The vast majority of members – especially females – oppose the priesthood ordination of women. Which means that if the church were a democracy women would not be ordained. But the church is not a democracy such that orders come from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up, and the top says “no” to the priesthood ordination of women as well. In spite of this, the Ordain Women movement presses forward, urging the church to give women the priesthood without any regard for what the rest of the church wants or thinks. This state of affairs cries out for explanation: How can a movement which is so strongly committed to emancipation and social justice (and I see no reason to doubt their sincerity) try to force people to be free?
The explanation lies in the concept of false consciousness. Because of the environment in which LDS women have been inculcated, they have been conditioned to support beliefs which have other people’s interests in mind rather than their own. In other words, what the vast majority of faithful LDS women honestly and sincerely believe to be in their interest is not really what’s in their interest at all because they have been duped, as it were, by various doctrines about a woman’s place in Mormon culture. Once one has been “properly” educated, however, they can then see these doctrinal opiates for what they really are: distractions from the ubiquitous and systematic alienation of women within Mormon culture. As a side note, this almost (but not quite?) amounts to an ad hominem argument wherein the opinions of faithful LDS women are discredited simply because they are offered by faithful LDS women.
False consciousness, however, is a rather dangerous weapon to play with, for it can quite easily be turned against the very person who attempted to wield it. Once this is admitted, the question then becomes, “What sorts of false consciousness can be attributed to the Ordain Women movement?” What forms of systematic alienation might we find when we look at them through the lenses of social critique which they are so eager to apply to LDS women?
In order to do this we must first move beyond what the movement says about itself. The Ordain Women movement is no longer allowed the final word regarding their own interests and motives in the same way that the movement does not allow the faithful members of the church to have the last word regarding their own interests and motives. Accordingly, just as the Ordain Women movement focuses on who is “pulling the strings” of the faithful LDS females, manipulating them into believing and acting in the former’s interest, so too must we focus on who is “pulling the strings” of the activists within the Ordain Women movement, manipulating them into believing and acting in the former’s interest. In other words, we must look at the texts and authorities that are cited, who controls the media channels that are frequented and ascertain the origins of the paradigmatic arguments, slogans and values which are brandished within the movement. This is exactly what the Ordain Women movement does when it critiques the social environment within the church.
The first thing to note about the Ordain Women movement is that the most significant influences and inspirations for it are not of LDS origin. None of the texts and authorities that are cited, the media channels that are frequented or the paradigmatic arguments and slogans, in short, none of the core ideas are of LDS origin. To be sure, these ideas and values are all given an overtly LDS packaging, but this is not the same as having an LDS core at the center. What is more, many of the more public and influential figures in the movement that are of LDS heritage can hardly be considered orthodox or mainstream within Mormon culture, many having been very public about their run-ins with church discipline or other ways in which they simply “don’t fit it”. It is not that such people do not identify themselves with Mormon culture at all, but that they proudly identify with other ideologies which often conflict with or constrain their otherwise mainstream LDS faith. In the same way that general conference talks directed at LDS women from female speakers are supposed to mask the masculine core of the church, so too the LDS women who speak for the Ordain Women movement mask the non-LDS core of that movement.
It is important to note that while we are indeed very close to mounting an ad hominem attack here, this is exactly what the use of false consciousness entails. At this point we are only identifying the secular influences and values which are at the core of the Ordain Women movement so as to reveal whose interests the movement truly serves. This is the exact reason why the movement is at pains to identify the masculine influences within Mormonism so as to highlight whose interests are truly being served within the church. They insist that if we are to expose the false consciousness within any group we must first identify the source of the group’s values, i.e. the ruling class within that group. We must also keep in mind that this ruling class will likely disguise and repress by any means necessary the fact that it is they and not the group at large which are being served by the group’s values. There is no reason to think that we can analyze the LDS church in this way, but not the Ordain Women movement.
Continuing on, not only are the core influences and inspirations within the Ordain Women movement of non-LDS origin – a fact which the movement disguises and represses through the use of an overtly LDS packaging – but the ruling class within the movement – its core influences and inspirations – are not straightforwardly female either – a fact which the movement actively emphasizes. Do not be fooled: just because the movement is overtly about women does not mean that it necessarily embodies female values, is of female origins or that the interests of females are its primary objective. Similarly, just because the movement is overtly about LDS members does not necessarily mean that it embodies LDS values, is of LDS origins or that the interests of LDS members are its primary objective. Again, this is the exact argument by which the Ordain Women movement is able to discount the opinions and values of the general church membership. If we follow the Ordain Women movement in believing that a group’s core values are usually not those which favor its majority membership, but are instead those which favor its ruling class, then we are forced to admit that the core values of the Ordain Women movement are not those of mainstream LDS women.
If neither mainstream Mormon culture nor femininity are what characterize the core values of the Ordain Movement, then what does? While the influences of male and non-LDS thinkers are far too prevalent within the movement’s core to characterize it as essentially female or LDS, there is another (hidden) thread which does serve to unify the movement’s core: Intellectualism. The texts and authorities which are cited, the media channels that are frequented and the paradigmatic arguments and slogans which are offered within the Ordain Women movement are (beneath the LDS packaging) at their origin and core moderately radicalized and unambiguously intellectual in nature. A quick glance at the profiles on the movement’s website will find ubiquitous references to advanced degrees, academic and authorial professions, bookwormishness and other deep-rooted habits revolving around the production and consumption of the written word. Their resources tab similarly links to symposia, books and articles, blogs and podcasts – the bread and butter of intellectuals. At the core of the Ordain Women movement, then, is a set of values which is neither female nor Mormon in character, but instead belongs to the intellectual culture of critical discourse (CCD).
Let’s pause to clear up what I mean by “intellectual”. Following Alvin Gouldner, the intellectual culture of critical discourse, which I contend is at the heart of social movements such as Ordain Women,
“insists that any assertion – about anything, by anyone – is open to criticism and that, if challenged, no assertion can be defended by invoking someone’s authority. It forbids a reference to a speaker’s position in society (or reliance upon his personal character) in order to justify or refute his claims… Under the scrutiny of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth are in principle now equal, and traditional authorities are now stripped of their special right to define social reality… The CCD … demands the right to sit in judgment over all claims, regardless of who makes them…
“CCD requires that all speakers must be treated as sociologically equal in evaluating their speech. Considerations of race, class, sex, creed, wealth, or power in society may not be taken into account in judging a speaker’s contentions and a special effort is made to guard against their intrusion on critical judgment. The CCD, then, suspects that all traditional social differentiations may be subversive of reason and critical judgment and thus facilitate a critical examination of establishment claims. It distances intellectuals from them and prevents elite views from becoming an unchallenged, conventional wisdom.” (Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals, 30-31)
The intellectuals have always been the driving force behind movements which oppose social differentiations (race, class, sex, creed, wealth, power, etc.) which they see as being not only non-rational, but actively counter to the rationality which defines and empowers the intellectual. But do not be fooled into thinking that these intellectuals are for equality across the board, for nothing could be further from the truth. While intellectuals are unambiguously against those social differentiations which structure other cultures, they not only tolerate, but actively reinforce a hierarchy within their own movements which are stratified along intellectual lines. Public influence, authorial citations, the skills of eloquent rhetoric, public debate and bureaucratic management all serve to differentiate and stratify movements such as Ordain Women. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that women within the church which have these intellectual qualifications are denied access to priesthood authority that most scandalizes the core of the Ordain Women movement. To be clear, intellectuals do not spawn social movements in order to do away with social stratification altogether, but to reorganize social stratifications in a way which is more conducive to their own influence, leadership, recognition and interests. Consequently, the intellectual leadership has a great interest in producing a false consciousness within the social movements which they inspire so as to mask the way it is the interests of the former which are truly being served by the latter.
The notion of false consciousness, then, entails that these social movements which originate and rally around intellectualism are aimed not so much at freeing various groups of people from bondage to oppressors of a different race, class, sex, etc., as much as they are aimed at empowering intellectual in the place of those oppressing classes. This is not to say that the leadership of these intellectual elites is never better, in some sense, than that of the delegitimized oppressors. Rather, this only implies that the alienation which comes from a false consciousness has merely been transformed rather than overthrown, substituted rather than abolished. The exact same holds true for the Ordain Women movement, for beneath the Mormon lingo with which the movement is garnished, the values and interests at its intellectual core are just as conducive toward an alienating false consciousness as an all-male leadership is. More concretely, just as the Ordain Women movement construes the general church membership as being under a false consciousness produced by an all-male leadership, so too we can construe the general membership of the Ordain Women movement as being under a false consciousness produced by an intellectual leadership.
It can certainly be said of LDS females what Marx said of the proletariat: that even if intellectuals are in some sense the head of the movement, they – the general membership – are it’s true heart. Even so, if LDS women are indeed the heart which an intellectual head inspires and influences, the hierarchical difference between the head and the heart should not go unnoticed. Social critique is based in the idea that it is the leadership, the intellectual head of the movement that defines what is and is not fair, good or just, and it is the general membership, the movement’s heart which puts these ideas into practice by undermining and subverting any person, policy, institution or any other authority which the intellectuals re-construe as a constrictive shackle rather than a supportive structure. Strangely enough, both of these metaphors are equally appropriate but from different perspectives. On the one hand, the priesthood leadership has served as a supportive structure for LDS members, while on the other hand, this same priesthood has been a constructive shackle which chaffs at the intellectuals. In this zero-sum battle of metaphors, one serves to legitimize priesthood leadership at the expense of the intellectuals while the other does the exact opposite.
Let me rephrase the point I am making here by drawing yet another parallel between what the Ordain Women movement claims about LDS members and what I am claiming about the members of that movement. Ordain Women acknowledges that the majority of LDS women honestly and sincerely believe that their not having the priesthood is in their own and indeed everybody’s interest. After acknowledging this, the movement then goes on to say that despite the honesty and sincerity of these women, they are wrong – not having access to the priesthood only furthers the interests of the all-male church leaders whose position and influence in the church are threatened by a female priesthood. The claim I am making about activists within the Ordain Woman movement is exactly the same. They honestly and sincerely believe that the success of their movement is somehow in their own and indeed everybody’s interest. After acknowledging this, a consistent social critic must then go on to say that despite the honesty and sincerity of these activists, they are wrong – their movement only furthers the interests of non-LDS intellectuals whose position and influence in the world are threatened by any and all such traditional social differentiations.
There is a strong motive, then, within the Ordain Women movement to actively disguise and repress the role that intellectuals play within it. For starters, and most obviously, there is a moderately strong aversion to intellectualism within the church, backed by numerous warnings against trusting in the reasoning of man. The reason for this have already been discussed in this post. Another more subtle reason is that the image of freeing LDS women from male hegemony serves to deemphasize the true shift in power which is really taking place according to the doctrine of false consciousness. By offering themselves and their authority as a competitive alternative to the priesthood or, worse still, the standard against which the priesthood is to be measured, the intellectuals do not empower women with the priesthood so much as they empower themselves by delegitimizing the priesthood altogether. In other words, by focusing on who should be able to eat from the priesthood pie, intellectuals distract us from their gradual dismantling of that pie.
By now I hope it is clear who is and is not the villain in my story. I have no problem with women being ordained (I have made exactly zero arguments against such a thing) and I see LDS activists who rally for female ordination no differently than they see LDS women who actively resist it: as unsuspecting and largely innocent pawns in a larger power struggle. The belligerents in this battle are, as usual, the tradition of prophecy/priesthood and the intellectual culture of critical discourse. The alternatives before us, then, are not gender equality vs. chauvinism in the priesthood, for this is a false consciousness forced upon us to disguise the true power struggle between intellectuals and priesthood leaders.
If, however, you sincerely and prayerfully insist that women ought to be ordained (and I am in no place to question your personal revelation on the subject), there have been and still are ways of pursuing this goal which do not undermine the very authority which you seek to give women. The daughters of Zelophehad, for example, went through the proper channels of priesthood authority in order to seek what they thought was right. Many women in the early church also sought greater priesthood authority in a way which served to reinforce the very authority which they then received to some degree. At no point has the Lord ever tolerated, let alone encouraged the faithful to seek blessings such as these through “outside” channels like those of the intellectuals.
If you want women to be ordained, fine, but organizing symposia, writing articles and books, blogging, putting out podcasts and outright protesting are not the ways to do it. These outside channels for change only serve to transfer legitimacy to the intellectuals and away from the priesthood authority which you are supposed to be seeking. The only way that women can truly come to enjoy the full blessings and responsibilities that come with holding the priesthood, then, is by prayerfully, humbly and discreetly seeking that change through the proper priesthood channels.