I decided to do an experiment: if you ran through all the explanations for why the structure of Mormonism isn’t sexist back to back, how long would it take before you completely contradicted yourself?
Turns out about 30 seconds.
For all we try and magnify the positive and downplay the negative, the fact of the matter is that the Mormon doctrine of priesthood structure is blatantly sexist. You can’t really get around it—believe me, I’ve tried. But at the end of the day, I’m part of an organization that systematically discriminates people of a certain gender from holding positions of influence above a certain point in its hierarchy.
That’s it. Game over. Sexist.
Now, people can choose how to respond to this fact. Denying or ignoring the issue is common, and honestly, I don’t blame anybody for going that route—many people have deep, powerful spiritual ties to the Church. They’ve experienced life-changing hope and nourishment from its teachings, and the idea that the organization that brought them so much joy is also sexist is repulsive, so they turn a blind eye to a troublesome fact. But for others, the issue is something of a deal breaker. I include a wide spectrum of responses under this umbrella, from those that distance themselves from the church altogether over this issue to those that ask what many see as “uncomfortable questions” about it in Sunday school. The thing these people have in common is that the issue of systemic sexism is something they cannot be actively or passively complicit with. It conflicts with their perception of the basic tenants of morality and compels them to act—so they speak, they question, and in many cases, they call for change. This can’t really be what God means. This is a cultural bias projected on the Church structure. We can weed out the human error eventually.
Over the past few years, I’ve transitioned from the first to the second group, and I have met like-minded people. The more we have talked, the more I have become aware of one common element in our experience: when something about Church policy conflicted with what we felt deep down was right, we tended to detach ourselves from either the orthodox Mormon view of God, or the idea of God altogether. And truthfully, I don’t find that reaction surprising in the least; after all, how can one believe in and worship a God whose value system and moral compass differ so wildly from his or her own?
The encouraging thing is that the scriptures provide enough rays of hope to allow for the possibility of a more equality-oriented, socially conscious God than that depicted in orthodox Mormonism. We can hope for the God embodied in Christ, who valued women highly during his ministry and first appeared to women after his resurrection.[i] We can hope for the God who called Emma to be an ordained spiritual instructor to the early church.[ii] We can hope for the God that finally, finally allowed a woman to pray in General Conference.
But lately, a terrifying thought has been slowly growing in the back of my mind: what if the Boyd K. Packers of the world are right? What if God exists AND He’s a jerk? What if, for all our social evolution and striving for a kinder, gentler, more equal world, He gets here and chews out women for speaking publicly? Or working outside the home? Or not submitting to their husbands?
What if all the worst interpretations of God’s motives and actions in the scriptures are the most accurate, and in reality He ends up being the God who killed a guy who was just trying to protect the Ark,[iii] or the God who fired Saul for not following through on genocide,[iv] or the God who manipulatively badgered Emma for her complicity in polygamy?[v] What if God ends up being more Javert and less Valjean after all?
Perish the thought.
In the meantime, I’ll just make my little videos.