This year has brought a reawakening and amplification of social awareness on gender-related issues in the public sphere. Inspired by the voices of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the May-June issue of the Forum takes up the question of how scholars whose research informs discourses about religion can uniquely contribute to extending an awareness of these issues through their scholarship and teaching. Using the resources available in the academic study of religion, contributors to this issue reflect outwards considering how their scholarly work is informed and transformed by movements like #MeToo, along with the various ways in which they hope this work can contribute to the wider conversation on gender, consent, and power dynamics.
The Forum was thrilled to collaborate with the Divinity School Women’s Caucus in putting this issue together. Allison Kanner (PhD student at the Divinity School and coordinator of the Women’s Caucus) and Anna Lee White (MA student at the Divinity School and Women’s Caucus representative) served as guest editors for this month’s issue. Throughout the month, scholars contributed diverse essays on the theme of gender and religion in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Professor Sarah Hammerschlag closed out the roundtable with a response. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your questions and comments.
- Rachel Schine (University of Chicago), Textual Harassment: Reading Medieval Arabic Love Verse in the Context of Consent
- Elizabeth Brocious (University of Chicago), #MeToo and Discourses of Love: A Mormon Case Study
- Samuel Catlin (University of Chicago), The Will to Ignorance: #MeToo as Pedagogical Crisis
- Response by Sarah Hammerschlag (University of Chicago), #TimesUp and the Myth of Neutral Space
In “#MeToo and Discourses of Love: A Mormon Case Study,” Elizabeth Brocious (University of Chicago) analyzes the impact of the institutional structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in creating vulnerability to abuses of power from the perspective of a member of the Mormon community and a student of feminist theology. She focuses on how “discourses of love”—which includes such concepts as trust, admiration, and inclusion—foster instances of abuse that can occur in superordinate/subordinate relationships. Using two case studies from the Church, she theorizes that discourses of love often simultaneously exacerbate and obscure the vulnerability created by such relationships.
by Elizabeth Brocious
The #MeToo movement has exposed how certain social structures threaten vulnerable persons, engendering abuse and harm for those who exist in a subordinate position within relations of power. As a student of feminist theological discourse and a member of the Latter-day Saints (Mormon) religious community, I am attuned in this #MeToo moment to the institutional character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church is explicitly committed to patriarchal and hierarchical structures, yet simultaneously speaks with a rhetoric of love and inclusion for women.1 One result of such discourse of love is a belief within Mormon culture that women are not harmed nor made vulnerable to harm by patriarchal and hierarchical structures.2 However, the LDS Church has hardly been immune to its own #MeToo moments involving the abuse of persons in subordinate positions, which suggests that perhaps it’s time for the LDS Church to ask of itself what feminists have long argued: Are those who live, work, and love in a structurally subordinate position inevitably made more vulnerable to abuse and harm as a result of the very nature of hierarchical structures?
The LDS Church tends to locate responsibility for abuse and harm in individuals whose character is lacking in righteousness, not in the character of its ecclesiastical structures. In this essay, I will discuss how over-reliance on love as a prominent feature of structural superordinate/subordinate relationships results in a systemic arbitrariness within the LDS Church. I will also note that, while this arbitrariness is not the same as inevitability, it in no way protects subordinate persons from harm. What’s more, systemic arbitrariness and vulnerability associated with subordination seem to be further exacerbated in Mormon culture by discourses of love that award exalted status to ecclesiastical leaders. This status obscures the presence and nature of vulnerability and abuse within this hierarchical structure.
Feminist theologians often define patriarchy as discursive practices of exclusion and rejection.3 In Mormonism, however, patriarchy also speaks through discourses of love and inclusion. Consider a January 16, 2018 press conference inaugurating a new LDS First Presidency, the highest governing body of the Church. When asked “What about women?” in regard to ecclesiastical roles, President Russell M. Nelson’s response was, “I love them. I have a special place in my heart about the women.” Then followed a tribute to the women in his family. He does acknowledge the ecclesiastical work done by women in the Church, and asserts that “we need their voices, we need their input, and we love their participation with us.” President Henry B. Eyring grants that the “idea of position or the idea of recognition” for women within the Church can be a concern for some, but asserts that women have great moral influence, especially as mothers. We see here that family affection and roles are conflated with ecclesiastical position. Unfortunately, such expressions of love and appreciation, regardless of intent or authenticity, is not the issue for women’s ecclesiastical position; rather, power differentials and how they contribute to vulnerability to harm is the issue. Such a discourse of love appears to be inclusive, yet at the end of the day, women exist as subordinates in the LDS Church: a man will always, in every case, preside over them. In light of both this structural reality and the occurrences of abuse and harm exposed by the Mormon #MeToo moment, Latter-day Saints need to examine the Church’s system of hierarchy and the extent to which it is responsible for the conditions in which abuse and harm occur.
The Mormon #MeToo moment is illustrated by two recent high-profile cases.4 The first is a lawsuit against the Church and Joseph Bishop, whom the Church advanced through leadership positions despite evidence he was guilty of sexual assault toward women under his charge. McKenna Denson accuses Bishop of raping her in 1984 when Bishop was serving as the president of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, where she received training before embarking on her mission. In December 2017, Denson took courage from the national #MeToo movement to confront Bishop, secretly recording their conversation. While Bishop did not admit to specifically raping her, Bishop calls himself a predator in the recording and admits to sexually molesting women in his past. Despite the fact that Bishop had confessed his sexual transgressions to a higher-ranking leader in the late 1970s (before the alleged assault on Denson), the Church continued to move him up the ranks from bishop to mission president to president of the MTC. Denson’s claims highlight the fact that the Church did not notify police to investigate the charges, but instead handled it at an ecclesiastical level where Bishop was presumably forgiven for his sins by one Church authority, while Denson was disbelieved in her claims by other ecclesiastical leaders.
The second is from a movement called Protect LDS Children. This organization seeks to raise awareness about the potential dangers of “worthiness” interviews conducted by an adult male bishop, in which he is allowed to ask explicit questions about the sexual behavior of children and teenagers to determine whether they are keeping standards of sexuality set by the faith. These interviews take place behind closed doors, with only the bishop and the young person present, and under strict confidentiality so that parents are usually not informed as to what was said or what took place. The organizers of Protect LDS Children express concern about the obvious danger of potential sexual abuse under such circumstances. Such questioning grooms youth to become victims by teaching them it is acceptable to speak of sexually explicit matters with adult men in an environment of secrecy. Since in most cases bishops are entirely untrained regarding sexual development, such questioning can and often does lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing while normal sexual feelings and exploration during the years of puberty are cast as sins.
These two #MeToo moments elicit a closer examination of the role and character of hierarchical structures within Mormonism, structures built upon the theological doctrine of priesthood. Priesthood office is given to all worthy males beginning at age 12, with ecclesiastical leadership positions being filled on a rotating basis. Men in higher-level positions are understood to hold priesthood keys, which thereby establishes an additional hierarchy within the priesthood itself. At any given time, some men will be placed in superordinate positions over other men and boys as well as over all women and girls, who are not ordained into the priesthood at all. Mormon priesthood also carries certain expectations of character and conduct. As a religious institution that aspires to live up to the teachings of Jesus, priesthood leaders are expected to preside through love. In LDS scripture, the concept of love is fundamental to the doctrine of priesthood: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”5 When someone within the priesthood seeks to “exercise control or dominion or compulsion” upon others, “the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”6
This passage is often interpreted to mean that “control or dominion or compulsion” are individual acts, sins based on individual choice, not the result of institutional structures. Taking this cue, abuse in Mormonism is often understood to be the result of individual sin, not institutional environments.7 But if LDS ecclesiastical structures are based on a hierarchical priesthood, and priesthood power is only exercised through love, then love—its presence and absence, its quality and character—becomes a structural issue. This scripture passage, then, can be interpreted toward an understanding of what it means to exercise love at a structural level. The present system, in which the individual acts of priesthood leaders are mostly kept in check by the private, interpersonal relationships between the men in hierarchical positions, lends itself to structural arbitrariness: women, children, youth, and lower-ranking men are at the mercy of the personality of leaders, of the degree to which well-ordered affection will check their behavior. Not least among the problems of such a system is that abuse and harm may be addressed only after they occur, rather than having structural measures to prevent them in the first place. The consequences can have terrible and long-lasting effects for survivors of abuse, as the stories from Protect LDS Children especially illustrate.
The Church’s response to both of these instances of the Mormon #MeToo moment has been condemnation of sexual abuse and a small change to interview practices that allows for, but does not require, another adult to be present in the room during an interview. In leadership settings involving lower-ranking and non-priesthood leaders, “two-deep leadership” has been the policy for many years. That two-deep leadership is not required for higher levels of priesthood leadership in settings that may render those in subordinate positions most vulnerable illustrates an over-reliance on individual righteousness and love by those who hold priesthood keys.
Changes to institutional policy, however, still do not fully address another problem within Mormon discourses of love: the exalted status awarded to ecclesiastical position. Mormons believe that a metaphorical divine mantle is placed on the shoulders of priesthood leaders who hold keys, and accordingly believe reverence and respect should be given to these men. Latter-day Saints are expected not only to never speak ill of them, but even further, to speak of them with a language of love and admiration. As I see it, this feature of a Mormon discourse of love creates a cultural environment that can lead to a dangerous combination: leaders are believed to be holy men of God, loved, revered, sometimes even spoken of as if they are infallible, plus an institutional context in which few checks exist outside of interpersonal relationships between men in the hierarchy. If the character of leaders is understood to function as the primary check to institutional abuse, and yet the moral character of Mormon leaders is assumed but not interrogated because of divinely-ordained status, we are left with a situation in which discourses of love actually undermine the conditions in which genuine trust can be nurtured in ministry relationships.
Genuine trustworthiness requires an environment in which status and positions of power can be set aside so that a person-to-person unity may be developed. This unity can occur only when recognition of the full and equal humanity of each person in a relationship guides interactions. When exalted status instead mediates interactions, the personhood of lower-status individuals can easily be cast in the shadow of the exalted leader and institution, which can then mute and obscure the full impact of the call to reciprocal recognition of full, equal humanity. Such conditions do not serve as a substantive basis for the genuine trust and love so important to ecclesiastical relationships of ministry. Indeed, Joseph Bishop’s ecclesiastical status seems to have been a factor for why Denson’s claims of sexual misconduct were ignored or disbelieved, and a status-driven loyalty to ecclesiastical leaders seems to have created an environment where those who have been harmed by the actions or sexual questioning of bishops have often suffered in silence.
This second feature of a discourse of love—the role of love or admiration attached to status—is hardly unique to Mormonism but can be seen in the dynamics of power that play out in many American institutions, as the broader #MeToo movement has highlighted. It can manifest wherever those in superordinate positions hold status through culturally-defined avenues of exaltation—whether it is religious priests, ministers, leaders, or teachers; a mentor in an academic or professional setting; an influential politician; a billionaire mogul; or a revered and famous celebrity. I am not arguing that love, trust, and admiration as such are the problem or that our institutional relationships should be devoid of them. I am arguing that we need to be attuned to disordered versions of love, trust, and admiration—especially when they are, on the one hand, conditioned upon the belief that status alone warrants them, and, on the other, when they obscure the vulnerability of those in subordinate positions of power. One of the most troubling aspects the #MeToo movement has exposed is just how damaging sexual abuse and harassment are to love, trust, and admiration, and how far we have to go to make sure their genuine versions are protected and nurtured. ♦
Elizabeth Brocious is a PhD student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She studies Christian and Mormon theology, with a particular interest in feminist thought and the ethos of religious communities. She studies philosophical and theological concepts of the self and agency and the implications of an agentive self embedded in ecclesiastical structures.
Allison Kanner is a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research focuses on intersections between medieval Islamicate romance literature, mystical literature, and gender and sexuality in Religious Studies. She currently leads the Women’s Caucus, a student-founded club at the Divinity School, as well as a weekly Persian language conversation group.
Anna Lee White is an MA student in History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her studies focuses on the history of South Asian religious literature. She plans to pursue research on devotional poetry and hagiographies from early-modern North India during a PhD at McGill University. She is also a member of the Divinity School Women’s Caucus.
- See Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign (October 2004) where he states, “the government of the family is patriarchal, whereas the government of the Church is hierarchical.” ↩
- For example, see Mormon Gender Issues Survey Group, which shows that a high percentage of Latter-day Saints do not support female ordination to priesthood office. This seems to suggest that vulnerability created by structures of patriarchy is not a predominant concern for many members of the faith. ↩
- See Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) and Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983); Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). ↩
- Another high-profile case was that of Rob Porter, a former aide to Donald Trump. Two of his ex-wives came forward with evidence that he had physically abused them. They also revealed that their ecclesiastical leaders counseled both to stay in the abusive marriage. ↩
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42 ↩
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:37 ↩
- In 2013 Philander Knox Smartt, a mission president in Puerto Rico was, unlike Bishop, removed from his position and excommunicated for sexual misconduct. In a Church statement, Eric Hawkins casts the situation in terms of individual action, saying missionaries have “suffered because of the actions of a man who should have been a trusted priesthood leader,” since men in such positions are “expected to live and exemplify the highest standards of personal conduct” (my emphasis). The quick removal of Smartt is heartening, but Hawkins’ statement does not adequately address the question I am exploring here, whether vulnerability for persons in subordinate positions is built into hierarchical structures. After all, the sexual misconduct was not caught by Church institutional checks but came to light only after a sister missionary broke missionary rules to contact an outside leader. ↩