In a newspaper interview in 1994, Marty Baudet, the executive director of Affirmation, the flagship gay Mormon support group, said: “I predict society will acknowledge gay rights and, 20 years down the road, the church will find itself out of step once again [as in the case of LDS racial restrictions] and trying not to look bad.”1 Baudet’s prediction was not quite as prophetic as it seems. It took only 19 years.
In the wake of this prediction, the Church would spend the past two decades overtly and covertly engaged in political battles to prevent the legalization and normalization of same-sex marriage. With today’s SCOTUS rulings, the vast amounts of material and political capital spent by the LDS Church and its membership to oppose this change have been spent for naught, and may prove to be counterproductive to the direction the church must now chart.
The question that the LDS church faces is how to navigate its image in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and the norm in the United States. There is little doubt that the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage will stigmatize it and will become one of the key aspects of its public image for the foreseeable future, just as past forays into politics have persisted in its reputation.
Will this change result in “persecution” of religious groups who do not practice same-sex marriages among their membership, like Catholics, conservative evangelicals, and Mormons? I suppose that it depends on what one means by persecution. In spite of fears, it is unlikely that churches will face any material or operational restrictions that are central to core ecclesiastical objectives. These groups will likely face negative public opinion for their views, but a negative opinion is not really persecution. In fact, these groups already hold many views and practice that are publicly unpopular or out of step with legal norms, such as views on abortion, the status of women in the organization, and other controversial historical or doctrinal claims. These discontinuities have not been detrimental, though they do pose long term risks to generational shifts.
Indeed, being on the opposite side of popular public opinion is not a new situation for the LDS Church. The church has faced severe public scrutiny in its history for polygamy, opposition to Civil Rights, LDS racial restrictions on priesthood and temple admission, opposition to equal rights for women, and now same-sex marriage. Still, the LDS church has survived and in many cases thrived in the wake of these challenges. No doubt they continue to haunt the church, but the leadership was able to create new opportunities. In the wake of polygamy, the LDS church adopted the model of the nuclear family as its chief point of identity, a strategy that was successful for a century. After reversing its restrictions on race, the church has grown exponentially in Africa and South America. Even in the aftermath of the ERA victory, the church has benefited from LDS women who have steadily gained influence and won several minor battles over church policy.
There are three possible routes the Church may take in this new situation of the age of same-sex marriage. First, we may see same-sex marriage become a politicized issue similar to abortion rights. Opposition to same-sex marriage may be a staple political issue that will last for decades after this decision. Perhaps it will become a new litmus test for politicians and judges. This future seems unlikely, however, largely because places where SSM has been accepted have not seen prominent movements to roll it back after the initial pushback. Public opinion seems to only move in the direction of favoring same-sex marriage with time. No doubt some conservatives will continue to reject it, but in time conservatives will likely come to embrace it just as they have eventually embraced certain aspects of workers rights, Civil Rights, feminism, and other progressive movements.
Second, we may see the church’s continued opposition to same-sex marriage reduce its appeal in North America, Europe, and other regions, while increasing its appeal in more conservative and traditional societies. Being too far out of step with broader cultural norms does pose some threats to membership. Public and intellectual pressure to conform will take its toll, especially on younger members. As time passes, the shrinking grounds of legitimate arguments opposing same-sex marriage will make it difficult for members to reconcile their faith with political realties. For the past half-century or more, LDS growth in the global north has limped, while having exploded in the global south. Embrace of heterosexual definitions of marriage may appeal to and even accelerate the shift to a non-US based church.
Third, the church may move to various degrees of accommodation of same-sex marriages. Certainly we will continue to see measured and gentler rhetoric about homosexuality in general. The church may, for instance, acknowledge the validity of same-sex marriages for congregation members, even approving bishops to perform them, while still reserving temple sealings for heterosexual couples alone. It is also possible that the church may eventually take steps away from a theology that unnecessarily privileges heterosexuality, as I have argued more fully here.
Just how exactly the church and its members will respond in the coming years to this new reality remains to be seen. While the Church once found itself with a comfortable majority opposing same-sex marriage, it may soon find itself on an iceberg in a melting climate. How it navigates these potentially rough waters will affect decades of members, investigators, and its broader public image in the US and around the world.
1 Mike Carter, “Same Sex Marriage: Are LDS Gearing Up for a Holy War?” Salt Lake Trib. Mar 26, 1994.