I knew that in 1978 the Mormon leadership, which had previously barred blacks from being priests (Mormons have a lay priesthood, and blacks were allowed to be members but not priests), did a 180° theological turn. Blacks were suddenly allowed to be priests because of a convenient “revelation” that was experienced by the elders. It happened when the exclusion of blacks was no longer tenable in a democratic egalitarian society, when the Civil Rights Act was already 14 years old, and when the Church was planning to expand into Brazil, ripe territory for converts but one with a distressing number of un-priestable blacks. (There were few black Mormons in the U.S. before 1978.) So God apparently changed his mind.
At any rate, I didn’t know until this morning that Mormons still prohibit women from becoming priests. That, too, is untenable, and it’s causing trouble in the Church. The details are given in an op-ed by Mormon writer Cadence Woodland in yesterday’s New York Times, “The end of the ‘Mormon moment.'”
Woodland details some of the embarrassing moments that caught the church with its pants down, exposing its Magic Underwear. One was its support of Prop 8 in California, banning gay marriage. Another was the excommunication of Kate Kelly, a Mormon lawyer who had called for the church to allow women to be priests. She was excommunicated for—get this—apostasy! Has Utah turned into Saudi Arabia now?
Here’s the Mormon position on women priests, taken from the official website of the Mormon Church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”):
How nice that they have a pipeline to God’s will! Of course this is going to have to change, just as the prohibition of priesthood for blacks changed, and then how will they rationalize that given the statement above? Did God change his mind? All the Sophisticated Theologians™ tell me that god doesn’t do that. He has no emotions (despite the wrathful and jealous God of the Old Testament) and he is steadfast and unchangeable (despite process theology).
Mormon women are demanding more equality and more participation in the church. One of them was Woodland, who signed up with Kelly’s “Ordain Women” movement. According to Woodland:
Like Ms. Kelly, I believe that the fundamental structural, cultural and spiritual inequalities Mormon women face can be rectified only if they are ordained as priests.
Well, that’s a non-negotiable demand, but it’s not going to rectify the inequalities—not as long as Mormon women are treated as breeding stock, as so many of them are. When I was in high school I went out with a Mormon girl, who immediately tried to convert me (on our second date, she took me to her home and her family showed me movies on how great it was to be a Mormon). About a year ago I looked her up on the internet just for fun (the Mormons, you know, are great believers in genealogy), and found that she had nine children!
Woodland wasn’t excommunicated, but she was shunned:
Though I have not been disciplined, I have lost friends, and my views have strained more than one close relationship. I have been lucky to enjoy the unfailing support of my husband, but friends and some family members have cautioned me against my outspoken unorthodoxy. My faith, not just in the good will of church leadership but in the central message of Mormonism, has crumbled. In December, I stopped attending services. I have no plans to return.
But Woodland realizes something that the Church leadership apparently doesn’t: if they buck the tide of modernity, especially of the established view that women and minorities are not inferior to white men, they will lose members. This is what will kill the Catholic Church eventually, though they’re buying time with incursions into South America and Africa.
The lesson is that, in Western society, morality comes from Englightenment values based on secular reason, and the Church simply trails on behind, like a cat dragged on a leash, tugging against social pressures. If the Church really were a force for good, they wouldn’t have waited until 1978 to allow blacks to be priests (the prohibition, of course, was based on Scripture), and they’d give women full religious equality—NOW. Woodland sees what will happen, though she doesn’t draw the lesson about where morality and gender equality really come from:
The church will continue to lose members like me until it realizes that messages about diversity and inclusion are hollow when excommunication and censorship are the responses to dissent. While the church invests in missionary work, especially overseas, an unwelcoming posture is likely to hinder its growth.
The true legacy of the Mormon Moment might just be that the church was given the chance that many religious institutions desperately need to stay relevant in the 21st century: the opportunity to open itself to criticism and inquiry. The church has chosen not to. And it has killed its own moment by doing so.
I await the next Convenient Revelation from the elders about women.