It’s time for a new Mormon revelation.
The decision by the leadership of the Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the LDS Church) to ask its members to fund California’s anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8 will prove to have been a very bad idea – for the Mormons – at least in the short run.
No religious group has been more hated, persecuted, and subjected to mob violence in America than the Mormons. Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, Mormons were beaten, burned, shot, and lynched because of their religious beliefs.
Even today, Mormons remain a target of intense religious prejudice, particularly among evangelical Christians. A 2007 study by Vanderbilt University that researched possible public reaction to a presidential run by Mitt Romney (a Mormon) concluded that political bias against Mormons is significantly more intense than bias against either African Americans or women.
As Amy Sullivan pointed out in the Washington Monthly, “Evangelical Christians consider Mormonism a threat in a way that Catholicism and even Judaism are not. The LDS Church, they charge, has perverted Christian teachings to create a false religion. … Southern Baptists have been particularly vocal about labeling the LDS Church a ‘cult.’ [A] speaker at the denomination’s summit on Mormonism declared that Utah was ‘a stronghold of Satan’.”
The primary reasons that people gave (and still give) for hating Mormons are (1) that the Mormons practice group marriage and would therefore destroy the structure of the family, and (2) that the Mormons want to create a theocracy and would impose both their religious beliefs and their church leadership on everyone else.
Given this history, and continuing vilification, you might expect the Mormons to be accepting of the religious beliefs and practices of others, especially in regard to marriage and family issues.
But that isn’t the Mormon style.
The Mormon character was fashioned in a deeply hostile environment, and they have repeatedly shown that they have the courage of their convictions, even when these convictions put them in opposition to the majority.
For that reason, my guess is that the initial reaction of the LDS Church to the boycotts and outrage caused by their active support for Prop 8 (which I think took them by surprise) will lead them, in the short run, to dig in and hold their ground.
But I also think that this entrenchment will come at a great social and economic cost to the LDS Church and its members. For many years, the LDS Church has been an active force in the anti-gay movement, most notably in regard to its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts of America, but these activities have mostly been below the media radar and opposition has been directed at the Scouts, not the LDS Church itself.
Now that will change.
Gay and lesbian groups and their allies will challenge the Mormons everywhere, no doubt tapping into pre-existing anti-Mormon prejudice. Democratic members of the LDS Church, such as Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and newly elected Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) will be called upon to publicly separate themselves from their Church on these issues or risk being marginalized within the Democratic Party.
And the Prop 8 boycott, if sustained, can have a serious impact on businesses owned by Mormons, such as the Marriott hotel chain, on the careers of LDS members, and even on the economy of the State of Utah.
On the other hand, the Mormons do have a history of changing their minds – and their theology – under significant public pressure – most famously when they abandoned their theologically based practice of polygamy (or plural marriage) in 1890 in order to save their property and secure Utah statehood (granted in 1896).
Because the LDS Church believes in continuing divine revelation, its leaders can adapt their theology to meet contemporary needs by announcing that God has spoken to them and commanded them to change their doctrine.
Thus, in 1890, when faced with tremendous opposition in the U.S. Congress to Utah statehood and the imminent seizure of LDS assets because of polygamy, LDS president Wilford Woodruff (himself a polygamist) published a “Manifesto” announcing that God had told him that polygamy was no longer part of the Lord’s plan.
“The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question,” Woodruff wrote. “The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue — to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?”
According to Woodruff, while he would “have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write…”
What God commanded Woodruff to write was an end to the official theology and practice of polygamy, satisfying both the worldly needs of the Church and the demands of the larger social order.
More recently, the civil rights movement and the changed national consensus on racial prejudice against African-Americans caused a similar need for a new Mormon revelation.
The LDS Church had long treated black people as theologically inferior (based on their interpretation of passages in the Book of Mormon that described black people as “cursed’ by God). While the LDS Church did not deny membership to black people, it barred black men from ordination in the priesthood (a requirement for all other Mormon men and a necessity for salvation), and declared that black people were prohibited from the rituals of Endowment (a kind of confirmation necessary for participation in the temple and Church) and celestial marriage.
During the 1960s and 1970s, this racial aspect of LDS theology came under increasing attack (with sometimes violent protests against the participation of Brigham Young University in sports events with public institutions) and eventually became an enormous embarrassment to the Church, not least in its efforts to convert new members in countries (such as Brazil) with large African heritage populations.
As had been the case with polygamy, the problem of the conflicting demands of theology and public relations was solved by a divine revelation to the president of the LDS Church.
In 1978, LDS president Spencer W. Kimball and other elders received a revelation that God “has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows there from, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” Church elders later declared “The Spirit of the Lord rested upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. The message was that the time had now come to offer the fullness of the everlasting gospel, including celestial marriage, and the priesthood, and the blessings of the temple, to all men, without reference to race or color, solely on the basis of personal worthiness. And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.”
Another revelation will eventually come to the president and elders of the LDS Church – perhaps to current LDS president Thomas Spencer Monson — regarding its opposition to same sex marriage (and its opposition to allowing gay members of the Boy Scouts). In the meantime, we should do all we can to hasten this revelation by continuing to apply both social and economic pressure on the LDS Church and its members.
We’ll be doing the Lord’s work.