Sexist Religion Still Isn’t a Democracy

In past eras when ignorance and prejudice were the norm, religious authorities could decree ignorant and prejudiced rules without anyone taking notice. But in the centuries since, the world has changed, while religious morality has largely stayed the same; and to many believers of the modern era, those unchanging doctrines, born in a darker time, are archaic relics at best and an embarrassment at worst. The passage of time casts the contradictions between moral progress and ancient dogma into ever-sharper relief, as would-be reformers butt heads with unelected clerics.

This week, we saw the latest salvo in this conflict: the Mormon church’s excommunication of Kate Kelly, a believer whose sin was that she advocated opening Mormonism’s male-only priesthood to women. (Remember, the LDS “priesthood” isn’t just for actual clergy; it’s more like a bar mitzvah, a rite of initiation that’s open to every adult male member.)

Kelly is a human-rights lawyer by profession, which no doubt played a part in her coming to see Mormonism’s unequal treatment of women as an injustice. But she isn’t a firebrand atheist seeking to shake up the church. Far from it, she considers herself a faithful Mormon. She’s been on an overseas missionary trip and was married in the Salt Lake City temple. But all that meant nothing when she went against the grain of church doctrine:

“I am not an apostate, unless every single person who has questions to ask out loud is an apostate,” Ms. Kelly said in a telephone interview on Sunday, just before her disciplinary council met.

She may have meant this to sound absurd, but it isn’t. In fact, I think it’s exactly right. People who ask inconvenient questions out loud are heretics and apostates, as far as religious conservatives have always been concerned. Religions are built on dogma and sustained by blind faith; as a general rule, they don’t welcome questioning, even sincere questioning.

Just as we’ve seen in other religions, Kelly’s cause has drawn support from other Mormons who erroneously believe they have a voice in the governance of the church:

More than a thousand Mormons sent letters of support for Ms. Kelly to the bishop and two of his counselors considering her case in Oakton, Va. Hundreds turned out for a vigil in Salt Lake City while the hearing was underway, and smaller groups of supporters gathered at 50 sites in 17 countries, according to Ordain Women.

This mirrors the lay Catholics who absurdly imagined that they have a vote on what the Vatican’s doctrines should be. Here, too, the enforcers of dogma have cracked down, excommunicating those who call for the ordination of women or other changes in policy.

Even religions which don’t have a single, central authority that decrees what the rules are have conservative wings that fight against moral progress tooth and nail. One infamous example is the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel, who fought long and hard to keep women from praying at the Wailing Wall – and when they finally lost that battle in court, responded by ordering their own women to show up en masse and pack the designated section, so that women who genuinely want to pray there and fought for their right to do so can’t get in.

Granted, not all churches are enemies of progress. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Presbyterian Church just voted to allow its pastors to perform same-sex weddings. But this is the exception that proves the rule, since like the other tolerant mainline denominations, Presbyterianism is a dwindling demographic among a backdrop of aggressive and loudly intolerant faiths.

My advice for Kelly is the same advice I have for progressive evangelicals: however good your intentions, trying to change a prejudiced dogma from within is an exercise in futility. As long as you continue to proclaim your devotion to the LDS church, you’re only reinforcing the authority of the leaders who treat you as inferior. But if you find the courage to walk away, there’s a whole wide world awaiting, a world where you’re free to make up your own mind, live out your convictions, and demand full equality without apology or sanction.

Image credit: Tomas Castelazo, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • AndyT

    Yes, these religious institutions have shown a terribily high degree of foul play: even if we suppose priesthood should be reserved for men only – for whatever reason – I think they would better try to convince the “dissenters”, to win them back, instead of throwing them away like rubbish via excommunication.

  • davidbappleton

    “Remember, the LDS “priesthood” isn’t just for actual clergy; it’s more like a bar mitzvah, a rite of initiation that’s open to every —— male member age 12 and up.”

    There, fixed it for you.

  • GabeS

    If I am brought up as a member of the KKK and I am troubled by the klan going on a spree of burning down black churches (if I find it immoral), the solution is not to encourage them to stop, it is to get the hell out of the klan.

  • prinefan

    Religion-born in darker times.

  • L.Long

    In terms of catlicks as well as other religions, I have always stood on the side of the church. being a catlick means X-Y-Z and to hell for those who don’t like it. You don’t change the church because you want to use birth control and using such and calling your self a catlick just proves what a hypocrite your really are.
    The honest thing is to face your decisions, grow up to adulthood, throw out your childish fears and tell religion to go to hell!!!!
    The more the religions stick to their insane hole-y books the more they show themselves to be hateful, bigoted, hypocrites.

    Just noticed GabeS use of the KKK to say the same thing. And both the KKK and the RCC will collapse under its own weight when most quit.

  • Kirsten Crippen

    I am LDS and I have to disagree. Even though the Church is led by hide-bound men, it can change. People from within can change the Church. I am not to the point where I will leave. However, I will also speak up when I feel the morally they are in the wrong. I am behind Kate Kelly and John Dehlin 100%. They are the ones doing Christ’s work, not the leadership. I still believe in the message of the church, just not the leaders.

  • Annerdr

    People from within can change the Church.

    This is what Catholic women have been saying for years.

  • JohnH2

    Kate Kelly did a whole lot more than ask questions; there are tons of people in the LDS church that ask questions, and lots who disagree with various aspects of church policy; and they are not considered apostate for it. What Kate Kelly did differently though is organize protests and marches demanding that her own answer to the questions be the churches position.

    While there are very many debatable parts about her excommunication proceedings, that she was organizing others and seeking a following, as for instance evidenced by the number of interviews given since her excommunication, or the coverage she sought and got of her marches, is in every communication that she has put out as coming from church officials to her the reason for her excommunication and that her having the questions are fine.

    The position of women and the priesthood is decidedly unclear in the LDS church, and there has been disagreements even among the leadership of the church, and what I consider pretty strong evidence that there is disagreement currently among church leadership on the issue.

    For about the first hundred years of the church the Relief Society (the women’s organization) was run nearly completely independent of the male priesthood leadership, in accord with speeches that Joseph Smith gave to the Relief Society at its founding (see the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute book at the Joseph Smith Papers project); and which the Relief Society considered as revelation, and did at least once ask that it be presented to the church as such and canonized. The Twelve, who control that process, never did and the rise of the Evangelical Charismatic movement, cultural shifts in the 1950′s, and the rise of what is known as Correlation led to the dismantling of rites which the women performed previously and the loss of the understanding that women who had gone through the temple actually do have the priesthood (though not ordained to such) in anything but name only. Meaning that understanding is still given over the pulpit (as in Elder Oaks talk on the subject), but stripped of any meaning or status other than the words themselves (which the idea is explicitly in the endowment itself).

    So whether all of that is correct is an area of active debate which various people have differing opinions, and it still doesn’t fully answer all of the questions were everything that happened in the past brought back and the sermons canonized; For instance Deborah’s and Huldah’s position. Kate Kelly seems to think that she has the answer and has created a set of ‘discussions’ which, if one is familiar with Mormon Missionary work from over ten years ago is a direct parallel, and seen by church leadership as seeking to form a church within the church; and which take logic leaps to the position that men and women in the church should have exactly the same priesthood roles and positions; which while there are lots of things unanswered even in the most expansive readings, is actually something that directly contradicts doctrine that we do have.

    Not that I think that either you or Kate Kelly really cares about any of that. I suppose that assuming that women having the priesthood is something that Kate Kelly really does want she could always join the Community of Christ (previously known as RLDS), but her problem there is that she appears to strongly believe in the idea of Heavenly Parents (being that there is a Heavenly Mother as well as Father), which is not something that the Community of Christ believes.

  • Azkyroth

    How’s that workin out for ya?

  • TBP100

    Possibly the church can change, but the bigger problem is that absolutely nothing about Mormonism is actually true, starting with the existence of a deity. The Book of Mormon contains one thing after another that is absolutely refuted by history, archaeology, geology, anthropology, genetics (Native Americans have been demonstrated to have roots in Asia; they are not Semitic; this is just not open to rational debate) and pretty much any scientific discipline you can name.

  • Azkyroth


  • GCT

    tl;dr version: Sexist Religion Still Ins’t a Democracy

  • GCT

    And she would have been excommunicated? Ah, no, she wouldn’t have. She would be free to try and organize protests and marches to try and persuade people to her side. What you’re defending is the idea that people should not be allowed to do that if it goes against the dictates of the ruling class.

  • GCT

    IOW, sexist religion still isn’t a democracy. You’re still defending a totalitarian system where people either toe the line or they are sanctioned, censored, and ejected simply because they don’t agree with the ruling class on a sexist doctrine.

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    This is why, even before I starting considering myself an atheist, I couldn’t stay in organized religion. I figured if I want to believe in my own version of God, then I have to do that on my own. I don’t want to be attached to an organization that’ll try to stop me from doing so and tell me what God *really* things about everything.