Sally Denton's NYT critique of Mormonism is only 335 words long. But it will probably still be helpful to sum up the core argument so we don't get bogged down in the snide remarks, scare quotes, and disorienting description of church president Thomas S. Monson, who can't finish a talk without getting the audience to laugh at least three times, as "stern."
Denton's thesis seems to be this:
"Mormonism is a valid issue of concern not as a religious test for office, but for its most distinctive characteristic — male authoritarianism."
Translation: It's wrong to vote against someone because of their religion--unless their religion has a male priesthood.
And her "so-what" clause is this:
"Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect."
Translation: the piece's thesis doesn't apply to JFK and the six sitting Supreme Court Justices who are Catholic, because they just go to their church, whereas Romney actively participates in his.
This argument is not entirely crazy. She's probably correct that Americans should be concerned IF the following two implicit assumptions are true:
1) Mormon male Priesthood leads to the marginalization and oppression of women.
2) Romney's government leadership style will be the same as a Priesthood leadership style.
Fortunately, as I will now attempt to show, Americans can rest easy because both of those assumptions are wrong.
My thesis will be this: Because Mormon church culture is a cooperative culture rather than a competitive culture, male priesthood is actually a good thing for women. And because American government is based on a competitive culture, Romney's religious leadership style is unlikely to successfully transfer in any case.
Sally Denton's Fishbowl
What do I mean by "competitive culture"? I mean a culture that highly values individuality and success and structures itself around those values.
Think of your experience in school. You were probably taught, starting at age five, to stay in your own seat, do your own work, and not to even touch people around you without getting express permission from them and the teacher. Within a few years, you were earning grades which were designed to measure your individual quality (of intelligence or hard work or competence or something--it may never have been clear exactly what, but there was certainly success, mediocrity, or failure expressed in a grade that was yours and yours alone). By high school, you were probably even getting a class rank that told you exactly where in the pecking order of personal achievement you stood--you got to find out exactly how many people were ahead of and behind you. You were supposed to feel good when you saw how many people were behind you and ambitious when you saw how many people were ahead.
I think it's safe to assume that Sally Denton's educational experience was like this. It's probably also safe to assume her work experience is like this: the rewards change from grades and certificates to promotions and bonuses, but the principle is the same. Compete. If you can outperform the people around you, you will be given status, attention, and power. That's how America works, and for goals like increasing productivity, it works really well.
It does not work well, though, for showing you how Mormons think about their church lives. You see, since Ms. Denton lives in a fishbowl of competitive culture, she assumes that's how everyone lives all the time. To her, the church is a "multibillion-dollar business empire." A corporate empire which keeps women from getting on even the first rung of the corporate ladder. (No wonder she thinks our leaders are a bunch of power-hungry old male #^%$%s!)
What Ms. Denton doesn't know is that you cannot build a corporate ladder to heaven. Competitive culture and Mormon religious organization have almost nothing in common.
A Crash Course in Cooperative Culture
Remember Ms. Denton's stirring final line: "Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect"?
To anyone who really knows Mormon organization, it's almost laughably absurd. For us, one of the distinctive traits of Mormonism isn't "male authoritarianism" it's the absence of a permanent distinct between clergy and regular members. "Not just a member" means almost nothing to Mormons, because every member--male and female--is supposed to have some sort of formal church position/assignment--which we refer to as a "calling"--at any given time. It's not shepherds and sheep: we, like sheep, all go astray, and so we all chip in to the work of shepherding: in different ways at different times throughout our lives.
Calling Romney a "high church official" is equally laughable, because his current callings are probably just "home teacher," meaning he's supposed to visit three or four families once a month to share an inspirational message and see if they're OK, and possibly something low-pressure like "assistant family history consultant," which would primarily involve helping kids work with their grandparents to do genealogy on a computer.
Behold the menace of Romney's crushing male authority.
Yes, Mitt Romney's calling was "stake president" in the late 1980s and early '90s, before he was even a registered Republican. That means he "presided over" several individual "wards." Now, usually the press refers to "wards" as "congregations," but since most Protestants only have "congregations," the press likes to use the Catholic term "diocese" (as opposed to "parish") to explain what a stake is. Which makes them compare Romney to a Catholic bishop or cardinal--you know, the kind of person who gets to wear a fancy ceremonial hat. And they often mistakenly assume that if you're the kind of guy who's at hat-level, you don't just become fourth Sunday organ player the next day. Because in a competitive culture, where promotions are a reward for an individual job well done, moving someone from the "top" to the "bottom" would be a terrible insult.
But, my dear brothers and sisters of the press, Jesus was famously tricky on the subject of "top" and "bottom." He said you're really only a big deal if you know how to be as small as a little kid. He said that in the kingdom of God, first is last and last comes first. He said that in the temple, a widow's $290 weekly paycheck is worth more than $20 million. And Mormonism has fully embraced that particular aspect of Jesus' strangeness. My grandfather was a stake president for several years--and then one day, he was thanked for his service and asked to accept a new assignment working with a handful of 11-year-old scouts. But it didn't bother him, and similar changes don't bother most Mormons, because we genuinely believe that all the work matters to God. How "high" or "low" a church assignment is doesn't matter--what matters is putting your heart, mind, and soul into it.
We have, you could say, a "cooperative culture"--one that values community and relationships over individual excellence. We are motivated more by the altruistic high of service and the intangible wealth of our deepening bonds with each other than by the egoistic satisfaction of getting to call the shots. You can criticize a cooperative culture--or let Nietzsche do so for you--but you should criticize it for being cooperative, not for slights it would have committed were it structured according to a totally different value system. You can say that Mormons are still living with an almost tribal mindset at the dawn of the 21st century, but you can't complain about a glass ceiling in a system that doesn't involve any "up" and "down" when it comes to job shifts.
Power and the Priesthood
As I've mentioned, millions of women have callings in the church. They preach, they teach, they sit on administrative councils, they entirely make up the presidencies of at least three church organizations. But women cannot be ordained to the earthly priesthood. On the most basic level, this means that women do not baptize, do not bless the bread and water that remind us of Jesus' sacrifice, do not serve as bishops (leaders of wards) or stake presidents. Women cannot be called as apostles or as the presiding prophet of the church. Not having the priesthood also means that women can pray for the sick, but don't anoint them with consecrated oil and bless them. And it means that for one of the three hours of our Sunday church meetings, men meet in one place as members of priesthood organizations, while women meet in another place as members of the worldwide, all-female Relief Society.
From the lens of a competitive culture, where independence, personal competence, and prestigious positions are highly valued, a list of things you can't do or positions you can't hold based on gender seems horribly restrictive. But according to the Pew Research Center poll the NYT debate is ostensibly responding to, only 8% of U.S. Mormon women say they think women should have the priesthood, a number significantly lower than the 13% of U.S. Mormon men who say women should be ordained to the priesthood.
Maybe Sally Denton did read those numbers and just assumed that Mormon women are either stupid or masochistic and need someone outside the culture to fight their battles for them. Which is actually what makes me (stern male dominator that I supposedly am) a far better Mormon feminist than Ms. Denton--you see, I actually respect and listen to Mormon women. I try to figure out what matters to them.
The impression I get from my listening is this: Mormon women already feel like they have a lot to do. And because Mormonism is a collective culture, they take no particular pride in doing everything on their own. Many of them may have wondered what it would be like to bless the sacrament bread or give a priesthood blessing to a sick child, but they would far rather have good men around them to help do those things than the power and obligation to do them on their own.
I saw this recently while reading through fiction submissions for the Mormon Lit Blitz Contest. In one story, a husband gets up at a testimony meeting to tell the whole ward how perfect his wife is. And she sits in her seat, seething, because she feels like he consistently puts her on a pedestal as a way of transferring responsibility for the spiritual life of their home entirely to her. If she's so good and righteous, he doesn't have to do anything. In the story, she tries and fails to express this to him in various ways until she finally resorts to buying a coffee maker and brewing coffee in the home as a way to shock him out of thinking she should manage everything on her own and into sharing a little more of the responsibility for their religious life.
Though the story is fiction, I think it captures a common attitude about real life. Mormon women love the male priesthood partly because it commits men to take an active role in family and church. Most Mormon women are capable of being extremely independent when necessary, but they would rather be harmoniously interdependent whenever possible. And they don't see priesthood power as a threat to their own power, because in cooperative cultures, power is not a zero-sum game.
I've heard Mormons make the argument that men's and women's roles are different, but equally important, and I've heard non-Mormons respond that it sounds like the old segregationist "separate but equal" talk. The truth about Mormon men and women is that we're not separate at all: the differences between Priesthood and Relief Society help draw us together when we might otherwise drift apart.
And since the possibility of men and women drifting apart from each other has hardly disappeared with the dawning of the twenty-first century, we still aim for gender relations that are close and complementary.
So how would this affect Romney as hypothetical U.S. President?
To review: if you understand that Mitt Romney comes from a cooperative church culture, you shouldn't view the maleness of our Priesthood or his time as a stake president as ominous warning signs of deep-rooted sexism. In fact, you should know that he's probably disproportionately likely to have a good marriage even against the temptations and pressures that come with packed schedules and prestigious positions--because even as U.S. President, he'd have a priesthood obligation to be an emotional presence in the home and support to his wife.
But a cooperative church and home culture doesn't mean he'll suddenly be changing the administrative culture of the executive branch.
Look: I'm Mormon, and I even work at a church-owned university. But it's still a modern university, so all the cooperative culture of my religious life gets pushed behind the competitive procedures of the school. I would never dream of giving grades at church, and would be scandalized if I heard of a teacher in priesthood meeting trying to motivate class members that way. But that doesn't stop me from giving grades at school, which is something I get paid to do-- and also use a stick and carrot to defend my assignments from Facebook and other teachers' homework. I also get "grades" in the form of student ratings. At church, I'd be most concerned with what the average performance is as a measure of how we can do better collectively, but at work I barely pay attention to where the average is--I'm just happy whenever I'm above it. I'm happy to be an independent individual and pursue individual excellence and compete with other people in my profession.
So I very much doubt a hypothetical Mormon President would even bother to try reorganizing his or her administration around cooperative values. Any attempt to do so would be doomed by the inertia of competitive values: they shape far too many goals and procedures.
Which means that you should neither vote against Romney because you dislike his church's organizational culture nor vote for Romney because you like his church's organizational culture.
In the end, politics has its own gravity. And in the black hole of the White House, the values of politics will almost certainly trump the Jesus-strange mindsets and traditions of our religion.