Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning Not Very Useful Truths

“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.  Some things that are true are not very useful.”1  

Boyd K Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

          As a faithful Mormon girl, I was warned to never read literature concerning the Mormon church that had not been approved by the Church.  The leaders taught us that Satan was looking to lead faithful Mormons astray.  To maintain the faith, I needed to stay in the warm, cozy confines of Church-sanctioned truth.  And I believed the warnings.  Straying outside the confines of Church literature never even occurred to me.  I didn’t leave the Church because I read “anti”-Mormon literature.  I left because the attitudes within the Church didn’t feel right and I had a hunch that there was a wider world waiting for me outside the confines of a rigid belief system.  
          I only learned about the dirty secrets of Mormon history after leaving.  I was in my mid-twenties when I learned about Joseph Smith’s 33 wives, a truth that directly contradicted the myth of Joseph and Emma’s love story.2  I am still learning about the many permutations of the First Vision, which is a “not-very-useful truth” that casts an unforgiving light on the true origins of Mormonism.3  As a person who was trained in genetics, I am painfully aware of the fact that there is no proof that the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon ever existed.4  The list of “not-very-useful truths” about the Mormon Church is a mile long.  And the majority of these facts are unbeknownst to my family.  To mention these truths to my family would expose me to anger and the accusation of being “anti”-Mormon.  True or not, even the slightest hint of criticism would be an affront to my family and their religion.  
          When I learned these truths, I felt betrayed by the church I had grown up in.  Learning the truth strengthened my conviction that I had made the right choice in leaving.  But I learned these truths only after leaving; why then should these issues matter so much to me?  
          The reason I care so much about the “not-very-useful” truths is because the actions of Mormon authorities --- to bury the past in secrecy --- infantilizes members.  I was raised to place blind faith in authorities; now I know these authorities to be dishonest.  The tendency to place blind trust in authorities is a trait that has lingered even past my break with the Church.  As people, we deserve the right to question the actions of authorities.  We deserve the right to question if authorities are acting in our best interest.  However, the Mormon church forbids dissension of any sort; criticism of church authorities is a very serious matter and can lead to excommunication.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mormons & Pagans

          I grew up in upstate New York, where Mormons constitute a very small minority.  My home was in a rural area, right in the middle of a large state forest.  One of the few neighbors within walking distance is a couple who moved to the area forty years ago, around the same time that my parents did.  The husband is a folk singer who does voice-work for the local radio and his wife works as a lab technician.  
Flowers to celebrate May Day and the return of spring
          For the past thirty-five years, my neighbors have hosted a annual series of three parties; May Day, Stone Soup, and Winter Solstice.  For May Day, there is a may-pole and dancing, along with a distribution of flowers to remind us all that spring is coming.  Every year, I got a paper cup with a little johnny-jump-up.  I took the flowers home and planted them in our garden, where the flowers are still blooming.  For the Stone Soup party, there is a dramatic re-enactment of a tired old soldier wandering into the party, begging for a meal, and promising to make soup from a single stone.  “Oh, but if someone, anyone, had just a few sprinkles of herbs --- or a little carrot --- or just a potato, one potato --- that would just make the soup so much better.” he would ask as we taunted him, telling him to leave the party and go elsewhere.  Then, one by one, everyone would bring forth an item and add it to the pot.  For the winter solstice, we hiked up into the woods to burn the may-pole from the spring before.  As the may-pole burned, we stood around the flames holding hands as we shared our hopes and dreams for the year ahead.  Winter solstice was a reminder that though the winters were long and cold, the sun would once again make an appearance.  
          When the celebrations had ended, we all ate a potluck dinner, crammed into the warm, rough-hewn confines of my neighbors’ house.  Afterwards, everyone got out their instruments and the singing lasted well into the night; the party only ended once everyone had left.  This was an event where everyone was welcome and no one was ever forced to leave; people came from as far from Vermont to attend these parties.  
          What I only realized as an adult is the fact that my neighbors are pagan.  I never thought to ask and I also never connected the celebration of pagan holidays with the parties that my neighbors throw every year.  My neighbors are private people; they won’t tell if you don’t ask.  I don’t know what their interactions with my parents were like; knowing my father he has tried to give them a Book of Mormon at one time or another.  But my neighbors never treated me any differently because of what my family was.  And I also understood, even as an over-enthusiastic teenager, that discussion of religion with my neighbors was off-limits.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Mormon Piano Teacher

          In college, I signed up for a semester of piano lessons.  I was a self-taught piano player in need of formal instruction.  The day of my first lesson, I was nervous.  I walked into the studio and introduced myself to the teacher, a short, stout woman with dyed brown hair and a gentle smile.  When she asked me if I had any previous training, I told her I was self-taught.  So she asked me to play a song for her.  I hadn’t thought to bring any sheet music with me so I plunked out the one song I knew by heart --- the hymn “A Poor Way-Faring Man Of Grief”. 
          After I played, she was quiet for a moment.  Then she tilted her head and with a smile, asked me “Are you Mormon?”.
          Shit, I thought, my fingers frozen on the white keys.  I stammered out that I was not a Mormon but my entire family was.  My heart was racing in my chest and my body began to shake as I anticipated the condemnation that was sure to come.   
          “My daughter left the Church.” she said.  “It was a long time before she felt comfortable telling all of us that she didn’t believe.”  The tension in my body released by a fraction.  
          I took three semesters of piano lessons from her.  We had an unspoken agreement not to discuss religion.  Occasionally she would broach the subject in a very non-confrontative way.  I learned which students in the program were Mormon.  She also told me about some of her family reunions; from what I gathered, the extended family had judged her daughter harshly for leaving.  She told me that there were times when she had to stand up for her daughter, times when she had to remind the family that her daughter was the same sweet girl she had always been.  
          My piano teacher was a lot like my mother --- a woman with a big heart, trying to live the best life she knew how.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Child And The Big Scary Apostate

          As a kid, most of the General Conference talks didn’t make much of an impression on me.  I was sitting in the pews listening, but I was also a kid with a short attention span.  Beyond feeling a sense of reverence for the guys on the screen, most of the talks went in one ear and out the other.  
          But there was one exception.  One year, I heard a talk about people who leave the church.  The speaker described people who left as being led astray by Satan, fallen into the depths of immorality.  He told us that people who left were angry and deluded.  Deep down they knew the Church was true and so, locked in the throes of Satan, they were trying their best to tear the Church apart.  
          I was terrified.  My dreams that night featured an army of people seeking to tear my family apart.  The talk left an emotional imprint on my mind that lingered for years as I grew up and began navigating my religious identity.  
          About a year ago, I started wondering about the talk that had left such an impression on a little girl.  I started combing through the LDS archives, searching for the talk that had struck so much fear in me.  
          Locating the talk took a long time.  I was searching during the years when I would have been between 6 and 10 years of age.  I kept searching, trying to find the talk but nothing seemed to fit my memories.  Then I started searching the earlier years; that was when my search finally yielded results.  
          If I am correct, I heard this talk in April 1989.  I would have been four years old at the time.  The talk was titled “Follow The Prophet” and given by Glenn L. Pace.  I have included excerpts of his talk.

          “The second category of critics is former members who have become disenchanted with the Church but who are obsessed with making vicious and vile attacks upon it [...]
          [...] In addition to attacking our sacred beliefs, some former members speak evil of the Brethren [...]
          [...] It seems that history continues to teach us: You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone. The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.”

          Sometimes I wish I could go back in time.  If I could, I would walk into the darkened church of that General Conference.  I would sit next to the girl with the ragged blonde hair, wearing threadbare hand-me-downs.  I would put my arms around her and tell her that everything will be all-right.  That I know what she is going through, that I know what she will go through in the future.  That the road ahead of her will be long and winding and hard but that she will come out the other end a stronger, more resolute woman.  She will become her own person; not the woman that others expect her to be but the woman that she truly is.  

Note:  This post was re-posted over at Main Street Plaza

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Child's Memories Of General Conference

          As a kid, I always dreaded General Conference weekends.  The prospect of two long days spent sitting in a darkened chapel, listening to the televised speeches of a bunch of old guys was not my idea of a good time.  But my parents impressed on my family the very serious nature of these talks and so we went.  
          My childhood was during the era of Ezra Taft Benson.  I was raised to believe that he was a modern-prophet whose words came straight from God; I associated his name with a sense of wonderment and awe.  He died when I was nine; the day of his passing was a very sad event in our household.
          I liked General Conferences for one reason --- the breaks in-between sessions.  Since a lot of the members lived too far away to go home during the break, there was always a potluck lunch, with a wide array of dishes.  Treats were few and far between in my house; I had five older brothers and a sister to fight off in order to get any of the good food.  My mother was also too exhausted to cook very much; at the time she was working part-time, going to school full-time, and trying to raise a huge family.  General Conference was a time when I could scarf down good food to my heart’s content without having to fight off my big brothers.  
          The break between sessions also represented a time when I could play with other children.  I lived in a very isolated area; there weren’t many children around for me to play with.  Before I started school, church was the one of the few opportunities to see other children my age.  Normal church was too structured for play but the long break between sessions represented a time when we could tear through the church like the hellions that we were.  We explored the empty baptismal font, daring each other to cross the barrier between the women’s side and the men’s side.  We acted out stories on the stage of the cultural hall, pretending that we were famous actresses.  When I got a little older and a little more rebellious, we would even skip sessions and explore the empty church on our own.  
          By the time I reached my teenage years, a shift had started.  Members started watching General Conference at home on their televisions.  The potlucks started getting smaller.  My family still attended General Conference at church.  We had no choice in the matter; we didn’t have cable TV.  Attendance was still moderate, mostly for the feeling of community.  During the break, I would visit a friend who lived within walking distance of church.  
          Nowadays, my parents will head to my brother’s house for General Conference; my parents still don’t have cable TV.  My mother tells me that the church is empty during Conference weekend and the potlucks have ended.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Still A Member? Or Not A Member? I Don't Know.

          I have tried three times to have my name removed from the membership rolls of the Mormon Church.  Three separate attempts and I still don’t know if I am counted among the official 14 million members that the Mormon Church stakes claim to.  My first attempt to resign was during my freshman year of college.  I wrote out a letter requesting my resignation and sent it to the Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City.  I assumed the matter was finished --- I was grown up and ready to move on with my post-Mormon life.  
          Then someone told me that the Church sends you an official letter after they accept your resignation.  I had never received a letter; did that mean I was still a member?  I feared that the answer was yes.  So this time around, I looked up the local ward and called the bishop.  I had to call a couple times but I finally reached him.  I explained that I wanted my name removed.  The bishop was quiet for a moment and then said, with a note of regret in his voice, --- “Are you sure?  You sound too young to make such a big decision; I don’t want you to do anything you might end up regretting.”  
          I hated that he sounded like a father grieving over a wayward daughter.  I just hated that.  “Yes.”  I told him, full of youthful conviction.  “I am sure about this.”  After I hung up the phone, I would berate myself for not pointing out that if eight is old enough to be baptized into the church, then nineteen should be old enough to leave the church.  But for the moment, I was too insecure to argue with a man that sounded like my father.  
          “Why don’t I send the missionaries over so that you can discuss the matter?”  
          I didn’t want to talk to the missionaries.  I didn’t want to have to deal with people telling me that I was wrong and that I needed to go back to church like a good little Mormon girl.  I told the bishop no, I didn’t want the missionaries over at my house.  I ended up mailing another resignation letter to the local ward.  A futile gesture, but one that I hoped would yield some result.
          Then I transferred colleges.  And I started getting calls to my unlisted phone number from church members.  And the Mormon organization on campus decided to add my e-mail to their list-serv, without notifying me or asking my permission.  All of a sudden, my in-box was being flooded by e-mails about temple trips and branch activities.  
          So I sent an e-mail out to the list-serv at large, pointing out that I had not asked for my e-mail to be added and that I had not been notified of this decision.  That prompted a flurry of e-mails.  About half of the e-mails were from people that wanted their names removed as well.  The other e-mails were from members that were bewildered as to what the problem was about --- didn’t I know that I could just have my name removed, without having to make a big fuss about it?  But the issue was not about the e-mails; the issue was about my invasion of privacy.  
          Eventually the list-serve administrator contacted me.  He introduced himself; he was friends with one of my brothers.  My father had contacted him and asked him to “make me feel welcome”.  I told him that what he had no right to add my e-mail without my consent or knowledge.  Then I told him I wanted out --- I wanted to officially resign from the Church.  He forwarded my e-mail to the branch president, who then contacted me.
          A week later, I met with the branch president.  He was a professor so we met on campus at the ice cream store.  We made some small talk about research; he was a biology professor and I was a biology major working in a genetics lab.  We had some common acquaintances; I had interned in the lab of one of his good friends.  His wife was also my spinning instructor.  Then we moved on to the matter at hand.
          “I want to resign.” I told him.  “I don’t believe this Church is true and I can’t support the authorities.”  
          At that point his eyebrows rose and his tone changed from friendly to dismissive.  “I guess we can’t all be believers.” he said, his shoulders shrugging.  Then he gave me some papers to sign and I left.   
          I am still waiting for my letter.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Mall, A Church, And The Misuse Of My Parents’ Tithing

          There is a new mall in downtown Salt Lake City called City Creek Center.  This mall is, from what I have heard, a very nice mall.  Adjacent to Temple Square and built to revitalize the downtown area, City Creek Center offers shopping, as well business and residential space.1  
          Normally I could care less about a mall in Salt Lake City.  I think Utah is a gorgeous state, blessed with an abundance of natural beauty.  However, my kind are not welcome in Utah and so I stay away.  But the issue is this: City Creek Center was financed and built by the Mormon Church to the tune of 5 billion dollars.  That’s right.  A tax-free organization financed by the charitable donations of church members decided to spend billions of dollars building a shopping mall.2  
          I found out about the City Creek Center about six months ago.  And every time I think about the issue, I start getting angry.   My parents are faithful tithing payers.  Every year, they give 10% of their pre-tax income to the Mormon church.  Tithing comes before food, bills, and everything else.  As a kid, I saw first-hand just how much my parents had to struggle to pay tithing and feed a huge family.  No matter how desperate times got (and there were some very, very desperate times) my parents have always paid their tithing. And my parents have complete faith in the Mormon Church.  They pay their tithing trusting that the Mormon church will put their hard-earned money to good use.  
          And how does the Mormon church treat their members?  Well, to start with, the Mormon church has never published their financial reports.  They take my parents’ money but they don’t have the courtesy to tell them how they use the money.  And now I find that my parents’ contributions are being funneled into the creation of a mall in Salt Lake City.  
          If that isn’t enough to turn me into the stereotypical “angry apostate”, there is also the issue of Church janitorial services.  The Mormon Church used to pay for people to clean their churches.  When I was little and my family was extremely poor, my mother used to work as the church janitor.  Sometimes my sister and I would come to work with her; we would sleep in one of the classrooms while my mother worked through the night cleaning the church.  Now the Church has decided they can no longer afford to pay for janitors.  Members are now expected to pitch in and volunteer time to clean their church building.  So not only is the Mormon Church dropping a whole bundle of money on a mall in Salt Lake City, in order to cut costs they have now decided to add an extra burden to their already over-worked members.  
          My parents have given so much to the Mormon Church.  Over the years they have paid tithing, paid to send their children on missions, given fast offerings, and put  in countless volunteer hours.  Now they are approaching retirement with little more than Social Security and my mother’s school-teacher pension.  They have given everything they have to the Mormon Church.  I wish that my parents had the courage to stand up for themselves; their sacrifices should be given meaning by the Church.  But my parents won’t.  They have spent too many years being indoctrinated by a church that forbids dissension of any sort, however justified the dissent may be.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Mormon Mother's View On Gay Marriage

          My mother is a very quiet woman but also very true to her religious convictions.  She is always there in the background, doing what is expected of her.  My mother also possesses a very unusual blend of convictions; she is both a Mormon and a Democrat.  Once, she even hinted to possessing pro-choice leanings; she believes people should be given the freedom to make their own choices.  She dislikes Romney and always agreed with me when I grumbled about the authorities being a bunch of old white men that were out of touch with reality.  
          Now that I have left the Church, religion is a topic we rarely discuss; my mother clings to the belief that I left because church members offended me.  I don’t want to break her heart any more than I already have, so I try to keep quiet about the real reasons I left.  
          Last winter, during a trip home, my mother and I engaged in a rare conversation about the Mormon church.  Specifically, I mentioned the Church’s support of Proposition 8 and how hurt I was by their involvement in the matter.  My mother didn’t know what I was talking about, so I explained that Prop 8 was an initiative to ban gay marriage, which at the time had been legal in California.  The Mormon church had invested a lot of money and time into getting Prop 8 passed, to the heartbreak of many.  After I explained about Prop 8, my mother was quiet for a moment.
          And then, very gently, I decided to push just a little bit further.  I mentioned how upset I was when I discovered Joseph Smith had 33 wives.  I was in my mid-twenties when I found this out, in spite of a lifetime of learning about Joseph Smith.  I asked my mother if she had heard about Joseph’s other wives.  My mother admitted she had heard a little bit about the matter.  
          “But they were just spiritual wives.” my mother said.  “They weren’t real wives.”
          “Actually, no.”  I said.  “The evidence strongly supports the idea that they were actual wives.  And the thing is, about a third of his wives already had living husbands.”
          My mother was quiet for a moment, then smiled and looked at me.  “Well.” she said.  “I guess Joseph Smith’s unconventional marriages means that one day the Mormon Church will just have to support gay marriage.”  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Peculiar Heart-Break Of A Mormon Wedding

          As a Mormon girl, I was raised to believe that the pinnacle of my life would be when I entered the temple to marry a worthy Mormon man.  My very salvation depended upon getting married in the temple --- a temple ceremony seals a husband and wife together for eternity.  The highest level of Mormon heaven is reserved for members that have married in the temple and born children.  The doors of heaven are closed to those who are childless, single, or un-worthy to enter the temple.
          To enter the temple, a member must hold a temple recommend.  To get a temple recommend, a member must be of a certain age and have been active for at least a year.  A member must also pass an interview, during which he/she must demonstrate that their belief in the Church.  A member is asked if he/she believes in the Church; supports the authorities; abstains from mind-altering substances such as coffee, tea, and alcohol; obeys the law of chastity, including abstaining from premarital sex, masturbation, and porn; and have paid a full tithe.  If a person can’t fulfill all of these requirements, then they are denied a temple recommend.  
          One of the most heart-breaking consequences of leaving the Mormon church meant that I was banned from attending my siblings’ weddings.  One of my brothers got married around the time I was starting to leave the Church.  My parents didn’t even bother to bring me along for the wedding --- I stayed at home while they made the trip to D.C. for his wedding.  Three days of wandering an empty house, wondering what was wrong with me.  
          A year later, another of my brothers got married.  By that time, I was fully out of the Church.  His fiance was a convert --- her family was Catholic.  His fiance’s mother was upset about the idea of a temple wedding and insisted on organizing a church wedding.  She wouldn’t take no for an answer --- she had spent years dreaming of organizing her daughter’s wedding.  
          This is when the matter became very delicate.  If members choose to have a civil ceremony, they are barred from getting sealed in the temple for a full year.  If they do choose to have a civil ceremony instead of a temple ceremony, church members begin to doubt their worthiness and faithfulness.  Church authorities also warn them about the dire spiritual consequences of waiting.  There is an intense amount of pressure --- both social and doctrinal --- to have the wedding be in the temple.  My sister-in-law was forced to choose between her family and her religion.  
          So my brother and his fiance evaded the situation.  They down-played the importance of the temple ceremony to the in-laws.  The wedding was in Pennsylvania, so my brother and his wife woke up at 3 the morning of the wedding, drove to D.C., had the temple ceremony, and then came back for the church wedding.  To circumvent the issue of a civil ceremony, they hired a Mormon minister who was very careful about his wordings.  Instead of saying --- “I now pronounce you husband and wife”, at the end of the ceremony he turned my brother and his wife around and said “I now present to you Mr. and Mrs. G-----”, thus avoiding saying the words that would have made the ceremony real.  And no one in my sister-in-law’s family was any the wiser.  They danced, drank, and partied, never knowing that the ceremony they had just seen was a sham.    
          My sister got married last year.  Once again, the issue of my break with the Church was brought to the forefront.  My sister’s fiance came from a long tradition of Mormons.  My husband and I were the lone non-Mormons within the two families.  And so we were relegated to baby-sitting the children during the ceremony.  My mother asked me --- after the ceremony was finished and the photography had begun --- if I was upset about being left out of the wedding.  I longed to tell her my true feelings --- that being banned from the wedding felt like a knife to the chest --- but I also knew that making an issue of the matter accomplishes nothing.  My family performs their weddings this way because they place their faith in a church that demands the exclusion of non-members.   

Correction: The sentence "Members are required to show their W2’s to prove that they have paid a full tithe of 10%, was removed", as this is not church-wide policy.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Moral System Free Of Religion

          What frightened me the most about leaving the Mormon church --- and losing my belief in a higher power altogether --- was the perception that religion is required for morality.  I was afraid that leaving religion would turn me into a person devoid of values.  I thought I would lose the love I had for people. I was afraid I would lose my inner compass that told me how to differentiate between right and wrong.  And Mormon culture supports the idea that leaving causes a person to become lost.  The authorities taught me to fear the world outside the rigid confines of the Mormon Church.   
          When I first started questioning the Mormon Church, I was not doing so out of toughness or bravado.  I was scared and confused, with no idea of what the future held for me.  I thought my doubts made me a bad person.  I held on to the Church in desperation, praying that I could somehow resolve my issues.  I prayed and read my scriptures.  I attended church every Sunday.  I went to seminary every morning.  I participated in my youth activities.  I followed the admonition that bearing your testimony will strengthen it.  And nothing worked --- I was as full of doubts as before.  I had been promised answers if I was faithful enough but the answers never came.  
          Then one day I said to myself --- “What if there is no God?  What if it’s OK not to know?”  And with that question, all of my issues melted away.  The world made sense again.  But a part of me was still frightened of what being an agnostic meant.  I didn’t know what life would be like without religion to provide structure.  
          Ten years after leaving, I have learned many lessons, the most important of which is that losing faith in God doesn’t mean losing faith in humanity.  Who I am --- the very core of what makes me a person --- is unaltered.  My love for people is still intact.  My sense of what is right and wrong still exists.  The joy I find in life is still there.  And I have found that the stripping away of a rigid belief system has opened my eyes to the inherent goodness of humanity.  I have discovered that good people are found in all walks of life.  Goodness is not reserved for a single group of people but exists in the diversity of the world around us.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Testimony Meeting: Fake It 'Til You Make It

“We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it.”1  
Dallin H. Oaks, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  

          In the Mormon church, every first Sunday of the month is fast and testimony meeting.  Members are expected to abstain from food and drink.  During sacrament meeting, in lieu of prepared talks, the service is devoted to members standing up and professing their faith in the Church.  
          As a kid, I always dreaded fast and testimony meetings.  Sacrament meeting seemed even longer than normal, as the majority of the hour was marred by uncomfortable silences, punctuated by the occasional member that would feel pressured into standing up to break the monotony.  Later, during Sunday School, all I could think about was the grumbling in my stomach.  We usually had another, smaller testimony meeting among our peers, so that we could practice saying them in front of others.  
          We were taught that the best way to strengthen our testimony was by bearing it.  I did my best to follow that advice, in spite of my reticence about public demonstrations of faith.  The dissident in me always thought of Matthews 6:5 --- “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street, that they may be seen by others.”  But the admonition to bear your testimony often was a directive from the General Authorities, so I tried my best to be a good Mormon girl.  
          Testimonies usually fell into a pattern --- the member would talk about some trial in their life and then say how the Lord had answered their prayers.  Then the member would finish by saying --- “I know this Church is the one true Church.  I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that Jesus died for our sins.”  Or something along those lines.  But the testimonies were more exceptional for what they didn’t say.  In all the testimonies I heard over the years --- and there were thousands of them --- I can count on one hand the number of times I heard members admitting to having unresolved doubts about the truth of the Church.   Having doubts and questioning the gospel was acceptable, as long as you arrived at the correct conclusion of “The Church is true.”  
          I always felt very uncomfortable bearing my testimony.  I thought that the Mormon church was true.  I believed that the Mormon Church was true.  But there was an intense pressure within the Church to say that you knew the Mormon Church was true.  You knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the Mormon church was true.  And the rational part of my mind knew that the fact of knowing was impossible.  But I had been raised to place complete faith in the authorities and so I too stood up and said “I know this Church is true.”  And in so doing, I contributed to an environment in which members felt alone in their doubts.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Church Is Perfect. People Aren’t." And Why The Idea of Doctrinal Infallibility Is So Harmful To Members.

          As a Mormon girl, my fellow Mormons and I had a saying that we would repeat every-time that someone or something within the church frustrated us.  The saying was --- “The church is perfect.  People aren’t.”  By that, we meant that whereas people might be frail and corruptible, the church was the one institution that we could rely on to always lead us in the right direction.  People might make mistakes but the Church did not.  We viewed the President of the Mormon Church --- whom we considered to be a prophet inspired of God --- to be our spiritual leader.  The Book of Mormon was considered to be “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion.”  The Church would never lead us astray.  Any offense caused by another member was the result of human imperfection.  Any issue that we had with doctrine or the teachings of authorities was the result of our own human failings.  
          This idea of doctrinal infallibility places an enormous burden on church members.  As a faithful Mormon, I had some serious mis-givings about some of the Church’s teachings.  I felt very uncomfortable with the Church’s stance on gay people.  My heart told me that two people in love --- no matter their gender --- was something to celebrate.  My church told me otherwise.  And since “the Church is perfect”, the implication was that my heart was leading me astray.  The burden was on me to change myself in order to fit the dictates of Church doctrine.  
          I also had no avenue in which to try and change the Church.  I was taught not to contact authorities about my concerns.  Criticism of the authorities is a very serious matter within the Mormon church and can lead to excommunication.  As a member, I was powerless to effect change.  My voice was silenced.  Since the Church was perfect --- and the only true church --- the implication was that I had to conform my convictions to match that of the Church.  My eternal salvation depended upon my ability to internalize the doctrinal teachings and make them my own.  This led to quite a few mental gymnastics on my behalf as I struggled to conform my heart and my mind to the ideals that the Church demanded of me.    
          All of this leaves members in a very vulnerable position.  Church members are expected to give over complete control to authorities.  There is no space for dissension.   In situations where the Church’s actions are less than perfect --- such as the priesthood ban on blacks or the support of Proposition 8 --- members have no room to voice their concerns.  Authorities expect complete obedience, no matter how heart-breaking obedience may be to the individual.