Chicken change: A step forward or a sidestep?

How has the Church’s view on homosexuality changed over time? In a post at T&S last year, Kaimi gave an overview of some of the major changes, and summarized them as follows:

Over the course of the past three decades, the church’s stance has evolved from virulently anti-gay and homophobic, to its current soft-heterosexist approach of “love the gays, hate the gayness.” It is a limited sort of shift, as the changes have largely involved rhetoric and attitude, while many of the underlying church doctrines have remained relatively constant.

I haven’t systematically examined Church statements about women, but I think there may be a similar change going on in this area. My impression is that it used to be that women had their own roles and their own sphere and that’s just how it was, but now there are General Authorities reassuring women at every turn that they’re incredible and important. But like the change in views on homosexuality, like Kaimi said, it’s been mostly in rhetoric and not much in practice. Borrowing Kiskilili and Eve’s term, it could be called “chicken change.”

I may be straying a bit from the framers’ intent (and I hope they’ll weigh in if I am), but as I understand it, chicken patriarchy is an attempt to soften people’s perception of patriarchy by changing the rhetoric about it. It’s not a change in practice: men continue to preside. It’s not a change in the old rhetoric: it’s still said that men are divinely designed to preside. Instead, it’s an addition to the old rhetoric: egalitarian statements are mixed in with the old hierarchical statements. The most-discussed example is likely the part in the Proclamation on the Family that says husbands and wives are equal partners and that husbands preside.

I think the changing rhetoric on homosexuality is also a type of chicken change. As with changing views on women, our practice hasn’t changed (or it has changed very little). The only ways to be in good standing in the Church if you’re gay are still to remain celibate or marry an opposite-sex partner. And although some of the more recent Church statements about homosexuality have softened, the older, harsher, statements are still circulated. They certainly haven’t been disavowed. This makes for a potentially confusing mix of official statements that take different stances on homosexuality.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about chicken change, though: Is it a sign of progress, however small? Or is it just a way of avoiding the issue? This question came up briefly on the recent fMh podcast on benevolent patriarchy/sexism, where one panelist said she thought benevolent sexism was an improvement on old-style hostile sexism but another panelist thought it didn’t represent progress. (Sorry–I lost track of who was saying what. I think the conversation is about 48 minutes in.) I can see there are good arguments for both possibilities.

Chicken change might simply be a way to sidestep the need for change in practice. For example, there’s some pressure on the Church for women to be ordained. Excluding them from the priesthood based on their sex violates widely-held egalitarian ideals. Rather than make this change, though, the Church simply dials up the “women get to lead a lot too” and “women’s roles are just as respected as men’s” rhetoric, in effect trying to redefine the current state of affairs as already being in line with egalitarian ideals.

On the other hand, chicken change might represent a step forward because the very fact that rhetoric changes and the current state of affairs gets redefined implicitly acknowledges the pressure for change. Continuing with the example of ordaining women, Church rhetoric that emphasizes how much women get to lead in the Church implicitly accepts the ideal that women should be leading in the Church (thanks for pointing this out, Kiskilili). Another reason that chicken change might represent progress is that it lays rhetorical groundwork for later change in practice. When change in practice (finally) happens, there are plenty of official statements that preceded it that can be pointed to as justification. This might make it easier for the change in practice to be accepted. For example, as I understand it, the 1978 revelation overturning the priesthood/temple ban was preceded by softening rhetoric, and it was widely and eagerly accepted. By contrast, the 1890 Manifesto was not preceded by any kind of change in rhetoric (nobody was saying “Oh, monogamy is as good as polygamy after all,” before it.), it was to some degree ignored, and it ultimately led to several schisms splitting off from the Church.

I have always leaned more toward the view that chicken change is a net negative. It artificially reduces pressure for real change in practice without addressing the underlying problem. But now that I’ve considered the question more, I wonder if chicken change–frustrating as it is–might actually be a useful step in implicitly acknowledging the existence of pressure and in easing the path of later change in practice.

What do you think? Is chicken change a step forward, or a sidestep?

Please note: I aware that I am assuming lots of things here, like that the Church has changed in the past, that it will change in the future, and that change can be good. Please save arguments on these points for another day.



  1. I tend to agree that chicken patriarchy is better than old-style hostile sexism, it is progress. But progress is not the same a change.

    History shows that progress, progressive thinking, questioning, conversation, and involvement lead to change. I guess that (in this instance) I’d define progress as not moving but definitely looking forward. I think the attention to gender roles, the conversation around it creates progress because it gets people to THINK about what they have claimed without previously examining. And once you see something, it cannot be unseen. Sooner or later it cannot remain undealt with.

    Maybe this sounds wishy washy, but I don’t think the patriarchy, chicken or not can bury it head in the sand forever (to mix both fowl and metaphors).

    Progress isn’t change, but progress means it’s harder to go back

  2. Personally what I find so discouraging about chicken patriarchy (and its chicken relatives) is the denial and the obfuscation, which leaves us constantly stalled at the level of debating whether institutional injustice even exists. I sometimes fear that we’re in grave danger of believing our own PR.

    On the other hand, I suspect chicken patriarchy–obnoxious and condescending as it is–is also a harbinger of good things to come. We now feel the need to insist that women are equal to men and that God loves gays. In time our practices will shift in very delayed tandem with those of the cultures in which we live. We already more or less decided that in 1890.

  3. I think “chicken change” is a net negative only if the alternative, “real, significant change” is a feasibility. In many cases, the former represents baby steps while the latter is more of a leap.

    I think the church is much more comfortable taking baby steps. So yes, as unsatisfying as it may be, “chicken change” is preferable in certain instances where obvious change is very unlikely.

  4. “Church rhetoric that emphasizes how much women get to lead in the Church implicitly accepts the ideal that women should be leading in the Church ”

    Importantly, President Hinckley spoke a number of times with the people putting together the BYU Womens Conference of the need the Church had to get more leadership from the women in the church.

    So not only an acceptance of the ideal that women should be leading has been present for the last twenty years or so, but an effort to figure out how to obtain that and how to put it into action has been going on.

    Obviously not succeeding as much as anyone would like, at present. But very much there.

  5. Funny you should bring this up today. Usually, I tend to see improved rhetoric as a good thing, even when it is unaccompanied by action, because the verbiage reinforces ideals I believe in, and it seems likely to me that the majority of rational people will eventually notice the disconnect between the words and the actions and look for ways to reconcile the two.

    However, this week I am feeling pretty fed up with all the chicken patriarchy clucking that had been all over the place in mormonville in response to a few news stories about LDS gender equity. The clucking begins with statements like, “women and men are equal! Women are important! We love women!” And end with “shame on you, complaining women! If you don ‘t like it, leave.” I wonder if we are creating a community where calling people equal is more important than treating people equally. We don’t even try to create the equality we claim to love. We just punish people who fail to use the pretty verbiage. /soapbox

  6. I was the one who spoke of benevolent patriarchy as being a positive step forward from hostile sexism, and I think it does come from a good place. I’m not sure how well it came across in the podcast, because the conversation went back and forth a bit at this point, but I was trying to also emphasize that it was a bridge point, a step between hostile sexism and something more egalitarian. It’s not somewhere we want to live permanently. Meredith and Liz, I believe, then discussed it relating it to a crutch, and how a crutch can be healing at one point, but a hindrance to it at another.

  7. The fact most people are more eager to discuss something than just shutting adverse voices up is a progress, to me.
    No matter how sexism looks bad today, it was much worse when men had some kind of moral (if not just legal) right to beat a “misbehaving” wife; that is a progress, a BIG one, although not an ultimate one.

    Alas, church is bound by a certain Book that is quite pragmatic and definitive on many nowadays’ controversial topics.
    Homosexuality is quite THE example, here, as The Book gives people no ways of interpretation other than the literal one; and not a hugs-n-kisses one.

    I can easily imagine how delicate the church’s position is: on one side it has its own most observant followers, foundations themself of the church’s power; on the other side a very large, ever growing number of persons who love homosexuals as their neighbours and friends or that just dont *believe* at all and thus just care about people’s individual happines (as long as they dont harm others’).

    This is all about staying true to heaven’s laws and traditions versus the only, truly valuable message (to me), which is just *love*.
    Thus yes, maybe they’re just trying to talk followers into the next step towards the integration of church with some realities; and viceversa.

    After all, however, if a church doesnt reflect our own view on life, then maybe that’s not the church for us. If we dont like how someone handles certain topics, we can either try to change their mind or turn around and walk our way; but I’m pretty sure nobody likes to be told what to think or how to live, be it a single person or a church (which is actually made of persons!), which is why I’m always for the second option.
    In this respect, I think church is also trying to be condescending to not give its dogmas and traditions away while trying to keep its tolerant facade up for the rest of the world.


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