The Divine Institution of Marriage: A Rebuttal

Homosexuality Marriage Politics

On August 13, 2008, the Mormon church released a statement titled The Divine Institution of Marriage, explaining the reasons for its support of Proposition 8. The church’s statement is well-written and comprehensive, and it seems to invite open, rational discussion on the issue. However, many of its arguments are flawed. I wish to respond to the church’s invitation (whether intended or unintended!) to discuss the issue openly, and will proceed by responding, item-by-item, to excerpts from the church’s release.

I have been preparing my rebuttal to the church’s release since I first read it in August. However, last week’s official broadcast by church General Authorities to California members – which repeated almost all of the same arguments – provided renewed motivation to finish this and get it on the web. In the broadcast, church members were told to “go viral” in mobilizing their friends and family in support of Proposition 8. I may not have been the church’s intended target, but oh well — the message stuck…

The release is fairly long (3,363 words), so I have omitted much of the original release in order to keep this post from becoming too bloated (at almost 3,600 words, I’m pushing it!). If you have the time and haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read the entire release first, then come back here.

This refutation is far from exhaustive. Lack of time prevented me from cross-referencing as much as I would have liked and fully fleshing out my arguments. Others have written excellent critiques of the church’s arguments, including this one by Richard Packham. Another good source is the 300+ letters at the Signing for Something website.

This is cross-posted from my personal blog here.


The church states that it joined the ProtectMarriage coalition because it “[r]ecognize[d] the importance of marriage to society.” What does this mean, exactly? If marriage is important to society, why deny it to a large group of people?

From The Divine Institution of Marriage:

The focus of the Church’s involvement is specifically same-sex marriage and its consequences. The Church does not object to rights (already established in California) regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference.

What the church is hinting, as noted by Kaimi in By Common Consent, is that it may be open to domestic partnerships and civil unions which grant some of the legal benefits of marriage without the title. If this is true, it is a major step forward for the church. However, it falls far short of providing equality.

The Church has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a husband and a wife united in the bonds of matrimony.

The accuracy of this statement is questionable. Historically, the church has held more than one standard of sexual morality, and intimate relations were also considered proper between a husband and multiple wives. The church was once heavily persecuted for its nontraditional definition of marriage. To now discriminate against another minority seeking to marry in a nontraditional way by denying them the right to marry is very hypocritical.

The Mormon church is not the only religious organization that adheres to this standard of morality. By the church’s own standard, premarital sex, dating before 16 and masturbation are also morally wrong. Yet it is obvious that these morals are religious ones, based upon the complex LDS understanding of its scriptures, the teachings of current leaders and its origins in puritanical America. People of other religions, as well as people of no religion, have different morals. The proper place for such morals is in the teachings and policies of the church, not the laws of a pluralistic society.

Seeking to pass a constitutional amendment that would limit the rights of a minority, nearly all of whom do not subscribe to the church’s moral standard, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

Protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not affect Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness and humanity toward all people.

There are two problems with this statement: (1) Nothing about gay marriage threatens marriage between a man and a woman. Straight or “traditional” marriage is not under attack. This is like arguing that interracial marriage threatens “traditional,” Caucasian-only marriage. The only thing the church is trying to “protect” is a legal distinction that allows it to justify its narrow interpretation of scripture which describes gays as sinners. (2) Our obligations of love, kindness and humanity do not include an obligation to deny others the rights and privileges which we enjoy.

“We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” (emphasis added)

This proclamation fails to recognize that monogamous marriage historically was not the only form of marriage considered ordained of God. Although plural marriage was practiced since the early days of the church, beginning with Joseph Smith’s marriage to 16-year-old Fanny Alger in 1833, the practice wasn’t announced publicly until 1852.

In 1862, the Morrill Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, making polygny (the marriage of one man to multiple women) a federal offense. For 28 years, until Wilford Woodruff published a Manifesto officially discouraging the practice, polygamous members (including most leaders) lived in violation of U.S. law. The practice was only rescinded when the U.S. government, via passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Bill in 1887, threatened to confiscate the church’s property and denied the right to vote and hold public office to polygamous members.

It is hypocritical in the extreme for a church that was once so persecuted for its nontraditional marriages – and which was willing to break the law to practice them! — to seek to pass a law denying nontraditional marriages to others.

The sacred nature of marriage is closely linked to the power of procreation. Only a man and a woman together have the natural biological capacity to conceive children. This power of procreation – to create life and bring God’s spirit children into the world – is sacred and precious. Misuse of this power undermines the institution of the family and thereby weakens the social fabric.

The church’s argument makes no sense. By definition, a homosexual couple does not have the “power of procreation.” So how, exactly, is sex in a homosexual relationship a “misuse” of this power? Misuse of the “power of procreation” (i.e., unwanted pregnancy) is only possible in heterosexual relationships.

The Mormon church no longer claims that sex in a heterosexual marriage is only useful for procreation. On the contrary, the church teaches members about the numerous other benefits of sex in marriage – emotional, psychological, intimacy, etc. These many other benefits of sex can be enjoyed equally in heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

Marriage is not primarily a contract between individuals to ratify their affections and provide for mutual obligations. Rather, marriage and family are vital instruments for rearing children and teaching them to become responsible adults.

As it is worded, this argument appears to favor of gay marriage. If a homosexual couple wants to raise children (either their own from a previous marriage, or adopted), then I agree that the responsibility and commitment provided by a marriage contract will enhance the stability of that home. By denying two committed people the ability to marry and forcing them to keep the status of “domestic partnership,” the church would minimize the elements of commitment and long-term devotion that marriage has come to represent. Children being raised in this family would be at greater risk of having their parents separate.

High rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births have resulted in an exceptionally large number of single parents in American society. Many of these single parents have raised exemplary children; nevertheless, extensive studies have shown that in general a husband and wife united in a loving, committed marriage provide the optimal environment for children to be protected, nurtured, and raised. This is not only because of the substantial personal resources that two parents can bring to bear on raising a child, but because of the differing strengths that a father and a mother, by virtue of their gender, bring to the task…. In an ideal society, every child would be raised by both a father and a mother.

I largely agree with the church on this position. Although gender stereotypes are overused, and individual personalities vary widely, most children benefit from having both a father and mother in the home. However, I am not aware of any scientific surveys which demonstrate that two-father or two-mother families are inferior to father-mother families, and I would suspect the difference is very small.

My gut feeling is that, on average, gay parents would be more effective than straight parents. This is because adopting or raising children within a gay marriage is vastly more difficult than in a straight marriage. A gay couple planning to raise children will likely have given serious consideration to the family and would be relatively more dedicated to the children than in many straight marriages where pregnancies are often unplanned and there are insufficient resources to raise them.

The primary issue, however, is this: despite the suboptimal nature of single-parent families, they are completely legal. There are no laws requiring single parents to remarry lest they lose their children. If our society has no problem accepting single parents, what about gay parents? It seems to me that two fathers or two mothers are even better than one father or one mother. More parenting resources generally means more quality time spent with children. Even if you accept that a mother and a father are biologically optimal, two of either should be better than just one of either, right?

The fact is that many homosexuals are unable to live in a heterosexual relationship. For many years, the church coerced homosexuals into heterosexual marriage in order to suppress homosexual urges. In many cases, this proved disastrous, and the church has since retracted its position, instead urging gay members to remain celibate in order to participate fully in the church. Since “traditional” marriage is out of reach for many gay parents, it is cruel to deny them the only option which is available to them, and which would improve the stability of these families.

Gender differences increasingly are dismissed as trivial, irrelevant, or transient, thus undermining God’s purpose in creating both men and women.

Each family has a certain number of roles that need to be fulfilled, depending on the ages of the children, the occupations of each parent, and other factors. These are all necessary for the proper functioning of the family but aren’t necessary gender-specific. The father has traditionally been viewed as the breadwinner, but I have seen successful examples of families where the mother was the breadwinner and the father stayed home to care for the children. Many fathers with working wives spend much of their time “mothering” their infant children, performing roles that were almost unheard of a few decades ago. In my own family, my wife is the financial genius who pays the bills and keeps track of the budget. This is because I am terrible with finances!

The fact is, each relationship needs to define its roles based upon the strengths and weaknesses of each partner. Gender may predispose us to have certain qualities, but it does not have the final word on what makes a successful marriage.

Again, the argument presupposes “God’s purpose” and thus is inappropriate in the debate over civil liberties in a pluralistic society.

In recent years in the United States and other countries, a movement has emerged to promote same-sex marriage as an inherent or constitutional right. This is not a small step, but a radical change: instead of society tolerating or accepting private, consensual sexual behavior between adults, advocates of same-sex marriage seek its official endorsement and recognition.

This is a double standard. The church considers all sexual relations outside of matrimony as sin. You allow heterosexuals the opportunity to marry and thus be sexually intimate without condemnation. However, gays are told they cannot be sexually active without suffering often severe ecclesiastical consequences, including excommunication. At the same time, they are told not to marry and, indeed, are prevented from doing so by every means available to the church. By not allowing gays to marry – and not recognizing as religiously valid gay marriages performed in states where this is legal – the church is forcing gays to choose between sexual and emotional intimacy with a loving partner and their eternal salvation.

To be considered “worthy” and avoid church discipline, gay members are expected to remain celibate for their entire lives. Is this realistic? Does the church really think that homosexuals have less need for sexual and emotional fulfillment than heterosexuals? How many heterosexuals do you know who have been celibate for their entire lives?

It should come as no surprise, then, that the incidence of suicide is so high among gay Mormons. Surely Jesus’ teaching to “love and care for one another” would suggest a different course of action than discrimination and denial of marital happiness to two committed and loving adults.

Court decisions in Massachusetts (2004) and California (2008) have allowed same-sex marriages. This trend constitutes a serious threat to marriage and family. The institution of marriage will be weakened, resulting in negative consequences for both adults and children.

On what basis? The words used – “serious,” “weakened,” and “negative” – are emotionally charged, but none of the arguments in the church’s release provides solid evidence for this claim.

Those who favor homosexual marriage contend that “tolerance” demands that they be given the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. But this appeal for “tolerance” advocates a very different meaning and outcome than that word has meant throughout most of American history and a different meaning than is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior taught a much higher concept, that of love. “Love thy neighbor,” He admonished. Jesus loved the sinner even while decrying the sin, as evidenced in the case of the woman taken in adultery: treating her kindly, but exhorting her to “sin no more.” Tolerance as a gospel principle means love and forgiveness of one another, not “tolerating” transgression.

In today’s secular world, the idea of tolerance has come to mean something entirely different. Instead of love, it has come to mean condone – acceptance of wrongful behavior as the price of friendship. Jesus taught that we love and care for one another without condoning transgression.

Here is the core of the church’s anti-gay marriage stance: homosexuality is a sin, a transgression, wrongful behavior. By attempting to redefine the word “tolerance” to a definition which fits the church’s agenda, they are only trying to justify their intolerance and homophobia. The church also condescends to sexually active gays by suggesting that heterosexual members of the church must forgive them for their transgressions.

While it may be true that allowing single-sex unions will not immediately and directly affect all existing marriages, the real question is how it will affect society as a whole over time, including the rising generation and future generations. The experience of the few European countries that already have legalized same-sex marriage suggests that any dilution of the traditional definition of marriage will further erode the already weakened stability of marriages and family generally. Adopting same-sex marriage compromises the traditional concept of marriage, with harmful consequences for society.

Where is the evidence that legalization of same-sex marriage has already weakened marriage and family in these European countries? The church uses serious-sounding words – “dilution,” “erode,” “weakened,” “compromised,” and “harmful” – yet it again fails to provide evidence to substantiate its claims.

This is a straw man argument, because marriage in European countries has been declining for decades, not just as a result of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. In fact, some experts argue persuasively the opposite: that allowing same-sex marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.

When a man and a woman marry with the intention of forming a new family, their success in that endeavor depends on their willingness to renounce the single-minded pursuit of self-fulfillment and to sacrifice their time and means to the nurturing and rearing of their children. Marriage is fundamentally an unselfish act: legally protected because only a male and female together can create new life, and because the rearing of children requires a life-long commitment, which marriage is intended to provide…. By definition, all same-sex unions are infertile, and two individuals of the same gender, whatever their affections, can never form a marriage devoted to raising their own mutual offspring.

Here the church claims that the main purpose of marriage (or at least, the primary justification for legalizing it) is to produce offspring. This ignores instructions in the official Church Handbook of Instructions, which says:

“Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”

How are two homosexuals who desire to marry for the purpose of “expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds” engaging in a selfish act? The claim that homosexual marriage is inherently selfish reveals the church’s (homophobic) view that homosexual intimacy is purely physical (lust) and not emotional or spiritual (selfless love). While there are cases where this is true (just as there are heterosexual men who chase prostitutes), it is absurd and insulting to think that two gays who wish to marry are doing so for purely selfish and physical reasons.

Not all heterosexual marriages are devoted to the raising of “mutual offspring.” Leaving aside those who choose not to have children, many people marry partners with children from previous marriages, and LDS Family Services actively encourages couples (fertile and infertile) to adopt children. These are the primary options available to gay parents as well.

The last time I checked, heterosexual couples were not required to perform a fertility test before a temple marriage. Why does the church encourage infertile heterosexuals to adopt, yet uses infertility as a justification to deny marriage (and adoption) to gays?

In the absence of abuse or neglect, government does not have the right to intervene in the rearing and moral education of children in the home. Strong families are thus vital for political freedom. But when governments presume to redefine the nature of marriage, issuing regulations to ensure public acceptance of non-traditional unions, they have moved a step closer to intervening in the sacred sphere of domestic life.

First, the government does not “presume to redefine the nature of marriage.” In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Of all the groups in America (secular and religious), it is the Mormon church which has most redefined marriage! And it is the church, in association with other fundamentalist religions, that seeks to modify the constitution in order to change the existing legal definition of marriage. Those of us who support gay marriage just want to leave California’s constitution the way it is.

Second, it does not follow from this that the government is intervening in domestic life. In fact, preventing two people from marrying and raising a family would be considered an intervention in domestic life. The public acceptance of non-traditional unions is just that, public, and should have no effect on the domestic life of traditional marriages. What the Mormon church is trying to protect is its “freedom” to teach homophobic and intolerant ideas in the home without being criticized for it.

Strong, stable families, headed by a father and mother, are the anchor of civilized society. When marriage is undermined by gender confusion and by distortions of its God-given meaning, the rising generation of children and youth will find it increasingly difficult to develop their natural identity as a man or a woman. Some will find it more difficult to engage in wholesome courtships, form stable marriages, and raise yet another generation imbued with moral strength and purpose.

“Gender confusion,” as used here, seems to refer to the potential for nontraditional gender roles. Yet is that really a bad thing? Do we really want to keep the traditional patriarchal, macho father figure and the sweet, submissive mother figure? These are the gender roles fostered by the church, but they are not the only healthy possibilities. Is it bad if boys raised by lesbian parents develop more empathy than their peers? Is it bad if girls raised by two gay fathers develop more assertiveness than their peers? In either case, I submit, there will be no “confusion” as to the identity of each, just healthy differences. One’s gender identity is not a key which has to precisely fit a lock in order to be real or meaningful.

How does the church get from the idea of “gender confusion” to the inability to form stable marriages? This would imply that the church believes stable marriages only result from the union of a very masculine man with a very feminine woman. This harks back to the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, which it feared would destroy the church’s ability to maintain its patriarchal society.

The church should not project its own understanding of God-given meaning onto the public policies of a pluralistic nation.

16 thoughts on “The Divine Institution of Marriage: A Rebuttal

  1. Eric, great job. If only this and other excellent arguments were able to penetrate the intense phobias and bigotry the church has instilled in its members. I fear that we will just have to wait until such people die out, and hope that their children and grandchildren are more in touch with reality than their parents were.

  2. I think the church has painted itself into a corner with its involvement in this issue. It will be difficult to change this stance in the future. Unfortunately this is likely to have a negative effect on the church in the long term. It will be seen as bigoted and out of touch by its younger members as well as by prospective converts. There will be fallout.

  3. Awesome, Eric. How would you feel about serializing your post one section and one argument at a time?

    It’s certainly worthwhile to discuss this matter in depth.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to reflect on this important question.

  4. Craig,

    Thanks! I agree that we are dealing with a generational issue here, but I am encouraged by signs that the rising generation is much more accepting of diversity than the current leadership. Let’s hope the upcoming leadership has the courage to not only end the discrimination, but to publicly denounce it as well. (As Jonathan notes, this has never been done in Mormon history.)

    MoHoHawaii,

    Good point. The church has built up some serious momentum with its political activism. The problem is, the church appears more afraid of tarnishing its image with fundamentalist Christian churches than with the more liberal segment of its membership.

    Hellmut,

    I would be happy to do so, if you think there would be enough interest in re-reading them. My arguments could be regrouped into 4-5 “themes” of less than 1,000 words each and posted over a period of several days. If you’d like, I could start tomorrow.

  5. Unfortunately this is likely to have a negative effect on the church in the long term. It will be seen as bigoted and out of touch by its younger members as well as by prospective converts. There will be fallout.

    MohoHawaii,

    I’m not at all convinced that what you describe is unfortunate at all.

  6. No matter how cogent our arguments are, and how specious the statements of the anti-gay marriage crowd are (they can’t really be called “arguments” with nothing to back them up), they aren’t changing their minds. After months (years) of going head to head (or brain to thick skull), I’ve come to the conclusion that, rather than constantly getting into heated arguments, we should just all be gay, fall in love, get married, and have mortgages and lawns and 4th of July barbeques.

    I’m tempted to say that we should band together and put some of THEIR rights on the ballot, but truthfully, that’s not what I stand for. As much as I’d hate it, I’d have to fight against it. And that what makes me the most frustrated – that we would fight for their rights while they try to take away everyone else’s.

    Also, for what it’s worth – on the male/female 2 parent thing: My father is a psychologist (with 2 PhDs, actually), and while it isn’t his area of expertise, he says that all the unbiased studies he’s read show that children are best off in a two parent home – but that there is no significant difference between opposite-sex parents and same-sex parents.

  7. Love your post, Rebecca. I would reply to your father, even if his recollection of the research were correct, that does not mean that we should make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    Gay parents are definitely preferable to the foster care system.

    I will look for the gay parenting study. If I can find it, I will post the citation here.

  8. This whole argument about whose rights are more important seems to imply that gay people’s rights are not important. I don’t know how else to see it.

    Let’s suppose one religious group believes it has a religious imperative to destroy the Moabites out in Moab, Utah. In such a case it would be easy to argue that the rights of the citizens of Moab to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is more fundamental than another groups freedom to exercise its religious beliefs.

    So in the case of California’s Prop 8 we need to ask which rights trump? Is it that gays should not be granted fundamental rights in the first place? Or is it that the right to a free exercise of religion is more important than the fundamental right to marry? Is keeping a tax exemption worth denying civil rights to a large segment of the population?

  9. Hellmut, I think maybe you read the last part of my comment incorrectly – my father is saying that, according to all the unbiased research he’s seen, gay parents are JUST AS GOOD as straight parents.

    Steven B. – I think a big problem with the argument that gay marriage infringes on free exercise of religion is that IT DOESN’T. That’s a totally incorrect assertion. If gay marriage is legal, religions can still practive however they want to practice. If gay marriage somehow DID infringe on the free exercise of religion, then it would still be a separate issue since, if I understand it correctly, gay marriage falls under the 14th amendment, while free exercise of religion falls under the 1st. There shouldn’t be a problem upholding both gay rights and free exercise of religion.

  10. Sorry, Rebecca. That was my impression as well.
    Steven, liberty ends where it impinges on the rights of others. Hence one cannot claim a right to destroy somebody else. Any such commandment would not be covered by religious freedom.
    Fundamentalists would have an argument if the state of California was forcing them to conduct same sex weddings in their churches, for example, but that’s not the case.

  11. liberty ends where it impinges on the rights of others…Fundamentalists would have an argument if the state of California was forcing them to conduct same sex weddings in their churches, for example, but that’s not the case.

    EXACTLY!!!

    Why oh WHY is this concept so hard to comprehend? Why is this even an ISSUE? It is so obviously unconstitutional and ridiculous.

    (really frustrated right now)

  12. Yup, I think “liberty” needs to be the closing argument from the No side …

    – Voting No on 8 = Defending Freedom of Religion

    – Prop 8 is coercive and this coercion is a threat to religious liberty.

    – Prop 8’s passage would threaten the religious freedom of all.

    In hindsight, it might’ve been interesting to register a domain like ProtectReligion.com and provide some basic civics instruction there for the less-educated members of The Church of Yes on Eight of Latter-day Saints.

    Or at least counter the Mormon astroturfers with our own simple list of “Six Consequences for Religious Freedom if Proposition 8 Passes” …

    Come to think of it, I’m gonna go ahead and invite anyone who’s interested to help craft such a document.

    … I’d welcome your input (especially if you could suggest some pithily worded consequences).

    P.S. Noticed this quote somewhere and thought it rocked:

    “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”

    — Thomas Jefferson

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