In a world in which most religions begin with God the Father or some sort of male image of the divine, and are founded by male figures such as Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, do we undervalue Motherhood or the role of women in faith?
This coming Mother’s Day, Mormons in churches around the globe will inevitably join each other in singing their cherished hymn, “O My Father”. Yes, it’s as ironic as it sounds. But, like most things religious, this is more complicated than it seems.
The Mormon habit of singing “O My Father” on Mother’s Day arises from a radical idea expressed by the hymn’s final verses. “In the heavens/Are parents single?/No, the thought makes reason stare!/Truth is reason; truth eternal/Tells me I’ve a mother there.” So go the lyrics that Eliza R. Snow wrote in 1845. The final verse begins, “When I leave this frail existence,/When I leave this mortal by,/Father, Mother, may I meet you/In your royal courts on high.”
The Mormon singing of “O My Father” on Mother’s Day is really an affirmation of a belief in a female deity, another one of the peculiarities that keeps Mormonism strange, and one that surely shows how Mormons don’t undervalue women.
But, like most things religious, this is more complicated than it seems.
Mormonism doesn’t give its divine Mother any identity, and it places her in a traditional partnership with a paternal god. Apart from the radical idea itself, Mormonism’s Mother in Heaven simply makes female subordination into a cosmic principle. The Mormon Father runs things, the Mormon Mother keeps out of the way.
But, like most things religious, this too is more complicated than it seems.
Many Mormonisms are trying very hard to be liked. Warren Jeffs and his crew, not so much. But the LDS church and the Community of Christ, the two largest Mormon denominations, want very much for the world to accept them, especially the Christian world. Since the Christian scriptures offer nothing in the way of a female deity, and since traditional Christian culture rejects the idea (the Virgin Mary, notwithstanding), Mormonism’s determination to make itself Christian prevents it from developing this pleasantly radical idea any further.
Mormonism may be a good model of the ambivalence about gender roles that we find in all religions. On the one hand, Mormonism reaches toward a parity it naturally intuits. On the other hand, it can’t bring itself to grab it. Religions do undervalue women. But they try very hard not to want to.
Tolstoy tried to simplify things. For the Count, emerging religions throughout history always started with the recognition of human equality. But, then, Tolstoy writes, “immediately those to whom inequality was advantageous endeavored to conceal this essential feature.” So, religions emerge with radical, progressive ideas, but inevitably give themselves over to the self-aggrandizement of the few to whom aggrandizement is important.
And, like most things religious and otherwise, Tolstoy’s insight is more complicated than it seems. Perhaps the Russian reads differently, but in at least one English translation, Tolstoy writes that new religions “always included the recognition of the equality of men…”