When I was a tween, through a series of inexplicable events, I found myself visiting the birthplace of Joseph Smith with my sister, her best friend, and said best friend’s dad.
Traveling to unlikely tourist spots was not something out of the norm for me growing up. I vividly remember visiting extended family in North Carolina and my parents taking me and my siblings -- the youngest still in a stroller -- to the Camel Cigarette factory. There was a life-size camel sculpture made of tobacco in the lobby, and the tour guide gave my dad a complimentary carton full of smokes. If memory serves, she also spoke through a hole in her neck, though I freely admit this could be my added in retrospect as a dramatic touch. Regardless -- tobacco sculpture. It was a magical time.
The trip to Vermont was different. When my family went to visit strange places like cigarette factories or giant balls of twine or exhibitions of animatronic dinosaurs, there was always the feeling of us as a joint force laughing at the same joke. But from the moment I stepped into the creepily well-manicured clearing in White River Valley, I found myself to be the displaced one -- the one being excluded from things I could never hope to understand.
As an already deeply-moody Garfield-the-Cat T-shirt wearing hormone machine of a youth, to be excluded was a thing that had become the norm for me -- which doesn’t mean I liked it. As the tour guide explained we couldn’t enter the temple because we weren’t LDS, and as the eerie voices of children singing reverberated through the trees (seriously, there were speakers) I felt my displacement melt away into a sense of unease. Even that feeling was quickly stamped out by the surprise emotion joining the party -- I was curious.
That curiosity regarding the Mormon church has remained to this day. I think as a person who grew up in the Anglican and then Catholic church, it was fascinating to watch such a relatively young organization, with their own doctrine and their own culture fall victim to the same, if not worse, stereotyping, generalizations, and jokes that had been directed towards my own community. For all the guff I may have gotten for being Christian -- it was straight-up nothing compared to the attitude and sneers a girl my age who worked an afterschool job got on the regs.
“You can’t drink COFFEE?” Said the eightieth person that day. She’d smile. “That’s right,” she said. For some reason that seemed to be a harder pill for people to swallow. To deny oneself alcohol made a certain kind of sense -- but caffeine? And what the hell is up with the underwear?
When it came to treating people equally and fairly and discussing their religion with respect, I was flummoxed to see that some of the most sensitive people I know had seemed to decide that the Mormon church was decidedly the exception to the rule. On the one hand I get it, for all the same reasons people make fun of the Mormon church -- American prophets, Joe Smith just doing it to bang ladies, his eventual deathbed recantation.
But let’s be honest -- most religions, if approached by a non-believer, can sound like a zany sharp cheddar-induced dream -- night sweats optional.
A recent movement within the Mormon church once more underlined the notion that not all participants of a religion subscribe to your perceived notion of that population. Stephanie Lauritzen, of Salt Lake City, began a recent campaign for female members of the church called “Wear Pants to Church Day.” Through Facebook, Laurtizen spread the word, planning an event wherein practicing Mormon women would wear pants to church.
While there’s no official outline defining wardrobe for worship, most LDS members dress up -- a step above biz cash if you will -- to show respect. It just so happens that traditionally, for the ladies, this more often than not means wearing a dress or a skirt, whether or not that’s right or fair. (I happen to think it’s not, and not only does Katharine Hepburn agree with me, but also, pants are the best and I don’t care about camel toe and also your argument is invalid unless it includes a fervent defense of airing out the lady jungle.)
The idea of “dressing your best” for church was one I was raised with as well. Weirdly, one of the tougher parts of my family’s conversion was going to mass each Sunday and finding myself flanked by families in jeans while my own family looked like a bunch of nerds on school picture day. It wasn’t like I was sitting in judgement of the families who weren’t dressed up for church. It was that the difference in our wardrobe emphasized the cultural differences in the faiths we had been raised practicing.
That to me is the most interesting part of Lauritzen’s campaign. While the story is mainly being touted as a feminist one (and that is undeniably also true) of women being able to dress they way they choose, I see it as the evolution of a still-pretty young church, fighting internally and externally in an effort to hone and refine their practice.
The role of women within the Mormon church is definitely a hotly debated one, and I’m not just talkin’ about the fringe practice of Polygamy, banned by the mainstream Mormon Church. The church itself is largely viewed as being a patriarchal one, like uh, most of the churches that there are.
While the status of women in the church has been hotly contested in a public way in the Episcopal church, I don’t think many people are aware that Mormon women also expressed interest in ordination -- I mean, outside of the stretch of Barb starting her own church, essentially, on "Big Love" and even then we were probably all distracted by Sevigny.
While Lauritzen’s project’s participants reported an equal amount of positive and negative experiences wearing pants to church, it more than met its secondary, tacit goal -- publicizing the role of women in the Mormon church, both to members of the faith and those curious, often ill-informed lookers-on.