Many Latter-day Saints I know have struggled with the recent “policy change” that labels same-sex couples “apostates” and bars their children from baptism. It strikes them, as it does me, as deliberately splitting families and punishing children for the actions of their parents. Brigham Young used to say something to the effect that good doctrine tastes good, but this policy is about as appetizing as a hair omelet.
Most Mormons I know who have been troubled by the policy have said that it’s just a policy, not doctrine, so they don’t feel obligated to agree with it. Policies are the decisions of organizations, and they are subject to change; doctrine reflects the revealed word of God and, at least in theory, doesn’t change. The three-hour block of meetings on Sunday is policy; the saving ordinance of the sacrament is doctrine. The white-shirt-tie-and-nametag missionary ensemble is church policy; Christ’s injunction to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” is doctrine.
For a lot of Mormons, it’s perfectly acceptable to disagree with a church policy, even publicly. When I was a young boy, most of the Latter-day Saints I knew in Southern California disagreed with the church’s policy against ordaining men of African descent to the priesthood. It was a policy, they said, and it would change. And of course it did. Yes, some church leaders said it was revealed doctrine, but there was no revelation on the matter that anyone could point to.
I think a lot of people feel the same way about this new anti-gay policy: it’s just a decision of men, and it will change, so church members do not feel obligated to support it. One sign of its temporary nature is that, within a week, the church changed a significant aspect of the policy: originally, a child would be excluded from baptism if he or she is “child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship.” The church later changed this to exclude only children who are currently living with a same-sex couple as their primary residence. Of course, that opens a number of other issues, but I digress.
In short, a policy subject to almost-immediate revision is not set in stone, and does not have the authority of revelation.
Then, this past Sunday, President Russell Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church changed everything by equating the policy with revelation. Speaking at BYU-Hawaii, President Nelson spoke about how individuals can learn the mind and will of the Lord through study, fasting, and prayer. He compared the individual quest for answers to the process by which the Lord makes His will known to church leaders:
We sustain 15 men who are ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators. When a thorny problem arises–and they only seem to get thornier each day–these 15 men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord. After fasting, praying, studying, pondering, and counseling with my brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned. And my brethren have the same experience. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively, and then we watch the Lord move upon the president of the church to proclaim the Lord’s will.
This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries, and again with the recent additions to the church’s handbook consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer, and sought further direction and inspiration, and then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process. So is your privilege of receiving personal revelation. My dear brothers and sisters, you have as much access to the mind and will of the Lord, for your own life, as we apostles do for His church. Just as the Lord requires us to seek and ponder, fast and pray, study and wrestle with difficult questions, He requires you to do the same as you seek answers to your own questions.
President Nelson leaves little room for disagreement here: according to him, this new policy was given by revelation and represents the mind and will of the Lord.
My initial response was a little snarky in that I said I could see two possible explanations:
- God is a muddleheaded douchebag.
- These guys don’t know the mind and will of the Lord.
Snark aside, for believing Latter-day Saints, I think President Nelson has drawn a distinct line: either you sustain the policy as the revealed will of the Lord, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground, no excusing it as a matter of policy.
For the record, I am sure these men “wrestled” with this issue, and I want to believe they had the best of intentions. In the end, however, this policy is hurtful and wrong, and anything but compassionate.
Looking back at my life as a believing Mormon, I probably would have accepted President Nelson’s words at face value, put my personal feelings aside, and sustained this policy as the revealed will of the Lord. I suspect a lot of people I know are doing just that. Heaven knows I forced myself to believe, say, and do things I thought were wrong–just because I believed the church was right, no matter what.
But I also think it would have gnawed at my conscience, despite my best efforts to fall in line. President Monson has often quoted Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to illustrate that one cannot say one thing when your heart says something else:
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. … I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. … It was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, … but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
In context, however, Twain is writing about the conflict between one’s conscience and what others tell you is right. In this passage, Huck isn’t praying about giving up a vice or sin; rather, he is wrestling over whether he should turn in the runaway slave, Jim. Society, the law, religion–all of these tell him that slavery is right, and helping a slave escape is wrong, but his heart tells him otherwise.
I think I would have forced myself to accept and sustain the policy, but I would have known it was wrong. I’ve felt this way before. The summer before I left on my mission, I worked for a time as a janitor at a dialysis center (this was 1983). I got to know several of the patients fairly well, as they came in regularly. One African-American man I met was what I would call a religious seeker. He told me he was looking for the true church on earth, the kingdom of God, where he knew he was supposed to be. He asked me about Mormonism and what I believed. Then, of course, he asked about the priesthood restrictions that had been rescinded only 5 years earlier. He asked me to explain why, and I couldn’t. No answer I could come up with was adequate. A friend had recently returned from a mission to Jamaica and had said the granting of the priesthood was gradual: first only to the Israelites, then (as of the New Testament) to the Gentiles, and finally to black men. It didn’t sound right to me, especially since the New Testament made it abundantly clear that no one was “unclean” any longer and unworthy of the blessings of the gospel. I did my best to justify a policy I had never agreed with, but it was no use. He knew, and I knew, that it had been wrong.
This morning I am thinking of all those in the church who want to sustain the leaders of the church but recognize that this policy is wrong and harmful. I would imagine there will be some wrestling, fasting, praying, and studying. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad I don’t have to wrestle with this at all.