The Great Divorce of our Day

Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.

Doctrine and Covenants 29:34

Because I live in Arizona and am currently serving as president of Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends, I was particularly interested when those two worlds intersected in Neil L. Anderson’s boast during his Saturday conference talk: “We, as Latter-day Saints, are pleased to be part of a coalition of faith, business, LGBTQ people, and community leaders who have worked together in a spirit of trust and mutual respect to protect gay and transgender Arizonans.”

Elder Andersen was referring to Arizona HB 2802. What he failed to mention was that this bill was dead even before it hit committee. It made the news in February, creating the Arizona Republic headline Elder Anderson touted, but Latter-day Saint speaker of the house Rusty Bowers had no intention of moving it forward.

As Bowers acknowledged, “This bill will not be voted on today. This bill is not on the committee agenda. It’s not going to do an end run and be brought to the floor. It is an opportunity for us to lay a benchmark of some type of civil discourse where we can talk as brothers and sisters with different points of view.”

Never mind the irony of having a civil discourse on gender identity protections by introducing it as a gender binary, “brothers and sisters” event. What in the world is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doing taking extraordinary measures, bending over backwards and practically falling all over itself to demonstrate to the world that they are a proud part of a coalition with LGBTQ community leaders and organizations working for gay and transgender protections?

What happened to the absolutely contentious and adversarial relationship the Church fostered with the LGBTQ community during the 2008 Prop 8 campaign in California? For LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, it is a bit shocking to reconcile the work the Church does today in the public sphere to support the rights of LGBTQ people with our experiences navigating life within the Church that is structured by prejudice, harassment, and discrimination.

This disparate phenomenon we see today between the treatment of LGBTQ people outside the Church compared to the treatment of LGBTQ people inside the Church is shocking.  What is happening now is a sea change in political strategy employed by the Church after it became apparent that civil rights in marriage, housing, and employment for LGBTQ people were going to happen in the United States. To employ this strategy, it required a Great Divorce of two symbiotic elements that are the key indicators of a Zion people.

What is the Great Divorce?

In the “Inspiration” section on the Church website, the Church teaches that “even ‘temporal’ laws involve our spirit too.” This is because our soul is comprised of both a spirit and a body, forever connected as a gift freely given us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You cannot affect one component of the soul without affecting the other.

The article asserts that tending to our physical needs blesses the spirit. Most temporal laws have spiritual blessings specifically attached. For example, the Word of Wisdom is related to physical health, but it also promises that you’ll “find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:19)

On the flip side, we also believe as a Church that the temporal affairs of humans—including bondage, poverty, food insecurity, housing, inequality, and social unrest—are all completely eliminated when a people become a Zion people, spiritually converted to the Lord. We are given explicit details in the Book of Mormon how spiritual fidelity to Christ brings both spiritual blessings and temporal prosperity to all the citizens in the land. It’s a package deal. Temporal prosperity and equality are a key indicator that you are approaching Zion. (4 Nephi 1:2-3, 15-18)

This marriage of temporal and spiritual affairs is a unique feature of our theology. God sees no difference in the two, restoring this truth in the earliest days of the Church just five months after it was organized on April 6th, 1830.  This truth is even manifested in the structure of the Church where, beginning at the First Presidency, we have a long arm of ecclesiastical leaders responsible for the spiritual needs of members, stretching all the way down the line to the Deacon’s Quorum presidency. In addition, a short arm of authority branches separately from the First Presidency, autonomous from the ecclesiastical line: the Presiding Bishopric. The office of the Presiding Bishopric is responsible for the temporal affairs of the Church; namely the tithes and offerings, Church buildings, and administration of programs to assist the poor and needy. Bishops in our wards are responsible for both the spiritual and temporal affairs of their members.

The marriage of temporal affairs and spiritual affairs is inseparably and irrevocably woven into the genetics of the Church. And as you know, the Church takes marriage very seriously.

I suppose this is why when we come across an issue as a Church that divorces temporal affairs from spiritual affairs, it cleaves our soul in two and causes a deep sadness and anxiety. For in this separation, we are not whole. We all are currently in the midst of a great divorce, and it is harming our souls. It is a divorce filed by the Church alleging “irreconcilable differences” concerning its LGBTQ people.

In March of this year, historian Neil J. Young gave the plenary lecture at the “D. Michael Quinn: The Life and Times of a Mormon Historian” conference at the University of Utah. While contextualizing the life of Dr. Quinn as a gay Latter-day Saint, Dr. Young spoke about the work happening across the entire swath of American Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the visibility and the presence of homosexuality.  As Dr. Young stated, “The response forced religious groups to articulate and develop a theology that for most of them wasn’t there—it certainly wasn’t developed. There [was] also a political background to all of this which is the ‘lavender scare’ period where the federal government [was] really cracking down and rooting out homosexuals who [were] perceived [as a group] to be a threat to the nation because they might be turned into communist spies.”

This is the time period when the Church developed its own particular brand of theology concerning LGBTQ people founded upon the dominant prejudices, harassment, and discriminations of the day. It was a theology that created a hostile environment in both the Church and the home life of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their families.

This was a spiritual theology that at the time did not conflict with the hostility directed toward LGBTQ people in society. From the 1950s all the way through the 1990s when the Church entered the public arena opposing marriage equality, there was no separation between the spiritual and temporal equality concerning LGBTQ people. Both were in complete agreement that LGBTQ people were not worthy of spiritual or civil rights.

It was a sin against God and a crime against nature to simply identify as gay, lesbian, or as a transgender person. The words “homosexuality” and “homosexual behavior” were used interchangeably in Latter-day Saint theology. The very idea of transgender people was simply labeled a “hellish doctrine” by Harold B. Lee in 1970. Vaughn J. Featherstone neatly packaged this theology in his 1979 speech at BYU: “The homosexual cannot be exalted. That is it—as plainly, simply, and clearly as one can state.”

The spirituality of religion had long influenced the temporal lives of LGBTQ people concerning LGBTQ people.  Especially, as Dr. Young indicated, in the 1950 and 1960s when American Christianity had to develop a response in relatively short order to the visibility of homosexuality and transgender people. LGBTQ temporal prejudices were conflated with LGBTQ spiritual prejudices in a majority of these theologies  

But what happens when this assuredness that God approves of prejudice against LGBTQ people begins to no longer represent the people’s ideas of equal protection under the law? What happens when people begin to attach a negative effect to the prejudice and discrimination of LGBTQ people advanced by the Church? What happens when parents begin to see their LGBTQ children as whole and complete children of God?

What happens when the same society that permitted the articulation and development of theologies rejecting LGBTQ people seventy years ago begins to rethink and repent of the very foundations that supported such thought in the first place?

Signs of these kinds of movements in the temporal world began to show up during the 2008 Prop 8 campaign, especially for Latter-day Saints, when we started to see that a hostile theology created in the 1950-60s concerning LGBTQ people was no longer being assigned the kind of value that sustained it in the past. Unfortunately, the Church didn’t read the room and ran headfirst into the public arena to shape temporal policy convinced that if God is with us, then who can be against us. The direct feedback to the Church after this contentious venture was this: no one’s religious beliefs should be used to deny fundamental rights to others.

During the marriage equality fight, any wins that came at the expense of LGBTQ civil rights at the ballot box or with state legislatures were fleeting. As marriage equality cases worked their way through the courts, it became obvious that the adversarial relationships formed with LGBTQ people during the legislative process were not working.  Unlike the absolute power wielded in-house to govern LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, the LGBTQ community in the public sphere had an equal voice in the courts. The courts were judging the arguments on their merits, not by the authority of the different parties. And when judging on the merits of the case, the courts were ruling for equality and civil rights.

The spiritual and the temporal were now in direct conflict. It was a moment that might have offered a pause, an introspection. What if temporal LGBTQ civil rights, bringing a commonality and equality to the people, was actually of God? Since all things temporal are spiritual to God, was God moving upon the nation to bring this to pass? Is God acknowledging that temporal protections are required first, because it takes the children of God too long to rid their hearts of prejudice?

In short, since the spiritual and temporal are married, does increasing temporal health and stability directly increase the spiritual nature of a people? If this was anything but LGBTQ issues, the answer would be a resounding YES!

But this reconciliation was not to be. While other religions began to work out a theology during this time that recognized both the spiritual equality and the dignity of LGBTQ people as full and equal persons in Christ, in the matter of Latter-day Saint LGBTQ equality, the Church chose to protect the status quo by divorcing the spiritual from the temporal concerning LGBTQ people—citing irreconcilable differences.   

Divorce papers were served on November 5th, 2015.

The fear that drove the Great Divorce was that God really did mean it when he said, “verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” The fear was that because spiritual and temporal equality were one flesh in marriage, temporal equality would lead to spiritual equality. The strategy was to dissolve that link when it came to LGBTQ children of God in order to maintain the status quo.

Therefore, marriage equality was met with a traumatic divorce between the spiritual and the temporal in LGBTQ matters. And, as with all divorces, the children are the innocent parties. We as the children of God suffered from this separation that none of us asked for. This Great Divorce harms everyone, not just LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.

With the elimination of one of the key factors of a Zion people—the marriage of the spiritual and temporal—this divorce tore our collective Latter-day Saint soul in two. It was determined that the blessings of temporal equality and rights was not going to influence the spiritual. The only way to prevent that from happening was to sever the connection.

 LGBTQ Latter-day Saints became an internal matter for the Church, outside the temporal protections offered by civil governments. Prejudice, harassment, and discrimination were now a spiritual matter upheld by God. This divorce eliminated the work or need to nurture meaningful relationships and discussions with LGBTQ Latter-day Saints about policy or theology within the spiritual home of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.  It was the nail in the tire of “All are alike unto God.”

This divorce freed the church from having to reconcile the temporal with the spiritual in LGBTQ matters. The two were no longer connected. All energies, resources, and attention were then shunted to the temporal side of the equation where LGBTQ people were seen as an outside, para-spiritual entity, equals under the law in the public sphere—worthy adversaries who warranted coming to the negotiating table with, to engage in good faith negotiations and constructive politics.

The Great Divorce creates the paradox where President Nelson takes a photo op meeting with the owner of Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida to mourn the deaths of 49 LGBTQ people who were victims of a mass shooting there, but then oversees the spiritually violent excommunications of gay Latter-day Saints from their spiritual home for claiming the fidelity and love of a legal marriage.

This divorce creates the kind of proud public reporting by Elder Neil L. Andersen in general conference that the Church is “pleased to be part of a collation of faith, businesses, LGBTQ people, and community leaders to work together in trust and mutual respect to protect gay and transgender Arizonans.” Yet this same Church has no problem ignoring any kind of protections in-house, dismissing three transgender clients from Brigham Young University’s speech clinic who were receiving gender affirming speech therapy.

The Great Divorce explains how in the same general conference, one apostle can celebrate working in an intimate coalition of trust and mutual respect with LGBTQ people for civil rights, but another apostle celebrates policies of love, created through no coalition with LGBTQ people, dictating that if LGBTQ Latter-day Saints claim the equality of their straight cisgender peers, then they get a lesser “consolation prize” heaven outside the presence of God.

Honestly, LGBTQ Latter-day Saints have a lot, and I mean a lot, to be jealous about with the relationship the Church is creating—and bending over backwards to nurture—with LGBTQ organizations and leaders.

As LGBTQ Latter-day Saints we are “the least of these” in the power equations of politics and the law. Instead of putting in the hard work to nurture the marriage of the spiritual and temporal within our spiritual home, the Great Divorce becomes the key for protecting a theology that structures the everyday spiritual life of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints by prejudice, harassment, and discrimination. Separating the spiritual from the temporal is accomplished under explicit negotiated terms in the political arena, allowing the Church to retain an internally hostile spiritual policy towards LGBTQ members in exchange for the Church’s support of civil rights in the public arena.

The Great Divorce is a cunning—indeed macabre—strategy where the Church cleaves the entirety of the LGBTQ population in two—a population of temporal LGBTQ people and a population of spiritual LGBTQ people, where the spiritual LGBTQ are members of the Church and the temporal LGBTQ is everyone else.

They then build relationships of respect and trust with the temporal LGBTQ population, using them to support legislation where the Church will get out of the way of civil rights legislation if the secular LGBTQ community will get out of the way of the Church concerning internal prejudice and acts of prejudice.

This is not only cunning, but dishonest. In actuality, the Church has only a very narrow tolerance for public support of the LGBTQ community: housing, employment, and eliminating conversion therapy for minors. For all the public accolades of Elder Andersen about a coalition with LGBTQ people surrounding a DOA Arizona HB 2802, there was deafening silence from the Church when it declined to be a part of any coalition with the LGBTQ community leaders protecting transgender Arizonans from anti-trans bills SB 1138 and SB 1165. Both of these bills were very much alive during that same legislative session and were recently signed into law. There is a savvy political strategy here in the Great Divorce, and it is done at the expense of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and the collective soul of the Latter-day Saint people.

This is not Zion. This is politics.

The Church even has a name for what they are doing. It is called “Fairness For All.” In an address Elder Christofferson gave to NAACP leaders in Salt Lake City in 2018, he summed it up this way: They get their rights and we get ours. It’s a great way to avoid contention. In the context of the Great Divorce this means that LGBTQ Latter-day Saints get nothing.

In politics, “Fairness For All” fixes the LGBTQ community “problem” (in that they exist and have an equal and powerful voice in the public sphere) but it doesn’t begin to approach the spiritual needs and dignity of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints or our families, and it doesn’t make whole the families in the Church who have been blessed to have Queer children. Most concerning, it requires the divorce of the spiritual from the temporal to maintain this strategy.

The very idea of becoming a Zion people is not to build walls and draw borders to keep people out or push people out. Rather, becoming a Zion people is the hard work of equality where we draw one another in, remembering that there are no classes of rich or poor, bond or free, or even straight/cisgender or Queer.

When temporal equality is seen as a spiritual quality, that is the sure sign of godliness. We know this because God told us so.

We cannot approach Zion in isolation. One of my absolute favorite hymns is “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” The very first words we sing in this hymn encourage us to have no fear in our journey, but to have joy. This can seem difficult to do because many of the spaces within our spiritual home as LGBTQ people appear to be unsafe and uninviting at times. But this hymn gives us all a very important clue about how we experience Zion. The clue is in the lyrics. We do not sing this hymn in the singular person. There is no “me” or “I” in this hymn. Instead, we sing using the plural pronouns “us” and “we.” We sing this hymn as the hope of an entire community. It is the anthem of a Zion people.

As a Zion people, we’ll collectively find a place that God for us prepared. To do this we must reject divisive and dishonest politics and reunite the spiritual with the temporal. To do so restores a security that blesses our whole soul. It is this wholeness that is a wholeness in Christ. Temporal equality is not antithetical to the spiritual, because all things are spiritual unto God. Jesus fed the multitude who were following him because the temporal needs of those who followed him were just as important as their spiritual needs. 

This Great Divorce over LGBTQ issues is not sustainable, because it is just not how God operates. More and more we see Zion break through the chains of LGBTQ prejudice and acts of prejudice in the Church concerning LGBTQ matters. Whether it is a ward that throws a baby shower for a lesbian couple in New Mexico, or a Bishop who refuses to discipline LGBTQ people in his ward and is removed from his position, or allies lighting the Y in rainbow and transgender flag colors on the mountain overlooking BYU campus, or even the Public Religion Research Institute’s latest findings that over the past decade Latter-day Saint support for marriage equality doubled from 23% in 2011 to 46% in 2021—members are increasingly not attaching value to this divorce of the spiritual from the temporal in LGBTQ matters.

Do not fear the spiritual equality of LGBTQ people in opportunity and privilege, for such a thing is a sign that you are approaching Zion—when both the spiritual and temporal prosper equally together. For it is in the marriage of the spiritual and temporal that we partake together in the heavenly gift of God, eternal life. It is up to you, every member, to build Zion—to claim your LGBTQ children and neighbors as whole and equal people.

Do not be afraid to meet the Church in the political arena. You will be extremely effective there for two reasons. First, because that is where the Church has taken the issue nowadays, politics in the pews was abandoned after Prop 8.  Second, the Great Divorce is not a spiritual practice, it is a political strategy orchestrated by the chief architect of the Church’s anti-LGBTQ strategy, Dallin H. Oaks. No matter what you hear him say, his strategy does not change the word of God. God still considers that “all things unto me are spiritual.”  Improving the temporal health, safety, and security of LGBTQ people when you work in the political arena will cause spiritual blessings.  Dismantling this political strategy is how you can directly help your LGBTQ children and neighbors.

Lastly, work within your sphere of influence in the Church to create as much safety, love, and hope within the spiritual home of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints as possible. Your work there will not affect policy or theology, but it will reach the one. It will be lifesaving. You are not there to hold LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in a place that doesn’t feel safe or healthy to them. Your job is to provide the breathing room and oxygen so LGBTQ Latter-day Saints can figure out what to do and where they need to be in the face of some pretty intimidating prejudice and acts of prejudice.

A few months ago, President Dallin H. Oaks spoke at the University of Virginia. His speech unveiled the long, multi-year strategy the Church has undertaken to build a relationship with Queer organizations in the public sphere. He then remarked that the preservation of religious freedom depends on the value the public attaches to the positive effects of the practices and teachings of the Church. It’s a symbiotic relationship between churches and the general public.

Consider as well that the preservation of the status quo in the Church concerning Queer prejudice, harassment, and discrimination depends on the value the members attach to the positive effects of the practices and teachings of the Church on this matter. It is a symbiotic relationship between the Church and its people.

If you attach no value to Queer prejudice and acts of prejudice within the Church, the time has come to speak up loud and proud. Do not be afraid to enter the political arena for and in behalf of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.  In the spirit of President Oaks’ remarks, it is time to publicly start naming the negative effects of the practices and teachings of the Church on this matter. Unlike our Queer community leaders who work very hard to protect LGBTQ people in the civil arena, in the Church we don’t have the tools that they do of good faith negotiations or constructive politics, nor do we have the luxury of a negotiating table to create the kinds of relationships the Church values to bring about change.

We may not have those tools to fight prejudice and acts of prejudice, but we do have those tools in the civic arena. And when we work there we will lead the way of reconciling the temporal and spiritual health of all Latter-day Saints.

This is not a “belief” or “faith” matter. This is a “prejudice” and “acts of prejudice” matter.

If you see your LGBTQ neighbors and children as part of a Zion community, the time has come to question the Great Divorce. Question the status quo. If you are feeling shy about speaking out, just remember that Jesus teaches us that the continual questioning of the importunate widow gets results. She was not shy at all about what the unjust judge thought about her. She kept bugging him and finally got justice.

Questioning the status quo of injustice is a Christ-like attribute. How better can we be as we approach Zion, than when we approach our LGBTQ siblings in the same love, kindness, and gentleness that Jesus shows us? It is time to put the equality of a Zion people in the oft quoted slogan, “All are alike unto God.”

“Roots of Knowledge” Stained glass installation in the Fulton Library at Utah Valley University

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