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The Respect for Marriage Act and Caesar’s Coin

It’s been easy for people to misinterpret the Church’s support of the Respect for Marriage Act. Greater awareness about the difficult cultural atmosphere believers find themselves in might help.

The recent news on support for the Respect for Marriage Act from church headquarters seems to be throwing people for a loop on both sides of the political spectrum. As the Church’s public statement is being misunderstood by both sides, we need to be able to make sense of the cultural context and what this statement does and does not mean.

The move seems to be influencing a bit of a faith crisis challenge for those with traditionalist stances. It’s also being misinterpreted as a sign of false hope from progressives that the Church’s doctrines are headed toward changes. Neither should be the interpretation. Having surveyed the coverage, the clickbait headlines aren’t necessarily accurate on this issue with the Church, and they certainly remove the important context of the Church’s intentions to retain its doctrine on marriage. Focusing on why this support has been offered, I highlight the cultural shift that has left the Church a smaller number of allies and of the growing weight of private interests that are dedicated to dismissing religious freedom and catching the Church in legal battles that can be avoided with the passage of this act.

One wish seems to be to take Abinadi’s approach to bulldoze into the city, declare that those in government are wrong, and allow the chips to fall as they will because it’s the brave thing to do. This cost Abinadi his life, but that isn’t necessary in these circumstances. There are other options that leaders at church headquarters have wisely taken. For years church leaders have telegraphed their support for bills like this one that protect differing interests but protect them nonetheless. Further, Jesus Christ is a God of negotiation in certain circumstances, or at least of picking His battles. When asked to dismiss Caesar’s power, He deflected the opportunity and used a coin with Caesar’s image to acknowledge Caesar’s then-power. When asked to do so again, He used the parable of the wicked husbandmen to identify his stalkers’ intentions to get Him into legal trouble. Finally, when on trial, He went quiet and refused to answer. Thus, at some moments, Jesus Christ responds assertively, and at other times He negotiates or lets the other party have their way. God has to navigate around massive shifts in human behavior, such as altering His agreements with Adam and Eve and His entertaining Abraham’s negotiations about the number of righteous people left in a city. This is where the Church is in 2022.

Last year a Gallup poll showed a whopping 70% of Americans support gay marriage. I graduated from high school 25 years ago, in 1997. A similar poll that same year showed a support of 30% for gay marriage. What was a majority perspective is now a minority and is shrinking. Coinciding with these cultural shifts, three years ago, the Pew Research Center described the results of a ten-year study showing the worldwide growth of governmental regulation of religious freedom, as well as the growing social hostility toward religion. In various ways, religion is being marginalized. This is evident in the growth of aggressive interest groups with their crosshairs on freedom of conscience. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is continually working to subsume religious interests, especially in the effort to pin religion against science. 

Popular rhetors like Richard Dawkins decontextualize religion in the performance of witty, quick-click rants. And two months ago, the Pew Research Center also released data projecting the sharp decline in religion that is forthcoming, and with a possible zero population growth of religious affiliation in the coming decades—this means as the religious population dies, so too does that tradition if it isn’t adopted by younger generations. This has everything to do with the comforts of technology that lead to our collectively relaxed sense of conscience or of the ending of a ‘religious buffering of trauma/tragedy’—but that’s a different topic. The point here is to identify the circumstances we are in. In 25 years, our society has flipped the coin on its head—and Caesar’s new face on that coin isn’t showing a face interested in religious protections, generally. Scripture has projected this result many times, along with a seemingly endless number of General Conference predictions of our deteriorating current and future circumstances.

At the same time, the number of annual lawsuits filed regarding sexuality and identity against freedom of conscience has more than doubled since 2013. This week the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on whether freedom of conscience can be protected in the public sector, with the state of Colorado and the U.S. Court of Appeals having already denied that sense of conscience to a web design artist who wishes to use her craft to help others express religious convictions. Our culture is different, drastically different.

While I do not want anyone to be marginalized, I also don’t want conscience to be governmentally regulated. But, the United States, and the world, now have a new morality that is a legal issue. Churches have a ‘deer in the headlights’ look in realizing what has happened in only 25 years. While once a cultural staple, religion is taken less seriously, and formal efforts to further subsume it are growing.

So what is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to do? One option, again, is to bulldoze through tactics of direct confrontation. However much we love to read about this kind of response in sacred writ, it’s understandable why inspired leaders are being led to conclude that can’t and shouldn’t happen in a technologized and largely civil society. Church members aren’t being tarred and feathered in the streets, nor stoned to death. There are other options in our ongoing civil society. Remember, Caesar’s inscription is now blatantly observable in American laws. 

Looking to ancient precedent, Christ simply conceded to Caesar’s legal swagger, as He had His own ministering to do instead of turning His focus into a political fight. As long as He was allowed to preach and heal, which eventually ended, He was okay with the powerful being powerful. So, does religion revolt and demand control, or ask in a more humble, less dramatic way to be included in the monolithic effort of keeping everyone’s interests protected? If we’re smart, the latter path is the right choice.

Here is what is at stake: the crowning religious experience for members of my faith is in making “temple covenants,” where we agree to dedicate our lives to Jesus Christ in what is called the “endowment,” followed by another final covenant, where we marry someone of the opposite sex and commit to a shared a life together focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In scripture, Jesus is constantly referred to as “the bridegroom” for the Church. In our marriage ceremonies, men and women take on the task of having children and dedicating their time to serve in the Church that is based on organized charitable efforts, youth programs, and leadership in worship. Governmental laws could, without legal assurance of this conscience-focus on the eternal union and duality of men and women that is the absolute crowning part of the temple, be compromised in the coming years. While we are far away from, and perhaps never will face, what Russian churches endured under the Russian state’s organized League of the Militant Godless—the legal destruction of over 30,000 churches and only allowing church services to be held under the supervision of government agents, our temple covenants are what is needing to be safeguarded amidst these opportunities for civil deliberation.

So we must, as the prophet Moroni suggested, “awake” to the “situation” we are in. The United States will never go back to the 1990s social priorities, ever. Those days are gone. And this cultural change was telegraphed in the Church’s 1995 Proclamation on the Family. The Church is now situated more like Esther in the delicate situation she faced in approaching the king’s court and hoping not to be executed, and like Daniel, who did face execution due to an opportunistic legal technicality that was intentionally created to limit his religious freedom. These are days of litigation, law lobbying, and needing to safeguard what we hold most sacred—our crowning covenants.

In the digital world’s dealing of cards, the Church no longer has a winning hand when it comes to public opinion or legal leverage. Pay close attention to President Nelson. He’s been telling us what is happening and what is coming with his frequent description of “In the coming days …,” even emphasizing “time is running out.” With sensitivity toward those who are our friends and allies of faith, when it comes to the LGBT+ community, a treaty is more important than a war. Let Caesar have his coin. That inscribed coin was crafted years ago and formalized by the federal government over a decade ago. The best we can do is realize our new situation and know, as stated in the letter from church leadership, that the Church’s perspectives on our eternal identities haven’t changed. Let’s realize that this is about legal protections for what will soon be 300 operating temples that will marry men and women together forever. The First Presidency is laboring to protect that freedom.

About the author

Brent Yergensen

Brent Yergensen is a professor at The University of Texas at Tyler, teaching media theory and history. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles with a research focus on the intersections of religion, science, politics, and history with mass media, especially film.
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