In fall of last year, the Mormon church introduced four new courses to be taught at its universities and Institutes of Religion. (Institutes of Religion are smaller institutions that provide religion coursework to college-age young adults apart from the Church’s universities.) The four courses are called “Cornerstone Classes” because they review fundamental beliefs of the Mormon church. The teacher and student manuals for these courses appeared online in September 2015 (or thereabouts). They are:
- Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel
- Foundations of the Restoration
- The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon
- The Eternal Family
The course on The Eternal Family covers 28 topics that are representative of the church’s teachings on family norms and gender roles, with lesson titles such as “The Family and the Great Plan of Happiness” and “The Sacred Powers of Procreation.” The online student and teacher manuals for the course are here and here, respectively. As expected, the lessons rely heavily on The Family: A Proclamation to the World, a document produced by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in 1995.
Lesson 8: Gender and Eternal Identity reviews the church’s teachings on same-sex attraction. The explicit purpose of the lesson is to “help students see the prophetic basis for [the] distinction [between same-sex attraction and homosexual behavior] and also recognize that all of God’s children are equally beloved and deserve to be treated with love and civility.” With reservations, I think this lesson deserves some attention and even celebration.
The lesson has three main sections:
- Gender is an essential part of our eternal identity
- The Church distinguishes between same-sex attraction and homosexual behavior
- We should treat others with love and respect
I am pleased with section (3). I’ll share a few quotes from the teacher manual that may demonstrate why:
How can we apply the Savior’s example to our own attitudes and actions toward our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, regardless of whether they have participated in immoral behavior? As students respond, write the following principle on the board: We follow the Savior’s example when we have empathy for all of God’s children and treat them with sensitivity and kindness.
This passage calls attention to some principles that can be extremely powerful if truly internalized:
- Attitudes and actions are two different things, and both matter. You can say you love gay people, but we can tell if you mean it.
- All people are our brothers and sisters. Those are not just words.
- Whether someone else has engaged in behavior that you would not engage in yourself is none of your concern.
- Empathy, sensitivity, kindness. Yes. These are also three different things and they all matter.
If it were up to me, I would remove the rest of the lesson and spend the entire hour on this passage. But I know, it’s not up to me.
Invite students to evaluate their own attitudes and actions toward people who are attracted to the same sex. Are those attitudes and actions in harmony with the Lord’s teachings and example?
- What would you do if you were in a group where derogatory comments were being made about people who experience same-sex attraction?
I would recommend doing a role-playing exercise here to give the students a chance to practice. I sense that most young Mormons would want to stand up for gay people if they heard them being insulted, but they may not have developed the vocabulary to do so. Walking through the scenario in a safe environment will give them the opportunity to trip over their words a few times and sort out how they really feel and what they really stand for. It gives them a chance to try out different tones and find one that comfortably balances their obligation to love people with their obligation to represent their ethical values honestly. It will build their confidence and prepare them for the next time they have the opportunity to speak up.
Invite students to think of individuals they know who are attracted to the same sex and ponder what they will do to be more compassionate toward them while holding true to the Lord’s law of chastity.
I’m not thrilled about the caveat (“while holding true…”), but hopefully by the end of this lesson the students will have realized that another person’s behavior should be irrelevant to the way they treat them. That said, I appreciate that the lesson ends with an invitation to think about real people. Pease do. Think about us. But for real.
Edit: It was pointed out to me that there are a few ways to read the phrase I mentioned as a caveat in the last quote. In my original reading, I interpreted it as a warning: “Be compassionate but DON’T turn your back on your belief in the law of chastity.” Another reading could be more reassuring: “Be compassionate, and know that you CAN do that while simultaneously holding true to the law of chastity.” The rest of the lesson suggests that the latter may be what was intended.