The Priesthood Is Magic

In 2010, as part of a panel at Sunstone called “Men and the Priesthood: Taking on the Feminine,” I presented a paper called “The Priesthood Is Magic” that I have been reminded of because of the uproar over Brad Wilcox’s dreadful talk to youth.

The panel was the idea of Tom Kimball, then a big shot in Mormon studies. In querying Sunstone about the panel, he wrote, “I would like to write a thesis of why the Priesthood forces men to take on the unnatural role as nurturer. And that this may be a positive consideration as to why women may want ‘men only’ to have the priesthood.” He specifically mentioned me as someone he wanted to debate the topic with (because I was certain to object to his premise), then added, “It would be nice to have ONE woman who would say, ‘I don’t want the priesthood.’ Maybe a polygamist wife.”

The abstract for the panel stated: “Some feminists insist that they want equality in the priesthood while others just want to have a say in their culture. Before we brand an all-male priesthood as inherently bad, let’s step back and take a second look at some possible positive aspects of an all-male priesthood—as well as some of the drawbacks of such a system.”

As Tom had predicted, I had no patience with the premise. Here’s an excerpt from my presentation:

Being made a deacon, teacher, priest or elder isn’t a recognition of anything special about a person, except for HIS gender. You don’t EARN the priesthood if you’re male; you can only FORFEIT your right to it, by breaking a commandment (or rather, by getting caught). And as homophobic as the church is, it’s striking that being gay doesn’t automatically disqualify a man from the priesthood; you can BE gay and have the priesthood; you just can’t DO gay.

Getting the priesthood doesn’t require any special wisdom or goodness or maturity; instead, it’s supposed to CONFER those things. Except that it often doesn’t. Indeed, it can make it harder, not easier, to be righteous, and even Joseph Smith recognized that when he wrote “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39).

The real point of the priesthood is that it’s A) magic and B) the way you show who’s in charge.

The priesthood is a mysterious magic power that works when men who have it put their magic hands on the magically-receptive heads of others. It’s how the sick are healed and evil spirits are driven out and spaces sanctified. The only ritual accessory needed is a little oil to put on the heads of people getting blessings. Other than that, you don’t need fire, or smoke, or special rocks, or anything.

It’s not surprising that Joseph Smith would claim and confer a special magic power, since he was always interested in magic.

But the fact that this power is magic means it doesn’t have to be A) just or B) logical.

Magic gets to pick who it exercises it. Magic doesn’t have to explain to mere mortals how it works. Magic only works as magic, in fact, if it’s mysterious and unexplainable. If its functions and processes are understood, it’s called science. (There’s my undergraduate education coming in handy again: I picked that insight up from a book I read in 1985, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances A. Yates.)

The priesthood is an inferior method of running a church and solving human problems because it works without accountability to human beings. It doesn’t have to meet their needs, or be fair, or be earned, or be monitored, or be understood. In fact, it maintains its mystery and its power by NOT doing those things, by being random and selective and illogical and accountable only to a being not of this earth.

I confess that I have never understood a certain deference to or interest in the priesthood. It’s not just that the priesthood is largely administrative—its holders spend more time making business decisions than exercising its more mysterious powers—it’s that seems to hurt all but the strongest, most moral of men, same as political power. I don’t know if there’s something extra pernicious about the priesthood itself (I’m perfectly willing to believe that there is), or if the problem is the sense of entitlement it so often involves.

This constitutes my reply to Wilcox’s claim that women can just “waltz” into the temple. No, they can’t: they have to be baptized and obey all sorts of commandments and pass worthiness interviews. Really, it is Mormon men who have easy access to some sort of power no one else has.

If you feel so inclined, you can listen to the entire presentation here. If you want to skip Tom Kimball’s explanation of why women shouldn’t want the priesthood, my presentation, which is the shortest, starts at the 23:44 minute mark. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I have to say it’s pretty good.

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9 Responses

  1. Holly says:

    I didn’t want to put any of this in the OP, but there is more to the story of Tom and of this panel.

    Having known Tom for some time, I was completely unsurprised that he left the organization of this panel entirely to the women he asked to be on it. One day he and I had a conversation in the Sunstone office (where I worked at the time) in which he told me that the reason he didn’t want women to have the priesthood is that the only time he told his children he loved them or showed them any affection is when he did something priesthoody for them. I asked him why he didn’t correct this behavior once he had realized it and he said, “I dunno. Laziness.”

    You can hear for yourself that in his presentation, he said that without the priesthood, he would not choose to nurture his children, and that’s why women shouldn’t get the priesthood.

    Got that? Tom argued that women should be denied power and opportunity because of his emotional limitations.

    Some readers may be aware that Tom killed himself in October 2020. As I understand it, he did so to avoid legal consequences of being a sexual predator of children and women for decades.

    One way to think about Tom’s goals for this panel is as part of the grooming that let him remain a big shot in Mormon studies even though he was guilty of really terrible acts. I’m not saying that’s the best way, because a lot was going on, both in his miserable existence and in the panel. But the panel was nonetheless an attempt to get the community to foreground, value, validate, and even celebrate his emotional damage. It was an attempt to persuade others that making life easier and more validating and more rewarding for Tom Kimball was more important than making the world just or giving equality to women.

    It wasn’t that Tom said, “The priesthood helps me, and that’s why I think women shouldn’t have it”; he said, “The priesthood helps me, and that’s why women shouldn’t want it.” He really wanted others to sign on to his view of reality and tell him that the greatest evil was not denying women equality but denying him a crutch.

    Getting people to focus on the pain Tom endured rather than the pain Tom inflicted is one reason why, when the news of his actions and his death broke, so many people wrote about what a great guy he was and how much they loved him. They’d been groomed into privileging his concerns and seeing him as a victim, even as he victimized others in ways that could carry criminal penalties for him.

  2. Donna Banta says:

    Brava Holly! I just listened to your presentation. It is indeed, very good. I love your blessing at the end. It is beautiful and concise and carefully worded and inspired. In fact, it is by far the finest composed priesthood blessing I have ever heard. Most of them ramble on like a High Councilor’s talk, or one of Mitt Romney’s speeches. And to your point: No, women can not just waltz into the temple. They have to be baptized, obey a bunch of anal rules, and attend potentially embarrassing interviews, conducted, of course, by men.

  3. Holly says:

    Thank you, Donna, for actually listening. 🙂

  4. Thanks so much for this follow-up post and discussion!

  5. Monya Baker says:

    Great essay Holly, and the comments too. I’d never realized the contradiction (hypocrisy) of how, in a Church, where salvation is conditional and accountability reins, there is no accountability
    And if women are crutches, of course, we are all to be focused on man-pain

  6. Holly says:

    Hi Monya–

    Since I was a teenager, my favorite story has been Job’s, because it’s the one and only story where anyone tries to hold God accountable.

    God’s reaction, of course, is just to say, “Who the hell do you think you are to question me?!” so Job backs off. This is why after my mission I came up with a view of the final judgment where it’s not God’s job to judge us but our job to judge God. 🙂

  7. Monya Baker says:

    Thanks Holly, just snipping this one (of many) gem here because that is one fantastic essay. (Did you ever read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, where in the last chapter the main character is in the afterlife and is required to write a statement of belief? )
    “And I imagine people responding in one of three ways. The first group will say, ‘Oh, but you’re God, so whatever you did was OK; after all, you’re in charge, and we agreed to be obedient.’ And their reward will be their own complacency, and their punishment will be their willful ignorance and inability to accept responsibility. The second group will be very angry and will say, ‘You lied. You said you were perfect. You said you were fair.’ Their reward will be their understanding of justice, and their punishment will be an implacable rage. And the final group will give God a hug and will say, ‘We never expected you to be perfect; we were trying to do our best and we knew you were too. It’s OK.’ And their reward will be their ability to love and forgive, and their punishment will be their understanding of the truth that despite what Einstein said about ‘I can’t believe that the gods play dice with the universe,’ the universe really is a crap shoot.”

  8. Holly says:

    The only work by Coetzee I know is “Waiting for the Barbarians.” But “Elizabeth Costello” looks fabulous, so I will add it to my “to read” list. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Monya Baker says:

    I should tell you that’s not my favorite book by him. But I love that premise!

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