A Response to Neylan McBaine’s “Elder Christofferson And Moral Authority”

Posted by on October 9, 2013 in authority, feminism | 14 comments

In her response to Elder Christofferson’s Saturday morning talk from the recent General Conference, Neylan McBaine begins by saying she’s aware of the reasons she’s not supposed to like the talk, but nevertheless it worked for her in both tone and content.  While it’s not for me to question the “warmth and authenticity” she felt through the talk, for me his approach was more condescending than warm.  When men in positions of authority speak about how women fit into the big picture of society, and of their place in the context of church and family, they take the position of someone with a view larger in scope than the women they refer to.  This point of view is inherently condescending.  Perhaps that is not necessarily bad, but it should come with an acknowledgement of the speaker’s lack of experience as a woman, and that was missing.  Obviously Elder Christofferson has not lived life as a woman, but it becomes necessary to state the obvious in talks like his because of his taking the position of an authority on being female and of having inside knowledge of women’s internal worlds with respect to their moral authority.  It is an affront to women to do this without any admission of his particular view as a man.

Neylan wrote that the term “moral authority” is a fresh description of women’s role in society, church, and family.  But as my co-blogger Em pointed out, the term is not fresh but in fact quite old.  In the nineteenth century women were said not to need the vote because they had moral authority and that was enough.  It was the topic of conduct manuals, essays, and private correspondence, with the consensus being that tangible authority was unnecessary and unseemly when women’s moral authority could be manifested in private.  Neylan is not wrong that Elder Christofferson’s use of the term is novel to modern Mormon discourse.  But in my view his talk harkened back more to the private moral authority of the past than toward a new gender paradigm.

This is a separate discussion, and I’m interested in learning more about what Neylan means by a purpose struggle, but in my view Mormon women do not lack purpose.  Mormon men can check the boxes of passing the sacrament, giving blessings, and attending bishopric meetings and Mormon women can check the boxes of doing visiting teaching, fulfilling their callings, and attending Sacrament meetings.  What the outlets for women’s spiritual growth lack is not delineation, it is scope.  What women lack is not purpose, it is authority.

While Elder Christofferson did not explicitly make this comparison himself, Neylan sees a parallel between “moral authority” and priesthood authority.  She calls it semantic parity, with an administrative (priesthood) authority paired with a ministerial (moral) authority.  I completely agree with her that the way we talk about things matters, but only if the words we use refer to real life.  And the reality is that no holds were lifted in this season of General Conference that would give new ministerial authority to women.  The comparison Christofferson did make came at the end of his message when he fleetingly referred to the moral authority of men.  He did not expand on it, but said that men should cultivate their own “companion moral authority.”  He did not offer any explanation on what women’s counterpart to priesthood might be.

I agree with Neylan that “moral authority” is an improvement over the word “nurture,” which as she says has the disadvantage of sounding like a personality characteristic that not all women have.  In addition, Neylan writes that “Women as nurturers is hard to disentangle from women as mothers, which is of course a vital identity for many of us, but may not satisfy the search for purpose by our single or childless sisters.”  Again, I agree that the term moral authority is less limiting in that it can encompass areas outside the home and outside of mothering.  However, this rhetorical subtlety is almost surely going to be missed by many people who hear Elder Christofferson’s talk.  I think Neylan is expecting too much when she says women can be expected to re-frame their role in the Church based on Christofferson’s use of the term “moral authority” in place of “nurture.”  Especially when Christofferson offered no real explanation of what “moral authority” means.  In addition, it is a significant leap to go from hearing the words “moral authority” to carving out new outlets for ministerial work, and to put the onus on women for making that leap is, I think, unreasonable and unfair.  There is a big difference between saying something is not forbidden and giving the support and resources needed to make that thing possible.  Finally, Neylan mentioned administrative and ministerial work the Relief Society performed in the past, specifically grain management, training midwives, and managing welfare.  As April wrote in a recent post, these are things that were removed from the ministry of women by priesthood leaders!  How do women claim new outlets of ministry when priesthood authority always has the final say?

But the biggest problem with Elder Christofferson’s talk is that it is a rhetorical shift, and nothing more.  Moral authority is merely a new color of wrapping paper in place of the pale hue of nurture we are used to seeing on the package of womanhood.  And that, in my view, is nothing to celebrate.

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14 Comments

  1. When I heard Neylan speak on a panel at Sunstone I was disappointed at what I felt were her apologist tactics regarding women in the church. She said that women have a crisis of purpose in the church. It felt wrong to me. We are all exhausted! We need to be heard, to see our Heavenly Mother, to be seen ourselves, to really be valued.
    But, just because I thought that I might be so far out of touch with the middle-road and more conservative Mormons, I used her “women need purpose” line with my stake president last week as I described ways some people think women struggle in the church. He didn’t buy it either.

    In some ways I’m grateful to Neylan and others like her. They are creating a place for dialogue, where people who aren’t as progressive, who don’t identify as feminist can still express desire for change in the LDS church.

    In other ways, I’m really at a loss. Women as Moral Authority? I’m baffled. Emily, you’ve done a great job at pointing out the dangers of this argument, and it’s questionable historical underpinnings.

    I really liked this part, ” In addition, it is a significant leap to go from hearing the words “moral authority” to carving out new outlets for ministerial work, and to put the onus on women for making that leap is, I think, unreasonable and unfair. There is a big difference between saying something is not forbidden and giving the support and resources needed to make that thing possible.”

    Bingo.

    • I’m fascinated to hear the lack of purpose idea didn’t resonate with your Stake President, either. I’m like you, I appreciate what Neylan is doing in many ways. Ultimately I think we want the same things. But I just cannot go along with the idea of women’s moral authority standing in for *real* authority.

  2. This is a really brilliant response, EmilyU. For me this paragraph in particular gets at the heart of the problem I have both with Christofferson’s talk and Neylan’s response:

    “Neylan wrote that the term “moral authority” is a fresh description of women’s role in society, church, and family. But as my co-blogger Em pointed out, the term is not fresh but in fact quite old. In the nineteenth century women were said not to need the vote because they had moral authority and that was enough. It was the topic of conduct manuals, essays, and private correspondence, with the consensus being that tangible authority was unnecessary and unseemly when women’s moral authority could be manifested in private. Neylan is not wrong that Elder Christofferson’s use of the term is novel to modern Mormon discourse. But in my view his talk harkened back more to the private moral authority of the past than toward a new gender paradigm.”

    “Moral authority” without any way to practically implement that authority isn’t authority at all.

  3. I LOVE this line, Emily. Thanks for this terrific post.

    “What the outlets for women’s spiritual growth lack is not delineation, it is scope. What women lack is not purpose, it is authority.”

    • Amen!

    • And Amen!

  4. I know feelings and opinions are all over the map on this subject, but I find it ironic to use suffrage as an example of evil patriarchy when Utah was the first state to grant women the right to vote. Another example may be more fitting.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, Emily, but I believe the point is this: the idea of women’s moral authority has been used to constrain women. It was used in the past to argue against suffrage, and it is used today in the church to argue against women’s institutional power. Yes, it’s great that Mormons in the 19th century saw past the moral authority argument and instituted women’s suffrage. But that doesn’t mean that ideas about women’s moral authority aren’t being used today by Church leaders and members to constrain women in different ways.

      • Yes, exactly. Thank you Caroline!

    • Utah didn’t become a State until 1896.
      New Jersey following the trend became the last state to take away women’s suffrage in 1807.
      The Wyoming territory reversed this trend in 1869 and allowed women to vote in all territory elections and the right to hold public office.
      Utah, seeing Wyoming’s example, soon followed with allowing women the right to vote.
      Public office must of been a guy thing.

    • Sorry, Eric, but I believe the analogy still holds. Utah territory women got the vote decades before it became a state (pre-federal period), predominately so they could vote against anti-polygamy legislation along with their husbands.

  5. Wow! What a well-crafted response. And I love all the comments here.

    I enjoyed reading Neylan’s blog post. It helped me understand her (and perhaps other people’s) perspective and in this way, gave me a window into the mind and heart of some of my LDS sisters. I must say, I felt the same sort of discomfort with her reasoning as you did, but I was unable to articulate precisely why that was. You’ve done it beautifully for me. Thank you, Emily.

  6. ” I completely agree with her that the way we talk about things matters, but only if the words we use refer to real life.”

    I’m sorry, but this made me *laugh*! This is such a good point, and so well put. (Tangentially, it kind of reminds me of how people sometimes respond to Valerie Hudson’s writings. She has interesting theories about the Church, but they seem completely out of touch with how it’s actually run.)

    • Amen, Ziff.

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