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.