Friday, November 20, 2009

The Mormon Church's Shift on Gay Rights: Lessons for the Nation

There was a point I intended to make when I discussed the recent Mormon shift about gay rights a few days ago. And then I forgot to make it.

Friends who live in Utah tell me that there’s an interesting immediacy about ensuing actions, when the leaders of the LDS church make a decision about matters like the church’s response to a gay rights ordinance. When the church instructs its members to adopt a position, they tend to do so immediately and with seeming unanimity. Or so my friends who have lived in Utah for many years, some of whom are Mormon, observe.

This behavior is probably at least in part an expression of the communitarianism of the Mormon tradition about which I blogged when I talked about the shift in the church’s stance on gay rights. As a persecuted minority with beliefs regarded by the mainstream as peculiar, Mormons have tended to draw together and hold a united front.

My friends tell me the sudden response when the church makes a decision about almost anything can be astonishing. When it was decided, for instance, that the word “genealogy” is off-putting to many Americans because it is academic-sounding, and when the LDS Genealogy Library changed its name to the LDS Family History Library, my friends tell me the change was immediate.

One day, people were saying “genealogy.” The next, they were using the phrase “family history.” There was not a grandfathering-in stage. It had been decreed, and people responded accordingly.

And here’s the point I want to make about this pattern of behavior and gay rights: I seriously doubt that a majority of Mormons have suddenly developed new minds and hearts vis-à-vis their gay brothers and sisters. But they have shifted their behavior externally through their support for the Salt Lake City gay rights ordinance. And that’s significant.

I’ve noted before that a lesson which growing up in the Civil Rights movement taught me—this lesson is carved into my bones now—is that people will not alter their viewpoints about deeply held convictions with moral and religious overtones, until outside forces, shifts legislated by governing bodies and courts, demand that they change. And even then, what will change is not the internal disposition of people about the issue re: which they’ve been truculent. What will change is their external behavior.

You cannot decree or legislate morality. But you can decree and legislate that people adhere to canons of justice and decency, which are grounded in the public morality of civil society and essential to the well-functioning of civil society. You cannot legislate changes in how people choose to read their holy books. But you can legislate and hand down judicial decisions about what people are permitted to do on the basis of those holy books within the context of civil societies based on canons of just and decent behavior towards all citizens.

I suspect that many Mormons will take a long time to reassess what they think about and how they treat those who are gay. I also think that the implementation of a decision by the church, acting with the city, which forbids discrimination is extremely important—and that this model provides an instructive lesson to the rest of American society, at a time in which people have conveniently forgotten that almost every time the rights of a targeted minority have been subjected to popular vote over the course of American history, people have predictably attacked those rights.

This is, unfortunately, simply how people behave, given the chance. It is important to many people—many people have built their entire self image around this presupposition—to have the “right” to attack and demean those tagged as other. Something fundamental to the human psyche predisposes people, if they’re given the chance, to identify minority groups as other in a threatening way, and then to savage and exclude those groups.

I’ve noted before on this blog that, when it comes to theological positions on civil society, I lean in an Augustinian direction. I am convinced that Augustine was essentially correct when he called human societies, in the City of God, dens of thieves and thugs, latrocinia.

Augustine believed that, given the sway of sin in human nature and human life, social groups left to themselves inevitably permit the powerful to oppress the weak. In his view, the state exists primarily to mitigate the effects of original sin in the behavior of human beings in social groups. The state’s primary function is to assure that society not degenerate to the level of a latrocinium in which the powerful will be permitted to treat the weak as despised objects.

As Reinhold Niebuhr (a strong Augustinian) once said, the doctrine of original sin is the one empirical doctrine in the church’s teachings. There is abundant empirical evidence that Augustine was absolutely right when he noted that, left to our own devices, we will invariably build societies in which the wealthy and powerful are permitted to treat the poor and powerless like despised objects.

Just as there is abundant evidence that, given the “right” to vote away the rights of targeted minorities, the majority will predictably exercise its “right” to do precisely that. There is even abundant empirical evidence, sadly, that minorities that have previously been subjected to this excruciating humiliation will turn around and subject another vulnerable minority to exactly the same treatment, given the chance to exercise their “right” to bash. Until someone with the authority to demand that the majority adhere to the fundamental norms of justice and decency essential to civil society comes along and stops the exercises in minority-bashing.

I argued the other day that the Mormon church may well have supported Salt Lake’s gay rights ordinance not only because doing so is good for the gay community. I noted that the LDS church may have taken this step because it recognizes that building a society in which the humanity and rights of all are respected is good for everyone—and that building such a society is fitting for a religious group that believes it is building Zion in the world.

American society in general could learn a lot from the step the Mormons have just taken. Unfortunately, those in whose hands power resides at the federal level—those with the power to spur legislative and judicial regulations that prohibit the continued (and atrocious) public referendum about the rights and humanity of gay citizensseem oblivious to their responsibility to challenge such behavior.