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.[1]

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?

[1] Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 5.


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

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18 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I love this idea, Caroline! Emphasis on Heavenly Mother would be such a better way to maintain peculiarity than anti-LGBT rhetoric and policy is. It seems unlikely that Church leaders would ever go for it, given how they’ve chosen to ally themselves with the American political right. I have been impressed, though, by their willingness to spend some political capital in speaking out in favor of welcoming refugees. But talking more about Heavenly Mother seems like it would require more than they would be willing to do.

    One other distinctive teaching that they might (but I’m guessing won’t) emphasize to make us peculiar is the idea of having a Zion society by having no poor among us. It seems like on this basis, they could back all kinds of things that would alienate them from the American right, like more progressive taxation and universal health care. But like with Heavenly Mother, I don’t see it happening.

    • Caroline says:

      Hi Ziff,
      I’m so glad you mentioned ideas about Zion! That was one that crossed my mind as well as a distinctive teaching that could be lifted up in inclusive ways.

      I too am not too hopeful that I’ll see a marked increase in HM speech in my lifetime — at least not by church leaders. But I’m hoping that on the ground I and other Mormon feminists can model more inclusive God speech. Maybe in very small, very local ways we can lift up Heavenly Mother and thus lift up women as spiritual leaders.

  2. spunky says:

    This is a brilliant concept, Caroline. I noticed in a discussion facilitated by Melissa Inouye some time ago between Mormon Women Stand and Mormon feminism that a uniting concept was in Heavenly Mother. It seems to me that She us the only one who has the piwer to unite the church, if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to Her.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. <3

  3. Caroline says:

    Thanks, Spunky. Yes, all sorts of people seem to love the HM concept. I think she fulfills different purposes for these different segments. Feminists love her because there’s something transgressive and wholly empowering about imaging and speaking of God as female. It seems to burst women out of certain gender boxes we’ve been put in. But conservative women also like the idea, I’m guessing, because they can read Her as sacralizing gender difference and gender roles. Interesting how this theological concept of HM has a certain amount of fluidity to it — enough that LDS women of all different ideological stripes can embrace it.

  4. Violadiva says:

    Great concept, Caroline!
    When I compare the tone and sentiments shared by Q12 in general conference, I can almost get a sense for who falls on which side of the spectrum, and how they must balance each other with tension among their quorum.
    I love the idea of being peculiar in more positive ways! Heavenly mother totally fits that bill. I think the MoTab choir, with their broadcast and wide variety of musical styles is a good-peculiar that we’re known for. I’d love to see smaller, regional groups get the same kind of local traction all over the world. We should be known for our good art, musicians, poets, etc. As it stands now, we have great music coming out of Salt Lake City, and then it takes a big dive everywhere else.

  5. Andrew R. says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the Church (leaders and members) believe that Heavenly Mother is a reality. But the reality is, without actual information, in the form of a revelation, there is not a whole lot more can be said about her. But she is mentioned in church with increasing frequency – so maybe a revelation will come. Just yesterday in the ward I was visiting a missionary elder spoke of Heavenly Mother in his testimony.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    What you call homophobia I see as protection of Doctrine. The only reason there is a focus on the policy is because of the minority of members who are continuing to highlight it. For those of us who do not see same sex marriage as ordained of God it can not be sanctioned as a place wherein the Law of Chastity can be kept. As such entering into such a marriage is an apostate action.

    I fully see that if you don’t hold to the same belief with respect to SSM then the actions of the Church would be homophobic. But maintaining God’s law, even when it may hurt others to do so, is not about homophobia, it is about upholding doctrine.

    Now, just as I said above in relation to Heavenly Mother, there could be a revelation. However, I see nothing in the entire scriptural record that would lead me to suppose the SSM marriage can be eternal – and LDS marriages are meant to be eternal.

    • Ziff says:

      Yeah, but the winds of change are blowing, although I know you’re not a fan. Church leaders used to condemn gay people merely for being attracted to members of the same sex. Now they concede that gay people can be righteous if they just don’t have gay sex. The next step might be to sanction gay marriages for time. Certainly President Nelson won’t make such a change during his tenure, but Jeffrey R. Holland might. And all that with no change to the doctrine that you’re so sure must be protected. People like you who don’t like gay marriage could tell themselves that gay marriages won’t last into eternity. People like me could tell ourselves that they will. No need to even move on doctrine at all.

      And then eventually maybe we’ll even move all the way to having gay marriages for eternity. Although I concede that that’s probably a long way off.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Ziff, I know I come over quite hard line. However, my objection to SSM is purely based on my view of the Doctrine of marriage. I am not nasty. I understand how painful it must be to be told you should not spend your life with the person you are in love with.

        I also understand the idea that a same sex marriage for life could be sanctioned. However, if it could not be for eternity, ie that couple would be halting their possible eternal progression, then a second class of LDS would be the result. We are not in the habit of halting progression.

        A gay who never marries may move in to the eternities and potentially marry a female and become exalted. One who rejected entirely a sealing by marrying a same sex partner may not be able to.

        NB I am basing this on the idea that SSM is a mortal construct and not an eternal condition. I simply don’t know if this is the case – but as always for me, it fits my understanding of LDS doctrine.

      • Emily U says:

        I think the Church could put gay marriage on the shelf, doctrinally, but allow it practically, by the following. Just do the marriages and sealings, and say “God will work it all out later.” We use that phrase all the time with messy heterosexual marriages, divorces, deaths, and remarriages. Why not with same sex marriages?

      • Ziff says:

        Amen, Emily U. There’s no need to force a view of the afterlife into the present on this issue when, as you point out so well, we’re perfectly willing to wave away all kinds of other issues as being worked out in the hereafter.

  7. Mark N. says:

    I’m not sure at all that any kind of a “sweet spot” is to be found with regard to doctrines regarding Heavenly Mother. I imagine that for the vast majority of non-Mormon Christians, this would be viewed as yet another LDS heretical doctrine that would make Latter-day Saints be less accepted by the Christian world under that name. Furthermore, there would be the “why did you take so long? Are you led by a prophet or by polls?” detractors, just as there were with the Priesthood ban, and then there would be the realization by many that there is precious little in the Standard Works to support such a doctrine. I just don’t see that the Church has anything to gain at all by putting any new added emphasis on the Mother in Heaven doctrine.

    • nrc42 says:

      “I just don’t see that the Church has anything to gain at all by putting any new added emphasis on the Mother in Heaven doctrine.”

      “The Church” as in its leadership or as in its members?

    • Jess R says:

      Is our goal to be accepted by the Christian world, or is our goal to spread the truth? If Heavenly Mother is a reality, then we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace Her. The LDS church weathered the change in the Priesthood ban; if it is the Lord’s church, it can weather this change, too.

    • Ziff says:

      “I just don’t see that the Church has anything to gain at all by putting any new added emphasis on the Mother in Heaven doctrine.”

      Seriously? Nothing at all to gain? How about not alienating over half its membership by making them an accessory to the plan of salvation designed for men? See, for example, Kathy’s excellent post here:


  8. Andrew R. says:

    I believe the Church (at member and leader level) has embraced that spirit children (as we are) have Heavenly parents in the form of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. What we can not do is put any real flesh on that concept. Because we have no revelation to give us the required information.

    * Current Knowledge and Doctrine.

    Heavenly Father is a singular individual of flesh and bones for all spirit children at least on this earth (though He has made “worlds without number”, so probably more. He has appeared to some mortal men, and as such we know who He is. We also know His Son, Jesus Christ.

    To be exalted we (those spirit children) have to be in a sealed union of husband and wife.

    Men may be sealed to more than one wife, for eternity. So a Heavenly Father may have more than one wife (Heavenly Mother).

    As a result of the foregoing it is possible (maybe even probable) that Heavenly Father has more than one wife – multiple Heavenly Mothers.

    * What we do not know.

    If there are more than one Heavenly Mothers is there one for this world, or more than one?

    If there is one for us the others are nothing to us, so we have a common Heavenly Mother. However, we may be the result of more than one Heavenly Mother and be half-spirit siblings.

    * So, what should we teach without further light and knowledge on the subject?

    About all we can say is that each of us is the spirit child of a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. Anything more would be conjecture, we we “Teach the Doctrine”.

    As much as I would love to teach more on this subject in Church and to the world, we do not have the knowledge, or mandate, to do so.

    I have no fears of setting us apart from others. I believe the idea of having existed before birth, and having lived with our exalted parents is a wonderful thing and I believe many would embrace the concept.

  9. Emily U says:

    Caroline, I’ve been thinking about your post for a few days. For me the sacralizing heteronormativity and gender essentialism that you mention is a big hangup re: HM. But I appreciate you saying you’d rather grapple with that than have the status quo of almost entirely ignoring the divine feminine.

    I hadn’t thought of optimal tension in terms of sociology before, but it makes a lot of sense. I think there are so many peculiarities in the Church, for example Word of Wisdom, garments, no premarital sex, and missions, that the Church could go totally mainstream on gender issues and same sex marriage, and the Church would still seem very peculiar. This is a dark view, and I hope I’m wrong, but I see the resistance to feminism and same sex relationships as being about maintaining privilege more than anything else. The privilege our leaders experience as straight white men is just too good to give up. There, now I’ve really depressed myself. It’s got to be more complicated than that, and Mauss’s theory is also reasonable and far less depressing.

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