At the beginning of chapter 9 of her book Sister Saints, Colleen McDannell incorporates a particular quote by Aileen H. Clyde. Clyde was a counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency when the Proclamation on the Family was released. As McDannell explains, the Proclamation was presented as a fait accompli to Clyde, her fellow counselor Chieko Okazaki, and President Elaine L. Jack. Their input was not sought, despite the gendered subject matter and the arguably important role Mormon women play in shaping Mormon families. In a 2011 interview, Clyde characterized women’s domains within the church as a “playpen,” saying, “[male leaders] don’t care what we do over here in our playpen as long as we stay in our playpen and are good to each other” (qtd. in McDannell 154).
This was a telling quote, and an unusually candid one, that highlighted the infantilization of women in the LDS Church. Much has written about power structures in the LDS Church, men’s and women’s spheres, the hierarchy inherent in a male priesthood, and the like. McDannell adds to this academic discourse with an in-depth discussion of the Proclamation on the Family. As McDannell writes, the Proclamation on the Family has an almost canonical status in LDS culture. It reflects and drives Mormon discourse about gender and sexuality and helps define what a divinely ordained family looks like. It can be found framed in so many Mormon homes and its ubiquity is a material marker of Mormonism as real as garments or visible adherence to the Word of Wisdom.
A strength of this chapter is the care McDannell takes to flesh out the role that a binary, dualistic, and essentalist idea of gender plays in Mormonism. She contrasts that with the ideas found in conservative and fundamentalist Protestantism, pointing out that Latter-day Saint ideas about gender largely align with those found in the ideology of complementarianism in conservative Christianity. However, where complementarians speak of ‘headship,’ of a fundamental and God-given “asymmetry in power relationships in the home” in which wives submit to their husbands, Latter-day Saints consider Mormon men and women to be ‘equal partners’ at home (160). McDannell is right to point out this difference, as it has real effects, both on a theological level and a practical level. Latter-day Saint gender relations, then, are their own thing and can’t be mapped neatly onto those of other groups.
McDannell organizes her discussion of the Proclamation around the idea of a “theology of silence.” That is, the Proclamation displays “ambiguity, restraint, and brevity” (155) and “speaks louder in what it does not say than what it does” (165, italics original). The Proclamation doesn’t contain anti-gay rhetoric, rather, it celebrates the heterosexual family. More than that, McDannell argues that the silence extends to the gendering of men and women themselves: “[h]ow a father presides and a mother nurtures is not laid out” (165). This is particularly noteworthy given the “elaborate, and typically conservative, reflections of prominent church leaders” such as Boyd K. Packer and others who reach back to an imagined and nostalgic American past.
There is a lot going on in this chapter that deserves further thought, but today I want to briefly touch on this idea of a theology of silence, of the institutional forgetting of the rhetoric that came before. McDannell is right that this leaves room for (heterosexual) families to define for themselves what it means to nurture or to provide, for example. This also explains how the Proclamation can resonate with all kinds of (again, heterosexual) families and be found proudly displayed in the homes of stay at home moms as well as career-driven women. However, I would argue that while absent in the Proclamation, these messages and the larger discourse surrounding gender roles in the church is present in so many other avenues that members know how to read it into the text—particularly in the American church and even more so in the ‘Book of Mormon belt.’ Ultimately, the messages do not have to be spoken in this specific text for them to be heard. That the Proclamation speaks of ‘equal partners,’ yet fathers are to ‘preside,’ is telling language which speaks volumes here, and I would have liked to see that dissonant note teased out a little more.
The Proclamation on the Family allows for diversity to exist: as McDannell writes, “It did not encourage […] multiplicity, but it did recognize—via its theology of silence—the complexity of Mormon lives” (170). I would argue that it’s significant that this is not affirmation, but tolerance. The theology of silence in the Proclamation allows diversity in families to exist in that space (or perhaps, better said, does not deny or condemn the existence of diversity), but I would again argue that this same silence is drowned out by official discourse. Towards the end of the chapter, McDannell writes that the Proclamation paved the way for other institutional efforts to celebrate diversity, like the Meet the Mormons movie or the larger I’m a Mormon ad campaign. This is a very apt characterization, as the careful watcher of the 2014 movie will see diversity in skin color, nationality, and circumstances, yes, but also notice that this is a diversity very narrowly defined and very carefully curated. In that sense, I am interested in seeing what happens when a younger generation—increasingly comfortable with and affirming of LGBTQ people, for example—comes of age. Will the Proclamation continue to resonate so powerfully with members—will a theology of silence be enough?