Sunday, 10 February 2013

Has The Prop 8 Campaign Changed The Mormon Church For The Better?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was pivotal in the 2008 Californian campaign that successfully passed Proposition 8. Prop 8, for those who have been living under a rock, amended the Californian constitution to allow only marriages between those of the opposite-sex. This overturned a previous Californian Supreme Court decision allowing marriages between same-sex couples.

The victory of the Protect Marriage coalition, of which the LDS Church was a part, was quickly marred as LGBT campaigners turned their ire on the Church itself (its huge contribution in time and means meant it was singularly targeted as an icon of the Yes on 8 movement). The Church seemed rather taken aback by the level of anger aimed at it.

To an outside observer (someone who doesn't live in the USA nor is a Mormon) this surprise seems a little naive. You do not lightly tell someone who has gained the right to marry that you wish to take that right away, and given the history of the Latter-day Saint movement and polygamy I would've thought this would be quite obvious. But to Mormons marriage is far too important to their worldview for them to have felt they could sit out, what they perceived, a battle to protect it. Perhaps their faith blinded them to how it would make them look to those outside the faith.

The concerted campaign to punish the Latter-day Saints for Prop 8 has disappeared but it did succeed in linking the Church to Prop 8 and to anti-gay battles generally. And this bad PR came at a tumultuous time within the Church itself.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen (Church historian) said:

maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now
The internet has finally brought questioning Mormons together and, with questions of Mormon history and several scientific issues, a growing problem with people becoming inactive in the Church has caused the leadership to start working on how it can keep people in the Church.

John Dehlin, of Mormon Stories, helped carry out a survey of the disengaged, inactive and former members of the Church to help the General Authorities find out what was going on.

Among the top 10 issues causing people to question their place in the Church is the Church's treatment of LGBT people and issues arising from its participation in Prop 8. And to make the matter worse, like many churches, there is a "LGBT friendly Mormon timebomb" waiting to explode. The LDS Church has many problems it needs to resolve and, based on its subsequent actions, it seems to have decided to try and do so.

Last year a new group called Mormons Building Bridges marched in the Utah Pride parade. 300 straight Mormons organised simply to try and combat the impression that Mormons are unloving towards LGBT people. What has caused some to dismiss them, i.e. the fact they are obviously a Church front group set up for PR reasons, is actually what makes me think they are something quite important. For the first time the Latter-day Saints are starting to realise that hurting LGBT people (both emotionally with their participation with anti-equality campaigns and physically through their attempts to cure homosexuality in the past) not only harms their public image but is hurting their bottom line: church members.

The absence of the Church from the campaigns in Washington, Minnesota, Maine and Maryland last year also speaks volumes to their changing priorities. Their recent support for anti-discrimination initiatives in Utah and now Idaho add to a growing picture of a church that is realising that dialogue may work better than opposition. Even their current response to the "Gays in the Scouts" debate is telling in its measured language.

Lest you think this is some LDS Church funded puff piece (I wish, I'm open to offers though), none of this means that the Church has changed its underlying beliefs. Its recently released "Mormons and Gays" website (I shudder at that name) might appear to be all sweetness and light but it is really more about having compassion for "broken" gays than about accepting them. This is progress of a sort though. And, taking us right back to where we began, the Church has filed an amicus brief against the Supreme Court confirming lower court's decisions to overturn Prop 8.

A change in doctrine, though, is hardly what your average LGBT American is looking for. They'd just like to be respected and left alone by a Church that has until recently been out to get them. And the LDS Church's attempts at dialogue and moderated language deserve to be lauded. If only the Catholic church would heed some of these lessons, we might be able to have a far more useful debate with them. Alas. But we can see that it is not impossible for demographics and internal opposition to help change even the most conservative organisation's attitude. That gives me some hope for the future.

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