Kavanaugh Hearings Are a Commentary on Mormonism

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Religion Dispatches Politics/Law

Kavanaugh Hearings Are a Commentary on Mormonism

Holly Welker

I strongly suspect that what Senator Orrin Hatch found so objectionable about the Kavanaugh hearing was that women were allowed to ask questions of a man.

Georgetown Prep, the private boys high school attended by Brett Kavanaugh, is a Jesuit school, which implicates Catholicism in Thursday’s Senate hearing into Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. I admit I don’t know what to make of the implications: as editor of my high school yearbook for two years and someone with an extremely religious upbringing, I cannot wrap my head around the school’s academic and religious authority figures allowing students to write the sorts of risqué bios that appear in Kavanaugh’s yearbook. 

So Mormonism is not exactly the first religion that springs to mind as a lens through which to view the hearing. Nonetheless, there are several ways in which the hearing was a commentary on Mormonism.

Mormons are over-represented in the US Senate: they constitute two percent of the overall population of the country, but there are six Mormons—Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), Tom Udall (D-NM)—in the Senate. Four of them (Crapo, Flake, Hatch and Lee) are on the judiciary committee. It has 21 members, which means Mormons constitute almost a fifth of that body, and more than a third of the Republicans (4 out of 11). 

On September 25, a group called Mormon Women for Ethical Government issued a letter asking those four men to: 

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[Insist] on a full, independent investigation of these charges before a confirmation vote takes place…

As your constituents, your neighbors, and your sisters in the gospel, we ask you to give sincere consideration to the message you are communicating through your participation in the Kavanaugh confirmation process. This is not just about Judge Kavanaugh. This is about how men treat women in our society, particularly men who hold positions of power…. We are asking you to witness that pain and recognize that there is more at stake here than a Supreme Court seat. 

As far as I can tell, the only two senators who paid any attention to that letter are Jeff Flake, who on September 26 gave a speech in the Senate that addressed many of the concerns the letter raised, and Corey Booker of New Jersey, who asked that the letter be included in the hearing’s record. I’m not a member of the group and know little about it besides what I’ve read on its website and Facebook page, but I burst into tears of gratitude at Senator Booker’s request. It’s rare that Mormon women are taken seriously. 

Senator Hatch, his voice cracking in shrill incredulity, protested the fact that the hearing explored Kavanaugh’s “conduct in high school!” and “claims from his teenage years!” Looking up from his prepared statement and gesturing to underscore his disgust, he told Kavanaugh, “I hate to say this, but this is worse than Robert Bork, and I didn’t think it could get any worse than that. This is worse than Clarence Thomas. I didn’t think it could get any worse than that. This is a national disgrace, the way you’re being treated.” 

There are many problems with Hatch’s statement—for one thing, he made no mention of Anita Hill, or how he treated her during those hearings. But I want to focus on the incongruity of Hatch’s outrage that anyone would be asked about their sexual activity or their fondness for beer when it’s a requirement that active Latter-day Saints submit regularly to invasive worthiness interviews covering precisely those types of issues. 

These interviews begin at age 12. Until very recently, parents were not allowed to be present during these interviews, in which adult men could ask minors explicit questions about everything from the sort of underwear they wore, to whether or how often they masturbated. Earlier this month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated Sam Young, a Texas businessman and former bishop, because he lobbied the church to end these invasive interviews with minors. 

The interviews continue into adulthood. If anything, they become even more invasive, because they’re required in order to get a temple recommend, a small card about the size of a credit card certifying that its possessor is worthy to enter the temple. Furthermore, if someone commits a sin that violates their temple covenants, they’re expected to go to the bishop immediately and confess their sins. 

If the sins confessed to are serious enough, the bishop can convene what the church likes to call a “court of love,” an ecclesiastical disciplinary council during which the person on trial is expected to be completely forthcoming when asked about their behavior. However, you don’t have to confess to anything to be summoned to a court of love—someone could rat you out for being gay, for instance, and the first you would know of it is when you get a letter informing you that you’re facing excommunication. 

Furthermore, until 1989, the only way to officially leave the church was to go through a church court and excommunication. Norman Hancock of Mesa, Arizona, decided he wanted to leave the church on his own terms and was outraged when the church excommunicated him anyway. He had to sue the church for $18 million before the church created a pathway for people to leave without being tried, convicted, and labeled excommunicants. 

So situations like the one Hatch finds so repugnant are integral to LDS experience. There were many, many elements of the hearing that disturbed and distressed me, but one of the worst was realizing yet again that I grew up considering it normal to sit in a room with a man who might be my best friend’s father and might be a complete stranger and let him ask me deeply personal questions. It was so normal, in fact, that when I visited a college friend as a 20-year-old, her father, who held high ecclesiastical office but never over me, decided he had the right to insist I submit to an interrogation. I was indignant and offended—I barely knew this man, and, to use a Mormon locution, he had no stewardship over me. But everyone else went along with it. My friend and her mother left. And eventually I figured the easiest way to get through the situation was just to submit. It was just an hour’s worth of really snoopy questions, after all.

I strongly suspect that what Hatch, Mormonism’s current elder statesman, finds so objectionable about the Kavanaugh hearing Thursday was that women were allowed to ask questions of a man. That’s not how these things are supposed to work. 

Finally, there’s the issue of rape culture within Mormonism. Rape culture refers not merely to how likely men and boys are to rape women and girls but to a whole set of assumptions about who is really responsible for sexual misbehavior (hint: it’s almost always her) and how perpetrators and victims should be treated.

I think rape culture explains the recent kerfuffle involving Robert Kirby, the Salt Lake Tribune humorist and retired cop who was forced to take three months’ unpaid leave after Courtney Clark Kendrick revealed that he had asked her to pretend to be an escort and to consume edible marijuana almost immediately upon meeting her at the Sunstone Symposium in July. While Kirby didn’t deny the actions, he did insist that the real problem was that Kendrick simply didn’t understand his sense of humor. I don’t know why I was shocked that so many people accepted his explanation and felt that simply being embarrassed was more punishment than Kirby deserved.

I’ve written previously about rape culture in the church. In particular, I detailed how I felt that the Missionary Training Center, where I spent two months learning Mandarin in the summer of 1985, exemplified rape culture. Among other things, women were told that we must never expose our bare legs. Even if I were wearing a dress that hit my mid-calf, I was expected to wear pantyhose, so that no teenage boy would be overcome by lust at the sight of my bare ankle. But some days I didn’t want to wear pantyhose, so some days I didn’t. Which meant that before long, a 20-something man would lecture me on how I had to wear pantyhose—as if that were any of his damn business.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the president of the MTC at the time, Joseph Bishop, had been accused of sexually assaulting young women. I never met Bishop and have no memory of him, but I wasn’t particularly shocked by the accusations. I figured that the oppressive culture I experienced at the MTC came from the top. 

Mormon Women for Ethical Government were right: there was far more at stake in Thursday’s hearing than a Supreme Court seat. Jeff Flake is the only Mormon on the judiciary committee who professed the slightest concern for what issues like this mean to women; Crapo, Lee, and Hatch were concerned entirely with how these issues harm men. That can’t be enough—particularly as Flake announced this morning that he will vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Such men will never let the story change as long as they are in charge of writing it.