There is a common belief in mainstream Mormon culture that once the church was restored, God would never allow his church to stray. This is an interesting idea that I would like to explore in detail with respect to our attitudes toward church leadership and specifically the Church’s chosen strategy regarding Proposition 8 and other anti-gay rights legislation. First of all if we believed this doctrine, we would all be Catholics. If God never allowed his/her church to stray it would have never drifted from the earth and back again in the many incarnations it has had throughout history. But even if we assume that this belief only applies to the post-restoration Church, the argument still troubles me.
In my discussions with Mormons, I have never heard anyone assert that the men who govern this church are perfect. Yet, somehow we believe that in matters of church governance they manage to make perfect decisions, free of cultural or political bias, or personal foibles. In the many, and often dizzyingly circular discussions I have had over prop 8; I have asserted the opinion that the church was tactically amiss in involving itself in opposition to a civil rights campaign, rather than insisting on being a stakeholder in a wider discussion on protecting our religious freedom in whatever legislation was achieved by the gay-rights movement.
Besides, what would be wrong with supporting the right of minority groups to define their marriage-relationships in ways that corresponds to their experience and deeply held convictions (sound familiar)? But as a religious institution that believes in the divinity of male-female marriage relationships, the church could have saved itself a lot of bad press by affirming the rights of others while voicing our strong convictions be protected in any new legislation passed. The point of bringing up an abbreviated version of this argument is that there should be room in Mormonism to voice constructive criticism of Church policy without being labeled unfaithful or apostate. It does not create a crisis of faith for me to assert the error of church leader’s tactics. They are imperfect men in an imperfect world. But somehow, when the church makes statements on a complex political issue such as gay marriage, which merit at least preliminary discussion, thought and debate, our brains shut down and group-think takes over.
Here is another example. I believe that the principle that we are all equal before God is an eternal principle. Therefore it causes me no mental anguish to assert as I often do that the Mormon Church was simply racist for excluding members of African descent from the priesthood. I simply do not believe in a God that would contradict himself and the scriptures so obliviously. But don’t panic, this assertion does not necessarily negate the truthfulness of the Mormon Gospel, the inspired qualities that church leaders attain, or God’s hand in our lives or history. What it does affirm for me is that God allows us, and yes even the church as an institution to learn from our mistakes. The church made a historical mistake that many of that era were guilty of, namely rationalizing a strongly held cultural belief in terms of God’s mysterious will; denying responsibility for our own hurtful behavior. The myriad folk-beliefs that arose around blacks and the priesthood are testament to members and leaders desperate attempts to shift responsibility for a sinful practice to God him/her self.
Both the more distant issue of blacks and the priesthood, and the very current gay-rights movement show that the church is part of a complex world. Learning from our mistakes is an essential part of what it means to be human, indeed it is our privilege. Let us not deny this opportunity to our leaders by assuming that imperfect people can somehow implement perfect policy. God does not micro-manage he lets us stray, fumble, fail, and correct. He trusts us perhaps more than we trust ourselves.