February 22, 2020

Why was a Mormon feminist excommunicated?

Excommunication is no longer a Jewish practice, though I could certainly come up with a few candidates if it were ever restored. It is, however, a last resort for Mormon leaders who are faced with public apostates in their congregations. Immediately after learning yesterday that Mormon feminist Kate Kelly had been excommunicated by her former bishop, two Jewish women sent me emails asking how Mormons could justify his action. Since their letters came just a day after a discussion with a member of my congregation on this topic, I wanted to explain to my Jewish readers why most Mormons aren’t losing sleep over this.

First of all, Mormons are free to believe whatever they want. In Kate’s case, she believes that there is “gender inequality” in the LDS Church because women cannot hold the priesthood, which allows men to preside over congregations, services, and ordinances. Kate’s beliefs about women and the priesthood are not unique, and she is hardly the first LDS woman to share them with others.  I’m fairly positive that there are Mormon women in most if not all wards (large congregations) in the country who hold similar views.

What got Kate in trouble were not her unorthodox beliefs, but the ways that she chose to express them. Last year she started the website Ordain Women, whose goals are “equality” and the “ordination of women to the priesthood.” She believes that Mormon women need to organize and agitate for  priesthood ordination, and uses the website as a tool to do that. On two occasions she got hundreds of people to show up on Temple Square in Salt Lake City during General Conference, the semiannual gathering of Mormons from around the world, to request complimentary tickets to the men-only priesthood sessions. Given that General Conferences are the largest meetings in the church, many Mormons, including the author, found Ordain Women’s actions to be disrespectful and disruptive.

To put it bluntly, orthodox Mormons believe that policies on the priesthood are established by our prophets and apostles, not feminist agitators. For Mormons, the theological question at the center of this debate and the gay-marriage debate is a simple one: Are we led by prophets or not? If we are, then we need to follow them. If Mormons are not led by prophets, then there is no reason to be a Mormon.

I had three main problems with Kate’s activism. First of all, she was trying to attack Mormon beliefs and doctrines from within the church. Now she can no longer do that, since the world knows that her church has declared her to be an apostate.

Secondly, she was peddling a solution to a “problem” that doesn’t exist. Anyone who thinks that women’s voices aren’t heard and valued by LDS leaders has never been a bishop. Every Sunday I conduct a 90-minute leadership meeting (ward council) which several women leaders attend. I actively seek their advice and counsel, which they are very willing to give, and rely heavily on them to help me and my assistants to strengthen families in our congregation. In addition, any Mormon involved in conversion efforts knows that the very best missionaries in the church are the young sister missionaries. Mormon women have plenty of opportunities to serve in the church, and they know that in most congregations women are the most capable leaders around. If a list were drawn up of things that most Mormon women worry about on a regular basis, I doubt very much that not holding the priesthood would make the top ten.

My final beef with Kate was that her goal was ultimately self-promotion, not gender equality. As if further proof were needed, she chose to attend a public vigil in her honor in Utah on the day that her disciplinary council was held in Virginia in her absence. Although Kate was invited to participate in the council via Skype, she preferred to whine in public and hide behind her blog instead of defending her beliefs in person to church leaders. I’m glad to see that this intellectual cowardice was not rewarded.

I do hope that Kate finds more productive ways to spend her time. I also hope that she eventually decides to come back to the church without preconditions. Until that time, relatively few Mormons will lament the exit of an apostate from our ranks.