A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church. They asked for tickets to attend. They asked politely, and were politely turned away. The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men. I don’t have any idea why this is. The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared. I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else. I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.
So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend. I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that. Good for them.
Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square. If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church. Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:
“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”
During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists. I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows. For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps. She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture. We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism. (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!) We are the Church, indeed.
Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends. Many took particular issue with this:
“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme. Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”
I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends. First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership. I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.
I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.
But only one present. And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.” So what we have is a fight over definitions. OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’ But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.
Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position. In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women. And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals. Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian. It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers. I kept seeing that number. 90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.
But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so. Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states. In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote. And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”. Shiver.
I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it. Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question. That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.
I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate. My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work. But she’s also an ardent feminist. That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy. Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric. Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there. I’m an incrementalist, maybe.
And yet, and yet. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King. He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker. Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.
And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination. And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’ And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years? No: I’m too short-sighted. Does it bend towards female ordination? I don’t know. But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium. And still the arc bends.