Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Email Exchange about the ERA

For various reasons, this week I found myself doing a little bit of research on Lavina Fielding Anderson and I read this paragraph (pp. 12-13) from an article she published in Dialogue 26.1 (1993) entitled "The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology":

This was a tad on the disturbing side for me. I couldn't help but see the parallels between the anti-ERA movement and the recent Proposition 8 issue. So, I was interested in getting some perspectives from a faithful LDS woman who has researched the ERA extensively. For that, I decided to contact my old BYU roommate who did her senior history thesis about the ERA. It's been a fairly interesting conversation so far, so I thought I would post selections from it here. I should note that I haven't mentioned to this roommate that I am an inactive from the church, so I am writing with sensitivity to that issue. Also, out of respect to her privacy, I can only include my half of the conversation, but here's some selections from my half of the exchange (sans all the personal chit-chat):

I'm writing because I was just curious about your perspectives on the church's involvement with the ERA. I've been a big fan of Mormon Studies for the last couple of years and my studies usually delve deep into past church history as well as contemporary history. This past week, my studies have been taking me into the church's involvement with the ERA. I've actually been somewhat surprised by how extensively the church was involved in lobbying against the ERA. It concerns me a little bit from an issue of separation-of-church-and-state and also as a feminist. I am interested in hearing your take on this particular issue since you researched it extensively for your senior project. How do you feel about the ERA these days? What have your thoughts been on the matter? I'm open to whatever opinion you have on this issue. What conclusions have you come to?

Thanks in advance!


I think your assessment that the church's official position of non-partisanship being promoted somewhat "unevenly" throughout the nation is a very reasonable perspective. Admittedly, I've been somewhat discouraged about what I've read about how local leaders (with a certain level of unofficial approval from general authorities) have acted in ways that appear to violate the church's policy of political neutrality. The fact that women were encouraged by their local bishops to attend the International Women's Conference and vote down all measures to give women equal pay is kind of eyebrow-raising when viewed retroactively from a 21st century perspective. That women were given anti-ERA callings and that ward meetinghouses were sometimes used for anti-ERA rallies is disheartening. That bishops raised funds in their wards for groups like FACT and ward newsletters were used for anti-ERA lobbying is similarly troubling. Sonia Johnson's excommunication (along with other disfellowshipments of high-profile Mormon feminists) is similarly discouraging, but it's difficult because you don't get to hear the church's side of the issue on those kinds of proceedings. I have also read accounts of women feeeling fairly hurt about the church's position on the ERA, including one LDS woman who felt so disenfranchised that she committed suicide. So, it's sometimes hard to feel positive about the church's involvement with this issue at times.

Nevertheless, I think your explanation is probably a fairly good one: that well-meaning local ecclesiastical leaders may have been perhaps too overzealous in trying to show their loyalty to the Brethren. Perhaps they began to go beyond the mark in terms of what the church headquarters officially sanctioned. That sounds like a plausible explanation to me. It doesn't necessarily make me feel happy about the events that occurred, but it does humanize them.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives and feel free to continue the dialogue if you so desire. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say.



Thanks for sharing your perspectives. I agree with you that there needs to be room for free thought in the Church in order to maintain the overall health of the organization, but I wonder if that ideal might potentially be in conflict with the proscription against publicly criticizing church leadership. I have concerns that not allowing people to publicly criticize leaders creates a system in which there isn't enough ecclesiastical accountability.

On the one hand, I can understand how criticizing church leadership can be divisive. I can see how it has the potential to disrupt the harmony of a ward, a stake, or even the church in general. I can see also see that criticism can potentially be motivated by pride or selfishness or rebellion. Obedience, respect for others, and humility are certainly laudable virtues.

But on the other hand, I also think that virtues come in pairs. An excess in one virtue usually needs to be balanced out with another. For example, obedience, respect and humility also should be tempered with a healthy sense of self---an honest understanding of what you personally need to feel safe, happy and fulfilled. It's not healthy to serve and sacrifice for others to such a degree that you begin to neglect your own needs or do harm to yourself.

I've been speaking a little bit in the abstract terms, so let me speak a little more concretely. One way in which I am concerned about the blanket generalization that church members should never criticize their leaders is that sometimes criticism and negative feedback is actually useful and necessary. Sometimes criticism can actually make the organization aware of important concerns that need to be addressed.

For example, I have a friend who works with rape victims, helping them get counseling and legal advice. Since she's here in Utah, a lot of women who are referred to her are LDS. Most of these women talk to their bishops about the rape before they talk to anyone else. Most of the time, the bishops give rape victims good advice by helping them get in contact with the police and/or my friend's counseling program. But every once in a while, there will be a bishop who responds inappropriately by disfellowshipping the rape victim, claiming that it was her fault in some way. I am of the opinion that rape is never a woman's fault in any way. Women never, ever ask to be raped. I've also personally witnessed the emotional trauma caused by rape in some of my students' lives. What's equally disturbing is that sometimes when the rape victims will appeal their bishop's decision to disfellowship them with their stake presidents, the stake president unfortunately often sides with the bishop---usually because they trust the judgment of their bishops who they work with on a fairly close, personal basis. When that happens, there really is no recourse for a rape victim. She can possibly try to appeal to an Area Seventy, but that generally doesn't work. And since you can't write letters to the General Authorities any more, that option isn't available either. If that's the case, the only options left open to some women are to just suffer in silence, become disenfranchised from the church, or to speak out publicly about it. The fact that the Church Handbook of Instructions is sometimes followed (or not) in a fairly uneven way has the potential to be a bit of a problem in these kinds of cases---especially when there is no real recourse for a women except to speak out publicly.

So, for me, I think it's okay to have a proscription against publicly criticizing leaders. But I think that if the church is going to have such a proscription, then it needs to have a better internal system for handling members' grievances with their leaders. And there needs to be a better system through which members can express their valid concerns and opinions too (from big things---like asking whether Relief Society presidents can be given offices in the ward building the way Bishops have offices---to fairly innocuous things---like having a baby changing table in the men's bathroom or having a recycling bin available in the ward library room). Mormonism has got the top-down method of communication working really well, but the system for communication from the bottom-up still needs some work. Because allowing people to faithfully voice concerns makes the church healthier, safer, and more effective for everybody.

Thanks again for a good conversation.

No comments:

Post a Comment