The Mormon Church and Gay Rights

979 - Church Press Conference

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare public press conference. The topic was gay rights, and Jonathan Rauch described the main idea this way:

[Mormon leaders] made a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.

So, what should we make of this? For his part, Rauch (who is gay) advocates giving the Church the benefit of the doubt and viewing the offer as a genuine olive branch. However, he concedes that “it could be a trap.” Brooke P. Hunter is not nearly as conciliatory in her piece: How the Mormons Punked the Press. She described the press conference as “mostly about defending Mormons’ right to discriminate.” She said “the new Mormon position is like that candy with a razor blade inside” and added

Today’s press conference took place in a twilight zone where parents are in danger of being jailed for teaching their kids about Jesus, and where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.” Oh, please. Show me the Mormons who have been jailed for sharing their views. There are none. And if you can point to one instance of the government preventing good Mormons from practicing their religion in their homes, we’ll eat our hat.

Let me make two observations. First, although Hunter doesn’t seem aware of this fact, her position constitutes a drastic reduction in the scope of religious liberty. First, because she envisions no protection for religious liberty outside of the strictly private sphere. Second, because she is contemptuous of the idea of religious liberty as religious. For instance, she decries Mormons for wanting “special privileges and special rights for churches and for religious people.” Well yes, in order to be religious liberty it has to be liberty specifically for (i.e. specially for) religion and religious considerations.[ref]Atheist and agnostic principles can be included as well by broadening the scope to include freedom of conscience.[/ref] Whatever Hunter has in mind when she talks about religious liberty, it seems to have very little do to with our historic appreciation for the special role religion has to play in the public sphere. This attitude, especially as it seems to be both widespread and innocent of any awareness of its own novel and revolutionary character, goes a long way towards vindicating the fears of religious people.

Second, I think the most logical way to take the Church’s position is the straightforward one. I do not think the bargain is merely political or expedient. I think, and this is born out by other changes in Church policy and teaching I outlined here, that the gay rights debate has forced Mormons (and the religious community as a whole) to do a better job of separating between principled religious doctrines of sexual morality and social convention. It is possible, and for a Christian it is necessary, to commit oneself to loving gay people (and bisexual, and transgender, etc.) in a way that affirms the unique dignity of every human being as in the image of God and also the religious principles that Christians believe lead to human flourishing. Does this break down to the old “hate the sin, love the sinner” trope? In short: yes. And it’s a distinction the world may find curious but that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

In short, I think Mormonism has come to an awareness that fighting against discrimination of the LGBT community is more than politically expedient: it is the right thing to do. The LGBT community should be protected from discrimination in housing, employment, and so on. I do not believe, and so far neither does the Church, that this extends to same-sex marriage, however, which is seen not as equal access to a common institution but as the redefinition of an institution. Even if you think that last bit makes no sense, and I know that many people do, my general message is just that I think Mormons (and a lot of the religious community) have been humbled by the past couple of decades and have come to a deeper understanding of how to live as Christians. That, I believe, is also what led to last week’s press conference.

10 thoughts on “The Mormon Church and Gay Rights”

  1. Theologically speaking, you basically describe the Catholic position. So I believe you when you also outline a similar Mormon position. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.” The Catechism goes on to object to living the lifestyle. (You can use that if you’re ever arguing with a difficult Catholic on this subject :).)

    Apart from the theology, my sister just sent me this letter to Justice Kennedy:

    As a child of divorce, I feel like I could have written the section called “The Voices of Children”. I relate so much to this even though I do not have gay parents. Despite my overlapping experiences here and my preference to even revise divorce laws accordingly , my sisters and I are still seen as bigots for opposing gay marriage among many of our extended family members. And we aren’t rude about it. We rarely discuss it. We are considered bigots, because we are apparently bigots by nature if we oppose that political viewpoint. It is sad to witness the state of families in this time in history and to be largely ignored in the train wreck.

  2. So we should protect peoples’ differences of choice and of birth equally? Ha.
    Politically, the LGBT community has no reason to entertain this plea. They have all the momentum on this issue. This political reality is why there’s every reason to consider this press conference politically expedient. If they win, they hold back the flood waters. If they lose, they can play the victim card yet again. These are savvy operators who see the writing on the wall much earlier than less spry clergy of older faiths.

    The core of this piece misrepresents Hunter’s article:
    “she envisions no protection for religious liberty outside of the strictly private sphere.”
    She gives an example asking after the twilight zone ‘where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.'” According to the guy yelling about hellfire while I tried to enjoy the Lincoln Memorial a few weeks ago, and a president who thanks God during the State of the Union, that right is alive and well. She used “practicing religion in their homes” as an example, not as the limits of the domain.

    “she is contemptuous of the idea of religious liberty as religious.”
    She points out that religious people are asking for special, higher rights, when LGBT people are asking for equal rights. That religious rights don’t belong on the same level as human rights. The difficult choice to live a life of faith does not put someone on the same level as being born locked into minority status whatever their choices.

    Your representation of Hunter’s article as unnecessarily snarky was accurate.

  3. Ryan-

    I think you’re reading of Hunter is perfectly commensurate with the article right up until her opposition to special consideration for religious beliefs. That’s what religious liberty is. For example: if you want to get out of the draft, you get special privileges if your desire to not fight is religious in nature. I picked the draft because it’s a good example of how religious exemptions can extend to atheist and agnostic convictions as well. So, “I’m a pacifist” is a get-out-of-war card. “I’m really afraid of combat,” is not. “I don’t feel like it,” is not. “I have a personal preference to not do hard, physical labor,” is not. Religious liberty means special consideration for people who want to get out of laws or policies (like the draft) because of sincere religious beliefs.

    Hunter, and many liberals like her, reject that notion out-of-hand. For a social liberal, religious liberty means “stuff you’re allowed to do based on free speech and privacy.” That’s where her two examples come from: sharing views is a free speech concept and practicing religion in your own home is a privacy concept. The only religious liberties she envisions are the by-products of civil rights that have nothing to do with religion. She is clearly opposed to any particular civil liberty that gives special consideration to religion.

    Which, as I point out, is the same thing as saying there ought to be no religious liberty at all. Sure, you can still preach publicly. But that’s not a religious liberty, because you can also publicly tell people about your conspiracy theory. Sure, you can still worship in your own house, but that’s not a religious liberty. You can do whatever you want in your own house.

    I really do think that, for many liberals, religious liberty as religious liberty is a dead idea.

  4. LT-

    Yup, I realize this position is basically identical to that of the Catholic Church. I have always liked the Catholic Church’s moral teachings, and admired Her firm commitment to them. Now, if we could just get more Catholics to actually listen to them…. ;-)

    In fairness, there are also lots of Protestants who have come to the same position as well. I do think that it is a fairly universal Christian tenet.

  5. Haha! Yes, if only more would :). Working on that…

    Yes, I agree — I did not mean to slight Protestants. They are just so diverse and factioned that I cannot easily pin them down into a particular theology. My in-laws are faithful Protestants, and they are far more liberal than I am. In fact, my FIL and MIL are currently in an uncomfortable situation where their church is voting on whether they will be “open minded” and vote as a church to support gay marriage or “stay close minded”. No agenda there, right??? Despite my in-laws’ more liberal views on almost everything, they do oppose legalizing gay marriage, and now they are afraid to say anything based on the obviously intimidating phrasing of this “vote”.

    Anyway, despite our agreement over gay marriage, that side of the family, being Protestant, has incredibly diverse opinions and no cohesive document for citation given their liberal views on authority and the Bible.

  6. “I picked the draft because it’s a good example of how religious exemptions can extend to atheist and agnostic convictions as well. So, “I’m a pacifist” is a get-out-of-war card. “I’m really afraid of combat,” is not.…
    I really do think that, for many liberals, religious liberty as religious liberty is a dead idea.”

    I think the idea of atheist convictions which gain the protections of religious liberty does not have a respectable, broadly agreed-upon definition. Similarly, I don’t really understand how rights of conscience and rights of religious liberty are related. Nathaniel, could you share your views on these questions at some point?

    I feel like part of the problem I and many atheist liberals have is that I don’t see any way for religious liberty to apply to me, and so I fear I don’t relate to it. I have some pretty strong moral convictions, but beyond the rights of privacy and speech you mention, they don’t seem to me to get any special consideration. It’s never really occurred to me that they could–I’m not a pacifist, and that’s really the only example I know of in which atheists have been able to claim a right to practice their faith (as opposed to resisting an establishment of religion, which seems to found most of the legal battles with which I’m familiar).

    Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying I think you’re right. I’d be interested in seeing if I can pump my intuition in a way that would help me see a virtue in special religious rights.

  7. To the extent the Church tries (or sounds like it is doing so) to separate religious rights of conscience from general individual rights of conscience, the more it sounds like special pleading and will be (correctly) rejected as such, Individuals do not give up their rights of conscience simply because they try to earn a living (i.e., stay alive, the most basic right).

    The distinction between religious rights and individual rights of conscience is an artificial one. Religious freedom was given specific mention in the Bill of Rights because it has always been the specific target of repeated attempts to suppress it throughout history, not because it stems from anything other than individual rights that all are entitled to. To the extent it is special pleading (i.e., “I have a right because I adhere to a religious philosophy,” instead of “I have a right to practice religiously because all have the right to live their conscience dictates”), it will be rejected as such, and rightly so.

  8. Whether it’s an artificial distinction or not matters little to me–all laws are artificial, and they needn’t track natural kinds to be of value. It occurs to me that I was a bit hasty, though–one way in which I think even liberals generally accept special religious rights is that religious affiliation counts as a protected class. but that doesn’t seem to quite live up to a guarantee of free exercise (indeed, enforcement of nondiscrimination law, while practically valuable in allowing people to exercise their religions, mostly protects that right against private encroachment rather than malicious lawmaking).

    My impression as an amateur is that the narrowest reading of that clause, which would only prevent laws explicitly banning religious observance of a particular kind as such, is not legitimate. Legislatures can’t ban wearing small hats as a deliberate and intended way of making Jewish observance illegal, for example, even if the law doesn’t mention anything related to Judaism. But its obviously okay to require that even the religious follow facially-neutral laws sometimes. The impression I have is that the tension Nathaniel is talking about is where we strike the balance–in his view, liberals are okay with allowing any law which is facially neutral and for which there is no evidence of intentional discrimination, while conservatives generally seem to want legislatures not to pass laws which would require that well-known religious requirements be violated, or that, if passed, there be an application-level exemption applied.

    I don’t know how you guarantee free exercise without something like that, but the standard proposed has never been very clear to me, so it’s justification never has either. I don’t mean to suggest that no one has explained this well; as I say, I’m an amateur. But I’m enough more impressed by Nathaniel’s thinking generally that I’d rather hear from him what he thinks than some random suggestion he might not endorse.

  9. No way to edit out typos on this forum, huh?

    Well, at least I’m supporting my contention to be relatively ignorant. :-)

Comments are closed.