January 27, 2014 by Tariq Khan
Following recent court actions in Utah regarding the fight for same-sex marriage, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent instructions to congregational leaders in the United States. (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-instructs-leaders-on-same-sex-marriage) The instructions serve to remind local leaders that, regardless of how society and laws change, the Church still actively and officially believes in opposing marriage rights for same sex couples; “Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established.” The instructions are also sure to add; “While these matters will continue to evolve, we affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree.” I argue that this type of “kindness and civility” actually functions as a mask to make hatred, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry seem legitimate and even Christ-like.
Recently I researched the LDS Church’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. In 1967, at the General Conference of the Church, in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave a talk titled “Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception”. The talk was then published as a pamphlet by the Church’s Deseret Book Company. Speaking from the pulpit, in his influential Church position of Apostle, Elder Benson – who would later become President and Prophet of the Church – instructed Church members that the Civil Rights Movement is a communist conspiracy, and that it is the duty of the Church to oppose it. He then talked about how the Church and its members should go about opposing it; what to do, and what not to do. He argued that the “seed of Cain,” which is what Mormon leaders called black people, were unsuspecting dupes; that rather than having valid and honest grievances about racism, they were tricked by calculating communist leaders to take part in anti-racist activism. He told Church members, however, that when opposing the Civil Rights Movement, they must do so in a civil manner; not to take part in “backlash activity” or “anti-Negro vigilante action”. That is to say, be nice and polite when working to deny black people equality with whites. To put it in more understandable terms; it is not racist to make Rosa Parks go to the back of the bus as long as you tell her to move politely. This politeness masked the fact that what Benson actually called for in that talk was an increase in violent police repression of black activists. He made light of black claims of police brutality, saying that black people just made that up as a way of discrediting the police, which was also part of the communist conspiracy. The politeness, the civility, that Benson was arguing for masked the reality that his ideas translated to violence and coercion against black people in the real world. The fact that he did this in the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ, abusing his office as an apostle to promote racism and repression, makes it especially vulgar.
Mormons today are embarrassed by the Church’s past racism. Many Mormons believe that because in 1978 the Church ended its racist priesthood/temple ban on blacks, “racism is over” so there is no need to talk about unpleasant things like Ezra Taft Benson’s right-wing extremism. When I bring things like this up in my own Mormon communities, people accuse me of unfairly “attacking the Church.” Criticizing Church leaders is “the beginning of apostasy”, and to do so is evidence that one is “under the influence of Satan.” Racism is over so it is irrelevant to bring things like Benson’s talk up. “Talking like that isn’t helping anything.” I’ve heard it all. My real agenda, in their minds, is to destroy their faith. Believing that I am an unreasonable wolf in sheep’s clothing is psychologically easier than facing the fact that high-ranking Church authorities have done and said things that were simply awful and wrong. I argue, however, that it is relevant and necessary to face our fears and anxieties head on, and to really dig in to these unpleasant aspects of Mormon culture and history, not for the purpose of attacking the Church or destroying anyone’s faith, but because understanding these issues is relevant to making sense of and overcoming current problems of the Church’s role in perpetuating oppression.
The LDS Church today is a leading force in the United States in perpetuating hatred, bigotry, and discrimination against LGBTQ people. For any of my Mormon friends who doubt this bold claim, I encourage you to take notice of the high rates of LGBT youth in Utah who are homeless or commit suicide. (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/635201873/Deadly-taboo-Youth-suicide-an-epidemic-that-many-in-Utah-prefer-to-ignore.html?pg=all, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MxCXjfAunk) To believe that these tragedies have nothing to do with Mormon culture and anti-LGBT Church teachings is to be willfully naïve. The Church has and still is making life miserable for many LGBT people. Since at least the 1980s, the Church has worked actively to ensure that LGBT people remain second class citizens. This has nothing to do with the “will of the Lord.” It has to do with the prejudice and ignorance of Church leaders, just as the Church’s past racist policies did. To think that you are “kind” and “civil” while simultaneously supporting discrimination and oppression is hypocrisy. It is a lie to say “we love you” to LGBTQ people while working to make their lives miserable and push them to the margins.
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that it was not the vile racist vigilantes that disappointed him most. What he found most disappointing was all of the nice, polite, white Christian’s who professed love while working against civil rights, or at best remaining silent in the face of oppression. This is exactly where I see the LDS Church today; preaching a hollow form of kindness and civility, a love that functions in the real world as hate, while perpetuating oppression, and doing so in the name of Jesus Christ. Dr. King spoke prophetically in that letter when he said: “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.” http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf
Today in the LDS Church, the young people are, by and large, much smarter and more aware than when I was youth. They are increasingly disappointed by the Church’s prejudice masquerading as love. If you want to hate gay people, then hate gay people, but don’t pretend that “kindness and civility” make oppression ok, and don’t pretend that you represent Jesus Christ. The spirit goes where it will, and if you want to be bigoted, fearful, and small-minded, then the spirit will go somewhere else.