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.