When we were kids growing up in the Mormon Church, my brother’s best friend Tony, who wasn’t Mormon, used to like to come along with us. When my brother turned eight, he and the others prepared for baptism (Mormons don’t baptize infants), and my mom thought about Tony. She suggested to the bishop that he ask whether Tony might not want to be baptized as well. And Tony did. His parents, of course, were surprised by the decision, but were nevertheless supportive. So Tony was baptized and later went on a Mormon mission, married in the Mormon temple, and is currently an active member of the Church.
Today, however, a boy like Tony could find himself in a very different situation. If a contemporary “Tony” wanted to be baptized Mormon, and his parents happened to be in a same-sex relationship, he would be denied, not by his parents, but instead by his church.
The Mormon hierarchy announced last week that the children of same-sex couples cannot be baptized or even given a name and a blessing (a welcoming birth ritual). Moreover, if children from these families stay faithful (as outsiders), and still wish to be baptized as adults, they must renounce their parents’ marriage and move out of the house.
In response to this decision, at least two movements have been organized through social media—one for disaffected Mormons to meet as a group and renounce their memberships in a common act of solidarity, and another for the faithful who wish to remain in the Church but nevertheless want to support the children of same-sex couples.
For its part, the Church appears surprised that the faithful would be among the offended. They don’t seem to understand that you don’t target children. Not only does it violate the spirit of Christianity—“Suffer the little children to come unto me” and “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity [love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”—it violates a main theme of Mormon stories and discourse. Mormon folklore is full of accounts that express disapproval of families who have disowned their children for having joined the Church. Its political discourse emphasizes “family values.” Yet now the Church is doing the disowning and potentially destroying families by forcing children to renounce them.
Moreover, the betrayal cuts all the way down to the bone; to the foundational beliefs of the Church. 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 (the concept of original sin stems from the story of Adam and Eve whose disobedience is seen as having separated all of humanity from God, requiring the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and baptism). The first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, made this rejection clear in the Church’s Articles of Faith. The second one states, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” It’s for this reason that Mormons don’t baptize infants. They are considered innocent; free of sin until the age of eight, when they are baptized for their own misdeeds.
Thus, it should come as no surprise to the Church that their own members are shocked by this new policy. How can you deny blessings to innocent babies or baptisms to children because the Church does not approve of their parents?
Moreover, when children are involved, adult decisions become personal in a very heartfelt way. As I puzzled over this one, for example, I thought of my ex-husband’s daughter, Lucia, whose parents are not married. She is growing up in Catholic Spain where the important childhood ritual is First Communion. And so I imagined Lucia together with her friends, talking about their First Communion dresses and the parties they would have; lining up in the auditorium to practice the ceremony; being assigned parts to play—one a scripture to read, another a solo to sing. And then I imagined an administrator pulling her out of the group and saying, “no, not you, Lucia. You can’t participate with the others. You can’t partake of Jesus in this way.”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Lucia was not told that Jesus rejected her. She was not sent to wait in the library. Despite a belief in original sin and any judgment of her parents, no administrator would punish her for the circumstances of her birth. And so the irony emerges: the Mormon Church that doesn’t believe in blaming people for the sins of others, and that considers children to be truly innocent, is nevertheless the one that today would punish the likes of a Lucia or a Tony if they happened to have same-sex parents.
This decision is a terrible mistake. It uses children to punish parents. It uses children to protect the pristine image of the Church by putting same-sex families at an even further distance. And it does so in the name of Jesus, whose birth was first announced to shepherds, a group considered unclean in the society of the day; a Jesus who ate with publicans and sinners; who first announced his divinity to a Samaritan woman (a hated minority) of questionable moral standing (she had many men); who first appeared as the resurrected Lord to a woman tradition says was a prostitute; and who surrounded himself with children, commanding his followers to be like them. (This isn’t to imply that same-sex couples are sinners, of course, it’s just a reminder that even those perceived as sinners were brought closer, not ostracized as the LDS Church is doing.)
The Church ought to recover from its surprise and walk this policy back. Instead, it is adding insult to injury by claiming that it was designed to protect the very children who are being excluded. Apostle D. Todd Christofferson explained that the Church is worried about these children dealing with disagreements between its teachings and their parents. Yet that concern would apply to all children with at least one non-Mormon member. It would have prevented Tony from joining my brother and the rest of his friends in baptism, even though his Episcopalian parents supported him. And it would exclude many children from among the Mormon faithful as well.
Finally, the Church might want to consider that this policy will likely alienate the young and hasten the exit of many from among the faithful. The Pew Research Center has just published data that identifies non-affiliation (lack of identification with any religious group) as the biggest trend in American religious life and the findings of the Trinity College American Religious Identification Survey suggests that the LDS Church is having a harder time holding on to its youth. Policies that target children and that appear to many as cruel and unjustified cannot help but add to these trends. A Mormon friend who joined the social media movement to renounce her membership, for example, explained her rejection of the Church with these words, “Jesus has left the building.”