Elizabeth Smart, Chastity, Politics, and the Value of Human Life

2013-05-06 Elizabeth Smart

In the short few minutes it took me to re-find the original Christian Science Monitor piece on Elizabeth Smart’s comments at a Johns Hopkins University forum on human trafficking, my take on the article shifted dramatically.

The first few references I saw were all from fellow Mormons on Facebook who were highlighting and agreeing with Smart’s message which is, to put it simply, that a lot of the conventional ways of teaching young people and especially  young girls about chastity are irredeemably terrible. From the CSM:

Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

So originally I intended to just link to that piece and basically say that I thought it was great that such a strong and compelling spokesperson was drawing attention to this issue. I have tremendous respect for Smart and the way that she has risen above her ordeal and refused to be a victim. Her criticism is absolutely right, and religious people (including Smart’s fellow Mormons) need to learn to separate the ideal of chastity (which ought to apply to both genders equally) from out-dated, sexist cultural notions that mix chastity with the horrific notion that women and girls are products or goods that have most value when in “like-new” condition. It’s a simple but vital distinction: chastity ought to be about the choices that women and men  make, not something that applies only to women and includes events that happen with or without their consent.

But while I was hunting around for that article, I was surprised and disappointed to see headlines like these in secondary coverage:

Elizabeth Smart: Abstinence-only education can make rape survivors feel ‘dirty,’ ‘filthy’ (MSNBC)

Traditional Mormon Sexual Purity Lesson Contributed to Captivity, Elizabeth Smart Tells University Audience (Joanna Brooks)

Smart’s comments are being exploited for political gain, and that is neither respectful to Smart nor illuminating for the discussion. An open-ended discussion of the real issues without political prejudice might, for example, talk about the connection between American consumerism and sexual exploitation. The fetish of unwrapping expensive technological gadgets has twisted and eerie parallels with the way women’s bodies are treated as products to be consumed. I believe the problem is deep and pervasive, but MSNBC and ThinkProgress see just left vs. right. The entire discussion, and not just Smart’s views, are being shortchanged.

It’s particularly frustrating because a short perusal of Smart’s Wikipedia page indicates that she continues to thrive within her faith community as an observant Mormon, including serving a mission and marrying the traditional Mormon temple ceremony. Both of these facts indicate–in the absence of any statement from Smart to the contrary–that she remains dedicated to traditional conceptions of virtue. This is why her criticism of Mormonism is so important and insightful (and why I was excited by them in the first place): it genuinely comes from within.

I also think it’s important to realize that Smart seems to have found not only problems, but also solutions within her faith. A traditional Mormon children’s song is titled simply “I am a Child of God“, and Mormons heavily emphasize our divine heritage as children of heavenly parents. As Smart concluded (citing the CSM article again), children need to be taught that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”

And that, too, is a part of Smart’s Mormon upbringing.

14 thoughts on “Elizabeth Smart, Chastity, Politics, and the Value of Human Life”

  1. A lot of problems would be solved by teaching chastity for personal health (physical, mental, and spiritual) and responsibility (and of course obedience) and not as a gift to your marriage. Because if repentance is complete, shouldn’t you still be able to gift that to your marriage?

  2. A lot of problems would be solved by teaching chastity for personal health (physical, mental, and spiritual) and responsibility (and of course obedience) and not as a gift to your marriage.

    Absolutely. That would be a great step in the right direction.

  3. I think it is important to break the link between chastity and virginity. Virginity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for chastity.

  4. You’re absolutely right, Nate. There are some cultural artifacts that need to be excised from Mormonism, and this (along with a lot of attitudes about gender and sex) ought to be high on the list.

  5. Virtue is a state achieved through proper life choices, and not something that someone can forcefully take away from anyone. The problem is that society often equates virtue and chastity with virginity. It’s a huge lack of understanding, and it doesn’t help that so many don’t want to take the time to understand the difference.

  6. I really appreciated this blog post. I’d read Smart’s quote, and then was horrified to see the headlines it generated. I’d always hated the “old chewing gum” analogy (along with the cracked plate, piece of wood with a nail hole in it, etc– NONE of which were ever used in any Sunday school class I’ve ever attended, but which I’ve heard of being done in other places), but you explained precisely why these analogies are so misleading. Thank you for your insight.

  7. I agree with the sentiment, but until institutions such as the LDS church take responsibility for and repudiate past comments and teachings such as this quote by President Kimball I am not going to give them a pass.

    “Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in a forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation when there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” Miracle of Forgiveness

    Maybe some teenagers are able to weigh all of the jello like doctrine and put things in proper perspective. Unfortunately, many others are unable to do this and take the writing and words of “prophets” at face value in a literal manner and end up committing suicide or spiraling into deep depression. Should we blame this on the lack of proper interpretation by the individual?

  8. Chad-

    I think we agree entirely that the views that Smart was attacking–including the kind of quotation you just provided from President Kimball–deserve to be repudiated. That’s the most important thing, and I’ve written more about it here.

    But let’s be clear, “The Miracle of Forgiveness” isn’t official doctrine now and never was. Kimball, who was born in the 19th century reflected his time and his culture. And that culture has significant problems.

    One of those problems is the perverse and un-Christian way that sexual purity is taught. Another problem is that Mormons tend to refuse to believe that their leaders are fallible, despite the leaders saying “No, really, we’re fallible.”

    Well they are fallible. President Kimball was fallible. That means he was wrong sometimes. And a lot of his book reflects that reality. It doesn’t make sense, to me at least, to use the simple fact that Mormon leaders get things wrong to tar the entire Church.

  9. “But let’s be clear, “The Miracle of Forgiveness” isn’t official doctrine now and never was.”

    Give me a break – this statement is incredibly disingenuous. Here we have a book, sold in every LDS bookstore, written by a “prophet, seer, and revelator” and president of the church, and that was required reading for many a missionary. And then members are blamed for thinking that words written by a prophet and distributed through church channels are, you know, inspired from God. Silly us!

    Also I have a clear problem with excuses like “Kimball…was born in the 19th century and refelected his time and culture”. Isn’t the whole point of being a “prophet” is that you are NOT a “product of [your] time and culture”? I thought we were supposed to rely on prophets to, you know, communicate God’s will? (and, perhaps, write it down in a book for us…) Why do we have to make so many excuses for them? Why do so many “prophets” fail to rise to the level of morality of the average member?

  10. [Apologies to non-Mormons following the comments. I’m presuming from Aaron’s posts that he’s a Mormon, or at least was at some point, and so I’m going to respond with some inside-baseball, as it were. It might be harder for non-Mormons to follow this particular comment, but I’ll summarize at the end.]


    I can tell that you’re frustrated and more than a little bitter by the extent to which the Church has not lived up to your expectations, but I’m going to double down that the problem is with your expectations. This may be hard for you to hear, but I think that’s because you’re seeing an issue of blame where I am not.

    I think President Kimball was acting in good faith when he wrote that book, and did the best he could. I think members who assumed that whatever the President says is inspired of God are also acting in good faith, and did the best they could. I don’t blame Kimball, and I don’t blame the members who tried to swallow what he wrote without.

    But they were both wrong.

    The expectations you have of Mormon prophets are wildly out of sync with basic Mormon doctrine. You seem to believe that anything which comes out from the Church is inspired of God. That is not true, and Joseph Smith complained two hundred years ago that he hated the fact that he couldn’t speak freely without some eager-beaver Mormon taking whatever he wrote to be revelation. A lot of the time: it wasn’t. You seem to believe that prophets have some kind of error-free direct line to God, and that they have no blemishes or faults from their historical context and culture. But you know what, even the Catholics (who do believe in a kind of infallibility) don’t go that far! No one does, because it’s completely irrational.

    I’m sorry these are not gentle words, but I just want to be absolutely clear. Your expectations are not being met because they are unreasonable expectations. And they are directly contradictory with Mormon doctrine.

    One of the key teachings of the Book of Mormon (especially found in 1 Nephi 11) is that when a leader (Lehi, in that case) gets revelation, it’s the member’s job (Nephi, in that case) to go out and learn for themselves. What was Laman and Lemuel’s chief mistake? That they refused to go out and take responsibility for their own beliefs. They never asked God. They just waited for their leader (Lehi, and then later Nephi) to bring them revelations, and when they didn’t like the revelations they rebelled.

    Any Mormon who is expecting prophets to not make mistakes, the Church to only publish 100% true things, or for general authorities to be immune from their upbringings is going to run face-first into reality. And it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to be tragic. And the only way to avoid it is to explain, hopefully before the fact, that those expectations are doomed.

    Because the really tragic thing is that once Mormons have had this face-first meeting with reality, they would often rather condemn the whole Church to the dustbin rather than consider the possibility that it is their expectations that have caused the pain, rather than the Church’s failings.

    [TL;DR for non-Mormons: Mormon doctrine says that leaders are not infallible. We have a process for canonizing the statements of leaders, and 99.99% of what they say is never canonized. Despite this, some Mormons insist on expecting Mormons to be infallible. They are inevitably disappointed, and then often very bitter. It’s sad and regrettable, but the reality is that they shouldn’t have been expecting infallibility in the first place. Some Mormons accept the phrase “fallible” but never realize that this actually means actual mistakes actually in real life.]

  11. Fred-

    Although you found one talk that doesn’t mention fallibility, that doesn’t prove that fallibility isn’t taught. For example:

    A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.

    The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been”

    That’s from an Ensign article from 2012. Note that it also quotes from Ether (the Book of Mormon). Just for fun, here’s the FAIR LDS website on prophetic fallibility: http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_doctrine/Prophets_are_not_infallible

    I’m not sure if you’re a Mormon, ex-Mormon, or non-Mormon, but no one doing even a trivial Internet search would really be confused about the Church’s position on this matter. Prophets. Are. Fallible. This was taught by Joseph Smith and has been taught consistently ever since.

  12. And no one is arguing that Mormon culture has/does not produce the infallibility outlook. The old joke is “Catholicism teaches the Pope is infallible, but no one really believes it. Mormonism teaches the prophet(s) are fallible, but no one really believes it.” This is helped along both from the bottom-up and top-down. Thankfully, recent talks and articles (like the one mentioned by Nathaniel) are trying to be more nuanced. Projects like the Joseph Smith Papers are also helping this along by providing a more accurate portrayal of Church history. Blame can be placed on some leaders and many members, but ultimately it does boil down to expectations as Nathaniel has laid out.

  13. Walker-

    And no one is arguing that Mormon culture has/does not produce the infallibility outlook.

    You got that right.

    I think something people misunderstand is that when I push back against the “The Leaders made us did it!” excuse/complaint my motivation is not to rush to the defense of the Lord’s anointed. I figure that, even without their respective callings, these are highly accomplished and intelligent men who can ably look after themselves and don’t very much need my rescuing.

    No, what I wish I could manage to convey to people is that I’m not arguing for the correctness of all official teachings, but rather the irrelevance. If anything, I’m more deeply committed to decreasing the relative dependence of Mormonism on authority, but you can’t actually do that by whining about authority. It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend and then trying to be the shoulder to lean on: the action counteracts the message.

    I believe Mormons, as a culture, could use some more old-fashioned independence. And you don’t get there by blaming problems on the Church, the hierarchy, or specific leaders. You don’t there by defending them, either. You get there by restoring leadership to its proper place.

    Look, I’m an orthodox Mormon. I believe in and sustain the President and 12 Apostles and leaders and all that jazz, and I take it more seriously than my current tone indicates. But I also take seriously the Lord’s statement that He’s not pleased with folks who need to be commanded in all things. Obedience and independence are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite: obedience is meaningful when it is freely and deliberately chosen.

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