UPDATE: this post was written before the First Presidency clarified the new policies. Please see this post, which repeats everything in this post but updates it and provides some concluding thoughts.
I’m thinking about the implications–doctrinal and practical and cultural–of the recent policy changes.
(A note in response to some questions in the comments regarding the “past tense” situations I describe below:
The language of the policy refers to “a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship” and “a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.” There are no qualifications on the “has lived,” even if that be before the child is born or before the parent is a member of the church.
The idea that this policy covers not just the parent’s current living arrangement but also their past living arrangements is in there not once but twice and, in the second iteration, its applicability to past relationships is emphasized by way of contrast with the phrase “currently lives.” The plain meaning of the language is that it applies to any gay cohab/marriage in the parent’s past. If the policy was not actually intended to apply to past relationships, then the language used is inaccurate. This post addresses the policy as written, not our assumptions about what was really intended.)
- Say that a woman has a cohabitating relationship with another woman while in college. Years later, she considers returning to full activity in the church, but is aware that any children she might have–even after a temple marriage–would not be allowed to be baptized. I presume this would be a strong disincentive for her to return to church. If she does, the entire ward will know about her past as they watch her children not be members. (Do you think this will lead to speculation and gossip?)
- How do transgender people fit into all of this? What determines whether they are in a same-gender relationship: physical body, chromosomes, how they present themselves socially, legal gender, or what?
- I’ve seen comments to the effect of “children in this situation can still have the light of Christ.” It seems to me that every time this is said, our belief in the importance of the gift and constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is diminished.
- I’ve also seen comments to the effect of “God will work it all out.” While I believe that it is ultimately true that God will work everything out with a perfect blend of mercy and justice, I’m concerned that saying that in this situation leads to a culture where we don’t bother so much about the effects of our actions on other people since God will fix it all eventually.
- Elder Christofferson said that, for children who cannot be baptized, “Nothing is lost to them in the end if that’s the direction they want to go.” I am pretty sure that his meaning was that, in an eternal sense, there will be no difference a thousand years from now whether you were baptized at 8 or at 18. However, I have to admit that it makes it a little harder for me to get out of my bed at 5:45am every day to take my child to seminary if nothing will be lost to him in the end if he is not active in the church as a teenager. (Of course, I don’t actually believe that.) But I do wonder where we end up as a church culture if the idea that teenage involvement in the church is not thought to be of crucial importance.
- Gay marriage has been legal in various areas where the church is organized for more than a decade. Gay cohabitation has been going on since time immemorial and more publicly for at least a generation. The fact that this policy was only implemented now suggests to many people that the church leaders only really care about or are aware about what is happening in the US. (I don’t believe that this is true, but I think the timing creates that impression.) This belief makes it more difficult for members to remain faithful.
- To many people, this looks like a “hateful” and “bigoted” policy. While I do not believe that the Brethren have a single hateful or bigoted bone in their bodies (there are 3,090 bones in the Q12 and FP, if you were wondering), the policy and its roll out can create that impression. How might things have played out differently had the policy been accompanied by admonitions to donate to organizations which help homeless gay teens or a reminder of the need to convey God’s love to gay people?
- There is a certain number of LDS temple marriages out there–probably a small number, but still–where one spouse is unaware that the other had a gay cohab before marriage. I suspect those marriages may be ruined if that partner now has to tell the other partner that their children cannot be baptized. (Or will they keep it a secret?)
- To the extent that one accepts Elder Christofferson’s argument that the policy is designed to limit harms to these children but one also recognizes the harms caused to other people (including the always-faithful LGBT people who feel alienated in the church or the parents who now suffer from the choices of their ex spouses), one has accepted a utilitarian calculus in weighing policies. There are obviously some advantages to that calculus, but . . . there we go again, treating some people as if their suffering is an acceptable cost to advance other ends.
- I don’t buy the argument that the Brethren are clueless and out of touch. Which means that I presume they knew that this policy would lead to many disaffections from the church and make conversion much more difficult. They apparently thought the policy’s benefits were worth this cost. But the only official rationale for it is to avoid cognitive dissonance in children. Another cost of the policy is that presumably some of those who cannot be baptized at eight will never be baptized and go down a different path. In sum, this policy shows that avoiding cognitive dissonance is really, really important to be worth incurring those costs. To what other situations might LDS decide to apply this principle? Will a woman with a nonmember husband decide it is better not to take her kids to church?
- I have a Primary-aged child. I can imagine him sharing the gospel with a friend. I can imagine him asking me if his friend can meet with the missionaries. What I have a harder time imagining is me asking (who: my son? his friend? his friend’s parents?) if the parents are now or have ever lived in a gay relationship. So I suspect this new policy will put a damper on member missionary work.
- I, like you and everyone else, live in a bubble. But there are really faithful, orthodox, totally committed to the church people in my bubble, people who oppose same sex marriage. And many, many of them are having a crisis of faith over this policy the likes of which I have never seen in my life. These people will by and large stay in the church, but something has happened to them as a result of this policy. I suspect a lower level of commitment to the institution, a lower level of trust in its leaders, and, perhaps, a lower likelihood of staying faithful when the next challenge (whether that is a personal issue or whatever) comes.
- I’m already hearing stories of parents filing to change their custody arrangement; they are concerned that their current joint custody might result in their child being denied church membership. It is also not hard for me to imagine situations where, in a divorce, the faithful LDS parent demands/requests/maneuvers the gay parent out of the child’s life and/or the gay parent (who in many cases still has a great love for the church) removes him or herself from the child’s life in order not to jeopardize the child’s membership in the church. (In other words: if I have no idea what my mom is doing, her gay marriage can’t affect my future in the church.)
- Imagine two young men being interviewed for missionary service. In answer to the bishop’s question about same-sex marriage, they both say, “Well, honestly, bishop, I don’t have strong feelings about the legality of it, but of course I am committed to the law of chastity in all respects and have a strong testimony of it.” Most bishops will recommend for service a kid who gives this answer . . . unless his parents are gay married, in which case the bishop cannot. This is a very odd double standard.
- There are so many odd situations that might spring up: what if a child lives in a gay-married foster home before being adopted by LDS folks? (In fact, would that background make them less likely to be adopted by LDS people?) What if a child’s legal guardian is a gay married grandmother or other non-parent relative–does the policy impact her?
- Because of the emphasis on living arrangements, there is an economic aspect to this policy that troubles me. If I’m a 23-year-old who can afford my own place, I can be baptized, but if my budget only permits living with my moms, I can’t. If I’m a gay dad who can afford two addresses, I can present my still-active-ex-wife with a plausible story for the bishop, but if I can’t, my kids can’t be baptized.
- One part of this policy is that disavowing one’s family member’s gay marriage/cohab is a requirement for baptism. To what extent will Mormon culture develop in terms of disavowing the gay relationships of people other than one’s own children? And what will disavowal look like?
- Most of this policy relies for enforcement on what a bishop (or mission president) knows about a child’s situation. I wonder if bishops will be tempted to develop blinders; I wonder if members will become adept at hiding things. I can imagine a situation where a temple marriage ends in divorce and the still-faithful parent begs the other parent to please create some plausible deniability regarding their gay living arrangement, such as maintaining two addresses. And will bishops be asking 7-year-olds about their parents’ sexual history in baptism interviews? Will people move to a new area and lie about their ex’s past (and coach their kids to lie)? Or might we start annotating membership records? What happens when we find out about a baptism done in violation of the rules–will it be “annulled”?
- One premise of the new policy is that, as Elder Christofferson put it, same sex marriage is “a particularly grievous or significant, serious kind of sin.” I do not doubt that it is. But my concern is that in a church where same-sex marriage bars your children from saving ordinances but many other significant and grievous sins do not, we might be therefore tempted to think that sins such as rape, murder, child abuse, etc., are actually not all that serious after all.
- Elder Christofferson did not say “this is a revelation. We are asking the members of the church to accept it as God’s will, as a matter of faith and as a matter of obedience to priesthood authority.” Instead, he explained it as being done to protect children from cognitive dissonance. In other words, he provided a rational reason–not a spiritual justification–for the policy. He thus invited us to reason about the policy–not to accept it on faith. What are the consequences of this?
- I’ve seen people defend the policy, but I have seen no one defend its roll out. Apparently church leaders thought a policy could be put online and in print and that no one other than its intended recipients would know about it despite the fact that it was effective immediately, which means that people outside of the recipients of Handbook 1 (including, presumably, all Primary Presidents and Young Men leaders and missionaries and anyone directly affected by the policy) would have to know about it.The Newsroom announced a response would come Friday at 3 or 3:30pm . . . which became 7:30pm . . . which was actually about 9:30pm. The roll out does not inspire confidence in the leaders’ understanding of the members, which diminishes the members’ confidence in the leaders.
- Imagine a woman gay cohabs in her 20s. She meets the missionaries and joins the church. She is endowed and holds a recommend. Per this policy, her children cannot be blessed or baptized. Who is going to be willing to marry her when their children cannot be baptized? What kinds of cultural trends might develop in the wake of this situation? Will people feel obligated to get confirmation of domestic histories before marriage?
- How will the apologetics over this policy develop? Will folks say that the children of gay married parents must have been less righteous in the pre-mortal life?
- Tom Christofferson has shared his story of living most of his adult life in a gay relationship and then feeling a desire to attend church, despite still being partnered to a man. After a few years of attending his ward as an excommunicated man, he decided to end his relationship with his partner and be re-baptized. Will this new policy make situations like his less likely?
- The book King Leopold’s Ghost presented me with a shocking realization: the nearly unfathomably cruel way that Europeans treated Africans in the early 20th century was, in large part, based on their belief that since God had denied baptism to the Africans (since they lacked the opportunity for it) and thus condemned them to hell, there was no particular objection to treating such people poorly; rather, it would only affirm God’s judgment of them. I worry that a much milder version of this will happen in the LDS community. Even without intent, it is easy to imagine the Primary teacher or YM leader or whomever devoting their (limited) attention to the child who will be able to get baptized or will be able to be ordained or will be able to go on the temple trip next week–especially since the child of gay parents will not be on the rolls.
- In situations where a child is not being baptized or ordained or attending the temple, there will be questions. The option is for the parent to reveal their sexual history to the ward or for the assumption to be that the child lacks the desire to participate. I wonder how families will negotiate that.
- Either this policy will result in virtually no children of gay parents being involved in the church or it will result in their presence as a class unto themselves. I’m wondering what it will do to a ward’s culture to have people who are not on the same track as everyone else. (I suppose we’ve been down this road before with members of African descent.) I’m not sure what it looks like on the ground when eight kids in the Primary and three in YM/YW aren’t baptized/ordained and can’t be. We do a lot of cheer leading at church about things like baptisms and temple trips and the like–and rightly so. I suspect that cheer leading will all but disappear in wards where a child of gay parents is present and it will likely be muted everywhere else, since a teacher or leader does not normally know the circumstances of the children in her midst. I’ve read too many notices in lesson manuals about being sensitive to the home circumstances of children to think I could, if teaching Primary, ever again go whole-hog on how very, very, very, important and wonderful baptism is.
- How will missionaries handle these rules? Will the questions about the investigators’ parents’ past behavior await the baptismal interview, or will the missionaries bring this issue up earlier in the process in order to avoid complication? (Either way, this means that the investigator will need to be aware of and comfortable with this policy in order to be baptized; will this be a stumbling block?)
- Many kids these days are pretty fluid in their sexual expression. It is not hard to imagine a situation 30 years down the road where a huge portion of the pool of investigators needs to be told that any of their future children will not be able to be blessed and baptized. I can’t imagine what effect that ends up having; I presume it means that many won’t be baptized. But I can fathom a situation in 50 years where 20 or 30% of the Primary kids cannot be members of the church. So see #26.
- Elder Christofferson offered a fundamentally different understanding of baby blessings than the one I had. I was under the impression that it was a sort of “welcome to the world, baby girl–God loves you and we do, too!” kind of a thing. But he made it sound more like an event which triggered church membership; I had always thought of baptism in this way. I’m curious about the implications of his position in terms of how we think about baby blessings, baptisms, and church membership in general. I wonder if there will be a reluctance to to bless babies from home situations where their future relationship with the church is less likely.
- Elder Christofferson also implied that an expectation that a child of gay parents would be in Primary “is likely not going to be an appropriate thing in the home setting.” I’m wondering if we are to develop a culture where we don’t expect children of gay parents (or other serious sinners?) to be in Primary. What does that imply for Primary?
- There is (at least) one significant difference between the policy of children of polygamy and children of gay marriage: children of polygamy can be baptized as minors (if they live in a non-polygamous house); children of gay marriage/cohabs cannot be baptized as minors regardless of their living arrangement. This suggests something; I’m not sure what.
- Here’s how Elder Christofferson explains the ban on blessings and baptism for children: “We don’t want there to be the conflicts that that would engender. We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the Church are very different.” This sounds to me as if it would be wrong to bring a child to church if they had a gay parent. Is that how members and leaders will interpret it? But later, he says in reference to blessings of healing: “We would expect that to be done throughout their lifetime, from infancy on as long as that’s the desire of the parents and of the child. That’s something we are anxious to provide.” So one presumes a conflict there; I’m not sure how people will resolve that: should or should not the child of gay parents have experiences which expose them to the gospel and priesthood?
- I take Elder Christofferson at his word that the purpose of the policy is to reduce cognitive dissonance. However, if the child is involved with the church in any way, that cognitive dissonance will still be there. Actually, it will now be increased because not only will there be the “my parents are gay married but the church says that that is wrong” cognitive dissonance, but there will also be the “the church says baptism and ordination and the gift of the Holy Spirit are really important, but I can’t have them” cognitive dissonance. What am I missing that justifies increasing the cognitive dissonance?
- It’s not a secret that this policy has generated anger. This has largely been in the abstract (as a matter of the policy) or vicariously (as one or two stories hit the Internet of baptism or ordination denied). But I suspect that at some point, virtually every ward will deal with this policy within their own boundaries. I just don’t know how the Saints will react to that. Obviously, there are situations that arise (say, a parent refusing permission to baptize) that might frustrate the heck out of the ward family, but in that case the target is the recalcitrant parent, not the institutional church.
- How does this play out in blended families? In this example, some of the children in the household are eligible for baptism and ordination while others are not. How will families negotiate that? (Would they really have a FHE lesson about baptism in the presence of a child who could not be baptized?) Will they just shrink from activity?
- We are now in the odd situation where the missionaries (or bishop, in the case of ordination or missionary recommendation) are more concerned about your parents’ sexual history than your own–theirs has longer-lasting repercussions than yours does. I can’t help but think that this will impact how we think about sexual sin and sin in general. Some sins will impact your children for decades, but may impact you much less. (If I gay cohabbed for a few months, I could then repent and go to the temple–no permanent impact on my status in the church. But my children–not so much.) To put it mildly, this is theologically weird. Mormons are good at generating theology to explain policy; I wonder what members will make up to justify this.
- There will be situations where a child who is born in the covenant cannot be blessed or baptized. What will that do to our thinking about families and sealings? Can a child be sealed to parents in a situation where the child cannot be blessed or baptized?
- There will be new thinking about the age of accountability. Are these non-baptized kids still accountable? Will it encourage them to sin with the thought that they haven’t taken on covenants and/or are not regarded as accountable by the church? Will every talk and lesson about the importance of covenant keeping remind them that they are under no such obligation?
- There will be a cadre of missionaries (and marriages) where, because the missionary was baptized at age 18, he or she has no experience with the temple, with the gift of the Spirit, with exercising the priesthood, etc. It strikes me that this will be a loss to that person’s ability to be a missionary. And in wards with nonmember kids present, teachers may be tempted to downplay the role that these things can play in preparing one to serve a mission.
- A 20-year-old cannot live in the home of her temple-married parents if she wants to be approved for missionary service if either parent ever gay cohabed. What are the doctrinal and cultural implications of this?
- Let’s say you are a bishop and you have in your office a 20-year-old child of gay parents who wants to serve a mission. This will, per the policy, require her to move out of her home. It is easy to imagine the bishop arranging for her to live with her friend for a few weeks and conducting her interview during that window. Problem solved? Well, maybe. But it also means that local leaders and members have accepted the principle that sometimes the Handbook has to be “gamed” or one has to look for loopholes. This does not bode well for how we read and apply the handbook in other instances. Other bishops will not, I suspect, look kindly on young adults who move back in with gay parents at some future point (which means that financial or health reversals get really complicated).
- There are no church-mandated repercussions for the children of a gay man who has a different partner every night of the week, which means that this policy encourages gay promiscuity. Given that the church considers gay sex in any context to be sinful, it may not seem like this would matter much. However, I think we have an obligation to be a light unto the world and to help improve things even if only to a small extent. And, especially because our primary concern in terms of this policy is not the righteousness of the gay man but the effect on his children, I would think that we would want their father in as stable of a relationship as possible.
- One of my favorite parts of Mormonism is this: every time I have been in a ward where a child was in a poor living situation, the ward went overboard in doing everything possible to help that child with whatever s/he needed and drew her/him as close to the church as possible so that s/he could see what functional families looked like and learn a better way to live. This policy suggests that that is not always the right thing to do; I wonder in what other cases wards will decide to stand down, either to avoid cognitive dissonance in the child or because the ethic of doing everything possible to rescue a child has been de-emphasized.
- How will the principles behind this policy be applied to other situations? Given that there are so many permutations of experience that the policy does not directly address, it should not be surprising when local leaders decide to apply the policy to other situations. For example, can a BYU student be denied an ecclesiastical endorsement if she goes home to her two moms for the summer? Should older missionaries disavow their children’s gay relationships? Should any and all members reflect their commitment to this policy by disavowing gay relationships of those they know, and what should this disavowal look like? Will people be asked to renounce other people’s sins in other circumstances?
- If this list sounds like a deluge of negative outcomes, here’s a positive one: the many, many members who are troubled by this policy seem to be working double time to ensure that any gay folks and their families in their circle are shown that God’s love extends to them.
Note: this post was on the blog for a few hours last night. This was an accident (apparently after ten years of blogging, I’m still not clear on which button to press); it was still a draft. I took it down until I could work on it a little more. Sorry for any confusion that my ineptitude caused. And I added a few more consequences in comment #30 below.