Christian Kimball on the Fallibility of Mormon Leaders and on Gay Marriage

My big brother Chris gave me permission to post a (lightly edited) email discussion giving his reaction to my post “Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility” that he sent in an email. You will have to read that post first to understand what he is talking about on that. What is of equal interest is what Chris had to say about gay marriage, later on in our exchange.  

Chris: I think you are hypercritical in your post “Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility." Understandable (a common reaction of one who has felt oppressed by the "follow the prophet” meme) but unnecessary.

First, the strong form of “infallibility” (not counting backroom conversations in Seminary and Sunday School) is not “we are right” but “we will not lead you astray”. Logically quite different and the difference matters–one is a truth statement, the other a safety or comfort statement.

Second, your statement that “According to these principles, the Mormon Church can renounce past policies and can renounce past theologies, but it cannot renounce the rightness of past policies at the time they were in effect. “ may be literally correct as qualified by “According to these principles” but I think it is simply wrong as a statement of theology, doctrine, or Church practice. To give credit, the “at the time” theory is frequently used in regard to 19th century polygamy, but I view that as a special (and specially troubled) case from which I would be slow to generalize. (Not that I agree with the theory even in that application.)

Third, the “Race and the Priesthood” statement does say to me “Brigham Young was wrong”. (Notably, it is not a first for Brother Brigham, who said a number of things that have been disavowed.) Extracting from the statement:

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent … Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain … None of these explanations is accepted today …”

Recognizing that for all of the rationalization and reasons-behind-the-reason theories, the preeminent explanation was always “so says the prophet”, this adds up to Brigham was wrong. That doesn’t mean that people who want to rationalize around to a flexible dogmatism can’t find a way to do it. But such rationalizations will always be with us, and nothing anybody can say will end it.

Fourth, your closing reference to the Hopak/Cossack dance/Ukrainian dance doesn’t work literally (the LDS primary music is more like the Hava Nagila if I were looking for a non-Mormon reference, and the music I associate with the Cossack dance is various but more reminds me of what I’d hear in square dance or folk dance, or a circus) and therefore the reference comes across as an expression of your own feeling of oppression that you make vivid by associating it with the old Soviet state (my reaction) or marionettes (perhaps your first meaning).

Miles: By the way, did you see my column on gay marriage, “The case for gay marriage is made in the freedom of religion”?

Chris: I did. I’m not persuaded that SSM is a matter of religious freedom. The Rawlsian move might be effective in a due process or equal treatment argument but doesn’t get me to religious freedom.

Now if you reversed grounds and argued that a man-woman-only rule is an establishment of religion, one that violates the 1st Amendment … I’d have more to think about. I don’t know the Establishment jurisprudence so I can’t judge the strength of the argument, but it sounds good, especially in Utah where the case can be made that the anti-SSM position is state religion.
BTW, opinion polls in Utah are showing a shift, where an anti-SSM amendment would very possibly fail a popular vote today–a reversal of the actual voting in 2004.
Miles: Very interesting. On my “Flexible Dogmatism” post, I added this note: 
I am not making a narrowly legal argument in “The case for gay marriage is made in the freedom of religion.” It as addressed at least as much to current and future voters and legislators as to lawyers crafting arguments for judges.
Chris: It’s probably worth mentioning that my 1998 speech advocated marriage. I refer to it as the speech that made nobody happy: to the one-man-one-woman traditionalist I said “they should get married” and to the gay couple looking for permission but not necessarily obligation I said “you should get married”. There are plenty of churches and religious leaders (now there are, anyway) who are willing and happy to celebrate a same-sex marriage. But I haven’t yet seen a church or religious leader take the completely logical and in my mind necessary step of layering a moral imperative on same-sex marriage. Until that happens, it will be hard to see an affirmative freedom of religion argument for SSM.
I also made a set of questions as if for a law school class on the Mormon Church’s “Proclamation on the Family,” which sets out the Church’s position on gay marriage.