There are so many messages to take away from this weekend’s 180th Semi-Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which drew more than 100,000 visitors to the LDS Conference Center and was watched and listened to by cable, satellite, and internet transmission in 92 languages by millions more around the world.
Those who tuned in heard Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Church’s First Presidency, promote a timely message against undue “pride” and in support of universal brotherhood on Saturday evening, even as anti-immigrant politics roil the American west: “All of God’s children wear the same jersey,” Uchtdorf said. “Our team is the brotherhood of man. Our goal is to learn to love God and to extend that same love toward our fellowman.”
Church President Thomas S. Monson devoted thirty minutes on Sunday morning to a paean on gratitude as a spiritual virtue. “There are marriages that make it, parents who love their children and sacrifice for them, friends who care about us and help us, teachers who teach,” he said. “Our lives are blessed in countless ways. We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”
But the Conference story that’s grabbing the headlines and attention and commentary is a Sunday morning address by Elder Boyd K. Packer, President of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, who told millions of Mormons around the world that same-sex attraction can be “overcome.”
With popular support for marriage equality steadily gaining ground across the United States and efforts to improve understanding and compassion around LGBT issues taking place at the local level within the LDS Church, it was not surprising to hear Packer, who is 86 years old and in frail health, mount a staunch defense of the most conservative Mormon standpoints on LGBT issues. Of the idea that LGBT people might experience “inborn tendencies” towards homosexual attraction, Elder Packer said, “Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”
Elder Packer also reaffirmed opposition to same-sex marriage: “We cannot change; we will not change. We quickly lose our way when we disobey the laws of God. If we do not protect and foster the family, civilization and our liberties must needs perish.”
As has been explored here on RD, Mormonism accords a unique theological priority to marriage as a spiritual rite necessary to salvation. In addition to being theologically orthodox, Packer’s message was very much in keeping with the profile he has established in 40 years as a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, including a speech to an All-Church Coordinating Council in 1993 declaring gays and lesbians, feminists, and intellectuals “dangers” to the LDS Church.
In the academic discipline of religious studies, there are those who focus on institutional discourses of religion—official church histories, theologies, and declarations—and there are those who study “lived religion,” the way the practice of religion feels to those who give their lives to it.
Even as I listened to Elder Packer in the Conference Center and knew his address would be making headlines, what I most wanted to share with Religion Dispatches readers were the “lived religion” images and experiences of 21st century Mormon life in its richness and globalizing diversity:
The forward-thinking young Latinas in pantsuits (not traditional Sunday dresses) I saw in the 20,000-seat conference center. The group of teenaged Tongan-American girls seated two rows ahead of me, one of them, her lip piercing glinting in the light and tears rolling down her cheeks during the final hymn. Polynesian men in traditional lava lavas and flip-flops with white shirts, ties, and suit coats. Young married Hawaiian men pushing double strollers and toting diaper bags around Temple Square. Peruvian viejitas sharing a sack lunch in the shade of the great granite Salt Lake Temple, built more than a century ago by Anglo-American pioneers like my great-great-great grandfather. The young blonde-haired, pink-stiletto wearing 21st century daughters of the original Utah pioneers. I wanted to write about Mormons in their beauty, their humanness, their contemporaneity, their diversity.
I even wanted to share how an unorthodox Mormon like me is deeply moved by the love and devotion this religion—so widely misunderstood, so often caricatured—inspires among those who claim it. I wanted to write about the tears (a classic Mormon response) that roll down my cheeks when I get to sing the old Mormon hymn “Redeemer of Israel” with 20,000 other LDS people and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I wanted to use my writing to encourage a broadened appreciation of the power of religion in public life.
I hope this post makes space for these other images and other messages, even as the headlines focus on Elder Packer’s talk. For the twenty-first century Mormonism I saw at the Conference Center on Sunday morning is an internally diverse, robust religious tradition that includes Elder Packer, broad-shouldered Idaho farmboy missionaries, lip-pierced Tongan-American teenagers, Latinas in pantsuits, and LGBT Mormons and their allies. And it is a religion struggling over whether or not the experiences, concerns, and needs of LGBT people will find a place in the hearts of Church leaders and members.
I sure hope they do.
Mormon LGBT allies responded almost immediately to the Sunday morning message. Said Laura Compton of Mormonsformarriage.com, “So many Mormons have worked hard to increase understanding of what homosexuality is and what it means to be faithful. Now we have this message coming from the pulpit in General Conference by the president of the Quorum of the Twelve. It seems like hitting a brick wall. Hopefully, this won’t make people stop and say, ‘It wasn’t worth it.’”
She continued, “When we are sitting next to the mom of a gay son or daughter whose best friend just came out, or by the bishop who knows 10 people in the ward affected by homosexuality, how will we reach out and help them?” she wonders. “How are we going to make them feel the love of Christ?”
A full response from Mormons for Marriage is available here.