doesn't find its way back up until 1989, once the church had had a decade to move away from its image as a racist organization. Before my supporters pat me on the back and my naysayers jump on me, though, let me say that this correlation is far from proving causality. It doesn't take into account, for example, the fact that the late sixties also saw a lot of mission-age young men otherwise occupied in Vietnam, which would certainly have an impact on the growth rate. For all I know studies have been done showing the race issue had absolutely nothing to do with the drop in growth rate.

But I believe, nonetheless, that if the church had not changed its position on race it would not currently be the 13 million-member worldwide organization it is. There would have come a tipping point in public opinion after which people simply would not even talk to representatives of a church that held onto antiquated beliefs about race.

That time will come too for homosexuality. This post about evolving public opinion on gay rights and gay marriage (which I just don't get tired of linking to) suggests that time is not all that far away. Either the LDS church will change or it will cease to exist. History--not only the history of the LDS church but also the history of the similarly-dogmatic Catholic church--tells us that ceasing to exist is not a plausible reality. I suspect that long before it gets to the point where most people (within and without the church) are no longer willing to consider the possibility of a faith that excludes same-sex couples, the church will change.

Of course the skeptic in me sees this as a simple matter of LDS leaders changing what are ultimately arbitrary beliefs, but my theory doesn't require the assumption that the church is not indeed led by a prophet inspired by a true and living God. The Mormon understanding of the revelation on the priesthood is that Spencer W. Kimball pleaded and pleaded with God until he received the answer he sought--that all men could hold the priesthood. Perhaps all that's needed here is a prophet, spurred by a declining growth rate, who pleads with God until he gets the answer he's looking for, an answer current leaders don't see not because it's not there but because they haven't even thought to ask.

Or, alternatively, the world might fall subject to a cataclysm brought on by global warming or terrorism, sending people running back to the comforting arms of fundamentalist religion and the reassuring belief that it really was all the gays' fault. Because it always is.


Scott said...

Good post--well written and well thought-out.

It brought to mind a similar post on the Sunstone blog from a few months ago, which came to similar conclusions. The Sunstone post itself is an interesting read, but the comments also provide a lot of insight into both sides of the issue from the perspectives of Mormon faithful.

bawb said...

Cool graph.

Did you see the link I posted on Facebook yesterday in which Orson Scott Card advocates civil war in defense of traditional marriage? Priceless line: "Wives need to have the whole society agree that when they marry, their husband is off limits to all other females. All of his protection and earning power will be devoted to her and her children, and will not be divided with other women and their children."

I seriously can't understand why he thinks gay marriage is such a threat to traditional marriage. Have there been so many days he's thought, "Wow, it's hard living with a woman. If only I could just do a guy."? Or is his fear that one of his descendants will be gay and think that living a gay lifestyle won't make his life a meaningless failure?

Yodame said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skyeJ said...

I think my greatest frustration with the concept of continuing revelation is that I just don't feel like we're asking God the right questions. It feels as if the church leaders don't want to know things that might not be "faith promoting" to the majority of their culturally conservative followers, even if they are true. Its hard to convince myself to listen to them over what I hear from God. Well written.

Yodame said...

sorry I think that my earlier comment might not be received too well by some, so I deleted it.
Just call me the crazy Aunt :)

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, though you don't have to answer this question-- IF the mormon church changed their position on homosexuality, would that change your mind about the truthfulness of the mormon religion altogether? Or, are you a disbeliever of the mormon faith-- and also a bisexual, through no correlation.

Like I said, you don't need to answer this if you don't want to. I just stumbled upon your blog and perhaps you've already answered this in a previous post, I'm not sure.

Just wondering.

Mr. Fob said...

Scott: Oh, great, here I thought I had something to say and it turns out I'm just rehashing stuff someone said (and said better) a few months ago on Sunstone. Oh well. :)

BAWB: You know, I don't like to throw the word "homophobe" around a lot because it's way overused, but the more I hear from Card the more I'm convinced the term legitimately applies to him, no matter how many gay friends he has (because he works in the entertainment industry, of course) or how often he invites them over for dinner.

SkyeJ: Have you read the Sunstone post Scott linked to above? There's a cool idea in there about how sometimes the leaders of the church are the most in tune with God so they are the first to receive revelation, but sometimes it's the rest of the world (not necessarily even members of the church) who are most willing to receive new revelation. It's an interesting take on the tension between prophetic revelation and personal revelation.

Yodame: Sorry, Skye has the "crazy aunt" position taken, at least for our kids--we've taught them to call her Crazy Aunt Skye. I thought your comment was very thoughtful and well stated.

Mr. Fob said...

Anonymous: My sexuality definitely had a lot to do with my process of leaving the church, but ultimately it was just the impetus that led to many other questions that the church couldn't answer to my satisfaction. I prayed to know if the church was true, as I'd been taught to all my life, and the answer was "no." Now I'm at a point where I don't really believe in God--I don't deny the possibility of a God, but I'm not holding my breath. The reason it's not hugely important to me that the church ever change its position on homosexuality is that it wouldn't affect me either way--but I would be happy for the gay men and women who do believe.

Petra said...

I like this, and I certainly have my fingers crossed for something changing. Part of my rationale for the possibility is this: if homosexuality was really the big stinkin' apocalyptic deal we seem to be making it, why does it make little to no appearance in the scriptures supposedly meant for our day?

See, now we just need the leadership to start taking those kinds of questions to God...

Mr. Fob said...

I think everyone's energies would be better spent worrying about Barack Obama, who I'm told is the anti-Christ, and his name proves it if you completely ignore its etymology.

Rebecca said...

I can't wait until they have a gay prophet. Better yet - a lesbian prophet.

Katya said...

Wouldn't the whole priesthood / presiding structure have to be changed, as well? That seems like a lot to change all at once.

Mr. Fob said...

Rebecca: Considering that it's been thirty years since the priesthood was opened up to all worthy males and there still hasn't been a black apostle, I'm guessing it'll be a while before we see that.

Katya: Yeah, it probably would be a pretty drastic change. To put same-sex marriages on the same level as heterosexual marriages would imply a pretty drastic turn away from the traditional gender roles the current system relies on. I think for such a thing to be feasible the church would first have to be at a point where women have the priesthood, which is a whole other can of worms but I don't think entirely outside the realm of possibility. I suspect the changes would have to come a little at a time. Like I said, it's hard to imagine, but it's also hard to imagine the church remaining as mainstream as it is now and keeping its current stance. I suppose the other option is to go the way of more fringe religions like the Amish or something. I don't know. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next 50 years or so.

Petra said...

Well, it would all get a lot easier to sort out if we just gave up the idea of mortal gender being post-mortal gender. You could even still only give the priesthood to men, under the thinking that God assigns mortal gender for a reason.

(Yes, it's crazy talk. But there's been crazier--Adam-God, anyone?)

(I realize this reduces homosexuality to simply gender confusion, and that smacks negatively of past thinking, but it does so for positive, liberating reasons, so that's okay, right?)

chosha said...

Interesting. I can't wrap my head around how it could ever be reconciled, but like you said, it's been done before.

Petra: that would fit well with the fact that women perform ordinances in the temple and that there is an existing theory that women will have further priesthood-type roles in the after-life. Or was that just a rumour...? :)

Whether because they change their doctrine, or because they don't, I just hope more people realise that the church is not true and walk away.

Mr. Fob said...

Petra--Yeah, there's been crazier.

Chosha--Yeah, I think there's more flexibility of the whole women-and-the-priesthood thing already built into the doctrine than most people acknowledge. Throughout church history there are stories of women doing things like giving priesthood blessings when there weren't men available to do so.

TK said...

"I prayed to know if the church was true - and the answer was "no." Now I'm at a point where I don't really believe in God -"

I'm not trying to start an argument here, but to me, logic and faith fit together. So I have to ask, if there really is no God, who answered your prayer, 'no'? And how do you know that that being/spirit/whatever - was giving you a true answer?

TK said...

If I may dare to add another thought, I guess both my comment AND your post, both work to illustrate that, in spite of my fondness for logic, only the Spirit can 'prove' anything. 'Cause anyone can argue logic and get nowhere but to further convince themselves. Perhaps, at least in part, because logic only holds true when ALL the facts are considered. And no one (but God, if one believes He exists) has access to ALL the facts.

Mr. Fob said...

TK: A pretty logical answer to your question would be that the "no" answer came from the same place as mine and everyone else's "yes" answer comes from--ourselves. Feelings may make us believe one thing or another, but in reality nothing has been proven.

To conclude that any feeling of spiritual confirmation that contradicts your "truth" must come from the devil is a fallacy of circular logic. The only thing that supports your "truth" is an identical feeling of spiritual confirmation--you've no way of knowing that it was my answer and not yours that came from the devil.

Actually many things can be logically proven; the question is whether people are too stubborn to hear logical arguments and accept the proof presented to them. I don't claim, however, that any of my speculation about the future of homosexuality in the LDS church is one of those things that can be logically proven; it's merely a hypothesis based in historical precedent. Any rational person accepts that we don't have all the facts, but that doesn't prevent us from drawing logical conclusions from the facts we do have. The danger comes when people erroneously believe, whether based on a false understanding of "logic" or on a belief in a supreme being, that the conclusions they've come to do in fact represent absolute truth. It's such false surety that leads people to do horrible things (like, for example, taking away a minority's civil rights), only to decide later that their previous understanding of God's will was inaccurate.

TK said...

"To conclude that any feeling of spiritual confirmation that contradicts your "truth" must come from the devil ..."

My intent was NOT NOT NOT to suggest that your answer came from the devil. I sincerely wanted to know how you justified the sum of the two thoughts I had quoted from you. Perhaps I should have worded the question: If there's no God, then how could his answer of 'no' have any valid meaning? You've answered that now by saying that it came from yourself and not from any other source, if I understood you correctly. Consequently, there wouldn't need to be another 'being' involved, for you to identify.

Sorry to have not been more clear.

Mr. Fob said...

Thanks for clarifying, TK. Forgive me for misinterpreting you, but what "being/spirit/whatever" were you implying might not give me a true answer?