Homosexuality is a complicated topic – especially because so many people, particularly in religious discussions, over-simplify it. I want to focus narrowly today on what is “sin”, “transgression”, “moral” or “immoral” – or a combination thereof. I have heard enough “expert” opinion over the years that is contradictory to see the prior assumptions that form the basis of almost everything I have read. Therefore, I stopped reading most academic treatises on the subject quite a few years ago and, instead, focused on talking with and listening to gay people I admire and respect. I decided this was one of those “quit asking evangelicals to explain Mormonism” issues. [I should add that I attended college as part of the organization for off-campus students. I arrived as a married freshman, direct from my mission. I was the token married, conservative Mormon; many of my closest friends were homosexual.]
First, I draw a distinction between “sin” and “morality” – and it’s an important one for me. Sin is a religious word. To me, it means “acting in opposition to the will of God” or “anything that keeps someone from becoming like God.” That is a very different (much broader) definition than, “Breaking the commandments” – or some other similar construct. “Breaking the commandments” can be sin, but it also can be termed transgression (simply the violation of a law or standard). From that perspective, “sin” is absolute in its being tied to the will of God, but “transgression” (particularly in ignorance) can be a completely separate category that does not mean necessarily a rejection of God. I don’t believe one can sin in ignorance; that is transgression. Under that definition, “homosexuality” (the inclination) is NOT a sin or transgression, since its existence alone does not impact automatically one’s actions, but homosexual activity can be either sin or transgression – just as heterosexual activity can be either.
“Morality”, otoh, is not fundamentally a religious term – and that is a critical point. My favorite definition of morality is, “The standards commonly upheld in a society as being what the people in that society believe to be proper.” With this definition, polygamy is and always has been immoral in the United States – and Mormons who practiced it long ago (as well as others who practice it now) were guilty of immoral conduct. Those who practiced it in the 1800’s weren’t sinning; those who do so now are. Ironically, homosexual activity now is less “immoral” in our society than polygamy, since it is more accepted generally than polygamy – which means (again, using the “purest” of definitions) that a gay or lesbian member is living a more “moral” life in this age than my polygamous ancestors were in their day. According to official Church standards, that gay or lesbian member is “sinning” and my ancestors were not, but their actions are more in line with the accepted norms of our current society than my ancestors’ actions were with their social norms. Sometimes irony really is fascinating.
With that foundation in place:
Sexuality is a condition – a “natural” inclination that varies in strength greatly among people. Focusing on homosexuality, some people are born with strong homosexual attraction as their primary sexual attraction; some are born with a more ambiguous balance; some are born with a very weak homosexual attraction. Unfortunately, the label of “homosexuality” is often applied when, in reality, the primary urge is heterosexual or bisexual. Iow, society has tended to label anyone who exhibits even weak homosexual tendencies as homosexual – rather than categorize them by primacy of urge, if you will.
So, setting “morality” aside for a moment, this general idea (that most people can feel sexual / physical attraction to and sexual stimulation from both men and women and the real difference is in the power and exclusivity of the urge) leads to some fascinating theological questions – particularly those that deal with transgression versus sin. To address this adequately, I start with the 2nd Article of Faith:
“We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.”
I read this as saying that we are **punished** for those things we **choose** to do that keep us from becoming like God – those things that we **could** do differently but do anyway. I also read this as saying that we won’t be punished for those things that we didn’t choose as a result of the Fall – those natural man inclinations that we inherited simply as a result of our birth (of Adam’s transgression). Even if we never overcome them, simply as a result of having “confessed Christ as our Lord and Savior” in the pre-mortal world, we will be **rewarded** with the granting of a degree of glory – and that degree will be proportionate to how much we changed whatever we were able to change – how much we allowed God to change us, if that phraseology works better for anyone.
That leaves me with a specific question:
How deeply ingrained are the urges associated with sin, transgression and morality for each person? In considering this question, consider personally any inclination that seems to plague you individually – one that seems like it simply won’t go away no matter how hard you try – one that makes you stumble and fall with some degree of regularity. How is your recurring, seemingly unconquerable weakness different for you than homosexuality is for others?
I can’t answer those questions on the individual level, but I am convinced that there are many people whose inclinations and urges are so deeply ingrained and powerful that to require them to suppress those inclinations literally is to ask of them the impossible. I am fine with maintaining the belief in certain activity as sin, but how do the distinctions discussed here affect our view of the Atonement?
Fwiw, I can picture various ways to handle the implications of homosexuality and gay marriage in our society within the Church – compromises with “morality” that would not compromise necessarily our concepts of “sin” or “transgression”. After all, every one of us are still sinners while we attend church and the temple, and many of us are struggling with inherited characteristics that we probably won’t be able to overcome fully in this life. The specific manifestation of our personal continuing struggles might vary in relation to the morals of each age and culture in which we live, but we are united – at the most basic level – by our shared struggles with our own unique weaknesses.