Inscrutable Mormon Press Conference Lays Important Messages Between The Lines

By R.B. Scott

Note: this article was originally published by the Cognoscenti at WBUR Boston Public Radio. 

San Francisco, CA - In an unprecedented press conference last Tuesday apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlined its concerns about individual rights, particularly, religious freedom. The presentations were said to signal a softening of the church’s opposition to same sex marriage. After watching the entire conference three times, I must report that it did nothing of the sort explicitly. Like Hemingway’s prose, the important messages were what was not said, exactly.

The apostles did acknowledge that all citizens, regardless religion or sexual orientation, are entitled under law to the same rights, unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise. What was not said was this: a court ruling on same sex marriage is due later this year. The church will honor the court’s ruling.

This is not new news. It is essentially a position reached by top church leaders in early 2006, if not before. Yet, two years later the church championed a divisive political fight in support of a California constitutional amendment restricting civil “marriage” to heterosexual couples. However vague, the messages of détente couldn’t have come at a better timefor John Dehlin, the provocative podcaster who says he will be excommunicated this Sunday because of his support for same sex marriage and ordaining women. That’s what the headlines claim. There is more to it than that, of course. Plenty of Mormons share similar goals.

Many hope the messages were a harbinger of more changes, particularly in how gay members are welcomed into full fellowship of their local wards (parishes). This is of concern to Mitch Mayne, a gay man who once served in the leadership of an extremely large (by Mormon standards) ward in San Francisco. Of the approximately 1,200 members, well more than half, have disengaged from the church because they are gay.

Mayne said the conference “clarified that traditional Mormons can support LGBT legal protections and remain in alignment with Church thinking. It also shredded the old notion that LGBT people don't deserve full human rights.”

Others were irritated by the “we are also victims” tactics of Elder Dallin Oaks, a presenter at the conference. They might have cheered had Oaks, once dean of The University of Chicago law school and often mentioned as a possible Republican appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledged explicitly that the church had concluded long ago that all have the right to marry civilly under law. Instead the apostle turned to contrived hypothetical attacks on religions and true believers, very similar to ones used 30 years ago in opposing provisions of Title IX legislation wherein he opined that churches, at their discretion, should be exempt from some civil rights mandates.

New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal blasted the performance as “seeking legal permission to discriminate,” a view that was shared by a gay father who once served as bishop of a ward and president of a stake (diocese). “It seemed to be an attempt to stake a claim on the importance of religious liberties,” said the former Mormon regional leader. “But, one can get into the swamp very quickly by endorsing equal housing and employment and then demand the right not to bake a cake for a gay wedding on moral grounds. They can’t have it both ways.”

A number of Latter-day Saints, all members of record, some more engaged that others, responded to my inquiries. It was telling that nearly all -- Mayne being the exception -- requested anonymity, concerned that their candid responses would strain relations with families and other church members.

A prominent mother and thought-leader wrote that the presentations were “Embarrassing!" She went on, "If the brethren cared more about [gay] members who feel the only way out is to take their lives, or leave the Church and disappoint their families than drawing a line in the sand we would hear words of kindness and generosity, not that terrible Mormon legalese we’ve grown so accustomed to.”

Crux, the online Catholic news organization was more upbeat. “A less cynical view is that Mormons are joining many mainstream Protestant denominations in recognizing the need for anti-bias laws -- even if they themselves aren’t on board with gay marriage.”

Oaks and another Mormon apostle, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, protested the negative reactions. Utilizing church-owned news organizations in Salt Lake City both said such criticism is rooted in a belief that God does not exist. "People who do not believe in God have a very hard time seeing the merit of the free exercise of religion," Oaks charged.

In Hawaii, where long ago the church mounted a successful campaign opposing same sex marriage, a gay former U.S. Air Force captain and engaged Latter-day Saint found hope in Tuesday’s press conference. But, he too would have preferred a more explicit statement about civil marriage. Instead, as a single 40-something lifelong member in Salt Lake City, a former missionary, wryly put it: “It seemed the Church was saying that no one should discriminate against gay people… except us!”

Like previous policy adjustments this one is unfolding incrementally. While it may be an excruciating process, it is progress.