A little education: Mormon Edition

Over at the Slog today, Dan Savage received a letter from a self professed Mormon. Read the whole thing. While I applaud the emailer for supporting LGBT equality personally, I find it slightly ridiculous that they don’t know the official Church teachings of their own faith on homosexuality.

It’s useful first, to understand just what the book of Mormon says about homosexuality, so we can understand their position in that context. In the book of Alma (39:5), it states that sexual transgressions are a heinous sin second only to the shedding of innocent blood. And the LDS translation of the ever popularly used Leviticus 18:22 even has a subsequent verse (18:23) which indirectly links homosexuality with beastiality. Furthermore, according to the Doctrine of the Covenants, one can only reach the Celestial kingdom if they are engaged in the “sacred bonds of marriage” (of course we know they mean this only in the context of heterosexual marriage).

This teaching is unfortunately what we would expect to find in any religious text that claims itself as a continuation of Judeo-Christian thought. But how did the early Church handle homosexuality? We need look no further than Michael D. Quinn, whose 1996 book Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth Century Americans: a Mormon Example, sheds light on this very issue. According to Quinn, one of the first (and few) publicly known cases of the Early Church dealing with sexuality falling outside hetero normative assumptions involved John C. Bennett. He was a relatively high ranking member of the early Church. But he was soon caught committing adultery and was accused of homosexuality in conjunction. He initially repented, but the behavior and rumors of his behavior continued and so he was excommunicated, cast out of the Church and stripped of public office. We don’t find much in the way of official church dealings, teachings or literature until we reach the mid 20th Century; and that’s when things start to look very ugly.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we see the Church responding more forcefully, and thus can say much more about their teachings. During this time period, the Church President was David A. McKay. And according to the book, Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official reaction to a spate of gay men being arrested in Idaho and Utah was to push for more literature and teachings that promised that “homosexuality can be cured.” This was of course (and unfortunately) in line with mainstream psychiatric thought which at the time deemed homosexuality an illness. But nonetheless, the response from Church leaders is revealing as it speaks to a campaign the waged well beyond when most of the psychiatric community had shifted away from the antiquated and scientifically wrong assumptions they had made earlier (more on that later). This effort, first by McKay then by Kimball, led to the creation of a pamphlet produced in 1970 titled Hope for Transgressors. According to the pamphlet, Church leaders should assist “homosexual transgressors” by reciting verses, appealing to reason and encouraging them to disassociate themselves from gay lovers, acquaintances, etc.

Not but 5 years after the publication of this manual, Boyd K. Packer, President of the Twelve Apostles (a position he still holds) made a speech titled To Young Men Only in which he stated this:

There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just “that way” and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life. From our premortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men –masculine, manly men –ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.

As the LGBT community well knows, the first shift in the scientific and psychiatric community came in the APA’s official shift on homosexuality in 1973; when they removed it as an “illness.” This is a moment that many in the anti-gay crowd, like pseudo-psychologist Paul Cameron, lament. And it would seem that much like anti-gay quacks of Cameron’s ilk who refuse to see the evidence in front of them, so too does the LDS Church.

In 1992, the Church published an official pamphlet meant to help leadership deal with those who have “homosexual problems” (pamphlets wording). This was done in response to the World Health Organization finally removing homosexuality from its list of diseases and disorders. The pamphlet is titled Understanding and Helping Those With Homosexual Problems. The language of the pamphlet makes clear that despite the fact that all evidence points to sexual orientation not being a conscious decision and not being something that can be “cured,” that the LDS Church believed that one could “overcome homosexuality”. A choice passage reads like this:

No general agreement exists about the causes of such problems. It is important for you as a Church leader to help members understand that regardless of the causes, these problems can be controlled and eventually overcome. Members can be helped to gain self-mastery, adhere to gospel standards of sexual purity and develop meaningful, appropriate relationships with members of both sexes.

The next section after this very quote is entitled “Helping Members Overcome Homosexual Problems”. In that section, they advise that in order for “change” to occur, the person coming to the leader for guidance must “understand the seriousness of the transgression” and be sincere in their beliefs that they can change their ways.

Since then, the Church has made an effort to tone down some of the earlier rhetoric and has stated, more than once, that they don’t concern themselves with the “debate” of whether homosexuality is innate or not. While they may “not concern themselves” with this, it’s quite clear that none of the previous teachings have been overturned. Notwithstanding the fact that there is evidence that some gays and lesbians in the Church have on occasion been subjected to horrifying conversion therapy that included electroshock to the privates and thus its plainly clear that they still believe the same things they were saying four decades ago; The Church still teaches that homosexuality can be “overcome” and that gays and lesbians should either remain celibate or be engaged in a heterosexual marriage. In an interview in 2007, Dallin Oaks and Lance Wickman laid bare the fact that the Churches position, despite some leaders saying they’re more “open” and “welcoming”, has yet to change in any measurable way. They compare homosexuality to alcoholism and violent tendencies, suggesting that one cannot only control their behavior and feelings, but work to “change” themselves to overcome it.

They of course claim that their treatment of the LGBT members of their congregation is no different than how they treat heterosexuals who engage in “sexual transgressions”. This is a lie in reality. Not only does the Handbook prescribe potentially harsher punishment for potential missionaries (they can be barred from going on a mission for gay or lesbian relations), but since the Church takes the position that heterosexual marriage is the only union that is pure; they’re asking LGBT congregants to either suppress a core part of their being (or worse, try and fail to change it) or force themselves into relationships that aren’t natural to them and this inflict untold misery not just on them but on the family they try to build.

It’s no wonder then, that despite the fact that the Church tries to say its open and welcoming to all, that many of those who are LGBT feel rejected by the Church. They ARE rejected by the Church. That’s the simple truth of it. It’s not just true in terms of their thinking and teaching, their actions are evidence as well. While they support common sense anti-discrimination laws now (they didn’t back in the days of ERA), they’ve been engaged in a stealth campaign against gay marriage dating all the way back to Hawaii in ’93 when the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination against gays and lesbians in issuing marriage licenses was unconstitutional. The LDS contributed to an organizational effort that ended up succeeding in overturning the ruling via a Bill that outlawed marriage equality. In 2004, the Church hierarchy officially endorsed an Amendment to the US Constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. And of course in 2008, they helped orchestrate and fund the Prop 8 campaign that overturned marriage equality in California. Thus, Prop 8 wasn’t some outlier. The Church has made it well known where they stand, both in relation to their views on homosexuality in general and how that translates into how they think gays and lesbians should be force to live.

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