RELIGION LIBRARY

Mormonism

Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

The Mormon Church has always held that men and women bear different responsibilities in ecclesiastical, social, and home life. In 1995, the Church issued a proclamation stating that gender is an essential, eternal part of individual identity.

A divine sanction is understood also to apply to gender roles. Only men hold the Church's priesthood, which means that the Church's hierarchy is exclusively male. On a practical level, however, women play a large role in Mormon congregations as part of the work done by the Church's auxiliary for women, called the Relief Society, the children's Primary organization, and in various teaching roles.

Mormonism holds that men bear the responsibility of providing for the family while the wife stays in the home and cares for the children. While Church leaders have acknowledged that some circumstances may render the ideal arrangement impossible, they also emphasize that in cases where men are physically able to work, women should not seek employment outside of the home. This commitment to clearly defined gender roles informed the Church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970s. In several states, the Church organized meetings and took other steps to help defeat the amendment, which Church leaders believed would encourage women to explore options beyond stay-at-home motherhood and thus erode the structure of the family. Modern Mormon women are encouraged to obtain as much education as they can before they are married, but the admonition to be educated is often couched in terms of preparation to provide for a family in case a woman never marries or her husband is physically unable to work.

Sexual morality is a major area of emphasis for Mormons. The Church requires that individuals abstain from all sexual activity, including the use of pornography, before marriage and that once wed they remain completely faithful to the marriage covenant. For Mormons, sins against the law of chastity are second to murder in moral gravity. During the 1970s, Church leaders made statements suggesting that certain sexual practices, such as oral sex, between married persons were considered "impure" and that bishops and stake presidents should refuse admittance to the Church's temples if applicants were guilty of such activity. In recent years, however, the Church has made it a matter of policy to preclude local leaders from asking married persons anything about their private sexual lives beyond the general question about fidelity to a spouse.

A similar shift has occurred in the case of birth control. Until the 1980s, Church leaders actively condemned any practice that limited family size, including the use of artificial birth control. Today, the Church remains silent on the issue, except to say that the number of children a family has is an intimate matter to be decided between the wife, the husband, and God. Accompanying this shift is a redefinition of the purpose of sex between married persons, which is now seen not only as a means of conceiving children, but also as an important element in the emotional life of a couple.

Like other conservative Christian groups, Mormons condemn homosexual activity as unnatural and sinful. Mormon theology holds that a marriage between a man and a woman, when performed in a Mormon temple, is an organization that will continue after death. These "sealings" of husbands to wives and children to parents form one of the core elements of Mormon life. Thus, homosexuality and gay marriage are at odds with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Mormon practice.

With regard to the cause of homosexuality, however, Church leaders have, over the past decade, made a shift. Before the 1990s, most Church leaders taught that homosexuality either was chosen or was the result of some sort of perverse experimentation or abuse. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Church encouraged Mormon men who had homosexual feelings to enter into heterosexual marriages, with the belief that sufficient exposure to heterosexual sex would eliminate homosexual feelings. Partly due to the many shattered marriages and families that resulted from such a policy, the Church now explicitly teaches that marriage should not be used as a "cure" for homosexuality. The Church now holds that the origins and causes of homosexual feelings are ambiguous and may be genetic in nature, and they maintain that homosexual feelings are not sinful, although any behavior following from such desires is. In the fall of 2008, the Church actively supported a proposition in California that would effectively make illegal any sort of marriage except that between one man and one woman. The proposition passed, but the Church faced a considerable backlash from the gay community that included peaceful demonstrations at the Church's temple in Los Angeles, as well as isolated incidents of vandalism to Mormon Churches.

Complicating the Church's involvement with the "traditional" marriage movement is the history of Mormon polygamy. Many of the same arguments offered by opponents of gay marriage were deployed in the 19th century in the effort to abolish the Mormon practice of plural marriage. The LDS Church openly practiced polygamy from 1852 until 1890, but Church-approved plural marriages continued until the second decade of the 20th century. Since that time, persons entering into or performing plural marriages are excommunicated from the Church, a practice that has led to the formation of a number of schismatic sects, typically called "Fundamentalist Mormons," that continue to engage in the practice. 


Study Questions:
1.     What are the prescribed gender roles within the Mormon church?
2.     How is sexuality dictated through Mormon faith?
3.     Describe the evolving relationship between sexuality and polygamy, since Mormonism's origin.
4.     What is Mormonism's stance on homosexuality? Has it progressed over time? Why or why not?

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