(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) It is possible to believe that out, sexually active, married gays and lesbians will one day be accepted as faithful, temple-worthy members in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m not blasting the church for its current stance, although I’d be pleased if all committed, monogamous relationships were recognized equally. In fact, history supports the idea that church leaders may reverse their stances on gay marriage, and other issues.
Growing up I recall hearing from older members that the church would never buckle to the ways of the world and change its stance that denied preferred church status on blacks, such as the priesthood and temple recommends. Ironically, the very tone of these assurances — resignation rather than defiance — was an indicator that a change was on the way. Seriously, can anyone imagine the LDS Church having any respect — or significant membership — today if the ban on blacks had not ended 32 years ago?
Today, I often hear the battle over gay marriage discussed — in church meetings, etc. — in combative terms, a sort of “in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world” scenario. I imagine that 125-plus years ago, polygamy was defended by Mormons in such a manner. Within a generation, it became clear, culturally, politically and economically, that polygamy had to end. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, those who couldn’t abandon it — including apostles — were being excommunicated. Conversely, for most of the 20th century, defense of the ban on blacks was defended vigorously.
In the public record, and easily accessible, is a personal letter, under LDS Church stationary, written to then-Michigan Gov. George W. Romney (Mitt’s dad) by the late LDS Apostle Delbert L. Stapley. In it, the apostle Stapley gently chastises Romney for his support of the Civil Rights bill. This is a document from a different era, and my intention is not to apply 2012 principles to Stapley. It is to point out that if an apostle wrote this letter today and it became public, he or she would certainly be released by church leaders. Here are a few excerpts from the letter:
• “When I reflect upon the Prophet’s statements and remember what happened to three of our nation’s presidents who were very active in the Negro cause, I am sobered by their demise. They went contrary to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith …”
• “I fully agree that the Negro is entitled to considerations, also stated above, but not full social benefits nor inter-marriage privileges with the Whites, nor should Whites be forced to accept them into restricted White areas. …”
• “Now don’t think I am against the Negro people, because I have several in my employ. …”
• Also, in the letter, Stapley recounts the fate of a friend in Arizona who not only urged Stapley to change the church’s position on blacks, but lobbied for civil rights. Stapley writes, “… I explained to him that the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro, which denied him the priesthood; therefore, it was the Lord’s responsibility–not man’s– to change His decision. This friend of mine met a very tragic end by drowning. He was a most enthusiastic advocate of the colored cause and went about promoting for them all the privileges, social opportunities, and participation enjoyed by the Whites.”
To Romney’s credit, he ignored the letter, with its racist sentiments, (here) and increased his support for the civil rights bill. It’s interesting that Stapley notes, as examples, deaths — by three presidents and his friend — as a consequence of supporting equal rights for blacks. That’s a head-scratcher to me. The drowning death is interesting; Mormon lore declares that Satan has control over the water. As a missionary, I was told that was the reason we could not swim on our times off from proselyting.
That letter was written 48 years ago today. Despite its racism, it does reflect the evolution of church thought on the issue. Stapley perhaps recognizes that the doctrine will end, as he writes, “The position of the Church cannot change until the Lord changes it Himself.”
In any event, Stapley’s letter, however objectionable, is light years in difference from the avowedly ugly, racist talk delivered at BYU in 1954 by another apostle, the late Mark E. Peterson. In that speech, Peterson opined that the highest degree a black person could attain in the Celestial Kingdom was as a servant; and that’s one of his more tolerant opinions.
The point here is not to bash the LDS Church, or use these retrograde opinions — uttered in a different era — to attack my faith. Most religions have these types of outrages and embarrassments tucked away amidst a mostly virtuous past. What might be gleaned from these examples is the possibility that widespread LDS church opposition to gay marriage may seem, a generation or two from now, as odd and distasteful as the long ago opinions of Stapley and Peterson on civil rights do.
For those readers who might argue that it was the Lord that dictated the LDS Church’s positions — pro and con — on polygamy and equal rights for blacks, I argue that they allow themselves to dwell on the possibility that the Lord may also intervene on behalf of gay marriage as well.