Modification of Illustrasjon av Schrödingers katt.
By Dhatfield.
License: CC BY SA 3.0

Earlier, my co-blogger Elisa summarized the new statement of support from the LDS church for the Respect for Marriage Act.

What I appreciate about her analysis that I have not seen in every analysis of the statement is that she recognizes the ambiguity of what the statement actually means or implies for LDS institutional beliefs, policies and practices toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

But, in some other analyses, this is missing. And for good reason. You, like many other people, may have read the statement and may be wondering: “Andrew S — what are you talking about? What ambiguity? This statement is very clear.”

But be very careful about what you say next….what is the statement clear about?

…Is it that the LDS church now supports legal/civil recognition of same-sex marriage?

…Or is it that LDS views about same-sex marriage are unchanged (and will not change)?

Again, I think there is good reason for people to come to diametrically different interpretations of the statement — I think that the LDS church and newsroom employ intentional ambiguity or plausible deniability to craft statements that can be interpreted in mutually exclusive ways. They are creating the Schrodinger’s Cat of doctrinal interpretations. Further, I think that this is a tool of revelatory potential. I am not a prophet, seer, or revelator, so sorry for the clickbait, as I will not actually solve the mystery or collapse the superposition why the LDS church absolutely is [not] going to accept gay marriage. But I would like to discuss why it might make sense to acknowledge that “Schrodinger’s Cat”-esque statements like these are intentional and could be used to allow both possibilities to live simultaneously.

What are the stakes?

As mentioned, I am not a prophet, seer, or revelator. But in this post, let’s pretend. Suppose that you find yourself being one, but you’re also an administrator of an organization. In this position, what might be your priorities?

If we think of the church as a ship (suppose, “Old Ship Zion”), then steering the ship would be your priority. Maybe you think that the ship is already on the right course, but discerning and knowing through inspiration and divine guidance what is the right way the ship should go is of crucial importance, so that’s one thing. But — and perhaps just as important — are the secular or mundane operational, tactical, and logistical issues of how to steer the ship if course corrections are required. The larger the ship, the slower it turns, and so more planning is needed to set up a turn properly.

This analogy lets us acknowledge that even though we might want to think of prophecy as immediate, stunning, stark, and unbounded punctuations of the divine into daily life that can be decreed and implemented at a moment’s notice…that there are other models of envisioning revelation that suggest practical concerns may place bounds on revelation and prophecy.

When the adequate preparatory work isn’t done, then the same as with steering a ship, the results may either not be what you want or they may fail catastrophically. Comparing to religious organizations, big sweeping changes can results in schisms or other backlashes from certain members (such as those that occurred for the LDS church with the end of polygamy, or even those that occurred in Community of Christ [formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] with the granting of the priesthood to women.)

So, even if the changes are desired and good, there may be a desire to avoid alienating those who are the greatest proponents of the status quo.

What might you want to change?

Let’s say that you have dietary restrictions but the logic around what is and is not allowed in those dietary restrictions are fuzzy. Over time, some of the ship captains and some of the crew have come to believe that caffeine is absolutely forbidden under the dietary restrictions — and that this is obviously so. On the other hand, you have other leaders and members who think that caffeine is absolutely permitted under the dietary restrictions — and this is obviously so.

Many people won’t care that much, but in both camps are some people who feel so strongly about the issue that they would view people in the other camp as lacking in their faith.

Or let’s take another example and raise the stakes a little bit beyond caffeine. Let’s say you have made statements and policies about those of other races, including disallowing people of certain races to have positions within the ship/organizational structure. Let’s say that this has become institutionalized with a lot of speculation about why those policies existed. It’s to such an extent that even after the policy has been changed, people still have strong opinions about why the policy was in place, and now, there are mutually exclusive views. Some of the ship captains and crew have come to believe that the prior policy was divinely inspired so the policy change was such as well. Others of the crew believe that the policy was a mistake, and so its correction was to correct for the mistake.

Many people won’t care that much, but in both camps are some people who feel so strongly about the issue that they would view people in the other camp as lacking in their faith.

And now…let’s take a third example. Let’s say you have made statements and policies about the proper form and role of marriage in society, and now increasingly society is accepting other ideas about marriage. You know from your past that being out of step with society about marital structures is fraught, and you also know from the past that pivoting on views of family and marriage can have major consequences for the ship and its crew. (Some of the crew mutinied and they never came back!)

In each of these scenarios, the question might be: How can you change this perception without upsetting someone? When there are actually two camps that believe mutually exclusive things?

Plausible deniability as revelatory tool

Based on the examples of how the LDS church and Newsroom have discussed clarifications regarding caffeine in the Word of Wisdom, as well as speculation about racial priesthood and temple bans, I think that the strategy is to release statements that can appeal to differing audiences without rocking the boat. These intentionally ambiguous statements offer plausible deniability that allows the different audiences to gravitate to certain words or sentences and privilege them over others.

This way, if you’re not keen to the strategy, then you walk away thinking that the statement clearly announced x, while someone else walks away thinking the statement clearly announced y.

So, when the church says that caffeine is not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, one group walks away thinking, “This means caffeinated sodas are OK” while another group says, “Well, of course caffeine isn’t mentioned in the Word of Wisdom; the word wasn’t even popularly used when the Word of Wisdom was written, yet other prophets have told us that caffeinated sodas are to be interpreted as against the WoW.”

As long as the two sides don’t talk too much to each other about their mutually exclusive viewpoints, there’s no drama! Schism avoided.

This even works for some of the more “serious” issues. The church can condemn racism in all its forms, but announce that we “don’t know” why the priesthood ban originally occurred. Liberal/progressive members will read between the lines that the ban itself was an example of the racism that the church now repudiates, while conservative/traditional members will note that only other things are racist, but the ban itself was divinely inspired and the ways and thoughts of God are a mystery.

As long as the two sides don’t talk too much to each other about their mutually exclusive viewpoints, there’s no drama!

(Please note that when the Newsroom does release these intentionally ambiguous statements is usually when someone has said the quiet part out loud, and there is a backlash from the other side. So, for example, when Randy Bott makes a statement speaking too strongly about what the priesthood ban was implemented, then the church provides a statement that can be interpreted by progressives as denouncing the ban, and alternatively interpreted by conservatives as simply distancing away from speculation about reasons for the ban.)

The “avoid rocking the boat” use case already is good enough from a PR and internal organizational politics perspective, but I would propose that there is another role for plausible deniability — it allows changes to happen slowly…perhaps even imperceptibly!

Here’s how this works…

The problem is that different people believe diametrically opposed things. This is because, despite the effort of correlation, different people are taught different things growing up, or they grow up hearing different messages from various leaders, family, friends. Some people grew up learning “The Word of Wisdom bans any caffeine” and some simply did not. Even more, perhaps some leaders also personally and publicly preached within someone’s lifetime that one should eschew all caffeine, for example.

Yet institutionally, rather than the church explicitly saying or not saying “The Word of Wisdom bans caffeine,” official statements will just refer to the Word of Wisdom and hope that everyone will interpret that the same way. Leaders in the past may have explicitly said, “No caffeine,” but for a period of time, no one will mention caffeine. A new generation will grow up not being explicitly told caffeine is disallowed. Some may hear from family and friends that all caffeine is out, but others won’t.

After more years, enough people now have no feeling about whether caffeine is allowed or disallowed that you can then start explicitly stating the new viewpoint without risking a huge schism. You say “the Word of Wisdom does not mention caffeine” and then the traditionalists read in between the lines, “Sure it doesn’t, but those who know, know.” Everyone else understands that caffeine is OK.

An illustrative aside

Let’s take an aside to ask: does the LDS church explicitly ban oral sex within a marriage? Have you heard statements within your lifetime explicitly calling it out by name, and if so, when? Have you instead heard euphemisms that didn’t mention by name, but that you may have interpreted as such? If you read the following quote from the 2003 Eternal Marriage Student Manual, what do you think is being referred to as “misused intimacy” or “excesses and distortions” that could occur even in marriage?

Misused Physical Intimacy
President David O. McKay
“Let us instruct young people who come to us, first, young men throughout the Church, to know that a woman should be queen of her own body. The marriage covenant does not give the man the right to enslave her, or to abuse her, or to use her merely for the gratification of his passion. Your marriage ceremony does not give you that right” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1952, 86).

President Spencer W. Kimball
“If it is unnatural, you just don’t do it. That is all, and all the family life should be kept clean and worthy and on a very high plane. There are some people who have said that behind the bedroom doors anything goes. That is not true and the Lord would not condone it” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 312).

“We urge, with Peter, ‘… Abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.’ (1 Pet. 2:11.) No indecent exposure or pornography or other aberrations to defile the mind and spirit. No fondling of bodies, one’s own or that of others, and no sex between persons except in proper marriage relationships. This is positively prohibited by our Creator in all places, at all times, and we reaffirm it. Even in marriage there can be some excesses and distortions. No amount of rationalization to the contrary can satisfy a disappointed Father in heaven” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1974, 8–9; or Ensign, May 1974, 7).

Eternal Marriage Student Manual: Intimacy in Marriage. LDS Church. 2003. Retrieved November 16, 2022

You can do similar for whether or not the church disapproves of contraception, and so on…

Concluding thoughts

Will the church forever disallow same-sex marriage, or will they eventually allow it? At this point, we are extremely early in the plausible deniability lifecycle, as it were. There are too many messages that too many people know where same-sex marriage has explicitly been called out as unacceptable.

And yet there are also the seeds of ambiguity, or at least of phrasings that allow for the possibility of reinterpretation later on. I saw a Twitter thread the other day where someone insisted that the LDS church was not against same-sex marriage and that if a LGBT person was legally and lawfully married, that would be supported by the church. I didn’t agree with them, but I respected that they felt there was enough ambiguity to believe that.

I have seen people even take nothing less than The Family: A Proclamation to the World — so easy to point out that it seems to uncompromisingly be a hardline stance for traditional marriage — and point out that just because the proclamation says that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” that does not exclude any other marriage from also being ordained of God.

As for me, I don’t see this as particularly likely. When I read the statements, they seem to be hopelessly exclusivist. And therefore, that causes me to interpret the new announcement from the LDS church as clearly making a difference between what is suffered from a public perspective vs what is preached from the pulpit.

…and yet. I recognize that until someone told me that “unnatural” “misused physical intimacy” was supposed to include oral sex, I had no idea that was it. I didn’t grow up making that connection and no one was making it explicitly. Which means it’s possible for the same thing to happen elsewhere.

So, what do you think? Am I just grabbing at straws or do you think there could be something intentional happening? Do you agree with the examples presented? Have you found anything in your own personal life where you realized that you and another member believed diametrically different things and both thought your perspectives were obviously supported by the church?