“It is my strong belief that the government has to treat all citizens equally. I come from that, in part, out of personal experience. When you’re a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside. And so my concern is continually to make sure that the rights that are conferred by the state are equal for all people.”
President Barack Obama has often acknowledged that his views on marriage equality are “evolving.” In an interview with the Advocate last December, he signaled that he and his lawyers were reviewing “a range of options” regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Since early 2004, Mr. Obama has opposed DOMA, but the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes. Now the Obama administration has directed the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court,, in effect stating that there’s no reasonable defense of this discriminatory law.
What I wonder as I contemplate the effects that Obama’s statement will have on the gay marriage debate as well as on America’s legal system as a whole, is whether the LDS Church will find itself evolving on this issue as well. During the Proposition 8 legislation in California in 2008, the Church committed itself to political action against gay marriage, donating vast amounts of time and money to defend a “traditional” definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Did this action permanently place the Church on one side of the debate, or is there still room for developing ideology?
More and more mainstream church members have been speaking their conscience in favor of gay marriage. Two recent examples are Brent Beal’s blog post Heroic Aspirations, and Mel Selcho’s short video which went viral last week and was featured on Andrew Sullivan. Can the support of a growing number of Church members influence a shift in policy? It has before. Wine used to be used in the temple, now it could keep you out. Polygamy used to be essential for the highest reward, now it will get you excommunicated. Blacks used to be denied the blessings of the priesthood and the temple, now they aren’t. All of these can be seen as the result of societal pressures — the temperance movement, the Edmunds-Tucker act, and the civil rights movement. Are we at the cusp of another possible change in the Church as a result of societal pressures, and what would it take to effect that change? How would members react if the Church were to soften its position on gay marriage? I can only see a net positive, given more inclusiveness. Of course, there could be a negative effect due to older or more conservative members not wanting to change their views. But I think that if the Church ceased to fight against equal rights, even conservative members would follow right along.
There are some issues the Church would have to face were our leaders to decide to evolve. The Church has taught that the law of chastity forbids sexual relationships outside marriage. When there was no homosexual marriage, this denied a homosexual couple any sexual relations if they wanted to be considered to be keeping the law of chastity. When a homosexual couple can now claim that they were chaste before marriage, and faithful within a legally recognized marriage, how are they considered in the eyes of the Church? Can they have a temple recommend? Can they have callings? Can they baptize their children? As homosexuality becomes recognized in society as innate, acceptable, and legal, will the Church continue to teach that same-sex activity is sinful?
In the gay marriage debate, another specter which hangs over the Church is that of polygamy. If the government no longer specifically defines marriage as between a man and a women, this opens up various alternatives. Would marriage still be defined as between two people of any sex, or would other situations then be legal? Multiple prophets in our church have taught that polygamy is the ideal. It is still a foundational and doctrinal part of our religion, represented in our canonized scripture as necessary for the highest reward. We gave it up just to follow the laws of the land, and NOT because the doctrine changed. And even the “Manifesto” never said that polygamy was “wrong”, it was merely a recounting of a vision of what would happen to the church if it didn’t give up the practice because it conflicted with the law of the land. If it no longer conflicts with the law of the land, should polygamy be reinstated as established by Joseph Smith? I actually see this as causing more turmoil among the Latter-day Saints than allowing married homosexuals equal status within the Church.
One of the more interesting discussions that I think we can have here is how you as a member of the Church react to evolution of doctrine. Does it bother you that some of the things that were taught in the early Church are unrecognizable today? How do you explain the shift? Is continuing revelation a flexible enough principle to allow for changing doctrine without causing believing members to lose their faith?