The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the time of #MeToo and the Year of the Woman, Mormon Church president tells women to get off social media for 10 days

President Russell M. Nelson, with arms raised, stands with fellow church leaders during a conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

For over a year since the #MeToo movement began, women have turned to social media with stories of sexual harassment and calls for reform that have powerfully reshaped our society. In recent weeks, women have flooded Facebook and Twitter and Instagram with pleas to #BelieveWomen, as Brett M. Kavanaugh gained a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court amid turmoil over accusations of sexual assault. And with just weeks to go before the Nov. 6 midterms, women are sure to make their presence known online in an election largely centered on female candidates' surging campaigns and female voters' intensifying anger.

At this time, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an unusual demand: Women, get off social media.

Russell M. Nelson, the 94-year-old who became president of the church in January, proclaimed Saturday that all Mormon women should try a 10-day “fast” from social media.

His call for a fast has nothing to do with politics, many Mormons say. Still, the timing is a cause of consternation to some.

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“I invite you to participate in a 10-day fast from social media and from any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind,” Nelson said as he addressed the women-only session at the church’s General Conference on Saturday. “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast. The effect of your 10-day fast may surprise you. What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit? Is there a change in where you now want to spend your time and energy? Have any of your priorities shifted just a little?”

Many women who find that their priorities do call for them to be on social media right now — whether for activism, for communication with family or for their careers — are grappling with how to heed Nelson’s call while still pursuing their goals.

"I panicked,” Salt Lake County Council candidate Michelle Quist told the Salt Lake Tribune. “What am I going to do? Social media is such a big part of campaigns, especially local campaigns for candidates who don’t have a lot of money. So obviously I want to follow my church leader’s directions or request, but I don’t want to hurt my campaign.”

Quist decided to fast from personal social media but keep up her campaign postings, an approach that at least one other female candidate told the newspaper she shares. Another female candidate told the newspaper that she would limit her social media use to 30 minutes a day.

Others said they would postpone their 10-day fasts until after the elections are over next month — but they worried that their female voters will be offline for 10 days, robbing the candidates of valuable opportunities to motivate them.

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Thirteen members of the U.S. Congress identify themselves as Mormon, according to the Pew Research Center, but only one of them is female and, thus, subject to Nelson’s request. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) is running for reelection, and campaign employee Dana Goff said Love had decided not to participate in the social media fast at any point, either before or after the election.

Since Nelson called for the fast on Saturday, Love has not tweeted from her congressional account. She has tweeted once from her campaign account, on Tuesday: “Wrapping up the day after reviewing legislation and attending an event to discuss tax reform with my constituents. I love representing Utah’s 4th district.”

Sharlee Mullins Glenn, a founder of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a group that is engaged in political activism leading up to the midterm elections, said she thinks Nelson did not intend to disrupt the campaign season. “I see absolutely no insidious ulterior motives in President Nelson’s invitation to women of the Church to participate in a ten-day ‘fast’ from social media. I agree that the timing is unfortunate and could look suspicious to those predisposed to cynicism, but the truth is that these General Conference talks are prepared weeks and sometimes months in advance,” Glenn said in an email to The Post.

Glenn said she would do her own fast after the midterms, over the Thanksgiving holiday. And while some members of her activist group started the 10-day fast right when Nelson announced it, they’re still registering voters in person. “Much as the detractors would like to insinuate otherwise, I am convinced that the intent here is not to silence women,” Glenn said.

What draws women to a religion that says men should be in charge?

Nelson said in his 16-minute speech to the women-only meeting at the General Conference that he has nine daughters and one son, and that he thinks women play a unique role. “No one else can do what a righteous woman can do,” he said. “Women see things differently than men do, and, oh, how we need your perspective.”

But he did not explain why his social media directive — which was the first of four items he described as “invitations” and as a “prophetic plea,” including reading the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, going to a Mormon temple more often, and participating in the Relief Society, the church’s arm for women’s communal endeavors — was delivered only to women.

In June, Nelson issued the same call for a 10-day social media fast to youth members of the church.

When he spoke to the full gathering of men and women at the General Conference over the weekend, he focused on other topics, including the name of the church, which has been a point of focus for Nelson since August. He wants people to drop the short terms “Mormon” and “LDS” for church members and instead to use the full name, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Using the word “Mormon” as a substitute, Nelson said, is “a major victory for Satan.”

Stop using the term 'Mormon,' Nelson says at General Conference

As president, Nelson is believed by church members to be the recipient of direct revelations from God. Still, many have shrugged at his comments about the name, saying they don’t mind the term Mormon. Many church members continue to use it, inadvertently or not, in their own speeches.

A church spokesman said he would let Nelson’s speeches speak for themselves and did not respond to questions about why Nelson’s call to get off social media was directed only to women, not all church members.

Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, said she does not think Nelson meant to rebuke the #MeToo movement or subdue women’s political activism. She pointed to signs that the church has supported women’s concerns about sexual harassment, including an unusually strongly worded editorial in the church-owned Deseret News newspaper that called upon Donald Trump to drop out of the 2016 presidential election because of his comments about assaulting women captured on the “Access Hollywood” video. “What oozes from this audio is evil,” the editors wrote.

“I don’t think this is telling Mormon women not to be political on sexual virtue. I think that would be the last thing you would hear from these guys,” Flake said. “I don’t think he’s talking about politics. I don’t think he’s talking about sex. I think he’s talking about focus — recalibrate your priorities; know what matters; and just detox.”

For her own part, Flake said, she has decided as a church member to avoid email for most of the day during these 10 days. She has been so upset about Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and what she views as “misogyny” that led him to be confirmed to the high court, that reading the news before work in the morning had been making her blood boil anyway.