Editor’s Note: Benjamin R. Hertzberg, Ph.D., is visiting professor of political science at Emory University. He taught political theory and philosophy at the LDS Church’s Brigham Young University during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years and serves as Second Counselor in the Bishopric of Atlanta area ward in Georgia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
A recent change in Mormon policy prohibits children of LGBTQ parents from participating in church ordinances
Benjamin Hertzberg: The policy contradicts basic Christian principles and teachings
Sometimes in the history of a religion there are moments of decision — events that set the course of the group for generations. Today, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are living through such a moment.
Last week, the governing council of the church, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — men Mormons sustain as “prophets, seers, and revelators” — announced a policy change that forbids the children of married or cohabiting LGBTQ couples from participating in any church ordinances, including the naming and blessing children receive just after birth, baptism (which Mormons normally perform at age 8), and ordination to the “Aaronic Priesthood” (which is a rite of passage for Mormon boys performed at age 12).
Children of LGBTQ couples may only participate in these ordinances after they have reached the legal age of maturity in their country, expressly disavowed their LGBTQ parent(s)’ relationship, and no longer reside in their LGBTQ parent(s)’ home (or receive a special exemption directly from the First Presidency themselves).
In an interview given after someone leaked the policy change to the national press, Elder D. Todd Christofferson (one of the LDS Church’s Twelve Apostles) claimed the policy change is designed to protect LGBTQ families from the inevitable strife that would come from their children joining Mormon congregations. Those congregations would teach the children that God condemns their parents’ relationship.
The justification is disingenuous: The vast majority of children the new policy affects come from failed, mixed-orientation Mormon marriages (those between a straight and an LGBTQ partner). In many cases, the LGBTQ parent(s) are connected to the church and identify as Mormon, support their children’s involvement with the church, and have even planned to pay or already paid for their children to serve as Mormon missionaries.
Rather than protecting LGBTQ families, the policy change drives the adult children of LGBTQ parents from their families and severs the minor children from congregations they love and that love them and are their main source of social and communal support.
The new policy contradicts basic Christian teachings and core Mormon theological principles. Jesus said: “Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not” (Luke 18:16). The church’s second article of faith reads, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins.” We, sinners all, require access to Jesus’ grace to be forgiven: access Mormons believe is granted through the very ordinances the new policy forbids the children of LGBTQ parents from receiving.
Mormons must decide how they will respond to an official church policy, authorized by men they believe speak for God, that so plainly departs from their deepest religious principles.
One choice is to accept the disingenuous justification their religious authorities have offered and attempt to explain away the obvious theological contradictions. Mormons unfortunately have considerable experience doing this.
Most notoriously, they spun a racist and odious mythological explanation for the church’s policy (it shared the same name) of banning black men from priesthood ordination. (A policy that lasted until 1978.) But the consequences of this choice are severe: They must deal with the corrupting influence the justifying stories they tell will have on the way generations of future Mormons understand their religion.
Alternatively, Mormons can loudly and publicly object to the policy and demand its immediate retraction.
This choice also has costs. Mormons have, since the crucible of the 19th century polygamy persecutions led them to return to monogamy, believed that their “prophets, seers, and revelators” are more-or-less infallible, that they “cannot” lead the church astray. When Mormons publicly criticize a church policy that comes directly from these men, the church and their LDS friends and neighbors may ostracize them.
For me, however, the choice is clear: I must loudly and publicly dissent. The new policy must go.
When I read Mormon scripture, I see no justification for the authoritarian subservience so prominent in contemporary Mormon culture. Instead, I see stories that, again and again, teach me the value of acting on my moral convictions. I read Joseph Smith’s own stirring words about the proper use of priesthood authority: “When we … exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved, and when it is withdrawn, Amen [the end] to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:37).
Mormons use the word “sustain” to communicate their support of those in ecclesiastical authority. Some will think that by publicly dissenting from the new policy I am not sustaining the First Presidency and the Twelve. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I dissent because I love Mormonism, and I cannot bear to see its leaders cause so much unnecessary suffering and harm. I dissent because obedience now costs too much, to my moral integrity, to the church, and to the families of Mormons whom I love.
Church discipline or excommunication is a consequence I am prepared to accept. Not because I want to leave — I pray that I can stay. But because in a moment like this, my Mormonism will not let me do otherwise.