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Monday, July 30, 2012

A Mormon president and gay marriage: Lifting the veil of misunderstanding

The following blog post is an answer to a question posed by a reader (username, mikebutler) who commented on the post,

I include first Mike’s letter and then my response. As with my response to Eliza Wood's article in the Huffington Post, these comments are my personal thoughts. For official answers to questions about Mormon doctrines, please consider consulting some of the following websites:



Very thorough research, Kurt, and made more readable by your respectful tone throughout-- even in the face of an article by Ms. Wood that goes beyond ignorance and borders on insulting. You have probably read the response by Dr. Peterson. I know he's a professor, but your analysis stands up well next to his.

My question, as a non-Mormon, is whether you or Dr. Peterson are capable of getting past the factual inaccuracies of this woman's piece and asking whether she is giving voice to an honest concern that many of her readers have, however inartfully she went about it?

The simple truth is that many, many Americans view the members of your faith as somehow alien and not to be trusted. Scolding a reporter for poor fact-checking is unlikely to dissuade them.

Here's a true story: my friend travelled to attend her college roommate's (LDS) wedding last year. Her only familiarity with Latter-day Saints was that, in her mind, they were the reason her sister had had to cancel her own wedding in 2008, because Mormons had spearheaded a ballot measure (Prop 8) that made the marriage illegal.

My friend returned with reports that she and about half the other guests had been banned from the church and could not even see the marriage ceremony. I tried to explain that it wasn't a church but a temple, that it was called a sealing and that sealings are considered private for very specific reasons. My friend did not care about those facts. All she took away from the incident was that these were a weird bunch of secretive cultists who wouldn't even let the bride's own mother attend her wedding. In other words, she already harbored a prejudice and her experience merely reinforced it.

You have already succeeded in showing that the Huffington Post reporter did shoddy work and have coherently and respectfully countered her errors one by one. My question is whether you have heard what she was saying in the first place. Mormons and Muslims are seen as "other" by many, many Americans who honestly question whether members of these faiths would strive to subvert our principles of religious freedom if their leaders ordered them to do so.

Many Americans would like to know, as would I, if there is any real difference between a Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab, and a Mormon in America who would pay money for a new law that forces other citizens and other churches to obey LDS marriage doctrine.

Despite all the facts you've offered in your blog post, I see nothing there that allows me to answer this very basic question.


Hi Mike,

Thanks for your question. I have a few thoughts that might give you some insight from my perspective as a Mormon….

First, the purpose behind my response was to provide readers with a sense of what Mormons believe. I focused the response on those issues raised by Eliza Wood in her article. As you've seen, some of her points were accurate, but many were seriously flawed - yet portrayed as matter-of-fact truths.

Second, the purpose wasn't necessarily to dissuade Wood of her beliefs, but rather encourage accurate reporting. When it comes to my religious beliefs, I am an advocate of teaching others what I believe and then letting them choose for themselves what they believe. That becomes increasingly more difficult when things I don't believe in - sometimes even things I find offensive - are represented as mainstream Mormon beliefs. As far as Wood is concerned, my response focused on her responsibilities as a journalist to accurately portray facts rather than trying to dissuade her from her conclusions.

Third, I think Wood's article lacked a sense of cohesiveness that enables all of her readers to come away with the same understanding of what her purposes or conclusions were. You suggest her main point may have been to say that Mormons and Muslims are viewed by others with suspicion. This isn't something that I came away thinking, although I admit I may have been blinded by my concern with her misrepresentations to the degree that I couldn't pick up on more subtle or inherent points she may have been trying to convey. 

For these reasons, I didn't address the issue you bring up - but I would be happy to try and speak to your question here.


You ask, "Is there any real difference between a Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab, and a Mormon in America who would pay money for a new law that forces other citizens and other churches to obey LDS marriage doctrine?"

I would answers, "Yes, there is a big difference."

If there is any word from your scenario that stuck out the most, it is "force." One of the most important principles of our religion is that of agency, or allowing others the freedom to choose. We live by many sets of laws, both those set by legislators and those we believe are set by God.

Marriage is a unique situation where secular and spiritual laws seem to be converging. Throughout history, marriage has enjoyed the benefit of not being tugged in one direction by religion and tugged in the other direction by secularism and other religions that don't view gay marriage to be immoral. That no longer seems to be the case.

So how does our view of agency mesh, for instance, with financial support offered by some members of the church to advocate against laws supporting gay marriage?

I would say that the fact we believe in agency doesn't mean that we must refrain from trying to influence others. In fact, we have scriptures that encourage us to exercise our influence - but to do so in a righteous manner. I don't view a financial donation in support of or in opposition to gay marriage as any more inappropriate than financial support in support of or in opposition to financial regulations, health care reform, etc.

And what about the church as an institution?

When it comes to politics, the church is neutral, as its "mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians." Yet there are times when the church does get involved - although this rare involvement is issue-based and does not involve the support of a party or a candidate. 

A statement from the church explains, "[The Church reserves] the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church."

As it relates to gay marriage, the church believes this is an issue that meets those criteria. Nevertheless, while the church and some of its members may try to influence policy outcomes that align with our moral beliefs, we nonetheless abide by laws which are passed even if we disagree with them.

I think you would agree that any of us would be amiss if we sat on the sidelines of an important issue while the outcome was determined. In fact, I fully support the rights of those who favor gay rights to make their voices heard as policy and legislation is debated and created. This freedom of speech is an important part of our country's heritage (though I might add that I am saddened by the dramatic decline of civility we see everywhere from the halls of Congress to the airwaves to comment boards on internet blogs).

Now, having addressed the issue from the standpoint of Mormons in general and the church as an institution, what if a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was elected president of the United States? What would keep him from forcing his beliefs on others?

There are several issues at play here. 

First, there is the principle of agency I addressed earlier and the principles taught in our scriptures about exerting influence. A Mormon president may try to influence policy so that it corresponds with his moral or religious beliefs, but he would not force it upon others.

Second, even if a Mormon president broke one tenet of his religion (e.g., defending the agency of others) to support another (e.g., defending marriage as being between one man and one woman), our government with its system of checks and balances is designed to prevent just such a power-play. 

In order for a Mormon president to set aside some of the most important principles of our religion in order to successfully influence policy regarding gay marriage in such a way that would compare with a "Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab," Mormons would also need to control both houses of Congress as well as have a majority on the Supreme Court to ensure the creation and sustenance of the legislation. However, even if Mormons ever gained such unprecedented control over all three branches of government, if you've ever been to a Mormon Sunday School class (part of our 3-hour worship services each Sunday), you learn pretty quickly that we aren't a group of people who are like-minded on every issue. 

Of those Mormons who are politically active on a national level, consider the cases of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). Both are Mormons, yet their perspectives on numerous issues are incredibly diverse. So, if a Mormon is ever elected to the White House and decided to forget about his sacred belief in agency, our government with its checks and balances together with the human propensity for disagreement makes it night-unto-impossible that he could ever force his beliefs of any kind, let alone marriage, upon the American people.

I might add, however, that this argument doesn't mean that a Mormon president would be completely without ability to influence. For example, before becoming the prophet of our church, Ezra Taft Benson(1899-1994) was Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration. One of the things I remember from his biography by Sheri Dew is that he influenced President Eisenhower to begin his cabinet meetings with prayer

There are some who would think that is a wonderful thing and others who think it is terrible. The point is that you would probably see the beliefs and morals of a Mormon president have some impact on the country. Although as a matter of intellectual honesty, I think I would have to say that we probably see this with every president. The key difference in this case is that the president would be not just a Mormon, but the first Mormon president. My personal feeling is that if a Mormon is elected president, there would be some buzz on the airwaves in the initial period after his inauguration, but that it would quickly return to politics as usual as he began to deal with the issues of the day. Criticism of the president would centered on his stances toward foreign policy, economics, appointment nominees, etc., rather than his religious beliefs.

Third (and lastly for this lengthy post), if we are using Mitt Romney as the case study, he has already pledged to do what he thinks is best if elected and not follow some kind of directive from the prophet. 

In a speech much like the one given by John F. Kennedy explaining the Vatican would not dictate his actions in office, Romney stated in 2007:

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

“As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."

Mike, I hope these comments have answered your question somewhat and provided you with a greater understanding of how our beliefs relate to politics. I appreciate your kind words and your sincere question - and I apologize that your friend had such a terrible experience in conjunction with the wedding of her Mormon friend. If the tables were turned, I would have had a hard time coming away from that experience not feeling as she had. I wish someone had been there to help better explain.

Her story reminded me of a scene from a movie, "One Good Man,." It tells the story of a Mormon who is called to be a Bishop (the leader of a local congregation). There's a poignant scene in it that deals with just the kind of situation your friend talked about. I've included a link below. There's a trailer to give you a taste, but based on your questions, I think you might find the movie not only enjoyable, but also somewhat enlightening. It's not an official church production, so take it with as many grains as salt as you do my comments, but it's probably the best true-to-life Mormon story I've seen set to film yet.

If I can be of any help answering questions, just let me know. If you want to email me (see the profile section of the blog), I'd also be happy to give you my personal email address.


  1. Hi, Kurt.

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply to my question. Your words are certainly thought-provoking and I’m afraid they have led me to an over-long response. The result is that I must post the response in two sections, of which this is the first. I hope this is not confusing.

    I realize your original intent was to answer the specific inaccuracies in Ms. Wood’s article. I hope it was clear that my comments were intended to address the broader issue of why anyone would ask the question Ms. Wood asked in the first place.

    Thank you for focusing on the issue of marriage equality (what you refer to as “gay marriage”). The issue is personally important to me, since I am one of the millions of Californians whose legal right to marry was forcibly removed in 2008 by your Church’s actions, and since my church was one of the hundreds that were forced to alter their marriage sacraments in order to obey LDS doctrine. It also seems, for well of for ill, to be the issue many Americans have focused on (like my friend who attended the wedding) as some sort of focal point for what were probably pre-conceived prejudices against people of your faith.

    If you don’t mind the discussion, I would like to take issue with a few of the points you raise. Again, my perspective is that of an outsider with no interest in disputing any of your doctrinal issues, but rather with the principal concern of your Church’s actions as they relate to neighbors like me who are not of your faith.

    The issue, of course, is to what extent our moral and religious beliefs inform our political actions as citizens. All of us, whether we admit it or not, base our political actions in part upon our moral or religious views. Even atheists support laws against murder and theft.

    But it seems to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has separated itself from others in this regard. Jews keep kosher kitchens, but no Jew ever paid for a law to ban me from buying bacon. Catholics believe there is no marriage after divorce, but no Catholic in modern times in this country has campaigned for a law to ban divorce. No Baptist has ever signed a petition to require that all marriages, including those in your Temple, must be “till death us do part”. And no member of my Episcopal congregation has ever come to your bishop with a warrant requiring him to preside over her marriage to someone of the same sex.

    You say, “marriage is a unique situation where secular and spiritual laws seem to be converging.” Well, yes. That’s pretty much the point. In this case, secular and spiritual laws converged in my state (California) on Nov. 4, 2008, and they did so at the specific direction of your Church’s leaders. The First Presidency very clearly outlined its wish for this convergence in the last paragraph of its Family Proclamation of 1995. I believe the average citizen has every right to suspect whether your leaders have some more “converging” up their sleeves.

    You say, “while the church and some of its members may try to influence policy outcomes that align with our moral beliefs, we nonetheless abide by laws which are passed even if we disagree with them.” I wish this were true. Clearly, the Fair Political Practices Commission (the branch of California government responsible for enforcing the election code) felt otherwise when it gave your Church the distinction of being the only religious body in history to be fined by the State of California for violating our election laws in connection with its Prop 8 activity. Once again, I believe the average citizen has every reason to make note that the 13th Article of Faith consists of words, while your Church’s leaders speak far louder with their actions.

    [My comments continue in the next post. Sorry again about the length.]

  2. [Continued from previous post.]

    You also quote the statement from the LDS Newsroom, to the effect that "[The Church reserves] the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church." I would respond that there are very few citizens who would claim the Church does not have a legal “right” to do what it did. Obviously, however, there are many who question the morality of using tax-exempt Church funds, for which other taxpayers have to make up the slack, to pay for a political campaign that forcibly removes civil rights from some of those same taxpayers. Many would also observe that the Church’s actions in the Prop 8 campaign were far from “nonpartisan”, since it used its tax-exempt funds to contribute to one side of a political campaign, to run a Church-owned campaign website and to produce campaign ads.

    I believe the Church does indeed have the “right as an institution” to do what it did, But I also believe other citizens have a legitimate right to question, as I have done, whether these political activities are the moral equivalent of Muslims who use the force of law in their own countries to compel others to obey their own religious rules, on issues they believe—no less sincerely than you-- “have significant community or moral consequences”.

    I believe other citizens have every right to question the sincerity of a group of people who claim to allow “all men” to worship “how, where, or what they may”, while at the same time using their money and influence to pass a law that compels other churches to abandon their marriage sacraments in favor of others.

    I believe other citizens have every right to question the sincerity a Presidential candidate who claims to support the family, but whose own tithings were used to pay for lawyers who took thousands of legally-married California couples to court in 2009, in an effort to have them forcibly divorced against their will, as part of their litigation of the Prop 8 campaign.

    Sorry to wander so far afield, but the essence of my comments is that it seems to me there is a legitimate question about the willingness of members of your faith to use force—in ways no other religious group in this country does—to compel your neighbors to obey religious rules you sincerely feel are important. I hope you can understand why this remains a real concern and, frankly, a fear to your neighbors, to other churches and, most specifically, to gay Americans like myself, whose families you have already targeted on one occasion and who are honestly wondering what you will do to us next.

    Once, again, Kurt, thank you for the time you took to respond to my questions.

    - Mike Butler

    1. You're welcome, Mike. This is an issue that is divisive enough on its own. It helps tremendously when disagreements are conveyed with civility and respect for the rights and opinions of each side.

  3. (Oops. I meant to refer to the 12th Article of Faith in my comments, not the 13th. I'm sure there are other errors. No disrespect intended by the mistake. -Mike)