Sisters Speak: Mormon Feminists and Temple Recommends

Dear Exponent readers, the Sisters Speak column of an upcoming Exponent II magazine will focus on the topic of the temple recommend interview experience for feminists.  I am looking for brief (one or two paragraph) responses to the question below, and I will email some of you commenters to ask if I can quote you in the magazine. For those that would like to respond privately, please email me at carolinekline1 at gmail dot com. 

Several years ago when I was newly married, I did a temple recommend interview with my bishop. I breezed through most of the questions, but when he asked about whether I lived up to my temple covenants, I responded, “Well, I don’t hearken unto my husband. That doesn’t work for me.” The bishop was a bit puzzled, replied something about how that covenant in the temple isn’t all that different than what Paul says in the New Testament, but I reasserted again that I would not be hearkening unto my husband. The bishop shrugged, moved on, and signed my recommend.

Since then, there have been years when I have decided to not pursue a recommend. I don’t love the dynamic of being asked these personal questions by men I barely know, and I struggle with the temple anyway. So it was easy to decide to bypass the recommend process. However, a part of me wished I had a recommend. I knew I would have more credibility in my Mormon community if I did, and therefore more opportunities to serve and help others in my ward.
As a Mormon feminist, what are your thoughts about holding a temple recommend? Do you think temple recommends hurt Mormon feminists by giving leaders something to hold over feminists’ heads, or do you feel they help Mormon feminists by giving them important credibility within their communities? How have you handled the trickier questions in the interview about belief, affiliation, covenant keeping, and more? Have these interviews been good experiences for you? 

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women’s Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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21 Responses

  1. SilverRain says:

    I one had a post-Mormon pagan friend who said that growing up, he refused to pass the sacrament even though he was worthy because it wasn’t something he believed in, and he didn’t want to disrespect the sacred beliefs of others.

    If holding a temple recommend is about power, I submit that it is a much more respectable choice to refrain from holding one in order to respect the beliefs of those to whom the temple is a highly sacred, spiritual belief.

    How can someone expect other people to respect their own beliefs, perspective, and lived experience while they are finessing and exploiting the deeply held religious and spiritual belief of those others in order to meet their own purposes?

    • Caroline says:

      Silverrain, Are you saying that feminists who obtain temple recommends, despite questions they might have about authority, gender roles, etc. are “finessing and exploiting” the beliefs of others? I don’t really know what you mean by that. Can you explain? I personally don’t see that as finessing and exploiting, at least not when I’m thinking of the intentions and hopes of my Mormon feminist friends who obtain temple recommends. I see it as them acting on faith that they will find something good in the temple (community, hope, insight, etc.), despite their questions and concerns.

      • SilverRain says:

        No, not at all. I perfectly understand having a temple recommend even with doubts. The temple isn’t for the certain, nor the perfect. Thank you for giving me a chance to clarify.

        I was responding to two very specific questions:

        “Do you think temple recommends hurt Mormon feminists by giving leaders something to hold over feminists’ heads…?”

        “…or do you feel they help Mormon feminists by giving them important credibility within their communities?”

        These two questions outline an approach to temple recommends that takes for granted an unfortunate power dynamic. If leaders consider temple recommends as something to keep people in line, or hold over their heads, they are practicing unrighteous dominion. Full stop. There can be no doubt of that with even a basic understanding of priesthood and divine power.

        That is not the power dynamic under which one can seek and find the blessings of God. Rather, mutual humility, submission, and earnest counseling under direction of the Spirit is the divine power dynamic which can work mighty changes of heart in both leader and member.

        And, if a person is seeking a temple recommend for purposes of gaining “credibility,” they are disrespecting the covenants and deeply-held spiritual beliefs of others. I feel it is much more honorable to refrain from using others’ spiritual beliefs to manipulate them in this way.

        I find it similarly disrespectful to twist the temple questions to suit a personal agenda, so that a “yes” answer can be given, when the answerer knows full well that is not the intention of the question.

        The temple recommend is not a test to pass. It is an invitation to evaluate oneself and one’s standing before God in relation to the covenants one has made in the temple. It’s relatively easy to sneak into the temple by simply lying. The only reason I can imagine to interpret the temple questions in a more comfortable way is to self-deceive and/or avoid the cost of exploring one’s own beliefs and spirituality.

        Contrast that with seeking a temple recommend because you feel its power, believe in it on some level, and are seeking after the blessings of God and the power found in keeping the covenants which have been made. Approached that way, one could hold nearly all the doubts possible and still be worthy to enter the temple. “All” it requires is courage to accept responsibility for one’s own thoughts and actions, honesty with one’s priesthood leaders and oneself, and faith that God will lead in the direction He wishes.

  2. HokieKate says:

    I let my recommend expire in 2009 because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the testimony questions. I renewed it a few years later for my sister’s wedding, attended my sister’s wedding, and decided not to go back to the temple. That recommend expired several months ago.

    For your questions: I think the interview is fine for those that have faith in the church’s teachings, which many feminists do. It does provide some social status in some areas (conveniently my temple is 3+ hours away). Even when I had a rock-hard testimony I always found the interviews awkward.

  3. Chris says:

    I answer the temple questions as though I was speaking with God. He knows I’m imperfect, that I’m struggling with my testimony is some areas, and that the temple is very difficult for me, yet I know as my loving Parent, He would never turn me away from His house when I am doing everything I can to live him and honor him. My attending the temple does not diminish anyone else but does empower me to enjoy the blessings that all worthy Saints enjoy. And, although, I am very imperfect, so is everyone else who has a recommend.

  4. April says:

    I used to welcome temple recommend interviews. I saw them as an opportunity to self-evaluate. I have since realized that they are not self-evaluations. A priesthood leader may revoke a temple recommend for any reason at his own discretion, without regard for the individual’s personal assessment of her own worthiness. According to church policy, it doesn’t even matter how the individual answers the questions, which makes me wonder why we require women to submit to the humiliation of being questioned by men about such personal matters as their undergarments when the answers are basically irrelevant.

    Because temple recommends are required to access the ordinances of salvation and participate in important family events like weddings, and priesthood leaders have unchecked power to withhold them for any reason, priesthood leaders may hold temple recommends ransom in order to coerce behavior. This has happened to me in my own life and I know many others who have been coerced through the temple recommend process. I also know people who have been refused recommends for “affiliating” with friends and family members that the priesthood leader does not approve of. I am not sure what their leaders hoped to gain by this action. Motivate people to cut off their loved ones?

    Is the temple recommend process, as it is currently administered, bad for feminists? Of course it is. Coercion is bad for everyone. Should feminists refuse temple recommends in order to avoid coercion? That depends. In many cases, this is a wise strategy. But, like everyone else, we need the ordinances of salvation and we love our families. A big part of the reason many choose to stay on the church and work to make it better is for the sake of our families. Giving up access to important rituals like family weddings defeats the purpose.

  5. Meg Hansen says:

    I don’t believe there are right answers to these questions. I believe every individual should determine for themselves the reason(s) to have a temple recommend or to refrain from having one. If it is truly God’s house, then all the want to enter should be able to, no matter what their belief on every particular of the Church’s doctrine.

    When I get a temple recommend I look at it as a time to reflect on my own personal beliefs. I answer all of them as if I was talking to God and therefore believe I can answer them honestly, even if I am not sure the leader believes the same way I do. As said before, I want to enter the House of God. Not the House of my Bishop/Stake President.

    I have been very fortunate the experiences have been positive for me for the most part. During my last recommend interview with a member of our Stake Presidency, he told me was there to represent Christ and I should answer the questions as if I was talking to Christ. Since that is exactly how I felt I should, I was grateful he supported that view.

  6. CatherineWO says:

    From my very first temple recommend interview over forty-two years ago, they have made me uncomfortable, because I never like dbeing forced to discuss very personal issues with another person, especially a man who holds so much power over me. Some have been better than others, as I have felt more comfortable with some bishops and stake leaders. The interviews became even more troublesome for me when my husband became a bishop (at a time when only bishops, not their counselors, could issue recommends) and then when he later served in two stake presidencies. I had always bristled at the idea of obeying my husband, and we had a fairly egalitarian marriage, but when he was put in a position of ecclesiastical power over me, it changed our relationship. I have always been a doubter, a questioner, and one of the things that attracted me to my husband originally was that he wasn’t put off by my questions, but was willing to listen without judgement. That changed once he had the power, and the obligation, to withhold my temple recommend if I couldn’t answer the questions 100% as they should be answered. I don’t fault my husband for this. I understood that one of his prime responsibilities as a leader was to protect the Church and the sacredness of the temple, but I no longer felt comfortable confiding in him. I often wonder how my experience would have been different had I been able to do the interview with a woman, one who did not have to answer to a man in higher authority, as a Relief Society president currently does.

  7. Leslie says:

    I think holding a recommend makes me more credible to others, although I don’t attend much or participate in the ordinances that make me most uncomfortable.

    The recommend interviewer’s job is to ask the prescribed questions and give members the opportunity to think about where they stand. If I feel like the temple is a good place for me to be, and that my presence there won’t cause a problem for others, i.e., detracting from the spirit of peace there, I believe my judgement call is just as valid as anyone else’s. I answer accordingly and don’t elaborate.

    For me, the interview process is a hoop to jump through. I have not had great experiences with expressing my candid opinions. They tend to stress leaders out, I find, so if I feel worthy to be in the temple despite doubts, I save the questions for God.

    • Meredith says:

      Leslie, I totally agree with the hoops thing. I don’t offer any information or opinions during the interview because they don’t know what to do with that. I think most of them are uncomfortable with the position of judging if someone is worthy. They want you to do that yourself and I think it’s perfectly okay to give the “right” answers if you feel the Lord considers you worthy.

    • Neva says:

      your last sentence summarized it for me-if I am worthy enough to pass through the gatekeepers, u, too, save the hard questions for my God who hears all the secret thoughts of my heart and knows me before I know myself.

  8. Meredith says:

    I struggle with the recommend questions because they seem so pharisaical to me. Jesus taught us that the two most important commandments are to love God and love each other. I am resentful each time I have an interview that no one asks me if I am loving God or loving other people. They ask me if I do yardwork in my garments. What? What does that have to do with our purpose to become more like the Savior? It seems so superfluous, the things we place so much emphasis on that have little to do with salvation, like coffee.

    Also, I don’t like a strange man asking me personal testimony questions because testimony is such a deep, anguishing thing for me. I have grappled and wrestled for so long and I don’t like the tidy questions and the rapid recitation of the questions. It’s intrusive and formulaic. I wish my RS President could ask me if I were worthy to attend. Or, better, I could determine that myself with the Lord.

    I have never let my recommend lapse in the 19 years since I was endowed. I keep the commandments and covenants. But I think many of them are pharisaical, man-made, and irrelevant to salvation. I hardly even attend the temple any more because it’s so painful. But I can’t let my recommend lapse because I feel if I did, I would be on a faith precipice I don’t want to be on. Keeping myself worthy to go to the temple helps me stay grounded in my faith, even if I don’t agree with all parts of the process.

  9. Nona says:

    In the past I used temple recommend interviews as an opportunity to self evaluate and to raise questions and concerns I had. Interestingly, the handful of times I have confessed behavioral transgressions (things that I had agonized over and felt horrible about), my priesthood leaders quickly absolved me of my sins, on both occasions asking if I had felt the spirit since committing the sin and then assuring me that the fact that I had meant that I was forgiven.
    On the other hand, when I have raised concerns about polygamy, temple issues, or gender roles I have been greeted with lengthy sermons and lectures and given homework and a whole series of appointments to re-evaluate my progress. And in those situations my feelings (which were clear indications of God’s love and forgiveness before) are now only Godly if they are in line with church teachings.

    About eighteen months ago my recommend expired and I declined an appointment for an interview. I just didn’t think I could make it past the first question and didn’t want a whole Thing with my newly called bishop. He let it go for a few months before having his secretary (a close friend of my husband) contact me multiple times asking for an interview and then finally cornering me himself. So I went to the appointment and told him straight up that I had declined the interview because I wasn’t sure I believed in Joseph Smith or even in God and I didn’t feel like having a conversation about it. He thanked me for my candor, proceeded to have A Conversation anyway, left me alone for a couple of months saying he would wait for me to contact him. And then contacted me again. After another, longer conversation, he sent me home with homework and a follow up appointment, which I cancelled.

    Every morning when I get dressed, I confront this issue as I put on my garments, which are now so worn they desperately need to be replaced and I ask myself–should I suck it up for an interview, lie my way through–not about any behaviors but purely about my level of belief? Should I give it up and buy secular underwear for the first time in twenty years? If I do that am I crossing some unspeakable boundary? Do I no longer get to be with my family forever? (this holding the family hostage thing is so…I don’t know. Is it a wonderful blessing of the temple or is it gross manipulation?) If I go in there and profess belief in God and Joseph Smith etc etc is that it’s own kind of horrible dishonesty? I honestly just can’t bring myself to speak the words it just feels…like lying. Like bearing false witness. Like a dreadful sin on my head. But not doing it…also feels like a damnable sin.

    I just feel so stuck. Like I am standing in this place and can’t take a step in any direction because none of it feels safe. None of it feels right. So I just keep putting on my falling apart underwear and putting the decision off for one more day.

    • Cari says:

      I am so sorry, Nona. I have felt similarly recently. Only you can (and should) decide what to do. Authenticity is important and embracing it helps us gain confidence, courage, and character- even though it can be a scary at first. Sometimes social pressure in the church can impede our personal growth and progress. Try to let that go. I think God is a lot more patient with us than we are with ourselves or each other. Your feelings and concerns are valid and they matter. Best of luck to you no matter which path you choose. You have worth and promise either way!

  10. Caroline says:

    Thank you so much for these responses! I will be emailing many of you and asking if I can quote you in the magazine.

  11. Kristine A says:

    Last month was the first time I renewed my recommend as a self-declared mofem.

    While I have some questions about prophetic infallibility and some things and words said in the past….. I have a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ — so I felt fairly confident answering the questions.

    I also have some questions about some things in the temple, so after my interview my SP counselor what advice he would give to women that find it hard going through the temple bc we think the understanding about the role of women is different back when it was written than it is now. I think he gave me some good counsel, except for the part he talked that me having these questions is my weakness. Whatever. I tried to make sure I had the spirit with me and it was all good. I know not everyone else is as blessed.

    • Kristine A says:

      P.S. when I say not everyone else is as blessed I mean re: leadership roulette; by in large my leaders are uncomfortable with my views but just glad I show up.

  12. arizonagirl says:

    The temple questions are a way that the church (inadvertently) makes it clear that only a certain kind of person is truly welcome. No matter no matter how much service I render, no matter how much I love being Mormon, no matter how good I try to be, not matter how much I try to believe, if I cannot affirm certain beliefs, I’m not able to hold a recommend. It is heartbreaking. Lack of belief leads to unnecessary public shaming because in certain circles there is a serious social stigma if someone doesn’t hold a recommend.

    Temple recommend interviews are especially tricky because of leadership roulette. Some leaders will allow lots of doubts and still grant a recommend. Others will take away recommends due to small or very understandable doubts. This leads to a pressure, in certain situations, to be less than honest about concerns if one really wants a recommend.

    For me , especially as a woman, it feels degrading that a man (never a woman) whom I barely know gets to ask me questions that are about my underwear, or my most intimate beliefs. I know people who have been asked questions about sexual practices within marriage, although I understand that practice has stopped.

    I am a returned missionary, BYU-graduate, temple-married, 7th generation Mormon. I’m well regarded in my profession, and am a dedicated mom and wife. I was in ward and stake leadership positions. I did loads of service in the church–when I wasn’t working, I often did church service that was the equivalent of a full-time job. In other words, I believe that was a net positive for the church.

    I recently became inactive. Wanting to avoiding the temple questions (and to be honest wanting to avoid the sexism in the ceremony) was definitely the first step I took away from the church. I didn’t want to stop having a recommend. I just couldn’t bring myself to go through that degrading process of answering those questions one more time.

    So the church is losing good people like myself, in part because of these questions.

    I know some people find these questions to be very faith promoting. I am glad for them.

  13. Rachel says:

    So many things in this church are what you make it. To me the temple recommend is a sign that I am worthy to enter God’s house (at least, that I am trying to hold myself up to those standards). Nothing else really matters as long as I have faith that God’s power is in this church, however imperfect, and his spirit is in the temple, however convoluted and sexist the ceremonies continue to be (it is interesting to me that I am most bothered by the temple when I am not in it – an indication to me that there is power there).

    I have had good experiences discussing my support for gay marriage with two separate bishops in temple recommend interviews. Both times these leaders affirmed that I could hold different opinions from the church and remain worthy. On the other hand, I have been asked inappropriate questions in temple recommend interviews (which I will not subject myself to again – if it is not in the binder I do not have to answer).

  14. Liz says:

    I have mixed feelings about temple recommend interviews. On the one hand, I’ve never felt like my feminism has conflicted with my worthiness to obtain one – I’m a feminist because of my beliefs, not in spite of them, and I don’t think my association with feminists is at odds with my church whatsoever.

    On the other hand, I don’t love that leaders can (and have) used the temple recommend as leverage to try to enforce compliance to their version of what lived Mormonism should look like. I would like to think that bishops and stake presidents should be focusing on getting as many people into the temple as possible, not keeping people out. We let in “unworthy” people all the time – paramedics of other faiths, for example, often enter the temple to attend people in need of medical attention. So often we act as though the temple needs to be protected, when I feel that its purity and sanctity functions more as a reminder of what we should be striving for in ourselves, rather than something that needs be to protected at the expense of people earnestly striving to live according to their beliefs and desire to worship there.

  15. Christie says:

    When I was young (12-13) and participated in temple recommend interviews for baptisms, I didn’t understand what the bishop was talking about when he asked me if I ever “touched myself.” And he always cried when he asked that question. I didn’t realize until well into adulthood what he was talking about. It had never occurred to me to “touch myself” in the way that he was meaning. So I can chalk it up to a temple recommend interview for introducing me to the topic of masturbation. Thank you, bishop! Because of this and other reasons, grown men should NOT be asking young girls these types of questions behind closed doors. It’s inappropriate and damaging. I’m 50 years old now, and it still affects me and makes me want to vomit.

    I’ve had good bishoprics and not-to-good bishoprics over the years. Some hold you to a “higher standard” than others. I’ve finally realized that most of those questions are arbitrary. For example, why do we focus on only a small part of the word of wisdom? We can eat crap all day long and abuse prescription drugs, but if we drink a drop of tea or coffee, we’re not “worthy.”

    I’m letting my recommend lapse (on purpose) for the first time in several years. One reason is that I no longer pay a tithe to “the church.” I also don’t feel comfortable making a covenant to give everything I have to a corporation. I am continuing to tithe, but it’s not to the church – it’s to God’s children wherever he prompts me to give. I’ve also finally been able to say out loud to myself and admit that there are several parts of the endowment ceremony that cause me to feel spiritually violated. I have always felt that way but had held out hope for the past 30 years that someday I’d actually like the endowment ceremony. Well, I can’t continue lying to myself any longer. No more temple recommend interviews for me, and no more endowment ceremonies. I can’t take it.

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