In her response to Elder Christofferson’s Saturday morning talk from the recent General Conference, Neylan McBaine begins by saying she’s aware of the reasons she’s not supposed to like the talk, but nevertheless it worked for her in both tone and content. While it’s not for me to question the “warmth and authenticity” she felt through the talk, for me his approach was more condescending than warm. When men in positions of authority speak about how women fit into the big picture of society, and of their place in the context of church and family, they take the position of someone with a view larger in scope than the women they refer to. This point of view is inherently condescending. Perhaps that is not necessarily bad, but it should come with an acknowledgement of the speaker’s lack of experience as a woman, and that was missing. Obviously Elder Christofferson has not lived life as a woman, but it becomes necessary to state the obvious in talks like his because of his taking the position of an authority on being female and of having inside knowledge of women’s internal worlds with respect to their moral authority. It is an affront to women to do this without any admission of his particular view as a man.
Neylan wrote that the term “moral authority” is a fresh description of women’s role in society, church, and family. But as my co-blogger Em pointed out, the term is not fresh but in fact quite old. In the nineteenth century women were said not to need the vote because they had moral authority and that was enough. It was the topic of conduct manuals, essays, and private correspondence, with the consensus being that tangible authority was unnecessary and unseemly when women’s moral authority could be manifested in private. Neylan is not wrong that Elder Christofferson’s use of the term is novel to modern Mormon discourse. But in my view his talk harkened back more to the private moral authority of the past than toward a new gender paradigm.
This is a separate discussion, and I’m interested in learning more about what Neylan means by a purpose struggle, but in my view Mormon women do not lack purpose. Mormon men can check the boxes of passing the sacrament, giving blessings, and attending bishopric meetings and Mormon women can check the boxes of doing visiting teaching, fulfilling their callings, and attending Sacrament meetings. What the outlets for women’s spiritual growth lack is not delineation, it is scope. What women lack is not purpose, it is authority.
While Elder Christofferson did not explicitly make this comparison himself, Neylan sees a parallel between “moral authority” and priesthood authority. She calls it semantic parity, with an administrative (priesthood) authority paired with a ministerial (moral) authority. I completely agree with her that the way we talk about things matters, but only if the words we use refer to real life. And the reality is that no holds were lifted in this season of General Conference that would give new ministerial authority to women. The comparison Christofferson did make came at the end of his message when he fleetingly referred to the moral authority of men. He did not expand on it, but said that men should cultivate their own “companion moral authority.” He did not offer any explanation on what women’s counterpart to priesthood might be.
I agree with Neylan that “moral authority” is an improvement over the word “nurture,” which as she says has the disadvantage of sounding like a personality characteristic that not all women have. In addition, Neylan writes that “Women as nurturers is hard to disentangle from women as mothers, which is of course a vital identity for many of us, but may not satisfy the search for purpose by our single or childless sisters.” Again, I agree that the term moral authority is less limiting in that it can encompass areas outside the home and outside of mothering. However, this rhetorical subtlety is almost surely going to be missed by many people who hear Elder Christofferson’s talk. I think Neylan is expecting too much when she says women can be expected to re-frame their role in the Church based on Christofferson’s use of the term “moral authority” in place of “nurture.” Especially when Christofferson offered no real explanation of what “moral authority” means. In addition, it is a significant leap to go from hearing the words “moral authority” to carving out new outlets for ministerial work, and to put the onus on women for making that leap is, I think, unreasonable and unfair. There is a big difference between saying something is not forbidden and giving the support and resources needed to make that thing possible. Finally, Neylan mentioned administrative and ministerial work the Relief Society performed in the past, specifically grain management, training midwives, and managing welfare. As April wrote in a recent post, these are things that were removed from the ministry of women by priesthood leaders! How do women claim new outlets of ministry when priesthood authority always has the final say?
But the biggest problem with Elder Christofferson’s talk is that it is a rhetorical shift, and nothing more. Moral authority is merely a new color of wrapping paper in place of the pale hue of nurture we are used to seeing on the package of womanhood. And that, in my view, is nothing to celebrate.Read More
On Sunday morning I flipped through picture after picture of women being turned away from the doors of our worship places. The Mormon Tabernacle choir sung in the background. Tears streamed down my face; many of those women are my friends. All are my sisters.
I have performed this song countless times but the cry remains with me always. Hear Thou my cry.Read More
General Conference is around the corner, and one of the things I can always count on during that weekend is at least one talk lamenting the unprecedented wickedness of these last days we’re living in. Things have never been worse, and the accelerating wickedness will surely hasten the end of the world. To these speakers change is hardly ever good, it’s the wheel that rolls the world toward it’s inevitable destruction.
I hate these talks. Not only because they’re depressing, but also because I don’t think the world is getting worse. I think there is awful suffering and perversity in the world, but that is not new. Maybe we recognize it better now, with our advanced communications. But sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining more light on the ugly things of the world I think we start to turn them around, bit by bit.
So given that I don’t think the world is on a perpetual decline, I like this talk* by Craig Harline, a historian at BYU. He talks about change, how early Christians would have been shocked at our acceptance of everyday things like using the word “Sunday” or lending with interest. He shows how opinions on slavery, interracial marriage, evolution, and women’s suffrage have changed, with examples of things like the fact that in my mother’s lifetime women couldn’t even play full court basketball because it was thought the sport would harm their fragile bodies. Yes, we are shocked at the narrow mindedness of our ancestors. But Prof. Harline says some historians theorize that younger generations don’t reject the older generation’s values, but rather extend those values into new territories.
This is where things get really interesting to me. At the end of the talk Prof. Harline refers to Edward Kimball’s BYU Studies article about his father’s revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy men. I had heard the story of Spencer W. Kimball making almost daily visits to the temple to seek divine guidance on the topic, but references to that story always implied (at least to me) that he was seeking a “yes” from God. As in, “I feel that it’s right and good for all worthy men to be ordained. Can this be? Do you, God, approve of it?” But according to Edward Kimball’s article that isn’t the full story. Apparently President Kimball wasn’t going to the temple to seek revelation in this way, but to get over his assumptions.
President Kimball said this: “I was very humble. I was searching. I had a great deal to fight. Myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it, and defend it as it was.”
I find this stunning. Prof. Harline says that President Kimball was a hero not in the traditional way we think if religious leaders – as one who fights for his convictions – but because he was willing to reconsider them. How much harder is it to search your soul and ask which of your convictions may need reconsideration than is it to cross your arms in front of your chest and insist nothing you believe is wrong? Much, much harder. But much, much more enlightening. I hope to have the courage and humility that President Kimball had in my life.
And I hope that our current prophets will as well. I think the story of President Kimball’s trips to the temple is paradigm changing. That might sound hyperbolic, but I really think it is. I’ve usually thought of prophets going to the mountaintop to see visions of what God has in store for humankind. And it probably does happen that way sometimes. But what about the times they go to the mountaintop to ask God for different eyes, so that they see the world differently?
* The whole talk is great and fun to listen to, but if you only have time for the bit about Spencer W. Kimball, fast forward to 47:00 and listen to the end (it’s a 5 minute segment).
“Wow, that scares me to death but please connect me,” I replied when I was invited to connect with a new group that would “unapologetically advocate for women’s ordination in the Mormon church.” That group became Ordain Women.
Openly advocating for women’s ordination breaks a taboo that has been prevalent even among Mormon feminists. My first, reflexive feeling about it was fear of censure and discipline. Almost immediately thereafter, a scripture came to my mind:
“God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
Why do I fear the people I love? Why do I fear the church I love? Why do I feel powerless to speak my truth? God didn’t give me the spirit of fear. God didn’t make me powerless. God gave me power and love and a sound mind.Read More