I haven’t weighed in on the Ordain Women issue at all, not because I’m not sympathetic but because it’s been covered elsewhere and in much better ways than I could write about it. But yesterday a reader posed the following question to me, and my response follows:
I have kind of a random question that I was hoping you would know the answer to. For some background, today I read through a debate on Facebook that was sparked by a friend of mine who is still in the church publicizing his support for the Ordain Women movement. Those supporting the movement in the comments pointed frequently to the church’s lifting the ban on blacks holding the priesthood as an example of pressure working on church leaders. That change occurred before I was born, but I have heard many members who were alive at the time saying they were so happy when the change happened (such as Mitt Romney). My question is, do you know of any polls that were conducted before the ban was lifted concerning Mormons’ support for extending the priesthood to blacks? I ask because of the recent Pew poll that showed very little support in the church for extending the priesthood to women. But I wonder, if the brethren announced at the general conference next week that women would receive the priesthood, would most members turn around and express happiness at the decision, as happened after the change before?
Anyway, I did a quick search on Google but couldn’t find anything, and I wondered if you had come across any such polls from the 70s.
I am not aware of any published polling data, though it’s entirely possible a news organization, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, might have done such a poll, which would be in their archives. I haven’t found anything, but according to BlackLDS.org, in 1963, Hugh B. Brown mentioned to the New York Times that the church was “in the midst of a survey looking toward the possibility of admitting Negroes.” Another tidbit from the BlackLDS site:
Sociologist Armand Mauss Surveys LDS Attitudes about Race
Survey shows that “the Mormons, in spite of their peculiar doctrine on the Negroes, were no more likely to give anti-Negro responses than were the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans (whether American or Missouri Synod) or Baptists (whether American or Southern), and furthermore the Mormon respondents were very nearly the same as the Protestant averages.”
The survey also shows, “among those of urban origin, the ‘Orthodox’ or ‘believers’ were consistently less likely to express anti-Negro attitudes than were the ‘doubters’ of key Church doctrines.” (Neither White nor Black, Bush and Mauss, Signature Books, 1984, pg. 20-23)
Neither of those helps answer my reader’s question much, but both suggest that there was an atmosphere of acceptance in the church toward such a change.
When comparing the lifting of the racial restrictions on priesthood and the movement today to ordain women, I think it’s helpful to look at this in two ways:
- The actual desire to make a change in the church.
- The strong sense among Mormons that it’s wrong not only to demand anything of the brethren but also to even ask that something be considered.
First of all, from what I know, there was a pervasive desire among Mormons in the 1970s to lift the priesthood ban. I can only speak from my own experience as a boy growing up in Southern California, though when I’ve talked to others about their experience, they have confirmed my sense of the times. Given the social changes of the 1960s, many Mormons were bewildered and maybe a little embarrassed that the church was holding onto its racist past in this way. When it was discussed in church, it was always emphasized that we didn’t know why God had imposed the ban but that someday the priesthood would be extended to all men. That Hugh B. Brown tried to get the Quorum of Twelve to lift the ban in 1969 tells me that, even among the brethren, there was a desire to make the change. When the announcement came over the radio (it was the lead story on the national news), I was in a car full of Boy Scouts returning from a 50-mile hike in the Sierra Nevada. Everyone cheered, and the rest of the trip we talked about how exciting it was that President Kimball had received a revelation just like Joseph Smith and how we no longer had to wonder about this issue anymore.
As I said, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this had the same reaction: joy that it had happened, and reassurance that it had been done by revelation. At the time, there were rumors that some members in the southern US and South Africa were upset, but I’ve never heard anything more about that since then.
That said, it’s important to remember that, despite the widespread support for lifting the ban, there was no organized effort to lift it. I know some members wrote anguished letters to the general authorities asking for its repeal or at least seeking an explanation, but there were no protests, not even letter-writing campaigns. To this day, many members of the LDS church I’ve spoken with deny that there was any pressure from any source that led to the 1978 revelation, which suggests that most members believe it is wrong to press leaders to go to the Lord about a specific issue. As Boyd K. Packer said in 1993:
When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed.
The channels of revelation go from the top down, from the brethren to the members, and not from the bottom up, which explains why there is so much resistance to even suggesting that the brethren consider going to the Lord with a particular question.
It seems ironic now, but in 1978, the only issue about which Latter-day Saints were concerned enough to organize was in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution. Much like they did during the Prop. 8 campaign in 2008, the church organized its members and defeated the amendment in some state legislatures. As the New York Times notes:
In the 1970s, the [LDS] church quickly emerged as one of the most organized and devoted forces working against the ratification of the E.R.A., a proposed amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed equality of rights under the law, regardless of sex. Seeing the amendment as an affront to traditional gender roles and a threat to the family, the church organized its members into powerful and effective activists against the E.R.A. “We believe that E.R.A. is a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family,” the church’s First Presidency, its three highest-ranking leaders, declared in an official statement in 1978. Ratifying the E.R.A., they warned, would result in an “encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women.”
Mormons rallied to this message and helped ensure that state legislatures across the country, from Mormon-heavy states like Utah and Nevada to less likely places like Virginia and Florida, defeated the amendment. (Young, Neil J., “Equal Rights, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church,” 13 June 2012.)
Mormons who opposed the church’s stance were denounced and marginalized, with one prominent opponent, Sonia Johnson, being excommunicated for her public and vocal stance.
Although support for the priesthood change was fairly widespread and there was almost no public support for the ERA, the common denominator was the belief that it was up to the brethren—and God, by extension—to make any changes. Calls for change, whether private or public, personal or organized, were seen as wrong.
I think that plays a part in the level of support for ordaining women to the priesthood: it would take a change, by revelation, and most Mormons believe it would be wrong to put any pressure on the brethren to ask for such a revelation. I would say this is the main reason the Ordain Women movement has been so harshly denounced and even demonized. I’ve even heard some women say they would have a very hard time accepting a revelation giving women the priesthood, and from what I gather, they base this on the belief that such a revelation would have been imposed on the brethren by “ark-steadying” agitators.
The other factor is that there’s been a common theme in LDS culture that women shouldn’t want the priesthood, that they should be happy with their God-given roles as wives and mothers. The priesthood, I’ve heard so many times, is a responsibility and in some ways a burden that women would not want. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific official teachings of this attitude, but it is certainly there in the culture. I would guess that, given some time, I could find a few official statements to support that.
That was a long-winded way of answering the question, but in short, given LDS culture, I think most Mormons would be happy with the change. These days, even changes in policy, such as the recent change in missionary age, are greeted as having near-revelatory power, so if such a change were announced as a revelation, I’m sure most people would be happy about it. Some people would be disappointed, especially those I mentioned above who would feel that the church had been pressured into it.
Will such a change happen? Who knows? When I was a boy I never imagined the priesthood ban would be lifted in my lifetime, so anything is possible. I suspect, however, that if such a change were ever to happen, the brethren would not make it in response to direct pressure, as that might suggest that God’s will bends to political or social pressure.
That brings me to the Ordain Women movement. As with anything else, I support those who fight for equality and for positive change, so yes, I support their efforts to effect good as they see it. As I said, I doubt any change will come directly from this effort, but it’s good to know that there are people willing to risk their standing in the church for what they believe in. That has to count for something. And, whether people choose to acknowledge it or not, change in the LDS church has always come in response to a pressing need. The 1978 revelation, for example, came in response to the ban’s impracticality in Brazil, where the church was building a new temple, and to political and social pressures elsewhere. Revelation never occurs in a vacuum, so getting this issue out in public view may eventually make it easier for the church to make a change in response to other pressures.
The church’s response thus far has been to circle the wagons (or, quite literally, the garbage trucks), which may reassure some hardliners but is a very bad public-relations move.
If nothing else, Boyd K. Packer’s warning has come to pass: members are facing “the wrong way.” A few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine an organized movement pressing church leaders for change of any kind, and yet here we are. Many Mormons seem to have lost the reverence and, yes, fear they felt for their leaders. Perhaps the newfound confidence of some members reflects the church’s inability to control its own message in the Internet age. Many Mormons have discovered that the carefully packaged version of the church, its history, and its origins, does not align well with reality, and perhaps that has led even believing members to begin questioning everything from seer stones to restrictions on priesthood.
I do not know what the future holds, but I believe strongly that good things happen when people work together and make them happen. To that end, I wish the Ordain Women movement well.