Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Beyond Mormon judgment in the temple

The Salt Lake Temple is illuminated at dusk in Utah. Photo by Manish Prabhune/Creative Commons

I went to the temple earlier this week, and it was (mostly) lovely.

It was my first time attending since major changes were made to the endowment ceremony (see here), and I found myself awash with gratitude for the adjustments. I was thinking about them quite a bit as I sat there, remembering the women who had gone through various, less female-friendly, versions of the ceremony. I was also praying for a few people I know who are sick or battling serious issues.

In other words, I was having a spiritually refreshing experience, by and large.

Until a woman sitting behind me poked me on the shoulder to whisper that my veil was twisted and needed to be fixed. Right then.

I was able to mostly ignore this by whispering back that the veil was not bothering me, but if she wished to untangle it from where she was sitting, she was welcome to try. She didn’t pursue it.

But the veil must have been pretty darn convoluted because after I had exited the celestial room after the session, one of the temple matrons actually called me back to her in the hallway because she had something to say.

Smiling all the while, she asked, “Now, I wonder if I can tell you something and you won’t be offended by it?”

Uh-oh. Just for future reference, can we not begin conversations this way?

I didn’t give her the nice-Mormon-lady answer she was obviously expecting (which, for the candid and healthy among us who do not make women swallow legitimate annoyance, was supposed to be: “Why, of course! I could never be offended by anything you wanted to tell me!”).

Instead, I told her I couldn’t make any guarantees about offense or non-offense until I actually learned what she had to say.

Then she took my veil in her hands and told me it was “all wrong,” and she was going to show me how to put it on correctly for the next time. Which she proceeded to try to do, and even she wasn’t able to (that veil has always been a bit wonky; I’m a cheapskate). It got her a bit flustered.

“Well, I don’t think this meant that you invalidated the ordinance or anything,” she said, handing back the obstinate veil. “I mean, I don’t think so.”

At this point I just stared at her. Of course a veil being twisted would not invalidate a holy ordinance, particularly an ordinance that has nothing to do with veils. How could she even imagine it would?

And that’s when my irritation began melting into something else, something like sorrow for this woman and the culture that produced her. What would it be like to walk through life as this sister? What would it feel like to be so afraid of judgment all the time—from other people and from God—that you default to the notion that even tiny and insignificant mistakes might threaten your eternal value in the eyes of heaven?

I’d like to say I was able to express all this in a kind way to her in the moment, but I don’t think it came out that well. I replied—probably a bit sanctimoniously, to be honest—that my heart had been very full with important matters in the temple, and that my clothing was absolutely not one of them. I told her to have a good day, and then I walked away to change into my street clothes, thinking all the while about women and judgment.

I’ve written before how, in the Next Mormons Survey research, we discovered that the #1 reason women cite for leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was feeling judged or misunderstood. It’s particularly high among younger women.

Overall, four in ten former Mormon women said judgment was one of their top reasons for exiting the fold, versus only about two in ten men. (For men it ranked sixth overall among thirty different possible reasons for leaving. So it’s not like men do not experience judgment or feel it has pushed them out the door, but not to nearly the same degree as women, apparently.)

Judgmental interactions, and the policing of women’s appearance, are all too common in patriarchal religious cultures. But when we hear the word “patriarchy” we tend to assume it’s all about how men control women, when the reality is far more complicated. Patriarchy rests on women themselves patrolling the boundaries of acceptable behavior for other women—and internalizing those boundaries in the deepest parts of themselves.

And it’s particularly tough for them when those boundaries suddenly shift.

It’s fascinating to me on a metaphorical level that it was my veil—a symbol of female submission—that was a stumbling block for not just one but two women I encountered in the temple. One of the changes that has just occurred in the endowment ceremony is that women no longer have to veil their faces even though they veil their heads; the overall message of many of the temple changes in aggregate is that women do not need male mediation when they approach God.

But maybe, this message is more unsettling than empowering for some. Adapting to sudden change can be hard. Sometimes our fear galvanizes the urge to police boundaries, judge others, and demarcate what is acceptable and unacceptable—especially for women.

I just wish it didn’t happen in the temple.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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