THE BLOG
07/02/2014 02:57 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

Kate Kelly, the LDS Church, and the Problem of Mormon Feminists

George Frey via Getty Images

Last week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated Kate Kelly for leading a movement to open up the church's male-only priesthood to Mormon women. Kelly received word of her excommunication via email from her bishop, Mark Harrison, of her LDS stake in northern Virginia. Convicted of apostasy, Kelly read in the email that she had been excommunicated "for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church." Although she may still attend LDS services, Kelly will not be able to take the sacrament, hold church positions, speak or pray in church, wear sacred LDS undergarments, contribute tithes, or vote for church offices. If Kelly hopes to be readmitted to the church, she must "demonstrate over a period of time that you have stopped teachings and actions that undermine the Church, its leaders, and the doctrine of the priesthood... and you must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the Church," Harrsion's email advised.

It is unlikely Kelly will meet those restrictions. Kelly, 33, created her organization, Ordain Women, in 2013 and quickly became a focus of controversy for the LDS Church after she attempted to lead hundreds of Mormon women into the all-male priesthood session of the church's semiannual General Conference meeting in October 2013 and again this past April. In anticipation of the second attempt and in response to their general demands for the priesthood, the LDS Church told Kelly and other Ordain Women leaders in March that they stood outside the consensus of Mormon women. "Women in the church, by a very large majority," an LDS spokesperson informed them, "do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme."

LDS leaders are right that Kelly's position is a minority one among Mormons. But in her battle and excommunication with the church, Kelly joins a small but notable list of Mormon feminists who have paid the religious price for their personal convictions. Kelly's case highlights the LDS Church's ongoing struggle with the question of women's equality within the faith even as it is set against the church's recent adjustments and advances for its women.

Those advancements, such as the recent occasion of the first woman to pray at a General Conference meeting, may seem insignificant to outsiders, but they have marked important developments for a church often resistant to change where women are concerned. Still, these moves may have only added to the confusion for some Mormon women facing a church that seems to promote its feminist members (see here and here) while being far more uncomfortable with feminism.

Since the 1970s, the LDS Church has confronted feminism on unsparing terms. The case of Sonia Johnson, a homemaker and organist for her LDS ward in northern Virginia, set the precedent for the church's dealings with its outspoken critics and shaped the most recent transactions with Kate Kelly. In 1978, Johnson attracted Mormon censure when she organized Mormons for E.R.A., a small grassroots organization of Mormon women who worked against the church's anti-Equal Rights Amendment efforts. After appearing on the Phil Donahue show, testifying before a Congressional committee, and delivering an address on "Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church" to the American Psychological Association, Johnson was excommunicated. Johnson's bishop informed her that her views on the E.R.A. had not brought about her excommunication. Instead, she had been removed from the faith because she was "not in harmony with church doctrine concerning the nature of God in the manner in which He directs His church on earth." Johnson had claimed she had received a revelation from God that the LDS Church should support the E.R.A., a direct contradiction to LDS President Spencer W. Kimball's statements against the amendment and a challenge to his prophetic status.

Kate Kelly has not made such bold claims about her movement. Instead, her organization has asked LDS leaders to take the issue of women's ordination "to the Lord in prayer," a request that both affirms the LDS hierarchy's authority and Mormonism's belief in continuous revelation. As one member of Ordain Women recently pointed out, Mormons have been encouraged by their leaders to ask tough questions as a means of moving the church forward. "If we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the spirit," Dietrich F. Uchtdorf, a member of the church's First Presidency, said in 2012. But the church has pushed back at Kelly's questions. In a statement to the news media following Kelly's excommunication, LDS spokeswoman Ally Isom advised, "there is room to ask questions. But how we ask is just as important as what we ask. We should not try to dictate to God what is right for His Church."

That LDS leaders see some questions as acts of rebellion rather than spiritual seeking hardly puts them in a unique position. Religious officials from all faiths have a long history of squashing entreaties from below. Still, the content of Kelly's petition is surely as relevant as its form in terms of the LDS Church's response. In asking for total equality in the church through the granting of priesthood for Mormon women, Kelly's movement has struck at the heart of Mormon theology and its particular brand of patriarchy which recognizes male headship in the church and the family as essential elements for salvation. Women secure their exaltation to the Celestial Kingdom, the highest realm of the Mormon afterlife, through a temple marriage to a priesthood-holding man. If LDS women could hold the priesthood themselves, it would bisect the question of salvation from the obligation of marriage, the most fundamental sacrament of Mormonism. Perhaps even more revolutionary, if Mormon women held the priesthood they might ascend to the church's highest leadership ranks as "prophet, seer, and revelator."

LDS leaders won't let that happen. There is too much history and too much theology tied into the male priesthood for the LDS Church. The question that remains, then, is what this means for the thousands of Kelly's supporters in the church. Like Kelly, they have promised to maintain pressure on church authorities, to keep asking questions on behalf of women's equality. But the church is demonstrating that Kelly's is not an isolated case; recently, more than a dozen Mormons have faced or are facing discipline, including excommunication, for publicly questioning church doctrine, including women's ordination. Still, more reports have surfaced that less visible Mormons have encountered strong questioning and pointed reprimands for supporting the priesthood for women. Kate Kelly's parents had their temple recommends, the cards that grant Mormons access to church temples where they perform sacred rituals essential for salvation, revoked by their bishop for refusing to renounce their daughter's actions. These are the same tactics LDS leaders used to quell the pro-E.R.A. movement among the LDS grassroots in the 1970s; Sonia Johnson's mother also had her temple recommend threatened for supporting her daughter. Dozens of other pro-E.R.A. LDS women lost theirs, faced church disciplinary committees, or suffered excommunication. In almost no time at all, Mormons for E.R.A. withered and Mormon feminists went underground, resurfacing in the early 1990s before another round of public excommunications against a group of Mormon feminists in 1993 provided another brutal setback to the movement. "We do not need more members who question every detail," a high-ranking LDS official admonished in a church address shortly after that scandal had settled.

This time, Mormon feminists will probably not go away as quietly. There is a vibrant and active Mormon blogosphere where Kate Kelly and the issue of women's ordination enjoy strong support, a real contrast to the pre-Internet days where Mormon feminists quietly called one another and often exchanged anonymous letters, fearful their names would be found by church leaders. The Ordain Women Facebook page has been a hotbed of activity, with nearly 5,000 followers.

The LDS Church will likely permit such expressions to continue, publicly disciplining the most vocal activists and privately curtailing the less visible offenders. All institutions must make peace with their competing constituencies, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no exception. Still, the LDS Church is not a democracy, no matter how much the church depends on the laity, and it will not suffer challenges to its authority silently, particularly from women making claims to their rights. As a church official said during the controversial General Conference meeting last April, "Latter-day Saints surely recognize that qualifying for exaltation is not a matter of asserting rights but a matter of fulfilling responsibilities." For nearly 200 years, the responsibility of LDS women has been to accept that they do not have a right to the priesthood.