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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Editorial: The Complexities of Proposition 8 within the LDS Church

This letter, from a Utah Mormon opposing California's Proposition 8, has garnered quite a bit of interest on several websites.

For myself, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who's political philosophy is informed by Thoreau, Tolstoy, Chomsky, Fromm, Illich, and the like, this is an especially troubling issue.

The letter is correct in not trying to downplay the Church's involvement. However, I wish to address the far more difficult and general theological problems inherent in this conversation.

This is a difficult topic for Mormons because it puts a spotlight on the major paradox at the center of our faith. The problem of free moral agency. The belief that God has revealed and does reveal his word to living prophets, yet God also personally can give us spiritual guidance in our individual spiritual progression. Terryl L. Givens, perhaps the most capable of Mormon scholars, mostly because he's both an academic and a Mormon and able to walk that line in his writings, calls this the paradox of "The Iron Rod and the Liahona." Of institutional and personal spirituality. H. Richard Niebuhr in his seminal book on Christian Ethics, Christ and Culture, speaks to the paradox in Christendom in general as that of: "those of law and grace, and of divine wrath and mercy."

This paradox is perhaps best embodied by Brigham Young, in part the greatest Mormon Authoritarian, yet also its most celebrated free spirit who said:

The greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.-Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:150

A semi-contemporary example came in 1945, when President George A. Smith, the Prophet of the church at the time, angrily rebuked a statement in a church magazine which essentially said that church members thinking is done by their leaders. President Smith wrote: "Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the church (Letter to Dr. J. Raymond Cope 7, Dec. 1945.)

There is another difficult issue in deciphering the way the Church has supported the issue. First, there has been no Church-wide statement. And the Church was essentially silent when the state of Utah had a similar bill in 2004. The reason was most likely because the statement the Church made to the Saints in California said this:

"The church does not object to rights (already established in California) regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference,"

Under the Utah bill, which was even opposed by ultra-conservative Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, many of those above stated rights were denied.

The letter does bring up a valid precedent in bringing up the way the church has handled abortion. A stance which is currently at odds with the McCain/Palin position.

However, one difficulty I have with both sides on this issue, is with the use of scriptural references to try and make political points. This is a dangerous area I don't wish to go in to. And my level of discomfort even in that sort of dialogue addresses my larger concern of the separation of church and state. However, that phrase is faulty. Both church and state are fallible institutions. While we believe to be a church governed by the revelation from God, the execution is not always perfect, as our the members of the church, and we have not claimed to be an infallible institution. It is the word of God, the revelation, and the confirmation of that revelation by the Holy Ghost, which is perfect. God's law is a higher law that does not have to conform and should not be concerned with the laws of men (this is speaking institutionally not individually, which is another matter entirely. It has everything to do with man as individual; perhaps the laws of government is a more correct phrase). It exists independently and eternally. Paradoxically, the Kingdom of God, as seen by the LDS church, is, in opposition to the evangelical view, a physical Kingdom, and it is the call of the members of the church to work to build that kingdom. The elusive Zion. So, Latter-day saints do have a calling to work for the betterment of their communities in preparation for the second coming of Christ. And by extension this gives them every right to speak out on an issue like Gay Marriage.

And I'm back to the paradox.

It is my opinion that the question for members of the church should not be the opposition to a different interpretation of what marriage is. The Lord, most meticulously through the Apostle Paul, has done that for us already. But is it proper for government to have a say in a citizen's personal life? That is what makes this particularly tricky. To work towards the furthering of your values in your community is one thing, but enacting legislation which mandates those values is another issue, both in the idea of agency and government as well as existentially. Is it better to work to pass a law and (perhaps) rarely revisit the issue, or is it of more worth to consistently, in the face of opposition, work to define personally your values to your children, and community?

What is particularly difficult is that marriage, or rather the marriage covenant and the Sealing, is the highest and most sacred ordinance done in the Church. This, however, is in itself not the same as other civil marriages done by other churches. A Temple Marriage is done under God's eternal law, power, and authority, which recognizes the marriage even after this life. While a civil marriage, a marriage without the sealing done by one with the authority of God (which we believe has been restored to the earth) is only valid to the laws of men for this earthly existence.

It is in my opinion that members of the Church should and can have divergent opinions on this issue. The lack of any official church-wide statement ratified by common consent of the entire church membership, shows that the church is endorsing the bill not commanding its membership to take a political stance. I do not believe one is any lesser of a Latter-Day Saint for voting against the bill, or a better Latter-Day Saint for voting for it, as long as they have put time and effort and prayer into their decision. Once someone has done that nobody has a right to challenge that decision on any sort of basis of piety.

I personally do not believe that government should have any say into the personal activities of its citizens unless those activities infringe upon another citizen's rights to pursue "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And in the case of marriage, I have yet to be persuaded that allowing Gay marriage somehow diminishes the ability or success of heterosexual marriage. The argument usually is that it places the gay marriage on the same plane with marriage ordained by God. However, as a Latter-Day Saint it is central to my belief that only a Temple Marriage is thusly recognized by God, so inherently any other union is not similar or interchangeable. And since the Church only allows a Temple Marriage between a man and a woman, who have made special covenants in order to make their relationship an eternal institution (ie. semantics don't make a marriage sacred), we should not be afraid of a human law trying to dictate or modify God's law. If any bill infringes upon any religion from following its own practices, I am against that bill. But this bill, or any constitutionally valid bill cannot do that.

(FYI, Steve Young has come out against the proposition. Not like that matters though.)

1 comment:

Eddie the Girl said...

thanks. that was really good. I've written a couple irrational/rational things about it. no worries if you don't read it though.