Reviewed by Laura Compton for the Association for Mormon Letters
Homosexuality is a problem for many religious organizations. Most have grappled with how to treat LGBTI members and non-members as societal norms have swung back and forth between acknowledgement, tolerance, acceptance, denial and disapproval over the years. The LDS Church, too, wrestles with notions of how to include and when to exclude gay members and their families and much of that wrestling is mired in decades, if not centuries, of tradition and culture. Duane E. Jennings’ two-volume work, “Stumbling Blocks and Stepping-Stones,” details the journey, the progress made thus far and steps to take toward inclusion and acceptance of all of God’s children.
Jennings covers dozens of topics related to the Mormon Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex community. The decades of work he’s condensed into 850 or so pages represents the as-yet most thorough compilation of statements and practice by and about the LDS church with regards to homosexuality and its intersection with religion. From the in-depth historical perspectives behind scriptural references to sodomy or pederasty to the distinctions between gender and sex, to the Church’s political involvement in the early 21st century and efforts to reconcile itself with its members, each chapter is a study in itself worthy of careful examination.
The preface to this book notes that it is the final chapter in the multi-volume work of the Mormon Alliance, but Jennings work is distinct from the group’s earlier Case Study compilations. “Stepping Stones” includes personal stories of gay members (mostly men) and their interaction with church leaders, but it is mostly a monumental resource documenting and verifying dozens of church policies, speeches, letters and actions. If that were the only thing Jennings did, the work would be worth reading and referencing. But it is so much more than a regurgitation of facts and events.
Organizationally, the volumes are divided into six parts: five groups of chapters and one set of appendices. The first section discusses what Jennings calls “clobber scriptures” - that double handful of Bible references that have been used for centuries to define, describe and sometimes denounce homosexuality. “One of my goals,” writes Jennings, “...was to examine the scriptures that are most troubling for those trying to understand LGBTI in the context of long-time religious interpretations and traditions that have led to constraint, misunderstanding, persecution and death.” (59) Examine scriptures he did, contextualizing them in time and place, but also providing interpretations handed down for centuries. His intense study provides new tools for addressing issues raised by traditional and historical interpretations, tools which may provide hope to those on the receiving end of the “clobberings.”
Jennings’ work is more than scriptural commentary, however. “My second goal is to show leaders and members how and why LGBTI people can be fully integrated members of the Church, supported by principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the plan of exaltation.” (59) The majority of the book is dedicated to this goal, beginning with its second section where he kicks off some serious education. Here we find valuable insight and overview for a dozen or so topics related to the LGBTI community in general and the Mormon LGBTI community in particular: scientific findings regarding gender, sexual diversity, neurology, psychology, bisexuality, intersexuality, transgender diversity, religious traditions and how sexuality is expressed within Mormon society, including choices of celibacy and marriage. Each chapter could stand on its own for readers needing information on a single topic, but together they paint a picture of how complex human sexuality is, dispelling any notion that there could be a workable one-size-fits-all solution to problems.
The third set of chapters is more particularly Mormon-centric as these chapters examine doctrines specific to LDS theology and understanding. The importance of personal revelation, restoration, sealings, adoptions, family and access to hierarchical leadership provides the framework for envisioning change. Here Jennings demonstrates which Mormon teachings already exist that might pave the way for greater inclusivity of LGBTI members and their families.
Volume Two addresses one of the Church’s largest stumbling blocks to acceptance - tradition, policy and political involvement. The ten chapters in section four address the harsh rhetoric of the Church during the final three decades of the 20th century and the steps it has taken since 2008 to drag itself away from former abusive language and practices. The dragging away is not yet complete, but baby steps continue, sometimes forward, sometimes back.
While Jennings addresses many of the ways the Church has intervened in legal proceedings, election campaigns and various corners of the public square, the viewpoint is quite Utah-centric, a troublesome aspect of much of Mormon studies. The Church was busy on many fronts between the mid-1990s and 2015, and it would be hard to thorougly examine those fronts in a broad volume such as this. Indeed, because it covers so many actions, this section feels more like surface skimming than the deep diving found in the sections from volume one. There have been so many steps and actions taken between 2006 and 2016 by the Church, tracking them down enough to include them and address them at all is nearly a Herculean effort, and Jennings’ work is commendable.
The final section of chapters is a “call to the joyful building of Zion” and an invitation to “all to its house of prayer.” (629) Tools for reconciliation, forgiveness, healing divides within the Church and families and truly becoming a people worthy of the ideal set by Jesus Christ assuage the pain and angst built up in earlier chapters. Jennings notes that reconciliation cannot be one-sided, however. Individual members certainly have the power to make safe spaces, build bridges, create empathy and reject the past, but the institution itself needs to step up to the table as well.
But how might that happen? “Change on this issue is mandatory, but God won’t force change and there’s no how-to manual….I am motivated by a deep love for the gospel, respect for the Church and its leaders, and a profound knowledge that our Heavenly Parents love all of their children and want them to live happy, ethical lives.” (651) With that goal in mind, Jennings concludes his work by creating a how-to manual, suggesting ways forward, things to do and to stop doing. Many of the suggestions could be enacted immediately. Others are second steps which will take significant time and effort.
Whether or not the institutional Church begins taking steps, individual members can certainly begin the journey now and stem the tide of decades-long spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse. “Traditions on homosexuality have promoted stereotypical and poorly researched interpretations of scripture, many of which are based in ancient mythologies and primitive understandings of biology and human sexuality. As a result, many souls have been left with shattered hopes and a sense of self-hatred over their same-sex longings or nonconforming gender identity.” (xvii) Problems cannot be fixed until they are seen, acknowledged and understood, and Jennings’ work is invaluable in revealing problems and suggesting possible solutions to be enacted by anyone affected by LDS practices and policies on homosexuality.
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Mapping the Mormon Terrain
Greg S. Prince, Jr.
Author and Scientist
The Stonewall Riots in New York City in the summer of 1969 did not initiate the gay rights movement, but they did bring LGBT issues into the public square, where they have remained ever since then.
Similarly, the 1991 Hawaii lawsuit, Baehr v. Lewin, was not the first lawsuit to address the issue of marriage equality, but it was the catalytic event that thrust the issue into the national spotlight, where it remained until the United States Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, made same-sex marriage the law of the land in 2015. The Latter-day Saint experience with gay rights and marriage equality has largely paralleled the national experience. The first mention of homosexuality in an official church publication occurred in the 1968 edition of the General Handbook of Instructions, where it was listed, without explanation, among a list of transgressions that may require church judicial action. And in 1993, fearing that the Hawaii attorney general’s office would not mount a robust defense in Baehr v. Lewin, church leaders petitioned the court to become co-defendants. The petition was denied, but the event marked the entry of the church into the marriage equality fray, ultimately leading to won-the-battle/lost-the-war Proposition 8 in California in 2008. With nearly each passing year,
LGBT issues have grown in importance among LDS church leaders and members, particularly LGBT people and their families. There have been notable advances in church policy since the dark days of the Kimball Administration, when merely being homosexual was grounds for excommunication. For example, it would have been unthinkable to an LGBT church member in the 1970s that the time would come when openly gay men and women could honorably serve full-time proselytizing missions. But there have been many disappointments and setbacks, as well.
For LGBT youth, and for Millennials in general, these are issues that can determine whether or not to remain engaged in the church, in a way that no other issues can. Duane Jennings has spent years in methodical research on the doctrinal and historical dimensions of homosexuality within the Latter-day Saint tradition.
Stumbling Blocks and Stepping-Stones is the result of his efforts. Meticulously documented and encyclopedic in scope, Stumbling Blocks maps the terrain defining LDS doctrine, policy and attitudes for many decades. It is a monumental work that provides the reader with sources and commentary hitherto difficult, if not impossible to access. It should become a major voice in informing the ongoing debate within Mormonism.
The Stumbling Blocks to Full Acceptance of the LGBTQ
Community and the Illustration of Proposition 8
By Thomas B. McAffee - Law Professor at the Boyd Law School, University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he teaches American Legal History, First Amendment Rights, and Constitutional Law.
Duane Jennings’ two-volume work, Stumbling Blocks and Stepping-Stones: Including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Children of God in the LDS Plan of Salvation (2016), offers a complete analysis of the doctrinal, moral, and legal issues that have stood in the way of the acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the church’s conception of the kingdom of God. It thus presents what amounts to a modern history of the relationship between the LDS Church’s and the LGBTQ community, including the church’s evolving attitudes and treatment, in addition to treating the normative issues raised by Mormon scripture and theology. The volumes reflect and embody the transition from simple condemnation of gay sexual orientation, based on the assumption that it is the product of temptation in an increasingly permissive world, to the more recent honoring of sexual orientation (called same sex attraction), provided the individual uses her agency not to act on that attraction.
As a legal scholar working on a book on Mormonism and Marriage Equality, I was especially touched by Jennings’ treatment of the church’s enormous support in 2008 for Proposition 8 in California. That treatment is illustrative of the evolving church perspective and the dilemmas the issues present to the modern church. Proposition 8 was a ballot initiative, voted on by the people of California, that amended the California constitution to forbid same-sex marriage. It read: “[o]nly marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The amendment was to overturn the decision of the California Supreme Court, In re Marriage Cases, 183 P.3d 384 (Cal. 2008), that ruled unconstitutional a prior enactment limiting marriage to traditional heterosexual marriage. The LDS Church joined the coalition that advanced the cause of Proposition 8, even though the proposition purposely permitted domestic partnerships—even though the church has previously asserted that such partnerships threatened traditional marriage as much as gay marriage did.
Jennings nicely reviews the uproar caused by the crucial role the LDS Church had played in the passage of Proposition 8, and perhaps especially the church’s fall back reliance on a “persecution narrative” invoking the history of anti-Mormon persecution. (Vol. 2 at 502.) He acknowledges that some of the advertising against Proposition 8 was pretty rough-sounding. In one such commercial, LDS missionaries were portrayed as tearing apart a lesbian couple’s marriage license, and the commercial concluded by saying: “Say no to a church taking over your government.” (This infamous commercial ad found its way into a casebook on law and religion. Leslie C. Griffin, Law and Religion: Cases and Materials 447 (3d ed. 2013).) One LDS writer stated that this commercial “should be viewed as a hate crime,” and another Proposition 8 advocate lamented that this was “religious slander” that targeted a vulnerable religious denomination.
In his work, Jennings responds to this critique by powerfully documenting that the most vulnerable group of relevance is the LGBTQ community itself—a body comprising about 10 % of the population that experiences almost 16 % of the hate crimes inflicted on disfavored groups. By contrast, almost 80 % of the American people profess belief in God and at least sometimes attend church, while hate crimes based on religious beliefs amount to 17% of those committed. (Vol. 2 at 505-06.) Moreover, the Church was anxiously engaged in working hard, and raising and spending a great deal of money, to deny a basic civil right—the right to marry—to gay people. Jennings also carefully summarizes and evaluates the so-called “gay exclusion policy” set forth in November of last year—and its implications and aftermath.
The balance of Jennings’ two volumes supports his view that the LDS Church effectively condemns the behavior of people—the entire LGBTQ community—for being who they are. In that process, he carefully analyzes and evaluates the scriptures often relied upon to oppose acting on same-sex orientation, concluding that they do not demand such a reading. Based on his religious and moral analysis, he analyzes and explains why the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, decided Jun 26, 2015, is justified by the Constitution’s commitment to equal citizenship. If you desire to understand how the church may eventually make a transition to accepting committed same-sex couples as not contrary to the gospel or to the creation of a Zion society, this book is a good place to turn.