Come as you are, so long as you’re a dude.

In keeping with the spirit of Jake’s post this Sunday, I wanted to add another perspective and expound on what may be happening behind the scenes.  In December, I published a post at By Common Consent, “Don’t Let’s Ask for the Moon.  We Have the Stars,” explaining why I didn’t participate in Ordain Women, although I agree that the sexist norms and rhetoric in the church need to be addressed.  As I said in that post:

“specific to the role of women in the church, I don’t see much reason to believe there will be significant progress.  I see baby steps and retrenchment; I don’t see evidence that women are truly being heard.”

I mentioned a lunch I had with one of the leaders of WAVE.  She and I talked about the limited place of women in the church as well as the fact that the majority of feminists who are also activists (people we know and respect) ultimately leave the church.  She felt that the church would ultimately have to address the exodus of women.  I, on the other hand, said at the time that I believe it’s more likely that some church leaders are glad when these women leave because they can be dismissed as apostate and they become less influential and less of an irritant.

The tolerance trap

In a 1993 address to CES, Boyd K. Packer labelled three enemies of the church:  homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals.  In light of the September Six excommunications, this talk seemed a clear articulation of the war being waged by the leadership of that time against these “apostate” groups.  From that address:

“Those who are hurting think they are not understood. They are looking for a champion, an advocate, someone with office and influence from whom they can receive comfort. They ask us to speak about their troubles in general conference, to put something in the curriculum, or to provide a special program to support them in their problems or with their activism. “When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected.”

The reasons given for not advocating for these “enemy groups” are three-fold:  1) they are considered exceptions, 2) they are viewed as less committed (the reference to a softening of the commandments), and 3) according to Pres. Packer, this is allowing those who should be acted upon to be the actors; rather than change coming through hierarchical channels, this is change coming through the rank and file.  He specifically mentions the “line” they as the Church Education System are assigned to protect; however, his subsequent examples and description refer to upholding the historical stance of statements made by preceding prophets, not an open ongoing revelatory process that subjects the church to change through divine revelation.  I encourage you to read his address (which I’ve linked above) to see what other insights you glean. I couldn’t help but notice that the first two assertions are the same ones traditionally used to defend white male privilege in corporate America:  1) there aren’t as many women, so a male privileged environment isn’t a problem – women (as the exceptions, the minority in the workplace) should learn to adapt, and 2) women are less qualified than men (also trotted out as the argument against Affirmative Action) or if they weren’t, sure we’d let them in.  All three of the beliefs given in the address are somewhat self-fulfilling, but not otherwise inherently correct.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

They are exceptions.

Those lost sheep who seek change, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This is the core argument Bro. Jake is making, although with a hint of bitterness [1].  From his post:  “We are an unbelievably small minority in the Church, and our views/beliefs will never, ever be institutionally recognized or accepted.”   In fact, the church has likewise repeatedly marginalized advocates for change with similar claims of their minority status, seemingly unnecessary given that we don’t get a vote anyway (remember, change is top down only!).  Pres. Hinckley did when he claimed our women aren’t agitating for the Priesthood (ironically inceptioning the women of the church to agitate for it).  Even when agitation was used to ask that women be admitted to the Priesthood session, Ruth Todd (church’s PR spokesperson) stated that the women who wanted to attend the Priesthood session were in the minority:  “In a statement to reporters, Todd noted that millions of Mormon women do not share the views of those who want ordination.”  To marginalize people, it’s clearly important to keep them on the fringe. It’s impossible to argue that the majority of people at church read the Bloggernacle [2] or have given these issues as much thought as those who regularly read and write about them.  But that is far from saying that the majority are across-the-board content.  There are many changes church members would welcome.  Without these changes, they may or may not leave, but the same can be said for activists.  Here are just a few changes that most TBMs would welcome:  better financial disclosure, more humanitarian giving, shorter meetings, better church  manuals, more open disavowal of polygamy, a less strident stance on gay marriage (this one is happening, little by little anyway, because people don’t want to be seen as bigots or homophobes), equal treatment (and budgeting) for our YW and YM, less objectification of women through modesty standards, more female voices on councils and in meetings, less politically-driven arguments and lessons, less of a check-the-box culture, fewer talks on obedience and changes to garment design.  These are issues I hear routinely from active LDS church members, stated openly in our meetings, not hobby horse topics of the bloggernacle. Going back to the address by Pres. Packer, even if we just look at the three groups described, homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals, these are increasing in number as time goes by, particularly if you remember that it’s not just those individuals but also their allies, their friends and family members who support them.  That’s a much bigger group already, and as gay rights and equal opportunity for women become expected norms that are a natural part of people’s lived experience, these numbers are only growing.

They are less committed.

This one is at least partly a chicken and egg argument, like saying people who leave wanted to sin because after they leave they no longer follow Mormon behavior codes.  Obviously if you quit the Mormon church you might drink coffee, but people aren’t leaving just because there’s a new neighborhood Starbucks that was too tempting. This belief is aimed partly at homosexuals whose sexual orientation comes pre-loaded with lifelong celibacy or lifelong sin as the two unpalatable alternatives.  Setting that problem aside, though, intellectuals are usually the ones seen as less committed; these are well-informed people who aren’t content with white-washed history or with inadequate rationale for our actions as a group or our behavior codes.  When something doesn’t make sense, these are the folks who research it and point it out, and that knowledge certainly can decrease commitment to things that lack a valid rationale. And of course, it begs the question, committed to what?  Those who seek improvements are obviously less committed to the way things are, and our human nature makes it difficult to disentangle cultural assumptions from universal truths.  Additionally, those who oppose change are usually the ones with unexamined privilege under the status quo:  those whose families or choices fit the “ideal,” those in leadership positions, those with pioneer heritage, the wealthy, heterosexuals, and of course, white male Americans.

Whether you want it to or not.

Change is a one-way street.

This has been demonstrated repeatedly to be untrue.  When changes are made, they almost always follow societal norms changing, and we employ one or more of the following strategies:  1) ret-conning the past, proof-texting leader statements aligned with the change while burying those that don’t align, or most recently coming as close as we dare to disavowing statements made by previous leaders with regard to the revoked priesthood ban, 2) celebrating the change as evidence of ongoing revelation, 3) placing changes in historical time-bound context as opposed to a “God is the same today, tomorrow, and forever” context, 4) downgrading concepts from “doctrine” to “policy.” I have often observed that there are some in the church focused on creating purity among the membership, purging out those in the fringes through ostracism or judgment.  There are others who have a “big tent” philosophy and are more missionary-minded, wanting to appeal to as many as possible, to welcome all to Christ, to sit at the table with the sinners.  I see these as two of the three missions of the church:  perfecting the saints, and preaching the gospel.  While they don’t have to be at odds, they often are.  Certainly, they create a natural tension between two extremes. A recent article in the Washington Post called “Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard” illustrated this tension:

“Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult. . . “Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity’s brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live. Instead, we celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry. We fight against the very transformation that God seeks.”

Likewise, the members are the spouse of the church. We are there by choice. Our opinions should matter.

Mr. Ehrich (the author) is simply pointing out a common pitfall experienced in Christian faiths.  We owe activists a debt of gratitude for their courageous overreaching which expands the Overton window and opens the rational discussion of previously taboo subjects:

The Overton window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable. Other formulations . . . add the concept of moving the window, such as deliberately promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas, with the intention of making the current fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. [wikipedia]

Here’s my advice to those seeking change, and it comes straight from Pres. Packer’s address:

  1. Critical mass is needed.  There’s a tipping point at which change is inevitable.  If you are seeking for “exceptional” changes, I agree with Jake and Pres. Packer that those one-off changes aren’t going to happen.  Let’s face facts; the 99 are more important than the 1 in the institutional church, especially since the “1” is often cold, hungry, and lost.  The hunting ground for critical mass is always the same:  those directly affected, their allies (friends and relatives), intellectuals & experts, and lastly, social pressure (it has to be more painful to be on the other side of the argument).
  2. Toe the line.  This is a super tough one, but I’ll put it as simply as I can.  To be an insider critic, you have to be on the inside. Firmly.  You have to (for the most part) pay tithing, attend church, give talks, follow the Word of Wisdom, hold a temple recommend, fulfill your callings.  The more of these things you continue to do, the more church cred you have.  Drop the ball, and you’re out.  I’ll still listen to you, but nobody cares what I think anyway. [3]
  3. Allow for face-saving in the change process.  One of the ingenious parts of the Ordain Women movement is that they are asking for leaders to seek revelation on this topic, not making the case that it should change because the church is headed by a backwards-thinking, mired-in-the-past gerontocracy and they (Ordain Women) know better.  Even the most believing members do not consider everything the church says and does to be 100% inspired of God.  There’s plenty of wiggle room in there for change.  But here’s the rub:  you can’t ask for change, then claim the church isn’t inspired when the change you sought happens.  That’s just bad manners.

Given these parameters, the path forward to those who desire change, at least from the perspective of those who are hardliners, sounds a lot like the dilemma posed to homosexuals:  live a joyless life of self-denial or a profligate life cast off from the body of saints. Good thing most people aren’t hardliners. [4] What do you think?

  • Are the three groups (homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals) a danger to the church or are these strawman enemies?  Can the church find a way to survive with the gospel intact and be compatible with the needs of these groups?
  • What changes are at or near critical mass, ready for a change?
  • Is it more effective for agitation to come from committed members or for those people to leave en masse for their issues to be addressed?  Which group is more easily dismissed and ignored (existing members or those who have left)?  At which point is change that addresses their interests more likely to increase our membership numbers?  Is it too late if they’ve already left the church?
  • How does the church protect its image and ability to compel people to live the gospel when it acknowledges flaws and makes improvements?  Are the flaws the bigger issue or the unwillingness or slowness to change?

Discuss.

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[1] one I share at times, I hasten to add.

[2] although I’m continually surprised at how many people do read the blogs, quote them in talks, and recognize authors around the church.  It’s not as “fringe” as you might think.  Also bear in mind that the address by Pres. Packer was written before the internet.  Since then, anyone teaching a class who even attempts to magnify his or her calling and has a modicum of curiosity (beyond lds.org) is likely to stumble across LDS blogs.

[3] This isn’t to say that attrition doesn’t have a voice; it does matter if a critical mass vote with their feet and tithing dollars by leaving the church.  It’s just a voice that those who are most privileged insiders will have difficulty hearing and understanding.  Additionally, people leave for so many different reasons that it’s difficult to be distinguished among all those other reasons. And lastly, once you leave the church, your desire to change the church often changes.  It’s like being fed up with American politics to the point that you move to Canada; you’ll be too busy enjoying all the free health care and clean air to worry about Congress.  Or maybe you’ll be distracted by the frozen tundra and higher tax rate.

[4] I still believe that the most impactful aspect of our church experience is at the local ward level.  I’ve been fortunate to live in wards where people are generally open minded and not afraid of change.  Not all have been so fortunate.