The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flared into life as an audacious venture, a scandal, an insult and an invitation to the Christian age. To the believing mind, the Mormon church is charged with keeping the flame of God’s authority alight for the world through the winds of secular modernity. But even without that lens of faith, Mormonism is something distinctly risky, brazen, and peculiar. It casually straddles the chasm between ancient and modern, old world and new, without concern and without a net. It yokes together competing claims to authority, forcing them to pull together despite the constant danger of one devouring the other. It makes people, it makes kin, and it makes communities, and it sends this trinity spinning out into space to collide and throw sparks far enough to light the universe. It reads literally, it flatly refuses, it tosses out whatever ain’t nobody got time for; it hordes, it collects sentimentally, it strings together in flights of fancy. It reads from a hat, it meticulously translates, and it improvises. It builds skyscrapers, and it razes the block in a single blow. It exposes its faithful to danger and pain time and again; it resists and it refuses and it rebels. But it gives, too, with a generosity matched only by the expanse of its sacred cosmos across time and space.
Its course has been anything but smooth. Over its history it has veered and listed, injuring itself and its cargo. It bears the scars, as do broken individuals. But it lives another day. And, it appears, it will continue to challenge and stretch nearly to the breaking point the conditions of religious faith in our era of secular modernity. The new policies on gay couples and their children signal the institution’s unabated intent to refuse what it sees as the misdirections and dead-ends of history. It will not go gently into the new intelligible, it will not assent to the new structures of cultural legibility.
To frame these new policies as a kind of refusal conditioned by Mormonism’s history of such refusals, as I have done here, may seem to excuse, minimize or — Lord help us — normalize the pain they have caused, but that is emphatically not my intent. There will be collateral damage to this refusal: injury to individuals, foremost, but also harm to the Church’s ability to evangelize its primary host nation and great strain on the crucial trust between membership and leadership that holds the ship together. For my own part, this move has pushed me to a new limit of my ability to assent.
Yet without grandiosity and triumphalism, I hope, I can say that my life takes its particularity and any small historical significance it may claim largely from my association with this stubborn, scandalous church. To enliven the limbs of Mormonism, to inhabit the unlikely wager it represents, is to make some small mark on the course of modernity. I wouldn’t abandon it, even if I could.
And in truth I can’t. My membership in the Church is not a vector of self-expression; it is a given ground of my experience. My Mormonism is not a catalog of my beliefs; it’s the condition that enables faith in the first place. Thus to leave the Church would not, for me, be a statement of dissent; it would be a division of the very soul from which dissent arises. Nor, on the contrary, is my continued membership an endorsement. This realization makes it all the more difficult, of course, to consider that membership in the Church is precisely what is at stake for the gay couples and their children in our midst.