Mormon, Interrupted

I wrote this post months ago, before the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, and I never published it because I felt prompted to take a step back from religiously-motivated gender activism. Not because it was wrong, but because it was too painful and I wasn’t strong enough. I was marinating in my own hurt, and writing about it was like turning up the heat.

I don’t feel crippled any more, even in the wake of watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. I feel spiritually grounded. Autonomous. I can write without stewing.

I am posting this, even though it doesn’t accurately reflect my feelings at this precise moment in time, because it was true when I wrote it. It is hard for me to write here, to say anything really, without succumbing to the temptation to wrap every story up in a tidy package. But my Mormon story is too big, too messy for that. I’ve lost the plot, I’m abandoning the narrative arc, and am giving you the only thing I’ve got: snapshots of experience. They may be all over the map, unprocessed and unfiltered, but they are true, and if they were true for me in 2013, then they are true for other Mormon women right now. They will continue to be true until members of the church start taking seriously their Zion-building responsibilities and work to make the church a refuge for all women.

The LDS church’s teachings about gender are crippling me. I usually rely on euphemisms when I talk about this, for fear of being perceived as faithless. I “chafe” against my prescribed role. I “struggle” to fit in. I “agitate” for miniscule changes, to wear pants without causing a Facebook firestorm or hear a woman pray at General Conference. I pray myself, for courage and understanding. I wait patiently for the church to see me or, better, hear me when I speak. I celebrate when the church recognizes other women, women who want to serve missions, women who live in other countries, single women, even if those women aren’t me. I maintain an image of unflagging optimism whenever I’m publicly mediating my conflicting identities of mormon and feminist, whether I’m writing here, teaching Relief Society, or sharing my beliefs with somebody who isn’t a member of the church. I do this because it feels like the safest way to exist as a Mormon dissident. If I speak too freely about my doubts — how could God let this happen? — or about my fears — maybe God doesn’t value me as much as he does my brothers, or my dad, or my husband — I will lose whatever shred of credibility I might have that allows me to participate in my religious community. I will set back the Mormon feminist cause by confirming everybody’s suspicions: I’m a feminist because I’m a sinner and I’m a sinner because I’m a feminist.

There’s a lot to be said for playing the part of the happy, hopeful saint. Without it, I don’t know if I would be permitted to serve as a Relief Society teacher, a calling spiritually nourishes me and, I hope, the sisters in my ward. I don’t know if the lovely woman I visit teach would trust me with her sincere and thought-provoking questions about how to connect with her atheist brother, her gay neighbors, or her mainstream Christian book club. The happy, hopeful saint lets me talk about feminism in faithful settings and support causes like Ordain Women. It allows me to fulfill the mandate “every member a missionary” by showing modern women that there is a place for them in the LDS church. The happy, hopeful saint reassures my family that I am still true to the faith, even if I have a funny way of showing it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m being insincere when I project a faithful image. The happy, hopeful saint is part of me. She is the person I was raised to be. She is the reason I came back to belief after all those wandering years. She is who I am when I am at my best. She is the reason I stay.

But she is not all of me. I’m sure this is no surprise. Everybody, even the most orthodox of believers, the Molliest of Mormons, has doubts and demons. This is human. I do not think that it is dishonest to protect parts of ourselves from the world or the church. I do not think that I need permission from my bishop to believe the way I do. I do not think that my family needs to live through every crisis of my faith. I’ve been through enough to know most of them pass, or at least fade in intensity. I do not believe I need to spill every angsty gut under the guise of honesty, or authenticity, or integrity, because there is value and power in privacy.

In spite of this inclination to maintain a kernel of privacy regarding my beliefs, I know it’s time to stop hiding half my heart. The other part of me, the desperate part, the despairing part, the part that is lonely and insufficient, is the answer to the question the Mormons in my life keep asking me: what’s so bad about gender roles anyway? Members who defend the status quo in the face of women’s distress need to know the way the church’s teachings impact people on a personal, practical level.

So I’ll say it again: the church’s teachings on gender are crippling me. I turn to the Bible to study the creation in preparation for Sunday School and there it is: woman was created to serve man. I turn to the Doctrine & Covenants to study eternal marriage because that’s what I’m aiming for and there it is: God will give ten virgins to a man and he does not commit adultery. I turn to Ensign to lift my day up on the train and there it is: a woman in any kind of unhappy relationship, well she got what she deserved. I turn to the modern prophets to make sense of this mess and there it is: my purpose on earth is to bear and raise children. It is not to come unto Christ or to work out my own salvation or to spread the good word. My husband will take care of those weightier matters with the aid of his priesthood power. Except that he won’t, because he doesn’t believe in this religion. I don’t know where that leaves me, but I guess I can’t complain since I was wearing a halter top the day I met the man I love.

I’d like to be able to move past these teachings, to let them roll of my back. I don’t believe that they are central gospel doctrines, and think that’s all the attention they deserve. But I can’t. The church won’t let me. I read an exciting new press release and and the church reminds me that I should not care about equality. General Conference inspires me to change my life on Saturday morning and guts me on Saturday night. I can’t feast on the word of God when so much of it taste like a roach crept into the ice cream. I can’t be the pillar my family needs me to be when the church is constantly reminding me that I’m going about it all wrong because I happen to be the one who brings home a paycheck while my husband takes care of our little girl. I can’t convince other women like me that this community is worth it when it looks and feels like the community is barely tolerating my presence.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not going anywhere. I’m not laying this all out as some sort of threat. The church doesn’t need to change its practices and the emphasis it places on certain doctrines related to gender because it’s in danger of losing me. But the heightened rhetoric about gender and anxious policing of roles of the last few decades is crippling generations of women. It is turning strong saints into “less actives” and projects. It is turning happy saints into frustrated women, angry women, resigned women. It is losing missionaries and visiting teachers and tithe payers. It is wasting resources and potential and souls. The church is losing, period, because when it incapacitates its members, it immobilizes itself.

The church may be building temples, and thrusting young adults into the mission field in droves, and publishing shiny, transparent articles dealing with its warty past, but it’s failing me.

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