This weekend something beautiful occurred that might just reshape the Mormon world for a new generation, and yet I find myself incapable of expressing how I feel. Because this weekend something else happened that broke my heart.
As a blogger, I find myself in a loop. I say I want to write about issues that affect religious feminists, and sometimes I do, sometimes I address current, contemporary issues. But more recently, I find that I am caught in the place of laying foundations for a deeper discussion: let me tell you how hard it is to be caught in two worlds, I say, and then I'll tell you more. But then something happens, before I get to the more, that drags me back to the start.
Last week, for instance, I wrote about the struggle many Mormon feminists face in trying to find a place for themselves in the church. I ended on a question, hoping that my post would double as a longer, more contemplative one and as a question of the week. As a teacher (and perhaps by nature), I am always posing questions. You could say I do it to play devil's advocate, but even that isn't quite right, because my questions always come from the heart, even if I'm more interested in them for the generative power they might have than I am for any immediate application in my own life.
That question I asked was a simple: What can we do better?
I intended to follow up this week, with a Part 2 that would lay out some of my own ideas and answers to that question. I was going to list off ways that feminist Mormons and non-feminist Mormons could each make a difference in helping feminist Mormons to feel like an accepted, valued, and respected part of the ward community. My feeling has long been that many who leave the church would have stayed if they had felt more accepted by the general congregation. Not just invited, but welcome and accepted and valued.
One friend responded to my question, but most others read and held their peace, which I was perfectly content with.
Meanwhile, I made some remarks on facebook last week. I posed a question for other Mormon academics about the use of "slippery slope" logic (often identified as a logical fallacy) in church classes. Friends responded thoughtfully, offering thoughts on cases when that form of logic was helpful and other times when it could, in fact, turn into a fallacy. I also posed a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek question about temperatures in church buildings, with got much more of a reaction than I'd have expected.
Perhaps most provocatively, I decided I was sick of hearing stereotypes about what sorts of people support Obama, and broke my own rule about stating over facebook which politician I support. Yes, most people can guess from my liberal leanings how I feel, but until now I had not stated on fb which politician I would vote for. I still have not and will not publicly express on facebook my reasons for supporting Obama. So it was immense for me to state that I am a Mormon (active and temple-going), who paid income tax last year, who did not have health insurance for the greater part of the year, and who would have supported Romney four years ago - but who nevertheless would be voting for Obama this time around. I ended with, "stereotypes don't hold up," because that was my only purpose in posting that status - establishing that the stereotype that only those who receive more gov't money than they pay in taxes support Obama simply doesn't hold up.
A long-time friend of mine (whom I will refer to as Sarah to avoid sharing her real name) asked why I supported Obama. I said I was happy to explain, but only in private, to which she replied that Obama supporters never describe why they support him. Still, true to my word, I gave her my answer in a private message.
All of what I have told you is background and context for what happened this weekend. (I know, I know, I'm long-winded!)
This weekend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a semi-annual conference. This conference is divided into 6 sessions, most of which are 2 hours long. During the first session on Saturday, we received amazing news: women will now be eligible to serve missions when they turn 19, instead of waiting until they are 21. When I heard this news, my heart lifted. When I think about this news, my heart lifts.
To describe what this news means for me, for my toddler niece, for the children I will some day have takes more than words. Before this Saturday, the policy was that eligible men could (and were strongly, strongly encouraged to) serve 2-year missions. Women could serve 18-month missions when they reached 21. The catch? These young missionaries cannot be married, and they cannot date for the duration of their missions. As you might imagine, that earlier age of 19 made it much more feasible for willing men to serve missions. Some took a year off after high school to earn money and then began college when they returned. Others spent a year at college, then served a mission, then returned to school. As difficult as many men have found it to return to school after a couple years away, most have returned to freshman or sophomore courses.
For women, it has been more difficult, though many have still happily served. By 21, many women find that 18 months out of the dating and academic world would (or does) disrupt their plans in bigger ways. For those unfamiliar with that position, imagine taking as much as two years off from school, between preparing and serving, at the end of your junior year of college. That's right, as you're accelerating from advanced coursework into professional level coursework, you take off for a minimum of 1-1/2 years and return rusty, most of your pre-mission friends and classmates already having graduated. Of course, the common-ness of missions at CES schools facilitates those transitions as well as it can, but for LDS women at other universities, that challenge must be even worse. Of course, all of these obstacles only increase my respect for women who have served missions. Still, this age change will dramatically increase the number of women who serve missions over the next year and in the future, and over time that change will transform cultural gender dynamics in the church.
Yet, admidst all the joy this weekend occasioned for the Mormon and feminist in me, something happened that leaves me wondering again how much work it will take for Mormon feminists to no longer be seen as an oxymoron. While watching one of the sessions, I heard a story from a speaker who described her delight when she saw a girl in a grocery store who wore a t-shirt that proclaimed herself a Mormon. When this speaker described a hypothetical t-shirt she would be happy to wear and how this t-shirt would proclaim that she is a Mormon and proud of it because she is not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, it raised some questions for me that I wanted to consider more. I thought about the overlap (and difference) between the gospel and the church and wrote as a facebook status:
Question for my Mormon friends: is there a difference between ashamed of the Gospel and being ashamed of the Church? In other words, can you be ashamed of one and not the other?
To avoid the assumption that I was indirectly claiming to be ashamed of the church, I added (just a question I thought of when she mentioned the T-shirt). Most of my friends responded thoughtfully, but one friend (remember "Sarah"?) wrote the following:
Sustain your leaders. The questions you have seem scary to have since you have a temple recommend. You don't seem like you have a testimony of Christ or of Our Prophet and the principles. You need to read the church literature and ponder and figure things out for yourself. More than always turning to others for answers pray to God.
When I told her that I believe in the power of asking questions in order to learn and strengthen faith, she then steamrolled me with multiple lengthy messages, as well as finding NAW and posting comments that I have since removed, in order to protect her identity. In her expanded comments, she proceeded to tell me
And I sincerely do not think you are actually seeking answers. I do not think you are going to act on the advice of others. Your questions show you have pride. You need to ask pray for humility.
You know the answers you just do not want to do the work. You post all things publicly so I will post back publicly the truth.
Also pro gay is against families. Anything against families is against Christ.
Keep pretending, keep justifying and keep making excuses. But I know what Truth is. I know where the church and gospel and leaders stand on issues....and I agree with them, because I have studied the gospel, church materials, conference talks, scriptures and lots of time pondering,
You agree with world on issues that are against the church and yet you think you understand the gospel??
The questions you write clearly state that you do not understand a lot of things about the gospel.
Instead of listening and being humble..you refuse to listen to anyone that says stop turning to the world and start looking within
among many other gems. On the blog she even insinuated that my experience with abuse had driven me from the church, a claim so outrageous and offensive that I couldn't imagine why blogger, The Mormon Child Bride, included it in her list of the top 5 things not to say to friends and family who are questioning or have left the faith. When I asked Sarah to stop saying these things, she did not, and I ultimately blocked her on facebook for my own mental and emotional health.
But while I could laugh off this reaction - after all, I am not planning on leaving the church or even doubting its truthfulness, and it's likely that Sarah's reaction is merely coming out of her own problems - while I could laugh this all off, I find myself wondering how many other Mormon friends, acquaintances, and family see the questions I pose as signs of coming apostasy but have the good sense not to pick a fight.
It wouldn't be the first time that an unorthodox Mormon gained a reputation as not believing or as "apostate," despite regularly attending church, fulfilling callings (unpaid positions, such as Sunday school teachers), and even holding a temple recommend (meaning a Bishop has agreed to the member's worthiness and strong testimony). Several years ago, for instance, rumours spread throughout the mission that covered my home ward that the Relief Society in my ward was apostate. These rumors came down to the questions that feminist sisters posed in lessons, questions with made missionaries and recent move-ins from western states uncomfortable.
More recently, a rumor spread through the family that one of our family members did not have a testimony. When I asked her what she had actually said, she explained that it was a hypothetical question, meant to inspire thoughtful discussion. As a class was discussing the importance of developing and nurturing a testimony of the Gospel of Christ and of the Church, she said, "Why is it important to have a testimony? If I didn't have a testimony but still kept the commandments, why wouldn't that be enough?" Rather than considering the question, younger members of the class answered, "having a testimony is everything," while older members reassured her that she, personally, would gain a testimony in time.
These reactions to thoughtful questions - whether it's casual dismissal of the question or outright rejection of the seeker - these reactions are dangerous. These reactions reinforce the stereotype of our church being filled with brainwashed sheep. These reactions circumvent our progress as thinking, believing, developing, children of God with divine potential.
So, to those (few, I hope) fellow Mormons who are frightened of questions about the church, I have some questions for you:
Do you think that General Authorities ask no hard questions as part of their service? That changes like the missionary age requirements from the weekend, or revised temple policies of the 1990s, or extending the Priesthood without regard to race of the 70s all came without ever asking difficult questions?
And if those men asked difficult questions as General Authorities, do you think that they never asked or contemplated similar questions before their callings? That they mysteriously learned skills of reasoning with the Lord when they were sustained?
And if they asked questions before they were sustained, why not you?
And if you can and should consider difficult questions, why not feminists?