Monday, November 10, 2008

Civil Rights and the Mormon Church

With all my Mormon friends, I've been caught up in the struggle and pain of many with their church's position against gay marriage.

Here's the digest version, for those who care.  On June 20th, 2008, the First Presidency of the Mormon church, consisting of the head of the church and his three counselors, released a letter, Preserving Traditional Marriage and Strengthening Families.  The letter stated the church's support of Proposition 8 in California and called on the membership for support:
We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage. 
Mormon doctrine states that the head of the church can issue statements like this with the power of infallibility.  In fact, letters from the First Presidency are the gold-standard for Mormon doctrine.

Members of the church can't really be fully participating members unless they can truthfully answer a series of questions to the leader of their congregation, including one which asks:
Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator;
Thus, to some members feel it's their duty to be obedient to the church leadership to actively volunteer time, money, and their votes to the "Yes on 8" movement.  Others feel this is faulty.  But the friction between the two camps can cross friendship, family, and certainly congregational boundries.

In my mind, this is all wrapped up in the church's history of bigotry.

My father once told me that the Mormon's believed that blacks were "mud people."  I can't imagine that he knew much about the Mormon faith, but he certainly got the basic bigoted history correct.  Until 1978, the Church didn't allow it's black members to fully participate as anything but second class members.  The black men couldn't participate in the male-only lay priesthood system.  Neither gender was able to enter the buildings or perform the ceremonies which are doctrinally critical (including getting married in a Temple).

Remember the infallible statements of Mormon doctrine I mentioned before?  Here's an interesting list of Authoritative Statements on the Status of Blacks. The one I come back to over and over again is the 1949 statement which includes this doozy:
President Brigham Young said: "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to."
One of the things I take away is that a past president of the church stated that black people are colored that way because of a historical curse from God.  And the First Presidency restated and enshrined that position as doctrine.  Black people are cursed by God.

Many Mormons don't know this is doctrine, or when faced with it, reject it as doctrine.  Which implies that they're rejecting the idea of the role of the President of the church as seer and revelator.  It's a treacherous path to walk, but depends on the individual judging their own ability to do mental gymnastics about this statement.  A very liberal minded Mormon would be able to say they uphold the leadership of the Church without regarding them as necessarily infallible even in these letters.  I get the impression that this is pretty outside of the mainstream.  But I also get the impression that not every Mormon has read this specific letter.  Which is weird, as they meet and study for hours on end (especially as youths, but even into adulthood).

Another tidbit.  Here's an exerpt from the current Aaronic Priesthood Manual, which is used to teach every adolescent boy.
“We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).
That's right, the church still uses statements against interracial marriage in it's teaching manuals.

In many ways, the racial bigotry seems like an untidy piece of history which is dying out with the people who lived it.  Not that quickly, but it is dying out.  The homophobia is slightly more institutionalized, though not couched in the language of hate, but in the language of preserving tradition and the family unit.

Gender inequality is mind-bogglingly in-your-face in the church.  All the ministireal leadership positions are held by men.  All.  From the highest levels to the local congregations.  I don't get it.

And the cultural gender roles... well, this is about civil rights and bigotry, not culture.  Never mind.

I've had to take a vaction from visiting practicing Mormon friends.  Every part of me wants to engage in these discussions which are attacking and accusatory.  And I get a quick thrill out of that behavior, along with a lot of long-term guilt.  And people who think I'm an asshole.

Bleh.  Bigotry makes me mad.


  1. bigotry makes me mad, too. and i've decided it's time to stop exposing myself to it, especially at times and in places where i should feel peace not anger. maybe more on that later.

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  3. zeeny, what assumptions do you mean?

    I think that the vast majority of active Mormons believe that that Prophet speaks with God. But do the vast majority believe that was true about the 1949 letter from the First Presidency?

    Do you disagree that telling someone that marriages should generally not be inter-racial is bigoted? I don't think that guidance to be "generally" bigoted is better than being "always" bigoted.

  4. i can't speak for zeeny, but i can respond, from my own perspective, to this:

    "But do the vast majority believe that was true about the 1949 letter from the First Presidency?"

    i think most mormons would say that, for that moment in time, that specific prophet spoke for god. but subsequent prophets have spoken and those subsequent prophets' words replace the 1949 prophet's words. so they believe it's true of that letter; but they also believe that it's no longer true. it's a version of mental gymnastics i've engaged in before. and it's one i have little patience for anymore. part of what i meant with my above comment. i want more simplicity than that in my spiritual life.

  5. one edit:

    "i think most mormons would say that, for that moment in time, that specific prophet spoke for god. and said what he did for reasons we may not understand, but they were god's reasons."

  6. Well, the statement is that "Black skin is a curse from God."

    At the time of the letter, it either was or wasn't a curse from God. You can't have one First Presidency infallibly say that it was true at the time AND have a different First Presidency infallibly say it wasn't true at the time.

    Even if a later First Presidency said, "Black skin is no longer a curse from God," that doesn't change the fact that it was once a curse from God, right?

    And that's what accepting the infallibility of the Prophet and First Presidency means. Accepting that black skin was a curse from God as of at least 1949.

    Tell me where I'm not understanding here.

  7. there are two key responses: infallibility and gymnasitcs.

    in mormonism, you technically CAN "have one First Presidency infallibly say that it was true at the time AND have a different First Presidency infallibly say it wasn't true at the time." what the prophet says right now is essentially infallible. if it doesn't sound right, we just don't understand god's ways and thoughts; if we did, we would see through the surface of sounding wrong to the substance. until the prophet dies and is replaced and the new prophet says something different. because, you see, god can use illogical and perhaps even ethically questionable means (telling people to believe [and presumably act on] something as horrible as all black people are cursed) in order to achieve something good (the preservation of his church). so when the new prophet says ssomething, the previous prophet's words could be revealed as fallible but necessary (at the time they were spoken) in some larger scheme of things.

    i know. it's weird. and it's wrong. and it brings me to my second key response:

    mental gymnastics. of a positively unbelievable variety. the problem with them is that when you're in the middle of them, they feel somehow like they make sense. it's only when you take that step back and realize the kinds of unnatural and unethical contortions involved that it's possible to see as clearly as you've put it in your comment.

    and these gymnastics are done in the name of understanding everything as part of an inexorable move forward. constant progress. so even something that is clearly wrong (racial prejudice and bigotry) has to somehow be part of god's good work.

    bleh. it hurts my head to try to spell all of this out. and i don't even know if it makes sense. i mean, i don't know if it adequately illustrates the mormon thought process, not whether it justifies that thought process.

  8. "Sometimes God lies to the Prophet."

    Do I have that right?

  9. depends on who you ask. mormons: no. critics of the church: yes.

    i think most mormons would say "sometimes god let's people's--including prophets'--misunderstanding of his words stand in the interest of greater goods." the way i used to explain it had more to do with the complications of translatability--that god speaks but it has to be translated into language and ideas people understand--than with active deception. but yeah. it can be boiled down to god allowing prophets to be deceived or mistaken. or, when you remove the passive voice, either god lies to prophets or prophets mistake god's words. either way it throws a real wrench in the works.

    it's an ends-justify-the-means argument. and if there's one thing i've become thoroughly disgusted with (in the last six months in particular, but over the course of the last several years) it's that version of argument. especially when it's used in a religious or spiritual context.

  10. Eavesdropping on cultists' debates is like discovering an alien species that speaks in something that sounds like English but, on closer examination, is completely meaningless.