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)