Mormon Exceptionalism…Keeping Us From Being Exceptional

By Jenny

I can’t get through a Sunday at church without hearing it.  In fact, I have made a game for myself, counting how many times I hear it.  Testimony meeting is so pregnant with it that I struggle to know whether to go to church and win my game or to stay home and avoid the pit in my stomach.  It starts with a phrase like, “I am so grateful for the church because…”  Then it ends in a statement about why our church is so much better than the world, why our doctrine beats all other Christian doctrines, why we as God’s chosen people are far more enlightened and superior to all those people in the dark because they don’t have the gospel.

This is hard for me to write because it was hard for me to accept when I first started becoming aware of Mormon exceptionalism.  I don’t like speaking harshly and negatively about my culture.  I’ve lost a lot of friends for speaking boldly and I don’t want to lose more.  But I see a problem that is keeping us from progressing.  Mormon exceptionalism is keeping us from being truly exceptional.  This is especially the case in regards to women and equality in the church.

I find that when I am discussing women and the priesthood with people, the conversation doesn’t make it very far because of the big mountain of exceptionalism that is in our way.  I get it.  I’ve scaled that mountain.  It wasn’t easy.  At the bottom, all I could see was the looming mountain above me.  I thought that we as Mormons were the grandest thing around.  My mountain was my whole view, so I really thought it was everything.  But at the top, once you can see beyond the erroneous belief that Mormonism is better than every other religion, you can see all the other peaks for miles and miles.  Then you realize that your mountain is not everything, that it is only one mountain among many.

In regards to women and the priesthood, the mountain looks a little like these quotes from three women who have spoken out recently on the place for women in this church:

“So the LDS alone among all Christian religions assert that not only did Eve not sin, but she was rewarded for her courage and wisdom, and God was assuring her that, just as she fulfilled her role in the Great Plan of Happiness, Adam would step up to the plate, and he would perform his role in the Great Plan of Happiness, and that would entitle him to rule with her. This is absolutely revolutionary and astounding doctrine among all the Christianities!” [1]

This quote comes from an essay written by Valerie Hudson about why men and women have different roles.  I have to dissagree.  I don’t see anything revolutionary or astounding about our doctrine as opposed to other Christian doctrines.  In the temple narrative, Eve was not rewarded for her courage and wisdom, she was placed under Adam’s rule to hearken to his counsel as he hearkens to God’s.  Just because we tend to applaud Eve culturally despite our doctrinal language doesn’t mean that we have this phenomenal understanding of Eve and women’s roles compared to everyone else.

“…for years I’d searched the world over to find any organization—the largest governments and religions, multinational businesses, worldwide charities, major universities—where as many women had as much bonafide responsibility and authority as they do in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that I hadn’t been able to find even one.”[2]

This is a pretty big mountain that Sheri Dew has created.  So big in fact, that she can’t even see beyond it to see that her statement is ludicrous.  How many businesses in the world have female CEOs?  When is the last time our church had a female CEO?  You don’t have to look very far at all to see that other governments, religions, businesses, charities, and universities are doing better for their women than we are.  But you can’t look very far when this mountain blocks your view.

“I find it a little bit ironic that the world is trying to instruct the “poor LDS women,” who are so oppressed, and in the backwater, and if they could only come out into “enlightenment.”… Because I just don’t see where that enlightenment is.”

“I recently spoke at the United Nations and it was interesting because we are faith-based, I represented a faith-based organization. Because we are conservative morally, a lot of people thought that our doctrine about women and men was conservative. Far from being restrictive and conservative, and we sometimes get labeled that way, my contention is that the Church’s doctrine about the roles of women in the family, and the church, and the community, and the nation, and the temple and how men and women relate to each other and interplay and support each other and work together is the most moderate, and powerful, and enlightening and energizing doctrines that I know about. And if people truly understood it, it would blow their mind.[3]”

This quote comes from a recent talk given by Sharon Eubank at the FAIR Mormon symposium.  While I actually enjoyed the talk, and felt that it was great for raising the level of the conversation about women in the church, this part gave me that same familiar pit in my stomach that I often feel during testimony meeting.  I agree that we have some pretty great doctrines in our church.  I also agree with a major point that she made during this speech, that one of our problems is that our doctrine and our practice don’t always mesh.  But I highly doubt our doctrines would blow the minds of those poor simple fools out in the world, if they only understood them.  She may not see enlightenment out in the world, but that doesn’t mean that it does not exist.  It’s just that we have this big mountain in our way, blocking our view.  I am grateful at least that she is attempting to help us scale the mountain, by admitting that maybe we do need to change our language, maybe we don’t have everything right, maybe our practice does not always match our doctrine, maybe we could be better.   I just think that we will be able to climb this mountain faster without comparing ourselves to others.

I understand that most members don’t even realize how much we do this as a church.  If you haven’t noticed it, I challenge you to a game.  Sit through testimony meeting or read Sherri Dew’s book, and count how many times the claim is made that we are fine because we are better than other religions.  Or we are exceptional because we believe this and this that someone else doesn’t believe.  Just see if you can get through church without hearing about how much better we are than the rest of the world.  Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it.

This type of comparison is not a good argument for truthfulness in our church.  Truth can stand on its own.  Truth is only diminished when we have to qualify it by saying that we have more of it than someone else.  Comparison is an ineffective argument for why women in our church are fine and don’t need the priesthood.  I don’t care if we are better than Muslims or Catholics or anyone else.  I want to be better than we are.  I don’t want us to just think we are exceptional, I want to be exceptional.  The question we should be asking is not, who are we better than, but how can we be better that what we are right now?  I do think we have something unique and beautiful to offer the world, but who wants a gift given out of pity or pride?  The world in it’s vast array of faiths, ideologies, cultural constructs, knowledge, and experience also has a beautiful gift to offer us.  It is a magnificent view of eternity and a better understanding of our surroundings that we can only see from the top of our mountain.

And just so you know that I am not trying to be disingenuous toward women like Sheri Dew who are talking about women and the priesthood, and are even doing a lot of good in keeping this discussion alive and healthy, I will end with a quote by Sheri Dew.   “God rarely moves the mountains in front of us, but He always helps us climb them.”—Sheri Dew.  I have faith that our Heavenly Parents are helping us as a church to climb this mountain so that we can see a better view of what the world truly is, and how we fit into that view.

[1] Valerie Hudson http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler

[2] Sheri Dew “Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes.”

[3] Sharon Eubank http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/08/12/best-of-fair-14-sharon-eubank-this-is-a-womans-church/

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International Series: Open Thread

“…And the Lord called His people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”  Moses 7:18

As our current International Series comes to a close, we have had our hearts, minds and eyes opened to the wide spectrum of experience from our sisters and brothers across the world.  Like many of you, I read with great curiosity to learn of their struggles and successes, and how they find joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of nearly every post, I found myself asking, “How can I better relate to this person’s experience? What can I do? How could I help?”

Several of our guest posters and commenters touched on the following themes: the way American members and missionaries behave in foreign countries, perspectives of relative privilege, language barriers, proximity from other members, church buildings and temples, relating to the cultural history of the community as it colors their experiences with the church, emotional, physical and linguistic isolation, American/Utah Mormon superiority complex, labeling/judging others in general, missionary efforts, humanitarian efforts and variety vs. uniformity.

We now open this thread to you to share any thoughts or ideas you have, or to suggest tangible solutions to issues raised. You might also respond to this question: “How can we build a worldwide Zion and what can I do?”

“… Dear Lord, prepare my heart to stand with thee on Zion’s mount, and nevermore to part.” Hymns 41

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International Series: Seeking Out and Relieving the Distressed

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from people who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Dave Dixon. Dave is the co-founder of No Poor Among Them, a podcast/blog devoted to exploring ways in which we as Latter-day Saints can eliminate poverty in the Church and in the world. He is also a board member for the Liahona Children’s Foundation, the happy husband of Jana, and happy father of two sons.

As the sun shines brightly over the city of Lugazi, Uganda, around 21 women are busily making hand-crafted jewelry for Musana Jewelry. All told, these artisans support themselves and 108 children. Melissa Sevy, Rebecca Burgon, and Kristen Wade are pleased with the progress the organization has made. Musana (which means “sunlight” in the local language of Luganda) was formed by these after seeing the difficulties of these women on a humanitarian trip to the area in 2009. The organization has since blossomed, and has helped many local women to flourish. I spoke with two of them: Tina and Harriet. The business is run locally by Tina, a local LDS primary president. Harriet, a hard-working artisan told me that working for Musana has enabled her to better provide for her children and allows her to receive proper medical care for issues resulting from HIV. Many of the local artisans are single mothers who have had a very difficult time in their lives. Musana not only provides employment for these women, but also trains them with classes in literacy, English, finance, business, and health. These women have ambitions to start their own businesses when they feel they are on solid enough footing, thus allowing other women to enter Musana’s business training program. Melissa told me in an interview that focusing on women is the key to economic development. When you pay a woman or a girl, they reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families, compared to 30-40 percent for men. Musana does a great job of connecting women all around the world. My wife Jana hosted a Musana market in her home, in which friends and neighbors bought some of the hand-crafted jewelry, watched a specialized thank-you video from the artisans of Musana, listened to Ugandan music, and ate some awesome Ugandan food (the peanut butter stew was really good).

(Right to left) Melissa Sevy, Harriet Ochieng, and Tina Kyambadde of Musana Jewelry

(Right to left) Melissa Sevy, Harriet Ochieng, and Tina Kyambadde of Musana Jewelry

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International Series: Tongue-Tied

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Amira.  Amira is a peripatetic wanderer with lots of opinions about being an expat, books, education, women in the church, and food. She blogs at The Golden Road to Samarqand.

Three months after I turned 18 and graduated from high school I went overseas for the first time to get out of Orem, Utah, as soon as I could. I took Latin, French, and Russian in high school and spent 9 months in the Middle East in college, minoring in Arabic and majoring in International Relations. I married a fellow Arabic student who spent a summer during law school in Egypt studying Islamic law. We got stuck in the US for a few years while our two oldest children were born until we went to Kyrgyzstan for a year when they were 6 and 4, and back again a few years later; we speak Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz between us as a result. Now we live in Mexico with three children (my husband speaks much better Spanish than I do) and are planning a move to Saudi Arabia in two years. I don’t know how much Arabic I remember after 20 years, but it will be so nice to not start on a new language. New languages are a huge part of expat life for me.

Growing up I always had an unrealistic idea of what it would be like to raise a family overseas. Some parts have come true (standing on the Great Wall of China with your children is much better than seeing the pyramids with your roommates), but other parts haven’t worked out the way my 16-year-old self imagined. Church has nearly always been hard overseas, learning languages takes a lot of work every single time, and you can’t make your kids love being international. Pretty much everything else, including the house with no plumbing in the kitchen, has been an adventure, but not those three things.

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International Series: Loving the Differences

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Hi, I’m Sarah Bringhurst Familia. The trendy, sophisticated term for my crazy life is “serial expatting.” But that implies a degree of organization and planning that doesn’t necessarily obtain. Really, I just have an insatiable wanderlust and a complete lack of the normal desire to settle down and get a mortgage and a regular life. For more of my writing, visit my blog, Casteluzzo.com

One of the things almost sure to be heard in a Mormon testimony meeting after someone has traveled (whether it’s across the ocean or just to the next town over) is an expression of gratitude that “the Church is the same no matter where you go.” To a certain extent, it’s true. We all sing the same hymns, although every ward congregation seems to have its particular favorites. We all read the same scriptures. Sunday meetings follow the same general format, even if the meetings are in a different order. Sunday School and other lesson manuals are standardized and translated into over a hundred languages, and on any given Sunday the whole worldwide Church is studying the same lesson (give or take a week or two depending on how organized the local Sunday School teacher happens to be).

Sarah and family

Me and my two children at the train station in Milan, Italy

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International Series: The ‘All or Nothing’ Mormon

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Crystal.  

At 16 years of age, I graduated from The Church College of New Zealand* with academic honors and armed with a fairly solid testimony of the gospel. Upon enrolling at my local university and in my first class, I befriended two Catholic girls. The three of us were inseparable from that day onward.all or nothing

 

Like most Catholics I knew at the time, and unlike the Mormon friends I’d had previously, these girls loved to drink (substantially) and immersed themselves in a student culture of parties and clubbing from around Wednesday night (student night) through to Saturday night, as finances would permit. Yet more often than not, come Sunday, off they would toddle to their Catholic mass to satisfy their spiritual inclinations, free of any burden of a bad conscience.  I held out a good year and a half, before succumbing to the same social ideals and once I had, attending church felt way too hypocritical after participating in the same sinful activities throughout the week.

For many Mormon teenagers in this boat, the alternatives appear to be ‘all or nothing’. ‘All’ meaning full adherence to the ‘strength of youth’ booklet and ‘nothing’ meaning everything to the contrary. With those two options before me, I turned my back on Mormonism and chose ‘nothing’ for the next 10+ years– much to the sadness of my family.

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