wear pants to church day: a socio-cultural analysis. or, u mad bro?

by isaac black

A group of Mormon feminists organized an event in which women would demonstrate against inequality in the Church by wearing pants to their Sunday meetings today. There is no rule against this, but depending on whom you talk to, it’s a cultural taboo. I read many responses to this event, many of them sincerely grateful to the organizers, many of them dismissive, condescending, cruel, judgmental, and even violent. The point is that there were many, many responses. The hundreds of people commenting that this was a non-issue seemed to miss the irony, as did the hundreds of people wasting their time in putting in their two cents about this being a waste of time. It hit a major nerve, so much so that Facebook pulled the event after too many people complained about it and one of the organizers claimed to have received a death threat.

Over the last seven years or so, I have become very disillusioned with the Church that I grew up in, but I in no way anticipated the sheer volume of hostility directed at this, by nearly all accounts, innocuous idea. There are a few different lenses through which to view this, but so far I haven’t seen this examined through the lens of socio-cultural power. I was shocked at the condescending tone with which many people used in their comments and how easy it was for them to use insults and call names–stupid, silly, etc., portraying the organizers and supporters as immature or childishly misguided, even while invoking their own belief in Jesus Christ. My first reaction was not that it was a matter of doctrinal correctness, but rather a privileged cultural group’s punishment of a marginalized group who was speaking out of turn.

While there were a few people who (wrongly) claimed that it was inappropriate for women to wear pants in church and attacked the event head-on as fundamentally apostate, most of the negative responses were simply dismissive. The supporters are at the locus of two conflicting Mormon beliefs–that there is no room for suggestions from the rank and file as the Church is led top-down by a Prophet who speaks directly with God, and that the Church is welcoming and kind. In voicing discontent with something related to Mormonism, the supporters found themselves at odds with people who believe that everything in the policy and practices of the Church are divinely sanctioned and thus are eager to silence dissent but who are obligated to pay lip service to Mormons’ kindness, thus the dismissive responsive–there is no explicit hostility. However, the response is hostile in that it invalidates the feelings of the dissenter and makes her or him feel alone: “You can do whatever you want, but if you have a problem with this it must be because you don’t have a testimony, or you don’t understand the Gospel, or you want attention, or you are finding fault with the Church and you might as well just leave.” The fascinating thing to me is how seemingly organic this response occurred. Explicitly hostile reactions, like the excommunication of prominent feminists in the 90s, seem to have diminished, but instead we see a more subtle silencing in which many similar responses arise without coordination.

The reason I stopped going to church was my increasing frustration in the face of the Mormon double bind: You are expected to exercise your agency, but there is only one appropriate expression of one’s agency, which is to “follow the prophet” (more on this later). Furthermore, the cultural punishments for exercising one’s agency outside the bounds are collectively ignored or downplayed, resulting in the heterodox feeling that they are not only faulty but alone. It took me years to discover that many of my friends felt similarly to me. Many welcomed the supporters of Wear Pants to Church Day to church and in the same breath called them stupid or silly. Show up and shut up, or don’t show up at all. The clear message was that, not only is there no room for any critique of Mormon patriarchy, but there is no such thing as a valid critique of Mormon patriarchy. And no one else feels the same way as you. This is precisely the dilemma that the event sought to address.

The historical development of this mainstream Mormon hegemony is knotty and not easily comprehended; how did a Church of radical reformers, believers in individual revelation and spiritual gifts, turn into a Church that values orthopraxy and orthodoxy above all else? Last year a General Authority revisited a disavowed talk by a former Apostle (“The 14 Fundamentals of Following the Prophet”) in which the message was that following the prophet was necessary, and that if the prophet was ever wrong (as the President of the Church is officially fallible), one would not be faulted for following him. In light of that, consider this quote from Brigham Young: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him.” While in recent history, mainstream members have taught that “following the prophet” is the only way to be truly safe from spiritual danger, Brigham Young taught that there was such a thing as excessive confidence in the prophet. But the mainstream does not acknowledge this danger at all. 

Understandably, the Church has had its critics since its inception, and their ferocity feeds into a perception of persecution and a tendency to view supporters and detractors in a simple binary. But in my own experience, I found myself being put into the detractor camp for following such scriptural tenets as pacifism and kindness to animals because they were culturally unpopular.

I slowly came to realize that dissent is not verboten because it challenges the Church’s hierarchy but because it is the culture which ultimately wags the dog, and the culture desires homogeneity. The official canon contains points of tension and paradoxes, if not outright contradictions. Add to that two hundred years of oral history and shifting positions on polygamy, Priesthood, and the nature of homosexuality, and you have a sprawling, unruly, even postmodern theology. The attempt to navigate this theology outside the bounds of the hegemonic mainstream results in one’s alienation, which leads to a feedback loop between the predominantly white, male leadership who overwhelmingly share the mainstream’s cultural biases and the increasingly winnowed membership base who shun those who don’t share their interpretation. The dispossessed, silenced members are not considered imperfect people with understandably human failings and doubts, but instead are dangerous contaminants who lack the faith to endure to the end. Their own imperfections are blamed instead of the community’s failure to meet their needs. 

(It is true that every church and every culture will have hypocrites and mean people, but to that defense I have two questions. Are these hypocrites really the outliers? and, If we consider the response in light of cultural norms which every member of the community tacitly upholds, which drew more collective outrage: the idea of women wearing pants to church or any of the rude, condescending, judgmental, or even violent comments from opponents?)

In light of the fact that Mormons of European descent are considered Gentiles who have had to be adopted into the House of Israel in order to achieve salvation, and that their whole purpose in receiving this gift from God is to bring it to the true heirs of Abraham’s covenant, it is incongruously arrogant for these same members to assume the authority to decide who should stay and who should leave. But this is only one scriptural hole in the argument of the dismissive opponents. (To be fair, there were valid arguments from opponents, and not every opponent was rude or dismissive). Jesus said “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Judging the true disciples of Christ by their unquestioning fealty to a Prophet is not only doctrinally misguided, but in my view the identification of those with complex relationships to the LDS Church as its enemies is a losing strategy since it lionizes sycophants and misunderstands the necessity of community in compensating for individual failings. For me one of the salient points of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep is that the shepherd cannot stay with the ninety-nine and also track down the lost one. But the Church (as amorphous and vague a concept as that is) seems to want to stay with the ninety-nine and look for the lost one from afar. It is an entirely rational response, but it is not what Jesus taught.