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