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:

[box] “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] [/box]

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.

[box] “…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][/box]

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.

[box] “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]” [/box]

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/

Jenny

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.

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16 Responses

  1. CAS says:

    Outstanding post! Our exceptionalism almost always sounds like rameumptom prayers in the BoM. It’s a dangerous attitude to take, as it inhibits humility and further growth. Indeed, let’s pray that God will help us climb this mountain of exceptionalism instead of us sitting complacently, congratulating ourselves on what is surely a massive stumbling block.

  2. EFH says:

    What you have written is true. I work in a very religiously and socially diverse environment and please believe me when I say that many religious people feel the same way about their scriptures and religion too. I think that this feelings are part of a where we individually stand in our spiritual journey. I think that many, no matter for how long they have participated in their religion, stay on the infant stages of their spirituality and blind themselves with such feelings and thoughts. I personally have noticed that once someone starts exploring the world and become aware of the diversity of people and let those experiences teach him or her valuable lessons, he or she never goes back to the kind of feelings you are describing. At this stage, one won’t believe in the church because it it the best or the most true but because what is good and true about it really touches one’s heart.

    Also, when people talk this way, they usually are using a very narrow lens and focusing only on a specific topic such as who has more truth than others, who is more righteous and so forth. Once, that lens is expanded and cleaned up a little, things change.

  3. Caroline says:

    You have nailed it, Jenny. ” 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?”

    Exceptionalist (and exclusive) discourse brings us down. We have a lot to learn from other traditions and orgs around us, and hopefully, in turn, we’ll have something meaningful to share with them too.

  4. Christi says:

    I remember as a child living in the Salt Lake Valley thinking that the entire world was encompassed by the surrounding mountains. My childlike brain just couldn’t comprehend that the world was bigger than that. I’m not an eloquent writer, but I feel like that is a fitting analogy here.

  5. Susan says:

    This dovetails with a video that has been going around social media lately, featuring an LDS scholar explaining why religion is essential for democracy. The tone is so superior (and in fact demonizing of those who do not grow up in a religious community), it is quite jarring. The p

  6. Big L says:

    I think that one sign of a truly exceptional person or institution is that they don’t believe themselves to be exceptional. They see light and goodness in themselves and see that same light reflected everywhere in the world around them. They act towards others completely out of compassion and love. They don’t see themselves as offering something superior to others, they just offer the goodness that they have and accept the offering of goodness extended to them.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. As a teacher in the church I am constantly trying to pull from my prescribed lessons a more expansive and loving doctrine. Because in the end, I think our culture of exclusivity, superiority, and exceptionalism comes from doctrine. At least I see it written into the manuals I’m told to teach from.

  7. Em says:

    One example of exceptionalism that has always perplexed me is the contention that we alone believe that families can be together forever, that everyone else believes families end “’til death us do part.” There are of course many people who do not believe in marriage continuing as an institution after death. But I think a lot of people, even if it is not what their faith explicitly teaches, think they’ll be with their families after they die. The ceremony may say it ends at death, but I think lots of people believe it doesn’t. And why shouldn’t they? The Spirit witnesses of truth to everyone who will listen, and the truth that we will see loved ones again is one of the most beautiful truths of all. What is exceptional is not that other people believe families end at death, but that we believe everyone else’s families will end at death unless they see things our way.

    • Alisa says:

      This too shocked me when I actually started attending a Protestant church that taught that we’ll have our associations in heaven, even if people weren’t members of their church.

  8. Lemuel says:

    The best cure for mormon exceptionalism is the Book of Mormon. Mormon chapter 8 is a good place to start to realize how we have “polluted the holy church of God”.

  9. spunky says:

    This is brilliant, jenny. I have always felt uncomfortable with this contextualized exceptionalism, but never put it to words. You have done so beautifully. Amen and amen!

  10. Violadiva says:

    I think you’ve brought up something very important here! Despite what we sometimes hear in Sunday School, Mormonism does not have the monopoly of truth and goodness in the world. One of the comments that gives me a sick feeling goes like this: “Other religions have bits and pieces of the truth, but only Latter-Day Saints have ALL the truths.” I realize the intention of this remark is often to do with Mormonism teaching the “fullness of the everlasting gospel,” but occasionally it seems to refer to the truthfulness of green jell-o as well.

    This line of thinking distorts the true meaning of President Hinckley’s quote, “Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it.”

    If we consider Joseph Smith a great restorer of truths, in that he gathered existing truths from wherever he could find them hidden since the time of the apostasy (Masons, for example) rather than an inventor of new truths, we must believe that all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, because God is the source of all truth. We also believe that many great truths are yet to be revealed/restored. Therefore, instead of touting our great “peculiarity” and “one true church”-ness, we should be comfortable proclaiming that “all truths are welcome here.” In the Hinckley quote, he says “bring the good you have….let us add to it” not, “your old truths are no good anymore, try some of ours!”

    While the average Gospel Doctrine class may never delve into the truths found in other places (say, Eastern philosophies about energy meridians and chakras, for example), we should have believing and accepting enough hearts to say, “We may not have ALL the truths yet, but within Mormonism, ALL truths are welcome here.”

  11. Ms. Reynolds says:

    My husband is a convert and he can’t stand when church members talk about “the world,” as that is such an exclusionary term. His family is part of “the world” and church members are so dismissive of “the world” and are so grateful they know so much more of “the world”s” teachings, that it’s so insulting to him. He grew up in this “world” and had much morality and happiness there. You are right — once you start noticing it, you can’t stop. He pointed out the phrase to me and now I see it’s ubiquitous in meetings. “In the world, they teach _______ (horrible things) and we are so lucky to be in the true church which teaches ________ (the only truth). I understand the sentiment — a gratitude for the gospel teachings, which have truly blessed my life. But I don’t need to malign other teachings to feel good about my church’s.

  12. Stargazer says:

    I have heard quotes given from the Q’ran and the Bhagivadgita in SM, in addition to every different book written by C.S Lewis. Just a couple weeks ago my friend talked about gospel truths that can be found in eastern thought and tradition including Buddhism and Confucianism. In SM. He was presenting the idea that the principles of the resurrected Lord have been taught in many cultures. I really believe that discussion of chakras, energy flow (ki or chi) and other eastern thought can help us better understand things we read in the scriptures (the breath of life, for example.). This is a favorite topic of mine.

  13. Trendy says:

    If The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints is indeed the restored church of Jesus Christ with priesthood authority restored by God, restored doctrine, etc., isn’t it by definition exceptional?

  1. September 26, 2014

    […] 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 …read more […]

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