A call by Mormon women in Salt Lake City to wear pants to church had by the end of 2012 stretched around the world and, perhaps all too expectedly, created a backlash that included even death threats. Beyond the issue of what counts as “proper attire” that according to the Mormon Church is “a sign of respect for the Savior”—a matter the Church leaves up to the individual church member—is the “elephant in the living room.” Specifically, is a pathological loss of perspective inherent to religion itself, or merely a symptom of having gotten religion wrong?
I contend that women wearing pants to a church service hardly counts as a big deal, whether in secular or religious terms. In terms of feminism, the “protest” has its most significance. “Wear Pants to Church” was meant to draw attention to the role of women in the Mormon Church. In religious terms, however, drawing attention to gender equality takes the focus off of transcendent experience, wherein the stuff that we think is so important in the world is marginalized or relativized. This is not to say that women who wear pants to church are somehow less religious.
In fact, bashing the women wearing pants on religious grounds only further removes both sides from the opportunity for religious experience. The loss of perspective is particularly salient in the “no” camp. For example, a man at a church in a Salt Lake City suburb said, “Women who want to wear pants, they just don’t know how to follow the Lord.” Besides treating something that is not religious as though it were in fact vital to it, the man had completely lost perspective, as Jesus is nowhere on record as having said as much. Prime facie, what one wears is not so determinant concerning the ability to have a religious experience—although wearing distinctively religious garb can have religious significance in that the purpose of the vestments is to remove one from the world in to the realm of the sacred. Unfortunately for the man, his comment about pants and following the Lord is too profane to be counted as being oriented to the sacred. Indeed, the statement indicates that he had missed an opportunity to engage in transcendent experience, wherein issues that seem important in this world are also transcended.
I contend that religious rightly understood as being of or at least oriented to transcendent experience does not contain or trigger lapses of perspective. Rather, perspective itself is transcended. A “religious practitioner” losing perspective—particularly if doing so is a weapon of sorts—is not really a religious practitioner. Rather, such a person is taking the artifacts of religion as ends rather than as means, then using those ends as means to inflict pain or otherwise harm another person. That religion has so often been abused may raise the question of whether the decadence is in religion itself—or at least whether religion can afford its artifacts.
For instance, the popes who raised troops to fight in the Crusades promised the recruits salvation in fighting for the Lord. The troops no doubt believed that because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God that they would be saved even in killing rather than loving their enemies on the battlefield. Considering the carnage under these “religious” auspices, one might argue that historical Christianity could ill-afford its focus on Christology rather than on principles such as “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek.” To be sure, such principles can be viewed as means to trigger a shift of perspective capable of giving rise in turn to a transcendent experience, rather than merely as moral dictates of Christian ethics. Generally speaking, if “Jesus as the Son of God” is used as a weapon, even in passive aggression, the attendant loss of perspective alone signals a lack of religiosity. The question is perhaps whether the loss is inherent to Christianity or a falling away from the real message of the faith to something that is more easily recognizable—even potentially self-idolatrous.
The Mormon man who said that women who want to wear pants just don’t know how to follow the Lord was likely also capable of saying that people who don’t believe that Jesus is a god-man are going to hell. In using Christology as a weapon, the Mormon man would be castigating himself into hell because he would be essentially keeping himself from transcending to something deeper and more fundamental than even theological concepts.
Abstractly speaking, experience is distinct from cognitive belief. Getting caught up on a particular belief, even if it ostensibly concerns a religious idea, can have the opportunity cost of foregone transcendent experience. Put another way, a loss of perspective divides whereas religious experience transcends divisions—being oriented to the unity of a more fundamental, or transcendent, source. Religio literally means, “back to the source.” In contrast, losing perspective by treating little things as vitally important even in religious terms distants one from a more fundamental source wherein the little things are even less significant. Therefore, getting upset about pants, or even particular cognitive beliefs, pushes one away from one’s very source or basis. Such a use of “religion” weakens one, or reflects one’s weak state. Perhaps it could be said that religion is susceptible to being abused by weakness in the name of religion, and that the world too often is blind to the abuse itself—treating it as part of religion and therefore as legitimate and perhaps even laudatory.
For more on the story of Mormon feminists using pants as a symbol, see Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.