Mormon Exceptionalism…Keeping Us From Being Exceptional
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!”  [/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.”[/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.” [/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. Valerie Hudson http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler  Sheri Dew “Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes.”  Sharon Eubank http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/08/12/best-of-fair-14-sharon-eubank-this-is-a-womans-church/