With the impending nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for President of the United States, I believe it is all but inevitable that Orrin Hatch will be proved right, and the Democrats will make a serious effort to throw the Church at Romney. It’s possible that Obama’s official campaign will try to preserve plausible deniability on this ugly tactic, but it will be part of the overall Democratic campaign strategy nonetheless.
So what about the Church will the Democrats throw at Romney? Three very likely candidates are polygamy, the ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood, and the Church’s opposition to gay marriage. I am going to try to preempt some of this attack with a (probably very long) post on these topics. Let it be understood that what I post is the opinions of Brother Vader, a mostly orthodox but decidedly unconventional Latter-day Saint, and that I am not an official spokesman for the Church.
What are these ‘hard’ doctrines?
The oldest of these doctrines to become controversial, and the most likely to remain controversial, is polygamy. The Book of Mormon, published in 1829, generally forbids polygamy, but with the caveat that the Lord may occasionally command it in order “to raise up seed unto Me”. In the spring of 1831, Joseph Smith and his closest associates began a systematic study of the Bible that led to numerous revelations in response to questions that came up during their reading. One question that came up during their study of Genesis was how the Lord could justify Abraham, “the friend of God”, and his grandson Jacob, the forefather of ancient Israel, in taking multiple wives. The result was a revelation that confirmed that the Lord sometimes authorizes “plural marriage” and that Abraham and some of his descendants had been commanded to enter into the practice. Joseph Smith himself was then commanded to “do the works of Abraham.” The doctrine of plural marriage was taught to, and practiced by, only a small number of Joseph Smith’s closest associates prior to Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844. After the expulsion of the Saints from Illinois in 1846, it became quietly if widely known within the Church that Brigham Young and other leaders were engaged in the practice, and plural marriage was openly taught and practiced once the Saints were established in the Salt Lake Valley.
There is some difference of opinion among Mormons on how the practice worked under Joseph Smith. A small number of members denied that Joseph Smith had anything at all to do with plural marriage, pointing to Brigham Young as the originator of the doctrine, and went on to form the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). However, the consensus of historians is that Joseph Smith did enter into numerous plural marriages. Curiously, no child of Joseph Smith other than by his first wife, Emma, has ever been unambiguously identified, and modern DNA testing has ruled out every candidate for whom a definite conclusion is possible by current methods. I know a few Church members who conclude from this that plural marriage, as Joseph Smith understood it, was a purely spiritual relationship with no physical consummation. However, this contradicts both testimony from some of Smith’s plural wives (who stated decades later that they were his wives “in very deed”) and the stated purpose for plural marriage of “raising up seed.” In any case, plural marriage as practiced in Utah was normally a full and literal marriage relationship that produced large numbers of descendants. [Putting aside the Vader persona for a moment: I am one of them.]
The practice attracted intense criticism in the United States, particularly (and ironically) from the Republican Party, which put it alongside slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism” condemned in its political platform. Congress subsequently passed laws forbidding plural marriage in the territories of the United States. The Saints went right on contracting plural marriages, believing the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty protected the practice, until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in Reynolds vs. United States in 1878. This ruling led to a crackdown on the Church in which many of its leaders were jailed and its property was confiscated by the federal government. The state of Idaho even went so far as to disenfranchised voters who refused to take an oath that they did not believe in plural marriage. The Church abandoned the practice in 1890 following a revelation to Wilford Woodruff, and the change in practice was reiterated in 1904 to make it clear that plural marriages were not to be contracted even in areas outside the jurisdiction of Congress.
The ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood has much murkier origins. No written revelation has ever been found imposing such a ban, though some Church leaders claimed, decades after the fact, that Joseph Smith had received such a revelation. What is known is that Joseph Smith did in fact ordain several black men to the priesthood early in the Church’s history. However, during the Missouri period, when Church members were experiencing severe conflict with their slave-owning neighbors, such ordinations seem to have been suspended and never resumed. Brigham Young later taught the prohibition on ordaining blacks and claimed a doctrinal basis for the ban, but he never presented a revelation to the Church supporting the prohibition. In fact, the justifications given were similar to scriptural justifications common in 19th century Protestant America for various forms of racism against blacks.
The ban was little noticed, in or out of the Church, until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. When the ban became controversial, most Church members and leaders assumed it had a doctrinal basis, and the Church refused to end the ban until it received a revelation authorizing the change in policy. Such a revelation was finally received in 1978. The Church now offers all its blessings to all without regard for race, and Church leaders frequently condemn lingering racism.
The Church’s opposition to gay marriage was completely unremarkable until quite recently, because gay marriage itself was not on anyone’s radar until quite recently. Homosexual actions were already regarded as a mortal sin within Judaism when Paul wrote his epistles two millenia ago. Had it been suggested to almost any religious, civic, or political leader even thirty years ago that the state should license marriages between partners of the same sex, I suspect he would have stood slack-jawed in astonishment at the notion. How things have changed! The Church’s support for Proposition 8 in California, which prohibited state recognition of same-sex marriages, brought intense criticism to the Church from the more politically fashionable. There was vandalism of Church property, protests outside the Los Angeles temple that were threatening enough to force the temple to temporarily close, and blacklisting of Church members supportive of Proposition 8 that, in some cases, cost them their careers.
The Church’s present position on this issue is that same-sex attraction is not in itself a sin, but that homosexual acts are mortal sins and grounds for Church discipline, including excommunication. The Church has supported laws extending protection from discrimination to homosexuals in Utah, which I believe reflects a philosophy of hating the sin but loving the sinner. However, the Church remains firmly opposed to state recognition of homosexual marriages.
Why are these doctrines hard?
Obviously, one reason why these doctrines are hard is because a significant fraction of Americans find them repugnant. The political difficulty for Romney is compounded by the perception that a Mormon is more closely bound by the orthodoxy of his church than, say, a Catholic. Catholic politicians can state with near impunity that they favor access to birth control and legal abortion, contrary to their Church’s position, but Mormon politicians seem to be held to a different standard. Thus Romney is put in a hard place by critics of these church doctrines: If he refuses to throw the Church under the bus over these doctrines, he will be perceived by many voters as holding repugnant views; if he does throw the Church under the bus, well, he’s thrown the Church under the bus. He will be seen as a flip-flopper who will say anything to be elected.
I can certainly understand some of the repugnance. The ban on the priesthood made me uncomfortable as a young adult and the memory of it now makes me cringe. I’m glad it’s over. The practice of polygamy by my ancestors doesn’t make me cringe in the same way, but I am deeply grateful I am a not called to practice it, and I do cringe at the corrupt versions of the practice now engaged in by splinter groups. I feel a bit differently about the issue of gay marriage: The more flamboyant expressions of homosexuality I see around me make me cringe, not the Church’s position on same-sex marriage. At the same time, I feel considerable sympathy for Church members suffering from same-sex attraction, and I feel no malice for less flamboyant practicing homosexuals outside the Church, even though their choices on how to deal with their sexual orientation are not the ones I hope I would make in their position.
But I’m just one member.
What is the present understanding of these doctrines among Church members generally?
The ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood is almost universally regarded by Church members as a thing of the past, of no significance to current Mormon belief or practice. The Church has officially condemned racism of any kind, has officially stated that the origin and purpose of the priesthood ban are unclear but that it ended completely with the 1978 revelation, and has warned against repeating “folk doctrine” of the past that sought to justify the ban. My experience is that Church members are not more racist than is typical of white members of the communities in which they live, and are sometimes significantly less so. [For example, and again putting aside the Vader persona for a moment: When I resided in the American South many years ago, the local ward was one of the few places of worship in the area that was not racially segregated.]
What can still stir up a heated discussion among Church members is whether the ban was originally instituted by God and then repealed, or was a human philosophy that mistakenly found its way into Church orthodoxy and which God did not see fit to correct until 1978. My personal opinion, subject to correction if I ever get better data, is that the ban originated in a policy decision during the Missouri period, aimed at avoiding what was then the third rail of American politics in a vain attempt to maintain peace with the neighbors. Only later was it transmogrified by Church leaders and members into a pseudo-doctrine, which became entrenched long after the original policy had outlived its purpose. The original policy may even have been inspired, which would explain why some Church leaders claimed decades later than Joseph Smith received a revelation instituting the ban. However, I believe the racist attitudes of the Church (and Americans in general) displeased the Lord, who left us to suffer the consequences of our prejudices until we were to the point of begging Him to rescind the policy. I emphasize that this is just a theory, one I find less objectionable than the old theories, but one that is not necessarily widely shared within the Church.
I have heard the joke that, in the Catholic Church, they teach that the Pope is infallible, but none of them really believe it; whereas in the Mormon Church, they teach that the Prophet is not infallible … but none of them really believe it. That’s an over generalization, at best, but it remains the case that many Church members do not believe that Brigham Young, or any subsequent leaders of the Church, could have been seriously mistaken about the priesthood ban. Some of these members, who apparently include a professor or two at BYU, insist that the black race really was unprepared for the responsibility of the priesthood until 1978 and the lifting of the ban came because they finally reached a sufficient level of maturity. Other members say that they don’t know the reason for the ban but are sure the Lord had a good one. Still others take the attitude that the Lord can do what He likes with His priesthood. The latter view is hard to argue with; by which I do not mean that I find it satisfactory as an explanation, just that it is hard to argue with.
Mitt Romney was 31 in 1978, old enough to hold his own views on things. The suggestion has already been made that Romney should have left the Church over its racist policies. The obvious rejoinders — the Romney family’s outspoken support for civil rights during the relevant time period, and Obama’s own association with a virulently racist pastor rather more recently than 1978 — may guarantee that the Obama campaign does not officially use this talking point, but it will be used by Obama’s fellow travelers for a whispering campaign that need not mention the Romney family’s political history nor call attention to the odious Reverend Wright.
Polygamy is almost universally accepted by Church members as having been a true commandment of God when it was first given, but also as having been truly rescinded by 1904. Thus, it remains a doctrine but not a practice of the Church. I am not myself interested in contracting a second marriage; once was enough. I know of no other Church member or leader who professes any interest in an official reinstatement of the practice. My own opinion, shared by many of my fellow Latter-day Saints, is that God intends monogamy to be the general rule and polygamy to be a specially authorized exception.
When I speak of polygamy, I am speaking of the practice of having more than one living wife. Because of the Mormon belief in the eternal nature of properly contracted marriages, there is a sense in which it is still possible today for a Latter-day Saint in good standing to be married to more than one woman. This is possible if his first wife dies and he then takes a second wife who is not herself a widow. (If the second wife was previously married for eternity, her second marriage is permitted by ecclesiastical law but can only be binding for this life.) Some critics of the Church have demanded that the Church cease permitting a man to be eternally married to more than one woman in this way, on the grounds that this perpetuates the attitudes associated with live polygamy. To which my considered, reasoned response is: Pbbbtthhhh.
I have never known a Mormon who secretly practiced live polygamy. I do not think many exist any more: Church record keeping is careful enough that an improper marriage is pretty hard to disguise, and the discovery that a Mormon is practicing live polygamy invariably results in excommunication with extreme prejudice, to coin a phrase. This policy might puzzle non-Mormons, who may conclude that excommunication for putting into practice what the Church still believes as doctrine is nothing more than an attempt to avoid bad publicity. There may be a little bit of truth to that, but there is a more important reason: A member who contracts a plural marriage is effectively denying Wilford Woodruff’s authority to end the practice, and by implication the authority of his successors in the First Presidency of the Church. This is the Mormon equivalent of lèse majesté, and no one likes a traitor.
There are a number of splinter groups who quite explicitly rejected Wilford Woodruff’s revelation and went off on their own. Except for some shared history from over a century ago, they have nothing to do with the church Mitt Romney and I are members of. This won’t stop Obama’s whispering campaign, of course, because the stories about the splinter groups are just too juicy to pass up. What the so-called “Mormon fundamentalists” practice is a parody of what was actually practiced by mainstream Mormons a century ago; it’s as if they picked up all the sensationalist tracts on the horrors of mainstream Mormon polygamy printed in the 19th century and mistook them for how-to manuals. Rather like gathering up all the tabloids from your local supermarket as guides to American matrimony of the 21st century. (That’s an interesting topic in itself, but I’ll save it for another post sometime.)
The prohibition on gay marriage is neither a doctrine whose practice is suspended, like polygamy, nor a policy that is now firmly rejected, like the ban or ordaining blacks. It has, in fact, been the overwhelming consensus position of the Abrahamic religions for many centuries, and the consensus has been questioned only relatively recently. The issue was considered so settled in the 19th century that it never came up in the early Church, and there is no specific prohibition on homosexual conduct in modern LDS scripture — just a general prohibition on any sexual intimacy outside of a properly contracted marriage between a man and a woman. However, official statements of the Church since then have firmly supported the consensus position.
This might be a good place to very briefly examine the role of canon in the LDS Church. Strictly speaking, we have no canon in the sense understood by creedal Christians. We do not understand our holy writings to be infallible, nor do we consider them to be complete. In fact, it is quite literally an article of faith with us that God will continue to give revelations to His Church. The two go together: Only the promise of continuing revelation makes it tolerable to believe that current holy writings may be incorrect, inconsistent, or incomplete in any particulars.
Notwithstanding this attitude towards canon, the Church has four standard works that are considered especially authoritative: the Old and New Testaments (we favor the King James Translation); the Book of Mormon; the Doctrine and Covenants; and the Pearl of Great Price. We share the Old and New Testaments with other Christian faiths; we believe that the Book of Mormon and much of the Pearl of Great Price are inspired translations of divinely revealed ancient records; and we believe the rest of the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants to be inspired modern writings.
My sense is that the Church membership regards as only slightly less authoritative two additional documents: The Family: A Proclamation to the World and The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles. The latter dates from 2000 and, while inspiring and beautiful, it is a straightforward testimony of Jesus Christ that does not particularly break any new doctrinal ground. The former dates from 1995 and, while it introduced no concepts that were not already widely believed in the Church, it laid them out systematically over the signatures of the highest Church leadership in a way that carries much authority with Church members. This document specifically identifies marriage as between a man and a woman, thus rejecting gay marriage.
Also authoritative are talks given at the semi-annual General Conferences of the Church and official pronouncements given by Church representatives or published in Church magazines. However, these do not have the weight of authority of the Standard Works, the proclamations, or official Church statements published over the signatures of the First Presidency.
How can Mitt Romney parry the attacks that will come over these doctrines?
In the case of blacks and the priesthood, Mitt can point out that the Church ended the ban long ago and that his family were deeply involved in the civil rights movement even before the end of the ban. If he is asked why he remained an active member of the Church when the ban was still in force, he will have to answer the way all of us who were members at the time have to answer: We believe it is God’s Church. We do not believe God is a racist. We do not know why God allowed a seemingly racist policy to persist in His Church as long as it did. We are glad it ended. Romney need not get into the finer points of whether he believes the ban was originally instituted by God, but if not (which I think is quite possible) then it will not devastate me if he says so. But it would be better to avoid that discussion.
In the case of polygamy, Romney does not appear to need my advice; he has already gone on record describing the practice as one he finds repugnant and which he is glad is no longer practiced by his Church. I would not have chosen that approach, but I have to admit it’s not that different from my own attitude, with the important qualifier (which Romney may well share but did not see fit to mention) that I believe it really was a commandment from God, even if I find it distasteful. God’s ways are not our ways.
In the case of gay marriage, Romney could do a lot worse than to take the same approach as the Church: He supports protecting the basic civil liberties of homosexuals and is opposed to any bullying or other mistreatment of them, but he cannot support state recognition of their marriages. If the polls I’ve seen are any good, then gay marriage is still opposed by slightly more voters than support it, so it’s probably not a losing issue. Even the highly liberal Obama hasn’t pushed it, a fact Romney can call attention to if necessary.