By Eric Johnson
On November 15, 2022, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to publicly support a “marriage” bill that includes those involved in same-sex unions. The bill, titled the “Respect for Marriage Act” by its sponsors, was passed by the Senate on November 16th by a 62-37 vote, overriding a possible filibuster. On the floor of the Senate, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) referenced the church’s surprise support of the bill as a reason why it should pass.
Utah Senator Mitt Romney voted for the bill while Senator Mike Lee opposed it. Both men are members of the LDS Church. The bill now goes to the House where it is expected to be passed and then signed into law by the president.
The vote for the bill in the Senate had been delayed until after the general US election on November 8, although the House passed a similar bill last summer. While other federal laws protect same-sex unions, the supporters of the bill felt that this right could have been at risk after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade–the 1973 decision that banned abortion at the federal level–and gave the ability to legislate abortion laws to the individual states on June 24, 2022.
The bill has been criticized by several prominent Christian leaders. Franklin Graham, the head of Samaritan’s Purse and the son of Billy Graham, wrote on Facebook on November 15th and called it “the Destruction of Marriage Act.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler called the bill a threat to the traditional family. He wrote, “Anyone who would redefine marriage, the most fundamental building block of society, is no conservative, no friend of the natural family , and no defender of family values.” Source
President Joe Biden was ecstatic with the legislative victory in the Senate. “Love is love, and Americans should have the right to marry the person they love,” he said after the Senate’s vote. “Today’s bipartisan vote brings the United States one step closer to protecting that right in law.”
Although it wasn’t discussed in the church’s official statement, the Respect for Marriage Act bill repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that had declared marriage to be only between a man and a woman.
The question now remains: Should the LDS Church leadership have been involved with this political situation? And has the cat been let out of the bag when it comes to the church’s stance on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions?
A risky move by LDS leaders
This bill has been debated since the summer of 2022, yet the LDS Church waited until the day before the US Senate voted to declare its support. One change from the original bill passed by the House last summer is that non-profit educational institutions and agencies would be exempt from declaring support for same-sex unions or being forced to hire those with alternative sexual orientations. This amendment is advantageous for the church’s colleges and its religious structure.
Another provision that may have helped get the LDS Church’s support is that polygamy is specifically not protected by the bill. “I guarantee the church was happy that polygamy is not protected,” said Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. “The church does not not want to touch polygamy with a 10-foot pole.” Source
In addition, perhaps Utah Senator Mitt Romney–a cheerleader for the bill and a stanch Latter-day Saint–was instrumental in getting the church to give its endorsement with the addition of this protection to the church.
Here in full is the church’s statement as found on its official website:
The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints related to marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged.
We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
We believe this approach is the way forward. As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding.
First of all, why did the church feel it was necessary to make any statement on this bill in the first place? Traditionally, the church has stayed out of most political debates, especially topics this controversial. Why this? Why now?
Second, why did the statement indicate a sidling up to the “LGBTQ brothers and sisters” while ignoring their polygamous and polyandrous brothers and sisters? After all, the federal bill clearly denies marriage to anyone other than a man and woman as well as those in same-sex unions. Wouldn’t it be fair to include all marriages and not just limit marriage to a man and a woman or two people of the same gender?
On the floor of the Senate, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) referenced the church’s surprise support of the bill as a reason why it should pass.
When the phrase “brothers and sisters” is used, we must understand that this would refer to all humans who obeyed Jesus in the preexistence as spirit children. Thus, those involved in polygamous/polyandrous marriages should also be considered “brothers and sisters.” Consider this explanation of spirit children:
While members of other Christian denominations may speak metaphorically of all humankind being brothers and sisters and children of God, Latter-day Saints believe it literally in the sense that a father in heaven and a Mother in Heaven created spirit children in a premortal existence. Those spirit children, born into this or other worlds as mortal men and women, are therefore all of the same “generation” and are literally brothers and sisters, children of deity.Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:234.
Of course, Latter-day Saints can point to the first sentence of the church’s statement to indicate that no change has been made on the church’s teaching of limiting marriage between a man and a woman. However, this did not stop a number of people–especially supporters of homosexual unions–from considering the church’s endorsement of the bill to be a major move in the direction that marriage should not be limited to a man and a woman.
For instance, the Salt Lake Tribune recorded this reaction from Allison Dayton, founder of the Lift and Love foundation for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints:
It answers, once and for all, the question, “Can members of the church support same-sex marriage?” The answer is yes, and the church does, too [as long as the wedding takes place outside of the faith]. This news is an enormous relief to families of gay children who can now comfortably shower their gay children with the same love and support they give their straight children who marry.”
Notice how Dayton–apparently a member of the church– believes that the church’s support of this bill means its members are free to publicly support same-sex marriage! Meanwhile, Taylor Petrey, who teaches religion at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College and has written a book on Mormonism, called the church’s statement “a dramatic reversal of previous teachings.” Source
We even heard from one dedicated Christian pastor on December 16th who said how he believed the church “capitulated” on this issue and he felt it meant the church must be endorsing same-sex unions. Is this the way the leaders intended their short statement to be conveyed? I doubt it, but that’s the way it is being taken. It will require herculean efforts to counter this perception.
It was about four decades ago (imagine that!) when I took college classes in public relations. My professors were adamant that the perception of the public was the crucial ingredient in this field. Reality in an objective sense, they said, didn’t matter, but only the public’s perception matters.
In a November 17th Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece, editorial writer Gordon Monson–who claims to be “a practicing and believing Mormon“–seemed exasperated at the opposition by some vocal LDS members against their church’s support of the bill. The headline of his short piece on page A13 is “If you oppose the LDS Church’s support of same-sex marriage bill, fine. Just don’t be a hypocrite.” Under this headline on the online version, the subhead reads: “Some zealous Latter-day Saints now find themselves questioning their faith’s top leaders. They should keep that in mind when other members do the same from time to time.”
Claiming church members were hypocrites, Monson wrote in part:
It’s notable that some members believe deeply in the divine guidance of prophets and apostles — individuals they say are called by the Almighty to teach and lead not just the “only true church,” but also people of all walks of life, all beliefs, everybody in the entire world — criticizing those who question some of their organizational decisions … until those same prophets and apostles take a position with which they disagree. Then, suddenly, those formerly inspired folks have gone rogue, in their view, and are no longer the mouthpieces of God. Source (Ellipsis his)
Although I have not directly heard large opposition by church members, Monson apparently has, which doesn’t surprise me. Many Latter-day Saints must certainly be confused about where the church now stands on this issue. They have to wonder wonder if the church is now in disagreement with its teaching in the past about homosexual behavior?
In the next section, let’s consider how same-sex unions and the practice of homosexuality goes against the church’s official doctrinal position.
Same-sex unions are considered “sin”
Probably the most outspoken general authority against homosexuality and same-sex unions was twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball. His book The Miracle of Forgiveness went out of print in 2015; it has been vilified by many because Kimball condemned homosexuality, calling the practice a “transgression” and “abominable” as well as full of “perversion” and “evil.” He also said that it is not “holy” and is an “ugly” and “heinous sin.” (For more on Kimball’s book, see The Miracle of Forgiveness.)
In this context, where stands the perversion of homosexuality? Clearly it is hostile to God’s purpose in that it negates his first and great commandment to “multiply and replenish the earth.” If the abominable practice became universal it would depopulate the earth in a single generation. It would nullify God’s great program for his spirit children in that it would leave countless unembodied spirits in the heavenly world without the chance for the opportunities of mortality and would deny to all the participants in the practice the eternal life God makes available to us all.The Miracle of Forgiveness, 81.
Someone might suggest that Kimball’s words should be considered merely his personal opinion because they were not printed in an authoritative book. Yet in an official general conference talk that he gave in October 1980, President Kimball agreed with his previous views as an apostle and declared how “this heinous homosexual sin is of the ages.”
He added in the talk that “the Lord condemns and forbids this practice with a vigor equal to his condemnation of adultery and other such sex acts. And the Church will excommunicate as readily any unrepentant addict” (“President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1980, 97).
Kimball is not the only general authority who has spoken out on the sinfulness of the practice of homosexuality. Dallin H. Oaks, the current First Counselor in the First Presidency, taught how it was not the “inclinations” of homosexuality that is sin, but rather acting out on the behavior. He said,
The distinction between feelings or inclinations on the one hand, and behavior on the other hand, is very clear. It’s no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression. The sin is in yielding to temptation. Temptation is not unique. Even the Savior was tempted.“Same-Gender Attraction,” Newsroom.
Meanwhile, two popular church manuals currently sold by Deseret Book teach that “homosexual activity is a serious sin.”
Like other violations of the law of chastity, homosexual activity is a serious sin. It is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality (see Romans 1:24–32). It distorts loving relationships and prevents people from receiving the blessings that can be found in family life and the saving ordinances of the gospel.True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, 30-31.
Like other violations of the law of chastity, homosexual behavior is a serious sin. Latter-day prophets have spoken about the dangers of homosexual behavior and about the Church’s concern for people who may have such inclinations.Gospel Principles, 2009, 227.
Notice how Gospel Principles says that LDS prophets “have spoken about the dangers of homosexual behavior.” Could this be a direct reference to Kimball’s teaching? Probably, even though Kimball is vilified today by many progressive Mormons.
In 2019, I offered free copies of The Miracle of Forgiveness to Latter-day Saints who were leaving the temple open house grounds in Mesa, AZ. While waiting for the walk light to turn green, one woman stood in front of me with her teenage daughter and exclaimed, “How dare you give away that book!”
She told me that she was offended at Kimball’s teaching on homosexuality. I asked, “Was Kimball wrong in his teaching?” “Yes, absolutely,” she replied. “So was he teaching false doctrine?” She agreed that he was. Then I asked, “So do you must believe President Kimball was a false prophet, right?” There were other Latter-day Saints standing there listening to the conversation, so it was obvious she was in an uncomfortable position.
“No, he was a true prophet but he was wrong on this issue,” she said in a more humble manner as the light turned green and she walked away.
Yet the two manuals I cited above show how Kimball’s teaching does correspond with current LDS manuals. As Handbook 2: Administering the Church declares, “approved curriculum materials” are intended “to teach and testify of the doctrines of the gospel” (31).
In 2014, the church explained, “Approved curriculum materials from the Church, such as scriptures, general conference talks, and manuals, contain doctrine–eternal truths from God” (“We Teach By the Power of the Holy Ghost,” Ensign, July 2014, 10. Emphasis mine).
I should point out that the two manuals declaring homosexuality to be “a serious sin” were both produced in the past two decades and remain an important part of the church’s main curriculum. True to the Faith is available through Deseret Book in electronic form for free while the soft cover of Gospel Principles is available for the low cost of $3. With such offers, it is obvious that the church wants these manuals to be distributed and read.
What is the Latter-day Saint to think?
At the end of the church’s press release from November 15th, it stated:
As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding.
Instead of “heal(ing) relationships and foster(ing) greater understanding,” the church appears to have opened the proverbial can of worms that can never be returned to its original condition. The leaders are now going to have to explain how they could lend support to a bill that directly contradicts its stated official position on the subject.
Gordon Monson continued his Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece by writing:
Either it’s OK for members to ask their questions — and sometimes disagree — or it’s not. If it’s not OK, then there’s only one thing for those zealots to do now: Hush up and accept what is handed down and obey. Or change their aggressive, dogmatic approaches. The thought here is, go ahead and think for yourselves. Figure it out for yourselves. Toss things in the air and sort through them. If you’re a believer, think it over, pray over it, come to your peaceful conclusion. Nobody here’s saying go all Martin Luther and nail your reforms to the door. Instead, use the mind and heart and spirit deity has given you and find your way forward.
Notice Monson’s admonition to “think for yourselves” rather than capitulate to the teaching of the leaders. A frequent critic of his church, Monson says that a person may agree or disagree with the leadership as long as the individual member believes he or she possesses personal revelation.
Like many others succumbing to this post-modern society, he advocates going with one’s gut as the best solution to determine truth. Is this really the message the church wants to convey? Or do the leaders demand that they are the ones who determine what ought to be believed and accepted?
I am reminded of this citation from Gordon B. Hinckley given at the end of the October 1992 general conference:
Now, in conclusion, do you believe this body of men would ever lead this Church astray? Remember whose church this is. It carries the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands as its head. His is the power to remove any found remiss in his duty or who is teaching that which is not in harmony with His divine will.“The Church Is on Course,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1992, 59.
Apostle Boyd K. Packer said this in that same conference, “Follow your leaders who have been duly ordained and have been publicly sustained, and you will not be led astray” (“To Be Learned Is Good If …”, Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1992, 73).
I doubt the church leaders will give their approval to the view proposed by Monson that members just need to figure things out for themselves. And it begs the question why anyone would need a “prophet” of God in the first place if members have the ability to determine the truth on their own!
Perhaps the LDS Church was not endorsing same-sex unions when the leaders gave their support for a federal bill legitimizing this practice. Maybe it is true that they were attempting to be a “friendly neighbor.” Sometimes, however, being a friendly neighbor means staying out of your neighbor’s business.
Whether or not the reaction was a surprise to the church’s higher-ups, the perception many people now have is that this religion’s leaders have moved a step closer to legitimizing homosexuality and same-sex unions. Should they then be shocked that this is what many are seeing? But aren’t they supposed to be the “prophets, seers, and revelators” of God who should have known better?
By making this decision to support the Respect for Marriage Act, church leaders have energized its detractors, both within as well as outside the church. While additional changes could be forthcoming to head in the direction of legitimizing homosexual unions within society and even the church, it is doubtful this support will take place in the near future.
After all, it will need to be explained how “eternal marriages” and procreation in the eternities that are solemnized in the LDS temples will now work. Will there be eternal “adoptions” for an exalted same-sex couple? Will a “heavenly father” be allowed to make conjugal visits to a lesbian couple’s celestial kingdom? Or will artificial insemination be allowed? The options already sound absurd.
We also wonder how this perception will sell in the evangelistic efforts aimed at Catholic countries such as Mexico as well as Central and South America. Will missionaries in these areas be more successful in their work among people who generally are more traditionally family-oriented? It doesn’t seem likely.
In addition, we have talked to many converts over the years who joined the LDS Church primarily due to their disdain of the liberal views and policies of some mainline Christian denominations. They were looking for a more conservative, family-friendly church. Could this be an turn off for these more conservative families?
Will there be eternal “adoptions” for an exalted same-sex couple? Will a “heavenly father” be allowed to make conjugal visits to a lesbian couple’s celestial kingdom? Or will artificial insemination be allowed?
We think the church has done itself more harm by supporting this bill than if it had avoided the problem by merely staying out of the fray. The horse is now out of the barn. The church leaders will need to either make additional changes or attempt to reel in the public perception created with its support of this bill. Good luck with that.