I was reminded recently that there is a folk belief amongst us Saints that I find particularly pernicious. It isn’t something that comes up all that frequently in Sunday School, but I’ve encountered it in more than one Mormon forum, usually whispered to emphasize the sacred and deep-doctrine status of said belief. I’m also hesitant to bring it up here, because it relies on temple language for its authority. But it occurred to me that people might want to use it to comfort or counsel people who are upset with the gender imbalance in the church. I’m convinced that it will only make things worse if used for this purpose.
The belief is this: Women are automatically saved to the celestial kingdom by divine decree. Sometimes people will add qualifiers, perhaps unconsciously recognizing the inherent lunacy of this belief. They may say that women must be endowed or be mothers to automatically qualify. They may say that they have to be sealed (that one, at least, has a foundation in scripture, although it has been explicitly denounced by at least one modern Apostle and, if true, it would apply equally to everyone being sealed). As I am not a believer in this abomination, I can’t say exactly why people believe this, but I have some ideas.
First, it is a way of explaining away gender inequities in priesthood application and administration. Sure, men have more power, but they also might not make it to the celestial kingdom. They have to use their power wisely and righteously, otherwise they will be terrestrial (or telestial) material. Secondly, the act of childbirth is the closest any person comes, spiritually or physically, to the act of the atonement in mortality. Because women can give life with their bodies, by means of shedding their own blood, this associated sacrifice is sufficient for them to earn entry into the celestial kingdom. Thirdly, women are just different from men, and by different, we mean better in practically every way, by which we mean they don’t have a male libido. Except when they have too much of one (the bed of a harlot being the path to hell and all that).
“But, John,“ you may say, “what is wrong with this doctrine? If God wants to give women (or certain women) a free pass to heaven, what is wrong with that?” Good question! Stop a moment and consider to whom else we tend to believe that God offers these free passes? Children. Animals (wild and tame). Missionaries. None of these are real people.
A real person is a person we believe culpable for their own mistakes. We respect them when they succeed, because we understand what it is to be tempted by sin and how hard it is to overcome temptation. We pity and comfort them when they fail, because we have also caved in to temptation. Real people understand us and we understand them. Real people are subjects in their own life, capable of choosing right and wrong and, therefore, valuable for their own sake. The choices of real people matter.
The choices of children and animals don’t matter in the same manner. We don’t really blame the child for stealing a bit of candy; we are more likely to blame the parent (the real person). We may kill a dog that bites, but we will charge the owner for the execution. Children and animals should be treated with compassion, love, respect, and dignity, children because of the potential that they represent and the animals because of the potential that we represent, but we don’t treat any of them as real people.
Missionaries are, obviously, a special case. Many missionaries have sacrificed greatly to serve missions and I’ve no desire to minimize their efforts. But missionaries aren’t real people because of how they have devoted themselves to Christ. We don’t treat them like regular people. We give them way more authority than we’d give regular 20-year-olds; we also trust them far more than we’d trust regular 20-year-olds. Obviously, missionaries are capable of sinning, but, for all but the greatest breaches of trust, we seem prepared to offer them a branch of forgiveness longer than what we extend to our fellow saints. They are like monks and nuns, separate from the world of real people, engaged in their own parallel lives.
If our choices don’t matter, if they aren’t capable of demonstrating a decision between eternal life and the second death, then, at most, we are actors in someone else’s play. To say that men can sin and that women can’t is to say that women are pretty much decoration in the lives of the men around them. Important decoration (the species must go on), but not full human beings capable of screwing themselves up. It renders the real spiritual striving and struggling of women into a pantomime, entertaining for some, but not adding up to anything. Women are, in this understanding, some sort of pet that men use to find a little comfort whilst on their sinful way.
I get it. When I used to listen to My Turn on Earth as a child, I always used to get Satan’s plan and Christ’s plan confused, too. The plan that meant we couldn’t sin so we could all be saved did sound better. But we were in fact sent to this earth to see how we’d keep the Lord’s commandments, with the knowledge that all of us but one would fail. How we fail, why we fail, and what we do about it: those are the things that make us real people. To rob women of that reality, so that one can feel a little better about one’s own participation in systemic inequality, is an act of solemn mockery before God. If I feel like the church doesn’t do enough to acknowledge women as people, independent of some man’s spiritual journey and spiritually significant in their own right, telling me that it is okay, because women will be saved and only men are given the opportunity to overcome in this life (or, according to this approach, ever), does not help because it means that women are basically children forever. This will not convince me that (a) sexism in the church is a-okay because my (assuming-I’m-female) bacon is out of the fire and (b) God isn’t a sexist jerk with no respect for 50% of the human race.
We came to this earth, male and female, to be tried and, when we fail, as we will, again and again, to apply the atoning blood of the Savior to make us a better person. Ideally, this means that we evolve into better, more moral people over time, becoming more and more like our Heavenly Parents. There is no part of that which requires or is made better by the extension of some sort of gender-based “Get out of Hell Free” card. If you are uncomfortable with the church’s gender inequities, good. You probably should be. Don’t go making up things to explain it; start doing something to change it instead.