APRIL 29, 2015
When I look at my Savior […] I see someone who showed what true, equal love looks like, and I do not think that His church is where I should have learned about inequality for the first time.
— 17-year-old Emma Tueller, would-be LDS priestess
TERRYL GIVENS’S new work of Mormon theology is replete with nifty little epigraphs. Each chapter and subsection has one; there are a few mid-section, one for the whole book — 27 in all. Like all good epigraphs, they plant a seed for what’s coming and illustrate the erudition of the author. In addition, Givens’s epigraphs advance one of his primary goals by placing pithy lines from Mormon thinkers alongside pithy lines from representatives of the longer Christian tradition: Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are there, but so are the Emperor Justinian, the authors of the Westminster Confession, Revolutionary-era preacher Jonathan Mayhew, slave preacher John Jasper. The authors quoted are a reasonably diverse lot except for one particularly glaring characteristic: save one, they are all men. The one outlying epigraph is probably the most important thing ever written by a Mormon woman, a couplet by 19th-century poet Eliza R. Snow, labeled not with her name but with “LDS Hymn.”
It’s not that there aren’t female voices in Givens’s account — Snow is discussed at length as the hymn’s author elsewhere. Quite a lot of this book is necessarily taken up with matters of family, gender, and sex. Compared to the dominant tone struck by his church’s leadership, Givens’s views on these matters are progressive. In the contemporary context in which this book has appeared, though, its emphatically male framing is hard to miss. Last year, the place of women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made headlines when Kate Kelly, a leader of a group called “Ordain Women,” was excommunicated. In early February the same fate befell John Dehlin, who advocated for both same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.
Wrestling the Angel is a comprehensive synthesis of Mormon theology. It’s not specifically about the theological particulars that undergird the Church’s increasingly unpopular sexual politics. Right now, however, those particulars are what people are interested in, and Givens’s struggle with them is emblematic of his Church’s current predicament. In a different era, a cogent, explicitely Christian synthesis of Mormon theology such as this one would have performed an apologetic purpose, giving Mormon thought the dignity it deserves. Nowadays, though, Mormon thought largely has that dignity. What readers both inside and outside the Church wonder about now is why it is so closely associated with an understanding of sex and gender that many find backward. The theological answers presented here are haunted by political questions.
Givens is one of Mormonism’s most important public ambassadors. As he is quick to make plain, he has no particular authority within the LDS Church, but he is devout, an expert with respect to Mormonism and historical Christianity more broadly. He has looked at the history of the Book of Mormon, the lives of Mormon historical and cultural figures, and the history of anti-Mormonism in ways accessible to insiders and outsiders alike.
Wrestling opens with a bold introduction in which Givens defends his account of Mormon theology against the common assertion that Mormonism does not, in fact, have a theology. Among Mormons, such an assertion has positive connotations: it suggests an aversion to systemization and abstract doctrine in favor of a living, vital faith. Coming from outsiders, though, the same claim can be a serious charge. As J. Spencer Fluhman has shown recently, it once meant that Mormonism did not have to be taken seriously as a religion. The stakes were high. The state of Missouri famously issued an extermination order targeting Mormons in 1838. Something like a thousand Mormon men were imprisoned in the 19th century for having more than one wife.
But those days are past now: few critics of Mormonism today would join their 19th-century forebears in claiming that Mormonism is not a religion, owing to changes in both what they think religion is and perceptions of Mormonism itself. Beyond that, only a small subset of conservative evangelicals make a point of rehashing the question of whether Mormonism is a form of Christianity. Most Americans find this to be either not a question — “They sure talk a lot about Jesus, don’t they?” — or a totally uninteresting one. Mitt Romney won’t be president because he’s bad at politics, not because he’s a Mormon.
Wrestling acknowledges that times have changed. Givens’s voice is authoritative and, where necessary, blunt. For the most part, he makes no effort to minimize Mormonism’s differences from other contemporary forms of Christianity, nor does he suggest any insecurity about Mormonism’s efficacy as a Christian system of thought and practice, an intellectual interlocutor worthy of Aquinas, Luther, and Barth. The Church itself has recently demonstrated a new theological and historical confidence by releasing a series of articles engaging in academic conversations about controversial “Gospel Topics” such as race and the priesthood, temple rites, and, inevitably, polygamy. The trend is decidedly toward the increased transparency befitting a religious group that is not on the defensive but is, rather, just another among many: “This is who we are, think what you want.”
The LDS Church’s PR problems today are not, strictly speaking, about belief or history: they are about Mormonism’s current culture. It’s one thing to notice that your LDS friend doesn’t share your belief in the Trinity and believes in continuing revelation, but quite another to become convinced that her church makes life hard for her.
The perception that Mormonism may have a problem with women certainly draws resonance from the legacy of polygamy, which mainline Mormons abandoned over a century ago. Its modern history, however, begins with the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the 1970s, the Church used its vast voluntary organizational structure to mobilize members, mostly women, to help defeat an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have required the application of all state and federal laws without regard to sex. Leaders of the LDS Church saw the amendment as a direct contravention of some of their faith’s essential commitments. As Givens explains, all of Mormon theology is organized around the Plan of Salvation, by which God intends to assist souls in moving to higher and higher levels of glory. These souls — who are us — are eternal: we exist before birth as “fully individuated, pre-mortal humans,” and sexual identity is ineradicable from this individual identity. We are not only born into physical bodies with male or female reproductive organs: we are male or female eternally, before, during, and after our mortal life, and each sex has specific rights and responsibilities. Mormons felt that the ERA was going to erase, in the eyes of the law, an identity ordained by God.
The same theological principles that drove opposition to the ERA have driven subsequent controversies over the place of women and same-sex couples within the Church. In 2008, the Church gave full-throated support to Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The most recent public flare-up has concerned priesthood authority for women. Joseph Smith, the Church’s founding prophet, taught that the true Church established by Jesus Christ consisted of a very particular authority, one that was lost among Christians much too soon after the events of the New Testament. As Givens chronicles, Mormonism’s founding events consisted of the restoration of this priestly authority through Smith and his close associates and its subsequent passing down to male members of the Church. Typically, a boy receives the lower priesthood at age 12, which in practice means he can pass communion trays and, eventually, perform baptisms. He receives the greater priesthood in his late teens, which qualifies him to preach. Except at the very highest levels, Mormonism has no paid clergy: churches are led by holders of the higher priesthood, who could theoretically be any member of the laity.
Any male member of the laity, that is. Priesthood authority is a prerogative of maleness, eternally assigned. Leadership of families and churches is tied to the priesthood, and thus to maleness. At the end of the day, the LDS Church is not only a patriarchy in the sense of the Patriarchy, the one that permeates the rest of society, usually sublimated, subject to denial yet emphatically real. The LDS Church is a patriarchy in the sense that it is an organization run by dudes, and only dudes.
Mormons are hardly alone here among Christian groups — Southern Baptists and Catholics don’t ordain women, either. The difference is that not every Southern Baptist or Catholic aspires or is expected to join the clergy. Every male Mormon in good standing is ordained to the priesthood as a rite of passage and an invitation to join more fully in the life of the Church later. It’s a carrot held out for boys, the rite of adulthood and responsibility toward which young men are taught to orient themselves. The priesthood is not an abstraction, but something that is visibly, ritually, rhetorically made sacred to everyday Mormons. Beyond participation in church leadership, women agitating for their ordination say that they feel second-class in very personal ways: LDS men can honor their children, their spouses, their loved ones and friends with blessings and sacraments, while women cannot.
Mormons are quick to suggest that, nevertheless, women enjoy equal status and dignity within the Church. “If there is a consistent direction in Mormon conceptions of the family,” Givens observes, “it is in the direction of a more fully egalitarian, companionate view of marriage.” He further explains that Mormon theology has unique room for empowering women. The sacralization of the family and reifying of sexual identity demands, logically, a feminine divine. Eliza Snow’s hymn is the most famous explanation of this idea: “In the heav’ns are parent single? / No, the thought makes reason stare! / Truth is reason — truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there.”
An unofficial guide for Mormon converts, written by a lay couple in the late 1990s, suggested that the priesthood did not give men a higher status than women; it is, rather, “just a tool for men to use in fulfilling part of their life’s responsibilities.” Yet the authors grasped for a feminine analogue to this tool of maleness:
Would any man feel inferior or resentful of his wife because she has a sewing machine and he does not? The sewing machine is a tool that the husband just doesn’t need. Similarly, no woman should think less of herself because she does not own a tool that is not needed to do the things she is asked to do.
Few Mormons would be quite so tone-deaf today — typically motherhood is the female responsibility analogized to governance, which, of course, has its own problems as a comparison — but the underlying question persists: if leadership is a male prerogative, can women be fundamentally equal?
Givens, for his part, tends toward both the progressive and the optimistic, and with an arched-eyebrow suggests that anything is possible in a church that relies on continuing revelation. He and his wife, Fiona, a scholar in her own right, have suggested quite strongly that Smith intended for the Church’s women’s organization, the Relief Society, to have much greater authority than it currently has (in the early 1970s, the women’s group had to cede control over its budget and publications to the male leadership). On occasion, moreover, Wrestling takes a critical tone toward the Church’s inspired leadership. In the past, men of African descent were banned from the priesthood, which Givens calls a “colossal mistake.”
Givens has also suggested, though, that advocates for an expanded role for LDS women are too impatient and that they have actually hurt their cause by putting pressure on the male leadership. “In recent decades, to the chagrin of Mormon feminists and progressives, LDS references to a heavenly mother have been more muted — in part a reaction to feminist initiatives in the church to include the Heavenly Mother in prayer and worship,” he writes. This acknowledgement of the logic of male pride seems both perceptive and, well, pretty much what patriarchy is all about.
Givens intends Wrestling as the first of a two-volume study of Mormon thought. Because the promised second volume will address matters of ecclesiology — “authority, sacraments, spiritual gifts, and worship” — it might be expected to engage more directly with the questions of women’s place in the Church. Meanwhile, the Church’s politics take on the criticism its beliefs once bore. For an organization concerned about its public image, excommunications are not great PR. In January, April Young Bennett, another member of Ordain Women, resigned from the group’s board and deleted her posts from its website when she was threatened with losing her right to enter LDS temples. “[I]f I hadn’t complied,” she wrote, “I would have missed my brother’s recent temple wedding.” Yet the Church is adapting. In January the leadership announced, during a press conference opened by a woman, carefully worded support for equal legal protections for gays and lesbians.
If history is any indication, though, institutional and theological change will be slow. Less than two weeks after Bennett’s resignation, the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop, a move that only took about 500 years.