Way back in April 2004, almost exactly ten years ago, Armand Mauss was the very first Times and Seasons 12 Questions guest (see Part 1 and Part 2). A lot has happened in the last ten years, so Armand has graciously agreed to answer 12 more questions. He was a Professor of Sociology for many years at Washington State University (the other Cougars) and is the author of two must-read books for students of Mormonism, The Angel and the Beehive (1994) and All Abraham’s Children (2003). With Lester Bush, he co-edited a collection of essays, Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Signature Books, 1984). He recently published his memoirs, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (U of U Press, 2012).
1. The efforts of the Ordain Women group to publicize their request for extending the LDS priesthood to women got a lot of attention in last week’s General Conference, as was also the case with their first attempt to attend the General Priesthood Meeting six months earlier. How does the Ordain Women effort compare to a similar push almost fifty years ago to extend the LDS priesthood to men of African descent? What is similar and what is different?
The two efforts are similar in that both were influenced by social and ideological changes in the surrounding American society. The external changes, and the critiques that they suggested for internal LDS practices, were picked up by many LDS members, whether faithful or critical, and increasingly advocated in literature and forums to which the general LDS membership was exposed. Another similarity is that the changes that actually occurred have been due more to the crucial influence of faithful members internally than to external pressure. In the case of extending the priesthood to people of African descent, I am thinking especially of the case of Brazil. In the case of LDS women, I am thinking of the incremental improvements in the visibility of women during the past decade, which would not have come about, I believe, without the efforts of faithful feminists among the leadership (e.g. Chieko Okazaki, Aileen Clyde) and on the burgeoning blogsites. Even the OW campaign, which seems to be going nowhere in its own right, has nevertheless made some of the less radical demands of feminists seem moderate by comparison, thereby improving their prospects!
There are also key differences between the two efforts. Since half of the Church membership is female, there is potentially a greater constituency for improvements in the ecclesiastical position of women than there was for that of black men. Also, gradualism is a more feasible strategy for the women’s movement in the Church — that is, incremental changes are as much as many feminists (or LDS women generally) really want, if we are to judge from the variety of positions expressed on the various blogsites. In sociological and political terms, each new increment has the effect of “buying off” a portion of the discontented constituency. By contrast, for black men, the issue was always ordination or nothing. There was some talk about starting with the Aaronic priesthood, but that never really went anywhere. Even the Genesis Group was relatively late on the scene and did not feel entitled to advocate ordination openly. Only ordination itself would satisfy the equality advocates. (See also my comment below on the difference between the doctrinal obstacles to equality for the sexes as contrasted with equality for the races).
2. I have read persuasive arguments that extending the LDS priesthood to women would in fact be a much greater leap doctrinally than the (in retrospect) simple extension of the priesthood to all worthy men. The Church has placed so much emphasis on gendered doctrines, gender roles, and the family over the last twenty years that a change of this magnitude would be difficult to explain and to execute. Yet, at the same time, the Church is making incremental changes that do broaden the role of women, such as lowering the age for missionary service for young women to 19 and emphasizing the role of women in ward councils. Is continued incremental change enough to keep most young LDS women happy and involved in the Church?
On incrementalism, see my comment above. Also, I don’t agree that extending the priesthood to women would be a “greater leap doctrinally” than the earlier extension of it to men of all races. Recent LDS Newsroom responses to the OW movement have asserted a doctrinal basis for rejecting the ordination of women, but I don’t know what that basis would be. I know of no scripture specifying that the priesthood is only for men. Even the Family Proclamation doesn’t say that. The main argument seems to be that we don’t know of any ordinations of women in the Savior’s time. Careful reading of certain New Testament passages would raise doubts even about that. I know of no official statement, for the case of women, comparable to the First Presidency letter of August, 1949, which claimed explicitly (and erroneously) that denial of the priesthood to black men was a direct commandment of God and a doctrine taught by all the prophets of this dispensation. Strongly traditional notions about the significance of gender will certainly stand in the way of ordaining women for some time to come, but I don’t think the obstacle is ultimately doctrinal.
3. The other big issue that confronts the Church right now is gay marriage. The legal arguments in favor of overturning existing gay marriage bans now appear to be persuasive to the point that almost any federal court that encounters the issue is going to rule in favor of gay marriage, as the federal district court in Utah did recently (appeal pending). How is the Church going to deal with this new American legal and social reality?
Recent general conference talks have made the distinction between man’s laws and God’s laws where homosexual relations are concerned. I expect the Church to change its policy on marriages in the U.S. to accord with the situation that has long existed in most other countries — namely that the only legal marriage is one that is performed by a state or civil magistrate. LDS bishops and temple sealers will no longer claim that authority. Instead, LDS couples in the U. S., as elsewhere, will be permitted, if not required, to get civil marriages first, followed immediately, or as soon as possible, by a temple marriage. No more waiting for a year between the two. This will remove the scary scenario that has been spooking some of the Saints, namely that LDS bishops and sealers will be required to perform homosexual marriages. This generation will pass away, and probably several more, before we see LDS acceptance of homosexual marriages as legitimate, or homosexual relations as anything but sinful.
4. The LDS Church is a missionary church that places great emphasis on finding and converting potential members as well as socializing and retaining its youth. We were told in last week’s General Conference that there are now over 85,000 missionaries serving, which is easily over 1% of all active Latter-day Saints. But as society becomes increasingly less religious (in particular, less interested in affiliating with organized institutional religion), conversion and retention become more difficult. And the demographic trends are even more threatening, as sociological studies (such as Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace) show the rising generation is considerably more tolerant of gay marriage and women’s equality than prior generations — two issues where the LDS Church is perceived as, at best, quite conservative and, at worst, intolerant and bigoted. One might even predict that if the Church doesn’t change its approach to doctrine and practice, it might at some point actually start shrinking. Is that threat enough to spur changes? Or would such changes actually do more harm than good for the growth of the Church?
As you know from my Angel & Beehive book, and subsequent discussions of its thesis, Church growth will depend on finding and maintaining “optimum tension” along the continuum between our sectarian distinctiveness and our drive toward assimilation and respectability (which, as you rightly imply, will increasingly mean greater secularization). Differences with the surrounding society over women’s equality and gay marriage will be play into that tension calculus but will not, of themselves, be determinant. The greatest threat to Church growth comes not from our management of that tension, but rather from a high defection rate. That defection rate, in turn, occurs at two levels: (a) among the new converts, especially outside the U. S., who typically don’t last even the first year of their new membership in the Church; and (b) among life-long or long-term members who are blind-sided by discoveries, as adults, of scandals in Church history that were deliberately kept from them in the official Church teaching materials.
At the level of (b), things are finally starting to change, but not nearly quickly enough. At the level of (a), I don’t see any effort to finish the conversion process before baptism, since our missionaries are still pressuring people to join the Church in a matter of weeks after the first contact. Decades of failure in the fellowshipping effort of such new members should have taught us the folly of depending on fellowshipping to finish the conversion process, especially in countries outside the U.S., where wards and branches are overwhelmed with partially converted members and burned out leaders expected to hold on to them. (A little hyperbole here, of course, but not much.)