There is a question that Mitt Romney has yet to be asked, one that has serious implications for his suitability for the office of president of the United States.
It’s a question Mike Wallace asked the president of the Mormon church (and prophet, seer, and revelator) Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996, and Larry King asked him again in 2004. Barbara Walters even thought it was important enough to ask 19-year-old Marie Osmond in 1978—and moderator Jim Lehrer should ask Mitt Romney Wednesday, at the year’s first presidential debate:
Why do Mormons continue to treat women of the faith as second-class citizens?
The indictment in brief: women are not allowed to serve in the priesthood, which includes virtually all Mormon males ages 12 and up, giving them the right to act and speak with God’s authority. Women are thus forbidden from administering blessings, performing baptisms, or presiding over men in meetings or at home. And women are also excluded from the church’s upper leadership positions. Even those women who rise to positions of authority within the all-female Relief Society and Young Women organization, or as teachers, still answer to priesthood-holding men.
Given the church’s history of political activism, and Romney’s prominent role in the church, it seems bizarre that he’s yet to address the issue at all—a perverse instance of religious tolerance leaving questions about gender discrimination unasked and unexamined.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by its general authorities, an all-male, mostly white, and elderly group centered in Salt Lake City, whose members routinely pay lip service to the value of women—something that evidently doesn’t go without saying.
One general authority, Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s second-highest governing body, gave a perhaps unintentionally revealing speech last year, entitled LDS Women Are Incredible!
In it, he tells a story about a group of Mormon women who came upon a lost purse, and, rifling through it in search of identification, stop to remark on the other items they find: a church pamphlet, soap, mints, and lotion. Their verdict: “Oh, good things come out of her mouth; she has clean and soft hands; and she takes care of herself.”
Cook goes on to praise men and women alike for their willingness to do unpaid work in the church (not mentioning that general authorities receive undisclosed salaries), and then to praise a Mormon woman who had a great idea that those male leaders, remarkably, listened to. They did so after the woman asked permission to speak before men, and the spirit then confirmed to one of those men that her idea was true, he said. Thanks to the woman’s idea, he said, 63 men returned to the fold, “and were sustained for ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood.”
It seems that drawing men back to the faith is the most that a woman can be expected to do—which leaves smart, strong Mormon women (as well as progressive-thinking but outwardly compliant men) in a bit of a predicament.
At age 19, Mormon youths depart on two-year missions to spread the faith. “Every Young Man Should Serve a Mission,” states the church’s Aaronic Priesthood Manual. (At 12, boys are expected to join the Aaronic priesthood, as a transitory step on their way to joining the higher Melchizedek priesthood after turning 18.)
Women, however, are not expected to serve a mission and are encouraged to volunteer for one only if they reach the age of 21 and have no marriage opportunities. Even then, those who do go on a mission must address their (younger) male counterparts as “elders.” If a woman on a mission reaches someone who then wants to join the church, she must hand over the task of baptism to a (male) member of the priesthood.
At Sunday services, called sacrament meetings, women also play a lesser role. The bishop and his first and second counselors, all men, preside from an elevated stand at the front of the chapel. The sacrament of bread and water, blessed by 14-year-old male priests, is passed to the congregation on trays distributed by 12-year-old male deacons.
That dynamic, of course, should be familiar to Catholics; and Baptists, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and even Zen Buddhists have also wrestled with ordaining women. But none of those faiths ordain every adult and adolescent male, so that the sacred authority extends so powerfully and thoroughly into the household.
But the question of whether Romney shares the Mormon perspective on women’s proper role should be especially important to voters given the church’s history of political activism. Mormons fought tooth and nail against the Equal Rights Amendment, even excommunicating members of the church who publicly split on the issue.
More recently, the church took what The New York Times called “an extraordinary role” in passing Proposition 8 in California, the successful ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. Just this month, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Reno reported that David Twede, the managing editor of Mormon Think, said he’d been threatened with excommunication for writing critically about Romney.
And the church has interfered in smaller secular matters as well, even reportedly using its religious authority to tell the faithful which side to take in a local zoning fight.
For me personally, how women are viewed in the Mormon faith is important because I was raised in the faith and married within it. At a temple endowment ceremony held before my wedding, I was given a new name that I was to tell no one but my spouse so that he could call me by it and pull me through a semi-sheer veil (a curtain really) in an act that supposedly represented my path to salvation. Yet my husband was expressly forbidden from telling me his new name.
Romney, of course, has stressed that he would not take orders from Salt Lake City any more than John F. Kennedy would have done so from Rome. “The nature of my faith is not to have church officials tell you what to do,” he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press in 2007.
But unlike almost any other high elected American official who’s also a person of faith, Romney has been a leader of his church, not simply a congregant—having stood at the front of his Massachusetts congregation and presided as a stake president for the region. He hasn’t simply absorbed and followed church policy in his own life, but has enforced it in the community of believers.
And, of course, Mitt is the son of former auto executive, Michigan governor, and presidential candidate George Romney—who was also a bishop, leading the church’s Detroit congregation.
So I’d like to know: does Romney see women as innately subject to the authority of men? Would he dismiss women’s issues like contraception as distracting, shiny objects, as one of his senior campaign advisers did in June?
Marion G. Romney—a first cousin of George who was a former member of the First Presidency of the Church, its highest authority—famously related the instructions he’d received from the Mormon prophet:
“Always keep your eye on the president of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.”
In his 2007 interview with Russert, Romney said that he “literally wept” when the church finally allowed black men to join the clergy in 1978. (That same year, the church lifted a 1967 ban on women offering prayers at sacrament meetings.) Black people, the church had taught, had been cursed by God and were not allowed to enter the priesthood. That curse was lifted by a new divine revelation in 1978, serendipitously received just as the political pressure on the church had become crushing.
While Romney may have wept, as he said, when the church finally stopped discriminating against blacks, he never spoke publicly about the policy before it changed. Nor did he speak about it afterward until telling a national television audience about his private tears nearly 30 years later. But he was at least being questioned about it.
To my knowledge, he has never been asked about or publicly discussed the status of Mormon women.
I would like to know just how different his views are from those of the now-deceased Hinckley, whom Romney spoke with privately—reportedly about “whether a run would be good for him and the church”—before launching his first presidential bid in 2008.
Mike Wallace pressed Hinckley—whom believers considered to be a living prophet, God’s representative on Earth—on the subject of women’s rights in their 1996 encounter:
“Now that blacks can be priests, the current issue is whether Mormon women will ever be priests?”
“Men hold the priesthood in this church,” Hinckley said.
“Because God stated that it should be so. That was the revelation of the church. That was what was set forth.”
So, the leader of the all-male Mormon church priesthood, a living prophet, says that a male God has declared that He only wishes to speak to men. Doesn’t it sound a little too convenient?
At the end of his interview with Hinckley, Wallace said: “There are those who say: ‘This is a gerontocracy. This is a church run by old men.’”
Hinckley smiled: “Isn’t it wonderful?”
With the first presidential debate nearly here and the election just weeks away, it’s high time Lehrer—or really any journalist covering the campaign—asks Romney if he feels the same way.