A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church

The dictum “Everything is relative” can sometimes steer people wrong, but seeing things in relative terms is one important perspective. Using “liberal” and “conservative” to mean socially liberal and socially conservative in the usual political sense, the Mormon Church remains quite socially conservative, but it has recently taken a liberal turn.

One of the most important recent changes is one that is not easily visible to non-Mormons and has probably been in the works for some time: a change in the language of the Mormon temple ceremonies to be more nearly gender-neutral.

Highly gender-asymmetric language had been a stone in the shoe of many Mormon women for a long time. Things are now improved. in order to appreciate the magnitude of this change, I highly recommend reading Peggy Fletcher Stack and David Noyce’s Salt Lake Tribune article “LDS Church changes temple ceremony; faithful feminists will see revisions and additions as a ‘leap forward’”:

Another recent change is a continuing widening of the racial and ethnic diversity of Mormon Church leaders. Ideologically, Mormonism is universalistic, so this is an easy evolution, but it is one that could have positive effects over time. (Gender balance is another matter entirely. See “Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?” There are a few women in relatively high leadership positions in the Mormon Church, but beyond being few in number, in all practical terms there is no question that every one of them ranks behind at least 15 male Mormon leaders—the 3 men in the First Presidency and the 12 men in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles—in power and influence.)

But perhaps the most remarkable recent change in the Mormon Church has been the downgrading of gay marriage what I described in a November, 2015 post as “The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy” to gay marriage being officially on a par with heterosexual premarital sex (which is a serious sin in Mormonism). From the article flagged below:

Previously, our Handbook characterized same-gender marriage by a member as apostasy. While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline," leaders wrote. "Instead, the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way."

Many of the headlines emphasize the repeal of a particular unjust part of the policy that existed for three and a half years: when gay marriage was treated as rebellion on a par with polygamy, the children of a gay marriage were treated as inherently suspect. That is now gone.

But there are many other consequences of downgrading gay marriage from high rebellion to a serious sin. In particular, it gives local Church leaders a lot of leeway (if they choose) to make married gay couples feel more welcome in a Mormon congregation.

One of the reasons this is a remarkable change is that it repeals a policy that is not even 4 years old. My brother Chris emphasizes this in his guest post “The No-Longer Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?” on By Common Consent shown below:

… the Policy’s reversal has challenged our collective ideas of “revelation” alongside the near infallibility halo our culture casts over our religious leaders. 

Chris elaborates on this view in the comments section, referencing my post “Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility”:

With respect to revelation and correctness, I am bemused by arguments that speak of “flexible dogmatism” (a coinage I attribute to my brother and he attributes to a friend). Flexible dogmatism is the idea that the Church can renounce past policies and practices, even past doctrines and theologies, but it cannot renounce the rightness of past policies at the time they were in effect. Flexible dogmatism is a common practice in rationalizing the Church. I think it is sorely tested (I believe to the point of breaking) by 180-degree turns in just a few years.

How did the Mormon Church end up with a policy it wanted to back away from after just a few years? My post “The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy” gives one perspective. Here is Chris’s description of the dynamic in “The No-Longer Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?”:

The Exclusion Policy seemed like a response to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (decided June 26, 2015) which guaranteed the fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples. The Obergefell decision could have been predicted 10 years earlier. Not the date or the case, but the ultimate outcome. The trend line was clear in a series of cases in the federal courts, and a series of decisions by state legislatures in the United States, and by changes to laws in other countries. Same-sex marriage was coming.

Notwithstanding the writing on the wall, the Church seemed ill-prepared for it.  It seemed to me (and this was a source of overwhelming frustration and anger to me personally) the Exclusion Policy as implemented was the worst choice, the most damaging, the least Christian, of all the Church’s reasonably conceivable options.

Then how and why did the policy of treating gay marriage as high rebellion that tainted even the children of a gay marriate get reversed? Here is Chris’s description of the how:

 I believe if the Church had internalized the virtual certainty of public disclosure, there would have been recognition that the Policy was a mistake before it was promulgated. As November 2015 happened, I believe there was almost immediate widespread recognition that the Policy was a mistake. I believe the recognition was early enough that we have just lived through 39 months of puzzlement about how to fix it.  I view now—President Nelson’s foray into assigning the “revelation” label was a trial balloon for the “shore it up” method of fixing a problem. Once that failed, pragmatic reality required the Church to immerse itself in nuanced and involved dialogue in order to seek consensus at the highest levels as well as some amount of membership support.  

Let me give three possible reasons why. The first is a change in personnel. The previous President, Thomas S. Monson, died on January 2, 2018. Russell Nelson has made major changes since then, see “New Mormon Prophet Russell Nelson Shakes Things Up and “Less is More in Mormon Church Meetings.” The degree of deference to the President of the Mormon Church is so great that it is often difficult for those outside the inner circles to know what the views of another apostle are until they ascend to the Presidency. This is actually true not just for Russell Nelson, whose views are finally being revealed, but especially true for the other 2 in the top 3 leaders in the organizational chart: Dallin Oaks (a former colleague of my Dad’s in the Brigham Young University Law School) who is currently both the #2 in the organization chart and the designated successor if Russell Nelson should die and the #3 in the organization chart, my Dad’s first cousin Henry B. Eyring. Both Dallin Oaks and Henry B. Eyring are very much good soldiers, who will fall in line with whatever policy has been decided on by those more senior then he is. In other words, the views of the entire First Presidency—the troika at the top of the Mormon Church—have been to an important extent hidden by their high levels of loyalty. There is some reason to hope that their views are reasonably liberal when those views are not trumped by loyalty, despite the fact that they have on many occasions publicly espoused extremely conservative views in lockstep with policy. I had not thought of Russell Nelson himself as particularly liberal, but I do think of Russell Nelson as being non-monarchical. Deliberating as a group of three, the combination of Russell Nelson, Dallin Oaks and Henry B. Eyring is plausibly quite a bit more liberal than Thomas S. Monson.

Further down in the line of succession, I don’t have a good sense of the views of 90-year-old M. Russell Ballard. But 78-year-old Jeffrey R. Holland (who attended the same congregation as my family when I was a teenager and he was the President of Brigham Young University) and 78-year-old Dieter F. Uchtdorf are likely to be relatively liberal. (Both of these apostles are higher in the line of succession than Henry B. Eyring.) I emphasize the ages not only as a predictor of vigor but also because other than being appointed an apostle at a young age, long life is the key to become President of the Mormon Church.

The second possible reason for the reversal is that many local leaders may have complained about having to implement the initial harsh policy. In the comments section of Chris’s post, you can find these reports:

  • cat: I concur. I know of more than a few Bishops and Stake Presidents who publicly announced that the Policy of Exclusion would not be enforced under their stewardship.

  • Christian Kimball: I too have heard of Bishops and Stake Presidents who worked to minimize the effects of the Exclusion Policy within their scope of influence.

My sense is that, in general, high Mormon Church leaders have a great deal of respect for the local Church leaders, whom they themselves have often personally chosen and appointed out of the set of almost all the adult male members of the Church in a given area.

The third possible reason for the reversal is that the Church has become worried about the slowdown in its growth rate. The article flagged at the top of this post reports that, in the US, the worldwide growth rate of the Mormon Church has slowed from 3 to 8 % per year from 1960 to 2000 to about 1.5% per year now, with the growth rate in the US only 3/4 of a percent per year now. Mormon Church leaders care deeply about the growth rate of the Church. They wouldn’t sacrifice key doctrinal tenets for the sake of growth, but they might be willing to soften their approach toward gay married couples.

Mormon Church leaders care deeply about the growth rate of the Church for many reasons. First, they see it as their job, given them by Jesus, who said to his disciples before ascending to heaven:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …

Notice that this doesn’t just say “teach all nations” but baptize them. Mormon baptism makes one a member of the Mormon Church. So under a Mormon interpretation, this amounts to a command to convert people and bring them into the Mormon Church. In addition to a keen awareness of Jesus’ Great Commission, in its “the-Mormon-Church-is-the-only-true-church” interpretation, many Mormon Church leaders have a business background, in which growth is often a key goal. Finally, at a gut level, most Mormon leaders care about growth as do rank-and-file Mormons because for a long time the fast growth rate of the Mormon Church was seen by those in the Church as a validation of the Church’s claims to have been established by God. The article flagged just below gives a nice description of this mindset, which resonates with my own 40 years as a Mormon during those high-growth years, before I left Mormonism in 2000.

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Without any doctrinal change, there is much further that the Mormon Church could go to liberalize. The Mormon Church’s has historically been hard on gays, feminists and free-thinking intellectuals. In relation to gay marriage, Chris suggests that the Mormon Church could continue to consider gay marriages religiously invalid (as, indeed, it considers all marriages not done by the Mormon church in any case), but to be civilly valid, and sufficient to make sex within that marriage something other than a serious sin:

If two men marry, before God and country and friends and family, are they married in the Church’s eyes? Not the question “Will the Church perform the marriages?” Not the question “Will the Church encourage or recommend or celebrate the marriages?” But the very basic question “Does the Church respect the marriages?” In essence, is same-sex marriage a real marriage?

In relation to feminism, without any change in doctrine, and without given women the Mormon priesthood the Mormon Church’s leaders could direct that women be in all the key meetings for the governance of each individual congregation.

For free-thinking intellectuals, it would be a big step forward if Mormon Church leaders simply left them alone to say their piece. No doctrine requires that a particular person be excommunicated for what they have written or said. There is enormous discretion in decisions of whether or not to excommunicate a particular intellectual.

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.