by isaac black
Recently two prominent LDS reformers/critics, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, were summoned to disciplinary councils on the charge of apostasy. It’s been over twenty years since the LDS church has disciplined such high profile figures of progressive Mormonism, and many had allowed themselves to believe that the leadership was embracing a new era of pluralism and loyal opposition. The excommunication threats worry many that this vaunted era was illusory, and that the reward for challenging the accepted orthodoxy, even if non-canonical, will be a purge. The last couple days has found many Mormons, practicing and otherwise, reconsidering their relationship to the institution and its authority. Friends who I had thought were stalwart and conservative have surprised me in their compassion for or agreement with Kelly and Dehlin, and others have disappointed me with their callousness. It is in this newly polarized environment that I want to tell my story. This is my coming out (as “inactive”) letter to my family. I intentionally wrote it to deconstruct the typical insider/outsider and faith/doubt narratives that normally overwhelm the subject. My frustration, when I was trying to commit to the church, was why my mere desire to be a part of it all wasn’t enough. I’m sure Kelly and Dehlin and thousands others are grappling with the same question. My letter follows.
I haven’t been going to church for over two years now. While originally I thought I could be a non-practicing believer, getting some distance from the Mormon community has caused me to reevaluate things from the ground up. I still have respect for the church and for the enormous influence it has had on me. I’m grateful for your examples and the devotion you’ve had. I would never want to disparage anyone’s faith, and I know your beliefs are all sincerely held. I just reached a point where I ran out of energy.
I always had total faith in the church as an institution led by God through a living prophet, and being Mormon was a huge part of my identity. This faith sustained me through the discomfort I felt at BYU, as well as the general eeriness of Provo. Specifically, I remember being very disoriented from the emphasis placed on conformity at BYU. I grew up believing that it was good to follow your own values against the current of the majority, only to find that there is no concept of individual conscience in Provo.
My faith also sustained me, unfortunately, in a precocious certainty about the nature of good and evil. Outwardly, especially as a missionary, I preached an exacting morality in line with the teachings of the modern prophets. Internally though, I increasingly felt conflicted. I didn’t know what to make of my sometimes overwhelming sadness. In a culture and religion focused on happiness and blessings, I often felt unworthy simply because of ordinary teenage angst. As a perfectionist, I was constantly trying to rationalize the “irreverent” music I listened to, because I couldn’t possibly abandon it; at times it was the only comfort.
During my mission I was miraculously free from the anxiety that I felt as a teenager and freshman at BYU (I’ve only hinted at this with some of you, because my denial of any emotional problem extended into my early twenties, when it turned to shame. Now it’s just my pride that keeps me from going to a therapist.). But when I got back to BYU, I rebelled against the pat, free-market absolutism that the majority of students espoused, based both on my first-hand experience of systemic poverty in the Philippines and my lifelong contrarianism. I wasn’t socially aware enough to anticipate that my sterling behavior and frequently renewed temple recommend weren’t enough to excuse my flirtations with Marxism in the eyes of many of my peers. In fact, I felt so confident about my footing on the strait and narrow that I started swearing in order to change attitudes when I noticed how some ward members steered clear of my good-hearted home teacher because of his rough language.
But this was all “culture vs. doctrine” stuff that I explained away. The church was still perfect in my mind, though I increasingly grew frustrated with the imperfection of its members. (You might wonder why I was so harsh toward others who were probably going through the same things that I was. The reason is that at this point I had no understanding of mercy or forgiveness and had to cling to obedience as a way of hoping for blessings: love, success, salvation.) I rooted my diversions from Utah County orthodoxy in doctrine: I became fond of the passages in the Doctrine & Covenants that outlined avoidance of war and eating meat. I learned that the D&C provided the procedure for disciplining the President of the Church if necessary. I quoted Hugh Nibley on consumerism. Meanwhile, I defended the church and its members against accusations of being socially regressive and quashing individual thought.
When BYU accepted Dick Cheney’s solicitation to speak at my graduation commencement ceremony, I can’t say I was extremely surprised, even though it smacked of insularity to have the single most hated, controversial politician in the world, infamous both for war profiteering and shameless cronyism, speak at a church-owned university. But I still felt confident in my ability to have a dissenting opinion. The backlash to the backlash mounted, with some of the finest young minds in Mormondom appealing to the university’s tenuous connection to the Prophet to silence any criticism of Dick Cheney’s speech. I fully expected the administration to reiterate the tenet of Mormonism that I had always been most proud of: the agency to decide for oneself what was true. When that never came, I implicated them, fairly or not, in the stifling of discourse that was shameful in the religion that I loved, but absolutely inexcusable in an institution of higher learning.
I bolted from Provo, largely because of a fear of losing my testimony. I moved to DC and after staying with friends temporarily I found my own place outside of their ward boundaries. I was disappointed to find a similar culture as what existed in Provo, since the singles wards were populated primarily with graduates from Utah schools. Even as I critiqued the black-and-white perfectionism I was trying to flee, I entertained the idea of not going to church anymore until Mom and Dad suggested I just go to the ward my friends were in. I had always been so by-the-book that I honestly hadn’t considered it.
Church got a little better, but I still felt so out of place, so indicted by my own heterodoxy, that I stayed at church only as long as I could avoid an anxiety attack. One Sunday, an afterthought in a stake president’s talk about the virtue of music without dissonance sent me home sobbing and furious. I was still considering the guidance from leaders to be inspired; it felt like God was trying to take away the thing that mattered most to me.
Meanwhile, I went to the temple a lot. Whatever I felt when attending church—inadequate, confused, frustrated, silenced, angry, alienated—I felt the opposite in the temple. One particular session, I had started chiding myself for letting my mind wander too much. I expected when I got to the Celestial Room that the experience would be underwhelming. Instead, I felt a distinct warmth. I interpreted that feeling—which was very subtle, fleeting, and not at all like the sentimental, tearful experiences I had used to build my testimony—as God’s pride in the person I was and who I aimed to become. In church I felt like my critical mind was a liability to be suppressed, but in the temple it became a strength.
I also interpreted that feeling as a testimony that the church was true. My experiences in the temple gave me motivation to try, for the next four or five years, to recommit myself to Mormonism. I had never felt such a strong endorsement of my divine worth than I had in the temple. I began to think differently about myself. I remember the youth program talking about what a special generation we were, but the flattery was laced with constant comparisons to the hardier pioneers, handwringing over supposedly wayward souls, and very little confidence in our ability to repent. Ironically, the feeling of self-worth that my temple experiences engendered gave me the courage to leave the faith of my childhood. For the first time in my life, I started to allow myself to risk making a mistake.
I never made a conscious decision to stop going to church. When I became so exhausted with trying to make myself comfortable in Sunday School amidst the rigidity of Mormon hierarchy, I granted myself what I jokingly called a sabbatical. The idea was to reset my ideas of what the church was and could be and approach it in a fresh light that didn’t trigger the inadequacy and guilt that I had battled since adolescence. I thought it might last a few months. As time went on, the more I realized that not going to church freed me from the dilemmas and double binds that I had become obsessed with. At one point, about six months since I hadn’t been to church, I lay in bed experiencing a sort of identity crisis: I realized that I felt completely ok about myself. It scared me. I didn’t know how to make myself better without punishing myself for failing to meet some standard.
It was very hard and very sad to let go of the community that formed a large part of my identity. It was hard to adjust to evaluating a different set of consequences for my actions. It was hard to come to terms with uncertainty about what happens after death. I’m glad that I took so long to leave because I’ve seen friends engage in all sorts of self-destructive behavior once they left, having only ever relied on the church structure for discipline. But if I pinned my leaving on one factor, it’s not the church’s preoccupation with denying equal rights to gay or trans people; it’s not the $5 billion spent on a mall that sells luxury goods; it’s not the church’s silence in the face of record levels of inequality or constant war; it’s not the culture’s embrace of appearances and a prosperity gospel; it’s not the whitewashing of church history or the fact that I didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist until after I had represented the church for two years; and it’s not the distorted emphasis on obedience that has left many, me included, with the impression that one is saved by following rules. I can work with all of those things, as I did when I was a BYU student who was frustrated but committed. I left because I couldn’t speak up in Sunday School. There are no channels for expressing any of these feelings, rooted though they may be in scriptural principles. There is no room for autonomy in the church, and therefore no ability to take responsibility for one’s spirituality. Agency is a mere binary: accept the Prophet’s teachings or don’t. Only stultifying certainty is allowed in the formal discourse, so the rich, varied, nuanced experiences of the diverse membership is funneled into the same, formulaic mix of labored allegory, sentimentality and cliche. I’ve had honest, uplifting discussions with ward members about the ups and downs of the Mormon experience only to have everyone, myself included, go mute once we put on a tie and step into the chapel.
I have theories about how the most common responses to doubts are subtly hostile, how they invalidate personal experience that lies outside the official narrative while, crucially, making the doubter feel alone. I have theories about how this mechanism of isolating and marginalizing the weak has been so effective at silencing heterodox views that the mainstream church hasn’t had a schism in nearly one hundred and fifty years. But those are just theories, and whether it’s a social phenomenon or my own inability to reckon with feelings of inadequacy, I feel undervalued and stifled at church. Even now, when I step into a church building, I feel my throat tighten.
I used to believe that there was a place in church for everyone. I induced that from an axiomatic belief in the necessity of church attendance for salvation. While I now believe that the church is not for everyone, I believe in a God who is more generous than I ever had allowed myself to imagine. I’ve been blessed and continue to be blessed, but now I see these moments of grace as acts of love, not disbursals from a heavenly bank account. The questions, doubts, weaknesses, bad habits, and mistakes of humanity that I used to strive to tolerate with transparent condescension I can now empathize with. The older I get, the more I know I need to learn, and the more patience I have for my own ignorance. Rather than ceasing to progress after letting go of my constant guilt and doctrinal quibbles, I’ve become less irritable, less self-centered, and more giving.
If the choice comes down to asserting the perfectness of the church or validating the concerns of someone feeling disaffected, who exactly is served by defending the organization? I don’t mention this for my own sake; I’m a grown man and my biases are calcifying. I mention this for your children, or perhaps more importantly, for the people for whom a ward could be a home. A nationwide survey of gay and lesbian teens found that 69% of Utah teens had been verbally abused, 27% had been physically assaulted, and 74% said churches in their community are not accepting of them. These percentages are all at least ten points higher than the national average. What invites more outrage in Mormon culture: people advocating for women to wear pants to church, or the intolerance and bigotry that fellow members display toward a historically misunderstood and persecuted class of people? Are Mormons more disturbed by criticism of the prophet or by the judgmental “culture” (as opposed to the doctrine) that everyone seems to acknowledge is wrong-headed? I’ve witnessed a lot of indignation about rank-and-file members speaking out of turn but not nearly as much about the everyday cruelty that occurs in Mormon communities. If the cardinal sin of Mormonism was hatred instead of disbelief, it may have been a church I could be a part of.