41 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Progress?

I went to conference—the 182nd Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held this past Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6 & 7, 2012, to be precise.  My wife, Heather, decided it was safer to stay home (that’s a long story).  I took our kids late to the Sunday morning session.  I told them our mission was for each of us to identify something of value—a thought, a life-lesson, an anecdote, an admonition, something.

On paper, we succeeded.  We took turns sharing our positive tidbits on the drive home.  In reality, though, I came away disappointed for two reasons.  Both are related to the change in missionary age (see here, here, or here)

First, I realized that our heroic belief in open heavens and an open canon is so empty of empirical validation that we’re willing to celebrate a shift in the arbitrary age for missionary service—a policy decision crying out for only slightly more revelatory guidance than the selection of new carpet in the church office building—as though God himself had typed the announcement into the teleprompter.

Let’s reminisce for a second.  In the history of the church, missionaries have been called at all ages.  Missionaries have been married.  They have served with their wives.  They have served in mixed sex “companionships” (that’s right, unmarried men and women have, at times, served as missionary companions). They have served for three or four years.  They have served for six months.  Recently, men have served at 19, women at 21.  No one claimed there was anything magical about these numbers.  No eternal principle was at stake.  It was just policy.

People’s reactions to the recent policy change, however, reveal a hunger that I didn’t recognize before.  We talk about being guided by a prophet—“Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don’t go astray,” we sing—but the reality is that our scriptures are closed.  Joseph F. Smith was the last to contribute (see the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 138, received on October 3, 1918).  Since then, additions have devolved from “Official Declarations,” and “Official Proclamations,” to conference talks, entries in the church “handbook,” and press releases.

Not only has it been a hundred years since we’ve added new scripture, we’ve gotten to the point that we can’t even rely on continuing revelation to clarify past revelation.  For example, do we, or do we not, believe that polygamy will be practiced in heaven? (see here).  Perhaps of more immediate relevance is this question: Do we or do we not believe in caffeinated drinks? (see here).

The “follow the prophet” refrain isn’t about receiving divine guidance anymore.  It’s an invitation to conform, to proclaim oneself a part of the group, to advertise one’s loyalty to the institution. When policy decisions are treated like revelations, it should be obvious to everyone what we’ve lost.

The second reason I was disappointed is because I no longer have any confidence that leaders are able to see, or effectively address, the inherent sexism of the church’s doctrine and policies.

Here I have to part company with a few individuals that I respect and with whom I generally agree.  Joanna Brooks, for example, seems genuinely happy about the change and is able to see in it some signs of “progress.”  I disagree.

Let’s review the narrative.  Women have uteri, and their primary function, therefore, is to utilize their anatomy, in the proper context, of course, to “bear” children.  Serving a mission should not take precedence over getting married, and because of that, women were required to wait longer to serve (until age 21, versus 19 for men), and they served for a shorter period of time (18 months, versus 2 years for men).  These policy distinctions made it clear that missionary work was primarily the domain of young men (and women could help out, if they didn’t have anything better to do, and it was convenient).  Because missionary work was primarily the domain of young men, they filled all mission leadership positions, regardless of whether or not these positions were “priesthood” callings or not.

Now, what affect does the new policy have on this narrative?

Do women still have to wait longer than men to serve?  Do they still serve for a shorter period of time?  Are all leadership roles filled by elders?  The answer to each of these questions, unfortunately, is “yes.”  The larger narrative stays the same.  Nothing has changed. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The one-year gap for men–that awkward and sometimes inconvenient year between high school and mission call–has been gift wrapped and handed off to the young women.

But it gets worse.  Before conference, these policy distinctions might have been at least partially attributed to historical precedent and established norms.  Now that the church has gone through the trouble of establishing a new policy, these distinctions can’t be so easily explained away.  As Jana Riess put it, “It feels as though the Church almost bent over backwards to reify systemic sexism by reaffirming an age difference and maintaining the silly standard of having young women serve for only a year and a half.”  As a Mormon women in a Facebook thread put it, “This [new policy] is like the men in the church lifting their legs, marking their territory and saying, ‘No equality for you. We’ll just give you what WE think you should have.’ Even though there’s absolutely no logical reason for it. And to top it all off, we should be happy about it.”  There is no wiggle room now (not that there was much before):  The church is a fundamentally sexist organization.

What if it had been announced that men and women could begin serving missions at 18 (or 19), for the same length of time, and that mission leadership positions would be filled without regard to gender?  If such a proposition seems shocking, it just shows how embedded the sexism is.

It was fitting that Holland, in the Sunday morning session of conference, talked about how performing baptisms is designed to change the missionary as well as the convert.  I guess it slipped his mind that only male missionaries perform baptisms (or maybe he was just talking about “real” missionaries).

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