Monday, April 7, 2014

Call It Irony: Mormon Leaders Oppose Re-Defining The Concept of Marriage

by Nomad

The official opposition of the Mormon Church to same-sex marriage reveals an amusing paradox, unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 
Given its history with polygamy, what authority does the Mormon Church have to dictate what is and what is not a traditional marriage?

A few days ago Neil L. Andersen , a well-respected leader of the  Church of the Latter Day Saints,  had an announcement to make on the official position of the Mormon Church on same-sex marriage.  The opinions of Andersen, as a member of of the Quorum of the Twelve, carry a lot of weight. He declared:
"While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not. He designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of adults, to more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared and nurtured."
One can scrutinize the position and point out its flaws, such as the fact that, while the Church gives its stamp of approval on all traditional marriage, it doesn't dare claim that every marriage is an ideal setting for children. So why does it do so in this case?
Apart from some manufactured evidence from special interests, there is no actual proof that same-sex marriage is any better or any worse for child rearing and nurturing. At least that's what qualified doctors tell us:
“Many studies have demonstrated that children’s well-being is affected much more by their relationships with their parents, their parents’ sense of competence and security, and the presence of social and economic support for the family than by the gender or the sexual orientation of their parents,” Siegel writes with coauthor Ellen Perrin, a Tufts University professor of pediatrics and director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics.
Nevertheless, Andersen knows because .. well, he just knows because God told him so. Yet, Church leaders have been wrong in the past. And they have had to suddenly reverse their formerly rock-solid positions on marriage in the past.

Celestial Marriage
There is a lot of irony in anybody in the Church of Latter Day Saints declaring its opposition to redefining marriage. One of the most controversial aspects of the early Mormon Church was a radical redefining of traditional marriage, namely that marriage was not one man and one woman, but one man and many women.

The idea that the rules of marriage could be altered (so long as somebody claimed it was given divine sanction) came down straight from the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. According to Church history, Smith  received a revelation on polygamy as early as 1831. He- understandably- kept the idea a secret because society (unlike same-sex marriage) was clearly not ready for the idea.  In fact, he gave the practice the more heavenly sounding name of "Celestial Marriage."
Smith would later assert that the Lord told him such acts were not adultery when done at divine command; multiple women could be eternally "sealed" to the same man. At the time, however, he kept the doctrine secret, although he may have married Fanny Alger, a teenager working in his home, in the mid-1830s. Smith first dictated the revelation about plural marriage on July 12, 1843, though he always denied it outside the Mormon community, and the polygamy doctrine was not publicly acknowledged until 1852.
Even at the time, some in the Church refused to accept  polygamy as Church doctrine. altogether. When Joseph Smith first explained the doctrine of plural marriage to Brigham Young in the early 1840s, Brigham felt repulsed by it. He reportedly said "It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave."
Eventually he too came around to the idea and Young would later many wives who bore him 57 children.

Like Brigham, most of the early Latter-day Saints didn't instantly warm to the idea, but they gradually came to understand it as God's will.
Plural marriage was not for everyone -- in fact, at most 20 to 30 percent of Mormons would ever practice it, more among the church leadership than the regular members. But if commanded to take other wives by God and the church, an obedient Mormon was expected to comply. Smith himself may have taken as many as 30 wives, some of whom were married to other men.
It's also important to keep in mind this was not just a matter of bickering between theologians. Celestial Marriage was a matter of Church doctrine and actually formalized in Doctrine and Covenants, a book of scripture containing revelations from the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith and to a few other latter-day prophets.
The cause of plural marriage became a rallying cry for the Mormon faithful, an example of the supremacy of God's law over men's laws. It was promoted by the church leadership and sanctioned, if not actually practiced, by most of its members.
(For a detailed history of the Mormon doctrine of Celestial Marriage- trust me, it's fascinating- you can find a lot of information in the 1913 expose called "The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy.")

The Sudden Reversal
Eventually this issue set the Mormon Church in direct opposition with the US government which refused to recognize the legitimacy of plural marriage. For the followers it was a matter of religious freedom. (Where have we heard that before?)
For lawmakers it was an illegal and objectionable practice of a cult. U.S. Congress even went so far as to seize Church property and that - not Divine revision- led to a reversal of Church policy.
In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff, fearful that the continuation of the practice of plural marriage would lead to the destruction of all Mormon temples, announced an end to official support for polygamy.
Woodruff eventually wrote a manifesto (reinforced in a 1904 decree) in which he dramatically reversed long standing Church policy. Woodruff did not bother to describe it as a revelation. 
He even went so far as to threaten threatening polygamists with excommunication. (For abiding by the dictates of its founder!) In exchange, the government returned church property, pardoned polygamists, and admitted Utah to the Union in 1896.

This change of mind-  the surrender of the Church to the authority of the federal government- was motivated not by any professed concern for the children and providing a better environment for nurturing and rearing. It was also not an evolved view on personal satisfaction or the equality of women. 

It was all about more earthly matters. The leadership of the LDS was clearly more worried about holding on to its power and money in the face of federal threats and indeed, with the survival of the Church itself.
That official rejection of polygamy has remained the official church position for more than 100 years. 

In a final repudiation of Smith's doctrine of polygamy, his third surviving son and senior leader, Alexander Hale Smith, made it clear that his father's revelation was a mistake. In a Church publication, he writes:
We believe that all men have a right to worship God after the dictates of their own conscience; so long as such -worship does not infringe upon the rights of others, or conflict with the laws of the land, or country in which they may live."
Smith's attempt to patch up a broken Church is a remarkable exercise of religious re-configuration. He goes to great pains to explain how his father's revelation was not really a doctrine of the Church after all.

Now, the Mormon leadership has decided that it has the credibility to make pronouncements on what is and what is not acceptable in the eyes of God. They would like everybody to forget that apparently God pranked them in the past.
(Oh. that God, what a kidder!)

Today's official LDS opposition on same-sex marriage seems solid and unshakable, but then Mormons of 1850 thought the same thing with Church approved of polygamy.