Gavin Feller. Journal of Media and Religion. Volume 15, Issue 3, 2016.
Gender has been a central theological, social, and political concern throughout Mormonism’s brief but sprawling 184-year history (Chen, 2014). The recent excommunication of a prominent Mormon feminist and activist Kate Kelly magnified and extended tensions surrounding the issue of female ordination by bringing them to international attention through popular news media (Little, 2014). Yet the most vibrant discussions about gender, authority, and women’s roles in the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon) are taking place within the Mormon blogosphere—a loose collection of blogs and websites dealing with Mormon life, primarily by and for Mormons, colloquially known as the “bloggernacle” (Avance, 2013). The name bloggernacle combines “tabernacle”—the sacred, portable, dwelling place of Jehovah during the Israelite exodus and the name of the historic Mormon conference center in Salt Lake City, Utah—with the word, “blog.” Far from insignificant, the term itself identifies the Mormon blogosphere as a sacred space where divine communication, fellowship, ritual worship, and the autobiography, anachronism, and acronyms of Web 2.0 curiously meld.
It is here where what it means to be a Mormon feminist is actively debated; where the nationally organized “Wear Pants to Church Day” was set into motion (Finnigan & Ross, 2013); where Mormon women connect to reflect on their purpose within a religion that has taught “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” (Hinckley, 1995); where calls for collective public demonstration from the group founded by Kate Kelly, Ordain Women, meet autobiographical ruminations over upsetting comments made about working moms in one’s Sunday school class; and where the problems and promises of Mormon women’s agency are perhaps most vibrantly discussed. Rather than mapping the plethora of voices shouting, whispering, and all together conversing one with another inside and about the bloggernacle, my goal in this article is to zoom in on a specific text written by an influential LDS employee, women’s activist, and blogger: Neylan McBaine. McBaine’s A Moderate Mormon Manifesto is a valuable text for examining how contemporary Mormon women navigate their desires for more equal treatment in relation to the doctrine, culture, and policies of the LDS. Amidst the often-polarizing polemics of the bloggernacle, McBaine’s Manifesto is unique in that it carefully creates a productive middle ground within a precarious rhetorical situation. Through a textual analysis, I argue that McBaine’s separation of doctrine from culture and her use of strategic ambiguity construct an effective argument applicable to a broad range of Mormon readers (both women and men). My analysis also points to the technological affordances of Internet blogging that make such an argument possible. Such affordances enable McBaine to embody her Manifesto by linking it to her personal and professional life, establishing her ethos as a mediator of differing women’s voices, offering a promising path to positive policy and cultural change for Mormon women.
Female Agency in Conservative Religion
Conservative Religious Women and Agency
Understanding how women’s agency operates within conservative religious traditions is a necessary first step in appreciating the nuances of the Mormon context and the promise of McBaine’s Manifesto. To do so, I combine literature on women’s agency within conservative religions with recent research on the specific affordances of blogging for religious individuals and communities.
Saba Mahmood’s (2004) ethnography of Muslim women in Egypt has become seminal for discussions of agency within conservative religious traditions. Mahmood first destabilizes notions of agency based in secular-liberal worldviews and the romanticization of resistance that has resulted in the conflation of agency with subversion. Her explicit goal is to “detach agency from the goals of progressive politics” in order to acknowledge practices of inhabiting norms and the quest for an ethics of self as forms of agency (p. 14). Mahmood argues against a theory of agency, insisting instead that agency is “a modality of action” (p. 157) that must be analyzed in relation to “the grammar of concepts of which its particular affect, meaning and form resides” (p. 188).
Mahmood also draws upon Talal Asad to argue for the empowering effect of history and tradition. As in the case of certain Egyptian Muslim women, the desire to continue a historical religious tradition gives rise to exercising agency through active debate over proper interpretations of the scriptural canon. In this way, the women with whom Mahmood studied intentionally separate contemporary Islamic social practices from what each feels is accurate observance of existing doctrine. The women invoke traditional authority through living by religious laws and embodying pious moral conduct to enable an agency capable of negotiating social limitations. Their commitment to the past fuels a critique of the present. McBaine’s Manifesto closely mirrors Muslim women’s strategic separation of Islamic doctrine from Egyptian cultural practices.
Drawing upon Mahmood as well as Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration, Amy Holt (2013) constructs a nuanced definition of agency to help explain Mormon women’s choices more specifically. Her concept of “simultaneous agency” is based on a critique, similar to Mahmood’s, of the secular-liberal hyper attention to resistance as agency. Simultaneous agency, rather than simply resistance or opposition, explains how Mormon women both support and oppose the structure of the LDS of which they are a part. In her ethnographic study of Mormon women, Hoyt maintains they “used simultaneous agency to negotiate between their individual, marital and ecclesiastical expectations and desires” (pp. 204-205). On one hand, the pressure from religious leaders for Mormon women to stay home with their children whenever possible often stigmatizes the desire to pursue a career; on the other, the economic realities of parenthood necessitate a dual income home. Hoyt argues Mormon woman have developed a strategy for negotiating this, and other difficult challenges by invoking personal revelation.
Through their use of prayer, Mormon women enable an individual agency based upon personal spiritual experience. The difference between institutional and personal revelation is key: “While men [primarily] have the ability to receive institutional revelation, which ultimately sets the larger parameters for what would be considered acceptable, all followers are entitled to their own unmediated personal revelation” (Hoyt, 2013, pp. 209-210). By using phrases like “I prayed about it, and I feel good about it,” Mormon women carve out space for personal interpretation of Mormon teachings. Hoyt argues that “personal revelation can act as a type of self-interpreted authorization for women” (p. 210) primarily because “it is highly unusual to question others’ personal revelations” within Mormon culture (p. 211). Thus, being a faithful Mormon requires a careful balancing of individual agency with institutional limits.
Knowing the limits of one’s individual agency, however, is a challenging task. These limits, Jennifer Basquiat (2001) maintains, are most evident in the threat of excommunication, wherein membership in the LDS is revoked entirely, though not permanently. Indeed, the excommunication of Kate Kelly, as mentioned in the introduction, illustrates the precariousness of publicly opposing LDS doctrine. Although Kelly insisted she and others of the Ordain Women group were merely asking LDS authorities to consider the issue of women’s ordination to the male priesthood, her local leader excommunicated her from the Church for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church” (Harrison, 2014). Further citing her efforts to “gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the Church” as the primary cause of discipline (Harrison, emphasis added).
While Hoyt argues Mormon women access greater individual agency through personal revelation, such agency is related to primarily private matters. Issues such as women’s ordination complicate the question of collective agency involving public matters. It is also important to note that while Ordain Women physically gathered for public demonstration, the gatherings were organized online through the group’s website and a number of connected blogs. In addition to the collective action of Ordain Women, Kelly openly detailed her Church disciplinary council, including releasing the excommunication letter from her leader, for an online audience. Kelly’s case illustrates the blurring of both public and private spheres, as well as collective and individual agency brought about by Internet media. The balancing of individual and institutional agency has been explored in relation to early radio technology (Feller, 2015); Mormon women’s agency today must likewise be understood in relation to Internet technology.
The Affordances of Blogging for Religious Agency
The notion of affordances is a useful construct for avoiding the twin traps of social constructivism and technological determinism—both straw figures historically hurled at one’s opposition in the academic debate over the level of agency granted by media technology (Graves, 2007). Graves defines affordances as “the features of a technology that make a certain action possible” (p. 323); according to William Gaver (1991), they are “properties of the world defined with respect to people’s interaction with it” (p. 80). Graves argues further that blogging, as a genre, “is a set of affordances, the communicative template that results when culture renders technological possibility” (p. 338). Exploring what blogging affords religious women therefore engages both its technological possibilities and the social practices surrounding its uses.
The perception of agency afforded by blogging is also an important consideration in regard to the agency of conservative religious women. Stavrositu and Sundar (2012) conceptualize the perception of agency as “as the feeling of having a competent, conﬁdent and assertive voice,” and argue that “through the repeated act of expressing one’s voice and the external validation of this voice…blogging provides one outlet for women to develop their agentic selves” (p. 371). Blogging, they argue, not only increases women’s sense of individual agency but also increases their sense of community. This, however, raises the problematic question of whether issues of equality in religious contexts can be measured and how.
As a leading figure in the study of media and religious identity, Mia Lovheim (2013) argues that the Internet “provides a discursive and social infrastructure—that is, sacred texts, a shared set of ideas and forum for discussion, rituals and transmission—which sustains as well as forms these religious identities” (p. 47). Further, she states that newer digital media platforms, particularly blogging, allow for greater self-expression, self-reflection, and social interaction as part of the individual creation and expression of religious identity.
Examples of religious agency made available through the affordances of blogging take various shapes. Campbell (2012) notes, that among other uses, religious bloggers use their blogs to document their spiritual journey, defend their faith, engage in religious debates and experiment. “Religious blogging,” she argues, “becomes about constructing and performing a specific religious identity online through a process of religious self-identification” (p. 72). Klassen and Lofton (2013) assert, “the virtual call and response of Christian Blogging has created a new kind of space for theological reflection and debate that blends creedal commitments with the intimate details of personal lives and their embodied memories” (p. 62). Through the practice of blogging, Whitehead (2013) found that Mormon women exercise agency by connecting what appear as contradictory cultural and religious values and beliefs in order to negotiate their identity as Mormon women
In my analysis of Neylan McBaine’s A Moderate Mormon’s Manifesto, I aim to combine Mahmood and Hoyt’s understanding of conservative religious women’s agency with Lovheim, Campbell, and Whitehead’s work on the affordances of blogging specific to religion. The result, I hope, will bring together these separate bodies of literature to better understand how blogging enables a unique form of agency for Mormon women and how conservative religious women are taking advantage of the affordances of Internet media more broadly.
Neylan McBaine’s “Moderate Mormon Manifesto”
In this section, I will provide context for McBaine’s Manifesto by exploring her professional career and the website Feminist Mormon Housewives (FMH), where the manifesto was first published. McBaine’s unique position within, or between, the LDS and the Mormon feminist community enables and constrains her agency in fascinating ways. As an employee of the LDS’s corporate media arm, Bonneville Communications, McBaine is granted access to the inner workings of LDS media operations. In fact, the Church hired McBaine, a mother of three, in 2010 as a creative director specifically for “recruiting and vetting women to featured in the Mormon.org video profiles” (McBaine, 2010). As part of the multibillion dollar “I’m a Mormon” campaign, the videos are at the heart of the Church’s most expensive and expansive efforts to shape public perceptions of the religion throughout the world (Chen, 2014). McBaine is also the founder and editor of a nonprofit organization known as the Mormon Women’s Project: a digital library of interviews with LDS women from around the world, independent of the LDS, that “celebrates women who have made deliberate choices…to overcome personal trials, magnify motherhood, contribute to communities outside their homes, or be converted to the Gospel” (“About the Morman Women Project,” 2014). In addition to her personal blog, McBaine has published in numerous venues from obscure Mormon journals such as Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought to Newsweek and the Washington Post. Her recent book, Mormon Women at Church, exemplifies McBaine’s goal to unite women and men in making practical and incremental changes for Mormon women at the local level.
The FMH website—where McBaine’s Manifesto was first published—was created in 2004. Free to public participation, once at FMH users can navigate several blog posts and podcasts. Regular bloggers at FMH, many of whom go by nickname, come from a variety of education levels, family circumstances, and professions. FMH features the posts of orthodox and heterodox Mormon women (and one man), some of whom have been active members of the LDS their entire lives, others converted later in life, and others still who wear the liminal, heterodox badge proudly. Also, some have received national attention while others are obscure and nearly anonymous. The writing of prominent Mormon women featured on FMH frequently overlaps with the women’s personal websites and blogs, bringing together a relatively diverse body of English-speaking, American Mormon women. The website’s self-described mission is to create “a safe place to be feminist and faithful.”
FMH is arguably the most talked about and visited Mormon feminist website within the Mormon community. The site receives an average of 5,000 visitors per day, roughly 150,000 per month (Lisa Butterworth, personal communication, May 7, 2014). McBaine is not, however, a regular contributor to FMH; her Manifesto appears as a guest post. With her personal blog, the Mormon Women’s Project and her professional work for the LDS already established, McBaine encounters the exigence of identifying herself on the spectrum of Mormon feminism, activism, and orthodoxy to her FMH readers. Her Manifesto was the fourth most popular post on FMH in 2013 and, as of May 2014, has been viewed nearly 14,000 times (Lisa Butterworth, personal communication, May 7, 2014). It was reposted to McBaine’s personal blog the following day. The Manifesto should be viewed then as a text written primarily for Mormon women, specifically Mormon feminists, adding to a conversation among women of various personal and political goals and levels of commitment to Mormonism.
McBaine begins her manifesto as an autobiography of her privileged childhood in Manhattan, New York, attending a private, all-girls school that “prided itself on educating the female leaders of tomorrow.” Influenced by the caricature of a “power grabbing, man hating” New York feminism, McBaine gradually refined her views of womanhood and the “feminist spectrum.” Her broad and conservative definition of feminism, one inclusive of women and men, follows: “If you care about the spiritual, emotional and intellectual development opportunities available to you, your wife, your sister or your daughter, you are a feminist. Period.” The LDS is inherently feminist, she posits, arguing Mormons need an inclusive approach to feminism large enough to embrace “any person who feels comfortable working on behalf of women.” In order to avoid the “secular baggage” that accompanies many of the different labels and types of feminism, McBaine waxes theological, proposing “Edenic feminism”:
The pre-fall model enacted in Eden is a good example of this model in practice: Eve demonstrates a clear and confident voice when making her choice to eat of the fruit, and she makes the decision largely for herself and by herself. It is later, when she has expressed her own voice and done all that she can to be like God on her own, that she invites Adam to join her. It is self-actualizing feminism. She became the master of her own destiny.
McBaine continues, “Edenic or self-actualizing feminism requires the existence of a robust female sphere in which women can develop the kind of self-knowledge, confidence and drive to action that Eve demonstrated.” Though the seeds of the ideal female sphere exist within Mormon doctrine, McBaine argues it is on the administrative and cultural level that changes need to take place, where language is moved to action. Rather than working under a male hierarchy, female Mormon leaders should work alongside their male counterparts, “administratively and ministerially responsible for half of the world’s population in a joint venture of administering the church with the prophet.” Mormon women should become more aware of their independence from men; the beauty of Edenic feminism for McBaine is “women speaking for women, representing women and advocating for women.”
The barrier to Edenic feminism is not Mormon men, but the failure of women themselves. McBaine strategically places the word “women” into an oft-quoted Mormon scripture: “Verily I say, women should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of your own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.” She continues her call to action:
Until we as women are ready to put aside our claims that we don’t want the Priesthood because we’re already so busy, or until we even start noticing that the Scouting budgets are greater than the Activity Day budgets, or that we can’t even name our Stake Relief Society president, or that we don’t even call our ward Primary or Relief Society presidents “president,” the power of our sphere will remain dormant.
In this last passage, McBaine’s reference to not wanting the exclusively male priesthood blurs her overarching political agenda, giving room for multiple interpretations of the Manifesto. She concludes by refuting hypothetical counterarguments, namely equality feminism, and critiques from both sides of an improper amount of activism. Recognizing the need for overlap between men’s and women’s spheres, McBaine acknowledges that “the very logical defense argues that if you concede that there is a part that doesn’t overlap, that portion can be abused and exploited. And in the case of men and women, we see that it is abused, the world over, overwhelmingly by men.” But she isn’t willing to dismiss gender difference: “Gender is not something that can empirically be argued away. It means something.” The task then is to “negotiate—within our countries, within our communities, within our church—to what degree the separate spheres intersect.” Again, McBaine places herself in between uncomfortable extremes, maintaining strategic ambiguity: “It is too simplistic to condemn equality feminism because it seems to disregard essential gender belief, and it is equally overly simplistic to condemn Edenic or self-actualizing feminism because it seems to disregard human commonalities.”
Citing the “library of personal attacks” she has amassed for her views on Mormon feminism, McBaine speaks of critiques from both sides of the political spectrum: “For some, my approach is too little because it is unwilling to demand wholesale change. For others, my approach is too much because it overestimates the individual’s power to ask questions and effectuate change within God’s organization.” But she ensures that negotiating gender dynamics is not a zero sum game, that “divine math demands that we accept that there is room for all good; that the win or opportunity or even salvation of one doesn’t take away or diminish the successes and salvation of others.”
In this section, I will discuss the rhetorical strategies McBaine uses—analyzing her separation of doctrine from culture and the use of strategic ambiguity—as well the affordances of blogging that enable McBaine to embody her Manifesto as a powerful mediator.
Separating Doctrine and Culture
Mormon doctrine dictates official Mormon teachings about the purpose of the life, the mission and role of Jesus Christ, and the covenants and ordinances necessary for individual salvation. Cultural practices, on the other hand, are often separated as social norms, traditions, and attitudes embedded within particular groups of Mormons. For example, while Mormon doctrine makes it clear that a male bishop, through his priesthood authority and keys, is to preside over a local congregation, the tradition of men speaking more often and for longer periods of time than women in worship meetings is generally considered a cultural practice. In her Manifesto, McBaine is explicit that she is seeking to uphold and continue existing Mormon doctrine including male-only priesthood ordination—a tradition she sees as doctrinally, not culturally based.
By reinscribing divine gender differences and arguing against female ordination McBaine supports official Mormon doctrine and teachings; by challenging specific cultural practices, such as unfair budgetary differences between male and female church youth groups, she brings attention to harmful patriarchal norms and creates an exigence for change. In another example, McBaine argues that Mormon women leaders, some with titles such as Relief Society President and Young Women’s President, should be referred to as “president” as men leaders are rather than as “sister” as is common practice. McBaine lays claim to individual interpretation of Mormon scripture by acting as a social critic but stops short of critiquing Mormon doctrine.
The excommunication of previous Mormon feminists for their public rejection of male authorities serves as a tangible reminder of the limits of Mormon feminism, and activism more generally. Although the changes McBaine suggests may appear insignificant or even trite to some, her working within and through existing hierarchy and doctrine, on the other hand, serves as a more practical and sustainable alternative for incremental progress. Her delicate balancing act between doctrine and culture is a powerful and promising rhetorical strategy but it is not without problems.
Although McBaine and other Mormon activists make separating Mormon doctrine from Mormon culture appear seamless, when examined more closely the distinction becomes paradoxical for two primary reasons. First, Mormons believe that God reveals his will through otherwise ordinary men called of God and placed within the institutional church hierarchy. Doctrine, as it is continually revealed, will be done so through men situated within varying cultural, social, political, and economic circumstances. The change to the Mormon doctrine of polygamy, particularly its cessation at the end of the 19th century, for example, can only be understood in relation to the Edmund’s Tucker Act of 1870 which made polygamy illegal, Utah’s struggle for statehood, the controversy surrounding the seating of U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, and the LDS’s larger desire for social assimilation at the time (Mauss, 1994; Bowman, 2012).
As Peter Horsfield (2015) notes, Christian history is rife with instances of church leaders following popular cultural practice to maintain relevance. A distinction between doctrine and culture somewhat assumes divine revelation takes place inside a socio-cultural vacuum—a strategy used historically by theological idealists and an assumption that protects Mormon church leaders from criticism. McBaine’s separation implicitly upholds existing structures of male authority, even as she seeks to make cultural change more accessible, practical, and simple. Furthermore, distinctions between doctrine and culture indirectly obscure the historical interconnectedness of media and religion (Horsfield, 2015), overlooking the impact of the medium, and larger mediation processes more generally, on the message—a point that if acknowledged could help rather than harm McBaine’s argument.
Second, as Hoyt makes clear, Mormon belief in a distinction between institutional and individual revelation causes seemingly unresolvable tensions between obeying church leaders and following individual interpretation of church teachings. This paradox both enables McBaine’s critique of harmful gender norms as a personal interpretation of Mormon doctrine while simultaneously limiting her ability to impose such beliefs on others. The inherent contradiction in the very title, “a ‘moderate’ manifesto,” however, seems to communicate McBaine’s acceptance of paradoxical beliefs. McBaine’s solution to the problem of individual and institutional revelation is simple: spiritually empower Mormon women capable of making cultural changes while persuading Mormon men holding high leadership positions in the Church hierarchy to make necessary administrative changes. Rather than focusing exclusively on individual agency enacted through personal revelation, Mormon women must unite in a bond of common sisterhood to collectively change harmful cultural practices. Here, McBaine wisely avoids overstepping the institutional bounds that caused Kelly’s excommunication by calling on both women and men, in their separate spheres of influence, to make necessary cultural and administrative changes. She successfully straddles the thin line between individual and institution, carefully navigating doctrinal and cultural gender differences.
Uniting, let alone mobilizing, the group of diverse Mormon women within the FMH community—to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands outside the bloggernacle —is a daunting task. McBaine’s use of strategic ambiguity, however, has the potential to accomplish such a task. To provide a salient example, on the issue of female ordination McBaine subtly but intentionally shifts between oppositional binaries. In one moment she is quick to legitimate Ordain Women’s cause because of its doctrinal foundation: “While some may not understand how equality feminism can be in harmony with our belief in gender, equality feminists like many of those behind Ordain Women see their stand as being consistent with the scriptural description of souls: ‘All are alike unto God.’ In this, they have an irrefutable point.” Yet she intentionally moves away from priesthood ordination, noting that while men and women’s spheres have much overlap the latter should not completely “eclipse” the former. Rather than alienating women within progressive and conservative extremes, she strategically leaves the question of exactly where and when the overlap of men and women’s spheres stops ambiguously unanswered; asserting instead that “we must negotiate—within our countries, within our communities, within our church—to what degree the separate spheres intersect.” McBaine thus holds to divine gender difference while validating the possibility of female ordination—without endorsing Ordain Women or upsetting those completely opposed to the idea.
Another example of McBaine’s use of strategic ambiguity is found in the following passage: “My feminism [Edenic feminism] does not argue that the biological differences between men and women are inconsequential. Neither does my feminism hold that men and women should play into any culturally-imposed division of spheres.” The consequences of biological differences in the sexes as well as specifics regarding the social construction of gender roles are both left underdetermined; what McBaine means exactly is again up for individual interpretation. McBaine’s use of strategic ambiguity allows a polysemic reading (Fiske, 1987) and thus offers potential to bridge differing opinions while avoiding the limitations of both radical and conservative extremes, though the dialectic between both ends has been integral to Mormon history.
Mormon belief in individual revelation makes McBaine’s use of strategic ambiguity even more significant. The many convoluted passages of the Book of Mormon (and all Christian scripture for that matter), for example, provide endless opportunity for personal illumination according to personal circumstance; as one LDS apostle stated, “each pronouncement in the holy scriptures…is so written as to reveal little or much, depending on the spiritual capacity of the student” (McConkie, 1982, p. 243). McBaine’s ambiguity, then, is neither strange to her Mormon audience’s ears nor to their hearts, opening opportunity for individual interpretation as is common Mormon practice.
McBaine as Mediator
I now move outside of the Manifesto as a text to focus on the technological affordances of blogging that offer Neylan McBaine an effective way to embody her Manifesto as a mediator of competing Mormon women’s voices for change. In addition to enabling McBaine’s voice to be heard among a diverse audience, sparking discussion and debate in an online community separated by physical distance, the hyperlinks embedded within the text allow McBaine to connect the Manifesto to her personal and professional life as well as to other self-authored writings to build her ethos as both active Mormon and women’s activist.
Unlike many Protestant Christian denominations, Mormons are assigned a ward (congregation) based strictly on geographic proximity to local meetinghouses and are encouraged to actively participate in their ward—primarily through accepting and fulfilling voluntary responsibilities assigned by the male bishop—while limiting visits to others. The FMH blog thus brings together various Mormon women otherwise separated by physical distance. Because male leaders oversee weekly Mormon worship meetings, FMH also provides a unique platform for Mormon women to collectively express and discuss frustrations with the male hierarchy. The ability for McBaine’s audience members to repost the Manifesto on any number of websites extends its reach indeterminately; the algorithmic nature of Internet search ensures that the Manifesto will circulate more to relevant readers than to unintentional searchers.
Through the use of hyperlinks, others—including McBaine herself—can connect any number of web pages to the Manifesto. First, the use of hyperlinks allowed McBaine to save space in the Manifesto and increase her ethos as an experienced and reputable activist by simply linking the text to other, more extensive, self-authored articles and essays dealing with the subject at hand. McBaine’s credibility is strengthened, if for no other reason, by demonstrating through even the appearance of hyperlinks that the Manifesto is not her first rodeo. Several of the web pages she links to are extensions and iterations of the Manifesto argument delivered to various audiences, illustrating to readers McBaine’s desire to mediate differing Mormon voices.
Through other hyperlinks, McBaine, as a persona, connects the Manifesto to her professional work for the LDS on the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, quickly positioning herself as both an activist and a faithfully practicing Mormon. Published attacks on Mormonism from outsiders have been historically stigmatized within Mormon culture as “anti-Mormon literature” (Nelson, 1992; Burroughs & Feller, 2005). Furthermore, FMH’s creator positions the site as “a forum for believing members or for others who are willing to respect members’ beliefs” in order to avoid vitriolic rhetoric and perceived persecution. Criticism of Mormon practices from those outside the Mormon community—commonly referred to as “non-members”—often in spite of the nature of the criticism itself, is a real sticking point for many Mormons. Thus, McBaine’s authenticity and legitimacy come from both her personal and professional life and are central to both the effectiveness of her Manifesto and her ethos as a mediator.
To be certain, cross-referencing one’s self is not without historical precedent. For instance, Cyprian, the influential third century Catholic bishop of Carthage, included copies of self-authored letters, which he also cross-referenced, when writing to early Christian communities. The practice assumed his previous opinions were widely circulated and their contents part of shared knowledge (Horsfield, 2015, p. 72). However, blogging offers the convenience of accessing referenced texts at a single click. Readers are not left to trust the writer on her word, or required to do their own library search to corroborate; they can quickly and easily browse hyperlinked content at their own leisure. Furthermore, the Mormon women in McBaine’s audience can effectively remain in the perceived safety of the bloggernacle while clicking hyperlinks, reducing the risk of unintentionally stumbling upon anti-Mormon websites.
While blogging itself is often deemed a new technology and cultural practice, it restores previous media traditions within Christianity and Mormonism more specifically, and combines them into a convenient, accessible, and popular format. The reach of McBaine’s message and Mormon women’s lively occupation of online spaces more generally, for instance, revives elements of a historical print media tradition which enabled female religious expression and community building—a tradition that was gradually (though not entirely) dissolved through LDS Church correlation efforts throughout the second half of the 20th century (Prince & Wright, 2005). Through the affordances of blogging, McBaine carefully positions herself and her message within complex Mormon “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5), exercising a unique form of conservative agency to effect positive change for Mormon women.
Through my analysis of Neylan McBaine’s A Moderate Mormon Manifesto, I have attempted to bring new understanding to ongoing discussions of conservative women’s religious agency and the affordances of Internet blogging. McBaine’s rhetorical strategies within the text, namely her separation of doctrine from culture and strategic ambiguity, coupled with her ethos as a faithful Mormon and women’s activist developed through the affordances of Internet blogging, allow her to effectively position herself as a mediator of various voices within the Mormon women’s online community. As the tensions surrounding Mormon women’s visibility, decision-making, and priesthood ordination increase, so will the need for such calls to unity.
Future research in this area should include further theorization of the role of Internet media in the agency of religious women and men. The LDS’s recent explosion in the number of female missionaries volunteering for full-time missionary proselytizing calls for scholarship on the impact this growing body will have on gender and power dynamics within Mormonism. Furthermore, ethnographic research on the uses of Internet media by Mormon women, men, and missionaries will add to understanding of role of such media in the creation and negotiation of religious identity and community.