Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare public press conference. The topic was gay rights. Jonathan Rauch described the event as one in which Mormon leaders “made a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.”
What are we to make of this? Rauch (who is gay) advocates giving the Church the benefit of the doubt and viewing the offer as a genuine olive branch. However, he concedes that “it could be a trap.” His approach is about as receptive as it gets. Far more articles follow the same template that Brooke P. Hunter did in her piece: “How the Mormons Punked the Press.” She described the press conference as “mostly about defending Mormons’ right to discriminate.” She said “the new Mormon position is like that candy with a razor blade inside” and added
Today’s press conference took place in a twilight zone where parents are in danger of being jailed for teaching their kids about Jesus, and where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.” Oh, please. Show me the Mormons who have been jailed for sharing their views. There are none. And if you can point to one instance of the government preventing good Mormons from practicing their religion in their homes, we’ll eat our hat.
Hunter envisions a very narrow scope for religious liberty that largely exiles religion from the public sphere and relegates it to the privacy of one’s own home. This is because she dismisses the idea of religious liberty as religious. She decries Mormons for wanting “special privileges and special rights for churches and for religious people.” Well yes, in order to be religious liberty it has to be liberty specifically for religion and religious considerations.
Hunter’s conception of religious liberty amounts to only the protection for religious activities afforded by non-religious rights such as free speech and privacy (thus her examples of sharing views and practicing religion in one’s own home). This is not a grudging acceptance of religious liberty or even an incremental reduction in scope. It reflects the complete eradication of religious liberty as an independent concept. The fact that this attitude is so widespread, and also that it is so innocent of its own novel and radical nature, goes a long way towards vindicating the fears of religious people. If and when Hunter’s views of religious liberty are reflected in law and policy, religious liberty will cease to have any meaning at all.
The press conference was not the result of mere political expedience. The forces of the gay rights movement are politically and socially ascendant, and they know it. For the church to try to bargain while refusing to budge on its central concern (same-sex marriage) is very unlikely, as pragmatic perspectives go. Therefore, the most logical interpretation of the church’s position is the straightforward one.
The press conference reflected a genuine maturation on the treatment of the LGBT community. In historical terms, the gay rights movement has developed with incredible rapidity, and traditional institutions and their members have had a hard time keeping up. When the debate heated up decades ago, religious believers did a poor job of separating principled opposition to competing moral paradigms from culturally condition animus towards the LGBT community.
In this sense, the gay rights movement and the rising popularity of social liberalism in general have been very good for the Christian community. They have forced us to engage the message of Jesus in its combination of universal love and acceptance of human beings with extraordinarily high standards for moral conduct. Many of us are coming to truly understand that it is not only possible but necessary for Christians to commit to loving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in a way that affirms the unique dignity of every human being as in the image of God and also the religious principles that Christians believe lead to human flourishing.
Does this come down to the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” trope? More or less, yes, it does. This distinction has always been at the heard of Jesus’s message, but it is one that the world finds bizarre or incoherent, especially because of the emphasis on equality within the gay-rights movement. But to traditional Christians, same-sex marriage is not about providing equal access to a common institution. It’s about redefining that institution.
For the LDS Church in particular, the lead-up to last weeks’ press conference has been several years in the making. The LA Times reports that the foundations for the press conference were laid at least as far back as 2009 by a “series of back-channel talks between mid-level church officials and members of the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community.” The article describes the meetings taking place “in private homes and other venues,” where the participants “spent much of the next five years exchanging views, discussing policy changes, even socializing. They shared jokes, music and sometimes tears.”
Changes have been appearing in the LDS Church’s public policy as well, as I described in an article for Meridian Magazine last year. I pointed out that at the same time that church leaders continued to publicly articulate theological opposition to same-sex marriage, the church had supported a 2013 law in Salt Lake City banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and launched the reconciliatory website MormonsAndGays.org.
Some saw these moves as a contradiction, just as many viewed the church’s statements last week as a trap or a deception. The reality is simpler, and more sincere. The LDS Church’s history of dialogue and policy change gives context and background to its recent statements. They show that the objective is not a short-term political compromise, but an expression of a deep commitment to Christian ideals and a common movement, with other traditional Christian denominations, to better enact those ideals.