Mormon Church Hasn't Budged on Gender Roles in 40 Years

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The Mormon Church has not shifted its official positions on the roles of men and women since the 1970s, a new study finds.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the LDS Church, has 15 million members worldwide and is the fourth-largest church in the United States. LDS theology is socially conservative, and the church was active in supporting the 2008 Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. (The proposition has since been ruled unconstitutional, but the ruling is stayed pending further appeal.)

A review of official LDS Church literature, including conference talks and articles from the church's Ensign magazine, finds that despite shifting mores in the rest of society between the 1970s and today, the church's views toward gender roles have not changed. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

"We thought for sure they were going to soften the way they think about this [gender roles] — maybe they won't talk about gender differences as innate and essential," said study researcher Ryan Cragun, a sociologist of religion at the University of Tampa in Florida.

"One of the things that really did surprise us is that there really hasn't been a shift in gender discourse in the Mormon Church over the last 40 years," Cragun told Live Science.

Masculine vs. feminine

The focus of Cragun's research is Mormonism — the church in which he was raised — and nonreligious people. His co-author on the new study, J. Edward Sumerau, studies gender and sexuality. Together, the two sociologists decided to comb through Cragun's archives of Mormon discourse over the last 40 years.

"We go in with our eyes wide open, not necessarily knowing what we are going to find," Cragun said.

As in other conservative religions, the LDS Church emphasizes the importance of innate gender differences and promotes traditionally masculine traits for men (e.g., strength, leadership) and traditionally feminine traits for women (e.g., delicacy, gentleness). Women are not allowed to have leadership roles in the Mormon Church hierarchy, and are encouraged to take on a support role for their husbands. In fact, in June, the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, a Mormon woman who started a movement to allow the ordination of female clergy in the church.

"Gender is such an essential part of the religion that, when a woman in this particular case says, 'Hey, we should actually change this and make it more egalitarian,' the leadership of the religion takes that so seriously that they kick her out of the religion," Cragun said.

Mormon theology holds that spirits, not just physical bodies, are male and female, and they are created by a heavenly father and mother. Thus, Cragun said, the male-female dichotomy is engrained into the religion.

Innate or learned?

Beyond seeing no shift toward egalitarianism with time, Cragun and Sumerau noted that the Mormon Church describes gender as immutable and ordained by God. However, the church's official talks and articles have a heavy focus on telling congregants how to live up to their gender roles.

If gender characteristics are innate, "you should do it automatically," Cragun said. "There should be no reason to tell people."

The instructions suggest the church realizes, on some level, that masculine and feminine traits aren't entirely tied to sex, Cragun said.

The study, published online July 2 in the journal Sociology of Religion, is part of a larger book project by Cragun and Sumerau. Cragun said that while adults can choose to join or leave the church, the strict gender roles prescribed by LDS theology could be stultifying for children and young adults, particularly women.

"Young women who may have amazing potential feel like their only real role in life is to support their husbands," he said. "Personally, I think that should change."

There are efforts by some Mormons, like Kelly, to shift the LDS leadership's attitudes, Cragun said. He and his colleagues plan to study Mormon women's attitudes toward female ordination in follow-up studies.

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