Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


Why Do Mormon Men Want Women to Have the Priesthood More Than Women Want It for Themselves?

posted by Jana Riess

GrantHardy-150x150.jpgBy Grant Hardy

Here’s your chance to be a sociologist. The next time you meet an LDS male over the age of 18, ask him this: “Do you think Mormon women should hold the priesthood and share equally in the administrative leadership of wards and stakes”? According to American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the answer may surprise you. And if you’re a Mormon woman, you’re likely in for a “what the heck?” moment.

Authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell asked a wide variety of Americans their opinion about women leading churches. They report that “by 2006 majorities of every religious tradition except Mormons had come to favor women clergy,” including 93% of both Mainline Protestants and Jews, and 75% percent of “Anglo” Catholics (p. 243). Even 66% of Evangelicals agreed, as compared with 30% of Latter-day Saints. In fact, only 10% of Mormon women favor female clergy in their church, which in an LDS context means giving women the priesthood. As Putnam and Campbell note, “Mormons, and especially Mormon women, appear to be the only holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership.”

Yet the most remarkable finding is that within Mormonism itself, there is a significant split by gender on this question. The number that looks the most extraordinary to outsiders–that only 10% of Mormon women want the priesthood–seems pretty predictable to those inside the faith. But the finding  that 48% of Mormon men say they favor female LDS clergy is truly startling.


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Nearly half of Mormon men would be okay with women holding the priesthood? Really? Who knew? And how did the LDS Newsroom miss this in their not one but two blogposts highlighting findings from American Grace? Could it be that a substantial number of LDS men, who for years have told women to be content without the priesthood, don’t really believe it themselves? This is the largest gender difference in the entire book, and it concerns one of the most fundamental principles of the Mormon faith.

Why would Mormon women, who are increasingly educated, working, and professional, so overwhelmingly want to be excluded from positions of ecclesiastical authority in their own congregations? And why are LDS men apparently less committed to the current ecclesiastical order?

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Part of the explanation lies in the nature of Mormon clergy. Priesthood leadership positions, which rotate regularly, are filled by assignment; they are part-time, unpaid, sometimes time-consuming tasks added on top of work and family responsibilities. Women have some assignments–generally with regard to other women or children–but they are always supervised by male priesthood leaders. Mormons thus have a non-professional, lay clergy which is restricted to men, and all males over the age of twelve are given some priesthood authority. Yet Mormon women tell pollsters they like it this way. Any feminist sensibilities they may have are generally not evidenced in aspirations to the priesthood; indeed, fears of radical Mormon feminists rocking the foundations of the church appear to have been greatly exaggerated, although excellent blogs like Feminist Mormon Housewives continue to raise important questions.

I hesitate to speak for Mormon women, but with some coaching from my wife, I came up with a few possible explanations:

  • Most women see an exclusively male priesthood as part of the inheritance of the Restoration, when the priesthood was restored to Joseph Smith by heavenly beings, and in accordance with biblical tradition (despite some interpretations of Rom.16:1,7). This is the way that God has arranged things, so why question it?
  • Many believe that motherhood is the equivalent of the priesthood, and they represent two complementary spheres of activity that reflect innate, or even eternal gender differences. (This is disputed for a variety of reasons, see here and here, but it is nevertheless commonplace in the church.)
  • Others may view the priesthood as a way to keep men deeply involved in faith and community, as a sort of spiritual affirmative action program. Or they may look at the time men spend in church meetings and decide to take a pass.
  • Many Mormon women like the sort of men/husbands/fathers that priesthood service creates (at least in the ideal). LDS men who are heavily involved in ecclesiastical leadership tend to be very committed to their families as well, and they take marital vows seriously.
  • The nurturing, pastoral care, submission, and self-sacrifice entailed in priesthood service in some ways domesticate and feminize men (another aspect of priesthood/motherhood equivalence?), and women are often willing to share their husbands’ time and attention with single mothers and widows in the congregation (like polygamy without the sex?) because it is part of what it means to consecrate family resources to the community.
  • It may be that women who have faithfully put aside questions of equality, and those who have shouldered increased burdens at home while their husbands were away on priesthood service, may feel their sacrifices are diminished if it turns out that the all-male priesthood was optional or temporary. (It’s not like Mormon women don’t realize their opinions on church authority are countercultural.)

None of this will be too surprising to insiders, but what of the substantial number of LDS men who say, “Sure, it would be fine with me if God gave women the priesthood”?

  • Some might simply be happy to share the burdens of church administration. In Mormonism, the priesthood means service and sacrifice as much as authority–no one is getting paid.
  • Others may be keenly aware of the under-utilized administrative talents of the women in their congregations; because Mormon wards are run by volunteers, they are perpetually under-staffed, especially when the majority of significant assignments are off- limits to women.
  • A few might be somewhat put off by the fact that church is virtually the only aspect of their lives that is segregated by gender (with the exception of those who are employed in the Church Office Building, most LDS male professionals work as equals with, and often for, women). All-male disciplinary councils can be particularly uncomfortable.
  • Many men probably find it easy to adopt a politically-correct opinion on something that is quite unlikely to change, without really thinking through the broader implications or the logistics of what would truly be a “priesthood of all believers.”
  • In my case, it’s sort of embarrassing to admit that my MBA wife is disqualified from ever serving as a church financial clerk simply because she is female (though when I answered the question at the beginning of this post, my wife’s response was, “If you’re so open minded, why don’t you tell the stake president you think women should have the priesthood and urge him to pass your concerns up the priesthood line to the area authority seventy?”)

The truth is, in Mormonism today there is virtually no one–female or male–agitating for women to be given the priesthood. Nevertheless, in the recent worldwide training that accompanied the launch of the new Church Handbook [http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/50690125-80/church-handbook-says-members.html.csp] there was explicit encouragement to include more women’s voices in the week-to-week running of local congregations by emphasizing the ward council (which includes women) over the priesthood executive committee (which does not). It’s a small step, but perhaps it will make a difference in wards led by the nearly 50% of Mormon men who claim feminist sympathies.

So ask the LDS men and women that you know, “Do you think Mormon women should hold the priesthood and share equally in the administrative leadership of wards and stakes?” See if you find a 50/10% gender split, and then be sure to follow up with a “why?” or “why not?” It could lead to more interesting conversations than you might expect.

Grant Hardy is a member of the stake presidency in the Asheville, North Carolina stake and a history professor at UNC-Asheville. He is the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide and several other books.



  • http://the-exponent.com Deborah

    Fascinating. Thank you!

  • http://patheos.com Ben S

    Very interesting stuff. I wonder if another factor is that (anecdotally) LDS women tend to see “wanting the priesthood” as rooted in negative motivations like pride/ambition, and so to say “yes” to the question is to admit to un-Christian desires.

  • J L Fuller

    Women already hold the priesthood and are administrators within the church. They hold the priesthood by virtue of being married and sealed to their husband. They are members of the leadership at all levels of the Church, ward, stake, region and church wide but with different roles. Those who would re-make the roles do not understand who established them and why. Needless to say, no LDS person who understands this would ever consider changes. That is why this is a nonsense piece.
    To the non Mormon let me add that merely being a member does not mean the person understands this subject. There are many people who never understand the church, its governance and the ways of God. They understand mankind’s thinking though.

  • J L Fuller

    Learning about the Gospel and God’s ways is a life long pursuit. None of us will ever truly understand everything – not in this lifetime. But to continue to progress and learn we have to believe God instructs and administers this Church personally through the power of the Holy Ghost even down to how the individual Sunday School teacher prepares his or her lesson each week or how parents raise their individual children.
    Fundamental to this is how we prepare ourselves to receive this attention and that is done by faithfully following the Gospel to the best of our ability including repentance. We must be teachable however. We have to decide to push worldly ways aside and diligently seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost who is God’s communicator. We can’t serve two masters. We can’t hang on to part of the old ways and expect to benefit from God’s assistance too. That is why this piece is way off the mark.

  • J L Fuller

    Brother Hardy wrote this piece. But if he and I were close friends I would ask if he truly thinks his ideas are worthwhile and workable. Merely having a “good idea” does not mean it is workable. It may not be workable to God for some reason we know nothing about and will never know about.
    That is why we have prophets. If it is a good idea, they will consider it because they have been tasked with administering the Church’s affairs not us. It isn’t our job. We have work to do elsewhere and the time we spend on things not within our stewardship the less time we have for things that are.
    It would be the same with our worldly employment. If you spend too much time on things in someone else’s department you are denying valuable resources – you – to your employer. Thinking outside the box is one thing, but that only goes so far.

  • ceric

    A man thinks he is being fair and shows his feminism creds by saying yes. A woman is likely to think she is being covetous and going contrary to Gods will by saying yes.

  • ceric

    Personally, I would ask the more important question… what does it mean to hold? To act in an official capacity aka officiate? – you have your answer if you’re paying attention and honor the sacredness of your covenants.

  • Kevin Barney

    Fascinating find, Grant! Thanks for sharing.

  • Dave K

    Wonderful post! Thank you. I have felt for some time that there is a gender gap in the church on this issue (with men more open to female priesthood), but have never had data to support my belief.
    Anecdotally, I have noticed that whenever the issue arises in church settings few if any men raise their hands to defend the practice. Instead, it is the women (and usually a lot of them) that are quick to say that they feel complete without holding the priesthood and have desire for change.
    As a priesthood holder myself, this raises a quandry. If my wife, mother, sisters, and others do not desire the priesthood, should I try to push them? Perhaps the real reason for the practice is that God gives to us according to our righteous desires and women so far do not desire the priesthood.

  • http://www.bryankwilliams.com sk8erbryan

    I’m skeptical on this interpretation of the data. I think there is just too much faulty logic and assuming going on here to gather anything relevant on gender differences on Mormon priesthood.
    The statement that was asked to participants in the survey to agree or disagree on about gender roles and leadership was, “Women should be allowed to be priests or clergy in my house of worship.” The question is purposely generic and hardly addresses the structure in the Mormon church. The statement can be interpreted in different ways and to say that a “no” answer equals, “women should not hold the Mormon priesthood” is a poor assumption at best.
    The author either doesn’t understand the Mormon church’s unique organization(Please don’t make the assumption that because he is a member of a Stake Presidency he understands church organization and how it is interpreted), did not check the basis on the facts he was trying to interpret, wrote this piece deliberately as a way to illogically support his own view, or simply wrote it to gain attention or provoke thought.

  • http://artemisandollie.blogspot.com/ crazywomancreek

    Thanks for writing this- I think I am going to have to bite it and buy the book now.
    What came to my mind was some of the data Crittendon talked about in The Price of Motherhood, namely that when women gained the right to work outside of the home, the burden of domestic work has never shifted. I am sure it is more complicated than that and your wife’s conjecture that for women who have set aside their concerns of worth and dignity at the altar of their faith- to discover that is was unnecessary is indeed, heartbreaking. I wonder how the answers would change if there was an equal emphasis placed on men to play a more egalitarian role in the domestic sphere? In the absence of that – I can see women in the church perceiving this as a net loss.

  • William Jay

    Maybe the reason for the gender divide in responses to the question is that Mormons have a strong cultural taboo against aspiring to priesthood positions. Ambition to priesthood office is seen as prideful and unseemly. This is true for men and women, but especially true for women aspiring to the priesthood. So a man can voice support for women holding the priesthood and not run afoul of this taboo, but a woman can’t.

  • http://www.clobberblog.com Ms. Jack

    I think Ben S, William Jay and others have hit the nail on the head. The church teaches its women that good girls don’t want the priesthood to the tune of rampant misuse of Heb. 5:4 and stories about the evils of lusting for power. A woman who says she would like women to have the priesthood can be accused of seeking power for herself. But there is no parallel taboo against men wanting others to have the priesthood, and a man who says he would like women to have the priesthood can’t be charged with lusting for personal power.
    I’m actually delighted to hear this just the same, because this means that approximately 27% of total church membership would like to see women have the priesthood–which is more than I would have expected given the church’s strong attempts to teach motherhood-priesthood as a complement and push for divine segregated gender roles.

  • Suburban Nemesis

    I disagree with the blog’s premise that the study’s question equates to men believing that women should hold the priesthood. From this blog posting it suggest that the study asked about women being in the clergy. This is a very different question than what the blog asserts. Without defining first what ‘clergy’ means, it allows individuals to apply their own interpretation of the word to it. One member of the church may view clergy as anyone with the priesthood. However, another member may view clergy as anyone who serves in the church. I could consider a sister missionary or relief society presidency as part of the clergy while not holding the priesthood. Now why such a discrepancy amongst men and women. They may have different views of what constitutes ‘clergy’ based upon their gender background. Females in the church may view clergy more narrowly as those who hold the priesthood and believe that it should be granted only to the men of the church. However, men may view clergy more broadly, such I do, that clergy consist of more than those who specifically hold the priesthood.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment lark

    The premise and analysis is definitely faulty, as far as the conclusion about wanting women to be ordained. I dispute that and completely refute the idea that half of the priesthood wants to start ordaining women in any manner different than has already been revealed.

    I can scarcely believe someone at the level of leadership claimed would suggest such a thing, or publicize it outside of the Church – even if it were true. I like @J L Fuller’s comments quite a lot.

    To me, the main issue with our divinely designated roles may simply be that the primary calling women enjoy in this life is to bear and nurture our children. We men see no other task as being of greater import. Maybe the man’s duty to provide for family just isn’t as difficult, and thereby there is adequate time available for service to the Church.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lorie

    It was quite disconcerting to read Hardy’s assertion that “… in Mormonism today there is virtually no one–female or male–agitating for women to be given the priesthood.” Perhaps he isn’t listening. For years, many of us–in papers, panels, blog posts, comments, etc.–have been advocating for women’s ordination. In fact, just a few months ago, a group of Mormon women created the “All Are Alike unto God” website, which states, in part: “As Mormon women, we call upon the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Relief Society General Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to thoughtfully consider and earnestly pray about the full integration of women into the decision-making structure of the Church and the question of women’s ordination.” Well over 600 people have signed in support, and more are added weekly. See http://www.whatwomenknow.org/all_are_alike/index.html

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bob Wells

    I think the bigger question is whether one would be pleased or displeased if women received the priesthood. I don’t want to counsel my leaders, so I certainly won’t agitate for a change. But I would be thrilled if The Lord made the change. I accept that this church is a theocracy. I don’t feel inspired to suggest that women receiving the Priesthood is something that should be considered. If people think the church is a democracy, they’ll ask the wrong question. I believe most men wouldn’t mind a bit for the reasons you state. I also don’t think most men would ask for it because they accept the theocracy.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Peter de Schweinitz

    Thank you for this excellent and informative article.

  • http://www.pewforum.org/2012/01/12/mormons-in-america-family-life/ Tim B

    Your article does not mention a late 2011 Pew poll that shows that 84% of LDS men and 90% of LDS women oppose female ordination. Please go to the following link for confirmation: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/01/12/mormons-in-america-family-life/ (Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the relevant portion of the survey.)

    Most people would consider the Pew Poll more reputable than the other source you cited. I believe that at the very least, both polls should have been mentioned in the interests of overall accuracy.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dan Vassilaros

    I think the poll numbers are far too low. I expect close to 100% of the men in the Church would be happy to defer the pain and suffering of priesthood service to women. Adam was probably quite happy in Eden.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Doylemeister

    Even if not extended to women, I’d like to see the way we use the word “priesthood” changed, not used as a synonym for “men” or “male”, like “the priesthood will take down the chairs” or “the priesthood will provide baby sitting.”
    And let’s sort out which callings require the priesthood. Is there a particular reason why the financial clerk or person that manages membership records needs to be a priesthood holder? Same with Sunday School Presidency? Likewise, why is Primary Presidency exclusively female?

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