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Mormon Homophobia and the Unintended Theological Crisis

Mormon Homophobia and the Unintended Theological Crisis November 11, 2015

By Stuart Parker.

On Thursday, November 5th, 2015, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), colloquially known as the Mormons, announced a new set of policies to reinforce the hard line it has taken against homosexuality. Since becoming the primary sponsor and proponent of Proposition Eight, the 2008 amendment to California’s state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, the LDS have jockeyed for position among conservative American religions to distinguish themselves as the most intractably opposed to homosexuality.

In those seven years, the LDS have engaged with questions of women’s access to priesthood and other offices in the church hierarchy in the same spirit, offering more vehement, robust and conclusive denunciations of gender equality that competing religious formations, such as the Roman Catholic Church under Benedict XVI.

While each round of anti-gay pronouncements and policies has elicited protest and criticism from more liberally-inclined LDS members, this new set of policies has immediately engendered far deeper and more broad-based opposition, going well beyond the usual chorus of liberal voices at the margins of the Church. Indeed, many opposing these new policies are, themselves, convinced, faithful Mormon opponents of same-sex marriage and female ordination. On social media, many of even the most orthodox Mormons are seeking to explain the policy away as an ephemeral error or mis-statement that will soon be cleared up.

Until this week, Mormons were encouraged to convert youths and adolescents in non-Mormon families. And they still are. Unless those families have two parents of the same sex. Children raised in Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, or even Satanist families are welcome to join the LDS Church but not the children of same-sex unions; they are specifically prohibited from joining until they reach the age of twenty-one and, even then, must swear special vows condemning their parents and voiding their family units. While the LDS declaration that living in a same-sex union is now understood to constitute apostasy, irrespective of its legality, might constitute a problem for liberal Mormons, it is the elements of the policy concerning the children of these couples that is producing a much more far-reaching outcry, rooted in the faith’s unique scriptures and foundational narratives. Thursday’s announcement appears to do considerable violence to fundamental aspects of the Church’s core theology.

Mormons distinguish themselves from other Christians based on scriptures that only their church recognizes (The Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants), scriptures that non-Mormons understand to have been authored by Joseph Smith in response to burning theological questions of the early and mid-19th century. Mormons, on the other hand, understand them to have been translated by Smith but authored by various Hebrew prophets including Abraham and Moses, and, in some cases, by God himself.

There was a lot of controversy over infant baptism in Joseph Smith’s day and Mormon scripture responded with a detailed theology dealing with intersection between the age of majority/consent, free will, parental prerogatives and salvation. Mormon scripture, speaking with the voice of either God or Jesus, explains that children between the ages of eight and eighteen are absolutely free to make adult decisions about their salvation and religious affiliation and those decisions, for good or ill, count in eternity. It also explains that children under eight must not be punished, on earth or in heaven, for the decisions taken by adults, even if those adults are their parents or priests.

Upon reaching the age of twelve, according to current Church practice, young men are eligible to become priests, holding the “Aaronic priesthood” and receiving an ecclesiastical rank in the church. The “age of accountability,” of eight, from which time forward children may make decisions about their salvation as adults, Mormon scripture sources directly to God himself:

And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood… And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents… And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands… Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, and I come quickly. Amen. (Doctrine and Covenants 68)

There is a long tradition of faith-promoting literature in the LDS tradition in which children of non-Mormon parents see the correctness of Mormonism and convert despite familial opposition and even disownment. Such stories have only grown in importance as the LDS missionary program has globalized and its missionaries—often themselves under the age of majority in the US—have reached out to adolescents the world over who are questioning their parents’ faith and familial religious traditions. Indeed, much of the appeal of the LDS missionary program, which seems structured in some ways as a reverse-Rumspringa, has come to inhere in the youth and sincerity, as opposed to seasoned proficiency of the faith’s global missionary army.

Mormon missionaries are typically eighteen- and nineteen-year-old men who have just received the ironic title of “Elder” prior to their missionary vocation are, as of Thursday instructed that they may not convert individuals their own age if they are being raised in a family rooted in a same-sex union. And, if approached by such individuals, unsolicited, must turn them down as unworthy converts.

These doctrinal changes, more than simply confirming a two-decade trajectory of social conservatism, eviscerate a core doctrine of the Mormon faith, that of “free agency,” which Mormon theologians proudly trumpet as distinct from and superior to mainline Christianity’s “free will.” Much of Mormonism’s seductiveness in gaining and retaining young members has come from its recognition of the capacity of children and youth to make real choices for which they are accountable. Today, for many Mormons, it appears that that foundational principle, on which so much Mormon culture and organization—never mind doctrine—depends, is now in retreat.

The impending crisis the Mormon world now faces may have been occasioned by bigotry towards same-sex couples. But the bigotry, itself, is no long the central issue. Rather, it is the over-reach, the hubristic effort to rewrite Mormon theology from the bottom up to serve that bigotry, that has thrown Mormondom into its biggest doctrinal crisis in more than a generation.

Stuart Parker holds a PhD in History and Religious Studies from the University of Toronto. A former postdoctoral fellow with Brigham Young University, he is presently under contract to produce History Through Seer Stones: A Hundred Years of Mormon Pasts for Kofford Books.


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10 responses to “Mormon Homophobia and the Unintended Theological Crisis”

  1. Huh? Lost me there, Russ. But thanks for reminding me again of those famous closing lines from Second Coming…

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  2. kiwi57, your aggressive rudeness is unseemly for a Latter-day Saint, i.e., you do more harm than good to the image of the Church. Is this your intention?

  3. Don’t forget that children of Muslim parents must jump through similar hoops, contrary to the author’s implication.

  4. Thanks for an excellent discussion on the illogic of the LDS church’s latest wrong turn on social policy. The Elders took a half-step forward with their tepid support last year for legalized same-sex marriage but this latest move was two steps back. It’s as if the Elders talk to no one and take no counsel from anyone but each other, and are completely insulated from rational, higher thought processes.

    Most protestant christian religious denominations have embraced psychology as a central tenet of their approach to ministry. LDS Elders, on the other hand, appear to reject out of hand any such informing body of knowledge in favor of a backward-facing fealty to the illogic of Brother Brigham’s racist anti-black policy that hung around like a brick around the church’s neck for 125 years before someone had the courage to respond to near-unanimous criticism from people outside and many inside the church. The anti-polygamy theology still today presents a tissue of lies to cover up the politically expedient decision to renounce the practice in order to gain statehood (and greater political and financial power) 125 years ago.

    The strategy, or should I say the response (it’s not much of a strategy) of the Elders is to tacitly acknowledge that which is so indefensible and so at odds with the outside world that it threatens their own power and prestige (and recruiting), and make incremental changes only when forced to do so, while in cases like gay marriage which the church sees no immediate downside to maintaining their opposition, they simply double down.

    The mass resignation ceremony last week is the first of what promises to be a much larger rejection of the church as a legitimate and relevant spiritual body, by many of their own members and especially the outside world. When this decision starts to affect their recruiting and revenues, they will announce a new revelation and then set about pretending they always supported gay marriage. It’s what Mormon Elders do!

  5. Uh, a few years back, Dan Peterson posted and then retracted some big “reveal” on his blog with my IRL name. Hate to burst your bubble, but I’m not the droid you’re looking for. I’ve never been a participant in the apologetic discussion board subculture where apparently someone by the handle “Scratch” is somebody’s archnemesis, or something. The only scratch in my world is the one I got scratching my head over the Keystone cops who somehow fingered me. It was good for a few chuckles at a family reunion that year.

  6. you are accusing the author of being a son of the devil,writing nothing but lies? Isn’t that pretty harsh? Or are you replying to a whole history of posts that you think warrant that title?

    PR Chris

  7. This article is polemic, pure and simple.

    Here’s just a sampling:

    “the LDS have jockeyed for position among conservative American religions
    to distinguish themselves as the most intractably opposed to
    homosexuality.”

    For sure, that’s what they’re doing—trying to win in a competition with other churches for intractability towards homosexuals.

    Reality: the “policies” reflect doctrine that hasn’t changed for, I dunno, a few thousands of years, I guess. The clarifying aspect is about the children of married gay couples (more on that below).

    “On social media, many of even the most orthodox Mormons are seeking to
    explain the policy away as an ephemeral error or mis-statement that will
    soon be cleared up.”

    Doesn’t jive with my experience at all. I haven’t seen ANY “orthodox Mormons” explaining it away as “an ephemeral error or mis-statement.” Rather, I’ve seen some exhorting others to understand some of its ramifications before casting stones, and others asking people to just calm down–very different from qualifying it as an error. Of course, I may be looking at the wrong blogs…

    “Until this week, Mormons were encouraged to convert youths and
    adolescents in non-Mormon families. And they still are. Unless those
    families have two parents of the same sex. Children raised in Catholic,
    Muslim, Buddhist, or even Satanist families are welcome to join the LDS
    Church but not the children of same-sex unions…”

    This is factually wrong, or, at a minimum, incomplete. From a church policy standpoint, I understand children of polygamists are in exactly the same boat. On my son’s mission to a predominantly Muslim nation—where proselytizing among Muslims was forbidden by law—missionaries were not allowed by mission rules to teach Muslims, even if they requested it. Even in my mission, many, many, many, years ago, there was a directive to try to teach whole families; although the teaching of teenagers was not completely forbidden, it was very highly discouraged, requiring permission from higher up in the mission hierarchy (sound familiar?).

    So, I guess, all those children of polygamists, one-time teenagers in my mission, and Muslims are going straight to hell, together with the kids of gay couples, right? Well, not exactly. As a wise former Bishop of mine once said, “It’s not over till it’s over; and it’s not over for a long, LONG time.” We “orthodox Mormons” believe in eternity generally, and in a post-mortal life specifically, where people still have agency. Not accepting the gospel as a teenager does not damn them. As a worst-case scenario, because all who haven’t heard the gospel here will have a chance to make up their minds in the next life—if they don’t even get the chance to hear it in this world, they will in the next.

    Also—
    Imagine a committed, married Gay couple (meaning, they are not only committed to each other, but to the concept of gay marriage) with a 12-year-old daughter that wants to join the church. “Hey, Mom, Mom, I’m planning on joining a religion that teaches that how you are living is morally heinous, and that your marriage is not ‘true.’ Are you OK with that?” It seems to me that wise parents–gay or not–might say, “That’s a potential source of real contention in our home, dear. Maybe it would be better if you waited until you are an adult to make that decision.” Is it possible that the brethren are trying to help even families of gay parents avoid contention in their homes? ( Nah! I couldn’t be THAT! They MUST be ‘jocky[ing]’ to be the church that is the most ‘intractably opposed to homosexuality.’)

    “There is a long tradition of faith-promoting literature in the LDS
    tradition in which children of non-Mormon parents see the correctness of
    Mormonism and convert despite familial opposition and even disownment.”

    Those stories certainly exist, and many of those stories are venerated, too! On the other hand, most of them occurred during pioneer times. There are also stories of young people faithfully being “active” in the church from a young age, waiting patiently until they are adults, when they can make the decision to be baptized. In fact, in recent memory, I seen a lot more of the latter than the former. (Gee, I wonder why the author only mentioned the one set of stories, and not the other?)

    “Today, for many Mormons, it appears that that foundational principle [“free” agency], on
    which so much Mormon culture and organization—never mind
    doctrine—depends, is now in retreat.”

    Not if they understand the doctrine of agency, it isn’t. (BTW, it isn’t “free” agency as the author styles it; nor do I remember “Mormon theologians proudly trumpet[ing]” it, but never mind.) Agency does not now and never has trumped the consequences of not obeying commandments (that is, “sin”). (The exception, of course, being if those sins have been repented of, by faith and reliance on Christ’s atonement.) So, if homosexuality is sin, what has changed? (Answer: not much; just a policy about children; see above.)

    (Note: in case you’re wondering, the need to be respectful and loving toward homosexuals—as we should to all of God’s children—has been made more explicit, but the doctrine about the behavior really hasn’t.)

    “Rather, it is the over-reach, the hubristic effort to rewrite Mormon
    theology from the bottom up to serve that bigotry, that has thrown
    Mormondom into its biggest doctrinal crisis in more than a generation.”

    OK. Let’s agree to call it a “crisis.” Is it a “doctrinal” crisis? (Answer: no; see above.) Then what kind of crisis is it? Like most things of this nature, it is a crisis of FAITH. It’s simple, really. Either the brethren are inspired by God, or they’re ‘over-reach[ing] in a hubristic effort to rewrite’ doctrine. Either I’m willing, in spite of any thoughts or feelings I may initially have to the contrary, to follow the brethren until I understand, or I’m not. Either the church is “true,” or it isn’t.

    If you have faith, as in the first choice in each pair (like I strive to have), this article isn’t helpful, or even enlightening. It’s just “tinkling cymbals and sounding brass.”

    If fall into the second choice of each dilemma—you don’t have faith that the church is “true,” you don’t believe the brethren are inspired, etc.—then why do you care what the church or the brethren do?

    I suppose if you’re on the fence, it matters. But, if that is the case, do you think this article trying to objectively help clarify things for you? Or, is it trying to persuade you to a particular point of view? In other words, what is the aim, goal, or purpose of this article?

    To me, it looks like it is intended to tear down the faith of others, or at minimum, confirm the negative side for any that may be “questioning,” without giving the other side any “air time.” Contrary to Prairie Dog Rebellion’s comment, this is NOT “…an excellent discussion on the illogic [sic] of the LDS church’s latest wrong turn on social policy.” It’s just another cleverly-written polemic against the church and its leaders.

    Shrug. Yawn.

    —comanche