No religion has fought harder against same-sex marriage than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 2008, the church supplied as much as half the money and 90 percent of the early campaign volunteers to pass California's Proposition 8. But this year, it ducked similar fights. And now it's rethinking its advice about homosexuality. The Mormon case against gay marriage is beginning to collapse.
The latest sign is a new LDS website, mormonsandgays.org. The site affirms the church's ban on gay sex but offers several concessions. First, it acknowledges homosexuality as a deeply ingrained condition, often impervious to change. More than a dozen people tell their stories on the site, emphasizing the depth and persistence of their feelings.
In a companion video, Todd Christofferson, one of the church's 12 apostles, cautions that while some Mormons have felt a subsidence of same-sex attraction, others have experienced no change at all.
Second, the site says same-sex attraction "should not be viewed as a disease." In fact, it presents as exemplars Mormons who embrace a homosexual identity. In one video, Ted, a convert, introduces himself: "I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm also gay."
In another video, Suzanne, a young woman raised in the church, says: "This is part of me, it is going to be a part of me, and I'm OK." Judy, an older woman with a gay child and two gay grandchildren, declares, "I can't think of a group of people I esteem higher or love more than those who are openly gay and fully active in our church."
In its text, the site concedes "our common needs for intimacy and companionship." It includes, without comment, testimonials from at least two people who seem to have rejected the LDS policy against gay romantic relationships.
But the church says it can go no further. Its Law of Chastity demands "abstinence from sexual relations outside of lawful marriage." And marriage must be heterosexual, since, "by divine design, both a man and a woman are essential for bringing children into mortality" and raising them. In Mormonism, marrying and having kids isn't just a blessing. It's central to God's plan for the universe. That's why the church fought for Prop 8 and for many years counseled homosexuals to marry opposite-sex partners.
That counsel, however, has yielded to bitter experience. Ted says his marriage to a woman "made me feel worse" and led to a miserable divorce. Christofferson confesses that steering gays into straight marriages is "not always successful. Sometimes it's been even disastrous." Those days are over, says the new site: "Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex."
How, then, can a person with same-sex orientation fulfill God's plan? And what reward can console her for a lifetime of imposed abstinence?
Here, the Mormons offer an unusual answer: "Faithful members whose circumstances do not allow them to receive the blessings of eternal marriage and parenthood in this life will receive all promised blessings in the eternities."
In other words, you can marry in the next life. And, yes, this applies to homosexuals. You might be gay in this life, but you'll be straight in the next one: "With an eternal perspective, a person's attraction to the same sex can be addressed and borne as a mortal test. It should not be viewed as a permanent condition. ... Though some people, including those resisting same-sex attraction, may not have the opportunity to marry a person of the opposite sex in this life, a just God will provide them with ample opportunity to do so in the next."
To non-Mormons, this might sound bizarre. But it permeates the testimonial videos. One after another, the speakers circle back to the "eternal perspective." "I'm looking at the long picture," says Ted. "I hope for an eternal family," says Suzanne. "Whether you get married in this life or the next is of no matter," says Ty, a young man who has struggled with homosexuality.
But if that's true if gays who can't form sustainable straight marriages in this life can do so in the next why not let them, for the time being, marry each other? Wouldn't these marriages end at death, freeing each partner to create a heterosexual family in the life to come?
This question runs into a tricky aspect of Mormon theology. Unlike Catholics, Mormons believe marriages can and should last forever. "Much of the work that we do has a central focus on families being eternal," says Roger Carter, president of the church's San Francisco stake, in a companion video. "A husband, wife and children can be sealed together for beyond this life."
Christofferson adds that "marriage between a man and a woman, and the families that come from those marriages that's all central to God's plan ... . (H)omosexual behavior is contrary to those doctrines has been, always will be and can never be anything but transgression. It's something that deprives people of those highest expectations and possibilities that God has for us."
But that answer won't wash anymore. For those whose homosexuality is immutable, the church has already conceded that beginning an eternal marriage in this vale of tears may be unwise. Furthermore, the Mormon doctrine of eternal matrimony pertains only to "temple marriage." The church also recognizes "civil marriage," an "earthly contract, completed in the death of either party." This two-tiered policy gives Mormons an easy way to accept gay civil marriage while preserving eternal marriage as the preferred and exclusively heterosexual ideal. Indeed, the Mormon emphasis on getting hitched makes same-sex marriage all the more logical. As the church's new site observes, "Sexual intimacy is a powerful and beautiful thing. For this very reason it should be treated with care, within the boundaries of commitment and responsibility."
Is it crazy to suppose that Mormons, the fiercest fighters against gay marriage, would yield to such a reversal? They've done it before. In 1890, the church renounced polygamy. In 1978, it scrapped its ban on blacks in the priesthood. Mormonism is a young, dynamic religion open to revelations in which broader cultural transformations suddenly appear in the voice of God. If the stampede of public opinion toward same-sex marriage follows the course of civil rights, are you sure God's voice won't be heard again?
It's already being heard. You can hear it in the testimonials and reflections at mormonsandgays.org. This beautiful website pulses with human anguish and aspirations. Some of the testimonies will shake your beliefs. Others will make you cry. Behind them, the site's message is gentle and wise: Accept these good people as they are. Be patient. Have confidence that with time, God will guide them to the light.
But that message, meant for gays, is really about Mormons. They're struggling with homosexuality and its place in a moral world. It's a journey. Give them time.