The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that the family is the basic unit not just of society, but of heaven and eternity. A familiar LDS slogan is "Families Are Forever." Latter-day Saints focus much of their resources on families: forming families by marrying, growing families by having children, strengthening families through church activity, defending families from influences or situations they deem threatening. The controversial talk delivered by Elder Boyd K. Packer at the October 2010 General Conference, in which he called homosexuality "impure and unnatural," was in many regards about families, for Mormon doctrine requires families to be defined and constructed in very particular ways.
But Packer's ideas about family, society and threats to both are short-sighted and narrow. Consider this statement:
History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day.
However, history clearly demonstrates that moral standards can be changed by battle and ballot. The American revolution, the French revolution, the American Civil War and the civil rights movement are all examples of moral standards changing through a combination of battle and ballot.
The dreaded, threatening change hinted at but not named explicitly in Packer's statement is, of course, gay marriage -- or even greater social acceptance of homosexuality.
On Oct. 12, I attended a press conference at the Utah Pride Center. There, Joe Solomonese of the Human Rights Campaign and others responded to Packer's talk before delivering a petition to the Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City -- a petition bearing more than 150,000 names and printed on more than 800 pages -- requesting that Packer correct his remarks, particularly in light of recent suicides by youth bullied and abused for being gay, whether or not they even were.
Defenders of Packer and the church's position on homosexuality insist that nothing in Packer's talk advocated violence against anyone in the LGBTQ community. But nothing in his talk condemned or prohibited it, either. Nothing in his talk encouraged members to embrace loved ones who are anything but heterosexual and conventionally married. Instead, he said, "Parents be alert, ever watchful, that this wickedness might threaten your family circle."
I stood outside the Utah Pride Center, the dome of the Utah State Capitol visible in the distance behind the speakers, and listened to social worker Melissa Bird make the horrifying and all too accurate point that Utah has a severe problem with homeless youth, especially LGBTQ youth. Many of these young people are homeless because they have run away or been thrown away, she said, cast out for being gay from the very same families that taught them as small children that "families are forever." And is that tragedy really surprising, I ask, when the man who is second-in-command in the Mormon church warns parents to be "watchful" of this "wickedness" that will threaten their family?
While Packer has not corrected the truly offensive elements of his talk, it was altered in subtle but significant ways before being published. And the statement from the church in response to the HRC petition also contained rhetoric that made many members hopeful that meaningful change is occurring in the way the church frames and deals with LGBTQ issues.
But the church needs to be more generous and loving in its basic approach to families -- all families, not just perfectly constituted LDS families. Consider, for instance, the issue of temple marriage in North America.
Righteous LDS couples marry in the temple. In order to participate in or observe ceremonies in an LDS temple, you must have a temple recommendation, meaning that you must be an adult who has been baptized into the Mormon church, attends meetings regularly and pays tithing (among other things). If you are not LDS, you cannot go to any ceremony conducted in the temple, including the wedding of anyone in your immediate family.
This does not matter in most countries, where marriages must be performed by someone with some sort of civil authority, such as a judge or justice of the peace, in order for the ceremony to be legally binding. LDS couples throughout Europe, for instance, have a civil ceremony to which they invite anyone and everyone they want, then have their religious vows solemnized in a temple, often within the same week.
In North America, however, LDS couples who choose to have a civil ceremony are penalized when it comes to the temple. Any couple who chooses to have a civil ceremony must wait a full year before solemnizing their marriage vows in the temple -- no matter what. Even if they are fully obedient members of the church innocent of any sin that would bar them from the temple, they are still considered unworthy of a temple marriage for a year.
As a result, most North American LDS couples choose to have only a temple marriage, and family members who are not active LDS adults cannot attend the ceremony.
Most people find it barbaric, cruel and utterly incomprehensible that a church that claims to value families denies family members the chance to be present at a wedding, which most of the world considers a joyous celebration that should involve an entire family. Parents whose children have joined the LDS church are understandably hurt when they are forbidden to attend their own children's weddings.
It didn't generate any headlines, but three days after the HRC delivered its petition with 150,000 signatures, another group delivered a smaller but still important petition to the Church Office Building. Representatives of the Temple Wedding Petition asked the LDS church to change its policy of penalizing North American LDS couples who want civil ceremonies. (They're still collecting signatures, so please sign here.)
Unlike the matter of gay marriage, the decision to allow LDS couples to take both civil and religious marriage vows should not require any scrutiny or reflection. In fact, it could be a way for the church to maintain its "principled opposition" to gay marriage no matter what the rest of the country ends up doing, since the ceremonies in the temple would be clearly distinct from and result in a different kind of union than ceremonies performed outside it.
It would also be a way for the LDS church to show that it values and respects all families, not just those that swell its membership and advance its own goals.