Leadership of the Church: Help Us Change

The publicity around the wear pants to church day hit its zenith yesterday: it got covered by the New York Times.  I don’t think anyone anticipated the media interest in this, but then I think the vitriolic response to it on Facebook was equally surprising.  At least I was surprised.

The NYT article is brief, lightly touching on both the reasons for the pants day and the negative responses to it.  It’s not unfairly negative toward the LDS Church, but I don’t think Church members will find it flattering, either.  The fact that women wearing pants to church in 2012 is an issue that provokes venom is enough of a rebuke on the overall membership, even without editorial commentary by the Times.

The Church cares about its public image.  A lot.  But no amount of “I’m a Mormon” ads on busses or the internet, no YouTube video, no Church-sponsored website, can get rid of the impact of articles in major newspapers that spotlight the darker sides of Mormonism.  I think the only way for the Church to avoid looking like a throwback is for its leadership to start rebuking the intolerance behind those nasty comments on Facebook.

And I don’t mean in a general, non-specific way.  Obviously the Church already teaches about charity and kindness.  I mean in way that puts tolerance, self-restraint, and kindness in the context of the diverse, modern world and Church we inhabit.  I do believe that the majority of the membership would never say the bilious things that got said about pants day, but the fact that lots of them did is a problem.  Just the fact that so many people felt threatened by pants is a problem.

We need cultural change.

And of course this is about more than a tiff on Facebook.  I’ve been bemused by the “I’m a Mormon” ads since they came out because while they do show a cross-section of members, they seem slanted toward those members that are actually rather rare in real life: the mixed-race family, the career woman, the man of color who makes his living as a musician.  Perhaps I misunderstand the intended audience, and the “I’m a Mormon” ads are as directed at the members as the general public.  If that’s the case then I’m happy the Church is doing something to engender tolerance.  But given the general MO of the Church – which is to put its best resources toward outreach – I think the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is made to make the world think Mormons aren’t weird.

But we are.  And one thing the pants day did is to bring some of that weirdness, the ickiest, usually hidden even from ourselves weirdness, to the fore.

Mormon feminism is not going away.  I don’t know what the next move for All Enlisted will be.  I don’t know if it will be them or another group that plans the next move that might get media attention, but when it happens, if the response to it is as weird and ugly as it was to pants day, the Church is going to continue to have a PR problem.

So this raises the important question of how much power to effect cultural change the leadership has?  Nate Oman’s post at Times & Seasons recently sparked a wide discussion on the bloggernacle about this very issue.  The discussion is too long and nuanced for me to summarize here (there are responses to Nate here, here, and here, and his own responses to those can be found here and here), but what it all boils down to is who is wagging whom?  I think the leadership does have the power to influence the things the membership thinks about, and how they think about them.  And if they want real influence in how the world thinks about Mormonism, they’ve got to try.  People can tell the difference between advertising and actual content, as Neylan McBain has pointed out.  And I hope when they do try, it will be because it’s the right thing to do, and not just because they’ve been embarrassed.


  1. “And if they want real influence in how the world thinks about Mormonism, they’ve got to try. People can tell the difference between advertising and actual content, as Neylan McBain has pointed out. And I hope when they do try, it will be because it’s the right thing to do, and not just because they’ve been embarrassed.”


  2. “People can tell the difference between advertising and actual content ….” Yeah, that’ s a great point. That’s why Mormon blogs continue to have some relevance: we’re content, not advertising. FAIR and FARMS (or what’s left of it) are a mixture of the two, which explains perhaps the ambivalence some feel toward them despite the helpful material they often publish.

  3. I find this whole episode with the pants kind of surreal. In one way it reminds me of Islamic traditions that tell women how to dress and thereby forcing them to wear burkas(I know I spelled it wrong) in public. Likewise, the rest of the tribe (Mormon men/women)who disagree with women asserting themselves in any way are called to repentance, or publicly shamed(internet), told they are not living gospel standards, where as in Islam a women would just be shot in the head, or beheaded, the intensity behind the people who don’t agree remind me very much of the control freaks in Islam.

  4. The answer to the question: Of course, the church leadership can change the church’s culture.

    It can do so most easily when we’re talking about simple behaviors that are easy to be specific about. Case in point: A few years ago, women’s earrings (or lack of more than one per ear) in a matter of days became a new standard of righteousness after President Hinckley mentioned his standard in an almost off-hand remark at a talk that wasn’t even directed at the entire church.

    It becomes comes more difficult when the leadership wants to change attitudes that aren’t quite so easily definable. But I do think, to use a current example, that U.S. church members’ attitudes have become a bit softer toward illegal immigrants as the result of positions and actions taken by the church leadership (including not denying temple recommends for the sole reason that someone is in the U.S. illegally). I don’t think the membership is entirely on board, but I think there’d be a stronger anti-immigrant settlement were it not for the church leadership.

    To me, there’s no question that the leadership can change the culture. Whether it wants to is another matter.

    • Yes but going from two earrings to one is a change that feminists don’t agree with, and they also are offended often on the subject of modesty and the way is taught. I believe they are only interested in the leadership changing things that offend them. I was dismayed by pants day, from both sides of the issue. It is interesting to me that on this blog the response is the problem and not the initiators.

      • Honey, I’m not sure what the basis is for your assumption that feminists don’t agree with the two earring “rule.” Can you be more specific?

        I agree that there are many LDS feminists (but not all) who think that the way modesty is discussed in the LDS church (focusing on girls being responsible for boys’ sexual urges) is problematic. Am I offended? No. I just think it’s problematic, and doesn’t get to root issues of why girls/women dress the way they do, how it impacts their self-esteem, and how it relieves boys/men of responsibility for developing mature and productive methods of self-control.

        I believe that most LDS feminists are interested in helping the church become a better vehicle to help people attain eternal life. In that context, of course we are going to try to change things that we find problematic. I also think that your use of the word offended seems to indicate more that you are offended by the actions of LDS feminists, as opposed to talking to actual LDS feminists about what they are concerned about. The fact is, the problem exists, and LDS feminists are not the ones who “initiated” it. Most of the LDS feminists I talked to, or emailed with, were not entirely onboard with the idea of a concerted effort to wear pants on this particular day. However, many of us quickly became concerned after the nasty responses of intolerant and cruel people who are ostensibly faithful members of the church.

  5. Nice post. I got a great deal of effective data. I have been watching this issue for awhile. By the way, have you seen much impact since Google made their most recent improvement?

  6. Emily U, I have really enjoyed reading your post, and the post over at T&S. I have long wished that the members of the church would take to heart the message that the “I’m a Mormon” ads have been promoting; specifically that we are a diverse church that should be welcoming everyone to come unto Christ. This idea dovetails nicely with your thoughts on who is doing the wagging in this scenario. It seems as if church leaders will not lead the church where the church members do not (on the whole) want to go. This makes it even more important for grassroots efforts among everyday members, in order to create a church community that reflects Zion.

    • I really loved that idea too, that maybe the “I’m a Mormon” campaign Could or Should be for Latter-day Saints themselves. I actually think that would make it an incredibly powerful message, because over and over again it is testimonies from our brothers and sisters who may have different experiences than us, that affirms, “I am a Mormon too. It is my Church too. I belong too.”

      I also agree that grassroots efforts are extremely important, in this, and other scenarios.

  7. For over 25 years I have been complaining, trying to talk about, suggestion, and what have you about the culture problem with the church membership, and leaders as well. I have been shunned, gossiped about, had hateful things said to my face, you name it.
    I have been outspoken on many things and am ostracized and me and my family treated badly.
    I have almost quit the church. I have not spoken in anger or used less than friendly tones.
    There was one time I was angry because some 16 year old boys ganged up on my just turned 12 year old daughter and it was dismissed as boys will be boys. That had me yelling in the Bishop’s office. That was the last straw, and I could no longer stomach my ward. I am tired of the high school mentality of the members and the holier than thou attitudes.

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