To some, the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a federal measure that would codify same-sex marriage seemed to come out of nowhere.
Sure, it would preserve the rights of religious groups to privately oppose such unions, but the move still seemed to reverse the Utah-based faith’s earlier stance that allowing LGBTQ couples to marry was, well, an affront to God. Or that it could destroy heterosexual families or even the fabric of society.
So how does a deeply conservative church change its mind? Must it come from a pope or a prophet? Or can members do the swaying? And did that happen here?
From its 19th-century beginnings, Mormonism has made big and small shifts — from abandoning polygamy, ending a priesthood/temple prohibition facing Black members and reversing a controversial LGBTQ policy to allowing women to serve as witnesses in temples and at baptisms.
It is, after all, a church that preaches “continuing revelation,” which is typically interpreted to mean a message from deity to the church’s “prophet, seer and revelator.”
Some argue that none of those changes would have been possible without gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) prodding from believing members.
Recently, however, one church leader declared that such internal pushes are a problem — “a tactic of Satan…to blind and mislead the young.”
When activism or advocacy “is directed at the kingdom of God on earth or its leaders, especially prophets and apostles, it is the wrong tool for the wrong job in the wrong place,” Ahmad Corbitt told a group of Latter-day Saint chaplains last month. “Why? Because it effectively but subtly undermines the doctrine of Christ, which is God’s plan for changing, saving and exalting his children.”
In his speech, “Activism vs. Discipleship: Protecting the Valiant,” Corbitt, first counselor in the church’s Young Men general presidency, warned that any “activism toward the church” that could weaken confidence in church leaders “is obviously not of God.”
Some activist causes are “important or good or often pursued in good faith,” said the Black Latter-day Saint leader. “I tend to agree with many of [their] underlying causes. …A light bulb must be changed to avoid darkness and restore light. My simple point is a hammer is not the right tool for that job.”
In other words, believing members should sustain the status quo and wait for the prophet to “change the light bulb.”
To Darius Gray, a longtime Black Latter-day Saint and self-described activist, that approach could mean living in the dark for a lot longer.
Igniting volcanic change on race
Activism among members that addresses social, cultural and doctrinal matters can be “genuine discipleship,” Gray says, following Jesus’ example.
As that kind of disciple, Gray was one of three male converts who worked to reactivate and support disaffected members of African descent in the 1960s before the priesthood/temple ban was lifted, he recalls. Initially their efforts were seen by some as “potentially disruptive and a topic best left alone.”
Still, they persisted, and their entreaties to headquarters paid off. “What followed was the creation of the church’s Genesis Group, which continues 51 years later with the same charge,” he says. “As we wait upon the Lord, we are to remain busy.”
While researching the collected 19th-century minutes of the church’s governing First Presidency, Gray noted “the sheer lack of official inquiry concerning the Black priesthood restriction was astonishing.”
Fortunately, “one soul became a most profitable servant, dedicated to activism and to faith, by thoroughly researching the history of that internationally defining topic,” Gray says. “His name was Spencer W. Kimball.”
Without Genesis, an exhaustive historical examination by Lester Bush in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and countless other leaders and members praying and asking for change, Gray says, Kimball, the church’s 12th president, might not have been open to erasing the ban, through what has been termed a revelation, in 1978.
What about today’s racism?
James C. Jones, a Black Latter-day Saint who is studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York, concedes that activism toward the church “can be employed in problematic ways to problematic ends.”
But believing that it is “always a tool of the adversary that undermines the doctrine of Christ is flawed,” says Jones, who has written a video course for members on abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. That assumes that such activism “cannot be Christ-centered or Christ-inspired.”
Latter-day Saints covenant to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places,” he says, “which of necessity means we stand against any actions or policies that denigrate the [image of God] in any of God’s children.”
If church leaders are engaging in problematic behavior, Jones asks, “then what are members supposed to do exactly?”
Unqualified faith in the brethren, he says, “is not actually a gospel principle.” Is losing faith in them the same as “losing faith in Christ? Is condemning functionally queerphobic policies causing more faith crises than the queerphobic policies themselves?”
In his speech, Corbitt proposes talking to local lay leaders and then letting them send the message up the hierarchical ladder, Jones says. “When it comes to fighting injustices on an institutional level, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to be able to successfully address injustices within the parameters of the same institution that put the injustices in place. No advancement of Black people in America, for example, came by way of just doing what white people told us to do.”
While the church has said more about race in the past five years than in the decades before, denounced prejudice, collaborated with the NAACP and acknowledged the contributions of Black pioneers, he says, “the church has yet to implement any protracted policy, strategy or curriculum that helps members unlearn and fight racism.”
The church is both hierarchical and democratic at once, according to historian W. Paul Reeve, who teaches Mormon studies at the University of Utah.
There is “dynamic tension between those two forces,” Reeve says. “Corbitt emphasized the hierarchy over the bottom-up approach, but, historically, many accepted changes came from members with no leadership position.”
The historian points to the creation of the children’s Primary as having sprung up from individuals as well as the weekly Sunday school.
“There is space within the faith for the democratic impulses to make their way up the line,” he says, “but [there are] also boundaries that the hierarchy has established that can find someone getting excommunicated from the faith if they are seen as crossing that line.”
Consistent and public protest, he says, “can also get you in trouble,” pointing to Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated in 2014 for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church.”
Yet, many of the small advancements for women in the patriarchal faith came in the wake of that movement.
Women began to be pictured with male general authorities in photo spreads, seated among male leaders during twice yearly General Conferences and added to the church’s top executive committees.
“There is no way that [therapist] Julie Hanks’ highlighting shame culture in ‘For the Strength of Youth’ specifics about clothing didn’t prompt that change, to take away the do’s and don’ts,” says Cynthia Windward, one of the “At Last She Said It” podcasters. “Or the training that all leaders working with minors have to complete now post-Sam Young [a former bishop who was excommunicated after he went on a three-week hunger strike to protest church leaders doing private, one-on-one interviews with children and youths]. Or maybe even us asking why women can’t be auditors? Witnesses?”
Then poof, Winward says. “We’re allowed now.”
‘Institutions don’t like change’
Erika Munson, who co-founded Mormons Building Bridges in 2012 to unite Latter-day Saint and LGBTQ individuals, bristles at the thought that the word “activism” can have a negative connotation.
“Active is a word we love to use in the church, asking people, ‘Are you active?’” she says. “Being ‘active’ is the way you show your church credentials.”
She understands institutional resistance to being pushed.
“Institutions don’t like change,” she says, “but when church members feel that something at church is not in alignment with the gospel, they want to do something about it.”
It can be in small ways in a congregation, says Munson, who is now the co-founder of the Emmaus LGBTQ ministry, “or large ways like marching in a pride parade, or lobbying for gay rights in Washington, D.C.”
The church’s drive in 2008 to help pass California’s Proposition 8, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, was “a turning point for many loyal faithful Mormons,” she says, “who were good soldiers and worked for it and then felt bad about it.”
A couple of years later, Munson says, that “turmoil combined with the power of the internet to tell personal stories, connected with their own spiritual testimonies of how God works in their lives.”
Voila. Quiet “activism” emerged.
“It’s so satisfying to say we all have testimonies of the gospel,” she says, “and it’s our testimonies that are driving this.”
To “active” members, there is a constant “back and forth between orthodoxy and obedience, testimony and personal revelation.”
To the more rigid believers, any activism aimed at the church “looks very disobedient,” Munson says, but not to her.
One big role of a prophet “is to listen,” says Susan M. Hinckley, the other “At Last She Said It” podcaster. “God uses people and circumstances to make things known in all kinds of ways.”
By definition, Hinckley says, “a living church responds.”
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