Equal in Faith: Salt Lake City

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On Monday I fasted. I fasted for the first time in years. It was completely different than I remember. I remember fasting being about food, about missing food, wanting food and taking a long Sunday nap until I could eat food again. Occasionally, we would fast for something: an illness, fire, job or tragedy. During these times I really did want to comfort the people in need. I thought about them while I fasted….for about 3 minutes before I broke my fast. This Monday’s fast was very different. It was a fast on National Equality Day for the purpose of religious gender equality around the world in collaboration with thousands of women and men of all faiths.

All day I thought about this issue. When my stomach growled in the morning I thought about all of those people around the world that go hungry and thought, “Maybe if women were in charge of religions that number would decrease.” Around noon, on my way to teaching my class, I was thirsty. I saw a water fountain and wanted a drink so badly. This made me think about how few people in the world have access to clean water. I reflected on how many millions of lives are lost because of this one simple issue. I realized that if women were in charge of all of the money, human capital and decision making power of religions around the world, would we solve the world’s largest problems: water, sanitation, education, war, poverty and inequality? By the time I broke my fast in the evening this was not just something I had thought about for a few minutes, it was something that overwhelmed my life. To me, religious gender equality is so much more than having female religious leaders or ordination for women. To me, it is a fundamental path to equality, peace and hope throughout the world.

These were the thoughts I had running through my mind as I entered the pews at the BuddhistTemple in Salt Lake City, Monday, August 26th, along with fifty other comrades. The meeting was conducted brilliantly by Margaret Toscano and we began with the song “Freedom’s Daughter,” sung to the tune of “Hope of Israel”—a song written by Lula Greene Richards during the late 18th Century when the LDS church stood for Women’s Suffrage! The first speaker was Debra Jensen, an LDS woman who shared her story of why she stood for religious gender equality. She started with the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Then she gave us her own answer. When she took fear out of the equation she realized she would absolutely stand for equality. Then she asked, “What are we missing out on because of fear?” Jensen concluded her talk by relating the hunger we all felt after fasting to the hunger women all over the world feel for equality and by urging us to recognize and utilize the privilege we have to stand up for our rights.

The next speaker was Pastor Monica Hall. In a rousing and inspiring display of humor, joy and enthusiasm, Pastor Hall described the journey that her own Presbyterian religion had to go through in order to obtain ordination for women. She, an ordained minister, asked if she was more qualified for her role than her LDS female counterparts? She asked if LDS male members were more qualified than LDS females? She argued that neither was the case. In fact, she argued via beautifully told stories from the scriptures, women were the first to see the resurrected Lord, women were the first appointed apostles, and, finally, women are not neglected by Jesus today either! Pastor Hall then quoted fellow Presbyterian feminist, activist and anthropologist Margaret Mead as saying “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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Spiritual Ambivalence

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I have been trying to figure out my relationship to the church for close to a decade now. Over the course of this time I have felt a lot of sadness, betrayal, fear and uncertainty. One of the reasons why my faith transition has taken such a long course is that I feel paralyzed by my own ability to discern truth. Controversial discoveries of church history and policy did not just disintegrate my testimony; they also destroyed my confidence in my capacity to evaluate information. If things “I knew” turned out to be erroneous what does that say about my ability to know?  Thus far it has been this distrust that has kept me in a sort of spiritual limbo—a liminal space betwixt and between believing and leaving.

The perfect description for this middle ground is ambivalence. Rather than the colloquial connotation of apathy, ambivalence actually means feeling equally passionate about two contradictory, mutually exclusive things.  At times I have felt like my ambivalence toward the church was me being too scared to leave. Other times it felt like my ambivalence was being honest to the complicated and often contradictory nature of gaining insight. Through it all I have tried to maintain a thoughtful skepticism. Although it often dips into a frustrated cynicism, especially surrounding women’s issues in the church, I have felt a great deal of integrity and loyalty in embracing the spiritual ambivalence of my present state rather than looking for reassurance of belief in my past or confirmation of doubt in my future. There is something powerful about surrendering to uncertainty. At first I assumed this period was a short stop on the long journey toward either believing or leaving. Ten years later I am no closer to either.

Spiritual ambivalence can be a very lonely and difficult path. Extended disillusionment and discouragement is not a healthy mental state to be in. Online forums, blogs, retreats and podcasts have helped with this anomie. Another thing that has been beneficial is discussions with older thoughtful skeptics—people who have found peace within their spiritual ambivalence. Recently I attended the Faith and Knowledge Conference in Washington, D.C. for LDS scholars and graduate students put on by Richard and Claudia Bushman and Terryl and Fiona Givens. It was a wonderful experience and helped me not feel so alone or abnormal.  

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Eschewing Approval and Validation

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“You are forgetting one thing,” I pause and stare directly into the eyes of the man sitting across from me, “I do not need your approval or validation.”

This sentence is a feature of many of my daydreams. I have never actually said it out loud but it is my secret fantasy (or not so secret anymore) to be able to say this phrase and mean it. In my daydream I am strong and competent, self-assured and bold. I do not worry about what people think about me. I trust myself more than those around me. I do scary things. I do not care about being liked as much as I care about being right. In my daydreams the only approval and validation I need is from me. “So….” you might ask, “why are these daydreams and not reality?”

Over the course of the last decade I have made a conscious effort to distinguish between the thoughts and behaviors I actually desire and those I have acquired via enculturation in the Mormon culture. There are silly things like discovering that I do not actually like to wear dresses and skirts even though they have made up my “nice” wardrobe for the past thirty years. Likewise, I have discovered that I do not mind disagreeing with those around me. I’m comfortable with pluralism. I have learned that we don’t all have to think alike despite thirty-plus years of Sunday School enculturation instructing me otherwise. I have also made more serious discoveries. I have learned that I have a deep rooted instinct to acquiesce to male authority figures. I think this stems from our all-male church hierarchy where men will always have more power and authority over me. I did not realize I had internalized these thoughts until I witnessed my non-Mormon colleagues talking back to an academic leader and my first thought was “You can’t do that.” Since then I have paid closer attention to how I interact with males in power. I’ve discovered that my behavior completely changes in front of church leaders. I am quiet and deferential. I hold in my thoughts and opinions. Because I have no social capital or source of collegiality without their endorsement, I am reliant on their approval and validation for my sense of worth.

I am convinced that LDS culture produces women who are constantly seeking the approval and validation of others to justify and legitimize their own thoughts, beliefs, appearance and worth.

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Shades of Power

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I have been thinking a lot about power, empowerment, and disempowerment recently. For me, the root of religious empowerment is access to decision making power. As such, I feel that the structure of the church disempowers women. There are many things we can do to empower women in the church (as has been discussed often on this blog). While these things are helpful, true empowerment needs to come in the form of actual decision making power on all levels of church hierarchy. This raises the question: without this major step what access to other forms of power do women have?

INFORMAL POWER: One of the most common reasons I hear from women of why they “do not feel unequal in the church” is because they have access to the formal structure of decision making through their callings and husbands. They feel like their voice is heard and considered to their satisfaction by the males in their lives. While this is a positive thing and something that is obviously “lovely, of good report, and sought after,” it still places the apex of power singularly in the hands of males and women’s access to it dependent on their good will. Unfortunately  not all men are interested in women’s contributions and there are no formal structures to ensure this. The other difficulty with informal power is that it is not something that is granted or assumed. Unlike the priesthood responsibilities which all members are taught about regularly, informal power is not discussed, taught, or even regularly encouraged– so that empowered women tend to find a niche where they are happy with their informal power and disempowered women do not even realize informal power exists or how to access it. How can we better empower women to utilize informal power? 

FINANCIAL POWER: Many of the women mentioned in the New Testament after Christ’s resurrection were benefactors who housed, fed, and financially supported Paul and his missionary efforts. For the most part, rich women are mentioned at a higher rate in religious texts than poor women. This tells us something about the power of financial wealth. I have a handful of very very wealthy friends and they have access to church leaders on a level that I will never have. If there is a tabernacle, a BYU project, a temple, a mall, or a cause that the church does not want to spend tithing money on, they reach out to their wealthiest members and ask for donations. This is no different than any other organization on the planet. Money gives you access to leadership. Whether or not those leaders listen to you is another matter.

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Mormon Male Privilege and How to Make Apparent Gender Disparity in the Church

Many people are concerned with a very basic question right now: Why do some women feel unequal in the church? A few years ago I wrote a post for LDS WAVE about why I feel unequal. While this was not an exhaustive list, it made apparent many of the gender disparities that we often take for granted.

Another way to make inequality apparent is to talk about privilege. In academia there is a lot of literature on male privilege and white privilege—those unacknolwedged advantages that men and majority ethnicities gain from women’s and minorities’ disadvantages. An important step in lessening, mitigating and ending this discrimination is acknowledging it. It is sometimes easier to see that others have different gender roles or even that women have some disadvantages. The truly difficult thing to recognize is the concomitant truth: what aspects of being male are advantageous?

Do not despair, this is not an attack on men. Rather it is a mental exercise in trying to see those aspects of gender inequality that are normally hidden in our religious culture. Men (and women alike) are taught not to recognize our privileges or as Dr. Peggy McIntosh puts it the “invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. [Male] privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (McIntosh 1988). It is not the fault of the holder of these privileges that he has them. However, it is our moral and ethical duty to learn to recognize, mitigate and lessen them for greater religious gender equality.

I decided to try to identify some of the daily effects of these advantages in order to answer the question: What is it like to have Mormon male privilege? (Many of these points have corollaries in literature on white and male privilege).

As a Mormon Male:

  1. My odds of receiving a leadership calling compared to females of my same age, experience and spirituality are skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the calling, the larger the odds are skewed.
  2. My odds of being asked to speak at church functions compared to females of my same age, experience and spirituality are skewed in my favor. The larger the forum, the more my odds are skewed.
  3. My church leaders are people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the calling, the more this is true.
  4. When I ask to “see the person in charge,” odds are that I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
  5. I can go home from most leadership meetings feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  6. I can be pretty sure that a disagreement with a woman is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement in leadership positions and her reputation as a good Mormon than it will jeopardize mine.
  7. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my gender on trial. If I fall short as a missionary, gospel doctrine teacher, or general conference speaker I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.
  8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my gender.
  9. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my gender is not the problem.
  10. I am never asked to speak for or represent “the” perspective of all the people of my gender.
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