The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed to have made its peace with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision over the last four months. Senior leaders rejected civil disobedience a la Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, and helped pass a housing discrimination bill in the Utah legislature that included protections for gay people. The church also decided to maintain its close relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, notwithstanding that organization’s willingness to allow gay scoutmasters.
But in a strong signal that respect for the law and for organizational federalism don’t amount to a softening of the Mormon religious position on gay unions, the church has informed its lay leaders that same-sex marriage is apostasy. The children of same-sex couples will be barred from the faith until they turn 18 and repudiate their parents’ unions.
On the surface, this guidance seems to be in tension with the church’s relative flexibility since the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges. However, there’s a clear internal logic at work. On one hand, LDS teaching in the modern era has emphasized obedience to the law and especially to the U.S. Constitution, which many church members consider to be divinely inspired. In formal legal terms, Mormons are and seek to remain integrated in American political life. This mainstream status was hard-won over a history of plural marriage suppressed by federal law, and the church leadership has no intention of weakening it.
On the other hand, Mormons are proud to maintain a very distinct set of religious beliefs. When it comes to the rigor of their faith, most church members are perfectly content to be a people apart. Their religious rituals remain largely private and indeed secret: You can’t attend many Mormon rites, including marriages, unless you’re not only a Mormon but also possess a “temple recommend,” a kind of certificate of membership in good standing that can be withdrawn by church leaders for failure to adhere to the commands of the faith.
Seen from this perspective, the church’s leadership is supremely unworried about the political-cultural consequences of strongly condemning same-sex unions for Mormons.
A useful comparison may be drawn to Pope Francis’ recent efforts in the direction of liberalizing access to the sacraments for divorced Catholics. No doubt the pope is motivated by sincere religious belief, but he’s also surely responding to a sense that if the church continues to deviate doctrinally from the social practice of divorce, it will cost the church members, especially in North America and Europe. Declining church attendance and affiliation are part of the religious calculus.
The LDS church, in contrast, continues to grow in the United States, as well as worldwide. Its leadership therefore doesn’t have to worry about alienating members by adhering to its traditional rejection of same-sex marriages.
Some aspects of the new church guidance may be difficult for compassionate church leaders to enforce in practice, particularly those relating to children. It’s easy to imagine people under the age of 18 who are deeply and sincerely committed to the church and want desperately to be included, but whose parents are in same-sex unions. This would pose, no doubt, a wrenching dilemma for a local stake president who wanted to follow his church’s guidance but sympathized with a young believer who might feel rejected through no fault of his or her own.
Yet it’s also worth noticing that what might appear to be harsh guidance actually may leave some room for implicit toleration. Declaring that Mormons in same-sex marriages may be excommunicated might subtly imply that gay people who don’t solemnize their unions could be allowed within the fold — perhaps even if they live with same-sex partners.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the LDS Church is adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The social pressure and condemnation of active homosexuality would no doubt make that difficult. Nevertheless, by creating clear guidelines on what’s prohibited, the church may, intentionally or otherwise, be leaving the door open for that which isn’t expressly treated as grounds for exclusion.
What, if anything, will lead the LDS church to a more liberal attitude toward gay Mormons? It’s worth noting that the prospects for future tolerance or even openness are stronger in a faith that believes in continuing revelation than they are in one, such as Orthodox Judaism, that cleaves to traditional teachings interpreted by traditional methods.
The phenomenon of continuing revelation means that no element of LDS doctrine is totally unchangeable — witness the end of plural marriage or the extension of the priesthood to blacks.
Historically, Mormonism has liberalized when legal and social pressure from the outside have made that change seem inevitable. And the evolution has been substantial, as one can see by comparing the practices and beliefs of the mainstream LDS church with its various fundamentalist cousins.
In 25 years, then, if American attitudes toward gay marriage and gay couples continue to evolve in the direction of equality and full acceptance, one would expect the church’s beliefs and practices to evolve as well. That may seem a long time for faithful LDS members who happen to be gay. But the mills of God grind slowly.
— Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.