Optimal Tension: Rejecting Racism and Homophobia and Embracing Heavenly Mother
This last year has been a tough one. I was gutted by the new policy in November to not baptize children of same-sex couples and to categorize same-sex married Mormons as apostates. This was a devastating step backwards from recent overtures by the church toward the gay community, such as the Mormons and Gays website (they actually used the term gay rather than just SSA!). I was also distressed to learn recently that a brand new Seminary/Institute manual lesson describes the pre-1978 priesthood/temple ban as a “law of priesthood administration and church governance.” (Hat tip to Bryndis.) This is a step backward from the 2014 LDS Gospel Topics Essay, “Race and the Priesthood,” which shows that the priesthood/temple ban was, as the Deseret News reported “rooted in the racism of the mid-1800s.”
Does it seem like the church is ping-ponging back and forth between more accommodative approaches towards western society’s trend toward greater inclusion and tolerance for difference and more resistant approaches toward the same? Perhaps it is.
Several years ago, I was struck by sociologist Armand Mauss’s description of “optimum tension.” He argues that new religious movements like Mormonism only survive and prosper by maintaining with their host societies an optimum tension
between the two opposing strains: the strain toward greater assimilation and respectability, on the one hand, and that toward greater separateness, peculiarity, and militance, on the other. Along the continuum between total assimilation and total repression or destruction is a narrow segment on either side of the center; and it is within this narrower range of socially tolerable variation that movements must maintain themselves.
According to this theory, the LDS Church must find a sweet spot between society’s norms and unique, peculiar norms in order for the LDS Church to grow and prosper. The church can’t dig in its heels and completely fail to respond to changing norms in society. At the same time, however, assimilating to completely with the norms of the host society would lead to it abandoning its unique identity. Polygamy clearly placed the church too far on the peculiar side, so that practice had to be left behind. Same thing with the temple/priesthood ban. Thus there are indications that over the last century or so, church leaders have been willing to shift the church more towards mainstream society’s norms in order to enable the church’s growth and health.
It seems like the last few years, the church has been struggling to find that sweet spot of optimum tension: how to be different enough from society that it has its own unique and compelling message, but not so far off that the mainstream is utterly offended and turned off. I imagine the November policy toward same-sex married couples represents the segment of Mormon leaders who want more separation from greater society. I imagine the Gospel Topics essays and their (sometimes) frank discussion of thorny topics like racism and polygamy represent a different segment of Mormon leaders who would like to see the church move a bit more with the times.
Assuming that there is something to this theory of optimum tension, I have a proposal to make. Rather than creating separation by a) offending and rejecting gay people, their kids, and their allies and b) clinging to notions that church leaders really were inspired by God to exclude black people from temple blessings and priesthood for over a century, how about we instead create this optimum tension by embracing and holding up something that is uniquely Mormon but also, on the whole, ennobling: Heavenly Mother.
Mormon notions of a Heavenly Mother are unique in the Christian world, which overwhelmingly embraces the notion of a sexless, changeless, disembodied God, but a God that has been overwhelmingly associated with male metaphors (Father, King, etc.) The idea that we have a God who has a literal female body is, I feel, compelling and ennobling. Mary Daly once quipped, “If God is male, then the male is God.” I think there’s something profoundly true about that statement — which is why I pretty much never use the term “Heavenly Father,” instead opting for “Heavenly Parents,” or “God,” which I define as the combined unit of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father. (I fully realize that there are dicey issues involved in raising up Heavenly Mother/Heavenly Parents discourse –namely, how do we do so without further sacralizing heteronormativity and gender essentialism- but on the whole, I’d opt to deal with those problems rather than deal with a silenced and disappeared female God.)
I think there’s so much potential in Mormon ideas of Heavenly Mother, but that potential has not been realized. As any Mormon knows, it’s indeed a rare three hour block that sees one single mention of Heavenly Mother, since Mormons, following our church leaders, overwhelmingly refer to God as Heavenly Father. If we could incorporate Heavenly Mother or Heavenly Parents language into our worship and liturgy, that would set us apart from other Christian traditions — and it would do so in a way that doesn’t further victimize marginalized populations.
I can’t help but dream of this Mormon world which embraces LGBT people and clearly disavows its own racist past. In doing so it would accommodate to society’s growing acceptance of diversity and inclusion. At the same time, Mormons could create separation and distinctiveness by acknowledging, including, and yes, worshipping Heavenly Mother. Now that would be hitting the sweet spot.
In your ideal Mormon world, what other unique Mormon doctrines would you play up to maintain distinctiveness? In what ways would you accommodate more towards society’s norms?
 Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 5.