I’m back from my little sojourn at Utah State University–the former agricultural college that is now a splendid city on a hill at the Cache Valley end of beautiful Logan Canyon. They reckon that of its 15,000 undergraduates, 85 percent are LDS. The Mormon equivalent of a Catholic Newman Club and a Jewish Hillel House is an Institute of Religion, and at USU the Institute, adjacent to the student center, counts between six and seven thousand regulars.
In short, you can say (as I did in my lecture), “If the Constitution is divinely inspired, then it’s because God wanted the United States of America to be a secular state,” and you’ll get a laugh because the audience is well aware that Mormon doctrine does, indeed, consider the Constitution to be divinely inspired. No doubt because of Mormonism’s monopolistic dominance, non-LDS students have to hang on to their own spiritual convictions for dear life. Last year saw the establishment of USU SHAFT–Utah State University Secular Humanists, Atheists, and Free Thinkers. They’ve got a couple of hundred members too, I was told.
Everyone was talking about Boyd K. Packer’s remarks on homosexuality and their aftermath–and that included a vigorous exchange of views in the letters column of the local daily, the Herald Journal News. On campus, I didn’t find a lot of support for the Packer position, but rather a sense that the 86-year-old apostle was a declining representative of an era that is passing. Evidence that that could be the case came along with Church public affairs managing director Michael Otterson’s strong denunciation of anti-gay bullying, which Religion Dispatches’ Joanna Brooks sees as a significant piece of aggiornamento for the Church.
It’s important to recognize, though, how big a deal homosexuality is in the Mormon belief system. In the Christian tradition, gender is not central to the main message, though some seem to pretend that’s so today. Celibacy was the preferred option: Better not to burn, was the best Paul had to say about the institution of marriage. In Roman Catholicism, marriage was the johnny-come-lately sacrament.
But as my friend and host Phil Barlow, USU’s new Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture, emphasized to me, in Mormonism, ontology and soteriology–the theories of being and salvation–are heterosexually gendered. Where Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops have to be unmarried, Mormon bishops have to be married. Families exist for time and eternity. One might call Mormonism the apotheosis of 19th-century familialism.
It’s likely, then, that accepting the naturalness of homosexuality would be a bigger theological deal for the LDS Church than putting plural marriage on hold or accepting people of color as full-fledged members. Fortunately, however, this is a tradition designed for the reception of new revelations.