It doesn't take more than a quick Google search to see that Mormons are in a state of flux when it comes to the way that members think about marriage equality. Since Prop 8, literally tens of thousands of Mormons have mobilized across the country to deliver a powerful new message to the gay and lesbian community: We believe that those of you who want to marry should have the same rights and privileges that straight couples have.
In 2012 thousands of Mormons marched in 22 pride parades across the country, and they did so in over a dozen more this year, expressing their support for their gay and lesbian brethren by carrying signs with messages like "This Mormon Mom Supports Your Right to Marry" and "Sorry We're Late!"
Mormons for Equality, a group of traditional, married Mormons with families, took things a step further and coalesced in states with marriage equality measures on the ballot to staff phone banks and write letters to elected officials to express Mormon support for marriage equality.
Some congregations (including many in the San Francisco Bay Area) are developing a new cultural approach to inclusion, throwing open their doors to everyone who wants to be part of the ward family, including gays and lesbians, whether they are single and living within the confines of the official church policy as we understand it today, married to a partner of the same sex, or anywhere in between. That means that gay Mormons no longer need to fear being excommunicated for simply being honest about who they are.
And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself released mormonsandgays.org, which, though imperfect, does represent progress, because it acknowledges (maybe for the first time) that being gay is not a choice and instructs family members and congregations to respond to gay and lesbian Mormons with love, compassion, and inclusion.
But then we have the letter read over the pulpit to Mormon congregations in Hawaii last month. The good news is that this letter was signed only by local leaders and not by the First Presidency of the Church. And it is much more softly worded than the Prop 8 letter, in which Mormons were told to "do all you can" to support the proposition, whereas this letter allows some to have a different viewpoint (and given the cultural change sweeping through the Mormon community, I imagine that many will indeed have a different viewpoint).
The unfortunate news (beyond the fact that this happened at all) is that the letter's core message is one of fear: It takes a defensive position that incorrectly implies that public policy measures will infringe upon our religious freedom, and that our freedom is therefore under attack. Not only is this inaccurate, but it runs completely counter to what we're taught as Mormons: that we have a responsibility to be good citizens in the communities in which we live and reach out to others with love, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the same tenets of faith that we do. Instead, it cultivates a damaging "us vs. them" mentality inside the Mormon ranks and teaches us that we're separate from others in our own human family.
It would have been better -- and certainly more Christlike -- to remind our members not to be fearful. We know that our Savior is watching over all of us. Because of that, we are free to be full of faith and love for all our brothers and sisters. We need to remind our Mormon community that we have the protection of the First Amendment; we don't accept government money or provide public accommodations, so we need not be afraid. Our experience across a dozen states and in even more countries where civil marriage equality exists provides us with additional evidence that tells us that we needn't be.
Perhaps even more troubling is the letter's exhortation that Mormons advocate for measures to "protect individuals and small business from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages." We wouldn't like it if those same businesses hung signs that read "No blacks," and we would be outraged if they hung signs that said "No Mormons." In fact, if we took a moment to look at our own history, we'd see that we've faced that same intolerance and exclusion from others in the not-so-distant past, yet here we are advocating for it to be done to another group inside our human family. That's simply indefensible, scripturally or otherwise. Sorry, my Mormon friends, but this is nothing more than bigotry and hate, and shame on us for using the pulpit to teach people that it's OK to hate instead of reminding them of our responsibility to be our Savior's emissaries of unconditional love.
It's important to understand that there is a lot of autonomy given to local Mormon leaders to engage their congregations in the way that they think best. True, sometimes that means that we're going to get it wrong, as we did in Hawaii, but it also means that we have the opportunity to get it right, and local leaders can create welcoming congregations where everyone -- gay, straight, or anywhere in between -- has a place in the ward family, and where even openly gay individuals like me can be called to serve in local leadership positions.
All of this makes me think of that famous quotation reminding us that progress doesn't happen in a linear fashion but in spirals, ascending up and then back down again, but always continuing on a track of evolution. Mormons are on that same track of progress and evolution, and although we shouldn't ignore those times when we get it wrong, we should look at the larger context and realize that even when we stumble, our feet are still pointed in the right direction.
Change is happening. And it will continue -- sometimes falteringly -- until we get to where our Savior wants us to be.
When the Hawaii letter came out, several friends in the Mormon community asked me what I'd like hear from our First Presidency in regard to marriage equality, so, with a lot of input from many of my Mormon fellows, I created the letter that many of us wish would be read in every congregation across the country. Maybe it won't happen next Sunday, but if I know my Mormons well (and I think I do), I know we'll eventually get there. And that will be a good Sunday indeed.
I suspect that our Savior thinks so too.
To: Members of the Church
Dear Brethren and Sisters:
In the past our Church has endorsed public policy measures that would prohibit marriage between couples of the same sex and encouraged our members to do the same. In addition, our individual behavior toward gay and lesbian people, including those in our own families, has fallen far short of where we believe our Savior wants us to be.
We believe that all families are ordained of God, and we deeply regret the harm that our past positions has caused. We counsel our members to always respond to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters with love and understanding, as described in the Gospel of John: "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you" (John 13:34).
Civil marriage equality referendums and legislation are now appearing with regularity in many states. As members of the Church, we believe that we should be actively engaged in worthy causes. Public policy measures that protect the rights of married couples -- independent of their sex -- and their families are indeed a worthy cause.
We ask that you prayerfully study the initiatives in your area, and as you do so, we encourage you to consider the scriptural standards set forth in Doctrine and Covenants:
"We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied" (D&C 134:1-3,9).
"And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me" (D&C 98:5).
The Church reserves the right to define marriage inside the faith according to our theology, and we recognize that our rights are most sacred in a society where the rights of everyone are held sacred.
"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may" (11th Article of Faith).
We remind members that the civil right of marriage is distinct from any religious rite of matrimony or temple sealing, and that our religious liberty is best assured when we do not intertwine our religious activities with governmental functions.
We ask that you do all you can to support equality in your community by donating of your time and means. As disciples of our Savior, it is our duty to be good neighbors in the pursuit of civil liberty, and it is our duty to put into action God's second great commandment: Love everyone.
UPDATE: In an earlier version of this blog post, the hypothetical letter above was formatted to evoke an official letter from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, complete with church letterhead and other features typical of such a letter. To better communicate that the letter is fictional, these features have been removed.