LDS doctrine in 2014: a prediction

by isaac black

It’s been a big month for the Mormons. The Church, with little fanfare, updated its website to include a statement on the history of its Priesthood ban which applied to people of African descent, even going so far as to disavow the statements of multiple church presidents about the cursed nature of black people. While denouncing racism in 2013 is about 60 years away from being earth-shattering, the statement was significant for the issues it raises about doctrinal authority. If statements by general authorities and those considered prophets cannot be considered doctrine, and if they can be disavowed at a later time, then what can be considered doctrine?

The legalistic answer, typically hidden away until it aligns with the speaker’s purposes, is that the official doctrine has always been what is contained in the canonized scriptures; any additions will be presented before the body of the Church and ratified by common consent. Scripture has only been ratified six times in the Church’s history. The rest of the Church’s sprawling corpus of teachings, sermons, conjecture, and political directive is not official doctrine. This procedure, however, is selectively considered when the membership is deciding its spiritual and temporal priorities. 

Which brings us to the current conundrum: a federal judge just overruled Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages. As the Church and the state of Utah are gathering their defenses to challenge the ruling, they’re lacking a conspicuous weapon against shifting public opinion. There is no official doctrine that weighs in on same-sex marriage. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” with its statements on the eternal nature of gender and the limitations on marriage, is commonly used to combat the validity of same-sex marriage. But it’s only a proclamation (or is it an official proclamation?), and not an official declaration. The last one of those was in 1978, when Official Declaration 2 ended the Priesthood Ban. The Official Declarations are in the scriptures, while there are no proclamations included.

Six months ago, this would not have been such a problem—the general membership feels pretty comfortable accepting as doctrine any statements by general authorities and prophets, seers and revelators. But with the spotlight drawn on what was and wasn’t official doctrine—the website statement regarding the Priesthood Ban fails to validate any of the theories put forth by former leaders as doctrine—the Church must now wade into the waters that they muddied. 

So what will the April 2014 session of General Conference bring about? I’m basing my prediction on the Church’s inherent conservative nature: nothing new. After the Ordain Women, Wear Pants to Church, and Let Women Pray movements gained traction and got through to the highest levels of Church leadership, I watched the October 2013 sessions with bated breath. I expected either a tentative embrace or outright doctrinal rebuttal of feminism. What came through instead was the same tone-deaf encouragement of traditional gender roles and comparatively bland championing of the family that has pervaded conference for the last generation or so. In other words, more continuity than change.

While presenting “A Proclamation” to the body of the Church to be canonized would give the Church traction against the perceived existential threat of gay marriage, it would be more difficult to explain away in forty years as the Church is considering its response to an even more pluralistic society which struggles to fathom homophobia as we now struggle to fathom segregation. But I don’t think that is a motivation for the Brethren.

The leadership of the Church is conservative, which is to say they are not activists. And they don’t appear to be reactive. The fuzziness regarding what is and isn’t immutable doctrine has worked out well for the Church. The “culture,” meaning the whims and biases of the membership, tends to define doctrinal emphases, but it also takes the fall once certain teachings grow unpalatable. Meanwhile, the selective appeal to “following the Prophet” silences those who might otherwise grow emboldened enough to start a splinter group. Consider this: the Community of Christ, formerly the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has spawned eight splinter groups and undergone a name change, while the mainstream LDS Church since the 1890 Manifesto ending polygamy has only spawned one. For over 120 years, mainstream Mormonism has been an in-or-out proposition. Drawing a hard line in the sand on what is and isn’t doctrine, while extremely interesting to dorks like you and me, is not what the overwhelming majority of the church is asking for and could only serve to inflame schisms that the Church appears to be trying to smooth over.