Awkward Discourse, Awkward Practice

March 3, 2014 | 23 comments
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rosie1Let me say up front that I’m a big fan of the Church’s new Gospel Topics section. And the most recent entry “Becoming Like God” is perhaps my favorite. I thought the author contextualized the topic well, and I especially liked the section entitled “How do Latter-day Saints envision exaltation?”

In part because of the nature of the topic, and in part because the author courageously included two full paragraphs on our Heavenly Parents, however, this article manifests our incongruent, sometimes incoherent, and at the least wholly awkward way of discussing all things women in the Church. There’s nothing special about this awkwardness showing up in this particular article – as I just mentioned, the author was courageous in candidly discussing Heavenly Mother. Unfortunately, this awkwardness seems to show up in nearly everything we say as a Church.

To be specific: I find directly analogous the way we talk about and treat women generally and the way “Becoming Like God” conspicuously switches back and forth from noting how significant it is that “we have heavenly parents” to speaking only of Heavenly Father, referring to Him as if a single parent involved in our eternal progression.

It’s certainly enough to make reason stare.

We awkwardly go from heralding the RS and how active and worthwhile our sisters are to upholding patently unequal governance and practices of ritual participation. Just as we go awkwardly from exalting the critical importance of the priesthood and lauding our young men for being worthy of this divine privilege to utterly downplaying it as a burden and nothing the women should want. Just as we go awkwardly from pointing out new female leadership roles in the mission to staring stupidly in response to questions about titles and actual authority. Just as we go awkwardly from claiming that married couples are equal partners who need to determine their own family’s dynamics to championing notions of strongly bifurcated and socially reinforced gender roles.[1]

It’s hard not to see ourselves as deeply, awkwardly conflicted in numerous ways all stemming from our inability to acknowledge and practice true equality without jettisoning our tradition and what we find valuable in it. And this, I think, really is what’s at issue. How do we retain the overwhelming good of our tradition while moving uncompromisingly to embrace full and substantive equality? What would this demand, and what would it look like?

I don’t see this same struggle on the individual level; rather, I see several viable (and different) family re-interpretations that manage tradition and equality quite well and that many families I know (of different political stripes) gracefully implement. I know active members all along the spectrum from stay-at-home Mom with single income Dad to stay-at-home Dad with single income Mom[2]. We all do. We also all know of barbaric situations along that spectrum. The model seems far less important than the genuine faith, real partnership at every level, and total commitment to family in each laudatory case.

Given how simple it seems at the individual level, I can’t figure out why we struggle so much at the institutional level. Once again, there are a number of viable models being discussed. There’s certainly no conceptual barrier to exalting our traditions while reforming our rhetoric and practice.

Unfortunately, we’re not even rhetorically good at this reconciliation. Our general discourse continues to reinforce rather than ameliorate the problem. And no one I know misses this fact (though obviously opinions vary widely on how important it is or what to do about it).

* * * *

[1] Alison Moore Smith has posted on some of these topics before; for example, see here.

[2] I mean for the various models of both parents working to lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

23 Responses to Awkward Discourse, Awkward Practice

  1. Jared vdH on March 3, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    I think part of the problem stems from the desire for specificity in the gospel, the same way that “Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy” still elicits lists of things we should and shouldn’t do, despite the fact that the General Authorities have pretty much shied completely away from discussing specifics about the Sabbath Day. Now the emphasis to me seems to be “Keep the Sabbath Day Holy” with maybe some positive examples of possible activities, rather than a list of things you shouldn’t do. The membership in my experience hasn’t totally caught on to that one yet.

    Another similar topic is tithing. As we’ve seen very recently here, interpretations of the specific math involved in tithing are diverse. The Church has been a bit more successful in making it clear that the Church doesn’t define the specific math involved.

    With regard to gender roles and marriage relationships, we appear to have fallen into the trap of trying to specifically define them. I think we’d be better off putting a bright line on abuse in all it’s forms, and then saying that whatever arrangement works for you, makes you happy, and you feel is guided by the Spirit is all that’s required. Rhetoric-wise all we would really need to do to reinforce this is having repeated conference talks from several different leaders that include stories that showcase the diversity of experiences your own post alludes to.

  2. Hunter on March 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    You asked why we struggle so much at the institutional level? If Elder Anderson’s “we don’t know why things are the way they are” is indicative, then I think further revelation is needed to effect institutional change. This seems true no matter where you fall on the spectrum of the issue of women’s equality. To me, “we don’t know” means “we don’t know” (not “the status quo is God’s will forever and ever, amen”).

    So, for the time being, with wide acceptance of general notions of equality but within a doctrinal vacuum . . . cue the music for more of the awkward “Deacon shuffle” at the church dance.

  3. Hunter on March 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Ugh, it’s Elder Andersen (not Anderson). . . I knew that. Sorry.

  4. Julie M. Smith on March 3, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Excellent post.

    “I can’t figure out why we struggle so much at the institutional level”

    I think it is because I can order my marriage differently from the way that my grandparents did without throwing them under the bus, but the church can’t do that–it doesn’t get to set up a new household with new players every generation.

    I think, in general, if we spent more time talking about how we believe in the 9th article of faith (“will yet reveal . . .”) and less time about how the church’s doctrine will nevereverever change, we’d be better equipped to navigate these issues.

    And–did anyone else catch President Burton’s awesome line in the NYTimes piece on LDS women? Wowsers. (“The church will benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete,” as Sister Linda K. Burton, president of the Relief Society, the church’s auxiliary for adult women, put it.”)

  5. chris on March 3, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    “It’s hard not to see ourselves as deeply, awkwardly conflicted in numerous ways”

    Thou shalt not kill – > thou shalt utterly destroy
    Ask and you shall receive – > hundreds of men, women and children burned at the hands of unbelievers (I guess they forgot to ask for deliverance?).
    Love thy neighbor – > I have not come to feed the dogs. (only when humbling herself to be a dog eating scraps is the blessing given)

    So faulting anyone for inconsistency on a host of issues isn’t consistency with prior experience with a whole host of inconsistencies.

    It’s actually a bit strange though because the progressive viewpoint often calls out conservatives for clinging too much to consistency, which we’re told eventually causes a loss of faith when the inconsistencies can’t be managed. Is it possible this is just projectionism from those who themselves struggle with inconsistencies?

  6. Dave K on March 3, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    “How do we retain the overwhelming good of our tradition while moving uncompromisingly to embrace full and substantive equality?”

    By focusing on how the *good* benefits and involves all of us equally, and that we all should participate in the good according to our desires and abilities. As a prime example, the PotF teaches of the good that comes through presiding, providing, protecting and nurturing. Unfortunately, way too many church lessons treat these actions as exclusive to one gender. The better approach is to simply teach the good, and then give examples of how the good applies to all.

    Example 1: Presiding means to lead or direct with authority. This week I saw father preside at home by directing his son to mow the lawn. Mother presided at home by directing her children to plant a garden. The bishop, primary president, beehive president, and seminary class president all led and directed their respective organizations.

    Example 2: Providing means to give of your time and means to meet another’s need. This week I saw mother provide for her children by going to work as a CFO at XYZ corp. I saw father provide for his children by preparing food and washing clothes that were purchased with mother’s income. The bishop and relief society president provided for needed families in the ward through their ability to call upon the bishop’s storehouse.

    Example 3: Nurture means to feed, support, encourage and build up, particularly in an eternal spiritual manner. It is the most rewarding and longest lasting work any man or woman can do. This week I saw mother nurture her son by helping him persevere through a difficult piano arrangement. Father nurtured his daughter by studying a conference talk with her that she would present on in sacrament meeting. Father also nurtured a daughter by performing the ordinance of confirmation following her baptism. While mother is currently excluded for joining the ordinance, father included her as much as possible by having mother prayerfully write out a blessing, which father memorized and spoke alongside his own guidance. Mother and father also fasted and prayed that someday mother’s hands would be able to join with her words in the ordinance.

  7. Josh Smith on March 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm


    While mother is currently excluded from joining the ordinance, father included her as much as possible by having mother prayerfully write out a blessing, which father memorized and spoke alongside his own guidance.

    –Dave K. (#6)

    I’d never thought of that. Hmmm. Thanks for sharing Dave K. So, I guess at least one answer to this question:

    “How do we retain the overwhelming good of our tradition while moving uncompromisingly to embrace full and substantive equality?”

    Would be:

    A wee bit of imagination.

  8. Dave K on March 3, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Josh (#7), for me, imagination is how most revelation begins. There is strong precedent in the church for receiving revelation prior to actually delivering a blessing. Joseph did that with regards to the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland Temple (D&C Section 109). Nothing in the church handbook or scripture prevents a priesthood holder from consulting his wife’s inspiration and, if he feels it appropriate, including that inspiration in a blessing he gives to their child.

  9. James Olsen on March 3, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Thank you for your comments, everyone, I really appreciate the level and substance of the discussion so far.

    Jared – I think this is insightful, but as stated it only relates to the individual and not the institutional level. The problem is the collective discourse and practices vis-a-vis women. Unless, perhaps, you’re recommending something like the Church delegating to each couple who exactly will, for example, wield the priesthood in their homes, and each ward will determine whether and how much gender segregation should be had, and each missionary couple called will determine whether it’s the man or woman who will be “president,” and the like.

    Hunter – “within a doctrinal vacuum . . . cue the music for more of the awkward “Deacon shuffle” at the church dance.” Indeed.

    Julie – I think you’re really getting at something here. However, I think we’ve already thrown some of our important collective traditions under the bus; we just pretend like we haven’t. Women’s performance of blessings and other ordinances outside the temple – under the bus. Strong and independent RS – under the bus. Institutionally supported leadership in the nation’s feminist movement – under the bus. The necessity of both spouses working hard in order to support the family and garnering a genuine complimentarity – under the bus. We’ve made and continue to make choices about which elements of our history to accentuate and which to ignore. For some reason, however, we seem incapable of drawing on the elements of our history that would genuinely promote substantive equality, although we often draw on them for rhetorical flare.

    I think you’re spot on with the need to emphasize AofF 9. And yes, that was quite the soundbite from Pres. Burton.

    Chris – I don’t think your analogy works. As Joseph Smith makes clear in his Essay on Happiness, we’ve got a way of reconciling “thou shalt not kill” and divinely sanctioned murder. It would be more analogous if we were busy promoting “Thou shalt not kill” while at the same time discussing in Ward Council which community members needed sacrificing. This is also not a conservative vs. liberal issue. It’s a question internal to Mormonism, and one that becomes more and more conspicuous every year.

    Dave K. – this is a nice example of what I meant by “The model seems far less important than the genuine faith, real partnership at every level, and total commitment to family in each laudatory case.” And I think that you’re offering a model of how to do this institutionally. As to specific examples, I’ve blogged about some of my own family’s methods here:
    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/09/my-wifes-exercise-of-the-priesthood-in-our-home/

    Dave K. & Josh Smith – Yes, this is part of what I find so difficult to understand. There’s lots of imagination and creativity – lots of exploratory theology going on, particularly here in the bloggernacle (what would it look like if we did X? what logistical changes would have to be made in order to do Y? Each of these complimentarily bifurcated roles strike me as substantively equal…etc.). I don’t think we have either a conceptual or imaginatory barrier. It’s an important question, I think, to ask what the barrier is.

  10. Alison Moore Smith on March 3, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    James, your post reflects my thoughts on reading this so well. (1) Yea, a great article to point evangelicals mocking with “you think you’re going to be God!” (2) Holy cow, what DOES Heavenly Mother have to do with this, anyway?

    I think the solution — as with the modesty issue — is to come up with a truly coherent doctrine/policy position about it. In this case, Heavenly Mother needs to stop being an aberration, stop being shrouded in myth (“we don’t talk about her because she is sacred”), and we need to actually get some info on who she is and what she does.

    I don’t know if anyone with authority to do this sees the need.

  11. James Olsen on March 3, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    Alison – as soon as they extend the right to vote, I’ll cast mine in favor of more revelation on Heavenly Mother. I’m actually conservative on this issue, however – I don’t think we need any more revelation – we already have all the revelation and authoritative statements that we need. We just need to bring our discourse and practices into alignment with that revelation. I honestly can’t think of ANY revelation on God the Father that tells us substantively more than we have on God the Mother – we just make lots of logical leaps (of the kind you point to in your post) from what minimal revelation we have to what we say and practice. We could certainly do the same with Heavenly Mother, and without any new revelation. We could even effectively solve the problem with an official statement along the lines of “Elohim, our Heavenly Parents, have not chosen to reveal any specifics in terms of what they do respectively or what lessons we ought to draw as individuals based on what they do beyond the revelation that they are our Parents, working toward our salvation, and that as we draw closer to them the Spirit will guide us in how best to emulate them.” My point here as above is that we could do this, or something comparable. There are no visible barriers to doing so – conceptual, imaginary, or revelatory. I’m just not sure why we don’t.

  12. ji on March 3, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I regret that the article doesn’t name an author, and that the article supposes to define what all Latter-day Saints believe. Perhaps the article would have been less awkward if it was one person’s creation expressing one person’s views. Not only less awkward, but also more honest.

  13. Jared vdH on March 3, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    James, I suppose my response does rely on the supposition that women be ordained to the priesthood. We already have different ways in which men exercise the priesthood – not everyone can be a presiding authority – so ordaining women would provide a flexibility in rhetoric we don’t currently have.

    I don’t know if that’s ultimately where we’re going. Really in my post I wasn’t really thinking about church-based gender roles which the male-only priesthood reinforces. I was more thinking in the general at-home/daily-lives sort of gender roles. Whatever happens church structure-wise I have a feeling it’s going to take a strongly worded revelation to get things back on track. I also feel like before the Lord will give that strongly worded revelation, we’re going to have several years of prep time so we don’t lose a lot of the membership. Honestly, the sister missionaries are probably a part of that effort. Not only does it give women some of the experience of church leadership, but it also gives the general membership time to start getting more comfortable with larger roles for women in leadership.

  14. James Olsen on March 3, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Jared – You may be right. Sadly, the status quo is not neutral and we already have lost lots of members, including some of our best and brightest. We’ll continue losing them until we come to some sort of resolution. Whatever it looks like, we can hope your strongly worded revelation comes soon.

  15. annegb on March 3, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Life is awkward.

  16. Jared vdH on March 3, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I’m not saying the long-drawn-out method doesn’t have its costs. It most certainly does. However I also think the scriptures, the Book of Mormon specifically, makes room for the “faithful” to be both within and without the officially organized Church. While I wish we could make it more comfortable for some of those who have left, at the same time I don’t view them as strictly “lost” either.

    All I can say is that I’m grateful the Lord hasn’t put me in a situation where I have to make those decisions. I mean even Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela all had their detractors, and not all of those people were villains. Can you imagine the toll it must take on some of these leaders? To know that no matter what they say or how carefully they say it that there will always be someone that will be offended, rightfully or wrongfully? That no matter how well intentioned, your words may be instrumental in the destruction of someone’s faith and testimony, even if that faith and testimony were misplaced?

    I take solace in that all that I can do for now is try to make it better for those around me, and exert whatever influence I can to change that part of the church structure around me for the better.

  17. rah on March 4, 2014 at 6:30 am

    I think we just have to face the fact that change in the institutional church is harder than in families because the arrangements couples make don’t threaten basic entrenched institutional interests. Like you I see lots of families that enact equality in the home and many who frankly don’t. Sharing power and privilege is hard. It is harder the larger and more entrenched the institution.

    I think most signs point to the leadership resisting even seriously asking the question. The most recent example is Otterson’s quote in the NYT piece where he explicitly rules a change of doctrine off the table. So many members do the same. As long as we don’t even contemplate the possibility openly I don’t see how God could reveal changes to us. There isn’t a lot of precedent for that in history or scripture.

    At this point I would simply take restoring the historically given privileges to women as a first step. Let them bless their own children by placing their hands on the heads. Let them give blessings to one another in the temple. Give them autonomy in calling their own officers in the RS. Give the RS back financial and operational independence. However, that will require giving up control that is currently enjoyed. And that is a hard thing for anyone to do, much less an organization.

    For my part I wish we could just have an open and honest discussion about how you have a truly equal partnership in a one income household that begins with acknowledging that this is REALLY hard as economic dependence grows. Can it be done. I think so. But to assume it is so dangerous. My wife and I have a great relationship and yet the longer our marriage goes on and the economic dependence deepens the more we have to come up with new ways not to slide into inequality that tacitly seeps into our relationship. My prediction is that we will see steps toward institutional equality in the church in proportion to the number of households where the wife has more equal economic power in the home. Should it have to be that way? Not necessarily. But I will predict it will be that way.

  18. James Olsen on March 4, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    rah – Articulate and sobering thoughts. I especially relate this line: “My wife and I have a great relationship and yet the longer our marriage goes on and the economic dependence deepens the more we have to come up with new ways not to slide into inequality that tacitly seeps into our relationship.” In addition to the important point it is for all of our familial relationships, it’s an important point to think of given the dynamics created by our various callings.

  19. Hedgehog on March 5, 2014 at 3:28 am

    “think of given the dynamics created by our various callings”

    Yes, this. I found it very hard when my husband was serving on the bishopric and ordained a high priest. As did he, I guess. He was so busy, and the whole high priest thing seemed to go to his head for a while… Not in a consciously bad way, I don’t suppose, but I really had to assert myself to get us past what could have become a very unhealthy dynamic.

  20. Naismith on March 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

    The thing is, a divine Creator made us in two genders, with differences that should be recognized. I am not satisfied with a male-normative view of equality that merely enables women to do the same things as men (e.g., ordination) and declare that as egalitarian. It is not. The only way that method halfway works is if women decline parenthood, as has been encouraged by many feminists at least since Simon de Beauvoir.

    I would like to see an equality that respects the work of women as much as that of men. That sees staying at the chapel and preparing a luncheon for the bereaved family as equal to the priesthood function of going out and dedicating the grave.

    I think the church rhetoric does acknowledge that, but a few conferences ago when Elder Holland praised the contributions of women regarding quilts and funeral potatoes, it was slammed by some MoFem blogs.

    To what extent does lobbying for ordination for women rationalize misogyny from current leaders? Of course they don’t have to take us seriously unless we have priesthood. I think they need to take women seriously because we contribute just as much as they do. And in my part of the vineyard, women are very much respected and involved in the ways Neylan McBaine has discussed.

    And this does tie into the point that rah and James Olsen have made. Is a bishop greater than a primary teacher, dad higher than mom, or is is all servant leadership that is about having a tool and assignment to serve others, not wielding power for one’s own benefit? In my family, we have always seen my work (work, darn it!) as a mother and homemaker as equal to my husband’s contribution as a provider. The name on the paycheck is a mere detail. We handle all the money in a joint pot, and even though I have been earning a good salary for some years, that money is not “mine,” it does not give me any more power than when I was at home fulltime. My husband could not do the job he does without my support, so we are interdependent. My sister’s husband was a corporate vice president, who got his position over other candidates because of my sister’s skills as a social hostess and flexibility to fly down to the condo in Florida or hunting lodge in Wisconsin with clients. She was never actually paid a dime, but he couldn’t do it without her, so she never felt dependent either.

    The recent custom of referring to parents at home as “not working” only reinforces the notion that the parent at home should be seen as dependent, less. But I contributed a huge amount to our bottom line through money management, gardening, canning, butchering, sewing, mending, home repairs. A penny saved is two pennies earned because it is neither taxed nor tithed.

  21. Josh Smith on March 5, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Naismith (#20): Your argument is completely unpersuasive.

    First, please don’t read what follows as any way disparaging your family choices. I’m the last person on earth who gets an opinion about how other adults organize their affairs. Second, the leaders of the church have not called me for my advice on female ordination. … or anything else. Basically, I’m a grumpy guy in Idaho who wears flannels as often as possible.


    I would like to see an equality that respects the work of women as much as that of men. That sees staying at the chapel and preparing a luncheon for the bereaved family as equal to the priesthood function of going out and dedicating the grave.

    So, why shouldn’t a woman be able to either bless the grave or prepare the food, if she chooses? That is, you argue that women can gain more appreciation if more deference is paid to service-type roles. Agreed. But why can’t that egalitarian vision coexist in a world where women also receive opportunities in leadership-type roles? Your framework is unpersuasive.

    I think you can have your world where the work of women is respected just as much as men. I also think your world is more likely if that appreciation is bestowed by a female member of the twelve, rather than Holland.

    Again, please don’t read anything I’ve written as any way attacking your own family dynamics.

  22. Hedgehog on March 5, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Just to add, I don’t volunteer for kitchen duty at church. I hate it sufficiently not to want to be there outside of home, where I’ve more than had my fill by the end of the day. I will bake cup cakes if necessary, but that’s it.
    Also, our ward has had activities where the catering has been assigned to the EQ. And they did a great job. And I have assisted people moving, and helped tidy gardens. And I am great at shifting tables and setting out/ stacking chairs. But kitchen duty, no no no! I recognise the value, but really I’m done with the separation of what is women’s work and men’s work.

  23. Sarah Familia on March 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    #22 Hedgehog, I agree. The artificial gendered division of work is problematic at church. My husband is the primary caretaker for our children, and does most of the cooking at our house, yet I have to pass on opportunities to take a meal to a sick family secondhand. Similarly, it’s generally the Relief Society that is informed about anything to do with children, such as cancelling Activity Day Girls for the week (unfortunately a common occurrence in our ward). I finally added my husband to the Relief Society Facebook group so he could stay up-to-date on these sorts of things (the Bishop was already a member, so I figured that being female was a soft norm for inclusion).

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