Friday, May 2, 2014

Does Mormon Feminsm Hurt the LDS Church?

There was quite a popular post that made the rounds of the Internets lately, one called "Ordain Women: thanks for nothing" on Millennial Star, a conservative thought bastion of the Bloggernacle.  There is a wide divide of understanding of what people think OW is doing, and what they are actually doing, I don't want to focus on her misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of them, but of this quote:
However, what the OW have done is take their cause to the Court of Public Opinion. Innumerable news outlets have covered the story, painting a picture of courageous, marginalized women finally standing up against centuries of oppression from a religious institution bent on discrimination.
Essentially, dragging my beloved Church through the muck of spin and sophistry.  Some of the headlines are truly nauseating to me “LDS Church says Hugs and Heart-felt Conversations ‘Divisive’” “Mormons Exclude Women from All-Male Meeting” and endless articles more. If you choose to violate the useful maxim “Don’t Read the Comments” you will find hundreds of folks chiming in to damn the Mormon church, Christianity and all religions and belief systems of every kind. 
Allow me to pose a few questions. When a group decides to take an issue to the media, exposing it to scorn, ridicule and hatred, does it increase interest in the Church or decrease it? Will the media coverage inspire individuals seeking for the truth to look at the Church? Or to turn away in disgust?
I submit that the actions of OW and its subsequent media attention will make it more difficult to overcome the wave of anti-religious sentiment that is sweeping our society, that it will inhibit the work of the Lord and the work of missionaries. In this way, it is contrary to building the Kingdom of God. 
Who stands to benefit from the clamor and calumny that result from OW? I’m going to go ahead and say it, Satan. Yeah, I’m sure that he is reveling in the disruption to the work of the Lord because of the methods of the OW movement. And in the resulting contention and war of words between church members because of it.
I have no doubt that Satan is behind the contention and hateful things being said about each other within the Church in this situation (both sides are guilty of a lack of Christlike, empathetic understanding - don't even get me started about the 'they are stoning my prophets' accusation . . . gag).  I do take issue that she represents the troll-hating comments on the internet as representative of the responses of people to the article.  Most people who are open-minded, thoughtful, interested people (1) don't comment (2) don't read troll-hate comments (3) if they do, they see them for what they are, hateful trolls who don't add value to a discussion.  That's just a part of the Internet, no matter what topic. 

I want to take issue with her assertion that public Mormon feminism hurts the Church.  Have you ever heard of the adage, "There's no such thing as bad press?"  First, let's examine another somewhat derogatory, very public Mormon spectacle at the moment:  The Book of Mormon Musical.  What has been the Church's response?  Advertising and using it as a conversion tool.  It's worked, we've had converts from people going to see TBoM Musical.  Second, has every single public coverage been nasty and negative?  I thought a lot of it was rather thoughtful and nuanced, even if it didn't favor the "traditional" viewpoint held by most members of the Church.  Especially the recent front-page NYT article about the growing role for Mormon women.  Seriously, you guys, you can't buy that kind of ad-space.

So why do I think all of the movements of public Mormon feminism isn't hurting the Church, but might actually help?  Well,  The SL Tribune recently ran an article about why did the nearly doubling of our missionary force numbers only produce a 4% increase in converts?  There are a variety of reasons, I'm sure.  One thing that stuck out to me was when I saw this tweet on Twitter.  I follow Neylan McBaine, an executive at Bonneville Communications and one of the brain-childs behind the "I'm a Mormon" campaign.  She also founded the Mormon Women Project.  I don't think she'd label herself a Mormon Feminist, but I love and respect her voice and the work she is doing to lift Mormon women's profile at the grassroots level.  She's amazing.  Back to the point, she retweeted this, which I think is telling, since she's basically one of the people over branding for the Mormon church.

I'm going to make a few assumptions here, but I don't think I'm going very far out on a limb.  I'd say that most non-Mormons closely associate the LDS church with socially conservative politics/the anti-gay marriage movement (prop 8), republicanism (Mitt Romney), polygamy (images of Big Love come to mind), conformity (white shirted missionaries all look the same, stepford wives), and the corporatization and $ the church holds (spent more $ building a shopping mall than on humanitarian efforts).

And what could change people's stereotype perceptions of what a Mormon is, or what a Mormon has to be, than an article about how Mormon women wore pants to church? What if a woman is looking for a Church to join and wants to make sure she'll find one that will welcome her wearing pants?  But she's always thought Mormonism was part of the right-wing Christian political movement?  Maybe she'll take a second look because after reading that article she thinks she might be welcome there, that she might have been wrong about what Mormonism is.  Perhaps changing people's ideas of what a Mormon is needs to happen before they'll let Missionaries in and listen to what they have to say.  That, I think, may actually spread the Gospel.  But not the articles about how they received death threats.   Above the author says, "media attention will make it more difficult to overcome the wave of anti-religious sentiment that is sweeping our society, that it will inhibit the work of the Lord and the work of missionaries."  I think one of the things fueling the anti-religious sentiment in our society is the awful, un-Christlike things said and done in the name of religion.  Maybe the hostility to different opinions on doctrine and perceptions of how to view the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what is hurting the message. In fact I find it telling that the people in charge of the 'I am a Mormon' campaign purposefully present as many of diverse and non-conformist profiles as possible. 

I haven't shared this publicly before, but I was interviewed by a freelance journalist who was doing an article on the complexity of Mormon feminism.  It's not an article about Mormonism, it doesn't want to teach you about our beliefs or doctrines or preach to you or convert you.  Originally The Atlantic planned to publish it and they dropped it in favor of a more controversial MoFem story - the journalist shopped around until he found a publishing space.  It turns out The Toast, a very secular feminist website, agreed to publish it here: "Like Wearing Pants to Church".  I didn't share it before because right next to my article was one on transgender issues - and that most people I know will NOT be comfortable on this website and the things they say or discuss.  If you do choose to go read it, I want to ask you to then read the comments and hear what secular humanist feminists have to say about how it changed their stereotype of religious or Mormons.  This is a good thing, I think.   Is there only one way to be a good Mormon?  We're supposed to spread the Gospel to all the world, but are we going to screen out all progressives, feminists, etc. because they won't be welcome here?  Do we really want to put ourselves into this situation? 

This is one of the reasons I have not joined the Facebook Group "Mormon Women Stand."  Like Lisa Downing, a conservative convert to the Mormon Church living in Texas, in a post about her conversion  on her blog "Life Outside the Book of Mormon Belt":
A new Facebook page, Mormon Women Stand, has gained broad appeal and describes itself as a group of “LDS Women who, without hesitation, sustain the Lord’s Prophet, the Family Proclamation as doctrine and our divine role as covenant women for Christ.” In the Guidelines on Discussion and Tone, we find, “Discussions focused on questioning, debating, and doubting gospel principles do little to build the kingdom of God.” The passage then states: “With this in mind, anything contentious, contrary to or criticizing the teachings, doctrines or leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on this page will not be welcome.”
I’m not sure how to react to this. If this group holds strictly to this platform, I, as a teenage investigator, would have had no place there. I (and my comments) would’ve been rejected for the very doubts, criticisms, and questions that lead to my testimony.  In fact, I don’t think I’m welcomed there now. I continue to have questions–real doubts about some things. Yet, I don’t feel my questions call into question my devotion to the Lord, my commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or my willingness to sustain the current president and prophet.
There are a lot of men and women who feel alone, ostracized, and so afraid to share their thoughts.  Because it's not kosher for people to talk about questions or doubts, even how those lead to increased faith . . . there are many in our culture who need understanding so they don't feel they have to leave.  There really is a cultural belief that you are not a good Mormon if you have doubts or questions.  I know because consistently, several times per month, I get notes, messages, comments, or emails from people I have or haven't met thanking me for sharing.  For being a voice to throughts that they are terrified to say, because they see the reaction and abuse that members get who do share.  There are members of OW that receive the same types of notes.  Here is one note I received yesterday.
 I just wanted to tell you thanks for... all you post on Facebook and your blog. It's hard to find people who have similar views and even more difficult to find those who will share them. I think you are articulate, well reasoned, and brave. So thanks. You've helped me more than you realize.
You have fellow saints around you living in fear, and it's not healthy.  It needs to be acceptable for people to say, "I don't know.  I don't know if that's true but I'm studying it out and pondering it in my mind.  I'm going to give myself room to think/study/ponder/pray about this topic/quote/subject."

Many of these doubts and questions concern our doctrines, practices, and history or past.  I think anytime I'm presented with a perfectly clean history or hero (or even Church organization), a little bit of scrubbing has been done.  One thing that may have been stumbling block was that a some non-Mormons knew more historical facts about the Mormon church and Joseph Smith than a lot of Mormons.  For example, Joseph translating part of the Book of Mormon by putting his head in a hat and looking at a seer stone.  It's a historical fact, and the Church has been wont to publicize anything it doesn't think will build faith - recently it's been taking steps towards transparency, even acknowledging work with the seer stone in a series of essays it's been publishing to make our history more transparent (The essays include the Book of Mormon TranslationMultiple Accounts of the First VisionRace and the Priesthood, Polygamy, DNA Studies, and the refutation that we believe we'll Become Like God and get our own planets).  I mean, they're not having bishops read the essays from the pulpit (I wish) but at least publishing them is a step.  Yay for steps.  This could actually be a step towards retention and new conversion!

In conclusion, I want everyone to get rid of the notion that the only thing good for the Church is to only have one perfect, conformist, foot forward.  The story of the bible is rife with imperfect humans and prophets and their story of their attempting to communicate with God and rise above this world.  You guys, the Bible is a mess!  We find ourselves in their weaknesses, and we know if they can do it, we can too.  Anytime you want to accuse Mormon feminists of being divisive and hurting the Church, I want you to remember the quote I shared from Rachel Held Evans on my own blog post about On Being Divisive and Becoming One:
I suspect Paul combined this call for the Body’s unity with an acknowledgement of the Body’s diversity because he knew that unity isn’t the same as uniformity.
We’re not called to be alike; we’re called to love.
We’re not called to agree; we’re called to love.
We’re not even called to get along all the time; we’re called to love each other as brothers and sisters, as people united in one baptism, one communion, one adoption.
Maybe we need these differences to be animated, to be alive, to mature. Maybe friction isn’t a sign of decay, but of growth.
The world is certainly watching. But this doesn't mean we hide our dirty laundry, slap on mechanical smiles, and gloss over all the injustices and abuses, conflicts and disagreements, diversity and denominationalism present within the Church;  it means we expose them. It means we talk about them boldly and with integrity, with passion and with love. I suspect that talking about our differences is better for our witness than suppressing them, and I'm sure that exposing corruption and abuse is better for our witness than hiding them.
And when it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?"