Monday, February 11, 2013

Ask a (Mormon) Feminist: Are Mormon Feminists Trying to Tell God how to Run His Church?

Back in December I mentioned a little about the Mormon feminist "Wear Pants to Church Day," an event that many but not all Mormon feminists got involved in. In the comments on my original post, Katherine B. asked an excellent question:

What do you say to someone who thinks that Mormon feminists are trying to tell God how to run His church? That by asking for changes, some women are claiming to know better than the Prophet and Apostles? I for one don't believe that that's what is happening, or that God is offended when we ask for change. My sister and I have been having a discussion since the start of this pants war thing, and this is her major hangup. I'm not sure how to respond, probably because I don't consider myself a feminist (though perhaps a feminist sympathizer). Does any of that make sense? Anyway, thanks for your posts. You always make me think (really think) about things from a different angle, and I think because of that I am a more tolerant person. And a teensy bit of a feminist. 

This weekend another friend suggested a similar question, this time motivated by the follow-up event "Let Women Pray in General Conference." (Also known in the longer but less demanding form of "write letters to ask to let women pray in General Conference"). Recently another friend also asked whether I felt comfortable telling leaders I don't belong to any organization that opposes the church's teachings (a question asked in temple recommend interviews) when I'm part of the feminist Mormon housewives facebook group. With so many similar questions about whether these Mormon feminist groups are out of line or in some way opposing and questioning the authority of church leaders, I realized it was time to respond.

There's a joke I've heard about the difference between Catholics and Mormons: the Catholic Pope is supposed to infallible, but Catholics don't actually think he is. Meanwhile the Mormon Prophet is not supposed to be infallible, but Mormons still think he is. 

While jokes build on generalities and stereotype, this joke points to a really important issue within my church's members: as members, we sometimes want our leaders to be perfect. And it's not just a rhetorical move for me to use "we" there. I want to believe Thomas S Monson is perfect just as much as the next Mormon. It's a lovely dream, isn't it? Imagining that the person who guides the church you belong to is perfect, that he'll never say anything that's incorrect or biased, that he'll have the answer to each and every question and that even the words he uses to communicate these answers will communicate perfectly and completely to all who hear them. It's tempting to imagine that a human leader is as perfect as the God that leader serves.

But that myth ignores the realities of life and existence. That myth ignores the truth about how humans learn and grow and progress, and it robs us of the opportunity to learn and understand true principles for ourselves. When we buy into the myth, it's tempting to ignore moments when we hear a general conference talk and don't feel the spirit confirming what we've heard communicated. It's tempting to ignore our doubts and uncertainties and pretend that we have a testimony of something we don't. To do otherwise would be to admit one of two possibilities: either our leaders are not infallible in each and every comment they make, or  we don't believe each and everything our infallible leaders are saying. 

Fortunately, the truth is much less extreme: leaders are not perfect, and all members experience some doubt and hesitation when it comes to church and gospel teachings.

It should be no secret to Mormons that our leaders are not perfect people. In fact, in a recent General Conference one leader reminded Mormons that the Church and the Gospel are not one and the same. All religious leaders make mistakes because they are humans, and humans make mistakes. Mormon humans are no exception to making mistakes. 

I know that some will look at what I'm saying and respond that even imperfect leaders still have my sustaining vote as a member, and therefore I should support them. I agree. The question is what it means to support a leader. Does it mean outwardly and inwardly approving of each and every decision a leader makes? Never voicing differing opinions on church and secular matters? If it does, then a bishop has no need of counselors - they'd only be yes-men. And a bishop has no need to hold ward council. But we have systems of communication in place in the church for a reason: the Church's policies constantly evolve, and that evolution is shaped in part by current culture and communication and the members' needs that they communicate to leaders.

Yes, some Mormon feminists don't recognize church leadership as having any authority. But those feminists are the exception, and let me tell you something - they're probably not sitting next to you in Sacrament meeting, because they're probably not attending the church anymore. The majority of Mormon feminists mean it when they sustain church leaders. Most of us hold that responsibility sacred. Sustaining a leader does not mean passively going along with each policy in place in the church and ignoring problems. It means prayerfully choosing moments to communicate problems I see occurring in my ward or stake or (even) in the church as a whole. 

For instance, a few years ago a stake high councilor preached false doctrine and misquoted scripture over the pulpit. So I approached the Bishop with my concerns. I didn't tell the bishop that he was wrong not to stop the speaker or that the speaker had no authority from God. I didn't demand anything. But I communicated and discussed my concerns, with a leader who shared them and was only happy to chat. 

As I see it, it is completely and utterly in line with sustaining and supporting leaders to write prayerful letters expressing a desire for a current policy to change - in this case, women not offering prayers in general conference meetings. Most of the women involved in this letter-writing campaign are hoping to more fully communicate the worldwide side effects that occur when members do not see women offering prayers in general conference. I've even heard stories of congregations in other countries, where church membership is still young, where because of what they see in general conference members mistakenly believe that women should not be offering prayers in Sunday meetings.

Communication is essential in the church. Think of it this way: if the Church were sending relief to flood victims that consisted mostly of dairy-based products, but the flood victims were all lactose-intolerant and were getting sick, it would be downright silly for nobody to tell church leadership about the problem. "Have more faith in your leaders" is unlikely to make their bodies process lactose.

Some will ask, why write letters as an organized effort - why not communicate in another way?

General authority leaders receive a lot of letters, so many that any one letter is very unlikely to be read by a church leader. But you can bet the Church is keeping track of how many of these letters are flowing in and that church leaders are prayerfully reviewing at least a portion of them. By writing en masse we're able to express thoughts and feelings that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

Bottom line, it's important to remember that this particular Mormon feminist movement is deliberately designed to take action in ways that do not defy actual doctrine. Wearing dress pants to church is not disrespectful to the Lord, but it is in violation of a cultural taboo. Communicating a heartfelt wish to church leadership is not disrespectful to said leadership, but it does question the false doctrine that leaders are infallible. 

God asks us to counsel with him, and that doesn't mean passively ignoring the very issues church leaders want to know about in order to effect the best policies they're able. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this :) I am Katherine B's sister. I have been slowing dipping my toes into the waters of feminism since the pants thing. Mostly I think the part that resonates with me is that a lot of women struggle with finding their meaning in the church, and it is important to recognize that while you may not feel the same way, those concerns are real and valid, and should be recognized instead of ignored. I have really struggled with not being able to be a mom and what does that mean for me in the church, where is my place, what is my role? Im really glad that Katherine, for whom I have a great deal of respect, helped me be more open minded about "mormon feminism." There arent many people who could have made me take a closer look, but she did. Im so happy to have found a group of people who, although I disagree with frequently, seem to have the same sort of search for meaning.

    I think I have come a long way since making that comment about feminists trying to run the church..... ill be honest, it doest still bother me a little bit. There are some things that bother me a lot about Mormon feminism. I am in that fmh group and sometimes posts make me go o.O I dont like everything that goes up on the fmh blog, or this one. But I really appreciate well reasoned, articulate arguments like this one. It makes sense. It reminds me of a quote by Thomas Jefferson that I dont feel like looking up right now..... something like, question with boldness the very existance of God, for if there truely be a God he must surely prefer honest questions over blindfolded fear.