The recent explosion of commentary on the new Handbook policies at some point put me in a reflective mood, in which I pondered, in a fairly abstract way, what it would be like to actually leave the Church. Let me hasten to clarify that such pondering did not crystallize into an actual resolution to that end; rather, it led to some personal musings on the subject. Although I’m not actually leaving any time soon, even to engage in abstract pondering about such a matter was a completely unprecedented experience for me.
After thinking about it quite a bit, I decided that the conclusion to the sentence I began in the title to this post was as follows: “Were I ever to leave the Church, it would (very likely) be over social issues.”
There’s kind of a stereotype of the young person who gets blindsided by something in Church history, scripture, or doctrine, does some internet research, learns all kinds of crazy stuff from the Mormon past, and decides to chuck it all. And that simply is not me. For one thing, I’m not all that young anymore; I’ve been around the block a time or two. And all of that CES Letter type stuff simply doesn’t resonate with me; it involves things I’ve known about for years and years and years. I’ve read the journals, I’ve attended the conferences. I feel I know as much as any non-specialist Mormon about those things, and I’m simply not ever going to leave over something like say, the Kinderhook plates. I just don’t see that happening.
For me, social issues are an entirely different kettle of fish. I’ve got plenty of Mormon background cred (to keep it short, I’m descended from polygamist pioneers on both sides, and both my parents grew up in southern Idaho, for pete’s sake!). But there’s an entirely different side to me, as well. I didn’t grow up in the Great Basin of Mormonism; I grew up in northern Illinois and was very much a (religious) minority in school. My dad was a college professor [of education]. By most standards I’m pretty highly educated myself, and I work in a sophisticated finance legal practice in Chicago, a major urban center in the midwestern north. And just as my Mormonism has had an influence on me, those kinds of things have also had an influence on me. It was a long, gradual process, but over time I became a liberal-minded, egalitarian, progressive sort of guy (well, by Mormon standards, at least). That is my self-perception; that is how I relate to the world around me. And increasingly that side of my being is coming into serious conflict with the mores advocated by the Church. And it’s not a comfortable place to be. People throw around the expression “cognitive dissonance” all the time; well, welcome to my own personal sense of cog dis.
It has been 37 years since the 1978 revelation. The decision not to give blacks the priesthood or access to the temples was a very human mistake. God had nothing to do with it. Organizationally, the way forward could have been a clear disavowal of it. But as an institution we still can’t quite bring ourselves to do it, because we worry that that would be tantamount to throwing Brother Brigham and other high leaders under the bus. Well, if that’s what it takes, throw them under the bus already. Don’t pretend God must have really sanctioned that practice and we mortals simply don’t understand why. That’s ridiculous. We were racists, like pretty much everyone else at the time, and we adopted Protestant apologiae for slavery and made it part of our doctrine. And the whole thing was nothing but human culture; we were wrong about that with a capital W.
Having seen how that whole episode played out, I’ve become cynical about claims of revelation for positions that just happen to align with the cultural inheritance of our top leaders. We can’t give women the priesthood because there’s no record of them getting the priesthood in the scriptures (a debatable point in itself), and our leaders simply assume that that reflects the clear will of almighty God, without ever pausing to consider the possibility that it might reflect the cultural assumptions and preferences of ancient male elites who wrote those scriptures, and that God had had nothing to do with it.
This whole war on gay marriage for me has been the icing on that particular banana split. Our Church’s position just happens to align with the received wisdom of, say, 60 years ago, when our top leaders just happened to be growing up and forming their own cultural understanding of the subject. That doesn’t assure that this is all culturally based, but it at least raises that as a significant possibility, and frankly that is how I see it.
I think I took the policy changes so hard because it seemed to me that the Church had been signaling a greater rapprochement with its gay members, as if it were struggling to find ways to make it work. And to my mind, gay marriage could have been a godsend toward that end, as it would have provided a vehicle by which a gay couple could be legally and lawfully married and thus able to participate without restriction in the life of the Church. They could hold callings and move families and bring pumpkin bread to the linger longer and babysit your kids and do everything that any other happily married family does in church. And that’s what hurts about this policy, as it now seems clear that that kind of normalization of gay families was exactly what the Church was scared of and wanted to avoid at all costs.
To my mind, in terms of strategic thinking for the future, this policy change is a terrible idea, as it locks the Church in to a position that is a cultural loser, and anyone paying attention can easily see that. In ten years, maybe 20, we’ll be the Westboro Baptist Church of Latter-day Saints, and our future leaders will have very little room to try to maneuver their way out of it. (Yes, I realize this is only a policy, and policies change all the time, but not usually accompanied by this kind of publicity. The Church hates to appear to be caving in to social pressure, so even though this is only a policy it is one that will be very hard to overturn in the future.)
Our vision of social issues reflects the conservatism and provincialism of our Great Basin leaders. It is not a social world that I share (any longer). For now I can make that observation disinterestedly, academically, dryly. But for the first time in my entire Church life I can envision a time when my different social world view will so conflict with the positioning of the Church that I feel the need to disaffiliate. I hope and pray that that day never comes.