Friday, October 12, 2012

Joanna Brooks Documents LDS Church's Savage Repression of Feminists, Scholars, and Gays in 1990s: Mormon-Catholic Parallels

In her book entitled The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (NY: Free Press, 2012), Joanna Brooks documents what happened in the 1980s and 1990s when she and other Mormon scholars (and Mormon feminists, and Mormons organizing to make the LDS church a welcoming place for LGBT persons) began to retrieve the strong feminist strands of Mormon history and thought that the church's all-male leaders had obliterated throughout the 20th century:

On August 6, 1992, at a gathering of Mormon liberals, artists, and intellectuals in Salt Lake City, Lavina Fielding Anderson, a sixth generation member of the Church, a feminist historian, and editor of the Journal of Mormon History, disclosed the existence of the Strengthening the Members Committee, "an internal espionage system" organized by Church elders in the 1980s to keep files on members perceived to be critical of the Church.   . . .  
In the spring of 1993, Lavina Fielding Anderson published in the Mormon journal Dialogue an article describing a growing pattern of "spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse" in the Church, wherein members critical of church authoritarianism were being subjected to ecclesiastical investigation and their church membership threatened. 
On May 18, 1993, Church leaders identified the objects of surveillance, when Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, delivered a speech to the Mormon All-Church Coordinating Council declaring that the three greatest "dangers" to the Church were the "gay-lesbian movement," "the feminist movement," and the "so-called scholars or intellectuals" (pp. 125-6).

As Brooks chronicles, from this point forward, the LDS church began to excommunicate one Mormon scholar, feminist, and supporter of LGBT human beings after another.  Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated on 23 September 1993--by an all-male church court, of course, in her local ward house.  She continued to attend her Salt Lake City ward each Sunday, but was not allowed to receive the sacrament.  She was permitted, if she wished, to play the piano in Relief Society, the only church calling permitted to nonmembers.

And as I read this history, and Brooks's anguished attempt during these years to hold onto some vital connection, any vital connection at all, to the church she loved and in which she had been raised, how can I not recall that it was in that very same spring of 1993 that I received an unexplained terminal contract at Belmont Abbey College, where I had taught theology for two years and chaired the theology department?

Where copies of a textbook on ethics I had written circulated in secret among the monks who owned the college, some of whom wrote marginal notations to point out my "errors" and departures from orthodox Catholic doctrine.  (And hardly any of whom had academic degrees in theology or even degrees beyond the bachelor's level.)  Where students told me they were quizzed by fellow Catholic faculty members intent on discovering the heresies I had been teaching in my classes.  Where the son of the faculty senate president informed other students that the faggot absolutely had to be fired, because what might happen if he were kept on the faculty and later put his arm around the shoulder of a male student?

Where, when I requested a hearing before the school's grievance committee to petition that I be provided a reason for my termination, the academic vice-president of the college took my personnel file and placed it in the hands of members of that committee (without my permission or knowledge, it goes without saying!), so that a monk on the committee could rifle through it for "evidence" that I was a malcontent who did not belong at his college.  As he informed me in just those words during the committee hearing, citing a letter I had written the school's v-p asking why the college would not permit me to write a grant proposal for funds to support its projected theology center, when I had an inside contact at a funding agency who would almost certainly give a large donation for this purpose.

As I step back from Brooks's painful story of her experience and that of Lavina Fielding Anderson and many other Mormon scholars, feminists, and supporters of their gay family members and friends in the early 1990s, I wonder what precipitated such fierce, such draconian, behavior in the top-down, all-male hierarchies of the LDS and Roman Catholic church at precisely the same period?  What precipitated the spying, the false accusations, the purges, the excommunications, the punishments, the silencing of scholars and intellectuals--with which both churches continue to live?

The answer, it seems clear to me, is precisely what Boyd K. Packer stated plainly in May 1993--the very same time in which I was going before the hearing committee of Belmont Abbey College to petition for a reason for my termination: the three greatest "dangers" to the Church are the "gay-lesbian movement," "the feminist movement," and the "so-called scholars or intellectuals."

All-male, top-down hierarchies simply cannot and will not abide questions about gender inclusivity, gender justice, justice towards gay and lesbian human beings, or scholarship that retrieves the rich traditions and histories of institutions that once comprised different, more welcoming and affirming stances towards women (and gay persons).  Because these institutions have now chosen to identify their very essence and mission in the world with gender exclusivity, male entitlement, and female subordination, they have no choice except to suppress as ruthlessly as possibly any and all questions that unsettle their present self-definition.

Even if this means destroying their intellectual class as savagely as the Soviet Union did under Stalin.

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