Men with First Names and Sweaty Palms

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In John R's account of the conversation with the stake president in which said SP informed him of his impending excommunication, John wrote

This is the first time I've stood toe-to-toe with a Mormon leader and felt like his complete equal in every way. It's liberating to not feel beholden to Church authority and priesthood power.

In her discussion of John's post, chanson responded to this statement by writing

This jumps out at me because it's so alien to my own experience. Have other former believers felt like John has here? The last time the church leaders held any power over me, it was at BYU, where they had power to do real things to me, like expel me and withhold my transcripts, not just woo-stuff like withholding the keys to the Celestial Kingdom, etc. And before that, church leaders had authority over me because they were grown-ups and I was a kid. To me, John's statement would be like me being surprised that high school teachers are now my peers, when once they were so intimidating.

in a comment, I stated that I was nonplussed by John's statement. First of all, John has the priesthood (at least currently, whether he chooses to exercise it or not); he is the equal of certain church leaders in ways that I as a woman never would have been in their eyes. (Note: after I had drafted this entry and was finding all the links for comments and so forth, John responded to that, stating, "even if I (supposedly) held the priesthood, a) I was never comfortable with it, and b) in the Church I was still placed firmly in hierarchical relationships with other men.")

In this entry I'm going to provide all of what I said in that comment on Main Street Plaza, plus a little extra stuff, mostly as background and because I want a record of it here, but really this is all preliminary stuff to get to a discussion about gender and the priesthood.

Anyway. I certainly felt that I was the equal if not the superior of a great many Mormon leaders throughout my life.

It was, interestingly enough, a Mormon leader who helped me see this clearly and acknowledge it explicitly. Before my mission, there was a meeting in which a couple of men flexed their priesthood muscles and said, "Things are going to be the way we want, because we're in charge and we said so."

Afterward I complained to my favorite institute teacher, who had also been in the meeting, saying that these guys abused their power. He said, "I'd like to draw a distinction between authority and power. Those guys, they have authority. You have no authority. What you have is power. None of them has the personal power you have, which is why they got so upset when you disagreed with them. They could never stand up to authority; they can only wield it."

After my mission, before I finally left the church in my mid 20s, I went toe-to-toe with Mormon leaders all the time, who were often outraged by my refusal to shut up when they told me to. And rather by accident, I learned how deep their sense of entitlement and superiority was. Since I didn't respect some of these guys or their positions, it was rather natural to begin thinking of them as "Bob" or "Jim" instead of "President Smith" or "Bishop Jones." But when I slipped up and actually used their first names aloud, oh my god! It was like I'd assaulted them! How dare I! How dare I presume a level of equality! How dare I address them as they addressed me!

After that, except for a few really remarkable men who had treated me with respect and equality from the get-go, they were all just middle-aged dudes with first names and sweaty hands I'd prefer not to shake.

And even the good ones--well, if I was ever in a situation where they invoked their church authority and I wanted to show that it didn't much carry much weight with me, I would use their first names. Admittedly, THAT felt weird. One night, almost six or seven years after my mission, my first mission president tracked down my parents, got my phone number in Iowa where I was going to grad school, and called me, so he could ask me about entropy, a concept I had introduced him to once during an interview on my mission. It was nice to catch up with him, and of course by habit I called him "President Carlson" at first. But then at the end he said that he "was worried about my soul and wished I would come back to church" so I wouldn't go to hell (that last bit about hell was implied rather than stated explicitly). It was kindly meant--he really did care about me--so I responded to that kindness rather than the judgment and told him that I didn't worry about that, but I still ended the conversation by saying "Good night, Monte" rather than "Good night, President Carlson." This even though I continued to call him President Carlson in my mind (and in the occasional blog entry).

So I was really interested by this comment from John (which follows a really funny comment you have to read for its own sake) in which he says

I couldn't bring myself to address him as "President", so I called and introduced him as "Doctor." So I guess even if it took me three years to finally shake off my irrational fear of ecclesiastical authority, my inerudite lips still pay homage to the power of the institutionally bequeathed title

I would have called the guy by his first name. We both would have found it weird, but that's what I would have done. That's what I DID do in similar situations.

And as I thought about this, I began to wonder if it was the fact that I DIDN'T have the priesthood, and therefore DIDN'T have a certain respect for it, that has made me willing and able to call these guys by their first names. I wonder if men respect the authority of the priesthood more because they have it.

p.s. Please also read The Priesthood is Magic.

8 Comments

I can't speak for Mormon men, but between having an authoritarian dad who was a drill sergeant and being raised partly in Japan, where you don't know how to address someone until you know where you are in the social hierarchy in relation to them, I've had a lot of deep-training to respect authority. It's hard to shake off. In my case, I think the priesthood is a peripheral thing, but maybe that's because I wasn't raised in the Church.

In spite of all this, though, I've always felt really uncomfortable in any position of power. My position at work is kind of cool, because I lead a team that doesn't report to me. They look to me to set priorities and to help troubleshoot from day to day, but I don't have any actual authority over them, and we consider ourselves a team of equals, each with a different strength/role. I like this much better than an early incarnation, when I also had supervisory duties and hiring/firing power over a few programmers.

Once again though, I deeply admire the ability that you and chanson have to feel superior to nominal authority figures. It's all I can do to feel on par, and I can't muster much desire to go past that.

Hi John--

Thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for mentioning that your father was a drill sergeant--if I ever knew that, I'd forgotten, but it's certainly relevant.

This may all come down, ultimately, to individual temperament and upbringing.... and yet I don't think I'm completely off-base in the idea that at least at times, we support the authority of power-structures we have been let into more than others.

I think of my relationship with authority in academia, which is also fraught and complicated. I felt weird when I finally got my PhD and didn't want to be addressed as doctor. And yet, I wouldn't have gotten a PhD if I didn't think that academic training mattered and was worth something. Especially right after I defended my dissertation, I thought, "What the hell did I waste all that time for? This was a mistake. I should have written for myself, or pursued other kinds of learning, or whatever." But when I finally got my diploma, I was glad to have it, and I'm certainly not going to give it back.

In support of your comment that "we support the authority of power-structures we have been let into more than others", I used to lament when my liberal-leaning Mormon male friends turned more conservative and supportive of the institution when they were called to leadership positions by saying, "they've been institutionalized." Certainly, coopting ones critics into the power structure is a tried and true means of silencing or at least turning their volume down (though it's not w/o risk to the organization).

Certainly, coopting ones critics into the power structure is a tried and true means of silencing or at least turning their volume down (though it's not w/o risk to the organization).

yes. That's an obvious connection I hadn't made--perhaps because I wasn't let into any power structure I criticized. Anyway, having someone help me make these connections is why I wanted to blog about this.

Re: And as I thought about this, I began to wonder if it was the fact that I DIDN'T have the priesthood, and therefore DIDN'T have a certain respect for it, that has made me willing and able to call these guys by their first names. I wonder if men respect the authority of the priesthood more because they have it.

I think that's an excellent insight, and one that applies in general -- not just to Mormonism. Human hierarchies only work if people believe in them. A person who has a place in a particular hierarchy has a personal investment in it. That person is less likely than an outsider to just completely dismiss or ignore it.

It reminds me of a story my BYU roommate once told me. Her father was a Colonel in the military, and she recounted that once there was an official military dinner to which a bunch of civilians were invited, and all the civilians were automatically seated with the enlisted men (not the officers!) because "if they enlisted in the military, that's what rank they'd be." I remember the story to this day because I found it so bizarre. Obviously military rank doesn't apply to civilians, even if some people appear to believe that it's a universal human valuation...

The story from your roommate, chanson, reminds me of an apocryhal story I read somewhere (I think it was in Wartime by Paul Fussell, but I've looked through the book and can't find the story, so maybe it was somewhere else) about this general in the army who comes across some guy who's clearly an out-of-uniform enlisted man. The general starts issuing orders, and the enlisted man looks at him and says, "Fuck you, jack, I'm in the marines."

There's another version where the guy is merely clean-cut, and when he starts getting orders, he says, "Fuck you, buddy, I work for Coca-Cola."

I love that story--I'm laughing as I type. Anyway, the flip side of the military not valuing civilians is that civilians can tell generals, "Fuck you, I'm a civvy." Or, if you're in the military but not under someone's command, you can still say, "Fuck you, you're not the boss of me."

Not the most mature of messages, perhaps, but a rewarding one to deliver. And it's good for these guys to be reminded, from time to time, that they can't order EVERYONE around.

I think there's a lot of merit to the idea that many men in the church feel a stronger obligation to obey and respect those in authority over them than women might, because they're not part of the hierarchy. I certainly was instilled (by my parents and others) with the belief that you don't question the decision of a priesthood authority, ever. I was taught that any decision they made was done by inspiration from God through the Spirit, and so to question it would be to question God - a definite no-no and even sin.

Now that all seems extra super creepy and brainwashy. Though even at the time I found it weird, I never openly criticised the idea until later. I never even wanted the priesthood or any of the responsibilities or authority, so I never felt comfortable doing or saying anything with said authority. It felt manipulative and dishonest.

Hi Craig--

Thanks for stopping by. I wonder how many men are like you, and initially find using "the priesthood" manipulative and dishonest--but just keep practicing until they get used to it, and it feels fine?

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on June 16, 2009 7:42 AM.

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