Pants, Doctrine, and Culture, and Why Maybe We Shouldn’t Worry

And the Mormon Moment grabs the spotlight again- with Pantspocalypse!

A nutshell attempt: Mormon feminist Stephanie Lauritzen vents online about the slow, tip-toeing steps Mormon Feminism has tried to take towards gender equality over the past decades. She urges women to “stop playing nice” and model American suffragists by “starting a revolution” of civil disobedience to effect (mostly) cultural and policy-related changes. She and other women form the group All Enlisted, whose first move is to unite all LDS women and feminists by wearing pants to church services on Sunday. Complication and confusion ensue from a symbol that highlights the ambiguous line between culture and doctrine. Officially, pants are not prohibited; culturally, many (but not all) Mormons feel that they are taboo, either because they disrespect God as insufficiently formal, or because they blur the sensitive and heavily guarded line of gender differentiation. The group chooses pants as a “legal” but slightly edgy group-identification that will “challenge a gendered custom so as to become visible as Mormon feminists to each other and our wards.” The particulars over pants and the angst over gender issues explode all over Facebook and blogs in a shocking array of emotional intensity from jubilation to hostility.

So– is it about the pants? Or isn’t it??

Well, I’ll leave you to your blog-scanning skills to draw your own conclusions. As much as I would love to plunge into questions about dissent and protest in a spiritually egalitarian but hierarchically ordered (and surprisingly diverse) faith community—or about Mormonism’s ongoing angst with gender differentiation and equality and ambiguity in general—or that messy and hopeless sifting process of “policy,” “doctrine,” and “culture”—many posts elsewhere have addressed those topics. In any case, my opinion is rather irrelevant to where I want to take this issue in this post.

It seems that active Mormon feminists face limited options: 1) Be true to your ideals and values and shake this place up until it falls into line with them, at the risk of tearing fragile community bonds and being misunderstood or marginalized. 2) Be “faithful” (i.e. accepting) and bear the discomfort, anger, or spiritual pain in the assurance that positive changes will come on a divine timetable, through divinely appointed means (i.e. ‘legal’ revelation). 3) Be creative, via a middle way of working incremental changes within the existing structure.  (It can be argued that Pantspocalypse was intended to fit within this third approach, though clearly it was not understood that way).

I want to suggest that there might be another option worth considering (and one as difficult to accurately condense as the previous ones, so bear with me here):

4) Lower Your Expectations.

No, I don’t mean resignation. I’m suggesting we might be expecting the Church to do things that it isn’t intended to do.

First, an analog most Mormon feminists, intellectuals, etc. are familiar with. One of the best things that members can do who are struggling with blatantly racist, misogynist, or confusing things that leaders in the past have said, is to accept the bar that God has been trying to set for the Church and its leaders from the beginning, from Moses to Joseph Smith and beyond: To “proclaim the gospel…by the weak and the simple…in their weakness, after the manner of their language.” (That revelation continues to explain that his servants’ errors will be made known, their lack of wisdom, instructed; their sins, chastened; their humility, met with knowledge “from time to time.” Just in case there is any confusion about prophetic infallibility or omniscience: it doesn’t exist. Quite intentionally.)

So what do we learn to do?  We reorient our expectations. We don’t expect a Jesus Christ out of a prophet, let alone our bishop. We don’t look to leaders and authorities for what we should think about local civic matters, or whether to be vegan, or for the perfect Sunday dress code. We look to them as a channel of revelation, from whom God’s word will come—but not from whom every word is God’s.  We expect them to err, stumble, and learn, like we do; but we know where to look for God’s official word for when it does come—from time to time.

Another example: I once vented (as many have—prophets, too) about the lack of Mormon Miltons, Shakespeares, and Beethovens. Why, in the Church we believe to be restored from God, was there such an embarrassingly, achingly huge dearth of beauty? How are we to worship “in the beauty of holiness” if the only beauty Mormonism has is a temple the lucky ones in proximity can visit, and occasionally likeable MoTab hits?

I was reminded that we do have them: we have Milton, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Joseph Smith declared: “Mormonism is truth, and every man that embrace it felt himself at liberty to embrace every truth.” I learned (begrudgingly) to scale back my expectations, and expand my horizons. I shouldn’t expect the Church to fulfill every aesthetic need I had; that’s not what it was for. So I sought and claimed Gregorian chant, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and George Herbert.

Bringing me to the point at hand: Should we expect the institutional Church to embody the perfect social order or articulate and affirm my precise gender identity? Perhaps not. Perhaps I need to rethink my expectations. The Church, in its barest essentials, is meant to provide saving ordinances and fundamental truths that enable us to return to God. The tools of personal revelation, a few core beliefs about the nature of God, and sanctifying covenants are what I expect from the Church. Over time, the Church has accumulated handbooks of policies and cultural codes (spoken and unspoken), none of which are defined as eternal principles. Most of what the institution offers is guidance, pastoral care, spiritual comfort, and a perhaps most significant to my spiritual growth, a structure that forces me to learn to serve and love people who are very, very different from me.

But a detailed blueprint for how to be a woman of God?  Nope. As far as I can tell, Christ showed us how to be saved; he didn’t give us a perfect, detailed blueprint for how to be the perfect husband, the perfect wife, or the perfect ward, or the perfect Church. He gave us a skeletal template based on ordinances, gospel laws, a few specific commandments, and revelation:  the means by which prophets can, when necessary, unfold those laws and by which we can understand them. Everything else, we can accept or dismiss as inspired (or uninspired) efforts of leaders and prophets to help us apply those fundamentals in our lives, families, and communities. Elder Dallin H. Oaks addressed that tricky line between general and universal principles: “As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles… Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.” Yet our fear of responsibility and ambiguity, meant to spiritually expand and challenge us, can harden many an unnecessary line.

A last thought:  A general authority quoted D&C 29:32 to my brother’s mission, reminding them that this was a warning that the Lord’s work in the latter days would be temporal before it was spiritual. Perhaps some of the hurt stems from us confusing the temporal institution with the spiritual church.

That spiritual church might be a long way off; but in the meantime, we can keep working away at the transformation together. We can be the men, women, parents, spouses, neighbors, and so on, that we feel Christ teaches us to be. In pants or not.

“The Prophecy of This Book”
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
It’s Time For Mormons To Be Scary Again
  • Karen

    Thank you Rachael for a great post. It is the best thing I have read about the pants issue. It gives me much to think about regarding expectations we/I have of the church.

  • Trevor

    I also think that lower expectations across the board would serve Mormons quite well, but don’t you think that sort of message is out-of-sync with what we hear generally in Conference and what we read in the manuals?

    • Rachael

      That may certainly be true, Trevor (though that would still fit within my model of what to expect from Conference and manuals), but I see signs of the opposite trend as well. I hear comments in conference more frequently about engaging and interacting with the greater community for its own merits, or warnings about letting our families to provide for Church programs, instead of letting the programs provide for our families; and mentions of engaging with people of other faiths to learn from them. To me, these point towards a Church that is less insulated, less sufficient (in a positive way), and more reliant on things outside itself– in line with the sentiment expressed by Orson Whitney (and quoted by President Hunter in Conference): “[God] is using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work, stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves.” I think this cooperation could easily include that which is involved with God’s consummate work– even egalitarian values and social structures.

  • E B

    Yup. I think that more Mormons are realizing that the Church is separate from Mormon culture is separate from the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a good thing. It’s time that we distinguish from the truths comprising the gospel, from the Church which uses mortals to teach the gospel, from the general Mormon culture of those in the Church (which is more prevalent and pronounced in areas with fewer converts). It is high time that the propensity for judgement within Mormon culture be recognized for what it is: a cultural tradition opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which teaches love and acceptance towards all people.
    I wrote more about these elements as pertains to the “pants protest” at

  • Don

    The separation of culture from doctrine is not easy. Twenty years ago, I was Bishop. I was a very young man and not a very wise man at all times. But if I had a do-over, there are a lot of things I would do differently. Most of them regard the Relief Society.

    1. The Bishop has a scriptural charge to seek out the poor. He is to alleviate the hardships of the poor mostly through the commitment of Fast Offering money. That can’t be changed but if it was up to me, I would make the Relief Society President’s approval needed before spending fast offering money. This is based upon experience–I was way too free to commit money to problems that had other solutions. My Relief Society Presidents all spoke their minds and told me that I had gone down the wrong path. Why not institutionalize that change and require approval from the sisters before money is committed?
    2. There are a lot of things that men do by default in the church that properly should be done by the sisters. Literacy for one. I’m not talking about basic reading and writing. I’m talking about getting the proper education for all of the members old and young. I’m talking about tutoring children in trouble and I’m also speaking of helping youth and adults finding appropriate schooling for work experience.
    3. The Bishop has the ultimate responsibility for proper use of money–why does that require a man to count the contributions and pay the bills? Making that modest change, would be in line with what happens in most LDS families.
    4. When changing male leadership, the men with responsibility are consulted. Why aren’t the Sisters consulted when calling the Relief Society president or other women in authority? Why isn’t the Relief Society leadership consulted with callings to the Primary and Young Women. I would have avoided some painful mistakes if I would have been humble enough to recognize that women in leadership have better insight into the lives of the sisters than the Bishop ever will.
    5. Home teaching is a priesthood responsibility but why aren’t the women in leadership consulted when home teachers are assigned to single sisters?
    6. I don’t mean to be radical but why is the Relief Society Presidency not seated on the stand along with the Bishopric? The Bishop is the presiding High Priest but why does that preclude the recognition of the women’s leadership?

    Those are the few thoughts that come off of the top of my head. I’m looking for cultural shifts which I don’t believe wearing pants to church achieves. We have lived far too long to not consider what is scriptural and doctrinal and making the appropriate changes.

    • http://Patheos Mark

      Don, in reading the book Counseling with Councils by Elder Ballard, most of your suggestions are recommended and should be done. Having said that, I agree with your suggestions whole heartedly and they should be outlined in the handbook of instructions.
      I’ve pondered on this issue for years and would welcome women holding the priesthood. The problem I see is this, how do you work together. Anyone who serves together knows of the love that developes between people serving together. I just don’t see how you could have men and women serving together as counselors in a presidency that aren’t married. It is too personal and intimate of a relationship. My thought was this. You know how we call team teachers now to serve such as a husband and a wife to teach a class. Well, call couples to positions. Call a man and his wife to be the bishop and call a man and his wife to be counselors in all leadership positions. How wonderful it would be if a young woman or woman who want to seek repentance but would feel much more comfortable by talking to the bishop’s wife who would also have all the authority of a bishop! Then they could consult together to seek revelation. How awesome would it be to have husbands and wives co called to fulfill leadership positions with full priesthood authority. To me, that’s the only way this can be done and it would be very welcome to me.

      • Rachael

        Great insights, Mark and Don- thank you for sharing your ideas and suggestions. Don, you bring up an interesting point about men and women working closely together. I think that more of our structural arrangements are a result of pragmatics than principle than we sometimes would think. That said, I appreciate it when people bring to light the possible reasons for an existing structure or policy before everyone lunges to attack it. It seems only fair. I think the idea of team callings is appealing in many ways, though of course that would produce other pragmatic difficulties (for example, regarding children- it can be very difficult to have one parent absent from the home when they have a demanding calling; taking both might present some challenges).

  • Rachael

    I came across a thought by Phil Barlow in his essay “The Uniquely True Church” that corresponds to point 4, and am including it so as to put the idea in a different way:

    “I have known people who have rejected the Church because they have overestimated its nature and purpose, and have grown disappointed when the Church did not satisfy the functions that they have privately imposed on it. Is it possible to overestimate the Church if it truly derives from God? In my judgment, yes. Some have misunderstood the Church as an end to be served for its own sake, which is in essence a kind of idolatry. The Church exists, instead, as an instrument through which together we may serve God and His children.”

  • ji

    I look at “lower your expectations” as “don’t aim beyond the mark.” You well describe what the Church is — it offers teachings and ordinances, and tries to be a help to members and parents. When one expects more, they will be disappointed, and their disappointment will be self-inflicted. We’re all learning, and we’ll all brothers and sisters, and the acts of Church government are what they are.

    • Rachael

      That’s a nice reformulation, ji. Thanks for including that.