Tuesday, December 15, 2009

This Rolling Stone - by Cody McKay

Recently I have been simultaneously reading two books. One is called The Sixties Chronicle, which is basically a pictorial history of the events of the decade from 1960-1969 and also includes first hand accounts and commentary on the events. The other book is a biography of President David O. McKay called David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and which, although written by two Mormons, is a pretty truthful and fairly unbiased account of President McKay's tenure as Prophet of the LDS Church and isn't shy about tackling controversial issues such as the Church's opposition to the civil rights movement, for example. I'm really enjoying both books immensely, and I've decided that in spite of his faults, I really like David O. McKay. He seems to be a great proponent of free agency, free thinking, and seems (to me, at least) to be a "spirit of the law" kind of individual as opposed to a "letter of the law" individual. That being said, he did also err on the side of inaction at times.

With
the recent endorsement of the LDS Church, an ordinance in Salt Lake City which bans employment and housing discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals was passed. Many gay rights activists were surprised by the Church's endorsement, and I admit I was surprised as well (but was very pleased by what I see as a positive step). The LDS Church is still adamant that it will not support gay marriage and will continue to fight for what it believes is right as far as that issue is concerned.

Some in the gay-rights community are skeptical, feeling that the LDS Church only did this to save face with those who have a less-than-favorable impression of the church and did it simply to boost their image. That may be true, although it seems to me the LDS Church usually does what it feels is right regardless of how popular those decisions make them.

Some in the gay community are also indignant, feeling that they owe the LDS Church no gratitude for this endorsement when the church is still actively working to deny their civil rights. This is an understandable feeling. I, for one, am grateful for any strides the LDS Church makes in regards to gay
rights, just as I am thankful for strides that those in the gay-rights community make in creating an atmosphere of communication rather than antagonism. I think we all have a long way to go, but I am thankful for small steps even if it is "two steps forward, one step back" at times.

As I've been
reading about the sixties, I am reminded of how volatile the issue of civil rights and desegregation could be, and although racism still exists today, it is fascinating to see how far the civil rights movement has come. It is interesting to look at the photos in The Sixties Chronicle and be reminded of a time not very long ago at all when black people couldn't sit at the same counter as white people or use the same restroom or drinking fountain; black people couldn't attend white schools and were denied employment because of the color of their skin; that a black person couldn't vote or marry a white person; that the whole "separate, but equal" idea was such a sham. One looks at these pictures and sees very plainly that whites were always given preferential treatment. They were given the better jobs, got to sit in the choicest seats, and weren't denied many of the normal things life didn't offer the African-American. And when blacks attempted to fight for their rights, they were assaulted, beaten, hosed, attacked by dogs, intimidated, threatened, and killed, often by the very people whose job it was to supposedly "serve and protect."

As I've read about these issues, it dawns on me that there were many segregationists who probably felt that the threat of civil rights for blacks was completely destroying the foundation of their very lives. They literally felt as if their world would fall apart if blacks were to obtain equal rights. I've seen pictures of a woman holding a picket sign that says, "Integration is a mortal sin." Another sign held by a young man says, "The only way to end niggers is exterminate." Another white man with a gun threatens a black man who is attempting to enter his store. Still another pours hydrochloric acid into a swimming pool where blacks are having a swim-in. Parents pull their white kids out of a school where a little black girl, attending first grade for the first time since desegregation has taken effect, has to be protected by federal marshalls. Police and local government leaders refuse to follow the policies the federal government has laid out concerning desegregation, and it is only through federal government protection that they publicly back down (although in private, they still commit some horrendous acts). A church is bombed and kills several black girls. Civil rights advocates are tortured and killed.

This was not so long ago. Even as I read this book about David O. Mckay, it is interesting to see where the LDS Church stood on civil rights issues. Realizing that church leaders and members were a product of their time, it is still amazing to me to see how blacks were treated by people who professed to belong to a church established by the Savior himself. Most church leaders were opposed to racial integration, including David O. McKay, and were suspicious of the civil rights movement. J. Reuben Clark, Henry D. Moyle, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, and Mark E. Peterson all opposed civil rights and said things that would certainly be considered racist today, if not then. There was a great resistance to change and progression as far as this issue was concerned.
One man in the First Presidency, Hugh B. Brown, was more progressive in this area and said the following in the October, 1963 General Conference when members of the NAACP threatened to picket Temple Square after being rebuffed in their desire to meet with the First Presidency:
“During recent months both in Salt Lake City and across the nation considerable interest has been expressed in the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.

We again say, as we have said many times before, that we believe that all men are the children of the same God and that it is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny to any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.

We have consistently and persistently upheld the Constitution of the United States, and as far as we are concerned that means upholding the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States.

We call upon all men everywhere, both within and outside the Church, to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God's children. Anything less than this defeats our high ideal of the brotherhood of man."
While not sanctioned by the church at the time as an "official statement," it later was reluctantly elevated to "official" status two years later when NAACP leaders threatened to organize a series of marches in front of the Church Administration Building.

As I've read all these things and thought about today's current climate, I cannot help but see the parallels between the civil rights movement of the 60s, the women's rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Just as whites feared their world would come crashing down as blacks tried to gain equality; just as men thought their worlds was crashing down when women tried to gain equality; so I think many straight people feel the same way as gay people try to gain equality. It was not so very long ago, too, that you could be arrested for being gay or when homosexuality was considered a disease (and some people still feel that it is). Although I do think gay people have suffered discrimination and violence from hate-crimes, I do have to say that I think black people have been treated far more harshly in American history than gay people have (although I do think gay people have been treated very unfairly, too).

It is interesting to me that the LDS Church always seems to be in the rear and very slow on the uptake when it comes to equal rights. Church leaders in the 60s opposed civil rights legislation, and the state legislature consistently shot down bills that would give equal rights to blacks. The church also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s. This quote is taken from a Utah history website:
"The attack against ERA seemed, at times, alarmist and hysterical. Equation of ERA with sexual permissiveness, abortion, child care, homosexuality, and unisexuality drew the debate away from the constitutional principal of equality to issues of 'traditional family values.' But the attack did reflect the fears of many about the changing roles of women and men and about the changing form of the family. There seemed to be danger in equality for the ideological/cultural concept of the father as head and provider, mother as nurturer and manager, and children as replicas into the next generation. Many feared the equality would make women more vulnerable and exposed, that men would feel freer to abandon family responsibilities.

Certainly it was these fears which prompted Mormon church leaders to eventually join their financial resources, their promotional skills and their far-flung network of members to the counterrevolution. Church leaders in 1976 described ERA as 'a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family as individual members as a whole.' President Spencer Kimball declared it 'would strike at the family, humankind's basic institution.'

Donations to support the anti-ERA effort were solicited by ward bishops; speeches against the amendment were deemed appropriate at all church meetings, and church buildings were used as an anti-ERA literature distribution points. Church sponsored anti-ERA organizations operated in Florida, Nevada, North and South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and Arizona."
Likewise today, the Utah state legislature (which is predominantly Mormon) consistently shoots down bills that would protect the rights of gay citizens, and of course we are aware of the financial and grassroots backing that existed from the LDS Church in the fight for the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The parallels with both civil rights for blacks and equal rights for women seem very similar to the current gay-rights struggle vis-à-vis the LDS Church. But just as blacks and women have received more equality over the years (although there is still inequality, racism, and sexism that exists), I think it is inevitable that gay people will receive the rights they long for. I really do think it's a difficult, if not impossible task to stop "this rolling stone."

And just as I think it's hard to look back and read about the way the civil rights movement and battle against the Equal Rights Amendment (which people are still trying to pass) were handled by the LDS Church, I am reminded about the current battle that is happening with gay rights and wonder how history will view the LDS Church. I don't know what will happen or even necessarily what should happen, but I do think gay rights are going to be a reality, especially as the older generation dies and the newer generation, many of whom seem to support gay rights, comes to the forefront. There will be some lost battles, but I think the war will be won, and just as I know there were people who thought their worlds would collapse as blacks and women gained more equality, I think those people who oppose gay rights will be surprised at how little their worlds will really change for the worst. Heck, they might even discover that their worlds are better. Change can be a very good thing, even if some people don't believe it is progress.

1 comment:

Sarah Whitehead said...

Hey Cody, As a NON American I will make a point here, I consistently find Americans juxtaposition of civil rights with racial segregation and religious intolerance rather appalling. SO here is a comment for all of you in the US living in your own inward bubble- No other country that I've lived in (and I've lived in a few) has made a comparison between the plight of black people (innate/race/born that way) to fight for civil rights like the US has. Most other countries (like mine) are more tolerant of gay people than yours has been. Many are not agitating within religions to accept gay marriage the way yours does. Religions of the Worlds are consistently against gay marriage-WORLD OVER, its not unique to the LDS church. Fight for civil rights correctly but stop accusing the LDS for lagging behind on this isssue. Democracy allows for all voices to be heard- thats what a democracy is. The majority will win and that I think, is the way it should be. So also don't assume you are being progressive for thinking the church should have responded differently, as MORE progressive countries believe tolerance must be a two way deal. Making the comparison between black people (who were allowed equality in churches in OTHER countries because slavery and segregation ended a good couple of hundred of years before yours) and religions being against gay marriage is an over intellectualised, unprogressive and 'inward' looking assessment, not comparable elsewhere. Because guess what... YES, most other 'more liberal' countries have managed to give civil rights and respect religious beliefs at the same time. Two steps forward and one step back also applies to intolerance equally and everywhere. Most of the major religions are against gay marriage but interestingly, only the LDS churches beliefs will have to significantly change- making the LDS church almost obsolete. More than one core doctrine of LDS will fall down like a stack of cards if they accept change within the church. Black people gaining full status in no way challenged that and you are crazy if you are implying that they are the same. Don't allow internal inconsistency and misuse of logic to make a point. Although, I see you tried very hard to politely straddle the fence. BE LEFT- fight for equal tolerance- I dare you!