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.

Doubting at Zion’s Gate
Junia The Apostle and Mormonism’s Priesthood
Review: “Selma”
“The Prophecy of This Book”
  • Ardis E. Parshall

    Without question, the kindest, best, and most useful entry in the entire discussion. Thank you, Rachael; I’ll be returning to my printout of this time and time and time again.

  • Ben P

    Well said, Rachael; I largely agree with your broad points here, and think you express them sensibly.

    The thing that sticks out to me, though, is if we are meant to lower expectations, which I believe is correct, then the need for agitation at the lower level is all the more important.

    • Rachael

      That is one way to look at it, yes. But I think it’s worth considering (and now, retrospectively evaluating) the costs of “agitation” at the lower level. I think if we first consider this last approach, then we might understand and approach change in the Church in other ways.

  • Ricky S

    Great article, Rachael! I’ll have to pick your brain more someday about the idea of lowering our expectations of what God’s church should look like. I have really struggled for sometime to balance these two competing principles–(1) The Church is composed of imperfect people doing their best so of course its going to have its warts; and (2) the Church, being divinely instituted, is somehow distinct from other human-created institutions that are composed of imperfect people doing their best. What level of uniqueness should I demand from an institution that claims to be “the only true and living Church” of God? Your suggestion that the uniqueness is just revelation, core doctrines and ordinances seems to be a plausible reconciliation. Thanks!

  • Shauna Fisher

    It seems to me that women who are concerned about wearing pants to church have nothing better to do with their time. Do they not have other matters that need some attention? Are there not members or non-members in their area that they can devote a cause to? Seriously, I have way to many other things in my life going on, that I only wish my only concern was if I could wear pants to church or not.

  • Michelle

    Thank you for this.

    I would submit that the messiness that ensues with mortals on any front, as well as the gaps that we may feel in a veil-covered, ‘from time to time’ world invite us to lean heavily in the Atonement. I think as each of us learns to do that, to be more converted and willing to lean on God, then the spiritual side of the Church will follow.

    And I think key to leaning on God is exactly what Yiu write here–to let go of expectations. This is hardly a feminist issue…it’s a mortal one. I recently read that expectations are premeditated resentments. How can we grow as individuals and as a people (or in our families and communities and workplaces) if our hearts are at war?

    Anyway, these are things I’m pondering a lot in my own life. I am not a Mormon feminist but I am a metal mired in expectations and so I appreciated this post for its value for any of us.

  • Marie

    Thank you for a thoughtful and wise post. So much here to ponder on and think about. And realize also, that this is essentially what I learned many years ago when I was struggling with such things, but never put a name to it. It has been for me about recognizing that we are ALL only human–and therefore, fallible–and learning, as the previous commenter said, to lean on God and let go of the expectations.

  • Bonnie

    Magnificent. My only difference would be over semantics – I don’t think it’s a lowering of expectations, but an adjustment, as you state later. We are, though we often forget, a church of continuing personal revelation. Revelation to guide and direct the church as a whole provides a structure but few of the daily details that we are meant to derive for ourselves from our personal relationship with God. It is a mistaken expectation to look for those details in the external structure, when the greater opportunity, and the greater expectation, is to have a personal conversation with God of the brother of Jared type. Were we all personally exploring this opportunity, the church as a whole would take great leaps forward. Instead, it waits for us.