When You’re Selling Nineteenth-Century Heteronormativity and Kids Today Aren’t Buying It
Remember back in 2021 when the COJCOLDS canceled the Saturday night gender-specific session of conference? Yeah, me neither, because I almost never pay attention to conference anymore.
For some reason, though, in March the church announced the addition of a hastily arranged Saturday night Young Women’s session of General Conference to be held April 2, 2022. Moreover, the concluding speaker would be Dale G. Renlund, who has been giving talks and training about how we need to stop talking so much about Heavenly Mother.
I knew I would have plenty to say about anything he had to say, so since I’d already written the church’s Heavenly Mother problem here, I wrote about it at Religion Dispatches for a general never-Mo audience. I like the piece, and working to articulate why Heavenly Mother’s significance is more than just symbolic for many Mormon women was useful and clarifying for me.
I couldn’t find a transcript of Renlund’s talk when I sat down to start writing on Sunday, April 3, so I had to create one myself, and to do that, I listened to the relevant part of his talk about a dozen times. It wasn’t that hard, because he raised and dismissed the issue in a grand total of two and a half minutes. That’s how much time Heavenly Mother warranted: 150 seconds. It would have been less if Conference-speak weren’t so ponderous and slow.
The talk is not just condescending and misogynist, but weird, as when Renlund says:
Consider the words of the Old Testament prophet Balaam, who was offered a bribe to curse the Israelites to benefit Moab. Balaam said, “If [the King of Moab] would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (Numbers 22:18)
FYI, Dale: a king’s attempt to buy a curse on his military enemies is not analogous to God’s supposedly righteous servants seeking further light and knowledge about the nature of divinity. Can he really not see the difference? Or does he not care about the difference between he expects his audience to accept whatever he says without interrogating it? Or are both things are true? Yeah, it’s probably both.
I think the crux of the matter is this: The basis of Latter-day Saint theology is not just the heteronormative nuclear family, but the heteronormative nuclear family of the nineteenth century, in which “the family” really means “the father,” who can be as authoritarian and stern as he wants and still retain his sense of righteousness. Everything else is defined in relationship to him, and his financial dependents are also his ontological appendages, beings who have no independent existence without him. Any being he needs for whatever reason–like conceiving an heir–is still secondary to him.
This is why Eliza R. Snow could reason Heavenly Mother into being without anyone needing to know anything more about her. Before the days of in vitro fertilization, reason might stare at the thought of a father without a mother, to paraphrase “O My Father.” But in the age that produced The Angel in the House, the Victorian ideal of wife and mother as a docile, subservient, self-effacing being whose entire existence is devoted to the care and nurturance of others, reason does not stare at the thought of a goddess who is silent, invisible, and irrelevant to humanity’s salvation.
As long as the brethren remain committed to that eschatology, they are stuck promoting a heaven most people in the twenty-first century don’t want to go to. I think people would be a lot more willing to live with their doubts about the church if the reward promised at the end we’re supposed to endure to were more appealing. But it’s just not appealing–not for queer people, not for anyone who loves someone queer, not for cishet women who want to be more than silence and invisible, and not even for cishet men who actually value equality.