A few days ago, my long-suffering mother sent me a link to a newspaper article about Maxine Hanks, and her decision to be re-baptized into the LDS church after being excommunicated in in 1993. I'd seen links to the article elsewhere, but had avoided reading it. Her story still hurts, even though it isn't mine, but because of people like Maxine Hanks, it never will be.
For those of you unfamiliar with Maxine Hanks, she was one of the "September Six" excommunicated in 1992-1993 for speaking and writing critically of the LDS church. She edited the book, Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism," which contains several essays and papers analyzing the role of feminism in church history.
It is important for me to note that I am reading the book, and especially by today's standards, it contains nothing particularly inflammatory. It is a scholarly work. Some might even find it dry at times (I don't, but I'm a history major, a Mormon, and a feminist.) But Hanks was speaking and writing in a time where church leaders, like Elder Packer, believed that "There are three areas where members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away...The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals." (1993.)
It was a dangerous time to be a Mormon and a free-thinker. It was a dangerous time to be a critical thinker, and to question church practices. Growing up, I heard rumors about the September Six. Many people were quick to say that they weren't excommunicated for being feminists, or for their writing, but for far worse "secret" things. According to some, the September Six (and the entire feminist movement,) were bent on destroying the church, (and probably bringing about the end of times, because let's be honest, that is how we Mormons roll sometimes.) Many also suggested, and still suggest, that if someone disagrees with the church, they should just leave. For some, critical thinkers have no place in the church.
I don't believe that. I do believe the September Six were excommunicated for having ideas that differed from Church leadership, at a time when the church was working hard to "correlate" (critics sometimes see "correlation" as synonymous with "white-washing," others may see it as simply "standardizing,") Mormon doctrine. If the September Six were a "danger" or "threat" to the church, they simply threatened the idea that all Mormons should think, act, and believe the same way.
So when I read of her re-baptism, I admit I harbored feelings of cynicism. How convenient. For a church currently battling criticism ranging from their spending habits to their treatment of the LGBT community, a happy story for the news cycle seems calculated and insincere. Hey world! We are feminist-friendly now! We didn't even make her recant her writings! PS: Elect Romney!
Likewise, I wondered why Maxine Hanks would seek re-baptism. How could a woman who ten years ago believed "Mormonism was limiting to me, so I needed to test the limits — to see who I and the church really might be. … Excommunication opened the door to a larger cosmos, inside and outside myself," now believe her "searching was complete. I had my answers."
After the Mormon Stories conference, I spoke to a friend about my feelings of confusion regarding my role in the Mormon community. I speculated that many read what I write and project their own feelings onto my faith journey. Some want to see me as their "Ex Mormon Hero," a sharp-tongued critic who reveals all that is wrong with the LDS church. Others want me to be their "Liberal Mormon Friend," who speaks up for them in Sunday School, and courageously battles against the group-think.
I am neither of those people.
Like Hanks, and like anyone who simultaneously loves and questions their religious up-bringing, I seek out my own path. But it is because of people like Maxine Hanks that I am free to carve out my soul from the rock of Mormonism. I am neither forced to leave or required to stay. It is a freedom that is terrifying, and bought at a price.
Twenty years ago, the church excommunicated Maxine Hanks for thinking critically. Now, like Lazarus emerging from the tomb, her name appears on the rolls again. My inner cynic still questions the motives of the Church in allowing her to be baptized again. But I cannot deny the feeling of hope I feel knowing that someone like Maxine Hanks exists in the church. I hope, and the part of me that still seeks out God prays, that this means something good. The presence of Hanks in the church tells me that maybe the church no longer sees feminism, intellectuals, and Gays as the greatest danger to the church. Maybe the biggest dangers are ignorance, prejudice, and fear, and maybe Mormons can begin to fight these new threats from within.
In the meantime, I remind myself to grant others their own paths, including a path back to Mormonism. To do so, I remember a line in To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Maxine Hanks, Atticus Finch is often asked to choose between his profession and his community. Both sides claim the advantage of having majority rule over his behavior. But he reminds his daughter that "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." He does the right thing for himself, for his daughter, and for those who do not yet have the freedom to choose. I believe Maxine Hanks is doing the same thing.
If Hanks can trust her conscience enough to rejoin the LDS church, it should be enough (for her.) As I seek out my own path, wherever it leads, I thankful to be able to trust in my conscience. I may be a cynic, but as Atticus also teaches Scout: "You rarely win. But sometimes you do."
(Are you listening to the FMH podcast yet? You should.)
Maxine Hanks will be at Sunstone this year!