|Ralph J. Bunche|
The two major political parties are often to be found prognosticating on who has the "bigger tent", and whether a bigger, more inclusive tent is better. With the huge impending Republican gains in the next few days in both houses of Congress at the expense of the traditionally large-tent Democrats, some are now claiming that small is better.
Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even [Howard] Dean [former chair of the Democrat party] now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said.
Seemingly, the first person to use the "big tent" symbolism was the prophet Isaiah in the Bible's Old Testament. To the Church, he said:
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy astakes;
In other words, from a religious perspective, a big tent is always good.
Traditionally, Mormons have had a difficult time being a big tent people. This isn't completely unusual, though, as Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell illustrate in their book Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us--most Americans worship God largely with people who are ethnically and racially just like them. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though, I prefer to focus on how my church has failed--and is improving--in its own big-tent mentality.
Blacks. For years, black males were not allowed to hold the LDS priesthood. It is still unclear where that prohibition came from, but a result of the prohibition, together with the fact that predominantly Mormon Utah has traditionally also been predominantly white. As late as 1963, the NAACP said of Utah that "Utah 'has potentially the worst race problem in the United States.'"
In 1951, Ralph J Bunche came to Salt Lake City to speak at the University of Utah. As he tried to check into the Hotel Utah, he was refused service because of the hotel's policy not to offer service to blacks. It was only with LDS Church President David O. McKay's influence that the hotel staff relented. Bunche still, however, was not allowed to eat in the hotel's restaurant, but was, rather, required to have all of his meals brought to his room.
In 1954, the wife of Harmon O. Cole, director of the National Urban League, was in Salt Lake City and attempted to visit a white friend in a downtown hotel. As she attempted to visit her friend on one of the upper floors of the hotel, she was allowed only to use the service elevator.
Also in 1954, the leadership of the LDS Church determined that
there was no sound scriptural basis for the policy [of excluding blacks from holding the priesthood,] but that the Church membership was not prepared for its reversal.
Since June 1978, when the ban on black males holding the priesthood was lifted, church membership has gradually become more accepting of blacks in their midst. The tent has, in this way, become enlarged, but we still have a ways to go.
Homosexuality. A friend of mine is married and has five beautiful children, but he confided to me that, for as long as he can remember, he has been attracted to other men. Very few of his LDS friends know of this, however, because he is afraid to experience the rejection that he has seen other members of the Church go through when their sexual orientation became public. It was with great relief, then, that he heard President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the LDS Church's First Presidency speak on the subject of acceptance in a Regional Conference of the Church October 24, 2010 in the Salt Lake City area. In the conference Uchtdorf reminded members of the Church that we shouldn't pretend to know more about homosexuality (or any other topic) than has been revealed or we otherwise have learned about it, and that we should be loving and kind to everyone. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the regional conference:
On Sunday, Uchtdorf reiterated the church’s position that it doesn’t know the cause of homosexuality and that it doesn’t matter.
“Many questions in life, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life,” Uchtdorf said. “Until then, the truth is, God loves all his children, and because he loves us, we can trust him and keep his commandments.”
Inclusion of blacks in the Mormon tent involved a paradigm shift. We have largely been successful in making that shift, but there is still some progress to be made for white members of the Church to allow blacks into their expanded comfort zones. A new paradigm shift is upon us in the acceptance of homosexuals for who they are. Hopefully it won't take us--as a Church--as long to accept homosexuals into the LDS community as it did for us to accept blacks.