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Mormons & Gay Marriage

Is the LDS Church modeling the Benedict Option?

Perhaps you heard about the Mormon church issuing strict new rules governing its relationship to Mormons who are in same-sex marriages, and their children. Excerpt:

The new rules stipulate that children of parents in gay or lesbian relationships — be it marriage or just living together — can no longer receive blessings as infants or be baptized at about age 8. They can be baptized and serve missions once they turn 18, but only if they disavow the practice of same-sex relationships, no longer live with gay parents and get approval from their local leader and the highest leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

The church views these acts as promises to follow its doctrine that bind people to the faith.

Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, a volunteer organization that supports the church, said he understood why some would find the changes jarring and consider them meanspirited toward children.

But, he said, he believes the rules are intended to protect gay couples and their families by allowing the children to mature and make the difficult decision at 18 about whether to become fully invested in a religion that holds as a root tenet that their parents’ lifestyle is a sin.

“The idea of family is not just a peripheral issue in the Mormon Church. It’s core doctrine. It’s a central idea that we can be sealed together as a family and live together eternally,” Mr. Gordon said. “That only works with heterosexual couples.”

I don’t know enough about LDS theology to comment on the internal consistency here  — and if you aren’t Mormon, you probably don’t either. And there’s an interesting point in that, one addressed in this terrific column by Jacob Hess, a member of the Latter-Day Saints church, explaining why the LDS see homosexuality the way it does. Hess helpfully describes what’s going on in the conflict between orthodox Mormons and LDS dissenters, as well as non-Mormons who agree with the dissenters, as a clash of irreconcilable narratives. Excerpt:

Welcome to what I call the ‘story wars.’ Front and center in American society, an endlessly fascinating, increasingly intense conflict is unfolding between fundamentally divergent narratives—one woven around the primacy of heterosexual marriage, and the other woven around the celebration of different forms of sexuality and relationships.

Given the sensitivity of these questions, any critique or disagreement can understandably be experienced as a rejection of people themselves, as opposed to a rejection of the particular stories they carry about their identity. In this way, Mormon leaders are taken to be questioning who people are—making it easy to brand Mormonism itself as ‘obviously hateful.’

If that’s what I believed was happening around the new policy on gay couples, I would come to the same conclusion. But I don’t, because I don’t see identity the same way as my friends who identify as gay.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints relish what they call the “restored gospel,” precisely for the new narrative it introduces about who we are and where humanity comes from. It’s a ‘re-storying’ of life that we embrace as a true reflection of things as they are.

This includes a conception of God not as a vapor or an essence or an immensity filling all space, but as a literal Father and Mother from whom all humanity inherits a “divine potential” at the deepest level of our DNA.

No matter whatever else is faced or felt in life, the future possibilities of ‘growing up like Mom and Dad’ touch every aspect of life for the Mormon community. That’s why Mormons get married, enjoy children and family, and have an interest in sharing our convictions with the rest of the world. As one of our apostles has said, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”

Even if you think Mormons are dead wrong, maybe this will help you see how hard it is for us to ‘simply accept’ the identity of non-heterosexual couples as they see it. Barring further revelation from God (which many are admittedly hoping for), doing so would essentially require tossing aside some of our own cherished beliefs about God and the family pathway to becoming like Them.

Read the whole thing.  Again, I cannot comment on Mormon theology, but I am struck by how much this parallels the way orthodox Christianity sees marriage and metaphysics. We too believe that male-female marriage is an icon of God and His creative work, and that it cannot be represented any other way. What’s more, marriage is not simply a representation of divine nature, but also participates in it. In other words, complementary marriage (male-female) is really real, in a way that same-sex marriage cannot be. This is not a legal distinction (because same-sex marriage is a legal reality in many countries now), but a metaphysical one. Though orthodox Christians disagree deeply with Mormons over the nature of God, we share the belief eloquently expressed by Jacob Hess that to discard what the faith teaches about the nature of marriage as a way to participate in theosis, or metaphysical unity with God, is to lose something essential to the faith.

Again, based on what little I know about Mormon theology, the key point to take away here, re: orthodox Christian theology, is that both orthodox Christians and Mormons believe that marriage is not simply the name we give to a specific form of social relationship, but it is also something built into the fabric of reality. As Hess says, you don’t have to believe that story, but if you are going to understand why so many of us on the conservative side of this issue believe as we do, you have to understand that for us, to accept SSM is to deny something we believe is real. And that we cannot do.

This all goes back, of course, to nominalism vs. metaphysical realism. The Christian theologian David Bentley Hart, in his wonderful book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

According to the model that replaced the old metaphysical cosmology, in fact, at least in its still reflexively deistic form, there is no proper communion between mind and matter at all. The mindless machinery of nature is a composite of unrelated parts, in which the unified power of intellect has no proper or necessary place. Even the human mind inhabits the universe only as a kind of tenant or resident alien and not as an integral participant in the greater spiritual order of all things, able to interpret physical reality through a natural intellectual sympathy with and aptitude for it. In mediaeval philosophy it had been a standard precept that the human intellect can know an external object for two related reasons: first, because the intellect and that object both, according to their distinct modes of activity, participate in a single shared rational form (the form, for instance, that is embodied and made particular in a certain pale yellow rose languidly nodding over the rim of its porcelain vase, but that is also present in my thoughts as something at once conceptually understood and sensually intuited in the moment in which I encounter that rose); and, second, because the intellect and that object both together flow from and are embraced within the one infinite source of intelligibility and being that creates all things.

Thus to know anything is already, however faintly and imperfectly, to know the act of God, both within each thing and within the self: a single act, known in the consonance and unity of two distinct instances or poles, one “objective” and one “subjective,” but ultimately inseparable. By contrast, René Descartes (1596–1650)—the philosopher most typically invoked as emblematic of the transition from premodern to modern philosophical method—is often said to have envisaged the human soul as (in Gilbert Ryle’s phrase) a “ghost in the machine.” Whether or not this is entirely fair, it is certainly true that Descartes thought of all organisms, including the human body, as mechanisms, and he certainly thought of the soul as an immaterial “occupant” of the body (although he allowed, in some inadequately explicated way, for interactions between these two radically disparate kinds of substance, and even for their collaboration in a third kind of substance).

According to the earlier model, one could know of God in knowing finite things, simply through one’s innate openness to and dependence upon the logos that shines forth in all things, and on account of the indissoluble, altogether nuptial unity of consciousness and being. According to the Cartesian model, however, in which the soul merely indwells and surveys a mechanical reality with which it has no natural continuity and to which it is related only extrinsically, nothing of the sort is possible. This is largely why, for Descartes, the first “natural” knowledge of God is merely a kind of logical, largely featureless deduction of God’s “existence,” drawn chiefly from the presence in the individual mind of certain abstract ideas, such as the concept of the infinite, which the external world is impotent to have implanted there. All of this was perfectly consistent with the new mechanical view of nature, and all of it set both the soul and God quite apart from the cosmic machine: the one haunting it from within, the other commanding it from without.

As I have said, the dissolution of the geocentric cosmos, with its shimmering meridians and radiant crystal vaults and imperishable splendors, may have been an imaginative bereavement for Western humanity, but it was a loss easily compensated for by the magnificence of the new picture of the heavens. Far more significant in the long run was the disappearance of this older, metaphysically richer, immeasurably more mysterious, and far more spiritually inviting understanding of transcendent reality. In the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all. Thus in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. As a struggle between those who believed in this god of the machine and those who did not, it was a struggle waged for possession of an already godless universe. The rise and fall of Deism was an episode not so much within religious or metaphysical thinking as within the history of modern cosmology; apart from a few of its ethical appurtenances, the entire movement was chiefly an exercise in defective physics. The god of Deist thought was not the fullness of being, of whom the world was a wholly dependent manifestation, but was merely part of a larger reality that included both himself and his handiwork; and he was related to that handiwork only extrinsically, as one object to another. The cosmos did not live and move and have its being in him; he lived and moved and had his being in it, as a discrete entity among other entities, a separate and definite thing, a mere paltry Supreme Being. 

This conception of God, and of the nature of Reality, is more or less what many modern Christians (including, surprisingly, some unaware conservatives!) believe. Whether Jacob Hess understands it or not, he is making an essentially realist argument within the Mormon theological tradition. In that sense, I agree with him. Pro-SSM folks who insist that the only reason traditionalists disagree with them is “hate” and “bigotry” refuse to accept that hate and bigotry have nothing to do with it. Sure, there are plenty of Christians who hate gays, and shame on them. But to dismiss all traditional objections to SSM as nothing more or nothing other than hatred is a cheap and easy out, and one that I don’t take seriously.

In that light, the Mormon action, while harsh, may well be necessary, in the same way that it is necessary to tell someone that if they jump off a cliff, they will not float in the air, but will fall to their deaths. From the point of view of people who believe Mormonism (or Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or orthodox Protestantism) to tell us things that are true about Reality, and not just expressions of what we think and feel about Reality, to live outside of these truths, or in defiance of these truths, may well mean spiritual death. It is not a joke.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her great little book Natural Symbols, credits Emile Durkheim with the insight that social relations tell us what a society thinks about God: “to the extent that society is confused in its structure of relations, to that extent is the idea of God poor and unstable in context.” The converse must also be true: that the extent to which a society’s idea of God is confused, so too will be its structure of relations. For Mormons, it appears, this cultural-anthropological truth is deeply embedded within LDS theology of the family. New generations of Mormons, like new generations of, well, all of us, first learn about the way the world is through the way their families are, and their immediate societies. This may be good, and this may be bad, and it’s probably a bit of both: I’ve written about how much angst I struggled with for most of my life because until recently, I could not disentangle my relationship with God from my fraught relationship with my father. In our adulthood, we may reject the picture of God and the world that we were given in childhood, or we may affirm it, or, again, we may do a bit of both. I certainly have, and you probably have too.

The point to take here is that family and society inescapably shape our views of God, and of ultimate reality — in Richard Weaver’s felicitous term, our “metaphysical dream.” And vice versa. This stuff is very, very important. In the same-sex marriage debate, we are not contending over trivial matters, not at all.

This brings us to a really good short piece from earlier this month by Tom Stringham, titled “Same Sex Marriage and the Mormon Benedict Option”. In it, Stringham, who is Mormon, explains how it is that the Mormon Church criticized Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but also massively tightened up its own internal discipline on marriage. Excerpt:

However, there is a way of drawing a straight line through all of this, and that line may take the form of a Mormon Benedict Option. The Utah legislative compromise, the stepping away from Kim Davis, and even the church’s mild response to Obergefell all fall neatly under Rod Dreher’s definitional criterion (as far as I can discern it) of strategic retreat without disengagement. The new sanctions on same-sex households, likewise, make for an excellent example of the sort of cultural separation and in-group moral renewal involved in actually implementing the Option.

What would distinguish the Mormon Benedict Option from Dreher’s prototype is that it is growing from the top down and not from the grassroots. We should expect this from the Mormons, who have been led into the wilderness by their leaders before. Following prophets may well be the best way forward—local congregations tend to lack the structure needed for radical change. In all the discussion of the Option it’s worth asking whether non-Mormon Christians have forgotten to find a Benedict, and whether Mormons are now leading the way.

Stringham’s point echoes one that this blog’s reader and frequent commenter Sam M. keeps making about the difficult but necessary Benedict Option practice of drawing strong boundaries and enforcing them. The LDS leadership has decided that this issue is so fundamental to the faith that it cannot tolerate dissent. Whether in this instance they are being too legalistic and unmerciful, or telling a hard but saving truth, is impossible to say without a meaningful understanding of Mormon theology, which I do not have. However, I applaud the seriousness with which the leadership takes its role in maintaining the theological integrity of their faith. Read Mary Douglas to understand why actions like Christians casting aside core symbols like the traditional family costs them far more than they understand.

As I see it, you lose the traditional family, and you will lose the faith. We have lost it in public life, thanks to changing customs and the US Supreme Court, but we must not lose it within our religious communities. Stringham is right: the Mormon leadership understands this better than some orthodox Christians do.

UPDATE: Reader IsaacH writes:

I have been waiting for this topic to grace your blog, Rod. As a Mormon, it blew up a few weeks ago on all my social media pages. I want to share a few thoughts:

1) The first thought I’d like to share is how the media blatantly misrepresents anything they consider “homophobic,” casting it in the worst possible light. This new policy is a perfect example: so many are reporting, incorrectly, that the policy requires children of same-sex couples to “disavow their parents” before receiving baptism or other church sacraments (what we call “ordinances”). This is just untrue. The church requires that children “disavow the practice of same-sex marriage,” which is a far cry from disavowing their actual parents. (Although, as Hess stated in the post you quoted from, I suppose many see those as the same thing.)

It’s a minor but crucial distinction, but the media seem completely uninterested in it, saying that the church will force children to basically disown their parents. Rather, I suspect the logic goes like this: the church is very concerned about doctrinal integrity, and are worried (rightly) that support for same-sex marriage will creep into the church; they also worry that children of same-sex married couples are more likely than the average person to support same-sex marriage than the average member; therefore, there is an additional requirement that children of these relationships clearly state that they accept the church’s teachings on this topic.

Why is that so scary for people? A church asking members to affirm teachings they are very public about? What a scandal!

2) The church made a major PR mistake here, and other church’s should take notice. This was a small update made to a church handbook that is only made available to local church leaders — it contains basic instructions on how to administer the policies of the church. So the church did it without fanfare and without explanation. So when it hit the media, the church was caught flat-footed. Rumors flew for days before the church finally put out statements (both text and video) explaining the policy and the reasons behind it. They should have done that beforehand, been up-front with the policy. Many still would have hated the policy, but the church could have better explained its reasoning.

3) I’m tired of people objecting to a policy like this, when really their objection is that the church teaches homosexual relations are sinful. It’s disingenuous. People freak out, not really because of the policy, but because they disagree fundamentally that homosexual activity is a sin. It’s entirely consistent for the church to make policies like that to prevent its members from sinning (in their view) and from supporting sinful behavior. If you disagree that homosexual activity is a sin, fine, but let’s keep focused on the real issue at hand.

4) When the church finally did explain for themselves, they clarified a few things: first, this only applies to children whose primary residence is with same-sex parents; second, this does not apply to children who are already baptized. They also explained, rightly I think, that this policy was at least partially created to protect these children. Imagine joining a church that teaches your current family structure is sinful. Might that cause conflict at home? It’s simpler for all involved to wait until these children are legal adults, then let them make their own decision with their eyes wide open.

5) A brief note on LDS theology: your author above is right, in my view. We view the heterosexual family as a basic building block in God’s plan for His children — us humans. We believe that the nuclear heterosexual family is a direct parallel of the life God lives, and that families formed here can and will persist beyond the grave in the same kind of life that God experiences. Changing this fundamentally changes LDS theology in a way that has never happened before. The church has changed many policies in the past — most notably when it started, then stopped, practicing polygamy; and when it stopped, then restarted, allowing males of African descent into the priesthood — but these past changes would be nothing compared to a changing stance of homosexuality. That would be changing the very foundation of the whole project.

Just some thoughts from a Mormon reader. I don’t love everything my church does, and I certainly think this was a PR fail, but I’m among those who think this policy is probably for the best.