After taking such a strong stand, what will Mormons do now that same-sex marriage is the law across the US?
Many Mormons felt anxious when a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was announced by the US Supreme Court. After all, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had vocally opposed same-sex marriage. In California, the Church famously encouraged Mormons to campaign for Proposition 8, and their influence was instrumental in its passage.
So what will Mormons do now? Will Mormons refuse to cater or photograph or bake cakes for same-sex weddings? Will they escalate their opposition to same-sex marriage through civil disobedience or something similar? The answer may surprise you.
The Mormon Dilemma
Mormonism isn’t a passive lifestyle. Practicing Mormons don’t just believe in doing (“thou shalt”) and not doing (“thou shalt not”) certain things. To understand the Mormon mindset you have to check their scriptures, which are as fundamental to Mormons as the Constitution should be to Americans:
Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor. (DC 88:81.)
Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. (DC 58:27-8.)
When you see those young men and women with name badges, they are doing this “testify and warn” thing, though not about political issues. Instead, it’s the rank-and-file members that are encouraged to be “anxiously engaged” in supporting causes and leaders they feel best represent their personal opinions of good government.
But when the government establishes something that Mormons believe is “bad government” or even destructive, what will they do?
Not the First Time
Same-sex marriage isn’t the first time the LDS Church took a political stand because it saw long-term consequences. The Church vocally opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1980 for reasons not related to gender equality, which they said they supported. After all, women had full voting rights in Utah territory in 1870, long before it was the law in the US. Surprisingly, the main LDS concern with ERA was “judicial fiat”—judges legislating from the bench instead of upholding the principle of separation of powers. The Church felt judicial overreach was inevitable if ERA passed because of how ERA was framed and passed.
The 5-4 decision that legalized US same-sex marriage only confirmed that concern. In fact, the four dissenting justices all mentioned judicial overreach in their written opinions, including these potent words from Chief Justice Roberts:
[T]his court is not a legislature…. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be….
The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.” … Just who do we think we are?
(“Chief Justice Roberts’s Dissent in SSM Case,” National Review, 26 June 2015, emphasis added. See also “How each Supreme Court justice came down on same-sex marriage,” Washington Post, 26 June 2015 and “Unprecedented Four SCOTUS Dissents Promise to Keep Marriage Debate Open,” National Review, 26 June 2015.)
OK, so according to the dissenters, the Mormons were right about judicial overreach. So what? Why would that be such a big deal to Mormons?
Concerns of “Calamity” and “Destruction” Ahead
Their “keystone” scripture, The Book of Mormon, helps us understand why “judicial fiat” feels so threatening to a Latter-day Saint:
And now behold, I say unto you, that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges. (Alma 10:27, emphasis added.)
… they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people…. (Helaman 4:22, emphasis added.)
For as their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted. (Helaman 5:2, emphasis added.)
Then, just 20 years ago, LDS “prophets, seers, and revelators” unanimously warned the world that “the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World.) This proclamation included a plea “to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society,” specifically urging “responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed” to make this happen.
The word “calamity” itself is significant. If you search the word “calamity” in LDS scripture, the prophetic meaning of that warning comes pointedly into focus. And yes, “prophetic” literally means “predicting the future” to a practicing Mormon.
So all of the following are connected to Latter-day Saints:
- Judicial and legal fiat,
- Corruption and disrespect of law,
- The disintegration of traditional families, and
- Threat of impending calamity and destruction.
Although they don’t run around with signs warning that the end is near, Mormons do believe they see a clear and present danger. In fact, The Book of Mormon describes the outcome of societies that followed this path at least four times in horrifying, heart-wrenching detail.
On top of all that, since Mormons see the US Constitution as a divinely-inspired document in spite of the painful compromises required to pull it together. Anything that threatens or redefines constitutional norms is an even greater concern.
Concern, Never Hatred
This explains why, for most Mormons, opposing same-sex marriage was never hatred of gays. On the contrary, the LDS Church stood with gays with the Boy Scouts of America, health care, probate law, and housing non-discrimination legislation. But when it came to marriage, Mormons saw a fundamentally different purpose and implication:
“We reject the modern idea that marriage is a relationship that exists primarily for the fulfillment of the individuals who enter into it….. We focus on the well-being of children, not just ourselves.” (As He Thinketh In His Heart, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, 8 Feb 2013.)
LDS leaders further disagreed that studies properly demonstrate no harm to children in same-sex-parent households. Instead, they insist that “traditional marriage provides the most solid and well-established social identity for children” among other benefits. (The Divine Institution of Marriage, see citations.)
So, seeing an irreconcilable clash between same-sex marriage and the interests of children—and therefore the family, and therefore society in general—the Church tried to steer society away from that path. Instead of hatred, it was someone reluctantly but bravely sounding an unpopular warning while taking a verbal beating.
The Official LDS Church Announcement
This brings us to the SCOTUS ruling. So what can and will Mormons will do about it now? The answer is almost astonishing given the depth of their concerns.
On the day of the ruling the Church made the following announcement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acknowledges that following today’s ruling by the Supreme Court, same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States. The Court’s decision does not alter the Lord’s doctrine that marriage is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God. While showing respect for those who think differently, the Church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.
This brief, carefully-worded statement says far more than it seems, especially in the light of LDS teachings. Pay attention to:
- The Church “acknowledges” that such marriages “are now legal in the United States.”
- The decision “does not alter the Lord’s doctrine.”
- The Church will “show respect for those who think differently.”
- The Church will continue to “teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.” (Emphasis mine throughout.)
This is a clear blueprint to Latter-day Saints who want to follow their leadership. And make no mistake: following their leadership is an essential part of LDS doctrine and practice as long as that leadership follows well-established “principles of righteousness.” (See DC 121:36,41-42.)
Here are the implications of each point.
1. The Church “Acknowledges” That Such Marriages “Are Now Legal”
If their Church officially acknowledges something as the bona fide law of the land, what does that mean to an individual Mormon? This is a more significant statement than many realize.
“In the case of a conflict between the requirements made by the revealed word of God, and those imposed by the secular law, which of these authorities would the members of the Church be bound to obey? … Pending the overruling by [God] in favor of religious liberty, it is the duty of the saints to submit themselves to the laws of their country.” (The Articles of Faith, 12th ed. , 422, 423], cited in Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual 2015 ed., Lesson 143.)
So should an individual Mormon cater a same-sex wedding? If the laws require it, then based on this principle, my understanding is “yes,” because it has at that point been removed from their right of personal conscience by the laws of the land. Catering or photographing is no longer condoning or promoting that form of marriage if “equal protection” requires the catering. And as we saw before, Mormons hold law as almost sacred:
“The three significant words used in the 12th Article of Faith express the proper attitude of the membership of the Church toward law. These words are—obey, honor, and sustain…. Obedience implies a higher attitude than mere submission…. We are obedient only from a sense of right; submissive from a sense of necessity….. To sustain signifies to hold up; to keep from falling. To sustain the law, therefore, is to refrain from saying or doing anything which will weaken it or make it ineffective.” (President David O. McKay, Conference Report, Apr. 1937, p. 28, cited in Doctrine and Covenants Seminary Student Manual, 2002 ed., Section 134.)
Civil Disobedience? Not.
Civil disobedience, it turns out, is not an option for Mormons. President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency of the Church taught:
“There are many who question the constitutionality of certain acts passed by their respective governments, even though such laws have been established by the highest courts in the land as being constitutional, and they feel to defy and disobey the law.
“Abraham Lincoln once observed: ‘Bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible; still, while they continue in force, they should be religiously observed.’
“This is the attitude of the Church in regard to law observance. …
“There is no reason or justification for men to disregard or break the law or try to take it into their own hands.
“It is the duty of citizens of any country to remember that they have individual responsibilities, and that they must operate within the law of the country in which they have chosen to live.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1975, p. 126; or Ensign, Nov. 1975, p. 83, emphasis added, cited in Doctrine and Covenants Seminary Student Manual, 2002 ed., Section 134.)
President Joseph Fielding Smith similarly said:
“No member of the Church can be accepted as in good standing whose way of life is one of rebellion against the established order of decency and obedience to law. We cannot be in rebellion against the law and be in harmony with the Lord, for he has commanded us to ‘be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign. …’ (D&C 58:22.) And one of these days he is going to come.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1971, p. 48; or Ensign, June 1971, p. 50.)
The exception to this principle would be when the Lord directs His people through His prophets to take an opposing stand to government. Otherwise they recognize the established authority of government. (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual for Seminary, Section 134. emphasis added.)
So civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King is not condoned or available to faithful Mormons except in the most extreme cases, and then only in the very unlikely event their Prophet/President says it is needed. The rule of law, in general, is just too important to society and the Church in the Mormon way of thinking.
But That Doesn’t Mean Being Passive
However, there is plenty of room for Mormons to take action:
Nevertheless, they should use every proper method, as citizens or subjects of their several governments, to secure for themselves and for all men the boon of freedom in religious service. It is not required of them to suffer without protest [the] imposition by lawless persecutors, or through the operation of unjust laws; but their protests should be offered in legal and proper order. The saints have practically demonstrated their acceptance of the doctrine that it is better to suffer evil than to do wrong by purely human opposition to unjust authority” (The Articles of Faith, 12th ed. , 422, 423]).
And “sustaining the law” doesn’t mean abandoning their “testify and warn” duty. Just four days after the SCOTUS decision the Church announced:
… we are responsible to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to illuminate the great blessings that flow from heeding God’s commandments as well as the inevitable consequences of ignoring them. We invite all to pray that people everywhere will have their hearts softened to the truths God established in the beginning, and that wisdom will be granted to those who are called upon to decide issues critical to society’s future. (News release, 30 June 2015, Church Leaders Counsel Members After Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision.)
Protest, teach, and warn? Yes.
Defy or undermine? No.
2. “Does Not Alter” the Lord’s Doctrine
There has been speculation that the Church might adjust its teachings and practices due to changing public opinion. This statement emphatically restates that this is not going to happen. Many similar statements were made before and since. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn’t budging on this issue, and it insists on adhering to its principles on it own properties:
Consistent with our fundamental beliefs, Church officers will not employ their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex, and the Church does not permit its meetinghouses or other properties to be used for ceremonies, receptions, or other activities associated with same‐sex marriages. Nevertheless, all visitors are welcome to our chapels and premises so long as they respect our standards of conduct while there. (News release, 30 June 2015, Church Leaders Counsel Members After Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision.)
3. “Show Respect for Those Who Think Differently”
In an official news release and instructions to members four days later, Church leaders instructed:
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree. We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same‐sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully….
Our individual right to religious freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution and by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As we exercise that right, must also exercise tolerance and respect toward others’ rights but do so without condoning behavior that goes contrary to the laws of God….
On the subject of public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should … be good listeners and show concern for the sincere belief [of others.] Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. We should be wise in explaining our position and, in doing so, ask that others not be offended by our sincere religious beliefs and the free exercise of our religion. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Loving Others and Living with Differences,” October 2014 general conference).
(News release, 30 June 2015, Church Leaders Counsel Members After Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision, emphasis added.)
So you can expect Mormons to treat people with differing opinions or lifestyles with respect, tolerance, and even concern for other beliefs, even when they disagree with them.
4. “Teach and Promote … Our Doctrine and Practice”
Are “protests … in legal and proper order” the only recourse of Mormons? No. Nor do they believe those are their most effective action.
The Church insists on its leaders’ and members’ right to express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family, and morality free from retaliation or retribution. The Church is also entitled to maintain its standards of moral conduct and good standing for members. (News release, 30 June 2015, Church Leaders Counsel Members After Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision, emphasis added, reordered for clarity.)
Mormons believe in the power of influence, and especially in the power of well-taught truths and principles, feeling that those truths resonate with people and eventually influence behavior. It’s a slow process, but it honors the laws and respects the right of people to choose and act for themselves. In fact, “agency” may be the most foundational Mormon doctrine of all.
Well-taught doctrines and principles have a more powerful influence on behavior than rules. When we teach gospel doctrine and principles, we can qualify for the witness and guidance of the Spirit to reinforce our teaching. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, October 1999 General Conference, Gospel Teaching.)
True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. (Elder Boyd K. Packer, October 1986 General Conference, Little Children.)
Finally, while Mormons don’t believe in forcing others to practice their faith, they are encouraged to seek laws that support the practice of their faith as long they are “also favorable to the public health, safety, or morals.“ In other words, where they see a shared public interest, expect them to speak up and act vigorously, within the law, to influence change or support the status quo. (See Dallin H. Oaks, Balancing Truth and Tolerance.)
Obey and Respect, But Never Stop Influencing Change
So The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn’t changed its position on the subject of same-sex marriage or the importance of traditional families. Mormons feel even more anxious now because they see prophecies being fulfilled and religious liberties at risk. But as long as they’re allowed to fully live their religion, don’t expect them to defy the law. And never expect to see disrespect for differing beliefs or lifestyles. Expect them to respectfully and lawfully speak up, adhere to their principles, actively protect personal and institutional religious liberty, and influence change by teaching and warning others whenever they appropriately can.
Kevin Crenshaw is a Mormon who serves as a volunteer seminary teacher for LDS youth. Although he makes every effort to be a careful student of LDS theology and history, the opinions expressed are his own. He is not authorized to speak officially in behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.