How I’m Working for Change Inside My Church by Chelsea Shields (Transcript)

Chelsea Shields

Full text of Chelsea Shields on How I’m Working for Change Inside My Church at TED Talks Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – How I’m Working for Change Inside My Church by Chelsea Shields @ TED Talks


Religion is more than belief. It’s power, and it’s influence. And that influence affects all of us every day, regardless of your own belief. Despite the enormous influence of religion on the world today, we hold them to a different standard of scrutiny and accountability than any other sector of our society. For example, if there were a multinational organization, government or corporation today that said no female could be on a leadership board, not one woman could have a decision-making authority, not one woman could handle any financial matter, we’d have outrage. There would be sanctions. And yet this is a common practice in almost every world religion today.

We accept things in our religious lives that we do not accept in our secular lives, and I know this because I’ve been doing it for three decades. I was the type of girl that fought every form of gender discrimination growing up. I played pickup basketball games with the boys and inserted myself. I said I was going to be the first female President of the United States. I have been fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been dead for 40 years. I’m the first woman in both sides of my family to ever work outside the home and ever receive a higher education.

I never accepted being excluded because I was a woman, except in my religion. Throughout all of that time, I was a part of a very patriarchal orthodox Mormon religion. I grew up in an enormously traditional family. I have eight siblings, a stay-at-home mother. My father’s actually a religious leader in the community. And I grew up in a world believing that my worth and my standing was in keeping these rules that I’d known my whole life. You get married a virgin, you never drink alcohol, you don’t smoke, you always do service, you’re a good kid. Some of the rules we had were strict, but you followed the rules because you loved the people and you loved the religion and you believed.

Everything about Mormonism determined what you wore, who you dated, who you married. It determined what underwear we wore. I was the kind of religious where everyone I know donated 10% of everything they earned to the church, including myself. From paper routes and babysitting, I donated 10%. I was the kind of religious where I heard parents tell children when they’re leaving on a two-year proselytizing mission that they would rather have them die than return home without honor, having sinned.

I was the type and the kind of religious where kids kill themselves every single year because they’re terrified of coming out to our community as gay. But I was also the kind of religious where it didn’t matter where in the world I lived, I had friendship, instantaneous mutual aid. This was where I felt safe. This is certainty and clarity about life. I had help raising my little daughter. So that’s why I accepted without question that only men can lead, and I accepted without question that women can’t have the spiritual authority of God on the Earth, which we call the priesthood. And I allowed discrepancies between men and women in operating budgets, disciplinary councils, in decision-making capacities, and I gave my religion a free pass because I loved it.

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Until I stopped, and I realized that I had been allowing myself to be treated as the support staff to the real work of men. And I faced this contradiction in myself, and I joined with other activists in my community. We’ve been working very, very, very hard for the last decade and more.

The first thing we did was raise consciousness. You can’t change what you can’t see. We started podcasting, blogging, writing articles. I created lists of hundreds of ways that men and women are unequal in our community.

The next thing we did was build advocacy organizations. We tried to do things that were unignorable, like wearing pants to church and trying to attend all-male meetings. These seem like simple things, but to us, the organizers, they were enormously costly. We lost relationships. We lost jobs. We got hate mail on a daily basis. We were attacked in social media and national press. We received death threats. We lost standing in our community. Some of us got excommunicated. Most of us got put in front of a disciplinary council, and we were rejected from the communities that we loved because we wanted to make them better, because we believed that they could be.

And I began to expect this reaction from my own people. I know what it feels like when you feel like someone’s trying to change you or criticize you. But what utterly shocked me was throughout all of this work I received equal measures of vitriol from the secular left, the same vehemence as the religious right. And what my secular friends didn’t realize was that this religious hostility, these phrases of, “Oh, all religious people are crazy or stupid.” “Don’t pay attention to religion.” “They’re going to be homophobic and sexist.” What they didn’t understand was that that type of hostility did not fight religious extremism, it bred religious extremism. Those arguments don’t work, and I know because I remember someone telling me that I was stupid for being Mormon. And what it caused me to do was defend myself and my people and everything we believe in, because we’re not stupid.

So criticism and hostility doesn’t work, and I didn’t listen to these arguments. When I hear these arguments, I still continue to bristle, because I have family and friends. These are my people, and I’m the first to defend them, but the struggle is real. How do we respect someone’s religious beliefs while still holding them accountable for the harm or damage that those beliefs may cause others? It’s a tough question. I still don’t have a perfect answer. My parents and I have been walking on this tightrope for the last decade. They’re intelligent people. They’re lovely people. And let me try to help you understand their perspective.

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In Mormonism, we believe that after you die, if you keep all the rules and you follow all the rituals, you can be together as a family again. And to my parents, me doing something as simple as having a sleeveless top right now, showing my shoulders, that makes me unworthy. I won’t be with my family in the eternities. But even more, I had a brother die in a tragic accident at 15, and something as simple as this means we won’t be together as a family. And to my parents, they cannot understand why something as simple as fashion or women’s rights would prevent me from seeing my brother again. And that’s the mindset that we’re dealing with, and criticism does not change that.

And so my parents and I have been walking this tightrope, explaining our sides, respecting one another, but actually invalidating each other’s very basic beliefs by the way we live our lives, and it’s been difficult. The way that we’ve been able to do that is to get past those defensive shells and really see the soft inside of unbelief and belief and try to respect each other while still holding boundaries clear.

The other thing that the secular left and the atheists and the orthodox and the religious right, what they all don’t understand was why even care about religious activism? I cannot tell you the hundreds of people who have said, “If you don’t like religion, just leave.” Why would you try to change it? Because what is taught on the Sabbath leaks into our politics, our health policy, violence around the world. It leaks into education, military, fiscal decision-making. These laws get legally and culturally codified. In fact, my own religion has had an enormous effect on this nation. For example, during Prop 8, my church raised over $22 million to fight same-sex marriage in California. Forty years ago, political historians will say, that if it wasn’t for the Mormon opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, we’d have an Equal Rights Amendment in our Constitution today. How many lives did that affect? And we can spend time fighting every single one of these little tiny laws and rules, or we can ask ourselves, why is gender inequality the default around the world? Why is that the assumption?

Because religion doesn’t just create the roots of morality, it creates the seeds of normality. Religions can liberate or subjugate, they can empower or exploit, they can comfort or destroy, and the people that tip the scales over to the ethical and the moral are often not those in charge. Religions can’t be dismissed or ignored. We need to take them seriously. But it’s not easy to influence a religion, like we just talked about.

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But I’ll tell you what my people have done. My groups are small, there’s hundreds of us, but we’ve had huge impact. Right now, women’s pictures are hanging in the halls next to men for the first time. Women are now allowed to pray in our church-wide meetings, and they never were before in the general conferences. As of last week, in a historic move, three women were invited down to three leadership boards that oversee the entire church. We’ve seen perceptual shifts in the Mormon community that allow for talk of gender inequality. We’ve opened up space, regardless of being despised, for more conservative women to step in and make real changes, and the words “women” and “the priesthood” can now be uttered in the same sentence. I never had that. My daughter and my nieces are inheriting a religion that I never had, that’s more equal — we’ve had an effect.

It wasn’t easy standing in those lines trying to get into those male meetings. There were hundreds of us, and one by one, when we got to the door, we were told, “I’m sorry, this meeting is just for men,” and we had to step back and watch men get into the meeting as young as 12 years old, escorted and walked past us as we all stood in line. But not one woman in that line will forget that day, and not one little boy that walked past us will forget that day.

If we were a multinational corporation or a government, and that had happened, there would be outrage, but we’re just a religion. We’re all just part of religions. We can’t keep looking at religion that way, because it doesn’t only affect me, it affects my daughter and all of your daughters and what opportunities they have, what they can wear, who they can love and marry, if they have access to reproductive healthcare. We need to reclaim morality in a secular context that creates ethical scrutiny and accountability for religions all around the world, but we need to do it in a respectful way that breeds cooperation and not extremism. And we can do it through unignorable acts of bravery, standing up for gender equality.

It’s time that half of the world’s population had voice and equality within our world’s religions, churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines around the world. I’m working on my people. What are you doing for yours?


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