The reaction to the Mormon feminist group, All Enlisted’s, fairly gentle efforts to nudge our culture toward more gender equality has got me thinking. A lot. First it was pants, now it’s a letter-writing campaign asking General Authorities to allow women to pray in General Conference. Neither activity goes against any official policy or doctrine of the church. Both are benign, simple, and (in my mind anyway) relatively uncontroversial requests.
But judging by the uproar, you’d think they’re lobbying for people to sacrifice their firstborn children.
Before I go any further, you should know that I’m not much for activism and protest — at least not in church. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the objectives of the organizers; it’s just that I’m ambivalent about whether or not the same kinds of politically-charged activities we employ in a secular space belong in the Body of Christ. (No, I’m not saying I’m against it per se. I’m saying I’m ambivalent. I’m still sorting out how I feel about it.)
But I confess that the backlash really gets to me. To hear them tell it, a letter writing campaign or wearing pants to church is opening the door to spiritual destruction. It is joining hands with the devil and leading precious souls to hell.
If only I were exaggerating:
It’s amazing how Satan weaves his way into our lives little by little to cause doubt or disbelief in the gospel and for those of you whom are constantly finding new ways to “change the church” to what you would like it to be…he’s doing a great job!
If hevenly father wanted a woman to pray in general conference…He would tell the prophet to have one pray!!!! This is selfish and against the prophet!!!!
You may think your intentions are good, but you are unknowingly starting some women with weaker testimonies down a disastrous path to apostasy.
As I’ve reflected, I’ve come to believe that one of the reasons the pants initiative and the letter-writing campaign have struck such a nerve is because they threaten cherished narratives that have become, in many people’s minds, the gospel itself.
In other words, they have become idols.
We don’t think about idolatry much in this day and age. It kind of feels like something that happened in antiquity, when you could make sacrifices to various gods on your way to the morning market. But idolatry is alive and well: I have felt its stirrings in my own heart. It is a subtle temptation that takes us away from the source of truth and leaves us bowing before falsehood. It dims our connection to God — and ultimately, as we spend more and more of our love, soul, and strength on our idols — it can destroy it totally.
What are some of the idols that these campaigns are threatening? Here are a few I can think of off the top of my head…
1. The Idol of Infallible Leadership. There is a passage in the Book of Mormon that has always intrigued me. It’s found in Mormon 9. Moroni is speaking to future readers of the record, begging them not to disregard what he, his father, and his forbears have written because they find errors.
Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.
This plea strikes at the heart of what it is to be a servant of God. It is a narrative found all throughout scripture, and is arguably THE good news of the gospel: servants of God make mistakes, some of them quite serious, yet by his grace still find favor and accomplish mighty miracles. The cast of fallible, human characters in scripture is long, and includes…well, every single last one of ‘em.
And yet, in church, in the Ensign, even in General Conference there are active and repeated admonitions to “obey the Brethren.” This is NOT a charge you will see in scripture. In scripture, we are admonished to obey God. If those sound roughly the same to you, if you see no difference between them, this is idolatry, and is a perfect example of the problem of which I speak.
2. The Idol of Rigid Gender Roles. Over the past 70 years or so, Mormonism has evolved quite a complicated theology of gender, much of it an apology for practices and policies that grow ever more dissonant as time marches on. What made perfect sense in the 19th Century became questionable in the 20th Century, and is nearing darn near indefensible in the 21st Century. From this, we’ve hatched all sorts of strained sentiments: talks about how “incredible” LDS women are and pleas for women not to “lobby for rights.” These sorts of statements — from soft patriarchy to retrenchment — are an attempt to preserve as divine an ideal that is merely a cultural, (literally) man-made construct.
Because we have asked our women to sacrifice so much upon its altar, we’re having a particularly difficult time letting this idol go. I believe that much of the backlash we see to pants and prayer is because of this.
3. The Idol of Outward Appearance. This is manifest in comments such as, “You’re making us look bad!” Did it occur to us that we’re making us look bad…and that, furthermore, there are worse things than looking bad? “Saving face” isn’t the point of the gospel. Jesus never said, “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass me! Don’t let people think you’re weak! And above all else, don’t ever, ever, ever be wrong!”
Instead, he said things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the hungry and thirsty.” Recall that Jesus allowed himself to be publicly scourged, tortured, and humiliated without even a word of protest. The teachings and example of Christ lead in the exact opposite direction of being worried about “what people think.” And yet many of us bow before the Idol of Outward Appearance — an idol that stalls repentance, breeds dishonesty, and fuels shame.
And no, it’s not only those who have reacted badly to pants and prayers that are tempted by idolatry. We all are. Though this post in particular is a response to those reactions, I confess that I have fallen on my knees in adoration before the Idol of Intellect, the Idol of Feminism (or Progressivism or any other number of isms), the Idol of Being Right, the Idol of the Love of Wealth, the Idol of Popularity, and dozens of others. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad in themselves. It’s that, unchecked, they can strain or supplant our relationship with God.
The only surefire fix is real communion with God, for God’s presence leaves the rest looking like the weak, flimsy, flickering substitutes that they are. Communion with God fills us with radical love: the kind of love that had Jesus begging the Father, “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” It fosters caring, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, acceptance, honesty, grace.
Whatever drives a wedge between us, whatever compels us to respond with anger instead of patience, to condemn instead of embrace, to reject instead of include, to fear instead of love, even when — no, make that especially when – we’re sure we’re right: this is an idol.
We all have our unique collection of idols, of false gods we worship. But we’ll never build Zion until we cast them aside. I hope we find the strength to do so.