What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Women’s Ordination in the Church

Just like the issue of accepting same-sex intimacy, Mormons are beginning to understand a good Mormon can hold the position that women should be ordained. And this means that half (okay, maybe one quarter) of the battle is won, because now Mormons talk amongst themselves about the following equation as opposed to just dismissing whoever disagrees with it:

Church administration + church service + fatherhood = Church service + motherhood

I certainly hope Elder Ballard’s recent talk is a response to feminist grumblings that will soon grow to a point of being uncontainable. But I also think that it would be good idea to have a conversation about what it is that does the “containing,” because it’s not just church leaders.

A couple years ago, a site popped up called agitatingfaithfully.org that took a quote from President Hinckley about the lack of female ordination resulting from no “agitation” for it. To paraphrase, Hinckley said in 1997 that: “Mormon women are happy, so there isn’t really any reason to ask the Lord for input on the matter.” The phrase “agitating faithfully” helps remind folks that what leads to changes in the Church are, by and large, Mormons imagining their own Church differently. Yes, Mormons turn to their leaders and God for guidance, but once most Mormons believe something, that something is the Church’s position — so it’s more accurate to point fingers at the membership for change, and not necessarily the leaders or God. (The leaders are pulled from the Church as a whole, and when God is involved in changing some substantial policy, it’s usually just leaders asking for a stamp of approval.)

Recently, I saw the 2012 German film Hannah Arendt about the philosopher of the same name. She is often associated with the phrase “The Banality of Evil,” her description of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann who in 1961 was put on trial in Jerusalem. When we think of Nazism, we think of something quite evil — but Arendt’s point was that what makes evil truly evil is that it can turn good people bad — or at least make honest people think that evil is neutral or normal (evil’s banality). Arendt argued that Eichmann personified this principle, as he was merely a thoughtless man following orders. Basically, Germany as a whole fell prey to modern evil’s banality.

Arendt came under a lot of fire for pointing out that some Jewish leaders were also likely involved in the Holocaust. She was condemned as “blaming the victim” and deemed a self-hating Jew. But I think Arendt is right to acknowledge that for a system like Nazism to work, it’s not just the Schutzstaffel (SS) with guns. Even those who are in many ways against the system often encourage the system with their actions; and it doesn’t help when a propaganda campaign frames people’s thoughts.

I kinda see the issue of women’s ordination and the issue of same-sex intimacy in the Church the same way. I know that there’s the ancient online adage of Godwin’s Law: comparisons with Nazism tend to be inappropriate hyperboles. But this post is not so much about Nazis as it is about Arendt, so I’m in the clear! =p

Having followed in detail the actions of Mormons entering gay Pride parades the last couple years, many times I’ve seen well-meaning Mormons engaging in behaviors that only encourage heterosexism. I even see the LGBT community engaging in behaviors that encourage heterosexism. I also see Mormon women who actively support male leaders who have no intention of opening the conversation concerning female administration of the Church. This is Arendt’s philosophy in action. Following her lead, I’m wondering if the conversation should include the banality of the Church’s heteropatriarchy and what might be good responses toward it. I think ordainwomen.org does a good job, but personally, I find Arendt’s rhetoric sometimes useful: she is willing to point fingers at the victims, recognizing that in today’s world of confused moralities, victims are often the ones who buttress the perpetrators.

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7 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    Mormon women are happy, so there isn’t really any reason to ask the Lord for input on the matter.

    It’s a pretty big catct-22, really, because — according to Mormon beliefs — living the gospel makes you happy. Therefore, if you’re not happy, it must be because you’re not living the gospel faithfully enough. Since the faithful ones are happy, that shows that everything is fine and nothing needs to be changed.

    But speaking of the victims buttressing the perpetrators, it’s actually quite possible that the majority of active women in the CoJCoL-dS don’t want priesthood/leadership positions, and not just on the principle that whatever the leaders say is right. The church’s relentless sexism typically causes women who are opposed to sexism to have serious questions, which may lead to ultimately leaving the church. It’s the same principle as evaporation makes water cooler overall.

    Just read the Ballard talk, plus the other talk I linked to in SiOB. It’s hard to avoid the impression that what the organization is teaching as right and wrong is seriously warped. And given how impervious the hierarchy is to any kind of criticism, it’s hard to see it as useful to devote energy to improving the CoJCoL-dS, as opposed to just dismissing it as not having anything worth salvaging.

  2. Alan says:

    Therefore, if you’re not happy, it must be because you’re not living the gospel faithfully enough.

    given how impervious the hierarchy is to any kind of criticism

    The other week I participated in a symposium on gay Mormonism in front of a bunch of faithful Mormons. (Videos of the conference should be up shortly.) I was worried that because I was overly critical that I would lose their attention, but not so. A number of folks came to me afterward, thanking me.

    One older woman stands out in my mind, because I talked to her at length, but completely bungled the interaction. She fit what you say above completely, and told me under her breath that there are many things that she’s seen over the years that she just has to “look the other way” and be a better, more faithful Mormon. When I expressed my concern about being too critical, she said it was perfectly fine to be critical, but didn’t seem willing to apply the recommendation to herself. She seemed downtrodden, so at some point I suggested that maybe she wasn’t happy, and she quickly dismissed this and said she was perfectly happy. She just seemed to want to reach out, and her only answer to the gay Mormon question was to offer more love; I watched her actively listening at the conference.

    So, my feeling is not so much that the leaders are impervious to criticism (they are mere men), but that the propaganda campaign frames thoughts. I guess I see that older woman as just as (more?) representative of the average Mormon than necessarily those who fight tooth and nail to uphold Church leaders’ words (since this tendency did happen too in the aftertalk discussion: Ty Mansfield who I felt was specifically responding to my critique of the Proclamation on the Family, grrrr)

  3. chanson says:

    So, my feeling is not so much that the leaders are impervious to criticism (they are mere men), but that the propaganda campaign frames thoughts.

    I don’t mean that the GA’s as human individuals are necessarily more impervious to criticism than other people. I mean the organization (the CoJCoL-dS) has created a climate in which it is not possible to have an open, positive, critical discussion of its policies because (as reaffirmed in Ballard’s talk) any input from the peanut gallery is immediately dismissed as failure to be faithful to the dictates of God (as handed down through His chosen priesthood authorities). Perhaps that’s what you meant by the way it frames thoughts.

  4. Alan says:

    I think the Church has a harder time controlling the climate than before. The history of the Church could be told as a history of increasing interactions with different worldviews (and technologies). Mormonism is less contained by the leaders’ words than it used to be; there’s more reliance on the membership to keep it as a unified whole. In Ballard’s talk you see this when one of his five emphases is “the world needs women of the church who know the doctrine of Christ and who can bear testimony of the gospel truths.” This is why I think Arendt’s analysis of modern-day totalitarianism is helpful because it puts more focus on how the everyday people maintain the system rather than the leaders.

  5. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    It seems to me in Mormonism, a major rule encoded in the brain, is the gospel brings happiness. You’re a good member, so you must be happy, happy, happy.
    And if you admit unhappiness, since the Church is sine qua non for joy, it means you’re defective. So if you don’t want to be a miserable telestial slacker, follow the commandments and obey, obey, obey.

    The other thing is many women recognize that most men are bigger than them and can inflict harm. Benevolent patriarchy is seen as taming the unruly beast. So in Mormondom, if women have a vision of taking away the patriarchy, what many see are men being a bunch of donkey anal openings.
    When some men leave the benevolent patriarchy, what they leave is the benevolence. The sexism goes unexamined.

    Perhaps if women and men could be actual friends in Mormonism, you wouldn’t need Mormonism to protect women. But where would that leave the church?
    While the sine qua non of happiness is the Church, the sine qua non of the Church is patriarchy.
    So of you want a happy happy celestial relationship, then obey, obey, obey.

  6. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Part of the unwritten order of things is being nice.
    Many Mormons see unhappy gay Mormons, so they advocate being nice to gay Mormons.
    But if you point out the systemic problem is heterosexism, then you’re undermining the Church and that’s not nice.
    They’re like devoted caretakers of cholera patients, lovingly administering contaminated water.
    And if you point out they shouldn’t be giving that water, they point out the dehydration and say you’re not nice.

  7. Alan says:

    Benevolent patriarchy is seen as taming the unruly beast.

    This also goes to the idea that men need the priesthood to learn how to be better beasts, and women don’t need it because they’re not beasts and wouldn’t benefit from it. Such silly notions do make it hard for women and men to be friends…. Either both men and women are beasts, or neither of them are.

    I feel like Mormonism is set up as a complex hetero mating ritual system that mimics something one would find in the wilderness. Once you’re an adult, you should recognize it as obviously simplistic and in need of nuance. But then you have men in their 50s, 60s, 70s and older talking about the beauty of the system, and I think to myself, “Where are all the older female voices to tell these men they’re FOS?” It’s not that these voices don’t exist; they either don’t have a soapbox or think they’re not supposed to have one.

    But if you point out the systemic problem is heterosexism, then you’re undermining the Church and that’s not nice.

    What surprised me at the symposium is that there are folks listening to the critiques and thankful for them. It’s people who, like the woman I described above, are quiet in their misgivings (think they’re not supposed to have a soapbox), but perhaps quietly affect the system in their daily interactions with family members, armed with information. That was hopeful for me.

    Many Mormons see unhappy gay Mormons, so they advocate being nice to gay Mormons.

    But what happens when gay Mormons are happy, but their concerns are specifically voiced about heterosexism? This seems to be the situation the current generation of gay Mormons is in…there is a gulf in understanding that will hopefully in the coming years be filled with increased dialog. I think the Church is hoping that the North Star paradigm will win the day, but I’m not so sure it will.

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