Beliefnet
Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Utah State.jpgI’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.

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