Feminism vs. Mormonism: the Argument after the Panel Part I I


See Part I

As for what I think of the rest of the discussion, well, it's complicated. As I've made clear, I think the church sucks. And I figured out before I was 20 that it sucked, for reasons having to do with gender and bigotry in general (I was 14 when the church finally let black men hold the priesthood, and the generosity in extending it wasn't as striking as the perverseness of withholding it) as well as the wacky doctrine.

But I didn't work up the courage to leave until I was almost 26, and leaving was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. I did it entirely on my own, without the benefit of a spouse or a friend to go with and support me; I did it in the face of great resistance and sorrow from my family; I did it because I had a been a feminist since I was 17 or 18 (I say in response to Luke's argument that you can't be both a feminist and an active member of the Mormon church). While I respect those who left in solidarity with and mourning for the intellectuals persecuted by the Church in 1993, I left in 1989 because the hierarchy made it clear to me, a desperately unhappy 25-year-old woman with no virtually authority, that it would not allow me to dissent even on the local level--I couldn't even talk about polygamy in my Relief Society lesson!

People leave the church if and when they're ready, and someone like Luke, who was its staunch, unquestioning defender for many years, should know that. I don't see much point in "destroying" the church because until people are ready to live without it, something else will just appear to take its place. This doesn't mean that I don't work to advance the institutions and ideologies I support and believe in. I'd just rather focus my energy on building something rather than tearing something else down. After all, Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei, two men who arguably did more damage to Catholic hegemony than just about anyone else, did not have its destruction as their goal; Luther wanted to heal and save the church from its sins and errors, and Galileo just wanted to figure out how the universe worked.

But even all that doesn't mean that I don't feel the right to express my negative views about the church to anyone who expresses their positive views about it to me, especially given how emotionally and intellectually manipulative Mormons often are when "bearing their testimonies," or asserting their knowledge that "the Mormon church is the only true and living church on the face of the earth." A few weeks ago I went to Kirtland, Ohio, a very important site in church history, with a friend of mine. We toured the Kirtland temple (which, with its removable pews and prominent pulpits, has more in common with a modern-day Mormon cultural hall [read: carpeted dance hall/gym with a stage at one end] than a contemporary temple), which is owned by the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), who don't do much proselytizing; they're mainly interested in promoting intelligent and open discussion.

Which stands in stark opposition to the plain old LDS church, which values proselytizing above all else. My friend wanted to see the sites owned by the Utah branch of Mormonism (as the CoC quite accurately refers to it), including a reconstruction of the saw mill used in construction of the temple and a recreation of a store whose owner, a member of the church, provided lodging and meals for Joseph Smith and his family. When we arrived at the LDS visitor's center, they told us we couldn't go visit those things until we watched their movie; I said, "There's no way I'll watch the freakin' movie," because I've just seen too much church propaganda already in my life. Then I headed off to pee in the pristine bathroom provided by mandate in all Mormon buildings.

While I was in the bathroom, my friend somehow wrangled a private tour led by some affable, wide-eyed young woman named Sister Nelsen, with calves as broad and intonation as flat as a church parking lot. She asked where we were from; we told her; I asked her she was from; she told me; then I asked if much of her mission was devoted to finding investigators and teaching discussions, or if she spent most of her time giving tours. She started to give me a vague answer about missionary work in general, so I said, "You don't have to explain that stuff; we're both returned missionaries, though neither of us is active any more. But we know how missions work." She was as startled as a 14-year-old boy might be upon awaking to find a glowing resurrected prophet standing at the foot of his bed, but she soon recovered her plucky aplomb.

Later, in the store where Joseph Smith received many of the "revelations" in the Doctrine and Covenants, she bore fervent testimony of the truth of Section 88, with its vision of the resurrection of the dead. I sat with my face averted and impassive, as if I were just lying back and thinking of England. She talked about how membership in the church brings us so much joy, as does sharing it with others, then said, "But you guys already know that, because you both served missions."

And that point I felt entitled share some of what made my own bosom burn. "I wouldn't call what the church brings ‘joy,'" I said.

"Holly's mission was very... difficult," my friend said.

"It wasn't just my mission," I said. "It's the whole structure of the church. It is not a benign institution. You think it's this great thing, but I think much of what it does is evil, downright evil. It retards spiritual and human development. It makes people small and afraid."

My friend later told me he thought those were very insulting things to say to a missionary, and I thought, Well, duh. But the enterprise of missionary work is insulting: trying to get people to believe just like you do. And I point out that I didn't try to get all emotional and intense--sometimes called "invoking the spirit"--and "bear testimony" of the "truthfulness" of my beliefs to Sister Nelsen before asking her to accept them as her own, which is what she did to me; I just told her what I believed in no uncertain terms.

So back at Sunstone, when the discussion continued to center so much on why people should or shouldn't leave the church, I started tuning out and started heeding my grumbling stomach. I also kept looking at my watch; it was past 7 p.m., and at 8 p.m. a dear friend of mine was speaking in the "Pillars of our Faith" session. I often skip that particular session in favor of steeping like a weak tea bag in the hotel jacuzzi, but I wanted to hear my friend, and that meant I needed to eat before 8 p.m. "Anybody hungry?" I asked.

No one responded to me. Someone mentioned general politics; most of us have families absolutely lousy with Republicans. Talking about that took a long time.

"Could we continue this over dinner?" I asked, more than once.

More than once, no one responded.

I'd been standing up so that I could see and speak to all the participants clearly, but when it became obvious that no one cared about dinner as much as I did, I sat down. I can leave, I thought, I can leave all by myself and go get dinner by myself, just like I left the church by myself. But once again I am caught up in this group dynamic where we have to act as a group, and in order to do that, everyone must persuade others to do what we want them to do: Luke has to convince everyone else to leave the church; Bob and Aimee and Alan have to convince people to stay in the church and change it from inside; and I have to convince everyone to go get dinner with me.

OK, I admit it: first of all, I'm oversimplifying the situation a bit, and secondly, I didn't really think that. But perhaps I should have thought it, because there's a patient, persistent whisper of truth in the idea. I should have said, "Well, I'm going to dinner now, and anyone who wants to may join me," and left off worrying about what everyone else would do. Above all, I should have forgotten about this man who said he wanted to have dinner with me but wouldn't direct a tenth of his sentences to me when dinnertime arrived! But I didn't. Instead, I thought, M&M's. I bought a package of M&M's earlier today and never got around to eating them. So I rummaged through my backpack, found them, opened them. From across the room Bob pointed intently at the package in my hand, as if it were a philosopher's stone that would turn the base metal of Mormon sexism into golden equality and justice. "Sorry to interrupt," he began, "but I just have to say, you could be having something WAY better than that if we'd all just go eat."

"I've been trying for half an hour to move this conversation to the restaurant," I said, "but so far I haven't managed to get any takers."

And then everyone else agreed they were hungry and several people acknowledged that, "I've got to get some dinner before ‘Pillars of My Faith' starts at 8" and we moved to the restaurant for a hurried meal of pasta--that's about all a decent kitchen (read: one that doesn't rely on microwaves) can knock out in under ten minutes, we were told. I heard my friend speak (I'm tempted to reveal his name, because he really is a lovely, lovely, wonderful, kind, humane, generous, thoughtful, intelligent man, but I guess I'll make you look it up instead), then ditched out on the rest of the session and was immediately waylaid in the hall by someone else who didn't understand my original question about sex.

Which constitutes the end of that particular round of that discussion, but not of that discussion itself. It has continued on blogs and on-line forums, and I'm extending it here, since I'm interested in the even larger discussion of which it is only a part. I invite comments about how feminism and Mormonism oppose each other, and whether or not--and if so, how--they can possibly be made more congenial.


First-time visitor today - fascinating reading, and I enjoy your fresh insight. Regarding your invitation for comments:

Women in the church can heal others, perform ordinances and miracles, and arguably hold the priesthood (after being endowed). But it is their exclusion from the current basic church organization of the quorum that seems to be the real kicker when it comes to women being on unequal ground with men. Inclusion of women in a priesthood quorum would bring men and women to greater equality and understanding, even allowing for the possibility of a woman prophetess to lead the church. This change in administrative policy would need to come from the current head of the church for it to happen, since the word of the prophet is not questioned.

More and more women are speaking at General Conference than before, but even though the message is coming from the women now, it's only from the women they have hand-picked to share their message, so the message hasn't changed. Any change will have to come from the prophet himself, and, fortunately, issues of the past have shown that if enough pressure is applied in the right way, that change can and will happen (i.e. blacks holding priesthood). If it can be held by any race, it certainly can be held by any gender.

The current teaching in the church is that the differences between men and women have something to do with priesthood authority. But priesthood has nothing to do with gender. It's current function is mostly administrative, but even the power to heal or administer ordinances can be equally performed by a person of any gender. Just some of my thoughts...

Hi Jonathan--thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your insights, particularly your observation that the priesthood's "current function is mostly administrative." I hadn't quite thought of that, but you're quite right.

I hadn't thought of the priesthood's "current function (being) mostly administrative" either. I also liked the comment on an earlier page that one individual goes to church b/c she loves the ward not the church at large. I struggle with finding a church home and I've gone to many different churches even 2 hours away since I left the Mormon church 5 years ago. I want that church body and to feel at home as I have felt in the past periodically within mormonism. But I'm not sure how to reconcile myself to the inequalities, manipulation, and blunt directives to not openly discuss issues of concern and exclusivity. It can be a painfully frustrating journey.

Hi Rhonda--thanks for sharing. There are times when I miss a church too. I have been thinking lately that maybe the way to assuage that loss is to do some volunteering--maybe find a group that shares some of my values and wants to solve a problem or two in the world, but doesn't require me to sign on to all their beliefs in order to do good in the world.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 28, 2005 12:16 AM.

Feminism vs. Mormonism: the Argument after the Panel Part I was the previous entry in this blog.

Making Tea is the next entry in this blog.

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