June 16, 2009
Men with First Names and Sweaty Palms
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).
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.
Posted by holly at June 16, 2009 7:42 AM