(Disobedient, that is.)
As you may have noticed, the recent discussions about Ordain Women and related projects such as Wear Pants to Church Day have generated a complicated set of responses, many of them very critical. We saw critics labeling these women apostates or “dumb feminist bitches.” A few outliers even threatened violence against organizers.
These harsh reactions start from a baseline that women who want to wear pants to church, or attend General Priesthood Meeting, or even (gasp) be ordained to the Priesthood, are obviously disobeying a core gospel principle, by disagreeing with existing church policy and culture. They are sometimes cast as protesters taking a stand through civil disobedience, in a way that violates Mormon norms.
But is disagreement really wrong? Is this really disobedience?
There is of course a great tradition of Civil Disobedience in Civil Rights activism, and it has generally involved public rulebreaking. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks clearly broke laws. And these were invidious and evil laws, absolutely; but it was also clear that sitting at that Woolworth’s counter or that bus seat meant breaking a law. Hence the name, civil disobedience.
But the women of PANTS were not actually breaking any rules. It was not Rob-a-Bank Day, or even Drink a Latte Day. It was Wear Pants Day, and pants are allowed! How crazy is it that these women endured a massive outpouring of public abuse for doing something that doesn’t break any rules?? Similarly, the women who requested admission to the Priesthood session did not violate any commandment or rule. They weren’t bringing margaritas to Temple Square, they were asking to attend a church meeting.
That’s not disobedience because it’s not a violation of any commandment.
It was certainly a grave breach in decorum, though. It was a significant deviation from community norms. And so in a sense, it meant breaking the biggest rule of all: Don’t make the church look bad. (Oh, wait. That one isn’t really a commandment.)
As many observers noted, the real reason for the harsh response was that these women chose to exercise voice in a way that deviated from accepted scripts and community norms. For critics, there is a right way to be a Mormon woman, and these women are not acting right.
But are the critics right? Are Mormon women wrong to exercise voice to protest some church policy or cultural tic?
The Doctrine and Covenants openly states that the church is to be governed “by common consent.” (D&C 26:2). The idea of consent is a a core piece of Mormon belief: Church leaders lead because the church members have consented to their leadership. And in fact, we are regularly asked as church members to signal that consent. Publicly.
We’ve grown accustomed to this ritual. But we’ve somehow also latched on to a script where the only allowable answer is “yes” (unless you’re an energetic five year old who accidentally objects). If an adult were to openly object to the sustaining of Thomas S. Monson or Boyd K. Packer — wow. Church members would look sit back in shock and wait for the lightning to strike.
But let’s look at the idea more closely. Is it okay to say no? It has to be! It would be ridiculous to go through the whole process of publicly seeking consent if the only allowable answer were yes. Implicit in the question itself (“do you consent?”) is the option to say, “No.” The whole concept of consent becomes meaningless if there is only one right answer; that direction lies Castro’s Cuba.
So it must be okay to express a lack of consent; if it weren’t okay, then the entire process of asking and receiving consent would be a farce. And if the act of consent is typically a public ritual and signal to the community, then oughtn’t a signal of non-consent follow the same basic rule?
And if that’s the case, then maybe we need to rethink responses to PANTS, or PRAY, or Ordain Women. Because in a world of public consent rituals, acts of Civil Non-Disobedience — like PANTS and PRAY and Priesthood Session and even lobbying for rights — are not only allowed, they are necessary. A right to disagree is deeply embedded in the structure of the church. The ability to say no is what makes consent meaningful, and if public consent is a foundational principle of the church, then church members must also have the option to to publicly express disagreement. Any other configuration would destroy the legitimacy of the entire organization.
And so let’s thank Heaven for those courageous women and men who exercise their voices — as commanded by God — in acts of Civil Non-Disobedience.