Utah same-sex marriage and the international church

January 29, 2014

Here’s a snippet of a brilliant and fascinating post by Wilfried Decoo as a continuation of his research of same-sex marriage and Mormonism. Be sure the check out his just-released article in the Fall 2013 issue comparing the Mormon and Catholic positions on ethical issues and same-sex marriage here.
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 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.
Read more at Times and Seasons