This year I have had the enlightening opportunity to attend three Mormon-themed conferences. Each conference afforded me the opportunity to meet with, and mingle, with Latter-day Saints of all stripes from traditional believers to those who have chosen to resign their Church membership.
In August I presented at the annual FAIR Conference. My topic was “Pastoral Apologetics” where I advocated for a more pragmatic approach to LDS apologetics. After many years of online interaction, I was finally able to meet Dan Peterson, Brant Gardner, Michael Ash, Scott Gordon, and others. Although it was well-known that my personal views differ, sometimes drastically so, from both FAIR members and conference attendees, I felt completely welcome and at home.
I presented on the same subject at Sunstone, although with a slightly different focus. As always, it was nice to be surrounded by fellow Latter-day Saints interested in diverse views on Mormonism and learn from various experts on topics ranging from the early priesthood restoration narratives, to the Church’s recent involvement in the politics of same-sex marriage.
This past weekend I attended the Ex-Mormon Foundation’s annual conference in Salt Lake and not only heard some interesting presentations, but also met some great folks with interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories to share.
Attending these conferences reminded me of few troubling aspects of modern Mormon culture but also gave me hope that existing divisions and suspicions may eventually fade away. This will happen, I believe, as disparate Mormon “factions” come to recognize they have more in common than may be readily apparent. A discussion of these commonalities is beyond the scope of this post but allow me to say simply that 1) Mormon culture has created some of the most vibrant, intelligent, and decent people I have had the pleasure to meet and 2) Mormonism itself is a captivating subject that holds the attention of those who fully believe, struggle to believe, or who have abandoned belief in Mormonism altogether.
As I reflect on these conferences and the attendees at each, I am reminded how important it is to make an effort to understand and appreciate those whose views differ from our own. Variance in belief and worldview is no reason for hostility but rather, an opportunity to expand our own understanding and experience, even if vicariously.
Rather than endless rambling, allow me to offer a few brief observations based on my 2013 conference experiences.
Traditional believing Latter-day Saints, liberal Mormons, and ex-Mormons may have a difficult time understanding the reasons why others have chosen their respective positions and as such, may be tempted to psychoanalyze and ascribe motives to those who have differing views. This invariably leads to making assumptions and we know what happens when we make assumptions! All would do well to take each other at their word and respect individual choices. It is absurd to expect respect from others for our own views while openly disparaging the beliefs and views of others.
Being Mormon isn’t easy. Whether a true believer, liberal, or ex-Mormon, navigating the culture, dogmas, and traditions of Mormonism can be challenging. A traditional believer, for example, will invariably struggle with a close family member or friend choosing to leave the Church. Why? Because the traditional believer views Mormonism as the way to salvation and thus any deviations from that path will be seen as problematic at best. Therefore, it may not be out of malice that a traditional believer zealously tries to “reclaim” one who has left the fold. Unfortunately, such efforts are often done quite clumsily and with little regard or respect for the views and struggle of the former believer. Far too many families and friendships have been damaged by these ill-fated “rescue” attempts.
Of course, liberal and ex-Mormons can be guilty of similar obnoxious hubris. Statements like: “I can’t believe those dumbs Morgbots believe [fill-in-the-blank]!” are just as disrespectful and divisive as when a traditional believer accuses liberal or ex-Mormons of abandoning belief in an effort to pursue a “sinful” life.
Leaving the LDS Church is challenging because Latter-day Saints’s entire life and worldview is informed by the teachings of Mormonism. To at once call those beliefs into question is jarring and unsettling. This challenge is compounded by well-intentioned ward and family members making assumptions (see above) about why a person may leave the Church and, in some cases, members on their way out make matters worse by disparaging the LDS Church in response. Telling a traditional believer that “Joseph Smith was womanizer!” is akin to starting a conversation with a new mother by saying her baby is ugly. It’s a non-starter and only serves to divide.
My hope, after having spent time with a wide variety of Mormons this year, is that the “us vs. them” nature of past discourse may be abandoned in favor of more charitable approaches. There must always be a distinction made between beliefs and propositions and those who make them. I have learned from experience that traditional, liberal, and ex-Mormons are, for the most part, good folks with good intentions, all doing their very best to find truth and be faithful to it.