Media around the world have been reporting the developments in Utah in relation to same-sex marriage. Nearly always the articles and broadcasts also mention the Mormon Church as the conservative force that tries to prevent same-sex marriage. What could be the effect of such reporting on the image of the Mormon Church worldwide? As far as can be known, what do church members around the world think about same-sex marriage? How will the Church deal with same-sex couples who are legally married in a growing number of countries? This (long) post tries to suggest answers to these three questions. But first, the broader context.
The broader context: media and religion
The news about Utah runs parallel with similar news about other countries and states. Various countries are currently considering the legalization of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile same-sex marriage has already been approved in a fair number of countries, most of which belong to developed nations, such as Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South-Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The list even includes major Catholic countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, and Spain. The trend to legalize same-sex marriage is spreading to other “gay-supporting” countries as well.
At the other end of the spectrum are countries with an overall reproving public attitude toward homosexuality. At present, most Islamic nations and dozens of African countries have laws penalizing homosexual behavior with fines, incarceration, hard labor, whippings, or death by public stoning. Recently Uganda and Nigeria approved harsh legislation to punish same-sex relations. Compared to West European countries, East European countries are marked by a stark divide as to their hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior, as this PewResearch reveals. Russia recently enacted anti-gay laws, which further endanger Russian LGBT. To counter that trend, governments of developed democracies and international human rights organizations have been vocal in condemning the discriminatory laws of these “gay-reproving” countries.
Media play a significant role in influencing these attitudes about homosexuality. The studies are numerous, like this one, that indicate that “media exposure may draw groups with disparate attitudes towards a more similar viewpoint on homosexuality.” Media thus reinforce the respective tendencies in “gay-supporting” and in “gay-reproving” countries. Of course, this division between two kinds of countries refers only to the major trend in public opinion. Alternate views may be strong. Moreover, people may be partly supportive, for example of same-sex civil unions but not of marriage, or of same-sex marriage but not of adopting children, and so on. I recognize these complexities, but this (already long) post cannot consider all these distinctions here.
In the worldwide controversies over homosexuality, the religious dimension is paramount. The disapproval of homosexual behavior comes primarily from religion, both from Christian and Muslim sides. In June 2003, the Vatican launched a global campaign against gay marriage. In a strongly-worded document, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and soon to be Pope Benedict XVI, clearly stated that homosexual unions were “gravely immoral” and “harmful to the proper development of human society.” In the United States the denominational positions on homosexuality are diverse, but the still overwhelming religious posture is that homosexual behavior is depraved. Since churches have a significant voice in the American political process, religious views against same-sex marriage dominate the debate. In Russia, the powerful Orthodox Church is the main force behind the anti-gay efforts. Similarly, in other countries from the former communist bloc, the resurgent national churches use their influence to block pro-gay legislation and to foster anti-gay attitudes, such as in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. Islamic law, pertaining to some 1,5 billion people, considers homosexual behavior a crime which may require the death penalty. In Uganda American religious activists have been instrumental in pushing the harshest anti-gay agenda. Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox bishops have been lending their support to the “kill-the-gays” bill. In the Congo (RDC), Pentecostal bishop Yamapia introduced the criminalization of homosexuality, including the prohibition of associations providing health care to gays and lesbians. The debate is now picking up again with the introduction of legislation similar to Nigeria’s. In such countries, the religious rhetoric, part of a holy war against evil, is easily accepted among populations prone to antagonistic excitement against people who are “different”.
In the same vein, the Utah controversy over same-sex marriage is directly tied to religion. Though the Mormon Church insists on reaching out to homosexuals with love and understanding, the Church’s principled position is that homosexual behavior is a sin and that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s plan. Press articles around the world mention that Mormon position in standard sentences, as in this article in Nigeria: “Shelby’s ruling had jolted many of Utah’s 2.8 million residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that traditional marriage is an institution ordained by God.” Or in this article in Peru: “La doctrina mormona establece que las relaciones sexuales fuera del matrimonio entre personas de sexos opuestos son contrarias a la voluntad de Dios.” In the U.K., the Guardian reported Elder Oaks’s conference talk of October 2013, with several citations that underscored the divine injunction to reject homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.
Therefore the overall public perception, as conveyed by the media, is that strict religions condemn homosexual behavior and forbid same-sex marriage. For devoted adherents to those religions, such a firm position is considered divinely sanctioned and protective of time-honored family values. It justifies their rigorous attitudes. Those who cannot believe in such divine command tend to hold those strict religions responsible for what they see as prejudice and discrimination, leading, in their opinion, not only to the denial of civil rights, but also to horrific consequences for LGBT in dozens of countries.
Worldwide the media are thus viewing the situation in Utah in a broad international context, with religion on the foreground.
One remark: the divide is not one of believers versus non-believers because also many believers take the side of supporting gay rights from a principled persuasion of human rights and God’s love for all. It explains why in gay-supporting countries also local churches (or the national chapters of world churches) mollify their former positions. These churches do not want to be identified with discrimination, bullying, persecutions, and incarcerations. Hence various churches in these countries support gay rights and perform gay weddings. It does not mean, however, that homophobia and gay-bashing automatically disappear—even in these gay-protecting countries, the struggle goes on. Conversely, non-believers in traditional societies can have a gay-reproving attitude. One of my sources from Japan mentioned: “Japan has come a long way in openness with respect to sexual orientation. Even so, it remains a socially conservative society though religiously secular. Japan—the LDS Church in Japan in particular—must be the last place I would like to be if I were a homosexual.”
What is the effect on the image of the Mormon Church?
The Church’s position on same-sex marriage can have a positive or a negative effect on its image. One could say the effect doesn’t matter: the Church stands for principles, not popularity. Still the Church is very concerned about its image in the world. For decades it has been investing massively on various fronts to counter lingering negative ideas, clarify positions, and to portray Mormons as normal and likable people. The real purpose of all these efforts is to be allowed to enter countries and be recognized as a church, to do missionary work, to get rid of the Mormon “cult” image, to function without harassment, to gain the interest of potential converts, and to give confidence to members. Hence the Church’s concern for how the media convey Mormonism. The controversial topic of same-sex marriage has, at present, an undeniable bearing on the image of the Church in many parts of the world. Tied to the broader context I just discussed, the following general trends may be discerned.
1 – In conservative countries that strongly favor heterosexual marriage, one would expect a positive response to the Church’s position. To a limited extent, in particular when the Church itself initiates media reports or participates in family-defense conferences, such a positive impression can be given. Church representatives typically use The Family: A Proclamation to the World as front piece for their approach. However, the overall effect of these efforts seems limited because major prejudices against Mormonism supplant any rapprochement. Nearly all of these conservative countries—among which former communist countries and African countries—harbor one or more influential churches that view Mormonism as a blasphemous system and deeply resent Mormon missionary work among their own faithful. It translates in the media which continue to depict Mormons as “not Christian, belonging to a cult, insular, aloof, secretive, disconnected from mainstream society, weird (odd beliefs, strange underwear etc), and practicing polygamy”—which the Mormon Newsroom itself confirms as “the most common stereotypes.” In Africa in particular, anti-Mormon forces will also remind the public of the Church’s racist past. The fact that the Church supports heterosexual marriage gets drowned in the malevolence.
Of course, the Church, in proselytizing in anti-gay countries such as in Africa, could highlight even more its long crusade against same-sex marriage as a way to win more visibility and support. I do not know to what extent (local) church leaders stress that aspect or openly support anti-gay legislation in such countries. But even if the Church refrains from such interference, prominent Mormons in marriage-defense organizations have been influential in the anti-gay campaigns which also affect these countries—a fact that is exposed by gay-rights activists and by political watchdogs. The alliance of Mormons with other Christian and Islamic forces drew much ire at the time. Certainly, there is a significant difference between defending heterosexual marriage and incarcerating gays, but coalitions between various Christian and Muslim groups do not guarantee how partners will use the commonly created momentum in their respective countries or organizations. In that sense, according to the sources I linked to above, prominent Mormon advocates have at least indirectly contributed to the horrendous treatment of LGBT in a number of gay-reproving countries.
2 – In gay-supporting countries, and certainly in countries where same-sex marriage has been approved, the Mormon position is generally perceived as part of American religious conservatism, presented as the Christian Right. In 2008 the Church’s support of Proposition 8 greatly reinforced that perception. This former support continues to be mentioned in the media in relation to the present situation. Media also remind the public of the Church’s past racism in connection with the priesthood ban, which confirms the general image of a church given to discrimination. The result is that people in these gay-supporting countries would rather retain a negative impression of the Mormon Church.
However, more refined analysis of media representation reveals how the reporting can easily alter perceptions. For example, national Belgian media (VRT, Dutch-speaking) reported on judge Shelby’s decision (which declared the Utah ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional) by describing the Mormon reaction as dual: “The conservative faction of the Mormon Church does not intend to let this decision stand, but far from all Mormons are disappointed by this decision.” The article next talks about “Mormons Building Bridges” and also mentions that “part of the Mormon Church has openly supported the changed gay-policy of the American scouts.” A large picture of the parade participation of Mormons Building Bridges accompanies the article. Such reporting, even if it is not accurate in depicting “factions” or “parts” in the official Church, has a tremendous PR-value because it presents Mormons as diverse, able to voice opinions, standing on both sides of the debate, with an underlying message of future developments in favor of same-sex marriage. It is reminiscent of Harry Reid’s intervention in favor of same-sex marriage and the wave it provoked. Telling is that the Church did not blow the whistle on Reid, but reacted diplomatically. This judicious response illustrates the balancing act for Public Affairs.
But such nuances in reporting are rare. Overall, the compact generalizations in the news do not recognize divergent tendencies within the Church. The overall image of a monolithic and inflexible Mormonism prevails. And one disparaging report in the national media of a country can wreck years of patient public relations work.
What do church members around the world think about same-sex marriage?
There are no surveys yet, like this one for Utah. I base my information mainly on personal conversations and email exchanges with respondents in a dozen countries in various continents. With more than half of the Mormon membership outside the U.S., we are dealing with very dissimilar countries as to member ratios, church experience, socio-political tendencies, lifestyle, and ethical traditions. My analysis is therefore tentative. Also, attitudes not only vary from country to country, but also from urban to rural areas in the same country, from the educated to the less educated, and from individual to individual.
From the information I obtained, the following four factors play a role in attitudes of members in the international church. Overall these attitudes pertain to the situation of non-members. Indeed, none of the following implies that members condone homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage for Latter-day Saints.
1 – Sensitivity to maltreated minorities
Around the world, Mormons are a tiny minority. Not counting exceptions like Tonga and Samoa, the ratio of Mormons to the general population is very small to insignificant. Moreover, in many countries, media and literature persist in misrepresenting the Mormon Church or tying it to fundamentalist groups. In quite a few nations the Church continues to be pestered when it comes to church recognition, missionary visa, tax exemptions, or building and meeting permits. When a person converts to this “foreign cult,” it often implies severe family conflicts, and sometimes also loss of friends and tensions at school or at work. Adopting a Mormon lifestyle demarcates a new identity which alienates members from their surrounding society.
The process and the results of conversion are comparable to what gays and lesbians experience when they “come out” and face familial and social consequences. It explains why at least part of the Mormons in the international church, certainly in gay-supporting countries, tend to sympathize with the plight of LGBT. Just as these Mormons want to be accepted by their non-Mormon family and friends for the choice they made, they understand the same yearning for acceptance by gays and lesbians who come out. Just as these Mormons want respect for their lifestyle, they feel they must grant the same to others. Just as these Mormons expect fair and charitable treatment from outsiders, they apply the golden rule to others. So, asking these members to condemn homosexual behavior or to lobby for anti-gay marriage legislation, may at least cause some malaise, if not severe tensions.
2 – Loyalty to prior political views and adherence to public opinion
Most adult members in the international church are first-generation Mormons, whom I call “converts” for convenience. In countries where missionary work is more recent, the ratio of converts is very high, like in Africa or in former communist countries. But even in most “Mormon-vested” countries, converts—many of whom joined decades ago—continue to make up the bulk of the membership. These members usually retain their original political allegiances, covering the whole spectrum from left to right. It is also a way to retain some bonds with the surrounding society, thus countering the many alienating factors they encounter as Mormons. Parents typically pass these political allegiances on to their children. As research from Europe and Latin America shows, many Mormon converts lean, on average, to the left (or what Americans would perceive as left). The reason is simple: since right-leaning is conservative and is mostly tied to the vested churches, right-leaners tend to hold on to the religious heritage of their country. Converts to Mormonism, in many cases, have no such coercive ties, welcome diversity and tolerance, and are open to change. It means that the argument of “traditional values” to counter homosexuality and same-sex marriage may not sit well with the political views on diversity and tolerance these Mormons adhere to. The Church’s position on homosexuality may cause contradictory feelings among these members. Members with a more right-leaning background would not share these feelings.
Many non-American members are also prone to follow the general public opinion of their own country or region, be it tolerant or not tolerant of LGBT, be it for or against same-sex marriage. Comments from members confirm this penchant. In the Netherlands and Belgium, where same-sex marriage has existed for more than a decade, it seems most members quietly agree that such marriage is acceptable, as far as it pertains to non-members. For France, Mormon opinions are more divided, in line with the fierce debate that preceded the French legalization of same-sex marriage in 2012. A Mormon voice from Australia is very vocal in criticizing the Mormon-Utah political agenda on same-sex marriage, but the comments on that post show fierce divisions. A member from Peru told me that Mormons in large urban areas are more lenient and understanding, because LGBT are more visible and more familiar to members, while in rural areas members easily mention homosexuality in one breath with depravity and abuse. LGBT in such rural areas therefore tend to keep their orientation secret. Echoes from Latvia and from Hungary, East-European countries with strong anti-gay feelings, confirm that church members tend to share these anti-feelings and find justification for them in their Mormon belief. A member from the Congo, well acquainted with other African countries too, told me that most members would consider homosexuality an “antivalue to morals and mores.” Such reaction is in line with overall attitudes in Africa, which, as mentioned earlier, have been fostered and exacerbated by Christian and Muslim anti-gay advocates.
3 – Conviction that marriage is a civil affair first
In contrast to the U.S., nearly all countries with a broad Western legal background recognize only civil marriage as legally valid. This is the case in Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia, and Oceania. A number of Asian countries, such as Japan, have the same system: the legal marriage, performed by a civil authority, must precede any religious ceremony, which is an optional complement, not a legal marriage. In only a few of these countries may a religious representative of a recognized church (who has formally obtained the authority of a civil servant) combine the civil and religious act. Therefore Mormons in these countries cannot really identify with the American realm in which churches have prerogatives over marriage and express fears about being compelled to perform same-sex marriages. Mormons in these “civil-marriage countries” find it difficult to see same-sex marriage as a threat to the religious institution because, legally, a church has no authority over marriage, but is also free to refuse to perform the religious ceremony for anyone who does not comply with the Church’s norms. Since civil law does not allow race, religion, or gender to be a discriminating factor, it explains the relative ease with which these countries can legalize same-sex marriages. So, certainly in gay-supporting countries, church members feel less disturbed by same-sex marriage because of the civil framework to which the word “marriage” belongs and because it pertains to non-members.
4 - Self-evident acceptance of same-sex couples in some countries
As mentioned earlier, the Netherlands and Belgium, two neighboring countries, were the first to legalize same-sex marriage more than a decade ago. It was approved after thorough assessment, but without much controversy. Not surprising: these are small and vulnerable countries, where people remember what extreme ideologies of invading European nations have caused on their soil. Belgium is composed of different communities, without ever waging a war between them—negotiation and compromise being the key. The Netherlands is Anne Frank’s country and now home to the UN International Court of Justice. In more recent decades, immigration made both countries very multicultural with the accompanying challenges of improving tolerance. Sensitivity to peace, equality, and human rights is therefore a daily given, strongly taught in schools and promoted in the media. In that context, both the Dutch and the Belgian parliaments, including Christian-oriented parties, found it quite appropriate to legalize same-sex marriage on the grounds of equality. Except for a front-page picture in the papers of the first LGBT couple that got married, the matter became a non-issue afterwards. The same is happening in country after country where same-sex marriage is being legalized. Same-sex marriages constitute a tiny fraction of the total number of marriages. For public opinion, it’s become trivial; for LGBT a world of difference.
What about concern for children in these countries? Most same-sex couples have no children. Some partners bring in children from former hetero marriages, others make a conscious choice to obtain or adopt children. In nearly all of these countries, the legal, social, educational, and medical controls for the well being of children are strict. Since recomposed families, as a consequence of divorces and remarriages, have become quite ordinary (also in the Church), the concept of different marriage combinations finds acceptance, including same-sex marriage. The general perception is that in each of these combinations the people involved strive to have a stable marriage and a happy family.
Mormons in these gay-supportive countries tend to adopt the same attitude of acceptance as the population at large. The overall opinion is that the small number of same-sex marriages does not have detrimental effects on society nor on the children these couples raise—provided the surrounding society is not derogatory nor obstructive. The overall opinion is that these marriages valorize marriage as a desirable status, stabilize the relation between persons, and reinforce fidelity, thus reducing sexual permissiveness. In gay-supportive countries where same-sex marriage is legal, chances are fair that some church members know a same-sex couple personally. In one of our Belgian wards, a 17-year old joined the church—a fine young man, balanced and dedicated, who had been well raised by his two dads. Though not members, the two fathers later supported their son fully when he decided to go on a mission. It’s a well-known principle: once you get acquainted with persons of a suspect group, fear and prejudice fade. It’s what the Church itself applies in its “I’m a Mormon” campaign.
But, again, such a natural acceptance by church members of same-sex marriage, even as it pertains only to non-members, entails some malaise and perhaps tensions with the Church’s position.
How will the Church deal with same-sex couples who are legally married?
One of the emails I got in response to my inquiry on the topic was from Gabriel [not his real name], a gay man from Nigeria. A few years ago he had to flee his country because of his love for another man. He found Mormonism in Europe, or rather the Mormons found him. Here is part of his email, uncorrected:
they persuaded me to come to church with them, do i was hesitant at first but i later went and found out they were frdly and nice people of god we fellowshiped together i did my baptism and became a member … i went through the immigration process and was given a a place to stay in the refugee camp there i decided to make my self more useful by working in the camp as a cleaner for a token fee … i also decided to do a project for the (LGBT) people in my camp cus i know that been a gay u are prone to be more vonurable and reserved most time the gay people stay indoor in the camp for fear of the unknown or for poeple not to molest or harras them so i decided to form the project for them so that they can come out and share there experience and be free to express them self and perhaps meet some one they like cus the english people say no man is an island we all need a company and a companion. i continued to fellowship in the church do i dont take part in most of the church activities cus of my sexuality and i dont receive the sacrament even in the church not every one likes my sexuality but that doesnt stop me from been a member of the church i go to church to serve my god and not to serve people the gay life is not easy but we all try to be strong and hopr for the best
Gabriel now lives in a country where he could legally marry. His future husband could be a Mormon too or could asked to be baptized. In more and more countries church leaders will occasionally face the situation of legally married gays or lesbians who come to church. Though cases may be rare in view of the Church’s position, they will come—ironically because missionaries have much more success in finding the marginal, the seeker, and the lonesome yearning for an accepting community. People like Gabriel.
The policy to handle such cases as it pertains to church members is clear: “Sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife … Members who violate the Lord’s law of chastity or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline” (Handbook, 21.4.5). If in a country where same-sex marriage is legal, a legally married same-sex couple wants to be baptized, the policy implies that baptism is refused unless the couple first divorces and repents. If they are already church members and marry within the laws of the land, the Church will have to discipline them. A dad in a legal same-sex marriage will not be able to baptize his child or ordain his son to the priesthood. The fact that the Church is in its full right to enforce its rules is not under discussion.
But what kind of effect may such situations have on members, on internal conflicts, and thus on retention—not to speak of the Church’s image and missionary work? The matter is a two-edged sword in view of the stark divide between gay-supporting and gay-reproving countries. Members tend to emphasize in the Church’s viewpoint what matches their country’s overall attitude, either “love and understanding” toward LGBT, or “sin” with the apocalyptic warning in the Proclamation as incentive. Such contradictory reactions are normal for a tiny minority. Mormon Public Affairs itself stresses what is most convenient—in gay-supporting countries, it is rather the Church’s accepting attitude and hospitable website; in gay-reproving countries, it is rather the Church’s firm stand against homosexual behavior. So when it comes to applying the Handbook policy, it could go in two directions and each direction would play out differently according to the country:
1 – The strict application of the policy to legally married same-sex couples may increase malaise and tensions among members in gay-supporting countries . Depending on local circumstances and individuals, it can make the more charitable and more lenient members finally disengage, thus leaving the remnant local Mormon group even more intransigent. How will leaders and members then treat Gabriel when he comes to church with a friend or his husband? Conversely, what will be the effect of such intransigence in gay-reproving countries like Uganda or Nigeria? Where will dutiful church members and zealous local leaders draw the line? For example, in the case of a child abuser, “Church officials follow state law regarding when and how to report an act of child abuse to public authorities.” In stringent anti-gay countries, with punitive laws, will church officials feel or be obliged to report a gay or lesbian adult who confessed homosexual behavior, and thus contribute to sending him or her to jail for years? Will they assist in tearing children away from their LGBT parents?
2 – On the other hand, hypothetically, the Church could in time consider more lenient policies in view of its respect for “the law of the land” if that law allows same-sex marriage and in view of its respect for “families.” To expect a legally married couple to divorce presents quite a quandary. More lenient policies could allow legally married same-sex couples to join the Church, to serve in callings and participate in ordinances. Such an attitude would be acknowledged in gay-supporting countries as mature and tolerant and hopefully contribute to a more charitable society. But in countries that reject same-sex marriage, and in particular in harsh gay-reproving countries, the Church would have to navigate a delicate course with such lenient policies, not only to educate members, but also to avoid a backlash against such “immoral” policies.
One thing is clear: the international church is part of what is playing out in Utah. Whatever church authorities emphasize now or in the future, whatever they apply as policies dealing with legally married same-sex couples, whatever individual Mormons advocate in public fora and organizations, it has worldwide resonance and implications.
PS. For those interested in a comparison of the Mormon and Catholic positions on ethical issues and same-sex marriage, please see my recent Dialogue article here.