The First Freak-Out Question

September 25, 2010 | 38 comments
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522px-Alpinistes_Aiguille_du_Midi_03My five-year-old daughter Alanna started kindergarten a few weeks ago. She’s loving it, and I love getting to talk with her about her day when I get home from work. She shares experiences, sings songs that she learned, shows me her artwork, and tells me about her friends. And she’s started asking questions. That’s great for me, because I can usually answer a five year old’s questions.

So it was a big surprise to me last night when, while I was lying in bed getting ready to fall asleep, my wife mentioned, “Alanna asked me today, ‘Why don’t girls get the priesthood?’” Gender issues in the church are a tender spot for me. I strongly believe that the church’s current restrictions on women holding the priesthood or on gay marriage are analogous to the early church’s restrictions on blacks holding the priesthood or on interracial marriage — that both are cultural artifacts representing the prejudices of well-meaning individuals. There is no doubt in my mind that God is neither racist nor sexist.

What surprised me most is that, at five years old, my daughter has already keyed into this role distinction. It’s not a point that I’ve ever raised in my home. I want my daughters to feel as entitled, capable, and privileged as the boys for as long as they can. It’s not an issue I expect to be leaving the church over — I appreciate the many wonderful traits that the church cultivates in its children’s and youth programs. However, like most parents in the church, there are doctrines to which I’m sensitive, the influence of which I hope to counteract in my family.

For what it’s worth, gender issues aren’t such a big deal for my wife. She is generally satisfied with the order of things in the church. So I asked my wife how she responded to Alanna’s question. She said, “I wasn’t sure what to say. I told her that boys and girls have different roles. That seemed to be good enough for her.” And I’m sure it was. I’m sure that Alanna’s query on the priesthood, which seems so critical to me, is on par in her mind with questions about what she’s going to name her next Barbie doll or which of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is her favorite. She is fun, wonderful, inquisitive, playful, and confident. I hope, as her dad, I can help her keep those blessed traits.

38 Responses to The First Freak-Out Question

  1. Dave on September 25, 2010 at 9:44 am

    “[L]ike most parents in the church, there are doctrines to which I’m sensitive ….” Nice way to put it, Dane. And there’s a trick, of course, to not becoming hypersensitive and also not unwittingly passing along a hypersensitivity to the kids.

  2. meems on September 25, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Yes, my own daughter asked me this same question when she was 6 years old and in first grade. She wasn’t easily placated and talked for some time. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but I remember being unprepared to answer this question from a 6 year old!

  3. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Dave, that’s a good point. Obsession, bitterness, and “hobbyism” are all potential pitfalls.

    meems, how did that work out for her and for you?

  4. Curieux on September 25, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Dane, I can understand how the ban on women receiving the priesthood can be a cultural artifact. But how do you explain the prohibition of gay marriage as one? That practice appears to have a deep doctrinal reason, namely celestial marriage and eternal increase.

  5. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Curieux, church teachings on the nature of gender have evolved. A few decades ago Joseph Fielding Smith taught that gender would only be maintained by those who enter the celestial kingdom (see the “TK smoothie”). More recently the family proclamation declared that gender is an eternal characteristic. Neither of these statements claim to be revelations, merely interpretations or authoritative declarations. Without the guiding light of revelation on the subject, all discussion is speculative. So, while I can’t speak authoritatively to the topic of how marriage and gender work in the eternities, I can speak to justice and charity, and it is to justice and charity that I appeal in my hope that basic family rights will be extended to all consenting adults.

  6. meems on September 25, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Dane, not so well. She’s 11 now, and isn’t into church in the least, and hasn’t been since she was asking those questions. She’s bright and has a really strong sense of fairness, and knows her mind, and I guess it didn’t make sense to her. She told me a couple of years ago that she’s “not a religious person,” and she thinks that some people are and some people aren’t, and she’s not one of them. She was about 8 or 9 at the time. It’s pretty depressing!

  7. WJ on September 25, 2010 at 11:59 am

    “Neither of these statements claim to be revelations, merely interpretations or authoritative declarations. Without the guiding light of revelation on the subject, all discussion is speculative. So, while I can’t speak authoritatively to the topic of how marriage and gender work in the eternities, I can speak to justice and charity, and it is to justice and charity that I appeal in my hope that basic family rights will be extended to all consenting adults.”

    Of course, and because the family proclamation is not revelation, but merely an authoritative declaration, it is therefore unauthoritative. If only the general authorities could have had access to justice and charity when they haphazardly cobbled that proclamation together….

  8. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing the update, meems. I hope the best for you and her.

    WJ, please be fair. I didn’t say the statement was unauthoritative (since it was given officially by the church authorities, it tautologically is). I was just trying to convey how I attempt to navigate the situation. I have no doubt about the depth of our church leaders’ charity or desire for justice, only that my interpretations of charity and justice (which are likely different from theirs) are the foundations on which I build my position.

  9. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    To clarify, I think that authority is a poor foundation for policy, while revelation and reason are stronger ones.

  10. Kristine on September 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Dane, don’t be too sure that her “query on the priesthood, which seems so critical to me, is on par in her mind with questions about what she’s going to name her next Barbie doll or which of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is her favorite.” I started asking at about that age (also in a home where it had never been mentioned, and with a mother who has no issues with current practice), and look how I turned out ;)

  11. Alison Moore Smith on September 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    When I was four, my sister got baptized. Like meems’ daughter, I have always had a strong sense of fairness. As I stood by my mom and watched, I leaned over to her and said, “Mom, when I get baptized, I want Dad to baptize me and you to confirm me.” She whispered back that she couldn’t, only Dad could. That was the first experience I had with being really baffled by the church gender positions. At four I thought it was so unfair to “leave Mom out” of such a big occasion.

    Another that strongly impressed me was when Bob — a kid I grew up with who bullied me at church and school incessantly for years — got the priesthood when he turned 12. As I sat in the pew at church, it occurred to me that Bob got the priesthood even though he had mistreated me almost daily since he moved in six years earlier, but I couldn’t ever have it — no matter how I behaved — because I was a girl.

    I still don’t know how to approach these issues. I have four daughters and they have no idea the extent of my feelings about this. I don’t want to make my problems their problems. When they ask me questions I generally tell them I don’t know the answer and listen to them. Their tendency is to think the inequities are just stupid.

    They aren’t (yet, at least) as bothered as I am. They are noticing more disparities now that the oldest of their little brothers in in Scouts. Now I hear a lot of, “We never got to do anything like that!” and “I wish we got to do something like that.” Forget the priesthood for a minute, couldn’t we just offer some FUNDING parity for the youth programs? That seems like a no-brainer to me.

  12. Alison Moore Smith on September 25, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    And to echo Kristine, gender issues were not part of our family discussion. My parents were born in the 1920′s and simply had no issue with it.

    Uncharacteristically for their generation, my dad ALWAYS helped around the house and never, ever sat down after work to be waited on. My parents worked together and relaxed together. For that time period, they were almost a feminists household with regard to equality and fairness and partnership. My mom was educated and bright and one of the very few real female scriptorian’s I ever met as a child. But she was always completely nonplussed by my nearly lifelong gender concerns. We talked about it regularly, but she simply had no such concerns and could not relate to them at all.

  13. Ellis on September 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Life isn’t fair and anyone who tells you anything else is selling something. It is never too early to learn this. God is just because he doesn’t change the rules and is no respecter of persons not because his goal is to make mortality fair.

    I have personal opinions on all of these questions, most of which I have learned to keep to myself because they are just that opinions. So sometimes I just have to decide that we don’t know or understand everything and that someday we will. For now though, that is just the way it is. I trust that in the long run justice will be served.

  14. LRC on September 25, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    I would love to hear what your 5-year-old thought might be reason(s) for women not having the priesthood. You got off easy with her accepting an answer that basically says, “That’s the way it is.”

    I suspect you’ll hear from her again if it’s something that she’s really concerned about – especially as she goes through life realizing that there are very, very few places in the first world where women are restricted from doing things just because they are women.

    How do we address the concerns that the only one who seems to be saying, “You can’t do this because you are a girl” is (a male) God?

  15. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Ellis, you’re right — life isn’t fair. It’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. It’s lone and dreary. But I don’t think our place is to sit passively and accept that. Religion, technology, government, family, trade — the core institutions of civilization have been developed by a human race actively seeking to alleviate loneliness, poverty, filth, brutality, and death. We’re making headway, and I think it’s wonderful. So while life may not be fair, I hope to be engaged in the cause working to address that inequity.

    LRC, in response to your last question, and as I touched on in comment #5, I’m not aware that God has said anything about a male-only priesthood. At least it’s not apparent to me from the scriptures or revelations I’m familiar with. We have authoritative statements from church leaders on the topic, but I’m not aware that any prophet has claimed the backing of revelation on the matter.

  16. Keith on September 25, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    It does seem to me, Dane, that you make too easy a distinction between authority and revelation. Those called are called by revelation to have authority, which is to have the responsibility to guide the Lord’s Church. When they work laboriously over a document in order to clarify or establish the teaching of the Church, how are we to receive that if not as though revelation (particularly when it is an official statement by the governing bodies, not simply one person’s statement as in the Smith statement on gender)? Whether you want to call it revelation (or not, as you seem to say) or inspired writing (or not), it seems to me that the Lord’s assertion that “his word ye shall receive as my word, in all patience and faith” requires that we receive such clear and public authoritative statements as if they are from God’s mouth–as if they are revelations of the Lord’s will. I don’t see, in other words, how the position you take can avoid ultimately being dismissive of authority and the revelation that establishes that authority.

  17. Dane Laverty on September 25, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    In recent years, perhaps largely due to Prince’s David O. McKay biography, there’s been an increased distinction between “church policy” and “church doctrine”. Prince’s book took the tack that the priesthood ban on blacks was church policy, but not doctrine — in other words, it had no solid scriptural, doctrinal, or revelatory basis. Elder Holland used the same terminology in his interview with PBS.

    There’s value in this distinction. It allows historically problematic positions taken by the church to be brushed off as “just policy, not doctrine”. However, it creates the question of how authoritative statements should be taken. When a church leader introduces policy in an official context and doesn’t claim to have received revelation, do we by default assume that his statements are inspired by revelation, or just his opinion/policy? In absence of an explicit claim otherwise, I tend to presume the latter.

  18. hkobeal on September 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Nice post. I’ve had similar experiences with my girls–one of whom told me once that it seemed like “girls are just cheerleaders for the priesthood . . . but in modest clothes.” Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch ouch.

    I agree with Kristine that you shouldn’t value or devalue her questions/concerns by putting them on par with other childish whims. Sure, maybe it is like one of those other things, but it could be a gut instinct telling her something’s not right in the world.

  19. LRC on September 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Dane – I’m not arguing that God is actually saying “no girls allowed” But that’s certainly the message all these little girls are getting from church, is it not?

    So if that’s the message they’re getting, what are we adults going to do about it?

    It’s easy (or relatively easy) for adults to quibble about authority, doctrine and policy, but if we don’t want to keep hemorrhaging new generations of bright, spiritually-minded young women who continue to ask whether God loves girls as much as boys (since girls are essentially denied access to bless others using God’s priesthood power), something needs to change.

  20. WJ on September 26, 2010 at 2:29 am

    “…keep hemorrhaging new generations of bright, spiritually-minded young women…”

    I like the insinuation here that those who don’t have priesthood-gender qualms, such as Dane’s wife, are apparently 1) not bright, 2) not spiritually-minded or 3) lack a strong sense of fairness (to use meems’/Alison’s example).

    “WJ, please be fair. I didn’t say the statement was unauthoritative (since it was given officially by the church authorities, it tautologically is). I was just trying to convey how I attempt to navigate the situation. I have no doubt about the depth of our church leaders’ charity or desire for justice, only that my interpretations of charity and justice (which are likely different from theirs) are the foundations on which I build my position.”

    Dane, I was being fair. You commented that the proclamation is authoritative, but then undercut this point by arguing that it was not revelation, and that lacking the “guiding light of revelation” all discussion on the topic is speculative, which would by necessity include the proclamation. I think it fair to say speculative is roughly the equivalent of unauthoritative.

    While I agree with you that the distinction between policy and doctrine is helpful in explaining past cultural practices, even in your response to Keith you apparently fail to recognize the difference between the proclamation, signed by the First Presidency and Q12, and a single pronouncement by a Church leader. In the balance, one clearly holds more authoritative weight than the other, whether or not it has become part of the official canon.

  21. Cameron Nielsen on September 26, 2010 at 10:04 am

    I was thinking exactly the same thing as WJ above here. I find it hard to believe that official proclamations requiring the signature of all 15 apostles and liberally cited in Conference as scripture (revelation) do not count as doctrine, or for that matter that they are not prompted by inspiration. How often have these proclamations occurred since the restoration? 5 times? Honestly, I assume if the church ever updates the scriptures, the proclamation will be included. This is not a procedural adjustment or mere announcement about a food drive or other current events by the First Presidency, it’s a signed proclamation that I can only think the Lord wanted his servants to make.

    I don’t think a church leader has to explicitly mention receiving revelation for it to be so. I think it’s a cop-out to have that as a requirement for our acceptance.

    Also, a concern about women not having the Priesthood in my opinion is looking beyond the mark. The mark is Christ, we need to accept Him, become like Him, do good like Him, etc. We might do better to explain the Priesthood in the context of our desired eternal and equal marriage partnership we create with our spouse and God, and how they relate to our exaltation.

    I really wish society would stop thinking of ‘equal’ as meaning the identical responsibilities roles. I also wish we as church members would not be afraid to proclaim and honor motherhood as women’s unique and equal complement to Priesthood authority in the larger context of the Plan of Salvation. I don’t see how gender equality can be unclear to us if we have listened carefully during our endowment ceremonies.

  22. Dane Laverty on September 26, 2010 at 10:23 am

    In LRC’s defense, she or he didn’t claim that all “bright, spiritually-minded young women” would be lost, only that those lost would include “bright, spiritually-minded young women” — specifically the ones who “continue to ask whether God loves girls as much as boys”.

    I think in our dialogue on authority, we may be talking past each other. I think we’re each using the word “authority” to mean different things, and that creates some confusion. Can you give me some insight as to what “authority” means to you in the church? Do you feel that authoritative statements are necessarily representative of God’s will or eternal truth? I’m more inclined to view authority in the church as similar to authority in any organization — a power that is necessary to provide structure and rationality to the chaos of human relationships.

  23. Dane Laverty on September 26, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Hi Cameron, I cross-posted with you there — my previous comment was meant as a response to WJ. For both of you, let me try framing the discussion this way. I am an American. I am proud to be an American. I respect the authority of the American president. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with everything the president does, or that I believe his opinions and policies always represent eternal truth. It doesn’t mean that I cannot voice my disagreement or dissent with his policies. It just means I sustain him as my president. It means that I don’t become “not an American” whenever the president does something I disagree with, and then become “an American” again when I agree with him. I am always an American, because I love the principles and values of what America means to me. If you substitute the word “Mormon” for “American” in that preceding paragraph, that gives a sense of how I understand authority to work in the church.

  24. John on September 26, 2010 at 11:18 am

    If “current restrictions on women holding the priesthood” is a cultural artifact, then please name me instances where women have held the priesthood throughout history, especially in the scriptures. Maybe the scriptures are also sexist, but I can’t think of one. Eve didn’t hold the priesthood. Why would it have changed from that time forward? God doesn’t change to please our whims and desires or our perceived sense of inequality. The priesthood is a role that has been given to men on this earth. Is there really a problem with that? We all have our roles and we need to learn to work within what we have been given. I believe the problem we have with this inequality is that we see men who exercise their priesthood unrighteously and therefore we feel like it shouldn’t be theirs to hold. Believe me, if women held the priesthood, we would see the same unrighteous practices within a short time. Authority goes to our heads. That this one of the huge challenges that we have to learn to overcome in this life. If we were all more humble, 1) Those who hold the priesthood would exercise it correctly and without coersion or manipulation, and 2) Those who don’t hold the priesthood would realize that it’s okay that they don’t hold the priesthood, because in reality, they can do all of the same good work and service without a title attached to their name.

  25. Dane Laverty on September 26, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I’m not sure that it’s effective to argue against a doctrine based on its absence in the scriptures. There are no examples of blacks ordained to the priesthood in the scriptures. There are no examples of our current temple ordinances in the scriptures. If we assume that Eve’s life span was similar to her husband’s, then 99.9% of her life is unrecorded in scripture.

  26. Tessa Dior on September 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I’m neither a parent or a well matured adult, but I do have some personal experience on the subject of women and the priesthood. The priesthood not being given to women has been a “sensitive” piece of doctrine for me since I was a little girl of 5 myself. Well, that is until rather recently.
    As I thought about it, prayed about it and studied about it in the scriptures I didn’t find any concrete evidence for answers- but I felt in my heart an eternal truth: God does not work in concrete answers, and sometimes he doesn’t even work in answers. It is not up to us to decide who should and who shouldn’t. This is Jesus Christ’s church, not ours. If the First Presidency came out this next Conference to tell us that the Lord has asked his people to only wear the color blue, then we should do it, because we promised to do it, when we were dressed in white and baptized.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is: Have faith, trust in the Lord and remember that we, as mortal men, could never hope to understand his eternal designs for our happiness- for all he truly does and is, is for our happiness.

  27. Julie M. Smith on September 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    So tonight my 9yo son was aghast that men can’t be in the Relief Society–made me think of this thread . . .

  28. Ardis E. Parshall on September 26, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    I think most would be surprised at how far back questions like Dane’s daughter’s *have* been an issue. There are lessons on the priesthood for the Primary girls and YLMIA at least as far back as the 19-aughts with lines like “We must face the question squarely when our girls ask why their brothers can hold the priesthood and they cannot.” Even that early, the suggested discussion is limited to reassuring “our girls” that the Lord has a different function for the women of the Church. While men have responsibility to exercise the priesthood, “our girls” can be — wait for it — here it comes — mothers.

    We shouldn’t, therefore, assume that the issue is solely generational, and that our mothers didn’t struggle with it too.

  29. WJ on September 26, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    “I’m more inclined to view authority in the church as similar to authority in any organization — a power that is necessary to provide structure and rationality to the chaos of human relationships.”

    I don’t know Dane, I read statements like this and wonder how it is that we even belong to the same church, and I mean that sincerely, not disparagingly. While my mind is apt to wander, I don’t recall the history lesson in which George Washington received angelic visitors who conveyed to him and his future successors the authority to act in God’s name. If something akin to this had happened, I might view Barack Obama’s and Thomas Monson’s authority as equal. But tragically, I happen to subscribe to the core gospel belief that the priesthood is a unique and distinct authority, possessed only within this church. While there might be parallels between the more generic notion of “leadership authority,” the very nature of the authority at issue causes the analogy to crumble.

  30. WJ on September 26, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Pahaha, Julie thats hilarious!

  31. Adam S. on September 26, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    I’m still not sure what to do about this issue. My daughter is six and I hate that church is the one place were she won’t be given the same opportunities as her male counterparts. She has a dominating older brother, so I have to constantly counteract the idea that boys are better than girls. Seeing men run the show at church doesn’t help.

    For the people that can relate to the original post, what is your approach? My simple ideas are to (1) Ignore it and downplay it so she can peacefully get along in the church. (2) Tell her that the church is wrong. We just live with it because the good outweighs the bad and keep hope that it will change someday.

  32. Ms. Jack on September 27, 2010 at 12:51 am

    I appreciate this post, Dane. Coming from an interfaith marriage situation, I’m honestly at a loss as to what I would say if my daughter asked me this question; it seems wrong to tell her what I actually think of the issue since her father has the right to teach her his religion. I would probably tell her to go ask her father and let him decide which unsatisfactory answer to give her. His church’s rules, his problem.

  33. Dane Laverty on September 27, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Julie, thanks for sharing — after this post, I’m inclined to do a follow-up post with scans of the fun pictures Alanna makes in her primary classes, to show that I appreciate that church isn’t all about abstruse speculative doctrinal discussions (like I usually engage in here) :)

    Ardis, to me the genius of the work you share at Keepapitchinin is that it makes our predecessors accessible as human beings. They shared our concerns, hopes, and often even our logic.

    WJ, for what it’s worth, I’m grateful to be in the same church as you :) To clarify my position, I don’t believe that Pres. Obama and Pres. Monson have identical authority. I believe that when God has something to reveal to the church, it will come through Pres. Monson in his capacity as prophet (and seer and revelator). The distinction I’m making is that Pres. Monson serves both as a prophet and as a president. To me, his role as prophet means he can receive revelation as Joseph did. His role as president means he is also the person who manages the organizational policy of the church. I think the question we’re discussing here is whether the family proclamation was issued in his role as prophet or his role as president.

    Adam S., Jack, and LRC (#19) — I hope we’ll find better answers as we keep discussing these things.

  34. Ardis E. Parshall on September 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Ardis, to me the genius of the work you share at Keepapitchinin is that it makes our predecessors accessible as human beings. They shared our concerns, hopes, and often even our logic.

    Dane, that may be the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me. Thank you.

  35. Dane Laverty on September 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I’m your biggest fan, Ardis :)

  36. katyjane on September 27, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    There are plenty of inequities in gender in our society-not just in the church. My son has hair halfway down his back, and he has to deal with rude strangers telling him that he should get a haircut and that otherwise they are going to call him a girl. (Note: this is ADULTS saying this to my four year old.) His question: Why can’t I have long hair like a girl?

    And why does everyone assume that having the priesthood is such a good thing that people should aspire to and wish that they could get? Personally, I would never have wanted to be a bishop in a church, and never really get to be home on the weekends, or sit with my family in church. I wouldn’t want the pressure of having to give blessings to people, or say the right words over the sacrament or the baptisms. I mean, obviously it’s something that boys get and only get if they are deemed worthy, but it’s a responsibility, and probably often a burden.

    Another option to tell your daughters is that men need the priesthood to go to the Celestial Kingdom, and women are just fine without it. We were born with all the priesthood that we need–it doesn’t have to be conferred upon us by someone else, and it can’t be taken away. It is inherent to womanhood. And it doesn’t mean that men are bad or worse, but that men and women were made differently.

    If gender didn’t matter at all… why bother having it?

  37. Mark B. on September 28, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I’m only sorry that katyjane, like most people these days, caved in and said “gender” in that last line instead of “sex”.

  38. katyjane on September 28, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    @ Mark–LOL!