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.

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6 Responses

  1. Monya Baker says:

    These old, old men still haven’t grokked that people post 1950s aren’t buying the only thing that they are capable of selling.
    If the power structures are set up to serve you, you never have to observe how they work or think to make them work for others
    (I want all the General Authorities to be assigned to read bell hooks like scripture. Can you imagine?)

  2. Holly says:

    Monya, I love imagining the GAs reading bell hooks!

    They seem to think that if they just make the church more hetero, retro, rigid, and straight-laced, people will suddenly like it better. But that’s only true of Boyd K. Packer and Bruce R. McKonkie and their ilk. Everyone else will find it revoltingly immoral.

    They really can’t figure out that people leave because they find the church immoral.

  3. chanson says:

    In retrospect it’s kind of surprising how little I was bothered by the invisibility of Heavenly Mother when I was a teen in the church. I’m not sure why — I know I thought a bit about becoming a god of my own universe, etc. Maybe I figured I’d be able to be more of an active partner with my imagined future god-husband. Or maybe the whole thing was just too abstract and distant for me to take it too seriously…

  4. Holly says:

    I wasn’t that bothered about it when I was little either, Chanson. Heavenly Mother didn’t matter to me until I learned how determined the brethren were to punish people who talked about her. I figured if they were that afraid of her, there must be a reason why.

  5. Donna Banta says:

    One of my tipping points toward leaving the church years ago was when I realized I actually didn’t want to go to the Celestial Kingdom, that I felt more comfortable with the open-minded “slackers” slotted for the lower kingdoms. Your conclusion is spot-on.

  6. Holly says:

    I’m with you, Donna. It’s one thing to ask yourself, “Do I want to be alone for all eternity, or with my family?” and another to ask yourself, “Do I want to hang out with the likes of my dreadful bishop/stake president/institute director/Boyd K. Packer for all eternity, or with Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf?”

    If Jesus didn’t really like hanging out with the ever so righteous rule-followers, why should we?

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