The Mormon War on Feminism

The Mormon War on Feminism
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Every spring and fall, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds a General Conference, which consists of four, 2-hour meetings for the general membership around the world. Those who can't attend in person tune in via satellite or online. There is also a male-only priesthood session and a combined meeting for women and girls.

Last year the feminist Mormon group Ordain Women conducted a quiet but public demonstration when they gathered 200 volunteers to formally request admittance to the priesthood session. They were barred from entrance, but the demonstration attracted publicity both before and after the event and was hailed as a success by Ordain Women.

Since that time, the prominence of Ordain Women has grown, including mentions in the New York Times. Perhaps that explains why the Church decided to take a more proactive approach in response to Ordain Women's plan to repeat its demonstration at the upcoming April 5th priesthood session. This approach has already rekindled the debate.

The first notable thing about the Church's letter is that it was authored by a woman, Jessica Moody, who works for the Public Affairs Department. In one sense, this avoids the appearance of men putting women in their place. On the other hand, an employee in the Public Affairs Department (man or woman) is certainly not the most authoritative voice on matters of doctrine.

And yet the letter asserts that "Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine." In Mormonism doctrine is thought of as permanent in contrast to policy, which is transitory. The dichotomy stirs echoes of the racial priesthood ban that was ended in 1978. During the time in which it was effect, leaders often asserted that it, too, was a matter of doctrine. Despite the fact that the policy could never be traced to any canonized revelation, it took a canonized revelation to end it. This historical precedent means that debate over female ordination will likely continue at least until a new, canonized revelation addresses the topic explicitly.

That day may need to come a little sooner, thanks to the most controversial statement in the letter:

Your organization [Ordain Women] has again publicized its intention to demonstrate on Temple Square during the April 5th priesthood session. Activist events like this detract from the sacred environment of Temple Square and the spirit of harmony sought at General Conference. Please reconsider. If you feel you must come to demonstrate, we ask that you do so in free speech zones adjacent to Temple Square, which have been established for those wishing to voice differing viewpoints.

Members of Ordain Women and its sympathizers reacted to this demand with hurt and anger. Kate Kelly, who founded Ordain Women, told the Salt Lake Tribune "We have nothing in common with those people [referring to other demonstrators in the free speech zone]. They are seeking to destroy the church. We are not against the church -- we ARE the church." Jana Riess, another prominent Mormon feminist, wrote on her blog:

There is something deeply symbolic about yesterday's statement, for it reveals what the Church apparently thinks of the feminists within its fold. We, as faithful and active members of the Church, are being lumped together with the same anti-Mormon protestors who routinely crash General Conference and shout that the Mormon religion is of the devil. These protestors have started fistfights with conference-goers and even stomped on or burned temple garments.

There is no doubt that lumping Ordain Women with anti-Mormon protesters has added fuel to this fire, and some observers believe this will be good for the movement. Mormon historian and cultural commentator Kristine Haglund has not weighed in on the merits of the debate, but she told journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack that the letter was a "PR disaster for the church," adding: "Goliath is never going to get better press than David -- the optics are terrible."

But the heightened attention to Ordain Women may come with dangers as well, however. The movement is relatively new (it was founded in 2013) and therefore there are still many questions within the Mormon community about what the group stands for. Its website projects a very Mormon-compatible and faith-friendly tone and, as the most prominent group advocating for changes to the status quo. So far, many Mormons have come to view them as the rallying point for all anyone who feels that changes need to be made when it comes to the role of women in Mormonism.

But Ordain Women is committed to a very narrow and uncompromising vision for how to address the shortcomings that everyone, including the Public Affairs Department, admits need to be addressed. Speaking to the New York Times, Kelly said "There is no amount of incremental change, and no amount of additional concessions that the church can make to extend an olive branch to women without changing that fundamental inequality."

And even on its generally Mormon-friendly official website, Ordain Women believes "women must be ordained in order for our faith to reflect the equity and expansiveness of these teachings." Ordain Women occasionally takes a more combative tone, like this swipe at the Proclamation on the family, calling it "an antiquated and unequal model in both the domestic and ecclesiastical realms."

The Proclamation has not been canonized, but the 1994 document is a cherished document for many conservative Mormons. It can be found framed and hanging in church meetinghouses and homes throughout the Church.

This is not to say that some Mormons aren't dissatisfied with the current role women have in the Mormon faith and culture -- they are. But most are skeptical that female ordination into the existing male-only priesthood orders would be the best solution. To the extent that Ordain Women remains totally inflexible on this point, they risk losing its current position as a standard bearer for reform.

Moody's letter may be capitalizing on that perceived weakness. By admitting that additional changes need to be made, Public Affairs may be trying to co-opt one source of Ordain Women's popularity. Associating Ordain Women with anti-Mormon protesters may be an attempt to isolate Ordain Women from more moderate sympathizers.

It's a risky approach from such a conservative institution, and only time will tell how it plays out.

Nathaniel Givens operates a blog, Difficult Run.

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