Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ghosts of Ensigns Past: February 1972

It's time for another long-awaited installment of Ghost of Ensigns Past, in the which I read and react to old issues of the church's flagship magazine. Thankfully they are easily available on the internet and I am spared the task of rummaging through stacks of them at my grandparents' house. Previously I covered the inaugural of the Ensign from January 1971, and then jumped forward to July for some Lamanite love. Today we're going another six months forward to February 1972.

Get it? Cause Star Trek had ensigns, and sometimes they died, and...forget it.

After N. Eldon Tanner's opening salvo on obedience (he's in favor of it) we come to a familiar name: Neal A Maxwell. This was from his solo days before he signed with The Apostles, when he would tour as an opening act for established LDS speakers,  often with so much success that crowds would chant his name for an encore after the closing prayer.

Honestly, I've never been as fond of Maxwell as some members because to me his clever wordplay and eloquence often disguised strawmen and sophistry. His contribution here, "The Value of Home Life," is full of ripostes to arguments I've never heard anyone seriously make. Maybe there were a lot of people in 1972 claiming that "the family is irrelevant because it cannot meet our changing human needs," but that doesn't sound credible to me. Possibly there were a few radicals (academics, probably -- can't trust those academics) calling for the end of family, but who listens to them? Maxwell likewise warns of a society "in danger of anarchy" and a culture of "plague-level" alienation, which is the kind of overblown rhetoric that turns off people who take a longer, more historical view and realize that, on the whole, we're really no better or worse off than we've ever been.

Maybe you wouldn't feel alienated if you went and got a job, comrade.

Still, I liked one line in the article about the role of irony in our lives -- the way events unfold in unexpected yet profound ways that confound logic. There's the seed of an entire blog post there, but instead I'll move on to the next article of interest, Sydney Sperry with some old-fashioned textual history.

Specifically, Sperry deals with the word angels in Psalm 8:5, and I advise interested readers to check it out for themselves because it's pretty good. I wish there was space in magazines and manuals for scholarship like this today. I'm not asking for dissertations on the documentary hypothesis, but anything would be nice.

Then there's the real meat of this issue, a series of talks (I don't know if it's all of them or just a selection) from the 1972 Relief Society general conference, which seems to be the equivalent of today's General Relief Society meeting.

Let's do some Feminism 101 analysis: The Ensign's Relief Society conference report comprises four articles, three from the First Presidency and one from an apostle. That's four guys and zero ladies addressing women on the primarily nature, meaning, and roles of womanhood. That's not necessarily problematic in itself, but imagine the opposite scenario: a procession of women standing up in priesthood session to teach men about manhood. That'll never happen, not in 1972 and not today. The closest we might get from a female is something about upholding or sustaining the priesthood (which, of course, is held exclusively by men) and never a talk directed toward men or at the priesthood session. That, folks, is an imbalance. After all, if there are inherent differences between the sexes as the church teaches, then it's strange that in the church men alone are expected to establish the baseline teachings about what it means to be a woman. Call me a radical, but maybe womanhood ought to be defined and negotiated primarily by, you know, women. Men ought to have some input as well, just as women should chime in on men and manhood, but there should be open negotiation without one side calling the shots for the other.

Okay, you can have power tools but we want pink.

Okay, enough about structural gender inequality, let's see what the articles actually say. Harold B. Lee starts with some words about sexualization of women, and in a manner not really clear to me compares immodest dress to gender confusion, which he says "encourages the wave of sexual perversion, when men adopt women's tendencies and women become mannish in their desires." Even in context I'm not really sure what he means...perhaps a condemnation of 18th century dandies?

Then, in defense of marriage he presents the quote, "no man can live piously, or die righteously without a wife", and the scripture, "it is not good that man should be alone." Fair enough, but perhaps talking to women about the benefits of marriage in terms of how it benefits men, bit incomplete.  1 Corinthians 11:11 is a bit more balanced, but only if you ignore the surrounding verses about how women are to men as men are to Christ. Yikes.

Lee then mentions husbands who have "interpreted erroneously the statement that the husband is to be the head of the house and that his wife is to obey the law of her husband." That last partcomes from the temple endowment: back then, women were put under covenant to obey the law of their husbands, full stop. The wording has since been altered: instead of "obeying" women must now "hearken," and the caveat has been added that they are only expected to do so as their husbands obey the Lord. In fairness, that's also how Lee interprets "law of the husband," but it's still a good example of the "presiding-yet-equal" tension that still dominates male-female discourse in the church. Even Lee must have felt male domination was enough of an issue to address it here.

Finally, another anecdote that makes me want to facepalm a little: Lee talks about a married couple on the verge of divorce in which the wife complained about feeling like the hired help of a distant husband who used work and church as excuses to stay away from home. "Whether or not this was true," Lee says, "she had allowed herself to become embittered and had wandered away into the arms of a scoundrel who took her affections away from her husband." And what about her husband? Apparently his actions were irrelevant to the story. Not that I'd justify her presumed adultery, but it sure sounds like the affections were gone long before Mr. Scoundrel came along. Shouldn't we wonder whether the husband was at all culpable here?

Reports suggest that the scoundrel was stuck-up, half-witted, and scruffy-looking, although the last accusation is disputed.

My feelings about Harold B. Lee (and his toward folks like me) are well-documented in previous posts, but perhaps some people would read his talk and feel spiritually invigorated. Good for them. The next, by Marion G. Romney, is mostly  a collection of scriptures about marriage and family. Since scriptural support for modern LDS family doctrine is scant, Romney's talk indirectly shows how important the Family Proclamation has become as a (mostly) canonical textual foundation for those teachings today. Also he quotes Joseph F. Smith to show that birth control was still a sin in 1972. Whether it is today is apparently between you and the Lord, although idolatry is still non-negotiable.  For brevity's sake I'll skip writing about Mark E Petersen or Boyd K Packer's talks on, respectively, homemaking and the home. Suffice to say there are few surprises in either.

So my overall impressions of this issue have been a bit more negative than for some previous ones, but the diversity of topics at least keeps things interesting even if they clash with my delicate liberal sensibilities. So for now, goodbye to the 70s, and don't let the establishment drag you down, man.