Religious Rituals Reinforcing Hierarchy

This semester I am teaching a religious studies class and am delving into the sociology of religion in way I never have before. During our week studying rituals, I was struck by this passage in our textbook.

“Emile Durkheim proposes that religious rituals reinforce the existing structures within a given society. If, for example, a social group holds that men are superior to women, then its ritual life will reinforce hierarchical gender roles. Rituals, and religious rituals in particular, function as a kind of social glue that holds society together by ensuring that members of the society accept their socially constructed roles as natural and God-given.

I realize that not all of Durkheim’s theories hold up so well over time, but this particular description of the function of ritual in society struck me as insightful. It also made me think about the function of our own Mormon rituals in reinforcing hierarchy.

Of course, I’m thinking most particularly of the women’s hearken covenant in the temple. This covenant has haunted me since I first heard/experienced it almost two decades ago. It was profoundly painful because it was the first time I had explicitly experienced the outright, overt subordination of women to men in Mormonism. Sure, I knew all about men “presiding,” but while troubling, that didn’t have the powerful punch of the wording in this ritual. Here, in this most holy of places, I and other women were being told to ritually vow and assent to our own subordination. I was crushed. Never have I cried so hard.

That was nearly two decades ago, and I have spent countless hours since then grappling with the role of women in Mormonism. I tend to believe that Mormon leaders employ a dual discourse regarding women’s status. On the one hand they are equal partners, walking beside their husbands, equal decision makers in all things. On the other hand, they are subordinate partners to be presided over; they are to hearken unto their husbands in righteousness. Which discourse about women’s status has more weight? Which more fully represents the LDS understanding of gender roles? On my positive days, I lean toward the former. After all, in practice, most functional LDS marriages are egalitarian in their decision making (if not their role bifurcation). On other days, however, the crushing fact that women’s subordination is ritually reenacted, over and over and over again, within Mormonism’s most sacred space, leads me to believe that the latter holds more purchase in Mormon cosmology. Ritual, as Durkheim says, powerfully sacralizes the hierarchical social order and communicates to adherents that that social order is the will of God.

I know many, many Mormons believe that women are not and should not be of secondary status to men. But so many of these Mormons who have come to that conclusion have done so despite being sent a different message in the temple. Perhaps it’s time for our leaders to consider amending this ritual so that it better reflects the egalitarian discourse embraced by so many General Authorities, a discourse which has risen to prominence over the last several decades. Such a change would also reflect the day to day lived practice of many Mormons in happy egalitarian marriages. It would also reflect the conviction and experience of so many of my faithful Mormon sisters that they have direct relationships with God, and that they are directly responsible to God.

As feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, there comes a time when old religious symbols or language no longer resonate, no longer carry the same meaning that they did for generations past. When that time comes, new symbols and new language must arise to replace the old, if the religion is to retain currency and impact in people’s lives. I think that time has come in Mormonism. Let the new symbols and language arise.


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

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39 Responses

  1. aly says:

    I agree that there are two stories we’re told about women’s roles in the church, and I too go back and forth somewhat on which version it is that the church gives most weight to. It’s interesting (and telling, I think) to note where the church seems to demand adherence to a very specific interpretation of a law (e.g., no coffee ever) and where the church seems to deliberately waffle or not really take a definite stand (e.g., how God views women’s power and potential vs. men’s). I have the same hopes that you do. Thanks for this!

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, there’s certainly a lot of contradictory messages sent about women’s status and role. My hope is that this contradictory messaging is the precurser to the old ways of thinking dropping out and the newer more egalitarian ones taking prominence (but the temple covenant must be changed for this shift to take place).

  2. Liz says:

    It’s crazy to think that one small change in wording (either having women covenant directly to God, or equalizing the wording between men and women, covenanting with each other as the other hearkens to God) would alleviate so much pain and cause such an immense cultural/doctrinal shift. And I generally think that’s what many people hear in the temple (that men and women work together and are equal before God), even if it’s not what is said. I also hope for this change – it seems so small, but would have such enormous implications.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, such a change would mean so much to me. This covenant brought on a real faith crisis for me. I imagine that’s the case for many others. It just needs to change.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I am so blessed to have found the Exponent community when I did. I’m getting married in April, and the temple confuses and frightens me in so many ways. Of course, it is extremely difficult to find anyone who is willing to talk about their frustrations with the temple, if they have any at all. It seems so many people hear what they want to hear or don’t find fault with anything in the ritual. My closest friends and family know I have studied the temple, that I have read all of the scripts, and that I vehemently disagree with much that is said and done within Mormonism’s holiest buildings. They assure me that when I go, I’ll feel the Spirit, and everything will “make sense” after I go at least a few times. This common response has been shocking to me. I am continuously saddened at what I so often observe in my hometown of Provo, Utah: women and men who take little note of possible gender inequality and hierarchy in the temple and elsewhere in the Church, women who submit to every possible gender role under the sun, and members who honestly don’t even seem to care. Obviously, this is not true of everyone, and many do have egalitarian marriages in practice, but I am astounded at the absence of outrage! Of course, this is a familiar narrative to many of the Exponent community. At times, it can feel incredibly disheartening. As of now, I struggle in wanting to go through the temple or get married there where I will not “receive” my husband as he receives me. As I have grown older, I have realized that Mormonism is much less of what I always perceived it to be. And when I am surrounded by female peers ar BYU who go to the temple on Friday night for “fun” and closeness with God…. by young women who know they want to be mothers and homemakers with a degree but not necessarily a career… it makes me feel Mormonism is not right for me! So after this long ramble, I would just like to thank everyone here at the Exponent for expressing my frustrations so poignantly, for advocating for change, and for helping me (and my wonderful fiancé) not feel so alone. Most of the young adults I know who have similar frustrations have chosen to leave the Church.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Also, I meant to insert that I respect any woman who has decided she wants to be a homemaker. I totally understand this is a necessity in many situations. But I also find it interesting that so many of my community choose this without considering more nuanced options.

    • Anna says:

      Elizabeth, I had friends who told me that when I went to the temple, then I would understand. When that only made it worse, people told me keep going back and after a while you will understand. But the more I went back, the more I understood that Mormon God loves his sons but not his daughters. But people just kept telling me to keep going until I felt comfortable with all the rituals, and as soon as they no longer seemed strange I would feel the spirit. But all I ever felt was that if this is really of God, then God is a jerk that I want nothing to do with.

      Now, there is a psychological principle that as you get used to something, it no longer seems so bad. If you tell yourself something often enough and long enough you will come to believe it. The church warns us about this in the things it calls evil. There is a saying about first you tolerate, then you embrace.

      But that is exactly the logic and psychological principle they are using to get you to embrace the temple. Just keep going back and keep telling yourself that this is good, and pretty soon you will embrace a God who loves you less than he loves his sons.

      Well, I just was not willing to learn to like the fact that God doesn’t really love me. So, I rejected the idea that the Mormon temple is from God. It was either that or reject God as a jerk who only loves his sons, Or reject myself as an unworthy female. The idea that God is good, and that he sees men and women as equals, simply cannot stand in light of what the temple teaches. Which idea is untrue? 1. God is good. 2. Men and women are equally loved by God. 3. The temple ceremony is from God.

      I was raised at a time when men and women were not seen as equals by most of society, and I believed it, but the temple still jarred me as wrong.

      • Moss says:

        “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” – The Handmaids Tale

      • Caroline says:

        Moss, that’s a dark quotation. And frighteningly applicable.

        Anna, like you, I wasn’t willing to keep going until it became less upsetting to me. I’ve drawn boundaries for myself which have enabled me to retain my Mormon activity and identity as well as my emotional and spiritual health. The most important boundary for me: not going to the temple.

      • OMJ says:

        I had the hardest time getting people to understand that it’s not the strangeness of the rituals that bothered me – it was the very direct, spoken messaging. The rituals are really not that weird.

        Sometimes I feel like the advice to “just go more often” is just a convenient way of shutting down discussion about it. It allows other people to not be troubled by what’s bothering me, because they can push it back on me to figure out on my own.

        Besides which, if the primary problem I have is with a covenant, I can’t “just go” without having to agree to all the same covenants each time. They don’t let you just watch. And of course you’re more likely to agree with something when you’ve been made to verbally agree with it over and over again, because your brain will try to resolve that cognitive dissonance. So that’s a bit manipulative.

      • Caroline Kline says:

        OMJ, I totally agree.

    • Caroline says:

      Elizabeth, solidarity, sister. I’m sure it’s hard to contemplate going to the temple and getting married in the temple when you know there is this kind of language there to contend with. For what it’s worth, I’ll tell you my thoughts on getting married in the temple: I’m glad I did it. Even if it caused me a lot of pain, it was worth it to me to marry the man I wanted (for him, the temple was non-negotiable.) I don’t know what is in store for us in the next life, but the idea of being with him for eternity is very appealing. So if saying those words and submitting to a ritual that violates my soul is the price of that eternal possibility, then I was willing to pay it. I’m both an idealist and a pragmatist, but in this situation, for me, pragmatism wins. Best wishes to you as you navigate your way forward.

      • Anna says:

        Caroline, on this too we have had similar feelings. For my husband temple marriage was non negotiable, and I would do it again for the chance of being with him for whatever time we have.

        I did not know anything before going through, so I was blindsided by it all. Today, there is more openness about it and of course the internet where you can look up the exact wording of the endowment. I think this is an advantage because by being so blindsided by the endowment, it got our marriage off to a real rocky start. We fought over the endowment, with my husband being hurt that I did not trust him to love me and treat me as an equal even if according to the temple he was my lord. But I had seen my own parents rotten marriage, and suddenly saw the why behind their bad marriage and felt so betrayed that my husband would want me to make such horrible promises when he was already endowed and I thought he should know. But come to find out, he had never noticed the things that slapped me in the face. He only heard the men’s endowment and somehow applied that to women too.

        So, our marriage got off on a real wrong foot because I had no idea going in what the endowment was about. If I had been able to consider things and make an informed decision, then I would not have felt so betrayed by my RM fiancé, who should have seen the sexism, but didn’t.

        So, knowing everything I know now, I would make the same choice, but it would not have been near as traumatic.

    • Katie says:

      Elizabeth, there are many women willing to discuss the temple freely, but it is usually those who have moved on (exMormons or those who still attend church only for a spouse, like me). If you’d like to be connected with some, let me know.

      You do receive your husband in the sealing, and he receives you. The difference is that he does not agree to “give” himself to you, like you give yourself to him.

      • Elizabeth says:

        I don’t know how I didn’t see this comment earlier, Katie. And yes, I knew it was something like that; I’d just forgotten the exact wording. Still just as disconcerting. I recently read an extensive article from 2014 (?) at FmH about the temple that was so comforting to me—not because it made it any more palatable, but because it helped me to realize that there are women (and men) who think it is entirely problematic and have chosen not to attend the temple for their own sanity. It articulated nearly everything I’ve sought to articulate about the temple. I would definitely like to get in touch with some of these women! My email address is

      • Katie says:

        Elizabeth, I finally got my information together and emailed you!

  4. Heather says:

    Amen, Caroline. Amen.

  5. Diana says:

    Not sure if this has been mentioned yet but the wording used to be ‘obey’ before it was changed to ‘harken’.

  6. Diana says:

    Adding here that ‘obey’ was the wording when I married but at the time I didn’t have too much concern about the wording because I always felt that our marriage would be one of equality – and it pretty much has been. The rituals did feel a little archaic but I think I felt that was to be expected – something otherworldly and removed from the day to day. That said I have never been a frequent temple attender and have become more troubled with the patriarchy in the church over the years,

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Anna, Moss, and Caroline, I truly appreciate your responses and words of advice. It comforts me to know that there are women who are just as troubled by these issues. I also feel very blessed to have a fiancé who is also troubled by the temple, but there’s something inside of me that says if I don’t get married there, I won’t be with him for eternity! I don’t know if this is socialization or the spirit… Alas. But I think Anna and Caroline’s advice is sound. And looking back on my last comment; I definitely did NOT mean to sound judgmental of others and their choices 🙂 But an extra amen to Moss’ quote. I hope the discrepancies and inequality within the temple (and elsewhere in Mormonism) become more obvious to Church members over time.

  8. Lily says:

    I just assume it means I follow a man that is kind and loving and making the correct decision. I rejected out of hand the idea that I follow a cruel abusive man, or that I follow an incorrect decision. I guess I hold my free will/agency too high. Not even God can take that away from me. Surely no mere mortal man can.

  9. Moss says:

    For me it is an ontological question- the pattern of God is to man as man is to woman (found in the new Testament and repeated throughout the temple- ie “unto your husband”) places me on a different level, ontologically, than my husband. This is what I find disturbing. I am married to a wonderful, kind egalitarian man and I still find this paradigm deeply troubling.

    Elizabeth it is a tough call. The temple sent me on a journey that I never could have predicted and challenged and broke me but also led me to my Savior. Pray about it. Ask questions. Trust yourself and the Holy Ghost to guide you.

    • Lily says:

      I guess I just never took it that way. From a practical standpoint, in my real life, that’s not how it works. I pray directly to God. I get answers directly from Him. No middle man. I know I have been healed WITHOUT a male priesthood member being involved. The Lord works directly with me on all fronts.

    • Moss says:

      And God definitely works directly with me, as well, which is why I find the patterns taught in our holiest place so difficult to process. I know God loves me as much as he loves his sons but I do not know how to reconcile that with what I see in the temple. The cognitive dissonance is difficult for me.

      • Lily says:

        I have felt the spirit in the Temple very strongly so I know most of it is from God. Its very easy for me to say “Some dude just stuck that piece in there. Its not true,” without having to throw out the whole experience.

        I don’t mean to add fuel to the fire, but what needs to be changed is the creation of Eve. Women (and men) have always existed. That is basic doctrine in the Church. Women weren’t created for men, they weren’t “created” at all. Sticking with the traditional Bible story on that front is what bothers me the most.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      Moss, that’s my feeling exactly. I also have a kind egalitarian husband who would never dream of pulling priesthood rank on me. So in practice, in my marriage, it’s not an issue. It’s the fact that theoretically in the place that is supposed to be closest to heaven on earth, I am subordinated to my husband. It’s deeply offensive to me.

      • OMJ says:

        Caroline, especially given how often people speak of everything else you learn in the church leading toward the temple. That would imply that what you learn there is more important than what you learn elsewhere, so the fact that my marriage happens to be an egalitarian one doesn’t mean that’s how it’s “supposed” to be or will be eternally.

  10. Emily U says:

    I had a similar experience with the endowment as you did, Caroline. I felt as if I’d been slapped. I now see that ritual as abusive – the same as if an adult had made soothing promises to a child, and once trust was gained, gave the child a punch in the nose.

    I also know many women who find other aspects of the temple spiritually enriching, and are able to hold their noses through the bad parts to be able to experience the good. I understand that. But I also kind of wish for a Lysistrata-like boycott of the temple. What else will get the attention of the prophet and apostles? What will tell them it’s time for a change? Because as long as they see a woman here or there rejecting the temple, they’ll be able to hold to the explanation that there’s just something wrong with her, not with the temple rituals themselves.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      “as if an adult had made soothing promises to a child, and once trust was gained, gave the child a punch in the nose.” That’s exactly how I felt — spiritually violated.

      And I would be thrilled if there was a Lysistrata-like movement regarding the temple. I think things would change very very quickly if women’s participation dropped drastically, and leaders understood it was because the wording in the temple doesn’t represent these women’s understanding of themselves or their place in the cosmos.

    • OMJ says:

      To me, it felt like if you suspected your friends of talking badly about you behind your back, and when you confronted them about it they reassured you…only for you to later catch them doing exactly that. Like, I sensed this subordination in the church, but I was told over and over again that it was an illusion. And then there it was, in plain language, and I was supposed to agree to it. Like I was just fooling myself all along.

      And I’ve actually heard from women (including feminists) that they find the endowment empowering, which, I just don’t get that at all. I wonder if they’re just better at disregarding the parts that bother them.

  11. Ziff says:

    Great post, Caroline. I agree that such a change would be great! I wonder if the secrecy of the temple makes it harder for the change to come about, though. If there are other issues people have with church practices, we can at least talk about them (even if some zealous members want to say that every jot and tittle of policy is dictated by Jesus so we should shut up), but with the temple, many members won’t talk about any of it at all. So it’s that much harder for discussion to even start. I think this effect is clear in the dual discourse you point out, where Church leaders will often talk a good egalitarian game. This evidences that they’re clearly bending to the changing norms of the larger world, where it’s (happily!) become less acceptable to just assume that women are always subordinate. But with the temple being so hush-hush, there’s hardly space to even bring up the massive problem of the inequality it enacts.

    • Caroline Kline says:

      That’s a great point, Ziff — the secrecy problem. People are afraid to talk about the hearken covenant (or any covenant), even though they make no promises not to discuss it. I think revealing that temple covenant secrecy as a cultural taboo — not religiously mandated — is a first step. This is why I really appreciate blog posts and social media posts that are upfront about the covenant language in the temple. The taboo needs to be exploded.

    • Moss says:

      The taboo is so strong. If you look on FairMormon’s website, they don’t discuss this issue, even in general terms under the temple or under women’s concerns. Books about the temple don’t come near it- even books about women’s experiences with the temple and the Adam and Eve narrative, like Eve an the Choice Made in Eden. It feels like gaslighting.

    • OMJ says:

      When I went through the first time and they let me meet with the Temple Matron to ask my questions, I asked her if the male washing and anointing ritual contained similar language to the female one (which says “unto your husband,” IIRC). She told me that *she didn’t know.* Like, you can’t even know what the content of a covenant is? I thought you could talk about all these things inside the temple, at least. It was pretty shocking to me, anyway.

      • Emily U says:

        OMJ, I was a temple worker for about a year. In a training session one time we all heard the male initiatory language, and (big surprise), it doesn’t use the same language as the one for women. I felt horrible that day.

      • OMJ says:

        Thanks, Emily U. That’s disappointing but not surprising.

    • Eirene says:

      Good point, Ziff. This difference between public discourse and the language used in the temple made the ordinance especially jarring for me the first time I went to the temple.

      It also doesn’t help that the opportunity to leave the ceremony happens BEFORE the language of the covenants is shared. I remember feeling like I had about 2 seconds after hearing the covenant to decide if I wanted to agree to it, and that I was making that decision in front of all my family members who were endowed, so the peer pressure was on.

  12. Patricia I Johnson says:

    I have never brooded about it, but when the wording was changed years ago I told my husband that it was disappointing and that I’d be much more satisfied if they put husbands under covenant to their wives for the next 150 years. That would still work for me!

  13. Rachel says:

    I grew up in Utah, attended church every Sunday, and was raised by parents who practiced this patriarchal hierarchy where my mom felt like since my dad presided in the home and held the priesthood, his word was always last. She felt like she couldn’t argue or disagree, and I felt like she couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up for me or support me when my dad was being controlling, manipulative, and abusive. I grew up feeling like I didn’t have a voice and was treated like I wasn’t capable of making good decisions. My dad actually passed the burden of worrying about me to my husband when we got married, saying I was his problem now. 18 years later, through counseling, soul searching, education, and the support of a very wonderful husband who actually treats me as an equal in our marriage and parenting quest, I suddenly realized how angry I am at what the church teaches in the temple, in the family proclamation, and in general practice with the role of men holding the priesthood and having keys, leading the church. Now I see everything through a different “lens.” I sat through a Sunday School lesson recently on the creation and wondered, “where were the women when the earth was formed?” I try talking to my friends, my sisters, the ladies I work with (all of whom I respect and regard as very intelligent, thoughtful women who attend the temple) and NONE of them seem to have an issue with hearkening unto their husbands as he hearkens unto God, giving themselves to their husbands in marriage, covering their faces in the holy order of prayer, or being presided over by their husbands in their families. I struggle with this so much, especially since my sister has suggested that the reason I have a problem with this is because of my unhealthy and abusive past. I feel so alone because I feel like no one else around me is outraged! They don’t feel uncomfortable with this at all. They don’t question or feel like they are regarded as less. I teach my daughters and the Young Women I serve that Heavenly Father loves them, yet I am terrified of when I actually have to take them through the temple to receive their endowments because I don’t want them feeling like I do! I have tried telling myself that we all have worth and value to Heavenly Father in different ways. Maybe our roles, missions, talents, and blessings on earth and in heaven are different, but equally important and valued? I just can’t get over the fact that just because someone was born male, he is the leader, the presider, and we are counselors as female. It doesn’t lessen the blow at all for me when talks are given that say mothers and fathers are equal when the wording in the temple and the Family proclamation is so obviously not equal. Why is it that I feel like if I seek counsel from any of my ward leaders or talk about it too much with friends (who may then “report me” to church leadership), I feel like I might get released from my calling in the Young Women Presidency? I feel like this is where I can teach of God’s love, confidence in the ability to receive personal revelation, and leadership skills. But why do I feel like I’m living on the edge when I talk women having access to the priesthood power through the Holy Ghost, our leadership role as women in the church is not to just support the priesthood, or our church’s history of women being given the authority to heal? I refuse to attend the temple while I feel this way, but I have a testimony of the restoration, the Book of Mormon, and of my Savior. How do I possibly reconcile this? Why can’t I just have faith that it will all work out? How can I not question my worth to Heavenly Father when I feel like I am constantly being told that my place is to counsel and hearken unto my husband (even though my husband is righteous and loving and hearkens unto God)? Is all of this just a result of living in a male dominated world for thousands of years, or is this truly how God sees women? Don’t even get me started on polygamy….

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