My wife’s life changed forever on a hot summer evening when she was 12 years old. Up until then she had lived a fairly sheltered life in a predominantly Mormon community in a cookie-cutter suburb in the Mountain West. This was a typical suburb–sprinklers greening up the lawns, bicycles in the driveway, the occasional cat or stray dog–no other wildlife to speak of.
On this evening, behind closed doors in his office at the ward building, the mild-mannered, middle-aged, soon-to-be excommunciated-for-adultery bishop, asked innocent little Lilian if she practiced bestiality.
Bestiality?! She didn’t even completely understand sex, let alone carnal knowledge of a non-human mammal. She did not live on a farm, she did not own a dog, and she was a girl (which, to this naive blogger, seems to present further challenges to the practice). Lilian, sitting in her little gingham dress, barely out of Primary, had to ask the bishop what bestiality was. And he obligingly explained it to her, alone, the two of them, in that office.
Do I even need to say how outraged this makes me feel, writing about Lilian’s experience? She felt extremely uncomfortable, but he was the bishop, and so she figured that that’s just the sort of thing they asked in temple recommend interviews. For that reason, it didn’t occur to her to tell her parents, and she would have felt way too embarrassed to do so anyway. So she got to take this warped sex education message home with her, to ponder in her heart and wonder about the depravity that was sexuality, to feel fear and disgust thinking about what it was that people did with each other (and with animals!) behind closed doors. All this from the spiritual leader of her ward. What a twisted narrative of sexuality to give a girl entering adolescence, trying to figure out her body, her emotions, and how to relate with others in adult ways.
Now, I realize that it could have been worse. Lilian was not sexually abused by her bishop. Fortunately, she did not undergo that trauma experienced by far too many girls and women. But her experience was traumatic enough. It caused her to develop negative beliefs and attitudes about sex. If sexual desire could make people do such disgusting things, she wanted no part of it. The interview played a role in turning her off to sexuality and making her suspicious of the motives of men in the sexual realm. What’s more, it caused her to feel deeply distrustful of church leaders and their supposed “inspiration”.
Did this need to happen? Of course, people can say that there’s always going to be a few bad apples. But why must we give bad apples the opportunity? Why do we continue to put our girls and boys in this potentially harmful position? And beyond protecting our children, shouldn’t we learn from the Catholic Church sex scandals and rethink the interview process if only for public relations and legal reasons?
But bad apples aren’t the only problem. Even when nothing goes wrong, having older men ask teenagers, especially girls, about their sexual behaviors is just plain creepy. In a highly unscientific poll about recollections of teenage interview experiences, my wife, daughter, and sister all responded identically: shaking head, shuddering, and saying, “Eww!” I don’t think they are alone in this sentiment. Is this the kind of church experience we intend for our girls? And why do we put our leaders in this awkward position? Personally, I would be reluctant to accept a calling to the bishopric because I don’t feel comfortable doing that part of the job.
So, there appears to be some tension between the institutional needs of the Church and the well-being of its members. As a Church we have decided that assessing members’ worthiness, including in the sexual realm, is important for entrance into temples. We perform recommend interviews because we believe the temple is the house of The Lord, a holy place, and we want to ensure that the members who go there respect this holiness by living righteously. So far, so good. However, it is obvious that the temple recommend interview is inadequate to this purpose. People can and do lie when interviewed, or they may deceive themselves, rationalizing their behaviors. Furthermore, the recommend questions can hardly be considered the final word on righteousness. For example, based on the recommend questions it is theoretically possible to exclude from the temple someone who affiliates with feminists, while allowing attendance to someone who subtly belittles his children and tells his wife that sex is her wifely duty. In other words, though recommend questions call out certain behaviors, they fail to adequately regulate other behaviors essential to a life of Christian discipleship.
As a result, I would conclude that the primary purpose of temple recommend interviews is not to keep unrighteous people out of the temple; the temple is chock full of unrighteous people–us! Rather, the primary purpose is to help us evaluate the righteousness of our lives on a regular basis, strengthening our resolve to live well and improve by being accountable to our spiritual leaders. The interview is for our benefit, not to protect the holiness of the temple or the other people who go there. This purpose needs to inform possible solutions to problems with the interview.
I see several solutions to the interview problem, both individual and institutional. The Church could have the Relief Society president or the Young Womens’ president do the interviewing of the girls. Was Deborah not a judge in Israel? Or a smaller step might be to require one of these leaders to be present when girls are interviewed. If personal accountability is paramount, perhaps we could think outside the box and have the youth sign a statement affirming the answers to the recommend questions. I am sure there are other ways the Church’s needs can be met while still protecting our children.
As parents, we can choose to attend these interviews and explain to our children why we are attending. As they get older and feel more self-assured, they can decide to go by themselves. We can also tell them (as I do) that they need not enter into details about sexual behaviors during the interviews (in fact, I tell them that I don’t think such details are the bishop’s business). The bishop can ask them if they live the law of chastity, but they need only answer yes or no; the details they should work out with the Lord. By helping our children have a more positive interview experience, we can help them see the temple as a spiritual resource rather than something they associate with discomfort and awkwardness.
Personally, I have drawn considerable strength from temple covenants and I appreciate how the temple rituals can draw me into a sacred time and space where I see myself more clearly and can reach out to a bigger, better, more beautiful reality. And so it makes me both furious and hurt that to go to the Lord’s house, some of our children must go through an animal house. There must be a better way.