Explaining Reactions to the Mormon Policy Change on Same-Sex Marriage

Last week the LDS Church changed some of its policies regarding how same-sex marriage is dealt with in its congregations. Entering into a same-sex marriage is now officially defined for members as "apostasy" which automatically triggers a disciplinary council in which the members would likely be excommunicated. Further, the new policy forbids children in these same-sex households from receiving a christening blessing, being baptized, doing missionary service, or participating in other ordinances until they are over 18 years old, move out of their home, and "disavow" support for same-sex marriages.

Reactions within the Mormon community were swift and intense. Many conservative Mormons were quick to defend the policy while more liberal Mormons (yes, there are a few) reacted with varying degrees of outrage. (A collection of reactions is available here.)

To some extent, the reactions were largely predictable based on social science research. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that there are five key "foundations" of moral reasoning that structure how humans interpret what is right and wrong. They are: 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) loyalty/betrayal, 4), authority/subversion, and 5) sanctity/degradation. He further argues that liberals are particularly attuned to care/harm and fairness/cheating while conservatives tend to be more strongly attuned to loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

In this case, liberal Mormons denounced the policy as damaging and unnecessarily cruel to the LGBT community and especially the children in same-sex marriages ("care/harm"). They also pointed out how the policy demands a harsher punishment for same-sex couples than murderers and rapists ("fairness/cheating"). On the other hand, defenders made appeals to church authority, explaining that Church leaders are inspired even if the policy doesn't make sense by the standards of the world ("authority/subversion"). They also reminded detractors that while same-sex marriage may be legal, it is still considered to be a "grievous sin" in the eyes of the God ("sanctity/degradation").

This may help explain why differences of opinion on this issue may ultimately be irreconcilable. Those who agree and disagree with the new LDS policy are operating from very different frameworks of moral priorities: enforcing fairness and protecting from harm vs. respecting authority and avoiding impurity.

Regardless of the outcome of the arguments in the short term, other social science research suggests that this policy may have serious consequences for the LDS Church in the long run.

Just this week the Pew Research Center released the second major group of findings of its 2014 Religious Landscape Survey. One of the key findings is the increasing polarization of American religion -- those who affiliate with a religious tradition have become slightly more devout and faithful in their religious observance while those who do not affiliate with a specific tradition have become markedly less so. Also, the secularization of American religious culture has continued over the last several years, especially among young Americans. And other research has shown that this is due in no small part to the socially conservative stands taken by many major religious institutions. Young Americans are highly accepting of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. They are, on average, not impressed with religious institutions that continue to beat the conservative drum on these issues, and have little interest in affiliating with or supporting them. They are also less likely to support political parties and organizations that support these positions.

I would argue that this research suggests that this policy change will do the following in the short or long term, to one extent or another:

In the short term, this will likely increase the cultural association between the LDS Church and opposition to same-sex marriage specifically and homosexuality in general. In turn, this will likely increase the difficulty for both young people as well as those who are active members yet socially moderate/liberal to maintain affection for and association with the LDS Church in the long-run. This is because this policy strengthens the wedge between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage and homosexuality. These individuals will continue to feel increasingly torn and "cross-pressured" by these conflicting values. Eventually many will feel that they will have to make a choice between the two in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they feel. When faced with such a choice, most Americans tend to resolve the dissonance by choosing their political ideals over their religious beliefs.

This strongly suggests that the long-term effects of this policy decision will be to: 1) further marginalize same-sex marriage supporters in the LDS Church to the point where they may eventually simply choose exit over voice and 2) exacerbate the perceived irrelevance of socially conservative religious institutions in general (and the LDS Church in particular) among young Mormons who are increasingly choosing to support and defend their gay friends and family over defending their Church's orthodox religious beliefs.

In other words, continuing to marginalize and stigmatize a group of people who are quickly becoming "normalized" by society and perceived with ever-increasing sympathy and support is likely not a recipe for long-term growth and viability.

(Portions of this post originally appeared at the Rational Faiths blog.)

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