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- nineteenth 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.