A popular feminist argument against Mormon patriarchy asserts that it is simply a cultural relic absorbed unquestioningly from the surrounding social textures of past prophets. We learn that Paul was a product of his time, that Joseph Smith made assumptions about women’s status consonant with his own cultural milieu, or that the Book of Mormon’s androcentrism can be dismissed as an unquestioned cultural orientation rather than a divine imprimatur for marginalizing women’s experience. Because women’s subjugation has pretty much always been part of the air previous leaders breathed, there’s no reason to suppose it has ever been divinely inspired. As the Church continues to grow line upon line and precept upon precept, this model proposes, the scales of these unfortunate “philosophies of men” will gradually be sloughed off as further divine light and knowledge are embraced.
Past leaders were, undeniably, products of their time. But here’s the kicker in this line of thinking: current leaders are too. And so are you and I.
The implicit (or sometimes explicit) methodology undergirding this type of argument proposes that where we can identify parallels between “prophetic” teachings and beliefs in the surrounding culture, we are licensed to dismiss such teachings as mere cultural interpolations. In this model, the criterion for distinguishing between “doctrine” and “culture” is that divinely inspired “doctrine” is necessarily in tension with its cultural climate, where uninspired “culture” flows with the current.
Two general models for understanding the Church across time have popular traction: in one, a fulness of the ancient gospel has been restored, and so we look to the past for legitimacy. Under this rubric of thought, many apologetic projects undertake to identify resemblances between sacred Mormon texts and beliefs and practices in antiquity, on the assumption that it’s these similarities that confer legitimacy, as well as providing the appropriate context in which divine truths taught in the present are best understood.
In the second model, the gospel is becoming increasingly true as it progresses “out of obscurity and out of darkness,” and we place value not in antiquity, but instead privilege the present and projected future. Observe that the “patriarchy is cultural” line of reasoning proposes to do exactly the opposite of the standard apologetic project–identify similarities to cultures of the past specifically because they confer illegitimacy. Parallels are not evidence of inspiration, but a lack thereof. It’s the aspects of Mormonism without parallel that are, theoretically, the most valid.
Unfortunately, when it comes to issues of women’s status in the Church, the progress model has little historical basis. The Church has not, since its founding, moved uniliaterally in the direction of granting increasing religious and personal authority or opportunities to women.
But the bigger problem lies in the claim itself that doctrine can be extracted out of “culture.” Culture refers to human behavior; there’s no escaping it, and there’s no core gospel or set of doctrines that are culture-free. Even taking a watered-down approach that doctrines with prominent parallels in surrounding cultural contexts should be rejected as uninspired could quickly lead to the rejection of much (if not all) of what the Church teaches.
Most damning for feminists specifically, the insistince on women’s “equality” has its roots in Enlightenment thought, and has become a virtual dogma in present-day American culture. Although there are certainly dissenters, it’s hardly politically correct any longer to assert blithely that women are the spiritual or intellectual inferiors of men, and Church rhetoric has adjusted (albeit haltingly and incompletely) to these larger cultural trends. Egalitarianism is as cultural as patriarchy, as much a part of the air we breathe as subjugation was an element in Paul’s atmosphere. If this is the argument that allows us to reject Paul’s views on gender, it should, logically, lead us to reject our own ideas about equal partnership as well.
File this post under: Why I’m a Gloom-and-Doom Feminist, or What I Have in Common with the Patriarchalists (namely: I don’t think patriarchy can be amputated cleanly from Mormon thought).
- 8 May 2009