Ease back from the ledge. Like many who follow developments within the LDS Church online, I too felt as if the wind were taken out of my sails following the recent news of policy shifts regarding same-sex couples and children in same-sex family homes. Let me upfront by stating that I support same-sex marriage as a legal right. However, I also support the right of religious institutions to define their sacraments according to their creeds.
(Note: because Mormons typically don’t use term “sacrament” outside of communion, let me clarify that all religious rites can be defined as sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, blessing of infants and healing, priesthood ordination for worthy males, and LDS temple ordinances including marriage.)
The LDS Church has historically had an interesting and tenuous relationship with how it has defined family. While always maintaining male and female unions, for a significant portion of its history the LDS Church advocated and fought for constitutional rights to allow the Mormon religious expression of plural marriage—a practice that was nothing short of abhorrent to most United States citizens. Eventually facing the reality of continuing its “peculiar institution” at the cost of complete decimation in the face of anti-polygamy legislation, the church saw no other alternative than to change what was once held as an essential doctrine of salvation (the principle, at least, if not the practice) by proclamation in 1890. Since that time, the LDS Church has struggled to distance itself from the practice of plural marriage, which included a second reiteration (called the “Second Manifesto”) by President Joseph F. Smith in 1904 during the widely-publicized Senate hearings of Reed Smoot. But this was far from the end of the story for polygamy and Mormonism.
It seems that every few decades, polygamy appears on the radar again, largely from fundamentalist break-off groups that the mainstream church considers apostate, but occasionally from within its own ranks. Such was the case of the 1943 excommunication of Apostle Richard R. Lyman, husband of Amy Brown Lyman, a prominent figure in the general Relief Society from 1919-1945. In 1985, the Strengthening of the Church Members Committee was created to root out polygamous practices within the mainstream church. At the same time, from what I understand, a decades-old policy was articulated in the Church Handbook of Instructions (a policy guide for ecclesiastical leadership) mandating disciplinary counsel and excommunication for members practicing polygamy, and excluding children from polygamous families from the church’s sacraments until they reach adulthood, leave their parent’s home, disavow the practice of polygamy, and receive permission from the First Presidency of the church. This was designed to protect the church from the continued infiltration of polygamists.
This week, the church placed same-sex couples and their children under the same policies as polygamous families, igniting a firestorm among many Mormons on social media.
While the church has decided to treat same-sex marriage and polygamous marriage as the same at least punitively, how similar are they? How is it that same-sex marriage has emerged in contemporary Mormonism with the same stigma as polygamous marriage? Particularly given that the church has never endorsed the former, whereas the latter was lived and admonished by church leaders and was (and may still be) considered an eternal principle?
For this, I think we need to look at the rise of Christian Conservatism in the mid-1940s and its development through the 1980s. Anti-communist rhetoric among social conservatives during the Cold War that followed the Second World War placed a central focus on what was coined the “nuclear family” as an insulating force. The popular TV show Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) exemplified this national focus on what has become popularly called the “traditional family” with its assigned roles. Marriage as a social institution, according to conservative social scientists, is an essential component in maintaining the cohesiveness of a society. More than romantic notions, social conservatives tend to view marriage as a vital function with social, economic, and moral impact—and argue that the downfall of society can be causally linked to the disintegration of the family unit, whether by staggering divorce rates or the breakdown of the “nuclear family.”
The anti-communist movement of the Cold War also emphasized pro-nationalist and exceptionalist ideas for what they believed was the greater good of American society. Strongly linking the values of society with faith, family, and freedom, the resolve of the conservative movement only increased in the face of social change brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam protests. Ezra Taft Benson’s 1974 publication of God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties is reflective of this social environment and the backlash from social conservatives against the “New Left” movement, which many conservatives feared was infiltrating public schools, universities, and popular media. The doubling down on “traditional family” increased in response to the LGBT rights movement that effectively kicked off in 1972 and continued growing rapidly for the next several decades. In 1993, Boyd K. Packer delivered a provocative warning to the All Church Coordinating Council (Correlation) where he opined that the biggest dangers facing the church, “Come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” In this speech, Packer declared:
Surely you have been anxiously watching the worldwide evaporation of values and standards from politics, government, society, entertainment, schools. Could you be serving in the Church without having turned to those pages in the revelations and to those statements of the prophets that speak of the last days? Could you, in working for the Church, not be conscious of or have ignored the warnings? Could you be blind to the drift that is taking place? Are you not conscious of the drift that is taking place in the Church? Could you believe other than it is critical that all of us work together and set aside personal interests and all face the same way?
The war against communism (now redefined as “Secularism”) did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, just the villain changed; and the LDS Church was only beginning to launch itself into an exhausting battle against same-sex marriage. Two years after Packer’s warning to the correlation department staff, President Gordon B. Hinckley delivered the “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” at the annual Relief Society meeting. Largely motivated by the same-sex marriage ruling in Hawaii that was contested between 1991-1994, “The Family Proclamation” re-asserted LDS commitment to “traditional” marriage roles between men and women. Thirteen years after “The Family Proclamation” was issued, the LDS Church became entangled in its largest public battle yet: California’s Proposition 8 (2008) ballot initiative.
Despite attempts within the past five years to soften its rhetoric towards same-sex orientation, including a policy shift away from church discipline for admissions of same-sex attraction, or recommendations to seek therapy (including controversial reorientation therapy), and the church’s recent backing of anti-discrimination legislation, the church’s attitude towards same-sex marriage has never deviated. A campaign calling for religious freedom was launched following the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of Proposition 8; and the LDS Church has entered into conversation with other conservative faith traditions in affirming the rights of religious institutions to maintain certain discriminatory practices for Constitutionally-protected rights of religious expression. Same-sex marriage has become the central focus of the religious freedom debate.
Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Utah, Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke at general conference stating, “When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries,” but that, “Even as we seek to be meek and to avoid contention, we must not compromise or dilute our commitment to the truths we understand.” That the LDS Church would not shift its position on same-sex marriage was reiterated with a letter that was read by all bishops to their congregations following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended the protections of the 14th Amendment to same-sex couples. At a recent FairMormon conference, LDS Church PR spokesperson, Michael R. Otterson, confirmed that the largest concern facing Church leadership at present was the fear of lawsuits over religious practices (such as marriage) and hiring practices in the face of pro-LGBTQ legislation; and Elder Russell M. Ballard recently delivered a keynote address at the World Congress of Families convention in Salt Lake City, an organization dedicated to “affirm, celebrate, and encourage the natural family” defined as being between a man and a woman.
The latest move, which should be of little surprise, was the recent update to the church’s administrative handbook defining entering into a same-sex marriage as an act of apostasy, and placing restrictions on children in same-sex homes from becoming members of the church until they reach adulthood, leave their parent’s home, and disavow the practice of same-sex marriage. While this is being defended as being for the child’s protection, many concerns over the possible repercussions of this policy still loom. I assume that the decision to restrict children in same-sex homes from receiving until adulthood what the LDS Church teaches are essential ordinances was not made lightly. I assume that this was done with a heavy heart, understanding that that this may socially-stigmatize children whose eagerly-awaited baptisms will now be dramatically (and likely crushingly) postponed, many within heavily LDS-populated areas where peers and relatives will be receiving the Mormon rites of passage. I assume that this decision would not have been made if the leadership of the LDS Church felt that there were better options, such as seeking parental consent for baptism, as is the current practice among youth who reside with non-LDS parents. I assume that these policies would not have been enacted if church leaders didn’t genuinely fear that they are being backed into a legal corner. Whether intended or not, my concern is that this policy sends a message to the children of same-sex parents: you are no more welcome than polygamists in our church.
I anticipate fallout (I’ve already seen it starting) among many progressively-minded Mormons who, although not directly affected by these policy changes, will choose to disaffiliate from an institution that maintains them. I ask my socially-conservative friends to refrain from cheering too loudly the perceived separation of the “wheat from the tares.” Furthermore, I anticipate that many of the children who will be asked to postpone their baptisms for a decade will likely not be retained—particularly in an era where youth retention is already a major concern, and where the rising generation is increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage and increasingly disinterested in religious affiliation.
I have confidence, however, that the leadership of the LDS Church is not intentionally trying to cause pain to children and families. I have hope that local leaders will not intentionally use these policies to hurt children and families. I anticipate that clarification and modifications will be made as these policies (and they are policies) become enacted on the ground—as this moves from the group to the individual level. I will seek to understand and to have charity and patience both with the church and those who feel gut-wrenched by this policy update. For those who strive to remain in “Old Ship Zion,” may we honor our baptismal covenants by mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who are in need of comfort; and may we be ever mindful of the Psalmist who implored, “Be still and know that I am God.”