Most online discussions of gay marriage are not worth the effort, because no actual discussion takes place. Contributions usually consist of variations on either of just two propositions:
1. If you oppose gay marriage, you are a bigot.
2. If you support gay marriage, you are a tool of Satan.
Between these two positions, there is no actual room for conversation, apart from repeating one assertion or the other. It makes for dull and unenlightening reading.
To my understanding, the church itself does not take the second position. While it vigorously opposes gay marriage, it seems to acknowledge that gay people have an unsurprising wish that their relationships might enjoy the benefits otherwise conferred by marriage. And why shouldnâ€™t people pursue happiness wherever they find it?
The churchâ€™s resistance to gay marriage should be equally unsurprising. Mormons sacralize marriage and procreation as no other religion does, Christian or otherwise. Our holiest ordinance is not the sacrament of bread and water or baptism, but rather marriage, and reproduction is endowed with eternal significance. At the same time, sex outside of marriageâ€”fornication, adultery, gay sex, take your pickâ€”remains firmly in place as one of the Big Three sins. In Mormon thought, there is no way to reconcile the holiest aspect of faith with a particularly grievous sin.
That in itself shouldnâ€™t be a terrible burden on the church. Weâ€™re living in a sinful world, we tell ourselves, and weâ€™re accustomed to see ourselves as the people who donâ€™t smoke and drink or curse while those around us do. The church even operates quite well in societies where gay marriage has become an accepted practice.
But the United States is not Denmark, and the churchâ€™s place in society is different here. American Mormons can openly be senators and business leaders and professors. We have a place in the mainstream, although itâ€™s a place we canâ€™t take for granted. There are still plenty of people who will tell you that a Mormonâ€™s religion disqualifies him or her from serving as president or vice-president, as we learned earlier this year.
The church has experienced friction between its teachings and society at large before, but I donâ€™t think the earlier episodes presented quite the same challenge as gay marriage might. Denying the priesthood to blacks was not in itself a core doctrine or a part of our self-definition, and it was easily trumped by the belief that God directs administration of the priesthood through his prophets. Polygamy was both a core doctrine and how we defined ourselves in the 19th century, but monogamous marriage was both the more common practice, and not regarded as sin. There was even firm scriptural basis for thinking of polygamy as a temporary condition, and recent experience at the time with the suspension of ostensibly more perfect more forms of life (United Order communalism) in the face of practical difficulties. In the case of gay marriage, however, I see nothing that would make its eventual acceptance possible. There is no mechanism through which sin can become non-sin and the church still continue.
So what happens now? Maybe nothing. Perhaps enough localities will decide that civil unions are sufficient accommodation of gay couplesâ€™ needs.
Maybe opposition to gay marriage will become the new sexism. The church extended a lot of effort against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. While the ERA ultimately didnâ€™t pass, sexism is not considered acceptable in polite society today. Single-sex colleges are acceptable, however, and single-sex school classes are a subject about which reasonable people are allowed to disagree. The church maintains its male-only priesthood (while emphasizing the equality of marriage partners), and I would guess most people accept it as one of those weird things that some religions do.
But maybe opposition to gay marriage will become the new racism. What happens if no right-thinking person would ever oppose gay marriage, talk to people who oppose gay marriage, fund research at universities whose sponsors oppose gay marriage, or schedule football games against teams whose institutions oppose gay marriage? That is the marginal status of racism today, fortunately. But if opposing gay marriage becomes as radioactive as racism is, the churchâ€™s place in the mainstream may no longer be worth the cost. The church might have to decide if it faces a situation like Joseph in Egypt, who assisted in the effective administration of a despotic regime, or like that of Lehi, who gathered his family and possessions and departed into the desert. Will the tensions between the church and the world of 2020 be similar to those of 1978, where accommodation was relatively easy, or to those of 1890, where accommodation was eventually possibleâ€”or like those of 1847? Heading to Mexico or Canada by handcart to set up an independent Zion is no longer possible (although is Iceland still available? someone ought to check), but there is more than one way to leave the country.
None of this is an argument for or against Prop. 8, but I donâ€™t think we can dismiss the churchâ€™s anxiety over the issue as unwarranted or nothing but homophobia. It may be worth the cost to the church to energetically oppose gay marriage now not to effect any particular change in society, but to attempt to preserve opposition to gay marriage as a speakable position in American public life.
Some thematically related posts have ended with a note requesting that commenters discuss only the sub-section of the issue that inspired the original post or avoid discussing the merits of Proposition 8, but Iâ€™m not going to do that. You can discuss whatever youâ€™d like, as long as you keep in mind that youâ€™re conversing with actual people honestly representing valid concerns, and that very few of them are actual bigots and/or tools of Satan.