Dallin Oaks, on cue, reaffirms LDS Church’s Family Proclamation as ‘irrevocable doctrine’
Since his ordination to LDS apostleship in 1984, next in line as prophet, Dallin Oaks, has branded his image on vehement defenses of heteronormativity and consistent delegitimization of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships. In the October session of the LDS Church’s semi-annual general conference, he reaffirmed the same fundamentalist positions on sexuality and gender that he has been articulating for decades. This included an assertion that “God’s plan, founded on eternal truth, requires that exaltation can be attained only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman in the holy temple, which marriage will ultimately be available to all the faithful.” He also doubled down on the Church’s teaching that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
Oaks often frames heterosexual marriage as immutable doctrine and the only marriage acceptable to God, including the notion that gay and lesbian people will ultimately be “cured” and able to marry someone of the opposite sex in the next life (and for decades, leaders encouraged them to marry someone of the opposite sex in this life). In addition, Oaks regularly declares cisgender identity to be eternally divine, an idea that marginalizes and excludes trans and/or gender nonconforming members from LDS theology and rituals.
These oppressive frameworks have caused many LGBTQ+ individuals to feel deficient, inferior, and oppositional to God’s teachings, contributing to alarmingly disproportionate levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among LGBTQ+ members. Equally disturbing, Latter-day Saint families will sometimes disown or ostracize LGBTQ+ family members in the name of defending LDS teachings around sexuality and gender.
The Church’s anti-LGBTQ+ teachings are most frequently grounded in a 1995, meticulously worded document known as “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” In response to momentous progressive movements advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawaii, top LDS leaders corresponded with Church legal teams to produce the Family Proclamation, which declares the divine superiority of heterosexual marriage and cisgender identity and condemns people who violate the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Portrayed as revelatory and prophetic in LDS discourse, details regarding the social and political context of the document are often omitted.
Also of note, the proclamation has never been canonized, notwithstanding several attempts to do so by the late apostle, Boyd Packer. Most notably, in the 2010 October General Conference, he delivered an unforgettably controversial address that contained deeply homophobic and transphobic sentiments. In the speech, he described the Family Proclamation as a document that “qualifies according to definition as a revelation.” The following week, the First Presidency which is the highest governing body of the Church, exercised a right that they rarely employ — they altered Packer’s speech by downgrading his description of the proclamation from “revelation” to a “guide that members of the Church would do well to read and to follow.” Although we cannot be certain as to their reasons for the revision, LDS leaders have strayed away from labeling the proclamation as “revelation” or “scripture,” perhaps to maintain future flexibility for altering the document.
While Oaks has never gone quite as far as Packer in his portrayals of the proclamation, in his most recent conference message, he reaffirmed that the proclamation is “founded on irrevocable doctrine,” and that “those who do not fully understand the Father’s loving plan for His children may consider this family proclamation no more than a changeable statement of policy.” Interestingly, Oaks has recycled these lines verbatim in several previous conference talks, an indication of the tremendous amount of ecclesiastical energy he has devoted to codifying heterosexual structures into LDS theology.
Aside from its blatantly harmful and oppressive effects on LGBTQ+ people, Oak’s dogmatic rhetoric has theological and historical problems. For example, LDS leaders made equally emphatic statements that sought to codify racial hierarchies into LDS theology and government. One of the most outspoken defenders of the priesthood and temple ban placed on people of African descent, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie explained that “caste systems have their root and origin in the gospel itself” and “the resultant restrictions and segregation are right and proper and have the approval of the Lord.” His colleague, Mark Peterson, similarly declared that “faithful negroes” will enter the Celestial kingdom as “servants.”
It is important to note that these racist ideas were held by the majority of Church leadership and not simply a few “rogue” leaders that modern members sometimes suggest. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this is an official statement issued by the First Presidency in 1949 describing the temple and priesthood ban as “not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization…” In appeals to divinity, LDS leaders were able to weave white supremacy deep within the fabric of their theological tapestry just as they have done today with anti-LGBTQ+ doctrines.
If the modern LDS Church can have such a dramatic shift on racial issues, to the point where they now disavow past doctrinal positions as “theories advanced in the past,” they can absolutely modify their LGBTQ+ teachings and restructure their theology such that concepts of worthiness and righteousness become independent of one’s sexual or gender identity.
Despite obvious parallels in 20th-century discourse around racial hierarchies and current discourse around sexual and gender hierarchies, it is difficult to say whether (and how long it would take) for the Church to abandon its bigoted LGBTQ+ positions, especially with fundamentalist apostles like Dallin Oaks who are doing everything in their power to entrench heteronormativity into LDS theology. It is clear, however, that heightened public scrutiny coupled with increased membership disaffection (especially among youth) will continue to hold accountable and put pressure on LDS leaders to make the Church reflect the equality that its LGBTQ+ members deserve.