There have been times while living in India that I thought the better part of valor was not identifying myself as an American, but to claim to be a Canadian or Icelander. Something benign. Call me a coward, but the impossibility of convincing some people that I didn’t bomb Muslims or help arm terrorists makes getting some work done impossible. More significantly, the security of my wife and children is more important to me than dogmatic patriotism.
I’m sometimes, similarly, circumspect about taking up for myself the LDS Church’s most recent marketing tag line: “I’m a Mormon.” I am a Mormon. But there are times when I hesitate to say so. To some audiences, this confession means that I’m a homophobic prude who wants to impose his religious ideals on everyone as legislated imperatives. My objection to this judgment often means nothing, since the assertion is that all Mormons are homophobic prudes, and therefore…
The “Mormon Moment” that lasted an unbearable six months while Romney was losing the White House last year nearly put me in the madhouse for the number of people I encountered who were unable, perfectly incapable, of making space in their brains for the possibility that some Mormons are homophobic prudes, and some are not. There’s considerable diversity of thought among Mormons.
Some Mormons can’t get this. I’m consistently surprised that some Mormons are certain that I’m not one.
The latest evidence on the side of diversity of thought within Mormonism—about social issues and other things—are the five U.S. senators who are Mormon and who, nevertheless, voted last week in favor of a bill that would ban workplace discrimination against LGBTs. And not fly-by-night Mormons, either, but Mormons as deeply Mormony as Orrin Hatch, himself.
Of course, there are more than five Mormon senators, which means that some Mormon senators voted against the bill. Two, to be precise.
Please note that Mormons in the Senate took different positions with respect to this LGBT issue. At a ratio of five to two, the less homophobic position was the favorite among Mormon legislators by more than double. Surely these numbers say something about the way that some Mormons think some things and some think other things.
And there’s a bigger picture. The Mormon senators illuminate the relationship between religious individuals and their churches. Religious people are sometimes circumspect about self-identifying, so as to avoid the judgment that they are, necessarily, evolution-denying zombies who are intellectually enslaved to unfalsifiable propositions.
Orrin Hatch’s vote against LGBT discrimination seems to have been swayed by former Mormon senator Gordon Smith, who co-sponsored the Matthew Shepard Act. As the authority for his position on LGBT issues, Smith cites not church dogma, but his “conscience.” Some Mormons do hear the call of conscience more loudly than any political prescriptions from the church. In this way some Mormons are like many other religious people, who aren’t simply prisoners of their institutions.
One might regard religion exclusively as an institutional phenomenon through which God tells a person what to do. That is, one might be a fundamentalist. In this case, one’s religion provides a dogma, to which one then suits one’s conscience. Some Mormons and other religious people are, indeed, fundamentalists of this sort.
Or, one might think of religion as the sound of one’s own conscience, with institutions, then, as political (and spiritual) entities that resonate to one extent or another with the music of one’s own soul. Some Mormons and other religious people are romantics of this sort.
Sometimes, individuals move the institutions that find they have to suit themselves to the consciences that populate them.
Certainly, Mormonism’s premiere institution, the LDS church, is drifting towards individual conscience with respect to what it professes about LGBT issues.
I am as aware as anyone of the LDS church’s role in the passage of California’s Proposition 8 some years ago. Those were some Mormons. Powerful Mormons, to be sure, considering that the promotion of the proposition seems to have come directly from Salt Lake City. But LDS senators last week demonstrated the inside-out shift that is clearly moving the LDS church. In 1996—the last time such an anti-discrimination bill came to a Senate vote—there were three Mormon senators, who voted 2 to 1 against.
The trend among Mormon legislators is clear, and it presages what the institutional dogma will become. When the 5 to 2 ratio reaches 7 to 0, the LDS church will have changed, in spite of itself.
So goes the country. Maybe because Mormonism is hardly at the vanguard of social change, it’s an important index of the future. If Mormons are coming to recognize LGBT people as real people worthy of legal defense, you can bet the country and its religions have crossed over a barrier back over which they can no longer retreat. And there’s no imperative that we regard this evolution as indicative of religion’s groundlessness. Religion that hears and responds to the individual consciences of its adherents is not empty, but alive.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and My Mormonism. He is currently writing a biography of Brigham Young for Routledge. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.