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In a recent article in Rational Faiths, my friend Dr. Greg Prince asserts that the “foundation” of the LDS Church’s “LGBT-related polices and doctrines” is the idea that “homosexuality is a matter of choice, and that … someone with ‘same-sex attraction’ … can simply choose to be straight.” Dr. Prince is a well-known LDS medical researcher and historian who has written and done much that is wise and good. But on this issue, he is simply wrong, and dangerously so.
As quaint as it may seem to modern ears and eyes, the real “foundation” of the LGBT-related policies he finds objectionable is the conviction—shared by many other Christians as well as many Jews and Muslims—that the power to create human life and the associated biological structures are sacred. Accordingly, regardless of one’s sexual orientation, he or she will be happier, both in this life and in the hereafter, by using them in accordance with God’s instructions.
What the Church actually teaches about homosexuality and “choice”
The relevant principles were summarized twenty years ago in the Church’s Proclamation on the Family, which has been reaffirmed repeatedly by the Church’s fifteen living apostles and prophets, and is based on those leaders’ understanding of family-related teachings in the Church’s scriptures, including the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Among other things, the Proclamation teaches that “the family”—defined elsewhere in the document as a mother, a father and their children—“is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” For that reason, the Proclamation declares, “God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation”—that is, sexual relations—“are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”
According to the Proclamation, then, the moral standard doesn’t depend on sexual orientation, much less on whether that orientation is, as Dr. Prince puts it, “a matter of choice.” Regardless of the causes of one’s sexual orientation, all sexual relationships outside man-woman marriage are contrary to—indeed, they are an affront to—God’s purpose in placing in His children the procreative structures that facilitate the creation of human life.
If the Proclamation weren’t clear enough, subsequent statements by top Church leaders rebut any notion that the Church’s position on these issues rests on the assumption that sexual orientation is simply “a matter of choice.” To cite just one of many examples, in a well-publicized interview apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks acknowledges that “[p]erhaps there is an inclination or susceptibility to such [homosexual] feelings that is a reality for some and not a reality for others.” In that sense, then, homosexuality may not be completely “a matter of choice,” any more than having (in Elder Oaks’ words) “a taste for alcohol” or “a ‘short fuse,’ as we would say of a susceptibility to anger.” He continues: “The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction.” And indeed the Church’s official statement on LGBT issues on LDS.org never once mentions choice in connection with same-sex attraction.
Instead, as Elder Oaks puts it, “[t]he line of sin is between the feelings and the behavior.” Thus, if we have such inclinations or feelings, “[w]e need to lay hold on the feelings and try to control them to keep us from getting into a circumstance that leads to sinful behavior.” And in the case of homosexuality or any other sexual proclivity, that means resisting the temptation to turn our sacred reproductive structures to uses that are contrary to the purposes for which God created them.
Sexual temptation and the atonement of Jesus Christ. But is it really fair or realistic to expect gay Church members to do that? Dr. Prince thinks not, claiming that such an expectation is “like saying to an African-American, ‘You may not have chosen your skin color, but if you act on it you are a sinner.’” But that claim and the associated racial analogy are seriously misguided. Unlike changing one’s skin color, it’s not impossible for gay people to abstain from sex outside heterosexual marriage. To the contrary, many gay Mormons find joy and peace in keeping the Church’s behavioral standards, including that specific expectation. Some of their inspiring stories are collected at the Voices of Hope website.
The Church, moreover, teaches that any temptation—including gay members’ temptation to use their procreative structures in ways that violate God’s commands—can be overcome through the atonement of Jesus Christ. As Elder Oaks put it in his interview, the Church teaches that “through the power and mercy of Jesus Christ we will have the strength to do all things. That includes resisting temptation”—including, for all of us, the temptation to engage in sex outside heterosexual marriage.
The Church’s political behavior. Because Dr. Prince’s premise about the basis for the Church’s doctrine on homosexuality is wrong, most of his conclusions are also wrong. That is especially true of his assertion that the Church’s political positions on LGBT-related issues reflect a division among “senior leaders” between what he calls the “Behavioral School”—the belief that gay sexual relations can and should be avoided—and his preferred “Biological School,” which holds that, for LGBT people, biology makes such an expectation unrealistic. I believe I have read every statement about LGBT issues by any senior Church leader over the past 50 years, and have never seen one that endorses Dr. Prince’s “biological” view, or anything like it. Nor has Dr. Prince offered any direct evidence that anyone in senior church leadership really holds that view.
His only indirect evidence consists of musings about the reasons for various Church positions on LGBT-related political issues. But rather than reflecting internal conflict between “progressive” and “regressive” views, the Church’s positions on those issues reflect two clear and sensible guiding principles: First, individual LGBT persons should be treated with love and respect, regardless of their orientations or choices. Second, the Church looks for opportunities to reiterate the doctrines reflected in the Proclamation in the context of political and legal controversies in which the Church’s voice can be helpful in steering the law in a direction consistent with those doctrines.
Because the Church does not believe the law should be used to punish LGBT people, either for holding non-heterosexual orientations or for acting on them in a consensual manner, these two guiding principles are entirely consistent with each other. And these two principles fully explain the Church’s position in each of the political controversies Dr. Prince cites—from Proposition 8 to the Church’s repeated support for protecting LGBT people against housing and employment discrimination.
The “difficulty” of being a Mormon. I close with a response to Dr. Prince’s suggestion that the Church’s stances on LGBT issues makes it “difficult” to “be a Mormon.” Yes, some of the Church’s doctrines and policies on those issues—and others arising from the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s—run counter to the prevailing culture. But I for one am grateful for senior Church leaders who are willing to articulate and defend, with courage, love and grace, the principles outlined in the Proclamation.
Indeed, I think the Church’s LGBT-related stances make Church membership “difficult” only if one either (1) accepts one or another of the prevalent mischaracterizations of the Church’s positions; or (2) does not believe the principles taught in the Proclamation; or (3) does not believe in the power of Jesus’ atonement to help all of us – gay Church members included – overcome sin and temptation.
I hope Dr. Prince’s difficulty results from scenario (1) rather than (2) or (3). And I hope what I have offered here will help him and others better understand the Church’s positions on these very important issues. Whether we consider ourselves straight, gay or something else, if the principles taught in the Proclamation are true—as I believe they are—our eternal happiness depends on understanding and heeding them.
About the Author
Mr. Schaerr is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who, among other things, attempted unsuccessfully to defend the marriage laws of Utah and Idaho. He is a believing, practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS or Mormon Church.