Last week the Senate voted to advance the Respect for Marriage Act with bipartisan support. The bill is a landmark piece of legislation that protects both the civil liberties of same-sex married couples and the religious liberties of churches and other religious organizations and individuals.
Many people were surprised when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an official statement in favor of the act. The church’s support for the bill is indeed notable, but is shocking only if you think it’s still 2008.
2008 was the year that the LDS Church mobilized its members and resources in favor of California Proposition 8, which stipulated that the state would only recognize marriages between a man and a woman. Voters approved the initiative, but blowback was swift and fierce. A court soon ruled that the provision violated the U.S. Constitution. Public opinion characterized the LDS Church and its members as being particularly hostile not just toward same-sex marriage but toward the entire LGBTQ+ community — a reputation they have not since shed.
Fast forward seven years later. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex marriage was a protected right under the Constitution. The church immediately issued a statement acknowledging the court’s opinion. It was clear the church wished the decision would have gone the other way, but it didn’t. The statement indicated resignation, not resistance.
Later in 2015 the church announced a policy categorizing married same-sex couples as “apostates” and prohibiting the children of those marriages from being baptized. The latter provision was especially unpopular even with many orthodox church members. The church reversed both parts of the policy in April 2019, but internally maintained its opposition to and refusal to perform same-sex marriages.
Proposition 8 marked the church’s last significant push to codify its doctrinal understanding of marriage as the public definition of marriage for all people. As such, 2008 represents the highwater mark for the church’s public teaching against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. 2015, on the other hand, marks the moment in which the church affirmed a dual standard — it would continue to reject same-sex marriage for its members while acknowledging it as a civil right in a pluralistic public square.
If 2008 is your baseline, then the church’s grudging acceptance of Obergefell in 2015 and now its support for the Respect for Marriage Act don’t make much sense. But both make perfect sense in light of a longer history — not of the church’s views on homosexuality, but its views on politics.
In 1835, early church leader Oliver Cowdery penned a declaration of belief regarding laws and governments. Now canonized in LDS scripture, the document affirms the church’s position that all people are “bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside,” and that “all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest.”
In return for the loyalty of its religious citizens, governments have an obligation to protect “all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief.” Here was the bargain: The church would support the government, and the government would support religious freedom.
In 1890, after decades of escalating pressure and coercion from the federal government, church President Wilford Woodruff announced that the church would suspend its most controversial practice of plural marriage. In his “Manifesto,” Woodruff publicly declared his “intention to submit to those laws” passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court.
Though there has always also been a theocratic strain to Mormonism, Cowdery’s and Woodruff’s approach to the relationship of church and state has been the norm for the modern church. For instance, when the nation revoked Prohibition, the church obliged, teaching its members not to drink alcohol while acknowledging the public’s right to do so.
Since 1835 and especially 1890, Latter-day Saint leaders have shown a pragmatic ability to accommodate public pluralism in belief and behavior so long as the church’s basic rights to exist, define its own doctrine, control its most sacred ceremonies, and freely preach its message were protected. The church’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act is therefore not a departure from precedent, but instead the latest episode in its delicate dance with the secular state.
Patrick Mason is a professor of religious studies and history at Utah State University, where he holds the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture.