Bio: Jacob is a seventh-generation Latter-day Saint by birth, Episcopalian by choice. He lives in Salt Lake City with his husband of nearly six years.
It was the Third Sunday of Easter at our Episcopal parish in Salt Lake City. Nearly a week to the day after the Salt Lake City premiere of the FX on Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, I was feeling complex emotions about my heritage. I’m grateful for my Latter-day Saint upbringing. I love my Latter-day Saint friends and family, but the reaction from many devout Latter-day Saints over the miniseries had left me angry and frustrated.
As we prepared for the Eucharist, our priest boldly proclaimed, “This is God’s table. All are welcome to partake of the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ.” And as we took the Eucharist in the church that over six years ago affirmed that my union with my husband was holy and good, I felt so close to myself and a deep love for the life that we have built together.. We have a cute home, an adorable dog, good jobs, and incredible families who love and support us. I’m becoming the type of person who I always wanted to be. I try to be kind, empathetic, and loving to people. I want everyone to feel like they have a seat at the table.
At the end of the service, we sang a familiar tune. In my mind, I was thrown back to the Missionary Training Center over 12 years ago preparing to go to Thailand as an LDS missionary. My last week in the MIssionary Training Center, we spent the entire week practicing our Thai trying to prepare to sing In Humility Our Savior for a sacrament service. At the time, it felt like I was doing the right thing by serving a mission. But I was deeply conflicted.
Singing the tune that Sunday was more than cathartic. It felt like a deep wound with an infection was finally being healed. I no longer had to live under the banner of heaven. I could live in the real world and be happy and accepted for who I am.
A few weeks before we sang that hymn in sacrament meeting all those years ago, I visited the temple with the rest of the missionaries. During the Endowment session, I looked at a fellow missionary, a handsome and kind man who served in Thailand with me, and had the courage to come out to myself but I was crippled by guilt. How, after all that I had tried to sacrifice for my faith, could a loving Heavenly Father let me be gay? Didn’t He hear all those prayers hoping for me to be healed from this affliction? I was going to serve a mission for what I believed to be His Church.
I knew how much the institution had hated me my entire life, even though I hadn’t been able to accept my own sexuality until that moment in the temple. I was almost six-years-old when the Proclamation on the Family was read in General Conference by my great-uncle Gordon B. Hinckley. I was 18 when Proposition 8 was pushed from the pulpit in my student ward at BYU and in a group prayer on my 19th birthday in our Elder’s Quorum. I was told, “Proposition 8 isn’t a matter of politics; it’s a matter of following the prophet.” I wish I had the courage to walk out that day. Instead? I decided to lean into my faith and embrace literalism and the Mormon worldview.
But here all these years later, I find myself relieved and at peace. I’m living a new life but the tune of my life is so similar. I’m no longer a deeply closeted gay man. I no longer practice Mormonism. But in many ways, I’ve stayed the same, and in other ways, so has the LDS Church.
I see my Mormonism in Under the Banner of Heaven. And I see the Mormonism that I left in Under the Banner of Heaven. Brenda Lafferty and the family of Jeb Pyre are not extremists as some have publicly announced. They are faithful Latter-day Saints who are trying to be the best that they can. Brenda has big dreams of a Mormon family with Family Home Evening, scripture study, prayer, and love. But Brenda isn’t afraid to shy away from a Mormonism that embraces deep intellectual discussions, probing questions about our history and our heritage, rooted with a firm commitment to follow the supposed central figure of the Mormon movement: Jesus Christ.
In Jeb, we see a man who loves his wife and his two daughters deeply. He is trying to raise them in the culture that he knew: a culture that teaches that we are all children of God and destined to build Zion, or the pure in heart. But something is haunting Jeb. He’s hearing things about his faith that he had never been taught before. I assume in the next several episodes, we will be taken on a journey exploring polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other elements of our faith that the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has often either ignored or downplayed with apologetic spin. I once heard President Oaks, a current member of the First Presidency, say that the LDS Church is not in the business of apologies. So why would they empathize with people hurt by theology or historical events in Mormonism? The LDS Church doesn’t issue apologies because it would lose credibility as an organization.
I tried to be a good Latter-day Saint. I prayed, read my scriptures, attended the temple, reflected on my covenants. I could only do so much, though. After all, I was a problem to be fixed in their minds, and I would be made “whole” after this life. I spent so many years pining for heaven while living a hellish life. Every General Conference was an exercise in anxiety and outrage. I never knew how sacrament meeting would go or if the Sunday School lesson would turn into the homophobia of the day. I hated that I had to be on guard all the time.
It’s not just the obvious examples of the Laffertys that couldn’t make us interrogate our culture of violence. It’s not just the zone leader who called me wicked for not firmly opposing same-sex marriage; he was a former assistant to the president and now he’s a devout and very wealthy Latter-day Saint. It’s not just the Sunday School teacher who took 20-minutes to testify of how evil same-sex marriage is and how LGBTQ+ people are a sign of the end times. She is still an active Latter-day Saint with children. It’s not just the stake president who told my entire student stake that gay people could change through therapy because they are broken and told me, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” when I challenged him on my truth. It’s more than all of them. It’s built into the system. We find it in every Latter-day Saint ward and stake, with the top leadership of the Church calling for “musket fire” while also feigning support for the LGBTQ+ community with empty words from a pulpit. These men fill sermons and curriculum with hatred for LGBTQ+ people. They come to LDS chapels and are the “nice guy” in the Elder’s Quorum who called on temple covenants as he abused his wife. It’s the man who gets in a little too deep with the deep doctrine and
My Episcopal priest that Sunday boldly proclaimed that all are welcome at God’s table. But all are not welcome at the table of Mormonism. The Lafferty families are not some aberration in the fabric of Mormon culture; they are rewarded by a culture that places patriarchy, homophobia, cruelty, and even violence against others above justice and compassion.
The time has come for us to refuse to live under the banner of heaven. John Taylor called for the banner of heaven to protect the faithful of the LDS Church in their practice of plural marriage in defiance of the federal government in 1880. We shouldn’t beg for the protection of heaven to cover our flaws and stubborn inability to be introspective. It’s time for the banner of heaven to burn. We must burn it and watch as the patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia turn to ash. Let it burn as the world and our own people recognize that we need to make systemic changes. Only then can some reclaim the healthy Mormonism that so many of us aspired to. We must see the Laffertys in our lives because our faith breeds dangerous men and then gives them the power of their God. If only 19-year-old me could have known that I wasn’t deficient in God’s eyes; I was just too good for this religion.
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