My default setting when digesting controversial news about the Church is defensive. I’m just emotionally-mentally-psychologically-whatever wired to identify with the institution, its leadership, its interests, and the status quo, at least at first. So I’ve been trying to think this thing through from the point of view of Church leadership. Obviously I’m not privy to any official insight whatsoever, and these are just my own ideas thought through the institutional perspective. Consider every possible caveat covered here.
I see at least two possible rationales, from Church leadership’s point of view, for the changes in policy with regard to gay couples and their children. The first is that, now that the legal battles are settled, leaders felt the need to standardize the Church’s handling of gay marriages. Not a lot of scriptural guidance there, so they settle on plural marriage as the model and precedent. Gay marriage is analogous to polygamy inasmuch as it represents a positive departure from (rather than simply a malfunction of, as in divorce or single parenthood) the Church’s sanctioned form of marriage and family formation, and thus it would make sense to group them under the same set of policies. This kind of thinking is categorical and locally consistent in the way that correlation likes.
I have two objections to this line of thought: the first that our rather draconian treatment of plural marriage stems from the difficult historical events surrounding the end of the practice, and from the Church’s institutional need to definitively separate itself from fundamentalist sects. Because there is no threat of schism from a gay-marriage Mormon sect, there is no need to adopt the same draconian institutional response to individual gay marriages. The second objection would be that the pain this policy causes to gay families is substantially higher than the pain it causes to polygamous families. Plural marriage is embedded in an existing, competing faith community, and to enter plural marriage is to enter this community; few polygamous families seek baptism or mission service in the LDS Church for their children. Gay marriage for Latter-day Saints is not embedded in an existing, competing faith community, and many families who place great value on baptism and mission service in the LDS Church will find themselves caught in this policy if it is enforced consistently according to its plain language.
The other possible rationale for Church leadership could be a forward-oriented desire to preserve the doctrine and cultural character of the Church in the future. Perhaps they look at the lessons of accommodation over the past half-century and realize that yes, in many cases when Mormon culture changes, usually in response to larger cultural change in the US, the doctrine does eventually follow — on the priesthood ban, birth control, working mothers, and any number of other issues. In order to preserve the purity of the doctrine over time, they realize they must preserve a traditional (that is, exclusively heterosexual) Mormon marriage culture now. I think it is quite clear that a live-and-let-live approach to gay families in the church — don’t excommunicate them, withhold temple recommends and priesthood privileges, but allow them to participate otherwise to whatever extent they choose and welcome their children as full members — would indeed over time, even a pretty short time, lead to growing acceptance of gay marriage in Mormon culture. So these steps are intended to safeguard the family culture of 2015 into the future, by limiting exposure to gay families in ward settings.
I find the latter explanation much harder to swallow but also harder to refute. I recognize that my own position, itself deeply shaped by a Mormon ethos — valuing a traditional family culture in both the Church and society at large and suspecting that ungendering marriage will contribute to the ongoing decline in that culture; but favoring the live-and-let-live approach outlined above and unconflicted about socializing with and celebrating gay families in my circle — is unstable. I want my cake — a robust culture of conjugal marriage and child-rearing to aid my children in finding mates and raising families — and I want to eat it, too — that is, I want to freely welcome all shapes and sorts within the walls of the church. It’s one thing for an individual to live with this kind of basic incoherence in her worldview; it’s another thing for a huge, slow-to-change institution to build its policies over this fault line.
Regardless, I think the new policies will not succeed in halting cultural change on gay marriage within the Church, if that is their aim.
There are strong forces at work on the good ship Zion, that’s for sure– both the inexorable cultural drift from without, and the formidable but ultimately brittle power of authority from within. May the Lord watch over her.