It shouldn’t have hit me as hard as it did. But as soon as I read the Mormon Church’s recent handbook change on same-sex marriage, I felt it in my gut.
In short, the church’s new policy, which John Dehlin leaked two weeks ago, now directly defines same-sex marriage as an act of apostasy and requires children of same-sex couples to specifically disavow their relationship, and to no longer be residing within that household, in order to be baptized. On its surface, this might seem like a slight change. The Mormon Church already considers same-sex behavior to be sinful and it already places certain limitations on who can be freely baptized. So I don’t blame outside observers for not understanding what all the fuss is about, or for not caring. “The Mormon Church is anti-gay. Who knew?”
By all rights, I shouldn’t care either. I’ve been out of the church for years and years, as have most of the people I love. I’m in a same-sex relationship with my partner who, when push comes to shove, is all the family I need. I’ve been more or less content to watch the Mormon Church toe the homophobic line, counting down the decades until it inevitably buckles to social pressure and changes course, as it did in 1890 on polygamy and in 1978 on race. But some of my closest family members remain in the faith and, in the instant I read the details of the new policy, I lost all hope that their religion and the religion of my birth would approve of my relationship with my partner while we’re all still alive.
Why am I so pessimistic? After Obergefell, there were two routes the church could have taken, given its historic opposition to same-sex marriage.
Here’s Route 1: First, church leaders reaffirm a moral opposition to same-sex marriage while acknowledging the law of the land. They already did that. Then, slowly, consensus builds within the church that homosexuality and same-sex relationships are morally acceptable. The latest Pew data was promising in that respect, showing that 36 percent of Mormons believe homosexuality should be accepted by society and 26 percent favor the legalization of same-sex marriage. The fact that one in four Mormons alive today disagree with the church’s previous political stance on same-sex marriage? That’s monumental. That puts a “revelation” about same-sex marriage being totally cool with God now well within reach. Add to that the significant advocacy happening within the church around LGBT rights and women’s claims to the priesthood, and there were enough signs that the course change could happen while there was still time left to reconcile with some of my older family members.
But here’s Route 2: Retaliation. That’s the route the church seems to be taking and, historically, it’s a sign that the church is hunkering down for a long fight. In a press release, the church all but admitted that the policy change was, in part, payback for same-sex marriage: “With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders.” Based on this admission, at least, the policy change doesn’t seem like something that was on the table pre-Obergefell. It comes across as a knee-jerk reaction to losing the culture war. It feels petty, mean, and short-sighted. And it stubbornly fixes the Mormon Church to a point even further from America’s new moral center than it already was.
Part of the reason why the handbook change comes as such a shock is because, up until now, the church didn’t seem to be on Route 2. After initially kicking up a fuss about the Boy Scouts of America allowing gay troop leaders, the church decided—post-Obergefell, even—to preserve its relationship with the BSA so long as it could maintain control over its own troops. That was a pleasant surprise. I had anecdotal data, too, like an increase in the number of Mormon friends and family members who were sending me friend requests on Facebook even though I’m openly gay and my profile picture still has the rainbow overlay on it. They don’t always talk to me if I accept their requests, but they watch, and I have a feeling that some of them have been doing some soul-searching.
So although I wasn’t expecting the church to reverse course on same-sex marriage anytime soon, I never saw this coming. And the fact that so many members seem so hurt by the handbook change, with hundreds of them publicly resigning over it this weekend, proves that Mormon leaders are more willing to wound their own members than they are to hold the course and await for further guidance from “on high.” Why? Because they know that if they don’t go on the offensive, then the church will change out from under them. It already is changing out from under them. The handbook change is an insurance policy, a legacy of bigotry intentionally being left behind by the current Quorum of the Twelve that will take years for those who stay in the church to undo, if they stay.
What’s terrifying to consider is that this policy change isn’t the knee-jerk, short-sighted rebuttal it felt like. This may indeed be a deliberate choice about which kind of church the Mormon Church will be for the next few decades: the proudly “peculiar” (read: politically regressive) religion that clings to a form of bigotry well past its expiration date, or the church that cares enough about its “perception problem” to hire top advertising agencies to shake off an anti-gay image. With the very same members that could liberalize the church from within now leaving it in droves, the former possibility is seeming more and more likely. In the nineteenth century, when Mormonism was less centralized, the church would have schismed over an issue like this. Now, it will just atrophy instead.
There was a future under Route 1 in which the church modernized as a whole, albeit at a glacial pace. But with this one, tiny but monumental change, the Mormon Church isn’t whole anymore. It’s bleeding and by the time it heals—if it heals—the people it pushed away won’t want to come back. You don’t have to be a prophet to see that future. The leaders of the Mormon Church saw it, and they chose homophobia instead. I just wish they didn’t take my family with them.