Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Saturnalia...I Mean Christmas!

Christmas is probably my favorite holiday.  Sometime around the beginning of December, the world around me is transformed.  Everywhere, there are lovely multicolor lights and ornaments, fragrant evergreen trees and boughs, spicy mulled wine, meats and pies and many other sumptuous Christmas goodies.  There is incense in the air, and everything shimmers gold and silver and red and green--it is, simply, wonderful.  And people everywhere (or most people, anyway) are in a mighty festive mood.

This is why the idiotic “war on Christmas” that Fox News rolls out like a right-wing “best-hits” album year after year is not just tedious and stupid, but also mean and stingy.  What they seem to be saying is:  if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, then (sorry) you can’t legitimately celebrate Christmas (no Christmas trees and presents and pudding for you, heathen!).  The Fox News trolls are horrified and really OFFENDED if you even try to join in the reindeer games at all, sans baby Jesus lying in a manger.  You  better put Jesus Christ right back into Christmas, buster, or else!

It’s as if Christians have a patent on the Christmas tree and St. Nick and all of that.  But just wait a hot second: Christians actually STOLE the holiday from the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—and the Persian sun god of Mithra whose birthday was on December 25, and... okay, maybe we should back up a bit.

For all of the mushy-headed Fox viewers out there who take the comical "war on Christmas" meme seriously enough to get worked up over, it is worth pointing out that what is now celebrated as the birthday of Jesus is actually an amalgam of traditions from a pantheon of pagan winter festivals that predate Christianity—after all, the Bible is silent on the date of Christ’s birth, and most biblical scholars place it in the springtime rather than the dead of winter.   Further, early Christians had no tradition of celebrating Christ’s birth—either in winter or the spring.
That Christmas is an incoherent mush should be apparent from the weird collection of icons that are now widely associated with Christmas.  What, in fact, connects Santa Claus and his reindeer with Christmas trees and baby Jesus?  It’s an odd collection of traditions, you must admit, leading to some hilariously silly Christmas lore.  For example, in some parts of Central Europe, Santa Claus and the devil (the terrifying Krampus in Alpine countries) arrive together on December 6 (not Christmas eve) to bring candy for good kids and gold-colored birth branches for bad kids.  In some parts of German-speaking Europe, Baby Jesus Himself (the Christkind) brings presents on December 24.

The fact is that our Christmas traditions are a mix of pagan rituals from winter solstice festivals stretching from ancient Scandinavia to pre-Christian Rome, Persia and Greece.  Why December 25?  Because the ancients--with no understanding of the solar system and frightened about the disappearance of the sun and the death of plants and trees--worshiped sun Gods, believing that they had to appease these Gods in order for springtime and the sun (and the food that brings it) to come again.

For instance, the Norse pagan festival of Yule is likely the source of the Christmas tree.  For ancient north Europeans, evergreen trees (maintaining life year-round) appeared to have mystical life-giving properties.  So they brought evergreen boughs into their homes, later decorating them with silver and gold ornaments.  The Yule log was burned through for 12 days after Christmas.  These were later incorporated into the Christian celebration of the birth of their own sun God, Jesus, whose birthday was decreed to be December 25 by Pope Julius I in 350 AD.  It is widely acknowledged that this date was chosen to compete with, and undermine the popularity of competing festivals by other sun God cults, including the Persian sun God of Mithra and the Roman God of Saturnalia, both on December 25.  Also around this time were celebrations of the Mesopotamian God of Marduk's conquering of the forces of chaos and the Greek God of Zeus' renewed annual battle against the Kronos and the Titans.

The Roman festival of Saturnalia was the immediate progenitor of Christmas.  For centuries, the Romans celebrated a weeks-long Bacchanalian festival of food, sex, wine and raucous behavior in honor of Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture.  The aim was to appease Saturn in order ensure a good harvest for the coming year.  Naked singers went from house to house, thus begetting the tradition of caroling.  Meanwhile, the least favored citizens of the empire were forced to bring offerings to the emperor, thus the tradition of gift-giving.  The celebration expanded from December 25 to a week, as the people of Rome engaged in wild sex orgies, naked drunkenness and random raping for the duration of the official holiday.

Santa Claus is the clearest example of amalgamated pagan solstice festival traditions (with a touch of 20th century commercialism).  Nicholas was the bishop of the town of Myra in Turkey in the 4th century CE (and one of the senior conveners of the Council of Nicaea of 325 CE, which determined what would and would not be included in the Roman Bible).  A cult emerged around his person as someone who brought gifts to the less fortunate residents of the city.  Roman sailors brought the the cult to Italy, and it spread to the north where it was ultimately fused with the feared pagan God of Odin or Wodon—a wizened Norse God who rode his horse in the sky to keep watch on the activities of mortals below.  The Catholic Church merged the Christian crusader myth of Nicholas with Wodon to make Christianity appealing to the Germanic pagans. 

 Thus, the gift-giving, reindeer-riding, North pole-dwelling St. Nicholas was born in the 19th century.  The image of the bright red and white coat came from a 1931 advertising campaign of the Coca Cola company, whose executives insisted on the red and white scheme of Santa, which they hoped would promote the Coca Cola product.  Thus, the modern-day image and story of St. Nicholas.

 Today, Christmas is literally celebrated around the world.  Although the bulk of the celebrations are concentrated in Christian countries, Christmas is celebrated by non-Christians as well.


I took this picture last year during my winter break trip to Southeast Asia.  This is a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the famous Petronas towers.  I had never seen more elaborate Christmas decorations or more dedicated Christmas festivities.  Although the country is nominally Muslim, Christmas is actually an official public holiday and celebrated by people everywhere with decorated trees, gift-giving and Santa hats.

If a Muslim (and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist) nation of people celebrates Christmas as a secular holiday, this shows that Christmas truly is, once again, a secular festival.  Non-Christians have borrowed Christmas back from the Christians.  Just as it should be.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Maybe Women Really Should be Running the World

By now we’ve all heard the grim statistics suggesting that women are more robust than men. Males are more likely to die than females at every stage of life, including in utero; boys disproportionately suffer from autism and dyslexia and an assortment of behavioral disorders. They also have weaker immune systems, and are far more likely to die of heart disease and cancers that affect both men and women.
We’ve also heard the gloomy statistics testifying that men are falling behind and down vis-à-vis their female counterparts in the workplace. More than half of all college enrollees worldwide are now women; women dominate American colleges and professional schools, with three women for every two men who earn BAs. As of 2010, there are now more women than men in the American workforce, and of the fifteen job categories projected to grow in the 21st Century, all but two of these are dominated by women.

Such trends suggest that women possess certain advantages in the job market as we move ever further into the post-industrial information age. Increasingly, the unionized blue collar jobs of the industrial sector that favor men have been replaced with white collar or service sector jobs that require multi-tasking, social intelligence, communication skills, diplomacy, teamwork—skill-sets disproportionately possessed by women. The relative advantages that women are coming to enjoy in the labor market grow ever more pronounced with declining gender discrimination and as more progressive family leave legislation give women greater opportunities to compete with men on an even playing field.

Women may also be better at running governments than men.

In repeated studies, women have been shown to have a lower tolerance for corruption: a cross-national statistical study has shown that women pay fewer bribes than men, and that the level of corruption in a country is lower when women have a greater share of parliamentary seats, high-level government positions, and make up a higher portion of the labor force. Another World Bank Report conducted analysis on 150 countries around the world, demonstrating that the higher the percentage of women in government, the less corrupt that government is likely to be.

A few countries (essentially wrecked by men) have tried the experiment of putting women in charge. Michael Lewis’ new book, Boomerang, describes the financialization of Iceland’s economy when the men of the country left their jobs in the fishing industry en masse to take up positions as bankers. As a result of their shenanigans, the country’s financial institutions were leveraged to the hilt, ultimately collapsing the currency and pushing the country into default when the main banks failed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Says Lewis:

One of the distinctive traits about Iceland’s disaster, and Wall Street’s, is how little women had to do with it. Women worked in the banks, but not in the risk-taking jobs. As far as I can tell, during Iceland’s boom, there was just one woman in a senior position inside an Icelandic bank. Her name is Kristin Pétursdóttir, and by 2005 she had risen to become deputy CEU for Kaupthing in London. ‘The financial culture is very male-dominated,’ she says. ‘The culture is quite extreme. It is a pool of sharks. Women just despise the culture.’”

Pétursdóttir left well before the meltdown and started a bank of her own “with feminine values.” According to Lewis, this is one of the few profitable financial insitutions remaining in Iceland. The male PM—widely reviled for failing to prevent the crisis, was also ousted—and the country voted in the female-dominated Social Democrats and Iceland’s first openly-gay female prime minister who campaigned on the promise to end the “age of testosterone.”

Elsewhere, women have played key roles in democratic transitions, postwar reconstruction, reintegrating combatants, and promoting ethnic reconciliation. Rwanda offers one of the starkest illustrations of the critical role of women in these processes. When the 1994 genocide wiped out 10 percent of the population, women became 70 percent of the country’s population, catapulting them for the first time into positions of leadership. Today, women are equally represented in the government and have headed up numerous reconstruction initiatives:

Quite simply, [women] are the majority constituency and the most productive segment of the population. Rwandan women play a vital role not only in the physical reconstruction, but also in the crucial task of social healing, reconciliation, and increasingly, governance.

Over the past decade, there have also been salient examples of women whistleblowers in government and business. This is particularly noteworthy given the relatively low percentage of women who occupy high-status positions in either field. The financial collapse of 2008 might have been prevented had Brooksley Born, the head of the Commidity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under the Clinton administration, won her battle against the combined forces of Greenspan, Rubin, and Summers to regulate the enormous financial derivatives market.

There was also FBI Agent Coleen Rowley, who testified before Congress about the agency’s failure to act effectively on intelligence that could have prevented 9/11. Sherron Watkins wrote the famous memo at Enron alerting Ken Lay to the corrupt accounting practices within the firm, and internal auditor Cynthia Cooper blew the whistle on similar shenanigans at Worldcom. Given that women make up a tiny portion of executives at major financial institutions (less than 5 percent), these individuals stand out all the more.

Women may even be better at running businesses than men. According to a recent Business Insider report, female-led companies are more financially sound, less risky, less prone to bankruptcy, and more likely to take care of their staff--laying off fewer employees during the most recent recession. Women also make better investors than men, earning more on average than men in the marketplace because they tend to be more risk-averse and less likely to trade on impulse.

Some have objected that these patterns ignore the possibility that women are shut out of old boys networks and therefore do not have the same opportunities to engage in graft or that women’s roles as caretakers in society have led them to adopt less risk-taking behavior. However, the fact remains that women tend to have a salutary effect on corporate and democratic governance. This suggests that increasing women’s participation in political and economic institutions is very likely to increase their transparency, accountability and efficiency—irrespective of whether the pro-social behaviors associated with women are rooted in social norms or evolutionary biology.

Before I am unfairly smeared as a man-hater, I wish to clarify that I am a big fan of men—some of my best friends are men and most of my role models are men. This is also not to say that all women have a salubrious effect on governance (see Katherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher), nor to overlook the examples of men who have sacrificed their own lives and private interests for the betterment of their societies (Nelson Mandela, Gandhi). It is merely a modest appeal to achieve a greater gender balance in the highest political and economic bodies around the world. Future generations of humans will thank us.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is Mitt Romney a Christian?

A question raised almost excluisively by conservative Christians, whether Mormons are also Christians is one that befuddles and even angers members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The question recently made its way into the GOP presidential debates, with Mormonism the faith of two of the current 2012 presidential contenders, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. I would argue that the question is as senseless as it is disingenuous. It is also entirely predictable, given the bigoted tendencies of the current GOP base.

Speaking in support of GOP Presidential Contender Rick Perry, Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress recently declared that

“I think Mitt Romney is a good, moral man...But I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.

In media follow-ups, GOP contenders Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain ducked the question of whether they thought Romney was a Christian, with Cain saying that “I believe they believe they’re Christians.” That Romney was not a Christian was openly insinuated by 2008 GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee.

The theological case for why Mormons are not Christian mostly boils down to the role of Jesus Christ in the Mormon cosmology. Mormons believe that Jesus is a separate person/God, distinct from God the Father. They also believe that both God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ were once mortal, just as we are today, and that in the afterlife (if we are worthy) we can eventually become Gods with our own worlds, populated with our own children. That is certainly a distinctive take on the New Testament and God’s plan for our salvation. Nevertheless, Mormons still accept the divinity of Jesus Christ and the critical role that his crucifixion played in the redemption of humankind. The Mormon Christ is the Christ of the New Testament, which they revere as sacred scripture.

Given all of this, it is hard to see why Mormons are so beyond the Christian pale, given that there is no unified cosmological view among the various Christian sects. Indeed, that is exactly why there are various Christian sects. Even the Catholic Church, the standard bearer of the Christian faith for millennia, has changed its view of the Trinity (among other things) over the centuries.

I argue that it is no more legitimate to ask whether Mormons are Christians than to ask whether any self-proclaimed Christian sect is Christian (as if there is some objective arbiter of what qualifies as Christian). Mormons are Christian after their fashion (unorthodox), just as any Christian church is Christian after their fashion. Whatever some Christians may believe about the right- or wrong-ness of Mormon doctrine, if a person identifies as a Christian and commits herself to following the teachings of Christ as set out in the Bible, that person has earned the right to call herself Christian. It is faintly outrageous to suggest that such a person isn’t really a Christian merely because the Mormon Christ is not consistent with one's own conception of Christ.

Refusing to acknowledge a person’s religious identity is a hostile act. And since Protestant Christianity is the dominant ethno-religious identity in contemporary American society, denying this label to other self-identified Christians is a way of policing the boundaries between the cultural dominant ethnic core of society and non-dominant ethno-religious groups in order to keep them marginalized. These out-groups and their unfamiliar, alien, and therefore hostile cultures are perceived as threatening to the national core and must be kept at a distance.

Besides being hostile, it is also fairly odd to question whether Mormons are Christians, given that Christ is central to all ceremonies in the Mormon Church and is routinely invoked in fasting and prayer. Every Mormon prayer concludes “…in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen”; baptisms are undertaken in the name of Christ, as is the weekly Sunday sacrament, where Mormons (like Catholics) bless and consume water and bread, which represent the body and blood of Christ. With this in mind, one might reasonably ask what Mormons have to do to prove to others that they are followers of Jesus Christ.

He is even in the Church’s name.

Called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints from its founding in 1830, the term “Mormons” was merely a slur invented by haters that ended up sticking. One would think that the name of the Church alone would serve as a reliable indicator of its orientation. Apparently not. Over the past several decades, the Mormon leadership therefore undertook a concerted effort to mainstream their image as a conservative Christian faith, emphasizing the strong family values in the Mormon Church as well as the centrality of Jesus Christ in their beliefs. They even redesigned the Church logo in order emphasize their Christian identity. Prior to 1995, at every Mormon meeting house, you could find the sign:



Church PR flaks later fiddled with the font to emphasize the Church's Christian identity:


The Church has made other PR overtures as well, for example, to get the media to refer to the entire name of the Church or by its abbreviation LDS rather than the more perjorative Mormon nickname (a futile effort, as it turned out). They renounced the doctrine of plural marriage (polygamy) in 1890 in return for Utah statehood because mainline Protestant activists didn’t like it; in 1978, in response to pressure by Civil Rights groups, the Church opened the priesthood to Mormon males of African descent (whom early Mormon doctrine had had banned from holding the priesthood). By the early 1990s, the Church had also excised the more cultish-seeming portions of the vows taken in temple ceremonies (including the marriage and sealing ceremonies) that had their roots in Masonic rites (Joseph Smith, the designer of these ceremonies, had been an enthusiastic a Free Mason).

Of course, what matters to many conservative Christians is the weirdness that announces Mormons as unbiblical and unsaved, possibly unholy or even Satanic. The Mormon doctrine that God was once a man is, for example, kryptonite to Evangelical Christians, who can barely tolerate such heresies. Secular Americans, on the other hand, mostly don’t give a crap, and that is what is rather funny about the whole thing. Mormons are like that kid in high school who tries to hang out with the popular kids (mainline conservative Christians), who make fun of him but tolerate him because he comes in handy for running errands (lobbying for a conservative agenda). When it comes down to it, though, the kid is unlikely to be chosen as Homecoming Queen or King.

In the end, this argument is not about abstract doctrinal subtleties, but about the fact that the Mormon Jesus does not resemble the Jesus of conservative (mostly Evangelical) Christians, therefore the Mormon Jesus is not Jesus at all, and Mormons are not Christians.

When Evangelicals question the Christian creed of Romney or Huntman, what they are basically saying is that Romney and Huntsman do not belong to the tribe. They may be better than the black Kenyan usurper currently in the White House, but they will always be vaguely suspicious to the Evangelical Christian base.

This is also, in a funny way, justice. For this is how many Mormons have treated Africans, feminists and gays. Many in the Mormon community view members of these groups as just as unfit for leading the country as do mainline conservative Christians, simply because of what they represent. Muslims and atheists are out of the question; their moral compass cannot be trusted, even if they (as individuals) have every appearance of moral rectitude. Since their fellow social conservatives have the same primordial method of selecting political leaders, it would make sense that Mormons (with a polygamous background and strongly differentiated cosmological beliefs) would be cast in the very same category of “Others” by their fellow GOP voters. Competing for the median bigot vote is a dangerous game when you yourself are not exactly a member of the tribe.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How Gay Marriage Hurts Conservative Christianity

Gay marriage has finally arrived. The growing recognition and acceptance of this fact across all segments of society is evidenced in rapidly changing poll numbers that indicate skyrocketing support for full marriage equality for gays. Since 2001, ten countries have legalized same-sex marriage, including Canada, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Iceland, Netherlands, and South Africa. Although same-sex marriage is not yet recognized in the United States at the federal level, six states now permit gay couples to marry (New Hampshire, Iowa, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts); numerous other states recognize the legal rights of gay couples that were married elsewhere. In general, gay rights are on the ascendant in America; attitudes on same-sex marriage are changing faster than any other social issue of our time.

Social liberals are heartened by these developments as a sign of growing societal progressiveness. At the same time, they are often bemused by conservative angst over gay rights, gay adoption, gay marriage—really the entire “gay agenda” that is “pushed” in our schools, government and now even our churches. What is all this Sturm und Drang over such a non-issue, liberals wonder? Even more than civil and women’s rights, legalizing gay marriage would seem to present a classic Pareto-improving solution, in which a new equilibrium (here, a legal norm) exists that would make at least one player (gays) better off while not leaving anyone (heteros) worse-off. After all, how can anyone reasonably argue that John and James’ homosexual marriage hurts Bill and Susan’s heterosexual marriage? And wouldn’t allowing gay people to marry do much to reduce the net amount of extra-marital fornication—something religious conservatives get very exercised over? Why, indeed, does it make any sense to support civil unions for gay people, but not marriage (Obama’s position as well as Romney’s—what actually is the big difference between the two?) If, as they claim, civil unions provide all the same benefits as marriage (they don’t), why not let gay people legally marry?

In sum, what is the big effing deal?

This post is aimed at social progressives rather than conservatives, since this is really only a puzzle for liberals who do not understand opposition to gay marriage. To liberals, blocking same-sex marriage appears to be little more than discrimination against out-groups while imposing traditional values on the rest of us. It is my claim, however, that social (and especially Christian) conservatives stand to lose a great deal if gay marriage becomes the law of the land. Gay marriage poses something like an existential threat to the conservative Christian moral universe and thus the integrity of their temporal and spiritual communities.

Well, they can just adapt, no? Like any other social institution, churches and other religious communities change all the time to reflect ever-changing social values and new scientific discoveries (although it may take a millennium or two to do it—I’m looking at you, Catholic Church).

The problem is that there is probably an upper limit to the adaptive flexibility of some churches and other religious institutions. This is because gay marriage challenges the bedrock principle of the traditional Judeo-Christian family—the basic building block of the wider communities in which conservatives live. There are at least three components to the traditional family structure:

(1) Patriarchal rule over the family

(2) Matriarchal and filial subordination to the patriarch

(3) Reproductive multiplication as the family’s raison d’etre

Of course, it is clear to all (social conservatives more than most) that we are no longer living in the 1950s. Divorce has become normalized, and no longer carries the stigma it once did. Single-parent (usually women) households are no longer stigmatized, even though they deviate from the idealized two-parent norm. Increasingly, childless couples and even gay couples—with or without children—are viewed as families with all the same rights as the Cleavers of TV-land.

To their credit, religious communities have begun to accommodate the changing face of the American family. The willingness and ability to adapt is not uniform, however. Conservative Christians have bucked the trend, fighting against growing societal tolerance and acceptance for unorthodox family structures--even as alternative family forms proliferate within their own communities. Two churches in particular have militated strongly against the movement toward legalized gay marriage--using their considerable resources to defeat state-level ballot measures to legalize gay marriage. These are the Catholic and the Mormon churches.

What do Roman Catholics and Mormons have in common? More than meets the eye, I assure you. Indeed, what sets these two churches apart from every other sizable church in contemporary America is that their leaders (the Catholic pope and the Mormon prophet) exercise absolute authority over their adherents, conveying ongoing instructions from God about how their congregants should navigate their most private affairs—from family planning to achieving a balance between the demands of work and home life. These servants of God are selected in secret by a small number of top church officials (the College of Cardinals and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, respectively). Beneath these leaders sit vast hierarchical structures based on patriarchal rule. The role of women in these ecclesiastical communities is generally confined to charity, education, child-rearing, cultural affairs, and family management. No special powers are conferred upon women to perform these roles.


It will be obvious to readers that both churches are marked not only by strict hierarchy, but patriarchal hegemony. Mormon leaders (bishops, stake presidents, regional authorities, Quorums of Seventy and the Twelve, not to mention the church presidency) and Catholic leaders (the pope, archbishops, cardinals, bishops, and priests) are all men. Without patriarchal rule—not only in the church, but in the family—the legitimacy of these institutions is cast into doubt.

The Patriarchal Family


Patriarchal rule is the core organizational principle of the traditional Judeo-Christian family and, by extension, the communities that are composed of these families. Simply put, patriarchal rule in society is a natural extension of patriarchal rule in the family--the later justifies the former. John Eidsmoe, a conservative Christian author, writes, "the basic unit of authority in human society is the family. The husband is the head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23), and children are to obey their parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:2)."


What is a patriarchal family? Nothing less than the executive authority of men over women and children in the household. In the Mormon Church, the link between patriarchal authority in the home and the community is most evident: every adult Mormon male in good standing exercises the “priesthood,” which means that he can anoint his wife and children to heal sickness or provide comfort or even instructions from God as to how to resolve a given problem. Women have no such authority, and their major life decisions are subject to review by men. GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann, an Evangelical Christian, subscribes to this view. In a public address, she explained how it was that she made her choices in life: “But the Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Bachmann’s husband instructed her to become a tax attorney, which she did, even though she “never had a desire for it.” In the end, however, she “was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband.


So what is the connection with gay marriage? Same-sex unions by definition disallow patriarchal rule. No man can dominate a woman in a gay partnership. Gay spouses are de jure (if not de facto) equal, due to the equal status of the partners' sexes. While it is true that patriarchal rule is also impossible in single-parent households, these do not constitute the same threat to heterosexual marriage as same-sex unions because single-parent households are understood to be incomplete or in transition. They can easily be transformed into patriarchal families with the simple addition of a member of the opposite sex.

Christian conservatives get that same-sex marriage undermines the naturalized link between marriage and patriarchal rule; once this link is broken, patriarchal authority will no longer appear natural or normal to their adherents, threatening the very foundations of conservative Christian churches and communities. Some years back, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future pope and advisor to John Paul II) issued a lengthy letter that railed against the "‘distortions’ and ‘lethal effects’ of feminism, arguing that "the obscuring of the difference . . . of the sexes has enormous consequences," including inspiring ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

Equalizing the status of women in the family is also anathema to Mormons, who fear that this would have consequences for patriarchal rule in the Church itself (extending the priesthood to women is inconceivable to the current Mormon leadership).



According to the Washington Post, a feminist theologian at Harvard Divinity School characterized Ratzinger's letter as follows: "It has some positive things in it, but the political function of the document is the same as the ones before...It's trying to make a theological case, which they're really not able to make, against the full equality of women in the church."

In fact, patriarchal rule is rooted in the very origins of the Church. The second Prophet of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, was very clear on the status of women relative to men. According to Young,I shall have women and wives by the million…and glory, and riches, and power and dominion(Journal of Disourses, Vol. 8, page 178).

This is not entirely dated thinking in the Mormon Church. As late as the 1980s, Mormon marriage ceremonies included the vow that brides "keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness. Each of you bow your head and say "Yes." In marriage ceremonies still today, the prospective husband grasps his bride in a “patriarchal grip." After marriage, they are then sealed to one another to be joined in the next life. In the process, their “eternal names” (the names they will have in the afterlife) are revealed to each of them. While the husband may not reveal his name to anyone, the wife must disclose her name to her husband, so that when they pass “through the veil,” he can summon her by name if he wishes to live with her in the afterlife; she may not call him. He uses the patriarchal grip to bring her through the veil into heaven.

While contemporary Mormons no longer speak of patriarchal “dominion,” their position on women is not far off: a woman’s primary responsibility is to her husband and her children—all other activities, including paid employment, are secondary in a Mormon woman’s life. Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve explained, "a woman should feel free to go into the marketplace and into community service on a paid or volunteer basis if she so desires when her home and family circumstances allow her to do so without impairment to them" ("Woman's Role in the Community." In Woman. Salt Lake City, 1979. p. 93). In other words, a woman may have a profession, if she must, so long as the needs of the family have been seen to.

Although the Mormon Church generally eschews active political involvement, it has made exceptions to oppose gay marriage legislation and, some decades earlier, the Equal Rights Amendment. What unites these two issues (gay and women’s rights) is that they are each perceived as a direct assault on patriarchal dominance, which is central to the Mormon faith.

Heterosexuality, Procreation, and the Family

Heterosexuality and procreation are also central to the traditional Judeo-Christian family. The Catholic Catechism states in part, “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (part II, section 2357). Instead of building families, homosexual persons are therefore ‘called to chastity.’

In traditional Christian communities, marriage exists for the main purpose of procreation. According to the Catholic Catechism, “The spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity. (2363).”


The Judeo-Christian family structure treats procreation as the central purpose of the traditional family--a position that informs the Catholic Church’s long-standing opposition not only to abortion (a position that predates Evangelical Christian opposition to abortion), but also to birth control. Promoting heterosexual procreation and preventing women from achieving reproductive rights both serve to bolster patriarchal authority in the family, and, by extension, their wider communities.

As noted above, the Mormon Church (along with Catholics and other conservatives) have vigorously opposed the ERA; the Mormon Church also opposes abortion (although not so vociferously as the Catholic Church, and their position on birth control is generally liberal—a possible explanation is that the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, may have used birth control and abortion to eliminate the evidence of his many clandestine “spiritual wives” before the principle of polygamy was revealed to the church membership).

Like birth control and abortion, gay marriage challenges the procreative raison d’etre of the family in the Judeo-Christian culture, as gay marriage unites individuals who cannot procreate with one another.

If homosexual partnerships (which forbid patriarchal rule and traditional procreation) are given the same status in American law as heterosexual partnerships, then the patriarchal ordering principle will become gradually outmoded in American family life, and hence American churches. It is for this reason that the Catholics, Mormons, and other conservative churches view gay marriage as their third rail.

The bottom line is that conservative opposition to gay marriage is less about discriminating against gay couples or shoving conservative values down the throats of secular Americans than the threat that it poses to the givenness of patriarchal authority in their own religious communities and thus to their moral universe. Simply, the health of these communities and the institutions around which they are organized hinges on the knee-jerk acceptance of patriarchal authority by their own membership. How long this retrograde principle will withstand the onslaught of increased secularization and egalitarianism of American society is anyone's guess.