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.