Put Your Mormon Where Your Mouth Is: Gender, Sexuality, and The Second Great Commandment

During Conference in October 2007, at the end of General Relief Society President Julie Beck’s now-famous talk, “Mothers Who Know,” I made a derisive sound from my perch on the living room couch. Once again, began a commentator’s voice inside my head, a talk for Mormon women that focuses largely on domestic roles: “nurturing,” “homemaking,” “cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly home,” and “Latter-day Saint women should be the best homemakers in the world.”

My mother, who at that time was traveling through the eye of the storm of cancer that had begun in 2006 and that eventually took her life at the end of 2008, heard me and looked up wearily. After months of chemotherapy, just sitting in an armchair made her tired. I could see that my reaction had hurt her. She asked, “Do you have a problem with anything in that talk?”

My insides contracted, shrink-wrapped with a film of guilt. Here was my mother, acutely facing her own mortality and trying to make sense of her life, which had centered around precisely the kind of cooking, washing, and homemaking that Sister Beck had described. Here I was, her daughter, saying “Pfftt.”

I had intended to strike a blow against the impersonal forces of Gender Inequality, but somehow I had accidentally hurt someone I loved.

Somehow, I had drawn a battle line where one didn’t properly belong. Actually, I didn’t have a problem with most of the things that Sister Beck said in her talk. I absolutely believe that the mundane physical chores of parenthood are imbued with spiritual power. Now that I have children of my own, I truly appreciate the awesome investment of time, talent, and pure grit that my mother made in the process of raising my four brothers and me. Call it nurturing, homemaking, war, or Bob, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. On this fundamental point my mother, Sister Beck, and I were all on the same side.

So what went wrong? How had I ended up reacting in a way that contradicted not only my actual views on motherhood but also my growing desire to express appreciation for my own mother?

Looking back, I think the problem was that I had responded to Sister Beck’s talk as a partisan, or in other words, as someone who interpreted her remarks not on their face value but solely in their relation to an entire ideological “platform.” This platform of mine included not only planks such as “Jesus atoned for my sins” and “Joseph Smith restored divine truths,” but also “Church talks should be inclusive of a diverse membership” and “Thank you, O God, for prophets like President Gordon B. Hinckley, who said to young Mormon women, ‘The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it.’”(1)

When Sister Beck said, “homemaking,” my partisan ears heard “narrow—not the whole platform” and effectively closed to the entire talk. Such knee-jerk partisanship may be standard for electoral politics, but in the realm of real people and actual relationships it is a blunderous and bludgersome instrument that “worketh not the righteousness of God.”(2)

Current conversations in the Church regarding gender equality and sexual orientation are frequently characterized by such partisan approaches. In these wars of words, casualties occur on both sides, minority and majority. For instance, during the Wear Pants to Church Day event in December 2012, some Mormon women and men expressed the pain that they feel because of women’s exclusion from most positions of church governance and spiritual leadership. At the same time, some Mormon women and men felt hurt because they felt that the activism constituted a personal attack on their beliefs and church participation.

The “passion” (i.e. elation, zeal, incredulous contempt, and even death threats) attending such intra-Mormon exchanges signals that we must by all means continue to work through these particular conversations on gender and sexual orientation within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If you’re Mormon, these conversations are your problem. On the one hand, if you feel that the current status quo is the best of all possible worlds, it is a real possibility that your child or someone under your stewardship may leave the Church on account of this issue. In light of the current hemorrhage in Church membership, especially among young people, it makes sense to address people’s sincere concerns in an open and safe setting, instead of treating them as taboo or suspect.

On the other hand, if you feel that limitations on Mormon women’s spiritual leadership opportunities are obvious and troubling, evidence suggests that this view is not shared by the vast majority of Mormon women.(3) Gaining news coverage in major media outlets is not as important as starting grassroots conversations. Only the latter approach can replace the adversarial “aura” around Mormon women’s issues with a spirit of cooperation and common sense.

Fundamentally, our willingness to engage these controversial issues of gender and sexuality is a test of whether or not we believe that the Second Great Commandment remains in force.(4) Loving neighbors, enemies, and friends-of-friends-on-Facebook does not have to mean compromising one’s own beliefs or ignoring points of sincere disagreement. But it does require people to take the time to disagree respectfully. This includes understanding other people’s views well enough to focus disagreement on a specific point or argument instead of entirely dismissing or condemning the people who hold those views.

Proven models for dialogue can be found at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD), an organization dedicated to inter- and intra-religious dialogue, with which I have been affiliated since 2009 as a member and as a former co-director of the FRD Mormon Chapter. In 2010 and 2012 I worked with FRD and the City of Los Angeles to convene a dialogue of several local religious leaders, including Mormons, from both sides of Proposition 8.

In these dialogues on Prop 8, I saw that FRD’s model, which emphasizes trust, not agreement, really works. I believe that this model can stand up to the even tougher test of intra-religious contention over issues of gender and sexuality within Mormonism. In a nutshell, I think that the FRD approach to dialogue comes down to three ground rules:

1)    Assume that the person with whom you are speaking is a person of intelligence and good will.

2)    Candidly disclose your motives for engaging in dialogue (both to others and to yourself) and be honest in raising points of sincere disagreement.

3)    Share the time equally.

Some people might feel as if chatting up “angry activists” or “ignorant traditionalists” at church is not worth their time. And yet, engaging someone in dialogue requires just the same generosity and gumption as any other sort of Christlike service. When someone needs a meal, we automatically volunteer to spend one to two hours of precious time washing greens, stir-frying chicken, cutting fruit, and delivering everything to the door. When someone needs to move, it’s a no-brainer to spend half the day cleaning bathrooms, painting walls, and schlepping chests of drawers. So when someone takes a stance on a gender or sexual orientation issue that is completely opposite from our own and yet fundamental to that person’s testimony of the gospel, we should be willing to give twenty minutes to listen.

In our conversations, when we hear potentially offensive comments like, “Those feminists just don’t understand God’s plan,” or “People who oppose change in the Church are completely ignorant of church history and doctrine,” our knee-jerk reaction should be active listening. The people with whom we disagree on a specific issue must be able to feel our love and respect for them as people who deeply desire to be part of the body of Christ. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12, this mutual awareness will save us from the delusion that we can simply say to another member of Christ’s body, “I have no need of thee.”(5)

On far too many occasions, including after Sister Beck’s 2007 Conference talk, I have adopted a spirit of partisan dismissiveness instead of earnest engagement to express disagreement, and each time I have been the poorer for it.

And yet the more I practice, the more I learn: Be honest. Be specific. Be kind. The miracle of Zion’s one heart and one mind was not that all members of the community had been born identical, but that they became one despite their diversity.(6)





(1) Gordon B. Hinckley, “How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream?” General Young Women Meeting, April 2001. “The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.”

(2) James 1:20.

(3) “Mormon women are overwhelmingly opposed to women as (lay) priests, but Mormon men have more mixed views: 90 percent of Mormon women as compared to 52 percent of Mormon men. In short, Mormons, especially Mormon women, appear to be the only substantial holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership.” (Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, page 244.) For an online discussion of gender and Mormonism in American Grace, try Grant Hardy’s post on the Flunking Sainthood blog in 2010.

(4) Matthew 22:36-40.

(5) 1 Corinthians 12:21.

(6) Moses 7:18-21 (The Pearl of Great Price)

Announcing the 2nd Wheatley Summer Seminar
Resolutions and Desires
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 3
  • Ignacio M. Garcia

    I think most of us are guilty of creating dividing lines and seeing those who oppose our views as being ignorant or in need of counsel. If we listen we may still not agree but we can learn to love each other. When I go to visit my daughter in Texas, the only brother who takes time to talk to me and to make me feel welcomed in the ward is one of the area’s Tea Party founders. There is so much we disagree on, but we spend our time talking about gospel principles in which we both agree. I know that when we stand before the Lord, he will correct our misguided views and welcome both of us with open arms as He is respector of no men/women and a Savior to all. Thanks Melissa, you capped off a wonderful Sabbath.

  • Andrew

    I quite enjoyed this post. It’s been on my mind the ways we engage with people whose views are at their core in direct opposition to our own. Yet retain respect and lov for them as equals before God. And I have to say that for me I am tired of caring enemies because I “think I know” instead of the reality that both sides are probably at best a mixture of correct and incorrect ideas, and at worse helplessly inadequate because of our natural limits to grasp the reality of the situation as faced by people as a whole. In other words more love not less helps bring unity, and more respect, not less wins friends, elevates our understanding, and corrects us where we are wrong. I think many people we engage in conversation who hold opposing views genuinely want to do what’s right. But often the weakness of humanity gets in our way.

    On a seperate but somewhat related note. As a male church member I find myself often being assumed that I am seeking forcefull dominon over my family. Or that because it has been said the husband is the leader that somehow means I am the dictator, or that I view myself as somehow superior because of leadership roles…. And all this assumption not because of conversation with me, but bad past experiences with other males, or simply because I am a male… Sometimes a bit frustrating. Especially since for me I detest the thought of being anything but a pure equal before God’s eyes when it comes to women, and especially my wife. Whatever the future of church leadership is in regards to the sexes I am diametrically opposed to any philosophy that would put us on unequal ground before God. Not to mention how much effort I put into leading my family as a coequal servant with my wife. The thought that leadership means right to force is in my mind obviously false. Leadership to me by definition means I am a footstool for elevation to the ones I serve for, not who serve “under” me. Anyhow my point is regardless of cultural influences in and outside of the church, being a leader should not be a dictatorial role, but it’s like leading a hike to climb Everest. You may be the first to see some views because you are in front of the line, but eventually you are all headed to the same destination to stand side by side, and Although on the journey up someone is in front (because climbing a mountain side by side would just mean you all take on the brunt of the wind, snow, and sleet with no safety anchor points setup by someone in front. However being in front doesn’t mean you ar the best climber, just means that the safety of those behind you is your first duty.

    Anyhow I just wish people would remember being a male doesn’t automatically equal I think with my loins first, and seek to shove women down, or that I want to lead because it means I am better… I just want us all to end up on top togeather in the end. I’ll gladly walk in the back. Just as long as someone is leading as God wants them too.

    • Edward

      I just wanted to say amen. As an imperfect male who is really just trying to figure out life like everyone else, I do not look forward to being in leadership positions in the church. It feels like I am barely keeping my head above water on my own, how could I help anyone else with their spiritual problems or teach them anything when my own testimony falters? Men in the church are not authoritarian or sexist or power-seeking by default. Some are truly power-hungry wolves among the flock, we have all seen that type from time to time. But most men are like my father, my brothers, and my friends: good men who feel uncomfortably inadequate to step in as a leader, but who do it because we were asked to and you don’t say no to a calling from God. In hindsight, the times when I had the most high-profile callings were the times when I probably needed to be connected to the ward or mission in order to survive a difficult time in my personal life. It was service to those around me that saved me from myself, quite literally. If I hadn’t been expected to serve in those leadership positions, I am honestly not sure if I would have survived those difficult times. I believe that God called me exactly when he knew that I needed it most because He created me and understands that during those difficult times, I might not have reached out to those around me when I needed help, but since I was compelled by my calling to be actively involved at church, I made it through by rubbing shoulders with the amazing people that I was called to serve. There is so much more going on in all of our personal lives than anyone really knows. Think of the internal struggles we have that no one but Heavenly Father knows. I am convinced that men hold the Priesthood because we need it, we need to be pushed and pulled and coaxed into serving others. We all struggle with the natural man and for me, Priesthood service has helped me recognize when I am being driven by those lower-level desires versus motivation to serve a higher purpose than myself. Since I am not a woman, I will not comment on what it is like to be a woman in a church where only men hold the Priesthood. It seems like it could be very frustrating, but I don’t really know since I haven’t been there. Just wanted to share a couple thoughts from my personal experience. I do not understand why church leaders do and say everything that they do, but I have noticed that if we suspend skepticism (difficult for a doctor like me to do sometimes, just ask my wife) that with time, prayer, pondering, and earnestly studying that answers do eventually come. For me, every time that I side with inspired leadership, it has blessed me life in ways both seen and hidden. If your experience has been different than mine, there is no need to shout me down through the internet. Having different experiences and perspectives is what makes us strong as a body. There is much more diversity in the church than it sometimes gets credit for and that is a great thing. We all have personal opinions and beliefs. Isn’t it great that God trusts us enough to let us work them out for ourselves? The search for Truth never ends and will continue long into the next life, which is good news for the slow learners like me!

      • Melissa Inouye

        Edward, thanks for your comment. I really like your point about suspending skepticism. I agree that skepticism is a bad thing in any sort of learning / growing situation because it involves dismissing another point of view without sincere consideration. I’m asking for us to be earnest and sincere with each other as members of the church.

        I also appreciate you sharing your experience in callings and your perspective on the Priesthood. When we are specific in explaining how our own life experiences lead us to the views that we currently hold, we are more likely to understand each other instead of, as you say, shout each other down through the Internet or other impersonal avenues of communication. When we talk in person to people with whom we serve at church, we are more likely to treat each other as brothers and sisters, and more likely to act our part as fellow disciples of Christ.

        • Erin

          Melissa, I think you’ve confused the meaning of skepticism, which (in my opinion) is always good, with that of cynicism. Skepticism is simply taking a questioning attitude toward any claims or ideas, especially those that might be taken for granted. Skeptics employ critical thinking skills to examine the evidence for or against ideas, even those they themselves may hold. This, to me, is of vital importance in all learning/growing situations! Cynicism is more characterized by an overall attitude of negativity and distrust toward others and their actions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skepticism

          • mwinouye

            Hi Erin, thanks for your comment, and for taking the time to care about fine and clear distinctions in the words we use. I suppose what I’m trying to say about “skepticism” is that as a fellow church member, I don’t personally want to be skeptical about people’s motives when they say that they hold the views that they do because of their sincere testimony of the restored Gospel. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt as people who make the effort to participate in the Church because they have faith in Jesus Christ and want to be His disciples.

            Of course we should, as you suggest, employ critical thinking when evaluating others’ and one’s own ideas. My point is that we should take careful measures to make sure that being “critical” of ideas does not turn into being critical or dismissive of people.

  • http://thelowpointoftheday.wordpress.com Mary

    I so appreciate this very well-written article. I believe your words can go both ways — if you are speaking with someone who you feel is more conservative than you or more liberal, you should nevertheless provide for them a listening ear. The bottom line, for Church members especially, is that we should be working towards the same eternal goal of being of one heart and of one mind; how can we achieve that if we create within our own church houses a divide?

  • C Randall Paul

    The love of Christ is both “tough” and “tender” and we need to engage each other with both aspects. The great test is HOW we treat those who honestly disagree with us. Thanks Melissa for showing a better way.

    CR Paul

  • Mike

    Why is it that we (the majority in the church, both men and women) have to change our views to match those of you (a minority of people that categorize themselves as “progressive Mormons,” including both men and women)? Our religion isn’t a democracy and it should not be ruled by debate, regardless of whether or not that debate pretends to be kindhearted and “full of love.” If you truly believe that all women should wear pants to church and have the priesthood, then by all means, start your own religion of priestesses who wear pants. You could become the progressivist LDS church. But please, spare me the pitch of how we should all show more “love” to each other by debating these issues in our stakes and wards, when in reality your true intentions are to change the opinions and beliefs of the majority of us so that they match yours. I love all of my brothers and sisters, regardless of their beliefs and actions. Similarly, I love my children, and I love the fact that they have agency to make mistakes. But if my son were to one day come to me and tell me that I need to be more open to some new moral code that contradicts my religion, I would tell him that I love him, but I would not participate or debate the issue.

    I would hope that he would love me enough and respect me enough to honor my wishes and allow me to worship accordingly.

    I would hope that you will do the same.

    • Melissa Inouye

      Dear Mike,
      My argument here is that people on both sides of controversial issues (including the “minority” / progressive / liberal Mormon side) need to be willing to listen to each other’s views in a kind and Christlike way.
      As I note in the article, the FRD dialogue model that I advocate does not aim to get people to change their views, but to engage each other respectfully.
      Like you, I don’t believe that the truths of the gospel are something that can be determined through “debate” or the democratic process. This “democratic process” unfortunately is what so often leads to the partisanship that I critique in my article. My plea is for people to be candid about their motives and receptive to others’ good intentions. Minority or majority, I believe that my brothers and sisters in the gospel all basically want to do the right thing and to follow Christ. I think that it is our responsibility as disciples of Christ to take each other’s righteousness seriously. I do hope to influence other members of my congregation with my point of view on the gospel. But I am also open to the fact that they may think I’m wrong and that they, too, wish to influence me. I accept their — and your — good will and good faith in hoping to get me to see things in a different way, too.

      “I would hope that he would love me enough and respect me enough to honor my wishes and allow me to worship accordingly. I would hope that you will do the same.”

      – Certainly! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Andrew

        Also if we study church history not just in modern times, but in the Bible as well we see that while the fundamental principals of the gospel are eternal we see the church seems to have never quite been perfect. Issues such as how to handle circumcision, what the church should be called are two examples where the membership had disagreements. Of course those may seem like tertiary issues, and they may be. But of course in the Doctirine and Covenants we can see The Lord working with the church, including the leadership in how to properly follow the commandments he gave via church policy. And I think it would naive’ of us to assume that this restorative, and or process of perfecting the church and how the leaders administer the gospel has stopped in our day. Of course I am not calling for some kind of uprising, or rebellion against leadership. But I acknowledge that what I think I know as the gospel may be very similair to how some people in the scriptures seemed to have felt when the law of Moses was fulfilled, and a higher law was introduced. It seemed like a completely new gospel, when in reality it was the natural process of perfection being continued. So whatever that means for the future I don’t know exactly. But I do know that if the Church is going to continue to grow as an imperfect people that includes leadership learning better and better how to enact the doctirines of the gospel through policy. I believe in a leadership that can make mistakes, and sin like the membership. While they as a whole will not lead us astray, nor will the prophet. That in my mind does not preclude honest mistakes, or The Lord allowing for them to do the best they can, even when that isn’t perfect.

        In other words. We’re not perfect yet. Even the leaders. And while I claim no authority as to what will change in how the gospel is administered, and as to what laws God will require of his saints, or even how the leadership should manage their stewardship… I recognize not all is well in Zion yet, and we still desperately need flexibility to grow as a membership whatever that means for both leaders, and regular members. That’s not a call to revolution, but a recognition of the process of perfection, and how ignorant I really am as striving-to-do-the-best-I-know Latter-day Saint.

    • Kimberley

      Mike, I agree with you 100%. It seems to me that there is often more debating from those that may disagree with even our own Prophets rather than from those that believe in the commandments as they are given through the Priesthood, even with human flaws. It was intended and planned with that as part of the plan, I’m sure. I do not see how “debating” is a Christlike tool at all. We testify of truth by LIVING IT and the Spirit witnesses it to those that are ready to receive it. I do not believe that allowing or tolerating influences or opinions that are against the teachings of our Prophets and of God are good for our own Spirits or our children. It is not always about that person’s feelings or political correctness of acceptance etc. It is supposed to be more about how we control the natural man, not give in to it. Listening goes both ways but by many, it is only a one way conversation. It is definitely NOT our responsibility to worry about someone else’s righteousness! We worry about our own, live according to the will of our Father in Heaven and love and serve those that are in need. We are not all called to be teachers or speakers for God, His commandments (or an interpretation of) but to be examples and testifiers of truth through our own faith. Forcing our beliefs down someone else’s throats is the devil’s tool. Sure, I’m frustrated or sad that there are so many people, church members included, that wish the Church to be something that allows them to be more ‘human’, more ‘sinful’. I shouldn’t have to be the one to be “flexible” (as someone put it) to hear the whisperings of the devil and not have my Spirit be offended at such things. Sitting and listening to a friend, whom I love, is one thing but to say I have to accept what they may say, No. Free Agency goes both ways and must be respected both ways. Let God be the judge of what comes after that.

      • Melissa Inouye

        Hi Kimberly,

        Thanks for your comment. I also agree with you that the truths of the gospel are not something that people can determine just through “debate.”

        However, in my experience I’ve found that people have different perspectives on how to best implement the teachings found in the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets. For instance, around election time in North America, the Church always puts out a statement saying that principles in harmony with the gospel may be found in the agendas of both major political parties and that members are free to use their agency to choose.

        The point of my post is to suggest that in our in-person conversations with people in our wards and branches, we can be more diplomatic in our disagreement. (As President Hinckley has said, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”) The FRD approach emphasizes the fact that to tell a friend that you disagree with him/her is to express the highest love and respect. It is actually more respectful to sincerely tell someone that you think he or she is wrong than it is to pretend that you agree or to ignore what he or she is saying. But, being able to tell someone exactly where you disagree requires that you understand exactly what he or she is trying to say. This requires a specific understanding of the specific person’s argument.

        The FRD dialogue model completely agrees with you in that “flexibility” in one’s deeply held beliefs is a bad thing. But it also requires that people accept the good faith and motives of the people with whom they disagree. I completely disagree with some of my family members’ use of gospel principles to support certain politically conservative positions. But, I know that they are good people who are trying to do the right thing and that they have a lot to teach me. I know that they are smart and kind people and that if something is important enough to them to raise it as an issue of conversation or “debate,” it is worth my time to hear what they want to say.

        I feel that general judgments like “all those people who want to wear pants to church don’t accept the teachings of living prophets” or “all those people who think that only Republicans qualify to be members of Christ’s church are complete hypocrites” are unhelpful. Who knows what people are really thinking until you talk to a person as a friend and as a brother or sister in the gospel?

        This can only be done in person, within the relationships that we have already established in our wards and branches. We are invested in these relationships, and this “underlying value” is what will help us to do the right thing in our speech and conversation.

  • http://putthatonyourblog.com Heather Craw

    Loved the article, Melissa. Well reasoned and written.

    I’m sorry to hear about your mother. Your remembrance of her does touch upon one of the main reasons Mormon women are so hostile to the idea of more participation in leadership and decision-making within the LDS Church. Many women fear that any change to presiding authority invalidates the cause of nurturing that so many of us have devoted our lives to. I recognize that fear, but I do not think it is justified. One can be primary nurturer and a leader just as one can be a primary provider and a leader. Too often Mormon women hear their sisters’ call to take more responsibility in the caretaking and leadership of our church organization as a command to “get a job and a nanny instead of wasting your life ironing.” The specificity, honesty and trust you advocate could go a long way toward clearing up that miscommunication.

    On another subject, do you have any statistics for the hemorraging of Church membership especially among the youth? I’ve heard that we’re losing people many, many times recently, but I haven’t been able to find hard numbers to back it up. Would love direction.

    • mwinouye

      I, too, have only heard of hard numbers secondhand, although I am certain that these hard numbers do exist. If only they could be published or made available somehow. If anyone has any light to shed on this, it would be most welcome.

  • http://www.rulonbrown.com Rulon Brown

    I like this post. It is spot on about the long suffering and charity required to truly listen to others and let people have their agency and ideas that stem from it.

    I guess in a debat with other Mormons I could be more clear about my bias, blind obedience gets my goat. I have little patience for other’s thinking when they shut it off to simplify their path to obedience. “Come follow me.” Not, “come here zombie.”