Excommunication of Mormon Feminist Kate Kelly Takes Mormonism to a Critical Crossroads

By R.B. Scott


Note: This commentary first appeared in Cognoscenti, published by WBUR, a National Public Radio Station in Boston.

San Francisco, CA - With the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly, a civil rights attorney and founder of the activist group Ordain Women (OW), the American-born Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is at an important crossroad in its 184-year history. Will it secure its place in the religious mainstream? Or will it revert to isolating practices that provoke outsiders to brand Mormonism an overgrown cult and some insiders to leave? 

 “Right now, it feels like we’ve plunged back to Spanish Inquisition,” observed one engaged Mormon mother, who asked not to be identified, fearing that her comments might create problems with local church leaders and friends. “Am I to tell my sixth-generation Latter-day Saint daughters that the only way for them to survive in the church of their heritage is to sit down and shut up?” 

The mother who asked for anonymity is not alone in her fears. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack, a journalist respected for her incisive reporting on Mormonism, reported that fear of retribution drove “five of the 350 people profiled on OW’s website” to delete their profiles, and 175 to submit new ones. Because they supported their daughter, Kelly’s parents in Utah may no longer enter Mormon temples, a privilege available only to faithful members who possess written recommends issued by local leaders.  

Despite its refusal to ordain women, the church aggressively promotes those that work within the system. One of them is Sheri Dew, a never-married former general leader in the Relief Society, the church’s once powerful women’s organization. Dew, who opposes Ordain Women and is chief executive officer of the church-owned Deseret Book, has been held up as a role model for Mormon women.  

Another Mormon woman embraced by the church is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian, who was denied an invitation to address a 1992 women’s conference at Brigham Young University because of her feminist inclinations.  A dozen years later, times had changed slightly and Ulrich was enthusiastically welcomed back to the school. Today, she practically enjoys living saint status because of her professional accomplishments and faithfulness to the gospel.   

Ulrich recalls that women once had more authority before the 1970s, when the independence of women’s organizations within the church was eliminated. “It never occurred to me that I wasn’t equal,” she told the Boston Globe earlier this year

Perceptions that Kelly was leading believers astray may have been her biggest problem.  Kelly literally led the faithful – as well as news crews – right up to the front steps of the historic Tabernacle in Salt Lake City seeking entry to semi-annual male-only general priesthood conference taking place inside.  

There are precedents for her excommunication. In 1979, when the church opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, Sonia Johnson’s vehement response (encouraging boycotts of missionaries and inflammatory public rhetoric condemning the church’s position) led to her excommunication. So did Janice Allred’s persistence in teaching and writing about praying to “Mother in Heaven” in 1995. 

 The drama provoked a furious uproar on the so-called “Bloggernacle,”  the sprawling and very active worldwide network of Mormon bloggers and readers. “Frankly, Kate Kelly appears be insincere in her testimony even as she preaches otherwise. Her objections brought personal recognition and fame. That seems to be her main motivation now,” wrote Susan Lambourne Stevenson, a fifth-generation Mormon from Holladay, Utah. She’s likely not alone in her sentiment.  A recent Pew research study found that 90 percent of Mormon women in the United States oppose ordaining women

A faithful young woman, a returned missionary chided: “Sister Kelly’s excommunication conveys clear condescending messages about conformity and intolerance.” Another woman wrote, “If there’s no room for Kate Kelly, there’s probably no place for me.” 

There are hopeful signs that the church is listening and responding to the concerns of the disenchanted Gay activists also worry if they too could become targets, given the church’s on-going opposition to same sex marriage, despite acknowledging in 2006 that same sex marriage was likely constitutional.  

Yet, over the summer, the church quietly sought input for a provocative program to persuade disenfranchised gay members to return. The official message is progressive: “The Lord loves you just as you are. There’s room for you at church this Sunday and every day.” Although celibacy will continue to be encouraged, it won’t be a contingent obligation.

 Just this week Mormon leaders in Cambridge,  a region known for initiating innovations,  sent invitations to members to participate in “an open discussion…to understand the issues … as a prelude to …developing practical steps … to address the issues in productive ways. “ The invitation was signed by the senior most male and female leaders of the Cambridge Stake, the equivalent of a Roman Catholic archdiocese. 

 The church found itself at similar crossroads in the 1960s.  But, it took the church until to terminate terminated the de-facto doctrine forbidding the ordination of black men of African descent. Since then, the church has consigned the former practice to the dung heap of misbegotten teachings. Kate Kelly and her supporters pray that the church’s current policy preventing the ordination of women joins it there, too.