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The Collision of Charity and Chastity

The LDS Church is taking more criticism than usual this week, over the decision of its leaders to enact a policy prohibiting membership records, baby blessings, baptism, and ordination to the minor children of couples involved in a same-sex household relationship. They have included both married and “cohabitating” arrangements. The dissonance people have expressed, both apologetic and critical, is hotter than usual. We are seeing something new in the discourse, as people once content to be silent and wait speak out, leave the Church altogether after years of watching from its fringes, or double down once more on expressions of loyalties to its leaders.

Mormons make a big deal about chastity, bigger, perhaps, than almost any other American religion with a sizable membership. This stems from our picture of stable hetero-normative families as essential to the organization of the church. This is not surprising considering our organization as a volunteer-based church, entirely reliant on part-time lay workers and ministers to operate its programs, largely without paying them. We also position chastity as essential to a perfected personal relationship with God; a person is chaste if he or she has no sexual relations with anyone, except a legally and lawfully bound spouse of the opposite sex. We impose that covenant on members in a Temple ordinance and condition their sealing to one another in an LDS marriage on their accepting and keeping that covenant.

Note the qualifying words now required to define chastity. “Hetero-normative” families, “opposite sex” spouse. These terms didn’t used to be required. One fellow blogger whose circumstance complicates active participation in the debate puts it this way:

The Mormon church has long been comfortably parasitic upon America’s nominally Christian civil traditions. With the legalization of same-sex marriage, that comfort has been taken away. And a church which has made itself comfortable in America (as opposed to having become a hidden, Amish-like sect in the mountains of Utah) now finds itself having members or potential members that have or may have varying associations with same-sex marriage in their midst. But to those for whom a certain reading of the temple theology holds—even if they make no acknowledgement of kingdom-building in the personal economy or social actions—such a prospect is horrifying. It’s worse than baptizing the child of a cigarette smoker; it’s worse than blessing the child of a convicted rapist.  It’s introducing an counter-kingdom model into the church.

This picture of chastity as monogamous marriage is vital to the building up of a specific culture of Mormons, of Zion, as we put it. It is one way to comprehend the decision to modify policies and exclude those children from membership-oriented ordinances. By rejecting the “counter-kingdom model” from consideration, Church leadership continues to preserve the primacy of monogamous, gender-role, hetero-normative, companionate marriage as the basis on which the entire Church organization rests. From one point of view the Church long ago rejected an alternate vision of chastity which was more aligned with the idea of the “sect in the mountains of Utah.” We rejected polygamy. The remnants of that still color the loyalty tests we give one another, especially as they’re formalized in Temple ordinances. They remain important and vital to LDS identity.

Mormons also make a big deal about charity, both institutionally and in alignment with “America’s nominally Christian” traditions. Charity is at the heart of the fast offering, the institutional nurturing intended by the Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching programs, the mutual assistance expectations imposed in Relief Society and Priesthood Quorum organizations. In America these duties are largely expressed in moments of illness, deprivation, and displacement. The institutional Church will help you with a gospel ordinance, child care, meal assistance, and so forth if you’re sick, with food and support if you’re temporarily out of work or short on funds, and they’ll definitely help you move your belongings when your circumstances change. I have been a personal beneficiary to that and to the help received when we have mourned the loss of loved ones. The attitudes fostered by the Church for its people also mean that virtually all of them, in my experience, tend to drop every pretense of enmity if they perceive a need they can fulfill. Some Church members (as with many Christians in general) anxiously break the order of their lives, exhausting themselves at this work. It is at least as vital for Mormons to act out charity as it is to act out chastity.

This week those two fundamentals have collided. Charity encompasses very fundamental, universal, and undeniable Christian doctrines. Mormon-themed charity is based on the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ, and strongly expressed by the doctrines in the Book of Mormon. In fact the most compelling arguments in favor of charity, contextualized as the “pure love of Christ,” could seem to undermine the reasoning the Church has now given for its policy choices. But more than just charity is at work in this particular identity issue. American individualism is also in play: If a child of accountable age with consenting parents desires baptism, it is very difficult to understand why an institution should deny it to them because of his parents’ apparent sins, because baptism symbolizes the universal nature of God’s condescension to man, “male and female, black and white, bond and free.” If the grandparents of the adopted infant of a gay couple feel to give that infant a name and a blessing, and stand as quasi-godparents for that child’s spiritual nurture from birth to mission service, it endangers those aspirations.

Elder Christofferson has now affirmed that the reasoning directs the institution of the Church to stand clear of influencing the children of gay-married families toward a baptism that will cause the ideals of chastity and charity to continue colliding. He frames it as a kindness toward same-sex families. He specifically enumerates a few of the institutional duties imposed on a ward towards children of record and the children of non-member parents. If one discards the ideals of individualism, as it seems clear he does it is reasonable to agree with him: The Church has acted to prevent the cognitive dissonance produced by the collision of charity and chastity in a same-sex household. It leaves them free of Church interference with their non-chastity. But it has also darkened the demarcation lines which define that chastity in ways that dash the hopes of members who want a different direction for the Church. The tension seems to hinge upon whether a believer also includes individualism as a gospel tenet. Those who do have their hopes dashed. Those who don’t are making apologetics consistent with Elder Christofferson’s interview.

While he makes scant mention of it, it also appears to affirm that a child without a membership record could still be an active participant in the activities of a ward. The clearest example is the Scouting program and the complementary ministries extended to minor girls. But I wonder. I wonder because I know about children of part-member parentage whose position in the society of a Salt Lake City ward was to be marginalized and grouped with other children of like circumstances. There are still divisions of wealth and judgements based on activity levels. There is still gossip. There is the risk that in the opposition to individualism, a congregation can make the errors of collectivism, and insist on conformity no human can practically achieve without the breaking of his life. This is not a part of what happens in my home ward, but it is certainly visible wherever the principles of charity are forgotten.

So it remains difficult to conclude that this will always end well. Elder Christofferson’s clear hope is that whatever happens, people will not cultivate a misunderstanding or dismiss the commandments the scriptures impose to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need.” That, at least, answers to no conditions of membership.

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