A recent article by Maren Stephenson published on Salon.com seems to have struck a chord with some Mormons. In response, Ryan Bell offers a derisive piece contrasting Ms. Stephenson’s spiritual immaturity with the thinkers at MormonScholarsTestify.org. (That Mr. Bell is a fan of the FARMS style of attack apologetics tells me a lot about him.) Melissa Inouye writes a less-harsh essay that still manages to dredge up common Mormon defenses against those who leave.
Ms. Stephenson writes frankly about her husband’s loss of faith and her struggle to understand, a situation that increasing numbers of Mormons are experiencing (the article is beautifully written and quite moving). However, unlike Ms. Stephenson’s story, most such mixed-faith marriages do not have a happy ending. Often, the de-faithed are a source of sadness, pity, and sometimes contempt from their Mormon friends and family; peaceful coexistence may be the best the apostate can hope for.
What seems to have annoyed LDS bloggers about Ms. Stephenson’s article is, first, her rude assertion that, in Mormon marriages, the church comes first; second, that leaving the LDS church is a liberating experience because the church treats its members like children; and third, the suggestion that the more one knows about church history, the less likely one is to believe in the church’s truth claims. Let’s take a look at these ridiculous attacks on the the true church.
1. Church comes first in your marriage. One of the most poignant statements Ms. Stephenson makes in her article comes when she describes her husband’s confession of unbelief: “Before I could process what I was saying, forbidden words slipped off my tongue. ‘You are more important to me than the Church,’ I said.” LDS blogger Bell sneers, “Members of the LDS Church faced with a spouse leaving the church don’t have to choose between ‘love’ and ‘faith.'” Although he acknowledges that the LDS belief that salvation is a family affair causes “heightened” tensions–the understatement of the year–he says, “Still, no one ever forced Ms. Stephenson to choose between her church and her husband, unless it was her husband.”
But Ms. Stephenson is right: the choice isn’t between abandoning one’s faith or one’s spouse. Rather, one must choose which is more important: the church or the spouse. There is a difference. When I lost my faith, my wife said she didn’t know how our marriage could work because “the church is the center of our marriage.” To her, our religion was the glue that held us together; it took time for us both to figure out that what really binds us to each other is love, companionship, shared goals, friendship, intimacy, and so many other things. The choice, then, is to put Mormonism in perspective as just one aspect of a rich and complex relationship or to keep it the center of conflict, the symbol of everything that isn’t right and isn’t whole in the marriage. As Ms. Stephenson put it, “The Mormon Church teaches that marriage can only thrive if God is an equal part of it. But when we left God out of it, we were free to love each other completely, to share the burden of our grief as two individuals with no one else.” She has made the right choice to put the relationship first, not the church. That she eventually left the church is, to me, incidental to her decision to value love more than institutional loyalty. Someone like Ryan Bell can’t pretend to understand the choice she was faced with, so he dismisses it as imaginary.
2. Becoming as little children. Ms. Stephenson wrote, “When I shed my garments for slippery Victoria’s Secret panties, my self-esteem skyrocketed, and our late nights shifted to other things. We were finally adults, taking our firsts together, learning about each other without barriers.” These two sentences have some Mormons mightily upset. Mr. Bell, for example, goes for the straw man, suggesting that the statement “implies that her marriage in prior years was an abstinent desert of religious strictures.” I could talk about the bizarre and repressive teachings of the LDS church and its leaders regarding sexuality, birth control, and the boundaries of proper intimacy in the bedroom. (I once had a bishop call a special meeting to rail against the evils of buying lingerie for our wives, as “we don’t want our wives to dress like Hollywood hookers!”) But the larger issue here is that, as Ms. Stephenson notes, the church treats its members as children who must be told exactly what to do and how and when.
In Mormon scripture we read, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26). If that’s true, the leadership of the church must believe that we are all slothful and unwise because the church has in some ways become a hyper-pharisaical list of rules of appearance and behavior. God may look on the heart, but the LDS church looks on the hair length, facial hair, the number of earrings, and the modesty of a four-year-old’s sleeves.
Bell notes that “LDS couples are free to enjoy sex as they please,” but qualifies that statement with “nothing in the Church restricts the normal practice of sexual activity within marriage.” The issue is how the church defines “the normal practice of sexual activity.” As prophet Spencer W. Kimball taught, “Even marriage does not make proper certain extremes in sexual indulgence. . . . If it is unnatural, you just don’t do it. That is all, and all the family life should be kept clean and worthy and on a very high plane. There are some people who have said that behind the bedroom doors anything goes. That is not true and the Lord would not condone it.” That doesn’t exactly sound like being “free to enjoy sex as they please.”
But this micromanagement of behavior goes well beyond the bedroom. We’ve been taught where leaders are supposed to sit (“the first counselor always sits on the right of the president; the second counselor on the left. That is a demonstration of doing things ‘decently and in order,’ as Paul told us.”); when leaders are to speak (” it will be at the end of the meeting”); when to refuse an assignment (never); when to ask to be relieved of an assignment (also, never); when to go to our leaders for counsel (again, never); and what to talk about during funerals (we should not talk “about the deceased” but “instead … about the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the comforting promises revealed in the scriptures.”). And that’s all from just one talk.
We are to “follow the prophet” because “he knows the way,” even if following means violating our conscience. For example, during the Proposition 8 campaign, bishops were told to bring each of their congregants in and urge them to volunteer and donate for the campaign. One man I know was a bishop in California at the time, but was adamantly opposed to Proposition 8. Yet, he dutifully called on his ward members to contribute, and because the church had asked him to set an example, he donated $5,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign, even though he later voted against the measure. Likewise we are never to criticize our leaders, even if the criticism is true. Expressing any disagreement with the church is usually seen as “facing the wrong way,” “ark steadying,” or simply apostasy. Heaven help you if you are a homosexual, feminist, or “so-called intellectual,” or you’ll be considered a threat.
It’s easy to be a Mormon in some ways because you can just do what you are told without really thinking too much about it. Once upon a time, beards were acceptable in the LDS church. On the wall of the BYU Creamery restaurant is a photo of a beard-growing contest from the 1950s. But once Spencer W. Kimball came to BYU and banned such depravities as facial hair and strapless gowns, church members simply accepted that a beard was a symbol of defiance and rebellion, as if it had always been that way. We accepted the prohibition on black people receiving the priesthood and temple ordinances and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, the MX missile, and same-sex marriage because that’s what we were told. This near-automatic obedience continues today. Recently, the Salt Lake County Republican convention voted overwhelmingly to oppose Utah HB-116, an immigration reform bill, only to ask for another vote when they learned that the LDS church was in favor of the bill.
Saying “yes” to church authority is the only acceptable option for members; saying no opens you up for disdain and ridicule as someone who was “offended” by leaders’ imperfections (Ms. Inouye’s approach) or wanted to wallow in sin, which is the source of Mr. Bell’s sneering: “The only ‘firsts’ [the Stephensons] might have experienced together once they left would have had to do with coffee, alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. If these substances are the true signifiers of adulthood in modern America (or maybe it’s the sexy underwear?), our culture has become more infantilized than we thought.” What makes a person an adult is the freedom and maturity to make one’s own decisions, to think through moral questions, and decide what he or she really believes is right or wrong–these are big “firsts” that have nothing to do with drinking coffee or buying underwear from Victoria’s Secret. It is the height of irony for him to mock the Stephensons as “infantile” from his position in a religion that tells him who and what he is to be and do.
3. To know Mormonism is to disbelieve Mormonism. Bell and Inouye complain that Ms. Stephenson believes, at least implicitly, that “leaving Mormonism—or indeed any religious tradition—is the only logical choice for a rational, educated person.” The logic here seems to be that people like me and the Stephensons cannot handle “human flaws” in our religious leaders or history. I’ve reread Ms. Stephenson’s article and can’t find this implicit belief, but it’s an important straw man for a lot of Mormon apologists, one I’ve heard many times. The problem is that the assertion isn’t true.
Ms. Inouye gives an analogy of Mormonism being like a string of Christmas lights. Apparently, judgmental types like me and Maren Stephenson demand that every single light in the string light up as we expect, or we will throw out the whole string. A better approach, she tells us, is to understand Mormonism as sourdough starter: what begins as something slightly disgusting can create something beautiful: “There is nothing lovely or pure about sourdough starter. Its exuberance makes it sour on the verge of stinky, fermented bordering on decayed. Yet, when introduced into a properly balanced supply of flour, water and salt, the starter is a catalyst for building a complex, living community that results in heavenly bread.”
The key for Ms. Inouye is something I’ve heard a lot lately from believing Mormons: It doesn’t matter if the church is “true” or not; what matters is that it is good and makes your life better. It’s as if these folks readily admit that the “sanitized version” of the church and its truth claims is not true, but the fruits of living a Mormon life are a “complex, living community” that builds a heavenly society and makes people happy. The way I see it, when you know the real history behind the LDS church, you realize that it’s not really a string of lights but perhaps a length of coaxial cable; it has its uses, but you wouldn’t want to put it on your Christmas tree. But even so, you can make it work as long as the church works for you.
The bigger problem for the LDS church, in my view, is that, even if it is “true” in some sense, it doesn’t make everyone happy or build the kind of heavenly society that Ms. Inouye believes it does. It’s very much a one-size-fits-all religion, despite the current “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign designed to highlight diversity in the LDS church. Mormonism is, in many respects, about looking the part. As late President Gordon B. Hinckley put it, “People think in a very critical way before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity.”
But not all sourdough starter makes good bread; and some of us do not find happiness in conformity. Perhaps more devastating to me after I left the church was the realization that, despite what I’d told myself every day of my life, I was never happy as a Mormon. I’d been dealing with chronic depression since my early teens, but I couldn’t acknowledge it because I was being a good Mormon boy, and good Mormon boys are happy.
Most people do not abandon beliefs and practices that make them happy. That so many heretofore actively participating Mormons are leaving suggests to me that the church doesn’t make them happy, at least not enough to stay. I’ve written elsewhere that the church’s Correlation and unified budget programs have so completely homogenized the Mormon experience that the church is losing what once made it vibrant and meaningful; to steal Ms. Inouye’s imagery, it’s as if the starter has been removed from the dough, and all that’s left is flat and hard, like one long sacrament meeting. The church can survive the increased information about its origins, but it will struggle if it continues to make itself less relevant to its members lives.
I wish Sean and Maren Stephenson well on their journey, and I hope more Mormons will begin to understand where we apostates are coming from. Perhaps then they can begin to recover the spirit that will allow Mormons to build the kind of living, vibrant community our pioneer ancestors once had.