On June 11, 2014 the New York Times made waves in the world of Mormondom with their breaking news that two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) are facing excommunication on the grounds of apostasy. Active Church members Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin both received letters from their local church officials in early June summoning them to participate in scheduled Church hearings to discuss their so-called heretical public activism. By many accounts, this appears to be Dehlin’s first notice of formal disciplinary action for his faith-mending work with Mormon Stories, but Kelly has been under official fire from the LDS Church since late May for her efforts in founding and operating Ordain Women (OW)—a pro-women’s ordination group of active believers—more than a year prior. The excommunication threats came on the heels of a church-wide trend that preaches acceptance and diversity among members and beyond, but sends a mixed message to those who, like Kate Kelly, find themselves asking sincere questions only to be either silenced or rejected by their Church and cut off from communal worship of their God.
Ever since the New York Times story broke, the web has seen a swarm of responses in the form of news, interviews, blog posts, and social media discussion; watching everything unfold has been a fascinating study in feminist thought. Kelly herself responded publicly to her disciplinary letter here, saying that she had been transparent about Ordain Women with her bishop from the group’s inception and that not once had she been called in to discuss her work. The formal letter came only after Kelly had moved across the country, and the disciplinary hearing is scheduled to occur with or without her on June 22, 2014. On June 23, Kelly received the word that the trial had resulted in her excommunication.
As I’ve read through the slew of ideas and arguments surrounding what amounts to Kate Kelly’s spiritual fate, I can’t help but notice a strong underlying theme of patriarchy at work in squelching what Kelly believes are sincere questions about the lives of Mormon women. Commentators have tried hard—in classic anti-feminist fashion—to discredit Kelly’s work with Ordain Women, making certain that readers see her as a disingenuous religious deviant worthy of silencing. Throughout the spill of voices about Kelly’s Church standing the underlying point seems to be that as a Latter-day Saint she has no right to contest her Church’s doctrine or its patriarchy, that she is imagining inequality into the Church, that the Church’s discipline will be for her own spiritual good, and even that her group, Ordain Women, is lying in its claims about inequality.
While the web is certainly alive with voices that sustain Kelly and her work, I have encountered far more backlash from the Mormon community than support. In putting all my readings on Kate Kelly’s excommunication threat together, the first thing that stumps me is why, in 2014, we are still hauling smart, actively religious women to patriarchal disciplinary hearings because of their well-argued position on women’s spirituality. I am certain that, if we float back to the seventeenth century, Anne Hutchinson would weep for Kelly while being expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy, at the hand of John Winthrop, who took pride in men remaining judges over women. Jump forward a few decades from there, and we find Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a highly educated nun writing about women’s strength and worth from a Mexico City convent, saddened and shocked to find that all the obstacles set before her by her bishop and the Inquisition would still, centuries in the future, silence women who have their own thoughts about their place in God’s kingdom.
Anne Hutchinson and Sor Juana are sad cases even for women living so long ago, but sadder still is the fact that the tactics have changed little since the seventeenth century. In 1691 Sor Juana wrote to her bishop—who had lambasted her rebellious ways under the feminine pseudonym Sor Filotea—about the opposition she faced as she wrote in support of women’s intellect:
More than any others, the most noxious and hurtful to me have been not those who have persecuted me with their open hate and malice, but rather those who have mortified and tormented with their love and well-wishing. And they would repeat: “This studying is not fitting for the holy ignorance that is our duty; you will surely lose your soul; you will surely fade away in your haughtiness due to your own shrewdness and wit.” (Repuesta a Sor Filotea)
This quote reverberates through the years and rings loudly in relation to the case of Kate Kelly in several ways. First—and most dangerously—Sor Juana points out here what the world of social media has to say about Kelly in 2014, that the LDS Church is threatening to erase her spiritually because they love her, because they fear for her soul and want her to return to Christ. This is evinced in the posted letters from Kelly’s bishop, from the coverage of Kelly by groups that support the Church’s patriarchal status quo, and from a storm of splintered discussions across the web. For faithful women like Sor Juana and Kate Kelly, the threat of excommunication comes with a pang of grief and an insult handed down not from God but from males acting in his name. These are intelligent women who ask sincere questions that affirm their deep dedication to their faith. Yet instead of the patriarchy seeing these women as worthy sparring partners in all things doctrinal, they see them as victims of ignorance and objects of pity in God’s eyes. The LDS Church’s calculating reaction is to couch its disciplinary language in terms of love and concern, reducing Kelly to a wayward woman rather than confronting her as the intelligent and autonomous person that she is.
Further, when, like Sor Juana, Kate Kelly points to a multiplicity of well-researched history and doctrine in support of a more equal Church (for more on those points, read Margaret Toscano’s FAR guest post on Caroline Kline and women’s ordination here), many commentators respond that Kelly simply doesn’t understand what she is talking about. In the wake of the New York Times article, LDS-owned Deseret News reported the headline “Two Mormon activists say they are facing Church discipline” while the independently-owned Salt Lake Tribune reported “Founder of Mormon women’s group threatened with excommunication.” The Mormon-controlled news apparatus portrays Kelly’s excommunication threat as a speculative, hazy thing that has to do with how she perceives what’s happening to her (insinuating quietly that it’s all in her head), while the Tribune portrays this threat as a direct action toward Kelly on the Church’s behalf. Further, in the blogosphere, a particularly obtuse male commentator mansplained in a now well-circulated blog post that not only is Kelly mistaken in her points, but that she is outright lying about them. Ignoring the wealth of primary and secondary sources posted on Ordain Women’s site, the author moves into mis-reasoned attack on Kelly’s ideas. A cursory reading of his article reveals a profound dearth of logic and an obvious twist of words, as Feminist Mormon Housewives’ contributor Rune expertly retorts in her “A Response to 13 Lies.”
To any pragmatic person stacking up the two arguments, the skewed ideas expressed in 13 Lies become painfully apparent, and the reader learns that the writer of 13 Lies has contorted Ordain Women’s message with faith that few LDS believers will go to the primary sources for clarification, for fear of challenging their deeply ingrained belief system. Instead, the author is banking on the LDS trend of dismissing outright any argument against its “called of God” patriarchy—even when his counter argument amounts only to a specious “nuh-uh!” to Ordain Women’s well-researched and undeniable points of scholarship and doctrine. In a separate post, the 13 Lies author notes that Ordain Women supporters cite Joseph Smith’s support of women’s priesthood gifts from an 1843 written record and—without qualifying why—responds with, “I don’t buy it.” What chance does Ordain Women stand when its opponents won’t even acknowledge that its sources exist?
This denigration and finger pointing comes down to one simple fact: LDS believers are told their Church has prophets called by God, and to disagree with those prophets in any way amounts to being a bad Mormon. Believers think that if they agree with Kelly, no matter how clear and sound her arguments might be, they are disagreeing with the patriarchy and therefore God—in truth, many active members show all over the web that they aren’t interested in hearing her side at all. Or, they hear secondhand about Kate Kelly’s work from their favorite pro-Mormon-patriarchy source and decide that they know everything they need to. In this way, so many members turn a blind eye to the facts and arguments set forth by intelligent women like Kate Kelly and choose, selectively, to read, believe, and hear only what Church-approved discourse tells them. (I say this as a former active member and observant neighbor to thousands of active Mormons.) If the author of 13 Lies can call himself a member in good standing with the Church and Kate Kelly cannot, then she loses her credibility to LDS believers, and her argument—while sound—doesn’t stand a chance in the void of apostate silence that her excommunication threat has created. All of this is not to say that everyone should agree with Ordain Women, but rather that believers should follow Joseph Smith’s encouragement to understand the issue and prayerfully study it out for themselves. To understand Ordain Women and intelligently disagree with it is brave, but to dismiss it without that understanding is short sighted.
Jumping back to Sor Juana’s words, the other idea that stands out to me is the timelessness of patriarchal tactics in silencing women. In the 1690s Sor Juana’s bishop wrote about her under a woman’s name in an effort to further discredit her ideas about a woman’s place. In 2014, we see that kind of sly damage control at play in the LDS church. When Ordain Women notified the Church of their intent to peacefully protest a male-only meeting on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, the Church was careful to respond discouragingly to their letter via a female PR representative to quell any notion that this was a sexist or patriarchal move. Further, while John P. Dehlin was also slated for a disciplinary hearing for apostasy on almost the exact timing as Kate Kelly, his hearing was later deferred indefinitely. My more suspicious side whispers that maybe Dehlin was dragged into this mess not for his activism (which has gone uncontested by the Church despite his highly public exposure) but to be certain that nobody could claim that Kelly’s excommunication is a sexist move. Their solution has seemed to be to target Kelly, rope in a male who could be seen as apostate, and then slacken the rope around him, leaving Kelly on trial and Dehlin somewhere in the “we’re watching you” realm of informal Church action.
The final irksome point that arises with Kate Kelly’s case in general is that an excommunication and drawn-out trial feels in no way productive, Christ-like, or charitable. While the LDS Church claims that disciplinary councils are a blessing and an invitation to come back to the straight and narrow, the mood they convey is markedly pejorative. The language may center on love and repentance, but the true message is that if you rattle cages, you will be put through an ordeal that will erase your intellectual credibility, your family and social bonds, and a lifetime of saving ordinances. Kelly was told that she was encouraged to change her public behavior and to remain in the Church, but that the only way to do so would be to remain silent with her questions unless speaking in confidence to her forever-male bishop. All over the public discourse and counsel from LDS leaders are statements to the effect that not all truth is useful to the gospel, that speaking out against injustices in the Church actually hinders the dialogue (which evidently is meant to be a one-sided conversation starring men). To disagree is to be made wrong in the eyes of God, and to stay in silence is—in Kelly’s words—to live inauthentically.
Such a choice to obey the patriarchy or remain faithful to her convictions was, of course, up to Kate Kelly, and to everyone who finds herself in Kelly’s shoes moving forward. Sor Juana chose to cease her inflammatory writing in exchange for eternal salvation, and Anne Hutchinson was cast out for her unwillingness to turn her back on her convictions. The problem that prevails throughout time and eternity seems to be that women are asked to make that choice at all. And though many of Kelly’s supporters within the Church remain silent and disempowered by their patriarchy—told time and again that they are either wrong or imagining things—Kelly maintains that it is worthwhile for those voices to keep trying, to push forward in hope for the day when, like black males receiving priesthood ordinances once forbidden to them, practicing Mormon women will see the light at the end and rejoice in the practical fruit of their righteous activism. A few simple words conclude Kelly’s heartbroken response posted June 23 on OrdainWomen.org: “Stay, and make things better.”
Erin Seaward-Hiatt is a graphic designer, writer, and part-time graduate student with a flair for social justice and all things bookish. Among her favorite study topics are Mormon feminisms, Islamic women, religious texts, and Charlotte Brontë. Her essay on Mormon faith and feminism appears in the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. She lives in Utah Valley with her screenwriter husband—and partner in creativity—Neil Hiatt.