Opinion: The happiness of women can’t be separated from the moral development of men. The church’s organization reflects this
Far from being a hindrance to women, men’s participation and service in church is designed to make them more responsive to the needs of women and children, and to practice putting others first.
Last week, Brigham Young University-Idaho inaugurated its 18th president, Elder Alvin F. “Trip” Meredith III, who also serves as a General Authority Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In high school, Meredith was captain of his wrestling and football teams, but nowadays he’s better known for making endearing heart signs together with his wife, Jennifer, to the thousands of students who gather at BYU-I’s weekly campus devotionals.
At a luncheon following the inauguration ceremony, Jennifer Meredith remarked on how her husband was fully engaged in home life, diving in to change diapers, fold laundry and do the dishes. They share a chore list on their phones.
Research from The Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute indicates highly religious men do more housework. I doubt this is because religion makes housework more enjoyable. Rather, men who internalize messages of love and service — even men who once wrestled and played football — learn to make life better and more fulfilling for their spouses and others around them.
Last year, I wrote about how media accusations that my church oppresses women were the opposite of my own experience. It was when I entered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that my needs and interests, both as an individual and as a woman, began to be met in ways I didn’t know I needed.
My experience points to something else missing from the ongoing discussion about the state of women and faith: that far from being a hindrance to women, men’s participation and service in church is designed to make them more responsive to the needs of women and children, and to practice putting others’ needs first.
My husband’s father died of cancer when he was 11. Shortly after, one of his church leaders took him to visit and serve other families in their congregation. One of the families had a severely disabled son whom they’d sometimes take out to dinner.
“That leader showed his love for me by teaching me how to care about others. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but it had a huge impact on me,” my husband recalls.
Priesthood service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — wherein lay men serve in various unique capacities — helps teach men of all ages how to care for others.
Priesthood service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — wherein lay men serve in various unique capacities — helps teach men of all ages how to care for others. The aim is to make bad men good, and good men better, as one leader summarized. As a wife and the mother of four sons, this matters.
And yet there’s no shortage of media productions and commentary lamenting men’s roles in traditional religion. The impression often being conveyed is that women are second-class citizens in the pews; that because they do not serve in certain capacities, they therefore lack the necessary power to serve women’s interests and participate equally with men. The assumption often seems to be that men are the primary beneficiaries of distinct leadership roles that are male-only.
This overlooks the experience of so many women and children, who, like me, have learned that the happiness and security of women and children cannot be separated from the moral and emotional development of men. In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the way men participate in priesthood service is aimed at developing these qualities. This happens in ways that will almost never make major headlines.
There are, of course, exceptions and too many women and children have suffered at the hands of men who failed in their responsibilities or, worse, used them as cloak for their betrayal. Yet having grown up outside the church, I’ve seen firsthand that the majority of harm perpetrated against women and children occurs where institutional influence — especially upon men — is the weakest.
Nearly a quarter of American children are raised in single parent families and over 80% of single parents are women. The poverty rate for these families is nearly five times higher than for married couple families — with women and children making up 70% of our nation’s poor. These women and children are also at higher risk for substance abuse, domestic abuse, violent crimes and deaths of despair. They experience much lower economic mobility and are far more likely to experience intergenerational poverty, mental illness and incarceration.
Across nearly every metric of prosperity and security, the odds are stacked against these families.
Utah, by comparison, where religiosity is high, has the lowest childhood poverty rate in the nation, and the second lowest for women. Poor children also have higher economic mobility. According to Gallup, Utah consistently ranks in the top 10 states for well-being, which looks at career satisfaction, social connection and health. Strong families generate stability and social capital for Utah’s women and children.
Some suggest religious emphasis on marriage and family unduly burdens women, but my experience has been the opposite. The responsibilities of marriage and children have given me stability and purpose and added meaning to my other pursuits.
There’s no denying the data; the highest percentage of individuals reporting they are “very happy,” according to the the most respected survey of American social attitudes, are married mothers. In other words, cultural narratives insisting that marriage and family life are inevitable encumbrances upon a woman’s self-fulfillment are not just tired; they are often wrong.
The gap between how many children women desire (2.7) and the projected children they have (1.8) is the highest it’s been in 40 years. It’s therefore no small thing for the church — or any institution — to take so seriously the real and raw, if not modish, needs of everyday women. A major part of that is the formation of boys and men into good husbands and fathers who stick around, take on responsibilities and serve others. `
For those who have already reaped the benefits of the church’s influence upon men (perhaps without even recognizing it), it is easy to look upon male-specific priesthood service as a kind of discrimination. But what if, instead of vaunting and elevating men above Latter-day Saint women, male-specific priesthood responsibilities in the church are ordered toward forming men who are meek, responsible, selfless and committed? And, what if, that’s what everyday women and children around the world too often find missing in their homes?
The idea that men and women can achieve their ultimate spiritual and emotional potential through the exact same roles and responsibilities assumes men and women do not have unique developmental needs. This is an assumption that, as a woman, I reject. In my view, this is also something of a luxury belief that can only exist coherently among those who have not been subjected to the particular dangers that men can pose when they fall through the ever-widening cracks of family and religious life.
Consider that 80% of violent crimes and virtually all sexual assault is committed by men. And despite the stereotypes sometimes portrayed of religious men, religiosity, as measured through attendance, significantly reduces the risk of domestic partner violence, especially in the most vulnerable populations. According to a 2007 study published in the social science journal Violence Against Women, “Men who attend religious services several times a week are 72% less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.” A similar study found religiosity decreases intimate partner violence even after controlling for religion’s effect on indirect factors, such as substance abuse and social support.
And religious engagement doesn’t simply reduce harm, it also enhances relationships. Studies have found highly religious couples — as measured by reading scriptures together, praying and attending worship services jointly — tend to have better relationship outcomes, including improved intimacy. One analysis found women in highly religious relationships “were twice as likely as their secular peers to say they were satisfied with their sexual relationship.”
Institutional failures at protecting women and children are coming under increased scrutiny, and that can be a good thing. But if the takeaway is that the plight of women or children is worse within prosocial religion than without, then media coverage of these events is likely doing more harm than good. If such sensational and flawed narratives are adopted without scrutiny, they may ultimately expose women and children to significantly more risk than they prevent.
Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint convert and writer who studied philosophy, French and Latin at BYU. She lives in Utah with her husband and four sons. She writes on X @TresClare
Hal Boyd contributed reporting to this article.