I had relatives on both sides of the struggle over whether to continue polygamy within Mormonism. My grandfather, Spencer Woolley Kimball, was the head of the Mormon Church from 1973-1985. One of his first cousins was Lorin Calvin Woolley, who said he had been set apart by the 3d President of the Mormon Church, John Taylor, to keep plural marriage alive if ever the Mormon Church had to distance itself from polygamy. Lorin died in 1934. J. Reuben Clark, the son of Mary Louisa Woolley Clark, was another cousin. In 1934, J. Reuben Clark was called to serve in the First Presidency of the Mormon Church (the top 3 leaders) until his death in 1961. J. Reuben Clark pushed for strict measures against those who wanted to continue plural marriage despite official Mormon Church policy to the contrary.
Mormon policies to root out polygamy have now been extended to cover gay marriage as well. Laurie Goldstein explains the new policy in the November 6, 2015 New York Times article “Mormon Church Bars Same-Sex Couples and Their Children”:
Children of same-sex couples will not be able to join the Mormon Church until they turn 18 — and only if they move out of their parents’ homes, disavow all same-sex relationships and receive approval from the church’s top leadership as part of a new policy adopted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In addition, Mormons in same-sex marriages will be considered apostates and subject to excommunication, a more rigid approach than the church has taken in the past.
Also, incredibly, for gays, sex within marriage is effectively considered a worse sin than sex outside of marriage (which is a sin for all Mormons). As Laurie Goldstein explains it:
The handbook had already explained that a disciplinary council “may be necessary” for Mormons who engaged in “homosexual relations.” The new policy said a disciplinary council was “mandatory” for Mormons in “same-gender” marriages and “may be necessary” for same-sex couples who are cohabiting but not married.
My interpretation is that gay marriage is seen as rebellion–a challenge to the institution of the Church itself. Calling married Mormon gays “apostates” is consistent with that interpretation.
This treatment of married Mormon gays is similar to the Mormon Church’s treatment of polygamists. I am not the only one to make that connection. Matt Canham, in his November 6, 2015 Salt Lake Tribune article “New Mormon policy on gay families is dividing even the faithful; church clarifies stance” quotes a former public relations employee of the Mormon Church, Stuart Reid as follows:
“These are the times when people in the church are confronted with the choice of being politically correct or being prophetically correct,” he said Friday. “In other words, they have to choose where they stand and what they are going to support going forward.”
Reid, a former Utah lawmaker, has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and any movement toward the faith’s acceptance of these now-legal unions. He supports LDS leaders equating gay marriage with apostasy, an offense triggering disciplinary hearings and possible excommunications, and sees it as a step toward consistency.
“They are treating this,” he said, “exactly like they are treating polygamist marriages and the children from polygamist marriages.”
As a nonsupernaturalist outsider to the Mormon Church, with much affection for the Church and its members given my Mormon past–including the gay members who will suffer pain because of this tightening of policy–let me freely give my own advice to Mormon Church leaders–or if God exists and speaks to Mormon Church leaders, let me plead with God as Abraham and Moses pleaded with God on many occasions.
Because plural marriage was so important in 19th century Mormonism, those who strove to continue plural marriage after the main Mormon Church based in Salt Lake City renounced it really were a serious challenge to the Mormon Church as an institution. Rooting out polygamists, while not pretty, may have been necessary for the Church institutionally given the lingering attraction of plural marriage to many Mormons who have been taught that it was God’s will in the 19th century and only discontinued because it was illegal.
By contrast, gay marriage is not something likely to have any personal appeal or special theological attraction to non-gay members of the Mormon Church. Gay marriage is not a threat to the Church as an institution. Because the Mormon Church already distinguishes so carefully between marriage in a Mormon temple and civil marriage, the Mormon Church could simply say that gay marriage had no religious significance, and that the church would disregard any gay marriage as if it hadn’t happened. Of course, in practice, this would allow local bishops–at their discretion–to treat sex within a gay civil marriage more leniently than sex outside of any marriage.
There is one other issue I need to address. To have enough vigor to attract new converts and grow fast, a religion needs some sacrifice or stigma to set apart those within the religion from those outside. So if not hardcore opposition to gay marriage, what can the sacrifice be (beyond avoidance of alcohol and coffee and volunteer church service) to create a big difference between Mormons and non-Mormons? Sadly, the answer is easy: a reemphasis on strict and full honesty in all one’s speech and actions can set Mormons apart.
Such a reemphasis on full and complete honesty by the Mormon Church could fulfill the prophecy that Mormon elders will save the Constitution of the United States when it is hanging by a thread (see 1 and 2). I worry that the fabric of our republic is being frayed by those who twist facts for partisan advantage of one kind or another. If no one can be trusted to tell the truth, how can we make things work? Mormons wouldn’t be the only ones who would tell the truth, but things may come to such a pass that if the Mormon Church reemphasizes total and full honesty in all circumstances, Mormons might at some point represent a shockingly high fraction of those who can be trusted to tell the truth, regardless of partisan advantage or disadvantage.