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)

“Matt and Me (But Mostly Me)”*: A Conversation about _The Book of Mormon_ on Broadway

The Book of Mormon, the musical comedy co-written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, went into previews on Broadway the week I turned in my dissertation on images of the Latter-day Saints in American culture from 1890 to the present. Sadly, this meant that while I quoted much of Parker and Stone’s work in my dissertation (South Park, Cannibal! The Musical, Orgazmo), I did NOT include a discussion of their Tony-winning musical in my work. Last week, I finally got to see the show, and because I so enjoyed my conversation with Matthew Bowman about Angels in America, I asked him if he’d join me here to help me think through my first encounter with Parker and Stone’s Book of Mormon.

MB: Why Mormons?  What is it particularly about Mormonism that makes it an appealing subject for a show like this—as opposed to, say, foreign service officers or the Peace Corps or Mother Teresa?

CHJ: First and foremost, we’re talking about Trey Parker and Matt Stone here. The creators of South Park have long had a fascination with Mormonism that goes at least as far back as their first film, a student project completed at UC-Boulder, Cannibal! The Musical (1993). Mormons also feature prominently in their first feature film, Orgazmo (1997), and several episodes of South Park.

Why not focus on other missionaries or foreign services? If some sort of foreign missionizing is your context, what’s more iconic and more immediately recognizable in American culture than Mormon missionaries? Peace Corps volunteers don’t all have a recognizable style of dress or accessory, but people recognize Mormon missionaries for traveling in pairs, for dressing conservatively (the young men’s “uniform” is especially identifiable), and for wearing those easy-to-spot black name tags.

And as for Mother Teresa… well, I’m not sure even Parker and Stone would take her on as an object of protracted ridicule (she has been featured briefly on South Park in the past). The audience wouldn’t stand for it. Mormons, on the other hand, are totally acceptable to most Americans as the butt of a good joke. [Read more...]

On Historical Sources, Mormonism, and the Pinterests of the new General Young Women’s President

I’ve spent the last three weeks carefully handling 18th century manuscripts housed in some of England’s most treasured and stories archives. Most of these sources fall into one of three general categories: journals, correspondence, or church records. The research is for my dissertation, and I’ve been doing this sort of thing for most of my adult life now: poring over records, considering their provenance and reliability, taking into account authorial point of view, comparing them with other accounts of the same or broadly similar events, attempting to contextualize their meaning, discerning their relative significance to a given question or subject, utilizing them as part of an argument, and then trying to write about my “findings” in a coherent and novel way. At least that’s how I conceive of my job as a historian. [Read more...]

Conferences at the Crossroads of Mormonism

When April comes to Independence, Missouri, Latter Day Saints will go to conference. Community of Christ members will go to conference. Latter-day Saints will go to conference. Remnant saints will go to conference. Church of Christ (Temple Lot) members will go to conference. Saints who are first-generation Americans from Samoa will go to conference. Saints who have flown from Nigeria to Missouri will go to conference. And saints from dozens of other nations will go to conference. Members of the counter-cult movement will go to conference, too. Even the radical Fred Phelps of the tiny Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church may go to conference (though no one is inviting him). In April, the millennial ground zero for Joseph Smith’s projected New Jerusalem, better than any place on earth, will become a platform for showcasing the aspirations, issues, and disagreements that shape contemporary Mormon churches. [Read more...]

How Mormons Read the Bible

A little more than a week ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released an update to its online edition of the Bible and other authoritative texts, with a print edition to follow later this year.  Some of these changes reflect better historical knowledge of LDS history, as well as improved study aids, and some historical contextualizing of some important LDS texts.  The new edition of the LDS Bible is incremental, offering a few minor spelling and punctuation updates to the King James Version, the official translation approved of by the Church.  The changes and the lack of changes have spurred some insightful reflection on the meaning of this new edition, including the supplemental resources it provides for study, but it is useful to consider at this junction just how exactly Mormons read the Bible.
[Read more...]

How Conference Comes to Hong Kong

In one month, General Conference will come again to the red brick building with the crossless gray spire that sits on Gloucester Road, the east-west artery into Hong Kong’s throbbing urban heart. By Hong Kong standards, the Wanchai building is a modest twelve-story low-rise, dwarfed on all sides by great and spacious towers easily over four times as tall. But small as it may seem, it contains worlds.

Hong Kong is famous for its diversity and discontinuities. Its tiny borders create a crowded space for the confluence of wealth, poverty, tradition, transience, centrality, marginality, urban, rural, East, West, and nearly everything else. In Hong Kong, Mormonism comes into focus as a dynamic global religion in which powerful forces of homogeneity and heterogeneity exert themselves side-by-side. This productive, load-bearing tension is especially apparent during the Church’s worldwide General Conference broadcasts in April and October.

When Conference comes to the Wanchai building, elevators are stuffed and staircases fill with Mormons tromping to and from rooms on the various floors of the building where the broadcast from Salt Lake City is being streamed in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, English, and Bahasa Indonesian. There are so many languages zooming back and forth over the building’s multimedia network that sometimes it goes haywire; in the middle of one Conference meeting last October, General Relief Society Presidency Counselor Linda S. Reeves suddenly began speaking Korean, necessitating a flurry of tech-shifting strategies and some impromptu congregational hymn-singing until she could be reacquired in English.

It would be possible to see the multiple floors of the Wanchai building as a symbol of the stratified nature of Hong Kong society or Mormonism’s centralized administrative hierarchy. And yet in the Wanchai building one can also see the kind of democratic leveling effects produced by Mormon community structure. For instance, after the October Conference’s General Relief Society meeting, the Vice-President of Operations at Hong Kong Disneyland and a professor at the University of Hong Kong (both white, U.S. expatriates) worked frantically to core, slice, and serve Granny Smiths to the intimidatingly long line of mostly Filipina maids snaking back and forth across the gym.

In Conference talks, the Church and its buildings are often spoken of as sites of refuge from an unfriendly world. The Wanchai building is a different sort of haven to different groups of Mormons. While most Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong spend their day off in crowded parks and underpasses, sitting on plastic tarps, in the Wanchai building Mormon domestic workers have sofas and kitchens and clean bathrooms. While most early childhood music classes in Hong Kong are expensive and commercialized, Mormon expatriate mothers use the second floor Primary room every Thursday to run a cooperative “Musicmakers” class and to swap know-how about private school applications and places to get thick milkshakes.

The majority of Church members view the Sunday session of General Conference on a Sunday, but in Hong Kong this is not necessarily the case. Like deep-sea hydrothermal vents that sustain rare and unconventional forms of life, the extremely transient and fragmented nature of Hong Kong society has provoked rare and unconventional forms of Mormon congregations. Mormon domestic workers whose day off does not fall on Sunday attend the Sabbath services on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. Two senior missionary couples from North America are assigned to superintend these full three-hour-block weekday meetings. They get Sundays off. Most Mormons are shocked to learn that these missionaries have official Church sanction to go to Disneyland on Sunday, but so it must be: Sunday is their Sabbath from the Sabbath.

Another way in which the Hong Kong domestic worker units are unusual is in their leadership structure. Leadership positions in nearly all Mormon congregations worldwide are dominated by men, including the executive secretary and ward or branch mission leader; the highest-ranking local female leader, the Relief Society president, is seen as an “auxiliary” leader with special stewardship over only the portion of the congregation that is female. In the overwhelmingly female domestic worker branches of Hong Kong, however, the Relief Society President exercises stewardship over nearly everyone in the congregation, and the executive secretaries and branch mission leaders are women. (When I asked a sister in the Island 1 Branch if the branch mission leader was really a woman, she gave me a blank look, as if I had asked whether President Monson, the Prophet, was really a man.)

When Conference comes to the Wanchai building, it is striking to see the forces of Mormon homogeneity and heterogeneity at work, side-by-side (or in this case, floor by floor). The same talk on the blessings of paying tithing is being broadcast in five different languages to people from over a dozen different countries whose incomes can range from 4000 USD a year to 4000 USD a month. When the Western expatriate branch and the Filipina branch watch Conference in English together in the big chapel on the first floor, the two groups often respond differently at different points in the talk, such as an audible gasp from one while the other is silent, or laughter from one while the other doesn’t quite understand what was funny.

Despite all of this difference and disjuncture, what is clear to the Mormons (including myself) for whom the Wanchai building is such a welcome place of spiritual, physical, and cultural refuge, is that Mormonism in Hong Kong works. By “works,” I don’t mean in the sense of “runs like a well-oiled machine,” but rather that it relies on the sustained effort of a lot of awkwardly shaped moving parts (i.e., people) to build the body of Christ, to supply miraculous answers to prayers in the form of service, and to fan the flame of faith against the suffocations of a dreary world.

This “Hong Kong Mormonism” where General Conference is viewed is no less authentic or representative than the “Salt Lake Mormonism” where General Conference is produced. If only, instead of panning around the audience seated in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City during congregational hymns, the camera could pan around the world, revealing not only individual Mormons of all colors and walks of life but also the many distinctive and unique expressions of Mormon community.

In the global Mormon community, the homogenizing and heterogenizing impulses within the faith are mutually supporting. The homogenizing impulse stems not just from the Church’s centralized administration, but most profoundly from our shared faith in the teachings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The heterogenizing impulse stems from our view of Zion as not merely an idea or a belief, but a real community. Not only in Hong Kong, but from Los Angeles to Lubumbashi, these forces of sameness and difference come together in Mormon congregations — demanding ongoing negotiation and innovation, but also imparting strength and value to the community of faith because of the effort that they constantly require.



* To help promote international understandings of Mormonism, please consider donating your favorite Mormon studies book (or two, or four) to the International Mormon Studies Book Project!