This is a little long. Bear with me. “Equality is not a feeling” has emerged as something of a slogan among some Mormon feminists. It’s offered as a reply to those who insist that many (most?) Mormon women feel loved and valued within the Church, aren’t pushing for radical reforms, or the like. These women don’t feel unequal. But, equality is not a feeling.
What might it mean to say that equality isn’t a feeling? It seems to me that there are two possible ways of understanding this claim. The first is that equality is an objective, empirical judgment rather than a normative or psychological judgment. This strikes me as wrong. Equality always involves normative judgment. To say that things are equal is not to say that they are the same. Rather it is to say that like things are being treated alike. We must make judgments, however, as to what makes two things alike. In doing this we pick out some characteristics as relevant and some as irrelevant. As Peter Westen noted more than thirty years ago in the context of constitutional adjudication, in arguments over equality it is our normative judgments about what to include and what to exclude – rather than the idea of equality or any brute empirical fact – that does all of the work.*
The second way of understanding the claim that “equality isn’t a feeling” is to say that it is a normative judgment, but one that does not depend on psychology. The Church treats women unequally because it conditions access to positions of power and influence on gender and this is unjust. The Church thus fails a criterion of legitimacy for social institutions. This is an objective judgment based on certain normative premises – it is unjust to condition access to positions of power and influence on immutable and unchosen characteristics; social institutions must act justly; etc. – that do not depend on anyone’s psychological reaction. Accordingly, the Church ought to change so that it behaves more justly toward its members.
This second way of understanding “equality is not a feeling” strikes me as far more defensible but I ultimately do not find it persuasive. Embedded within this argument is a liberal idea of justice and institutional legitimacy. As it happens, I am a big fan of liberalism. The ideas about liberty, equality, and their relationship to social and political institutions first developed in the 17th century and elaborated in terms of both philosophy and political and legal practice have been very good for society.
I do not believe, however, that the Church is or should be a liberal institution in anything other than an ad hoc way. Broadly speaking, we can think of liberalism as resting on one of two bases. On one hand, we could see liberalism as a response to the brute fact of moral pluralism. Historically, it arose in response to the post-Reformation wars of religion and the fact that western society was never going to return to the moral and spiritual unity of the middle-ages.** The response was to divorce public life from ultimate questions of meaning and identity. In the public sphere we would all have a thin, civic identity and only this thin civic identity could be considered by socially legitimate institutions. On the other hand, liberalism can be understood as itself making a comprehensive and universal claim. It reveals our true identity as free and equal agents deserving of a proper liberal respect regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves. The “thin” civic self, far from being a pragmatic response to moral pluralism in effect is our real self and rival conceptions of the self are simply mistaken.
The Church is not and should not be liberal on either of these senses. The problem with the first conception is that the value of the Church comes precisely from the thick stories of identity and the good life that it offers. Whatever the virtues of thin civic identities in our political lives or perhaps our economic lives, they lack the substance to provide us a meaningful account of our identity and place in the world. We need ideas like sin, redemption, soul, premortality, covenant, faith, suffering, doubt, despair, hope, and Zion. They are what the Church provides us. In the thin public space imagined by liberalism, however, they are supposed to be irrelevant. The problem with the second, more universal version of liberalism is its conceptual imperialism. It sets up claims of ultimate moral authority. It seems to me that to grant such claims is to run the risk of idolatry and apostasy. Authority lies with God and his revelation.
One way out of this conundrum is to argue that the gospel is itself a kind of liberalism in which human freedom and equality are valued above all else. The Book of Mormon provides some familiar proof texts for this approach:
[The Lord] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Ne. 27:33)
Wherefore men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. (2 Ne. 2:27)
Equality and liberty. It looks as though the core values of liberalism are embedded right within the gospel itself. There is certain some truth to this claim. Indeed, a short time ago I was at a conference on religious legal theory, and John Witte, one of the leading scholars of law and Christianity in the United States, when asked about Christianity’s contribution to the law insisted that it consisted of the legacy of universal human rights.
I fear, however, that simply identifying the philosophical tenets of liberalism with the core of the gospel is problematic. First, such a reading of the gospel strikes me as radically incomplete. It offers us no insights into the working of the soul, the problems of sin and temptation, redemption and repentance. It also obscures the working of community and Zion. It tends to confuse the Christian idea of love with the liberal ideal of respect in ways that tend to obscure the workings of the former by viewing it through the prism of the latter. Viewing the gospel as a species of liberalism also leaves us with a rather desiccated view of its possibilities. Rather than offering us unique visions of the eternities, it offers us a kind of confused and second-hand version of human rights. At its worst, this approach reduces the language and ideas of the Restoration to little more than a set of rhetorical tools to be employed within the odd subculture of Mormonism in pursuit of the broader moral ambitions of liberalism. At some point, one wonders what’s the point.
After the philosophical detour, I return to the original point. “Equality is not a feeling.” Mormon women are in fact excluded from positions of authority and influence in our community because of gender. This, I believe, presents problems. The problem does not arise, however, because it marks a failure of the Church as an institution to meet an objective criterion of legitimacy. It is a problem because it creates real pain and hardship in the lives of concrete individuals. This pain and hardship comes in two forms. The first is simply a matter of practical social organization. Even well meaning men will make many errors, avoidable errors, because they are not women and lack the perspective that would come from having the kinds of experiences that women have. The result will be administrative gaffs and worse, actions that cause pain that could be mitigated, I believe, if women had greater administrative authority. My conclusion, however, is contingent and empirical. I assume that women are also capable of errors, gaffs, and worse. I have no reason to suppose that a Church in which women had greater administrative control would be transformed dramatically for the better. Still, I think that it would ameliorate a number of problems.
Second, there are many women and men who, regardless of their personal experiences, feel a great sense of alienation from the Church because of its current structure. The source of this alienation lies precisely in the cognitive dissonance created between their allegiance to liberal notions of justice and their attachment to the Church. The failure of the latter to conform to the former, especially when one’s convictions about liberal justice are deeply and sincerely held, cause pain. One needn’t have any beliefs at all about the ultimate merits, structure, and limits of liberal conceptions of justice to acknowledge this fact. One needn’t concede the universalist claims of liberalism in its most aggressive formulations to acknowledge the reality of pain. And pain, especially the pain of fellow Saints, ought to matter. We have covenanted to comfort those that stand in need of comfort. We are supposed to minister to those that find themselves bleeding on the side of the road. Ultimately, what moves me in feminist criticisms of the Church are not the claims of abstract equality. It is the honest stories of pain felt and suffered. What matters about inequality is the feelings. One implication of this reaction is that if no one suffers pain, I care less.
This response suggests that both our conceptions of equality and justice and the Gospel are more local than we assume. From my perspective the pain and alienation of liberal Mormons results from the particular historical accident of their births and biography, the fact that they live in a liberal society and have imbibed its ethos. This is not to deny the validity of liberal ideals of justice, only to point out the intensity of our reaction to those ideals is historically and personally contingent. This is likely to offend those who see in their own psychological fervor allegiance to universal ideals of justice rather than accidents of history. There have been, however, many good and wise people who have not thought or felt as we think and feel.
Pain, however, even historically and culturally contingent pain is real and it ought to make claims on us, including claims for how we organize the Church and teach the gospel. We should, in so far as possible, be all things to all people. Paul wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22 NIV)
I have written elsewhere about the problems of a local faith. I think that in our eagerness to stand for principle and seek for truth, we are often embarrassed by a faith that in the specifics of how it is lived and organized is also a matter of historical accidents, of accommodations to the world in which we live. I think that the Church ought in so far as possible to accommodate the liberal sensibilities of its members for the same reason that I think that the gospel should be taught to me in English rather than Chinese. It is not that English is in some sense more cosmically true than Chinese. It’s simply that I speak and understand English but not Chinese. The problem, as Santanya put it, is that it is impossible to speak a language that is not a particular language. My suspicion of liberalism and in particular of liberal interpretations of the gospel is that they create the risk of identifying our particular ideological idiom with cosmic truth. The problem is that to the extent that cosmic truth comes to us, it always comes in some ideological idiom or another. All that we can hope for is sufficient charity and distance from the idioms of our time that we remain open to something unexpected from the Lord. This is also part of what the Church should do.
In part it is because I want to maintain that openness and in part because amidst the abstractions of justice and truth pain seems so much more real to me than principle, that I think that equality and inequality are feelings. It is those feelings, rather than an abstract standard of justice that matter.
* See Peter Westen, “The Empty Idea of Equality,” 95 Harv. L. Rev. 537 (1982).
** This is the historical story that liberal philosophers tend to tell. Historians are skeptical that the middle ages actually hosted the unified society imagined by the philosophers.