First Presidency statement on the war in Ukraine: "We are heartbroken and deeply concerned by the armed conflict now raging. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has members in each of the affected areas and throughout the world. Our minds and hearts have been turned toward them and all our brothers and sisters.
"We continue to pray for peace. We know that enduring peace can be found through Jesus Christ. He can calm and comfort our souls even in the midst of terrible conflicts. He taught us to love God and our neighbors.
"We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly, that the controversies will end peacefully, and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts. We plead with world leaders to seek for such resolutions and peace."
At times like this I wish the Church would let up on its neutrality a little. This statement is so generic that it could have been written about literally any armed conflict in the history of the world. It doesn't so much as mention the two nations involved by name, let alone that one is entirely an aggressor and the other is entirely a victim. But I get it. This is consistent with the Church's longstanding neutrality in war and international politics, and violating that for even the most clear-cut cases of good vs. evil would start a slippery slope.
During World War II, for instance, the First Presidency said in a much longer statement, "This Church is a worldwide church. Its devoted members are in both camps. They are the innocent war instrumentalities of their warring sovereignties. On each side they believe they are fighting for home and country and freedom. On each side, our brethren pray to the same God, in the same name, for victory. Both sides cannot be wholly right; perhaps neither is without wrong. God will work out in His own due time and in His own sovereign way the justice and right of the conflict, but He will not hold the innocent instrumentalities of the war, our brethren in arms, responsible for the conflict. This is a major crisis in the world-life of man. God is at the helm." The Church didn't even take a stand against Hitler at any point. It tried really hard to keep a low profile in Germany and not upset the Nazi regime in any way. Of course it's going to do the same in Russia, where its dozens of faithful members already face stigma, government suspicion, and significant religious freedom restrictions for being part of a religion that not only isn't the Russian Orthodox Church, but is an American unorthodox church. (Russians, like most non-Americans, are not very impressed with the "worldwide church" line.)
It's also consistent with what we know of Jesus' original ministry. We have no record of Him ever denouncing the wrongs of the Roman government - not cruel and unusual punishment, not slavery, not excessive taxation, nothing. He may have done that during the three decades of His life that we have virtually no record of either, but if so, He kept such activities separate from His preaching of the gospel (though I imagine He still used parables to get around the Romans' free speech restrictions). And herein lays a significant limitation of the mantra "What Would Jesus Do?" Jesus clearly had certain limited, often generic priorities for Himself and His church, with peace being a big one. That doesn't mean every individual follower has to match those priorities exactly and choose no others. Just because He doesn't spell out for each of us which sides to take and which causes to support doesn't mean for a moment we shouldn't take sides or support causes. So with respect, peace in itself is a necessary but not sufficient end goal for my prayers. A Russian victory would lead to peace, and it would be awful. In my judgment, the ideal outcome, and consequently the one for which I'm praying, is this:
1. Ukraine kicks Russia's жопа.
2. Putin and his accomplices are executed for war crimes.
3. Russia gets a new president who gives a проклятие about human rights.
(Also with respect, I am not the slightest bit concerned about the Kyiv Temple or other church facilities that can, if necessary, be repaired or rebuilt without putting a dent in the Church's funds.)
Since I'm not where I want to be in life, praying is about all I can do besides putting a Ukraine flag on my Facebook profile picture, but I have to ask, is it really any more effective? I certainly believe that God has blessed and will bless the people of Ukraine in response to their own prayers for themselves, their families, and their country. But why should mine have any effect on the outcome? Can I imagine God being like, "Hey Ukrainians, I was going to let Putin crush your defenses and place you and your descendants under a dictatorship for forty years, but this kid in America who makes me laugh sometimes put in a good word for you, so I'ma bail you out this time"? I recoil at the thought. So what is the point? Maybe just to let me sleep at night.
I think God is with Ukraine already. I don't want to speak too soon, because the tide could turn at any moment, but as of this writing, Ukrainians have put up a hell of a fight and totally humiliated Putin, whose substantially larger and better-equipped military has captured zero cities in four days. I am in awe of their spirit, their courage, their patriotism. I'm in awe of true leaders like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who refused an American offer to evacuate from the war zone by saying "I need ammunition, not a ride," and Parliament member Kira Rudik, who isn't taking дерьмо from anybody.
I'm in awe too of all the Russian citizens who are risking imprisonment and lifelong criminal records to protest against this invasion that they know is wrong. For their sakes, Putin and his accomplices need to be held accountable. They can't just be allowed to withdraw and move on like nothing happened. Forgiveness and charity do not include letting dictators and war criminals continue to destroy lives.
College students in Kyiv singing "Mighty to Save" as war rages a few miles away:
During the surprisingly painless Sunday school lesson on the Family Proclamation a couple months ago, someone in my ward mentioned a class the Logan Institute of Religion had done for LGBTQ+ allies, and said they were going to do it again. So I sought it out and signed up. It's not a standard class, but rather a seminar that started partway through the semester and is held once a week. It's had three meetings so far. They're an hour and a half each, but unfortunately I can only stay for about fifty minutes because of a time conflict. They're led by Brother Diamond, who's also in my stake presidency, and I've heard him talk about LGBTQ+ things before when he taught a class about all the controversial things. I didn't know what to expect from this seminar but just knowing that it exists with the institute's approval gave me hope for a better future.
As it turns out, Brother Diamond does very little, which is great. He opens by showing a music video - so far we've gotten two selections from Zach Williams and one from the Bonner Family - and then reiterates this quote from M. Russell Ballard: "We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord." That's essentially the course objective. Then he turns the time over to an LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saint attending USU who shares their story for thirty or forty minutes. Then everyone breaks into little groups and discusses what they've heard for a few minutes, and then the LGBTQ+ person takes questions. (Brother Diamond told everyone the first time to stay respectful during this portion, and he said he feels protective of these people and he's from England so he knows how to be rude.) Notably missing from this format is the teacher feeling a need to constantly remind us of church teachings on marriage and gender as if we're somehow at risk of forgetting about them. It's all about listening, learning, and loving. I'm very happy that the LGBTQ+ people get to speak for themselves and be as real and honest as they want. Their faith strengthens mine, though of course I never want to fall into the lazy self-serving "Look, here are some LGBTQ+ people who haven't left the Church, so everything is fine" trap.
So in the first meeting, this guy with an interesting hairstyle got up to speak and I thought, "He must be gay." He turned out instead to be asexual. I couldn't believe they started off the seminar with an asexual person. It was only the second time in a church setting - the first one being the aforementioned Sunday school lesson a couple months ago - that I heard anyone acknowledge the existence of asexual people, and the first time I heard the term used. I could imagine people seeing this as a copout, since he doesn't have any real desire to get married and he can just not get married and not deal with as much heartache as someone who does want to get married but is told their otions are to marry nobody or to marry somebody they're not attracted to. For me, though, it was kind of incredible to hear him speak. I'm vaguely aware that I fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, but I don't give that fact much thought. It causes me some angst because I do experience some romantic attraction and some desire for companionship and some awful cognitive dissonance about whether or not I want to get married, but that decision has been made for me and I don't feel like it affects my life much at this time. I 100% came to this seminar as an ally, not as an LGBTQ+ person seeking something for myself. But I got something anyway.
He talked about how he came out to his mission president, and his mission president totally dismissed his concerns and said he was too young to know this about himself and insisted that he will be attracted to his wife, and insisted on meeting with him every transfer, which was very embarrassing. Then a recent gay convert knew exactly what to say to cheer him up. I could relate a little. When I've told peers in the Church about being asexual, typically they didn't know what that was but could understand and accept it as soon as I explained. It's not complicated. If some people's hormones make them want to have sex with boys and some people's hormones make them want to have sex with girls and some people's hormones do both of those things, it's really just common sense that some people's hormones can't be bothered to do either of those things. And because I know what the Greek prefix "a-" means, I started identifying as asexual long before I knew others were doing the same. But my parents refused to accept it. My dad yelled once, "You're not 'asexual'! Maybe that's the buzzword..." When I asked, then, what terminology he thought I should use to indicate the fact that I've never had the slightest urge or desire to have sex at any point in my life, he said "Chaste, or celibate." Of course neither of those words is adequate because they describe behavior, or more accurately a lack thereof, and say nothing about the underlying cause that differentiates me from most people.
I just loved that this guy didn't hold back on sharing his experience with his mission president and how negative it was. During the Q&A session, someone asked if it had damaged his testimony that the mission president was called by God. He said it had made him angry at the time, but maybe the mission president needed that experience and maybe someday he'll remember it and be better for it. He said that church leaders have made plenty of mistakes, that church leaders are just like us, that the only difference is they have more authority. I just loved that kind of real talk. He was in my discussion group, but I didn't say anything because all I could think of was how much his experience resonated with mine, and I didn't want to make it about me. Then I left early. He probably thought I was offended.
The next week, we got a speaker who was asexual and genderfluid. Though biologically female (at least on the surface - other things may not line up, but it would be kind of gross for me to speculate on the inner workings of a stranger's body, so I won't, but I just want to be clear that I'm not oversimplifying biological sex or its connections to gender dysphoria), often they feel more male and sometimes they don't. I really wish I could understand what that feels like. I only know what it feels like to be one person - me. I don't have any point of reference to know what it's supposed to feel like to be a man or what it's supposed to feel like to be a woman. If I did feel like a woman, how would I even know? I guess a big part of it is just feeling like you're in the wrong body, but I don't even know what that feels like. The important thing, then, is for me to recognize that just because I haven't shared and can't personally relate to an experience doesn't make it less real or valid for someone else. They related this experience to Romans 8:16-18: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."
Before I had to leave, I was able to ask if they've had any struggles with the temple or other highly gender-segregated aspects of the Church. They said yes, some, but they feel so good at the temple that those struggles are minimized. In response to someone else's point-blank question, they acknowledged that they believe some things in the Family Proclamation are wrong, reiterated that church leaders receive revelation through their biases just like we do, and said that some things probably aren't going to change as long as certain people are around. I am so grateful to the institute for providing this safe space for them and others to be honest about beliefs that the institute would not likely share or endorse. We simply cannot "listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing" if we pressure them to self-censor and only say what they think we want to hear. In any case, church members of all stripes should all be able to accept that more light and knowledge on God's transgender children will be forthcoming. Dallin H. Oaks said in 2015, "I think we need to acknowledge that while we have been acquainted with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that."
The third week we heard from a gay woman. (She preferred to identify as "gay" rather than "lesbian", but in this context it's the same thing.) Growing up, she realized that she liked girls and that other girls didn't like girls, and she tried to get over that by looking at boys and thinking "If I liked this boy, what would I like about him?" and acting more boy-crazy than any of her friends. She said a lot of gay people do this kind of masking, so if they come out later in life, it's not helpful to say "But you weren't like that before!" I could relate a little to this experience too. I've never been gay, but being called "faggot" five times a day on the school bus made me a little defensive regardless. I made a big screaming deal out of all my crushes until people got really annoyed at me. "Look," I tried to say, "I like girls, I like girls so much. Just girls and that's all."
Growing up in the Church, she heard the teaching that "the attraction isn't a sin but acting on it is," and thought that meant she wasn't supposed to think about it, talk about it, or read about it. She wouldn't even acknowledge it to God. A Young Women leader told her class that same-sex attraction wouldn't exist in the next life, and she interpreted that to mean that God wanted her to kill herself so she could be fixed. Fortunately she didn't go through with it like many others have. As she pointed out, an LGBTQ+ youth aged 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the United States. Again, I loved this kind of real talk - not that I loved what she said, of course, but I loved that she didn't sugarcoat it to make straight people more comfortable. And then, like so many others, she believed that her same-sex attraction would go away if she served a mission. Fortunately that wasn't her only reason for serving a mission, and she said she loved everything about it. Afterward, when she found that she was still gay, she finally opened up to God about it and got into a healthier place. She acknowledged that the lifestyle options left open to her by church teachings aren't thrilling, but she was hopeful and faithful. I don't remember more specifics about that and I missed some stuff because she talked for a long time and I had to leave before we even got to the group discussions.
None of the speakers had quick and easy answers for how to make their lives in the Church easier. If quick and easy answers existed, this seminar wouldn't need to. But I think they taught us how to create a healthier and more inclusive and accepting community. Again, this works in large part because Brother Diamond recognizes that it isn't his job or our job to be obsessed with whether LGBTQ+ people are "acting on it". Adding a caveat to every expression of love is not loving at all. They know the Church's teachings, and they are following the Church's teachings, but if they ever change their minds about that, it's between them and God and doesn't absolve any Latter-day Saint of the commandment to love them, mourn with them, and comfort them. This seminar is exceeding my expectations.
Lately I feel like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actively trying to push me out of it by doubling down on a facile, myopic, and demonstrably incorrect view of itself and the restored gospel that I cannot accept without shutting my brain off. For example, as part of recent high-level efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging of members in Europe, Russell M. Nelson's wife Wendy said in a devotional, "My testimony is that prophets of God always speak the truth" and "For this new year let's put an exclamation mark after every statement from a prophet, and a question mark after everything else we read, see, or hear." Okay, so this paraphrase about putting exclamation points instead of question marks after prophetic statements was also shared by Neil L. Anderson in General Conference a couple years ago, and I didn't find it helpful then either. It rather obtusely sidesteps the legitimate issue of prophetic fallability. But by saying that "prophets of God always speak the truth," Sister Nelson goes a step further and claims that prophetic fallability doesn't even exist. There's no way to spin that statement to make it accurate. If prophets of God always spoke the truth, they wouldn't contradict each other (or themselves) and the Church wouldn't have to formally disavow all the racist things that Brigham Young and others said. Later she asks members to question everything they read, see or hear except the prophet. Um, yikes. And she thinks statements like this will prevent loss of faith?
This brings me, then, to a discussion of Brad Wilcox's recent controversial fireside in Alpine, Utah. I know it's been discussed to death, and I'm sure he feels bad enough and I have no desire to rub it in further, but it's not like he'll ever read my blog anyway, and I can't not discuss it after it caused me so much angst this week that I could have lived without.
Everyone who's met Brother Wilcox says he's very nice. I've been aware of him since I was ten years old or so, when my parents outsourced most of my sex education to a book he wrote, and I've been in Utah long enough to hear him speak twice - at the Logan Institute's weekly Religion in Life devotional and years later to my YSA stake. On both those occasions, he said almost verbatim the same things about black people and women that have aroused such controversy this time. This time, however, his talk was structured around trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of young people. He said at the beginning, "Maybe some people can leave some churches and they don’t miss that much. But you leave this church, you miss everything. You miss everything. Let’s talk about the blessings of the gospel that you can only find here." And he reiterated at the end, "I hope you realize that if you walk away from this religion, you lose everything. You lose everything. Everything that truly matters most. So stay put. Stay strong. Look for every possible reason there is to stay. And there is to share the truths we have that cannot be found elsewhere." And in between as he went through each of his topics - Godhead, Only True Church, Spirit, Priesthood, Everyone, and Living Prophets (GOSPEL) - he kept stressing the things that people will lose if they leave the Church.
It would be unfair to call his approach entirely fear-based. He does focus on the positives that the Church has to offer. But at the same time, he is trying to make people afraid to lose those positives. I think he could have eliminated that side of things altogether. For me and many others, it has the opposite effect of encouraging us to stay. It makes me think, "Why do you have to beg and cajole me not to leave instead of making me want to stay?" His assertions that people who leave lose everything are both false and perplexing in light of his acknowledgement elsewhere in the talk that people of other faiths have truth and access to the Spirit. One of my closest friends right now is a former Latter-day Saint who believes that when she left the Church, she kept all the true and good parts and simply added to them. (Why does that sound familiar?) I discussed this talk with her and she said it's too bad because she likes Brad Wilcox. She's one of the kindest people I know, she rarely stops smiling, and I have holy envy for her expansive and inclusive spirituality. I think I'm more committed to an ideal of objective truth than she is, but nonetheless, I want to do what she does and what Joseph Smith said to do: "We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons." This expansive and inclusive view has always been integral to the gospel, but it's always been in tension with the "only true church" thing. And Brother Wilcox didn't get off to a promising start in that section of his talk either.
"If you haven’t yet run into somebody who gets a little uptight when you say 'This is the only true Church,' then you will run into somebody who will get uptight because they don’t like that. They don’t think that sounds very tolerant. And in today’s world, tolerance trumps all. So by hang, we better be tolerant." Now, I believe in objective truth and I don't believe all religions can be equally true, so I'm not opposed to this concept on principle, but yes, tolerance ought to compel us to be very tactful about how we share it, and comprising .02% of the world's population (or less than half that if you only count active members) ought to give us a little humility in our interactions with the other 99.98%. And I think Brother Wilcox gets that. He said, "But we’re not screaming 'We’re number one,' saying we’re better than everybody else. We’re saying 'We’re the only true Church' in a spirit of invitation." Then he used an analogy from Boyd K. Packer: "Truth is like a piano keyboard; some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano." I think this analogy still misses the mark. I think it drastically undervalues the amount of truth and goodness that other faiths (not just Christian churches) have, and oversells how much we have. If we have a whole piano, why do we need continuing revelation or an ongoing Restoration? Why should I even think God is limited to one instrument? And then Brother Wilcox went and made it needlessly derisive: "You walk away from the Church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing Chopsticks the rest of your life. I don’t want to play Chopsticks the rest of my life." And I personally don't want to hear only piano music for the rest of my life.
In the section on Spirit he said some nicer and more nuanced things, but in the section on priesthood - which has been at the center of the controversy - he went right back to being derisive. He opened with, "How many of you used to play school? Okay, good. I’m glad to see those hands up. How many of you used to play Church? I’m glad to see a few hands go up. My kids played Church. They’d pull out the stuffed animals, they’d put them on the couch, they’d sing the song, they’d do the talk, [I] got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament, but they played church. And I used to think, 'Oh, that’s so cute. It’s so cute.' But now I’m older, and I realized it wasn’t just cute. It’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing Church. They’re sincere, they want it to count, but they don’t have the authority. They don’t have God’s permission. So that the things they do really count on Earth and in eternity. Man, I want what I’m doing to count. And to be able to have that, we have to have the priesthood. We have to have that." Wow. I hope I don't have to explain why this is an unwarranted slap in the face to billions of good and sincere people. I look at these people and think about how proud God is of their goodness and sincerity, and how much He blesses them and works through them. Brother Wilcox and many, many other Latter-day Saints look at these people and think how sad it is that they're all wrong. To the extent that this attitude wins out in the Church, it is not a spiritually healthy place for me.
Moving right along: "Now, sadly, you live in a time where a lot of people get uptight about priesthood issues. It’s one of the most glorious things we have in the church, and yet people want to sit and fight about it and get uptight about it. Now, I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex issue, but I sure think we make it a little harder than it needs to be. 'How come the blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? What’s up with that, Brother Wilcox? What? Brigham Young was a jerk? Members of the Church were prejudiced?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying, 'Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978?', maybe what we should be asking is 'Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?' 1,829 years they waited. And why did the Gentiles have to wait until after the Jews? And why did everybody in the House of Israel except the tribe of Levi have to wait until - when you look at it like that, then instead of trying to feel like you have to figure out God’s timeline, we can just be grateful. Grateful right down to our socks that the blacks received the priesthood in ’78. Grateful, right down to our socks that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had the priest to restore to them in 1829. Maybe we should just feel grateful."
This is one of the things he said both times I heard him speak in Logan. I didn't recognize it as racist, because he didn't say anything about black people being inferior or cursed or less valiant, but I did have mixed feelings about it. One can split hairs about whether "Brigham Young was a jerk," but yes, he was absolutely prejudiced, and so were other leaders and members of the Church. That's very well-documented. It's not up for debate. What's bizarre here is that by mentioning Brigham Young, Brother Wilcox seems to show an awareness that he, not Joseph Smith, instituted the priesthood ban. So Brother Wilcox seems to be aware, as most people are nowadays, that black people did get the priesthood well before 1978, and then it was taken away from them. What does that mean for his ideas about God's timeline? Nonetheless - and maybe this makes me racist, I don't know, but when I heard him say this I thought his other questions were legitimate points. Not answers to the issue by any means, but additional food for thought. I had figured out long before his talks that there's very little evidence the priesthood ban had anything to do with God, and a lot of evidence that it had to do with white men being racist, but in order to maintain my faith I had to believe that God had some greater non-racist purpose for allowing this mistake. He could have stopped it. I don't buy the argument that stopping it would have thwarted Brigham Young's agency. Brigham Young wanted to do what God wanted him to do, and would have appreciated the correction. In any case, I failed to grasp just how insensitive Brother Wilcox's dismissal of racism was, and obviously so did he.
He continued: "'Yeah, but, Brother Wilcox, how come the girls don’t have the priesthood? I mean, that’s what I want to know. How come the girls don’t have the priesthood? What’s up with that?' Girls, you’re going to hear a lot of people say a lot of things, and many of them say them with very angry voices, but just because somebody’s angry doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. Just because somebody’s loud doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. I was at a professional conference for BYU. I had a name tag. It said, 'Brad Wilcox, Brigham Young University'. Some lady walked up to me that I didn’t even know, she sees my name tag. And she’s like, 'Oh... WHY DON’T YOU GIVE WOMEN THE PRIESTHOOD?' Just like that! And I said, 'Good to meet you, too.' And then I asked, 'What’s the priesthood?' and she said, '...Well, I don’t know, but I think the women should have it.' Seriously? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it?' What’s malaria? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it.' I mean, I’m going to let her voice, that’s very shallow, drown out my testimony just because she’s loud? No way." One thing that doesn't come across in a transcript is the faces and voices Brother Wilcox did when citing people like this anonymous woman to make them look and sound stupid. I highly doubt that in real life her eyes bugged out and she shouted just like that. It's pretty juvenile and uncalled for, but he was speaking to young people and trying to be funny, and obviously it's worked for him until now.
"Girls, listen closely, because I don’t know that you’ll ever have somebody explain it quite this point blank again. You have access to every priesthood blessing. There is not one priesthood blessing that you are denied. And you serve with priesthood authority. When you are set apart in a class presidency or you’re set apart as a missionary or in any calling in the church, you serve with priesthood authority. You will go to temples where you will be endowed with priesthood power, and you will dress in priesthood robes. 'How come the girls don’t have the priesthood?' What the heck are they talking about? Your life exudes priesthood; it’s surrounded by priesthood; it emanates priesthood." When church meetings were canceled during the early months of the pandemic, many women without priesthood-holding men in their households found it difficult or impossible to receive the sacrament. They did not "have access to every priesthood blessing."
"'Well, how come women don’t have priesthood keys?' Well, how come most men in the church don’t have priesthood keys? Priesthood keys are an organizational structure. It’s how God’s house is a house of order. And so not everybody needs them; just those who are part of this organizational structure. So how many men in a ward have priesthood keys? The Spirit is whispering... The Spirit is whispering... Four! You knew it! You knew it. I’m so proud of you.... So girls, don’t mix keys up with influence. We’re certainly not saying the only ones who have influence in the church are the Bishop, the Elder’s Quorum President, the Teacher’s Quorum President, and the Deacon’s Quorum President. Surely there are others at all levels of the Church who have great influence without having keys. So don’t mix those up; don’t think that that’s something that’s needed to be able to make a difference." Theoretically true, but how much influence can women really have when they're superfluous to the organizational structure and listening to them in meetings is optional? A congregation needs a certain number of tithepaying Melchizedek priesthood holders to exist. It doesn't need a Relief Society. Speaking of which, I've mentioned before how both of the Relief Society general presidency counselors in 1995 attested that the male church leaders never consulted them about the Family Proclamation or even told them it was in the works. Chieko Okazaki remarked, "Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there." How's that for influence?
"What else don’t women have? Priesthood ordination. They’re not ordained to the priesthood. 'Well, how come they’re not ordained to the priesthood?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking, 'Why don’t they need to be.' Girls, how many of you have ever entered a temple to perform ordinances? Raise your hands high. Raise them high. Do you realize that you have done something that no man on this Earth can do? There is not a male on this planet who can enter a temple to perform ordinances without being ordained, and yet you just waltz right in. You just walk right in. So what is it that sisters are bringing with them from a premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination? Maybe that’s the question that ought to be keeping us up at night." I guess I accepted this as a legitimate point the first two times I heard it because he didn't exactly come out and say "Women need the priesthood because they're better than men," which I've had a problem with for a long time. Now that I've had my feminist awakening, I can see how patronizing it is regardless. Abby Hansen explained it better than I could over at the Exponent blog:
"We have to do everything else that a man does to go to the temple. I don’t get a free pass on paying tithing, drinking tea, or skipping my church meetings. I still have to answer temple recommend questions every two years and be interviewed by my male priesthood leaders where I tell them what kind of underwear I wear each day. I have to cross every single hurdle that men have to cross – except for the one that lets me bless my sick children in the middle of the night, preside in a meeting, or see women with authority, independence and final decision making ability. For most of the history of the temple, women (including myself) didn’t make covenants directly with God like the men did, and our entire destiny and eternal potential is a complete mystery because Heavenly Mother is a hidden secret – but because we don’t have to have priesthood ordination to go into the temple, somehow that’s supposed to make it all okay? Are men picked on and persecuted because they get to possess the actual power of the God of the entire universe while girls and women just have to do everything else exactly the same, only minus the power and authority? Oh, my. It must be so hard to be a man."
Brother Wilcox did say one thing the first time I heard him that he seems to have subsequently dropped from his repertoire. He gave it as his opinion, and he's entitled to his opinions, but I thought it was a silly opinion and I was glad to see it go. It was a thought on why the Book of Mormon only mentions six women by name (half of whom are from the Bible). "You know what's happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus?" She's revered by three billion people? "Her name is a swear word!" Oh, yeah, I guess I have also heard her name used as a swear word twice in my life. Actually, a much better example to support his opinion would have been Eve, who's long been blamed for all the problems in the world and regarded as ipso facto proof of female inferiority. But the whole idea that women were kept out of the Book of Mormon to protect them struck me as absurd. How many people outside the Church could even name one Book of Mormon character who isn't also in the Bible? Why, I wondered, can't we just admit that the Nephites were sexist like every other culture in the history of the world? I don't know why he stopped saying that, but I assume he realized it didn't make sense, and I respect that.
[ADDENDUM: I'm keeping in the above rhetorical question about sexist cultures because it's just about word-for-word what I thought at the time, but I will pass along this feedback from a friend: "I was perturbed when you mentioned all other cultures in the world are sexist. I don't know how much you know about Hinduism, but we worship goddesses and have been for the last 5000 years (well before the feminist movement). We elected women leaders to run our country on multiple occasions. We're not perfect by any means and there is room for constant improvement but I wanted to make sure you were privy to that knowledge in case you might need it in the future sometime. Other than that I loved your article. Thank you for writing and sharing it."]
Now again, I'm not interested in piling on Brad Wilcox and I'm sure he's a great person, but I hope everyone in church leadership is getting the message loud and clear: THIS APPROACH TO KEEPING PEOPLE IN THE CHURCH WILL NOT WORK. I would have hoped that would be obvious by now.
Much of the Church's current rhetoric feels to me like five steps backward after some initial progress in being candid about difficult issues and shedding toxic cultural baggage. But there was one good thing to come out of Brother Wilcox's talk, and that was his apology on Facebook: "My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better." Now, many have questioned the sincerity of his apology for saying the same thing he's said several times before, and pointed out that it doesn't mention the other offensive aspects of his talk, but I see it as a big deal because church leaders never publicly apologize for anything. I don't suggest for a moment that they owe an apology every time people are upset about something they said, but Brad Wilcox is hardly the first one to screw up and he won't be the last. I hope this action on his part will set a precedent and open a new chapter of much-needed institutional humility.
Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' teachings on women in marriage and in the workforce have evolved. I cited, among several other things, Ensign articles from 1973 and 1982 on the so-called "patriarchal order of marriage". Then I said, "Now here's a fun fact. If you type 'patriarchal order of marriage' into a standard search engine, these two Ensign articles about it will be among the top results, if not the top results as they are for me. If you type 'patriarchal order of marriage' into the Church website search engine, they won't even show up. I'm sure this is intentional. I'm sure people behind the scenes made a conscious decision to distance the Church from this teaching that 'will continue throughout time and eternity'. I do agree that because these articles appeared in the magazine they need to be on the website for the sake of honesty, but not in such a way as to actually influence people's marriages. I think they should just include a disclaimer on each explaining that the contents do not accurately represent the current teachings of the Church. But such a blunt acknowledgement that the Church's teachings have changed would make a few heads explode."
I probably had nothing to do with, but can't prove that I had nothing to do with, the disclaimer that did appear on one of these articles last month: "Editors’ note (Jan. 2022): Articles in the magazines archive may reflect practices and language of an earlier time. More current messages from the magazines on the relationship between husbands and wives include 'Spiritual Treasures' and 'Achieving Oneness in Marriage.' See also 'Marriage' in Gospel Topics."
The choice to put a date on the Editors' note, instead of treating it as timeless, is an interesting one. The Gospel Topics essays don't have dates, which makes readers a little bit less likely to question why the Church waited until 2014-15 to be so transparent. In this case the editors would have made themselves look a little better by not calling attention to the fact that this disclaimer came almost 49 years after the article. So this is a little piece of transparency that I wouldn't have expected or demanded, but I applaud them for it. Note, however, the careful phrasing - only "practices and language" have changed, not doctrine, because doctrine never changes, because the stuff that changes was never doctrine. (This useless circular definition is why I rarely even use the word "doctrine" anymore.) Of course, it's very clear that Brent L. Barlow thought the views expressed in his article were eternal truth, so we can learn a valuable lesson from that, can't we? I do also want to point out that the "language of an earlier time" in this instance refers pretty exclusively to the Church's language, not society's. To my knowledge, church leaders invented the phrase "patriarchal order of marriage" (though of course the general idea of male dominance in marriage predates them by a very long time), and the definition of "preside" has not changed in the rest of the English-speaking world since the 1970s like it has within the Church.
Evil liberal feminist apostate Jana Riess writes in her report of the disclaimer, "I’m not sure if this correction is a one-off or the beginning of a more mature relationship with our own history. I hope it’s the latter. Considering how important many Latter-day Saints claim our own history to be, there is a kind of historylessness that arises whenever things get uncomfortable. What I mean by that is that some people assert the Church never changes despite abundant evidence that it does, or they even go to great lengths to hide the reality of those changes." Yes! This frustrates me so much - this cultural amnesia, this constant pretense that all of the Church's teachings are eternal and unchanging when two minutes of Google searching demonstrates otherwise. It should not be the most difficult thing in the world for a "true and living" church that believes in getting truth "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little" to embrace the constancy of change, but that's not the paradigm I got from church growing up or the predominant one I encounter at church today of "The Church is true because it doesn't change." The implication, and sometimes the explicit claim, every time I'm taught about gender roles in a church setting is that they've always been the way they are now and always will be. And that's not true.
The other article, by Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Seventy, didn't get a disclaimer, but it doesn't need one as urgently, since it opens with the sentence "These comments on the importance of the patriarchal order in marriage represent my personal views." And it isn't as egregiously sexist as the first - but maybe that makes it worse. The first article probably influenced both of my grandmothers in their respective marriages, and that pisses me off, but it's so out of sync with society's current values and the Church's current teachings that women or men stumbling upon it nowadays are far more likely to laugh in disbelief than actually consider giving heed to its counsel. Elder Larsen's article is much softer, much nicer. He presents his views as a moderate and reasonable alternative to a domineering young fiancé's "misunderstanding of the patriarchal order, for there could hardly have been a greater distortion or misrepresentation of the actual conditions that must prevail within that order." As I said in my previous post: "I think that if a principle looks sexist and can easily be misunderstood or warped to be sexist, the most obvious explanation is that it's just sexist. And in that case, we should recognize it as such and reject it instead of splitting hairs about why it's not really sexist."
Since becoming a feminist, I notice things that I wouldn't have given a second thought before, like the fact that men in the Church often have different titles based on their callings - Elder, Bishop, President - while every woman is referred to by virtually everyone as "Sister" even if she's in one of the few leadership positions available to her. This stood out to me again last Sunday when President Bonnie H. Cordon of the Young Women organization spoke to my stake. And I don't mean to single out my stake president, who's a phenomenal guy, who agreed with me when I complained about my bishop's anti-working-mothers rant, who was just talking the way virtually everyone else in the Church talks. But I just noticed that he was introduced as "President", and he, following protocol, introduced both of his own counselors as "President" even though they aren't, and then he introduced the speaker as "Sister Bonnie H. Cardon [sic], president of the Young Women." So that rubbed me the wrong way, but I let it go and enjoyed her delightful presentation. But then, then something interesting happened. At least it was interesting to me because I care about these things. At one point toward the end, she referred to herself in the third person, and she said "President Cordon". Not Sister Cordon. President Cordon. There's no way that wasn't a conscious choice on her part. People don't call her President Cordon, so at some point she must have decided that she wanted to think of herself as President Cordon.
Of course I can understand why President Cordon and various other Young Women, Primary, and Relief Society presidents, general or local, wouldn't want to make a big fuss about being addressed by the titles to which they're entitled. It would seem egotistical. Indeed, titles shouldn't be a big deal, and many of us in the Church could stand to tone down our worship of men with Elder or President in front of their names. The issue is one of equal dignity and recognition. There is no reason at all not to refer to a female president as President. Further, this would be a very simple cultural change to make without any structural or procedural changes. I'm sure people disagree on whether the change would be trivial and superficial or whether its symbolic significance would have a widespread ripple effect on attitudes of equality overall - but in either case, the change is too simple and obvious to justify not making. It would be like how the Church News now gives equal emphasis to the announcements of temple presidents and matrons - the latter have been included since at least the 1970s, but not mentioned in the headlines - and on that note, Rick Satterfield's definitive temples website now lists the matrons as well as the presidents of all the temples, and that's because I made the suggestion to him late last year and then collected most of the names for him, so I have made a tangible difference somewhere at some time.
As far as what President Cordon actually said, it was good stuff about trusting God and so on. She asked us to think about what title we would use to introduce Jesus to someone, and this is awful, but I picked one that was meaningful to me at the moment and now I can't remember it. (Edit: Now I remember that I picked "Shepherd" because I desperately want Jesus to guide me.) Then she asked how we think Jesus would introduce us, what attribute He would highlight. And I picked "patient." Anyone who knows me very well is probably rolling on the floor laughing at that, but let me explain. God has kept me waiting on His promises for a very, very long time, and I've made a heck of a lot of progress at trusting His timing and being cheerful and not yelling at Him when He disregards my suggestions. Jesus would focus more on that progress than on my continued shortcomings. He sees the best in people. President Cordon also talked a lot about the opportunity to become an FSY (the successor to EFY) counselor this summer, and I'm thinking about it, since I will be in between my Masters degree and whatever I'm going to do next. On the one hand, my experience teaching five (going on seven) classes of college freshmen would seem to be great preparation. On the other hand, blog posts like this one will probably disqualify me.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.