In the United States, 2015 was a watershed year for marriage equality. With a 5-4 decision in June, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to marry for all Americans, regardless of the gender composition of the couple. Marriage traditionalists built their case against same-sex unions on the proposition that, as a fundamentally religious ritual, marriage was for millennia defined as a union between one man and one woman. However, Obergefell rejected the premise that lawmaking could be based solely on religious reasons without clearly defined state-sanctioned goals. Through its ruling, the Supreme Court built a constitutional wall separating marital unions from the church’s traditional definition.
Yet if 2015 saw the backers of marriage equality win a decisive victory, 2016 opened with what might be a trend among some churches to relocate the battleground over same-sex marriage within the boundaries of their own religious communities. On January 10, a leading member of the worldwide hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) announced that the church’s controversial and exclusionary policy toward gay Mormon couples and their children—first established in 2015 in response to Obergefell—was “revealed” to the church’s president and confirmed by the other church apostles to be “the will of the Lord.” Four days later, the Anglican Communion announced that it had voted to suspend for three years the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), the largest U.S. member of the global Communion, from key voting positions. The suspension came in response to the Episcopal Church’s practice of allowing its clergy to perform same-sex marriage and for its decision, in the wake of Obergefell, to include same-sex marriage rites in its church laws.
Supporters of creating more welcoming environments for LGBT Christians decried these announcements as un-Christian. Many predicted that they would likely lead to even more division among Mormons and Anglicans over questions of homosexuality. And, at the same time that American law and culture are growing more inclusive, many also feared that these decisions could lead to increasing levels of antagonism experienced by gay Mormons and Anglicans within their own religious communities.
These developments are not only the result of the rapidly changing landscape in America regarding sexuality. Instead, these changes are as much about Africa and the rest of the Global South as they are about the United States. As the demographic weight of Christianity shifts southward, international Christian communities headquartered in the U.S. and in Europe are increasingly inclined to align themselves with the sexual politics of their African and South American membership and leadership. And these politics aren’t just divisive. They are also dangerous, perhaps even life-threatening. To be sure, Christians throughout the world are grappling with divisions within their churches over homosexuality. Yet because of the LDS Church’s influence in the American Intermountain West (and its growing presence in the Global South) and the Anglican Church’s political clout in many African countries, LDS and Anglican Church-sanctioned anti-gay theologies have created cultural climates in which LGBT people within and outside Mormon and Anglican communities have become victims of violence as well as victims of self-loathing, even self-harm.
The LDS Church’s new policy, which was first made public last November, labels same-sex Mormon couples “apostates” and forbids their children from being baptized, receive blessings, or take part in other LDS initiation rituals until they turn 18. It also requires that these children disavow same-sex cohabitation before they can be baptized. Last fall, many gay Mormons and their allies responded to the new policies with great confusion and condemnation. Some described what has become known as the “exclusionary policy” as not only un-Christian, but more precisely un-Mormon. Holding the children of gay parents accountable for the supposed sins of their fathers and mothers is a “betrayal” of the “foundational beliefs of the church” that “cuts all the way down to the bone,” wrote political scientist Mary Barker at Religion Dispatches. “Unlike traditional Christians, Mormons reject the concept of original sin. They do so because they can’t imagine someone being blamed for the sin of another.” As Mitch Mayne, an openly gay man and practicing Mormon, explained in The Huffington Post, many Mormons had hoped that the new policy would be adjusted and amended to give local leaders discretion to decide how to implement it, especially related to children of gay parents. As such, the January 10 declaration from Russell M. Nelson, head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, that the church’s new policy was “revealed” was met by shock and dismay by many within the Mormon community. The declaration from Nelson, who is next in line to become president of the LDS Church—which also considers the head of the church a “prophet, seer and revelator”—means that the church’s new stance is not merely administrative procedure. Instead, Nelson’s “clarification,” wrote Mayne, signals that the highest-ranking members of the LDS Church have elevated the church’s new policy to “near doctrinal status.”
Leaders of the Anglican Communion, the world’s largest Protestant denomination, cited the Bible and tradition—not new revelation—to justify the censure of the ECUSA. “The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman,” read a statement released on January 14 following a meeting at the Anglican Church’s global headquarters in Canterbury, England. Those in attendance represented 44 national churches, and the majority of those present reaffirmed this teaching, according to the statement. The fact that the Anglicans’ decision came about based on a vote of member churches, and not from a divinely inspired dictate, is critical to understanding what the Communion’s decision means and does not mean for the future of global Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church. As the Rev. Craig T. Townsend, who directs the Hays Rockwell Center for Clergy Development at New York City’s St. James’ Church, explained to me, the power structure of the Communion is horizontal in nature. “[It is] a set of mutual relationships between independent national Christian bodies. ‘Disciplining’ the ECUSA therefore is about what one body is saying it will not do with another.” What is more, many members of the Episcopal Church believe that the American church will not be dissuaded from implementing its new, more inclusive marriage rites. “We can accept these actions with grace and humility, but the Episcopal Church is not going back,” explained Jim Naughton, a communications consultant and former canon for the Archdiocese of Washington, to Religion News Service. “We can’t repent what is not a sin.”
Many American Christians, including the half that the Pew Forum recently found believe that “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” likely view the LDS Church and the Anglican Communion’s recent decisions on same-sex marriage as regrettable, if not retrograde. These decisions are also sure to exacerbate already extant schisms within the LDS and Episcopal Churches themselves over questions of sexuality. The 2003 consecration of the openly gay priest Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire eventually led dozens of Episcopal parishes to separate themselves from the Episcopal Church and form their own rival Anglican Church in North America. This new U.S.-based Anglican organization is affiliated with the global Anglican Communion through an association with the Anglican churches in Nigeria, Uganda, and Sudan, all of which oppose gay marriage and the ordination of gay priests. For its part, the LDS Church continues to deal with the internal fallout of the church’s political support of California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 vote that outlawed gay marriage in that state after California’s Supreme Court had legalized it. In the days after the Prop 8 result, thousands of gay-rights supporters—including a number of LDS Church members—gathered at a park next to the church’s headquarters at Salt Lake City’s Temple Square to protest the church’s involvement in the ballot proposition. And in the years that have followed, LDS church communities in California and in the rest of the U.S. remain divided over the legacy of Prop 8, with many on both sides of the gay marriage debate describing their stances as a fundamental aspect of their faith.
Without question, we are living in an era when young Americans are leaving the churches of their youth at unprecedented numbers. And many are motivated to do so because they believe these institutions are unfriendly to the LGBT community. Within days of the November 2015 change to the LDS policy towards gay church members and their children, some 2,500 Mormons sent letters of resignation to the church. Yet by doubling down on the question of gay marriage, the Anglican Communion and the LDS Church are not committing institutional suicide. Counterintuitively perhaps, these decisions can be interpreted as acts of self-preservation. After all, the much discussed rise of the religious “nones” in America coincides with continued growth and increased influence of Christians—including Anglicans and Mormons—in the Global South, where in many countries gay marriage and homosexuality remain illegal and culturally taboo. Of the 15 million LDS Church members worldwide, more live outside the U.S. than inside. In 1900, some 80 percent of the global Anglican population lived in Britain, with only 1 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2008, 55 percent of the 80 million worldwide Anglicans lived in sub-Saharan Africa, and only 33 percent in Britain. Elizabeth Pritchard, who teaches religion at Bowdoin, recently explained that “by 2050, some 75 percent of Christians are projected to be in Latin America, Asia and Africa,” all areas where Christians tend to be more conservative than Americans and Europeans regarding homosexuality.
Both the Anglican hierarchy in Canterbury and the LDS hierarchy in Salt Lake would argue that their newly articulated punishments and policies are not the result of changing demographics. Instead, the (Anglican) bishops and the (Mormon) brethren are preserving what they believe are eternal truths. But the changing centers of their churches certainly contributed to the political support for their divisive stances. This was clearly the case in the Anglican Communion’s decision to suspend the ECUSA. According to leaked communiqués from the Communion’s January meeting, African bishops spearheaded the efforts to reprimand the American branch of the Anglican Church for its more inclusive position on homosexuality.
To be sure, not all Anglican leaders in Africa support such anti-gay culture and politics. As Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College and himself an Episcopal priest, told me, “[retired Archbishop] Desmond Tutu and James Tengatenga, the former bishop of Southern Malawi, have taken courageous, even heroic, stands against homophobia, often at considerable risk to themselves and their families.” Yet Balmer and other critics of the Communion’s decision have noted that there is a cost—a human cost—to this suspension, one that goes beyond the potentially permanent schism within the global Anglican community. The Right Rev. Mariann Edger Budde declared, “Those consequences are insignificant in comparison with the rejection, marginalization, and violence LGBT Christians have been asked to endure, even in their churches.” Likewise, as Jonathan Merritt suggested at The Atlantic, Canterbury’s willingness to countenance the African bishops’ desire to chastise Episcopalians for their support of same-sex marriage is hypocritical in light of those bishops’ support for vicious anti-gay laws at home. The head of the Anglican Church of Uganda backed that country’s infamous anti-homosexual legislation, which at one point allowed for the death penalty for those convicted of some homosexual acts. (The bill that passed includes life sentences for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”) Last year, the Anglican Communion also appointed a Nigerian bishop who has called for the criminalization of homosexuality as its secretary general, a post that functions as the worldwide ambassador for the some 85 million members of the Anglican Communion. Merritt finds it deeply troubling that such leaders have been allowed stay in their posts, let alone be promoted and lead the campaign to sanction the Episcopal Church. “The Anglican Communion is selective in its outrage … there is simply no moral equivalency between marrying a gay couple and sentencing them to rot in jail. Focusing on the former while overlooking the latter epitomizes what Jesus referred to as looking at the sawdust in your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.”
Because the married, heterosexual couple is the fundamental theological unit in Mormon theology, the LDS Church has struggled—more than the Anglicans, and arguably more than all other Christian traditions—to accommodate changing views of marriage in its doctrine and culture. As Taylor Petrey has explained at Religion & Politics, the LDS Church has a unique view of the afterlife, which “consists of heterosexual pairs of divinized men and women,” meaning that “in the Mormon cosmos, as presently understood, there is no room for same-sex relationships.” And certainly there is no room for same-sex relationships that could be labeled as “marriage,” a sacred covenant that the Mormons believe can endure for “time and eternity.”
Even with these theological barriers, in the wake of Prop 8, the church seemed to be charting a path towards more public acknowledgement of—even empathy for—the struggles of LBGT people in the wider American society as well as gay Mormons within their own communities. In 2015, with the support of the church, the Mormon-dominated Utah legislature passed a housing and employment anti-discrimination bill. Gay rights activists as well as Mormon leaders called “the Utah compromise,” which also included specific protections for religious institutions that object to homosexuality, a model that they hoped other states would follow. What’s more, the church recently began acknowledging that what it calls “same-sex attraction,” or SSA, is not a choice individuals make. The church’s official position is that that experiencing SSA “itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.” While many gay Mormons and their allies feel that it could do more, in these ways the church has made a visible effort to include Mormons who experience same-sex attraction but do not engage in homosexual behavior as members in the church in good standing, while also encouraging Mormon communities to make their gay brothers and sisters feel welcome.
The church’s recent moves to create more cultural—but not doctrinal—space for gay church members in church communities show why this new exclusionary policy came as such a shock and disappointment to many Mormons. As a result of the new (divinely sanctioned) policy toward gay Mormons and their children, many Mormons—gay and straight—have been compelled more than ever to highlight the real human cost, especially to young people, of the LDS Church’s anti-homosexual theologies and practices. As Jana Riess has pointed out, Mormon-majority “Utah ranks fifth among all U.S. in teen suicide … While other factors may play a role (altitude, greater access to guns, lower access to health care), religion can’t be counted out—especially when it comes to the messages LGBT teens are receiving from the LDS Church.” Since the new policy was announced, social media has been abuzz with gay Mormons, their friends, and families sharing stories of marginalization and depression. There have also been anecdotal reports of a rise in the number of suicides by young LGBT Mormons in Utah as well reports of an uptick in gay Mormons seeking counseling for suicidal thoughts. Following the publication of these reports, the LDS Church released a statement in which senior church leaders said of suicide victims through a spokesman, “We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope.” But as Riess has highlighted, “The LGBT community is unlikely to feel the love when, on the one hand, they heard an apostle suggest earlier this month that the exclusionary policy was the will of God, and then, on the other hand, a church employee followed up by saying that yes, of course, Mormons are to love absolutely everyone.”
The LDS Church’s public approach towards American LGBT Mormon youth is full of mixed messages, “endorsing homophobia in practice—even codifying it as revelation—while proclaiming a love for LGBT people,” Riess explained to me. Yet Riess also pointed out that the exclusionary policy is very much in line with the predominant cultural attitude towards homosexuality in the areas where the church is seeing its biggest growth: in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. (In Western Europe, missions and local church branches are closing and consolidating. In North America there is more or less net growth stagnation). The number of Mormons in the U.S. who accept homosexuality as a culturally permissible lifestyle is a minority. However, this minority is growing quickly. In 2007, a Pew study found that 24 percent of LDS Church members said that homosexuality should be accepted by society. In 2014, that number had risen to 36 percent.
A century ago, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy ravaged American mainline denominations. Fights over biblical interpretation, “fundamental” doctrine, and ecclesiology eventually led to an irreconcilable rupture in American Christendom. Many American mainline churches became home to Christians with increasingly liberal theological and social positions, while conservatives broke off and formed their own churches and denominations.
As the influence of the Global South continues to grow, one wonders if we are not witnessing a similar period of sorting. Intentionally or not, the LDS Church’s new policy has served only to further antagonize many Mormons who want to make their religious communities more welcome to—and safe for—their LGBT Mormon brothers and sisters and, most importantly, their children. Mass resignations (not to mention the explicit policy of exclusion, which keeps the offspring of gay parents away from the baptismal waters) might be painful for the entire Mormon church body. But perhaps church leaders view it as necessary to create a more unified American church and necessary to make the church more attractive to potential converts in the Global South. Likewise, for the Anglicans in these same mission fields where they are also seeing their biggest membership gains, affiliation with the Episcopal Church—a communion built on smaller and smaller common ground—might prove too costly.
This debate over whether to accept LGBT Christians as full members of their sacred communities, entitled to all the rights and responsibilities as their straight brothers and sisters in the gospel, or whether to exclude them because they do not conform to “traditional” understandings of sexuality and gender, is a thoroughly twenty-first century one. It emerges out of the intersection of evolving understandings of sexuality, changing legal status for gay Americans, and globalizing faiths. Yet as “progressive” Christians in the so-called West label the church in the Global South—and their backers in the global church headquarters of Canterbury and Salt Lake—“un-Christian,” there emerge not only shadows of early twentieth-century fights over Christian fundamentals, but also the specter of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century colonialism. Some African church leaders who refuse to accept gay rights have described the assumption that they’d fall in line with American and European evolving understandings of sexuality as being akin to a colonial-era decree to “civilize” the benighted darker races.
And thus a word of caution must be added to those who claim that their position on homosexuality has the gospel on their side. The great postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak famously asked, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” At least on this contentious issue, some (male) church leaders from the postcolonial world are proving that they can. And even if many in the West find the message abhorrent, perhaps if they listen they will find that this speech isn’t just about gay rights. It’s also about establishing an authoritative voice in a global church that increasingly belongs demographically and culturally to the Global South.
Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.