There have been a few changes within Mormonism this past year. First, the General Authorities announced a change in missionary policy, lowering the age for both men and women. Men are allowed to serve at the age of eighteen, women at the age of nineteen. Previously, men went out at nineteen; women were allowed to serve at twenty-one, if they were still unmarried. The service time remains the same – two years for men, eighteen months for women. When asked why the change in policy didn’t erase the differences between men and women completely, Thomas S. Monson’s reply was “one miracle at a time”.
Women can now serve missions at nineteen. This sounds like progress – except that women are still not granted any authority in church matters. Within the mission field, only the male missionaries will be allowed to fulfill leadership positions. Any investigator that a sister missionary teaches will be baptized by a male missionary, who will receive the credit for conversion. I view this change in the policy regarding sister missionaries as a minor concession granted, with no real change in sight. Authority – and the ability to effect change – remains firmly in the hands of an all-male leadership.
Every position within the Mormon Church that is filled by a woman is ultimately presided over by men. Mormon authorities point to the Relief Society – an all-female organization – as proof that women are equal. What they don’t mention is that any decision made by the Relief Society leaders can be over-ruled at any time by the male authorities. As a teenager, I attended a church girls’ camp in the summer. Our leaders were responsible, capable women. This was not enough; church policy required that each ward provide a male chaperone, usually the bishop or one of his counselors. I left Mormonism while I was still in high school; had I stayed, this dynamic would have followed me through my entire life, as all-female gatherings within Mormonism are subject to male authorities attending. All of the pretty talk about respecting women is pointless when church culture is based on the assumption that women are not capable or trustworthy.
The second big change has been in the form of a website titled “Mormons and Gays” that is being touted as a new era in Mormon-gay relations. The Church’s official stance on homosexuality is at the top of the page and reads:
“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
In other words – it’s okay to be gay, it’s just not okay to be gay.
This is not progress. I define progress as moving towards a new future. What I see is a church that is being dragged into the future kicking and screaming. Granting token gestures towards marginalized groups, in a manner that suggests the underlying attitudes are still intact, is not progress. There is now a website that says Mormons should love gays, with the acknowledgment that being gay might be inherent. Accompanying this gesture is a huge asterisk, in the form of a statement: “There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right.” In other words, there has been lip service paid to the idea of change, without any significant revision of the underlying attitudes.
What about this can be labeled progress?
The Mormon Church has a long history of being forced into tolerance by the surrounding society. There is now a satire website called “Mormons and Negroes”, which draws on quotes from former leaders of the Mormon Church. As this website illustrates, the Mormon Church also has a very unsavory history with race relations. Black men weren't allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978. Receiving the priesthood is a rite of passage granted to twelve-year boys and is necessary for a full life as a Mormon male. Lifting the priesthood ban was heralded as a monumental step forward. However, the reversal of the priesthood ban was prompted more by the threat of legal sanctions rather than genuine tolerance. Perhaps this would be okay; no matter the reason, the ban was lifted. However, the Mormon authorities have never retracted their previous teachings or apologized for the ban. As a result, attitudes regarding race have changed in a slow and uneven manner, with a significant number of members repeating the older teachings as truth. After all, the men that made these statements are considered prophets of God – what argument can be made that these teachings are in error? The only answer is to forget or deny the past. As a teenager in the late 90s/early 00s, I learned that black people were descendants of Cain, cursed with dark skin for Cain’s murder of Abel. I also learned that Native Americans had been cursed with dark skin for similar reasons. Even in the post-civil rights era of my teenage years, these archaic and damaging teachings were far from dead.
Earlier this year, Randy Bott, a very popular BYU professor, re-hashed some of the attitudes surrounding Mormon race relations in a Washington Post interview. After public outcry, the Mormon Newsroom released the following statement.
"For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding."
There was no attempt by Mormon authorities to address the past. There was no attempt to clarify that the earlier teachings – which Bott had repeated in a national interview – were not of God. Instead, the Mormon PR machine tried to sweep the whole issue under a rug.
This is not progress. These are the actions of a church that is unwilling or unable to change.
Change is only effective if done willingly and with a full heart. I see evidence of change among the members; Prop 8 was a source of heartache to many faithful Mormons. Most members have also moved past the racist teachings of the previous leaders. These are the people that give me hope for a better future. What I don’t see is any hint of change among the authorities or even an avenue for change to occur.