Polygamy and Same-Sex Marriage: The Contagion Theory

The recent policy changes in the LDS church treat polygamy and same-sex marriage as analogous in two ways. First, they are explicitly defined as “apostasy,” resulting in automatic church discipline. Second, the children of such relationships receive the highest level of scrutiny before they are allowed to join the church. Why are these two kinds of relationships, and the children of such relationships, subject to such treatment? We might note that other sexual and relationship sins will result in church discipline, including fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts. However, this does not explain why the children of polygamous and same-sex relationships are also subject to scrutiny. Children of fornicating or adulterous parents are not excluded from church membership or put under ecclesiastical monitoring.

First, some history. Polygamy is not just another sexual sin. It is both sexual and schismatic. That is, polygamy has been under special scrutiny because it represents a direct threat to the order of the church and the authority of its leaders. Polygamy is not like other sexual sins because, according to church doctrine, it is a malum prohibitum, not a malum in se. While other sexual sins are forbidden because they are considered morally problematic, polygamy once was officially embraced by the church, and at least according to some folk beliefs, may return again. The doctrine has been dangerous to the stability of the church for over a hundred years, with many members of the church each year entering into polygamous relationships or joining sects who accept the practice.

The challenge that polygamy poses is fourfold: 1) Church scripture and doctrine are unstable on this matter; 2) sectarian and schismatic elements have persistently threatened the church and poached its members; 3) polygamy is illegal, and the church’s acceptance of the practice existentially threatened the church with the US government; 4) polygamy is not a practice that is restricted to a small-group, but could be practiced by any heterosexual individual.

In the church’s experience, polygamy can and does spread by contagion. For these reasons, I suggest that the church has placed the children of polygamous families under especially high scrutiny. Polygamy threatens the church’s legal status, its reputation, and presents a schismatic risk. The church does not want to expose its members to polygamists by isolating them socially and from acceptance within the church. Further, it believes that the children of polygamous relationships will grow up to practice the “principle,” and potentially teach these ideas to other members.

Though the church has put polygamy and same-sex marriage in the same category of discipline, there are a number of differences between polygamy and same-sex marriage, which strain the analogy. 1) There is no history or doctrine in the church of accepting the practice as it exists today; 2) there are no schismatic elements of the church that rival church authority on the matter; 3) same-sex marriage is legal and accepting or rejecting it poses no legal threat to the church; 4) same-sex marriage will always be restricted to a small group of people who find themselves wanting to create permanent relationships of care with members of their same sex.

Despite these differences, my hypothesis is that a similar logic is at work in the church’s treatment of same-sex marriages and the children of these relationships with polygamy. The church has long held that same-sex attraction is contagious. While the official teaching of the church holds that same-sex attracted individuals, “individuals do not choose to have such attractions,” its past rhetoric advising people with same-sex attraction to avoid spending time with others like them, and the long history of (now abandoned) attempts to reform homosexuals, and tracing the causes of homosexual attraction to a contagion theory, reveal a perception by church leaders about homosexuality that has been difficult to shake. This new policy is a remnant of that long-held belief that homosexuality can spread.

This contagion theory may explain the treatment of same-sex couples, but what about their children? There are clear examples of this contagion theory through children in church discourse about same-sex marriage in the recent past. The church has objected to the character of the children of same-sex relationships since 2008 in its document, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.”  In this document, it outlined its contagion theory: “traditional marriage provides the most solid and well-established social identity for children. It increases the likelihood that they will be able to form a clear gender identity, with sexuality closely linked to both love and procreation. By contrast, the legal recognition of same-sex marriage may, over time, erode the social identity, gender development, and moral character of children.” In this statement, the church outlines its belief that the children of same-sex relationships will be infected with dangerous ideas by their parents, such as a lack of clear gender boundaries and the idea that sex and procreation are linked. The “moral character of children” in same-sex relationships is treated as highly suspect. The document further outlines the fears that acceptance of same-sex marriage will lead to “gender confusion” throughout society: “When marriage is undermined by gender confusion and by distortions of its God-given meaning, the rising generation of children and youth will find it increasingly difficult to develop their natural identities as men or women.”

My hunch is that the church wants to protect its membership from these children of same-sex relationships, not protect these children from being caught between church and home. The notion that the children of same-sex relationships will not only be infected with the teachings and gender behaviors of their parents, but that they will pose a broader social risk, is in part why they are being quarantined from the general membership and their children.

EDIT: Some initial feedback has argued that the church is more concerned about people accepting gay people and their families than about homosexual contagion. I think there is clearly some merit to this, of course. The recent Pew data show that acceptance of homosexual and same-sex marriage has risen drastically among Mormons in the last 7 years.  But, I think the earlier statements about the children of such relationships as being morally suspect for not learning proper gender roles cannot be overlooked.

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