This article by Merina Smith was originally published by the Federalist.
The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—the Mormons—recently revised their handbook. This may not sound like dramatic news, yet it has caused great weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth among some members and nonmembers alike, because the church has made it clear there is no such thing as a same-sex Mormon family.
For Mormons, the handbook serves a similar purpose to a synod. It explicates beliefs and procedures that guide local leaders in a worldwide church. The handbook changes indicate that members who enter into same-sex unions, whether through marriage or cohabitation, will be subject to church discipline, which could mean loss of membership. Children whose primary residence is with a same-sex couple will not be baptized at age eight, as most Mormon children are, without special permission. Such children will be required to wait until age 18 for baptism, but then only if they accept church doctrine regarding marriage, which is that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.
Mormons Aren’t Contradicting Themselves
The new policy may seem to contradict Mormon church leaders’ recent moves that were widely regarded as gay friendly, such as church support for legislation that protects gay housing and employment rights in Utah, and a recent statement by Mormon leader and legal scholar Dallin Oaks, who sided against Kim Davis’s protest about issuing licenses for gay marriages. These actions had led many to believe the church was softening its stance against legalized marriage redefinition.
About 1,000 church members were so upset by the handbook changes that they staged a dramatic show in Salt Lake City in November, journeying there to hold a rally and tender letters of resignation to church authorities. In spite of the protests, however, the changes are in keeping with longstanding church policies toward children of polygamous families, whose minor children cannot be baptized. Out of deference to parental authority, the church also refuses to baptize other minor children without parental permission.
Like many Christians, Mormons try to live in the world while not being of the world. Oaks’ pronouncement on Kim Davis’ protest helps members understand how to live in the world while rejecting much of what the world approves. In essence, the message is that church members should do their job, understanding that doing so does not sanction a behavior that is not compatible with church teachings. The changes to the handbook send a clear message that the Mormon understanding of marriage within the church has not changed.
Why Marriage Is So Central to Mormonism
Marriage has been central to Mormon theology from the earliest days, even before it instituted polygamy. Shortly after it was organized, the church delineated which marriages—those sanctioned by the church and performed by its priesthood bearers—were valid in the sight of God.
Early Mormon leader Brigham Young, husband to over 50 wives, said, “The whole subject of the marriage relationship is not within my reach or in any other man’s reach on this earth….it is the thread which runs from the beginning to the end of the holy Gospel of the Son of God; it is from eternity to eternity.” Even after polygamy was abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, Mormons maintained a reliance on family structure and connection as central to its theology.
In light of the importance of marriage to Mormon theology, it is not surprising that Mormons have totally rejected the sexual revolution. Faithful Mormons do not live together before marriage, and reserve sex for marriage.
While the Mormon divorce rate has unfortunately followed the arc of the national rate, couples married in the Mormon temple see themselves as sealed together for time and eternity, along with any children born to them. Adopted children are sealed to parents in Mormon temples so that they also participate in eternal family connections.
Far from accepting the ethos of no-fault divorce, temple divorces require special permission from leaders in Salt Lake. If redefined marriage can be seen as part of a trajectory the sexual revolution initiated, it should surprise no one that Mormons reject it, because they have rejected the entire “revolution.”
Mormons’ Holistic Beliefs about Family
The upshot of the centrality of marriage to Mormon belief and culture is that Mormons maintain a holistic theology about marriage and family. The process of meeting, falling in love, marrying, having children, raising and caring for those children, and children caring for their parents in old age are all essential aspects of an intertwined plan that leads to family and individual salvation and exaltation, while giving people a blueprint for life on earth.
The new handbook policies have struck some as unfair to children, as a form of punishing children for their parents’ behavior. Remember, however, that the policy serves to save children from an uncomfortable disconnect between home and church until they are old enough to figure out what path they want to follow in their own lives. It also prevents the church from drifting away from its beliefs and principles when compassion for the plight of children of same-sex attracted members would tempt adherents to compromise a belief system that is incompatible with redefined marriage.
Love and compassion are necessary to life. Jesus displayed these qualities in abundance, yet when he encountered the woman taken in sin and the woman at the well, he sought to convert them instead of condoning their sins. All through time, believers have conformed themselves to the gospel instead of conforming the gospel to the shifting sands of human desire. The gospel would not have survived without this kind of determination.
In 1995, when redefined marriage was only a blip on the horizon, the Mormon First Presidency issued “The Family, A Proclamation to the World,” in which they “solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” It goes on to reiterate the importance of family to Mormon theology and to lay out parental duties and responsibilities toward children. The proclamation has since been adopted into Mormon scripture.
In light of this, the new handbook policy should surprise no one, yet we must adhere to it with love and compassion toward all, recognizing that we are all works in progress and sinners with struggles to overcome.
Merina Smith holds a PhD in history from University of California at San Diego, and is the author of “Revelation, Resistance and Mormon Polygamy.”