The Mormons know how to keep everyone guessing. A week ago, they were looking more and more like the liberals in the conservative-on-sexual-matters religious world. Last month, LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks surprised church members by publicly criticizing defiant Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, and earlier this year the church sponsored compromise legislation in Utah that combined protections for religious freedom with anti-discrimination measures sought by LGBT activists.
Then late last week, it emerged that the faith’s leaders had made two significant changes to the church’s policy handbook for local leaders. Under the new policy, a Mormon who enters into a legal same-sex marriage is considered apostate and will be required to face church discipline and likely excommunication. Furthermore, the church now forbids the blessing, baptism and ordination of children with parents in same-sex relationships, whether or not the same-sex couple has full custody. At the age of 18, these children may seek to join the church, but only if they no longer live in a same-sex household, have disavowed the practices of same-sex cohabitation and marriage, and have received the specific permission of the church’s First Presidency.
The new rules are strict, and it is difficult to see how they could practically be made stricter. The church’s leadership has seen fit to draw a line on homosexual practice so bright that it is impossible to miss. And all this very quickly following the apparent public softening on various matters sexual.
Connecting the dots here is at first difficult. The gestures toward compromise on marriage on the one hand and the sharp new pastoral restrictions on same-sex couples and their children on the other seem to be movements in different directions.
However, there is a way of drawing a straight line through all of this, and that line may take the form of a Mormon Benedict Option. The Utah legislative compromise, the stepping away from Kim Davis, and even the church’s mild response to Obergefell all fall neatly under Rod Dreher’s definitional criterion (as far as I can discern it) of strategic retreat without disengagement. The new sanctions on same-sex households, likewise, make for an excellent example of the sort of cultural separation and in-group moral renewal involved in actually implementing the Option.
What would distinguish the Mormon Benedict Option from Dreher’s prototype is that it is growing from the top down and not from the grassroots. We should expect this from the Mormons, who have been led into the wilderness by their leaders before. Following prophets may well be the best way forward—local congregations tend to lack the structure needed for radical change. In all the discussion of the Option it’s worth asking whether non-Mormon Christians have forgotten to find a Benedict, and whether Mormons are now leading the way.
Tom Stringham is an MA candidate in economics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.