Cutting-Edge Feminists of Latter-Day Saints

Over the long term, the religious groups that succeed are those that adapt their practices and institutions to cultural circumstances without abandoning their core beliefs or losing their distinctiveness.
The Mormon "brand" has changed since Ann Romney chose to raise her boys. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Thanks to the First Amendment, the least regulated market in America is the market for religion. It's also one of the most competitive. To attract and retain members, religious groups are constantly adapting and innovating, in sometimes surprising ways. No one in 1970 would have imagined that by the turn of the century, evangelical Protestants would be worshipping to rock music in mega-churches.

A long New York Times article this weekend profiled another such adaptation: a change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints's policies toward young women going on two-year Mormon missions. After the church lowered the age requirement for women from 21 to 19 in October 2012, the number of female missionaries about tripled, to 23,000.

"For the first time, waves of women ... are taking part in the church's crucial coming-of-age ritual, returning home from their missions with unprecedented scriptural fluency, new confidence and new ideas about themselves," wrote Jodi Kantor and Laurie Goodstein.

By themselves, theological truth claims are only rarely the deciding factor in whether someone joins or leaves a given faith. A successful religious "brand" offers a promise of a satisfying and meaningful life within a flourishing community of faith. It expresses its enduring beliefs in ways that resonate with the specific culture of its time and place. Over the long term, the religious groups that succeed are those that adapt their practices and institutions to cultural circumstances without abandoning their core beliefs or losing their distinctiveness.

That balance makes what's happening in the LDS church particularly interesting. Family and parenthood are central to LDS theology and culture. But motherhood is hardly distinctive to Mormonism. The demanding two-year mission is. Making it a defining coming-of-age experience for women as well as men enhances rather than dilutes the church's distinctiveness.

The expansion is also in keeping with the church's evolving stance toward women's roles, which has been more more complicated than the Times shorthand that "ruling patriarchs not long ago excommunicated feminist scholars and warned women not to hold jobs while raising children."

In a 2008 paper, the sociologist Carrie A. Miles analyzed the contents of two official church publications, the Improvement Era (1940-70) and its successor the Ensign (1971-2006), as well as the church website She traced the way the church adapted to the changing roles of women by what they said about women and work outside the home.

Even in the 1970s, she found, the church's attitude was evolving. "While advising that mothers in general should not work, [it] also taught that they might if God specifically approved, and that these women should not be condemned by other church members," she writes. Many articles in the late 1970s, she found, encouraged a "sequential" arrangement of motherhood followed by a career. "Although the first writers note this option of a career after the children are grown as permissible," she notes, "later articles endorse it so strongly as to make it virtually a new part of the 'ideal' woman's life."

Nowadays, she and other scholars conclude, the Mormon feminism of the 1970s has disappeared because largely it has become irrelevant. Younger members take personal and professional equality for granted and see the church's distinctive attitudes toward family life as a positive attribute. Secular feminists aren't going to sign up as church members anyway. But it can draw and retain people looking for spiritual values and stronger families.

"By instead stressing the importance of parenting, family, devoted motherhood," she writes, "and by praising women and their innate virtues and strengths, the Church has found a way to turn its difference with society into an appealing feature rather than a repellant bug."

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