Here’s a simple algebra equation to describe what it’s like to grow up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Take the year, subtract 20, and that’s the year it really is inside the Mormon gerontocracy.
When I was a child, I was told that black people couldn’t hold leadership positions until 1978 because it “just wasn’t their time yet.” To explain their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, my parents cited some paranoid logic about unisex bathrooms. I had left my family’s faith by the time church members were supporting California’s Proposition 8 to the tune of $20 million, but I still remember some ominous rumblings about the specter of legally mandated same-sex weddings being held in Mormon chapels. The horror.
So when I learned yesterday that the Mormon Church is now provisionally supporting some LGBT legal protections, I closed my eyes, counted backward to 1995 and watched the press conference.
Let’s start with what the announcement is not. Mormon Apostle D. Todd Christofferson made it perfectly clear from the beginning: “We are announcing no change in doctrine and church teachings today.”
The Mormon Church is still firm in its opposition to same-sex marriage, they are still targeting Mormon dissident and same-sex marriage supporter John Dehlin with excommunication, and they still require their gay, lesbian, and bisexual members—or, in their parlance, members who “struggle with same-sex attraction”—to refrain from all forms of same-sex sexual intimacy. The church’s measured support of non-discrimination ordinances is by no means a step forward in terms of LGBT inclusion within the faith itself.
Nor is the church’s support of non-discrimination ordinances entirely new. In 2009, Mormon leaders put their weight behind a Salt Lake City non-discrimination ordinance, but only because it “balance[d] fair housing and employment rights with the religious rights of the community.” The only news here is that the church is expanding this conditional support of LGBT protections “throughout Utah and the nation as long as there [is] a balanced approach to protect constitutional religious exercise and conscience.”
These recurring disclaimers about religious freedom reveal this announcement for what it really is: a craven bid to hang on to as much power as possible before full LGBT equality becomes a political and cultural reality. Now that the Mormon Church seems more or less resigned to the impending probability of nationwide same-sex marriage, this renewed focus on discrimination under the guise of religious freedom is the only thing they have left and by God, Jesus, and Joseph Smith, are they going to white-knuckle it.
In fact, this move is exactly the sort of bait-and-switch I learned as a Mormon child: Pledge basic support for the humane treatment of the marginalized while supporting their exclusion through every other means possible.
Indeed, the Mormon leaders who participated in yesterday’s press conference spent much less time detailing their support of LGBT protections than they did decrying what they see as “the steady erosion of treasured freedoms” pertaining to matters of “religious conscience.” The official press release pledges support for “reasonable safeguards for LGBT people—specifically in areas of housing, employment and public transportation” so long as these safeguards are balanced with “religious freedom protections.” But at no point during the prepared portion of the press conference did Mormon leaders offer specific illustrative examples of anti-LGBT discrimination, acknowledge their own history of anti-LGBT policy, or even utter aloud the words “bisexual” and “transgender.” The token female speaker—Sister Neill F. Marriott, whose speech patterns make Joni Ernst seem like Celine Dion by comparison—even chimed in with a hearty “homosexuals.” Remember: It’s still 1995.
The announcement yesterday was, first and foremost, an excuse to complain about the increasing pushback that public figures and businesses face when they make a bigoted remark or explicitly support the discrimination of LGBT people. In the span of 15 minutes, Mormon apostles Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland managed to work in references to the ousting of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, the withdrawal of state funding for Christian clubs at California schools that exclude gay students, and the pressure put on Mormon gymnast Peter Vidmar to decline his place as the U.S. chef de mission in the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies after he participated in anti-same-sex marriage demonstrations.
Not only does the Mormon Church have the gall to present these stories as if they represent the end of “free speech” as we know it—it’s clear that they need to spend less time reading their scriptures and more time reading the Constitution—they also go a step further by equating them with the widespread, institutional discrimination of LGBT people. Oaks boldly asserts that “[s]uch tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing, or public services because of race or gender” before adding this petty and fallacious swipe: “It is one of today’s great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for LGBT rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public-policy proposals.”
Here’s another equation that Mormons should take to heart: Not tolerating intolerance is not the same thing as intolerance itself.
But Oaks can’t afford to be too mean to LGBT people because the church’s “fairness for all” approach is, oddly enough, an attempt to couple the possibility of anti-LGBT discrimination to LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances themselves. Twenty years ago, when the Mormon Church’s politics aligned more closely with America’s center, they were in power and LGBT people were on the ropes. But now, the Mormons want it to be 1995 again so badly that they’re willing to throw their hat in with the in-vogue LGBT community as long as they can still refuse to, say, make their wedding cakes. When I was younger, church leaders wouldn’t be caught dead using a word like “minority” to refer to themselves but in yesterday’s presser, Oaks was more than willing to implicitly refer to both Mormons and LGBT people as “unpopular minorities.” You know what they say: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and then try to undermine them every step of the way.
The Mormon Church has already proved that it’s not above co-opting a civil-rights framework to get what they want. At this point, they have a track record of hiding behind the language of civil-rights movements in order to assert their right to discriminate on religious grounds. In a 2009 speech delivered at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Oaks compared the vandalism of some church facilities after the passage of Proposition 8 to “the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.” I’m not sure they make equivalences any falser than that one.
And speaking of civil rights legislation, here’s a story about the Mormon Church’s historic stance on that issue: According to Glen W. Davidson’s 1965 article in the Christian Century, a local chapter of the NAACP finally secured a meeting with top church leaders in 1965, who reluctantly agreed to write an editorial—albeit an unsigned one—in support of an employment and housing bill. They never wrote the editorial. Instead, one Mormon apostle said: “We have decided to remain silent.” But they can certainly speak up forty years later when they have the opportunity to compare broken windows to the systemic discrimination of an entire race.
Coming from the Mormon Church, a half-hearted and conditional support for LGBT rights isn’t just too little, too late—it’s business as usual. Trading shelter and employment for the right to discriminate on religious grounds is a devil’s bargain coming from men who believe they speak for God. This isn’t a “fairness for all” approach—it’s a mean older sibling drawing a chalk line down the middle of the room. And what we’re witnessing now is not a slow step forward but rather Mormon bigotry in its death throes, as the church tries in vain to ride the legal coattails of the very people they have been putting down for so long.