LDS Elder Marlin Jensen's Prop 8 'Apology': We Need Clarification

What exactly does this apology mean? To what extent is Jensen empowered to apologize for the church's power structure? Will additional, more explicit, more comprehensive apologies be forthcoming?
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The aptly named Mormon Matters blog has published an email containing an account of an "invitation only" meeting held September 19, 2010 in the LDS Oakland Stake in California, discussing reactions to efforts by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pass Proposition 8 in California, which successfully amended the state constitution in 2008, so that same-sex marriage, which was briefly legal in California, was no longer recognized as legitimate.

The salient details of the report are this: The meeting was attended by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, official Church Historian and Recorder and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He "sat there and listened" as members "told of the suffering that Prop 8 had caused -- the division, heartache, anger, frustration and pain." He stated that "he appreciated the opportunity [to] come listen and promised to take what he learned 'back to the Brethren.'" After a final audience member "told him that the Mormon church owed the gay community an apology, [Jensen] stood and made a comment, which was paraphrased in the email as follows: "To the [extent that] it's within my power to apologize, I want to tell you that I am sorry. I am very sorry.' People were audibly weeping."

In a comment to the original post, LDS gay rights activist Carol Lynn Pearson, who was present at the meeting, offered her assessment of Jensen's statement:

The headline "Elder Marlin Jensen Apologizes for Proposition 8" is a bit misleading. I was present at the meeting. There was a great deal of pain expressed by a number of people about their experiences around Prop 8 and the larger context of church policy regarding gay people. It was a remarkable meeting, and Elder Jensen took copious notes and was visibly emotionally touched as he listened to the stories. At no time did he say anything like, "I know Proposition 8 was a mistake and I apologize for that mistake." He was responding personally and in general to the extraordinary pain he was witnessing. No one had a tape recorder, but I wrote down the words, "...Do we owe an apology? I will say I am sorry. To the full extent of my capacity I say I am sorry." It was a sincere and moving statement. It would not be constructive to make his statement sound like something it was not. The meeting itself was an historical event, for which I and many others are deeply grateful.

It is heartening that one member of the LDS church's vast hierarchy has the courage, compassion and human decency to publicly offer sympathy and regret for the suffering caused by the actions of his church -- almost two full years after Prop 8 passed. Jensen's single, brief statement stands in sharp contrast to the volley of rhetoric before the election -- via letter, radio broadcast, and over the pulpit -- warning of the suffering humanity would call down on itself if society continued its trend of legitimizing gay marriage. A sample of the language Mormons employ to make this point can be found in the LDS Proclamation on the Family, which "[warns] that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets."

The contrast between Jensen's statement and the penultimate sentence of the Proclamation on the Family raises many questions. Pearson is absolutely right in stating that "[i]t would not be constructive to make his statement sound like something it was not," which is all the more reason why interested parties should seek clarification from the LDS corporate hierarchy. Here is some of what needs to be addressed: What exactly does this apology mean? To what extent is Jensen empowered to apologize for the church's power structure? Will additional, more explicit, more comprehensive apologies be forthcoming?

Or will Jensen be censured? Mormons are trained to accept that when a general authority speaks from the pulpit, he (and it is indeed always a he) represents the entire church -- and, by extension, God. (And let's remember that the Bible contains an account of God apologizing to humanity -- that's what rainbows are for, to remind us that God is sorry for the time he drowned virtually everyone, after he was sorry he created humanity in the first place.) Will a statement nonetheless be issued informing both Mormons and non-Mormons that Jensen spoke only on his own behalf and expressed only his own sentiments? If so, it will be interesting to see LDS leaders explain that they are not really sorry for the suffering that Latter-day Saint involvement in the passage of Prop 8 brought to Latter-day Saints.

Jensen's statement, a tacit acknowledgment of the leadership's responsibility in bringing grief to both its own followers and those outside the church, also stands in contrast to efforts since the election to minimize the importance and extent of LDS involvement in the passage of Prop 8. At the very least, let's hope that the statement marks the end of dishonest, disingenuous claims that financial and practical support supplied by Mormons was anything but crucial in the success of Prop 8 -- or came from anything but the behest of the leadership.

In a summary posted on her website, Pearson reports that "Elder Jensen added that in his experience the general authorities of the Church are as good-hearted a group of men as could be found anywhere, perhaps not perfect, but trying hard to do what is right and that they entered the Proposition 8 campaign without malice."

But absence of malice is not a high enough standard for judging or excusing the actions of men who claim to be singularly empowered and authorized to lead God's one and only true church on earth. If these men want others to forgive or excuse the harm they do in the world because they acted "without malice," then they need to stop claiming that their actions are guided by divine inspiration that enables them to know God's will, and start admitting that what guides their actions instead is their own biases, prejudices, ignorance and fear.

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