There have been interesting reflections on LDS blogs recently on history, being lied to, heritage, the CES Letter, and the general angst of former or transitioning Mormons. As a has-been Mormon in the unique position of working in Mormon studies, I watch all this with fascination and a little bit of sadness. Fascination because watching Mormonism come to terms with its history is a remarkable process, and sadness because the people who are so anxious to get away from Mormonism only have a Mormon-imposed structure to navigate the world. Jacob Baker reflected on some of this from the perspective of a believing Mormon. I thought I’d echo his thoughts and expand on them from my perspective as a former Mormon.
I wish my fellow ex-Mormons (or former Mormons, or disaffected, or whatever) would realize that they are only mirroring the Mormonism they grew up with and lived with for so many years. The same black-and-white mentality unfolds, only as if we’ve suddenly been transported to bizarro world. Apologists go from heroes to villains, history goes from faith-promoting to faith-destructing, the Book of Mormon goes from proving the church is true to proving it’s false, Church leaders, both historic and modern, go from being the greatest men on earth to some of the most evil, the temple goes from beautiful to sinister, Joseph Smith goes from prophet to pedophile, the church goes from selfless charity to money-hoarding corporation, Mormons go from being the most enlightened people on earth to the most sheltered. On and on and on it goes. Instead of breaking out of the narrative the church wrote for us, we just flip the switch and black becomes white and up becomes down, but the story is identical.
Stop reflecting Mormonism in a mirror and write your own story.
I recognize it’s not my place to tell anyone what their pain should be, how long it should last, what it should look like, or how it should resolve itself. No one chooses to walk away from something that has been the center of their identity for their entire lives with a shrug. I went through my own traumas and my own challenges. Somewhere, out there in cyberspace, are my own rantings and ravings against Mormonism. Trawl through blog comments and email lists and you’ll likely find some ignorant, angry posts. (Please don’t really do that. Not for my sake, but yours. Life is too short.) The time from my acceptance that I did not believe in Mormonism to the time I finally made (mostly) peace with that decision was not a couple of weeks, either. It was years. But most of those years were away from Mormonism.
Those years were spent wandering in the wilderness of doubt because they were before ex-Mormon Facebook groups and before “transitioning” from Mormonism were a thing. Oh, sure. I still heard about Mormonism. I live in Utah, for crying out loud. Much of my family is Mormon. I still followed parts of it. But I let myself get away from the obsessive anger and hurt every single time the church did something stupid or controversial. Over time, two things happened. My outrage lessened considerably and Mormonism got weird and interesting. Mormonism did not get weird because it changed, it got weird because I got away from it and got some perspective. No disrespect, Mormons, but the farther you get away from the church, the weirder y’all are.
History transformed for me, too. If anything is self-evident to ex-Mormons, it’s that Mormon history is the stake in the LDS Church’s heart. But I got away from that. Instead of being this weapon to attack the church, history became fascinating for its own sake. Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, and its history tells us a great deal about our shared history as a people, at least if you’re from the United States. And if you’re not, it still tells us about the human condition in some fascinating ways.
But ex-Mormons who talk about LDS history lose a lot of perspective. When history is used as a blunt instrument to compel belief or disdain for the divinity of Mormonism, rational understandings of human nature are tossed aside in favor of oversimplified portrayals of Mormons as good guys or bad guys. Words like lying, fraud, deception, etc., become easy to hurtle at perceived enemies like a knife. But the truth is much more messy and complicated.
People don’t see themselves as villains, as liars, as deceivers, or as deluding themselves. Life isn’t a movie where the clearly-labeled antagonist is either vanquished or has an intense moment of clarity and mutters, “What have I done?” When I hear ex-Mormons insist “I was lied to,” I have to wonder who did the lying? The apostles? Your bishop? Aren’t these leaders deeply convinced of the truthfulness of the church’s claims? We cannot get away from our own confirmation biases. Insisting that if all the facts are laid out then everyone will clearly agree with us or else they are the biased ones is the textbook definition of naïve realism. What’s more, it’s still just another way of flipping the narrative: instead of believing that if people would just listen to the missionaries, they’d convert, now it’s that if people would just listen to you they’d understand how false the church is.
Shouldn’t our end goal of leaving be to find some peace? Isn’t the point of not being Mormon to…you know…not be Mormon? There can be peace in Not Being Mormon™. You know how a new Gospel Topics essay comes out and there’s tons of angst and frustration and hand wringing? Yeah, I don’t have that. I get to enjoy the essays as a curiosity of an interesting culture wrestling and navigating difficult waters. I don’t have to ask, “What does this mean to me?” or “How do I still fit into this organization that makes me feel like an outsider sometimes?” or, best of all, I don’t have to scream, “What a dishonest organization I can’t believe they’d do something like this, enjoy your PROFIT of GOD!!!” and so forth. My goodness, I get to shop at City Creek without shaking my head in disgust.
If your identity is based on “I’m an ex-Mormon,” or “I’m a transitioning Mormon,” you’re still kinda Mormon. The church is still the root of your identity. If the Facebook groups you’re a part of and the conversations you have and the things you focus on still revolve around Mormonism…you’re not writing your own story, you’re letting this institution you seem to really despise write it for you. Believe me, I get the need to find support groups and vocalize struggles and seek understanding. But there’s a fine line between struggling to resolve one’s pain and carefully manicuring it.
If someone wants to make their outrage the Mormon Church and they feel like they can do good in the world by speaking out, okay…I guess? There’s stuff you’re right to be critical—deeply critical—of. But I’m not going to tag along with you and it’d be cool if you could stop acting shocked when you find out I don’t feel the same level of outrage you do. My silence on the issues that animate you don’t equal my assent. I don’t think Joseph Smith marrying a fourteen-year-old girl was okay, I just don’t have the energy or the wherewithal to post about it twenty times a day.
We all pick our moral hill to die on. Somewhere right now, someone is complaining that the church wasted its money on a mall while they’re wearing clothes sewn by a kid in Bangladesh for .31 cents a day. Someone else is screaming that the church is a bully while they support Donald Trump. Your outrage at Mormonism doesn’t make you cleaner than the rest of us.
(Aside: please stop using the word apologist as an epithet. Please? You’re using it wrong.)
Some of us are better at navigating the myriad personalities of our fellow humans better than others. I, frankly, am not. I do not have the temperament or the patience for it. That’s why I could not be more content sitting on my back porch reading and sipping coffee (!) on Sunday mornings instead of sitting in a room with people I feel cannot understand me, even as I am aware that my feelings say more about my need to project my insecurities onto others than it does about the churchgoers I once broke bread with. I simply have no interest in trying to sidestep the landmines of church that spring up for a non believer like me. But I respect those who do. I respect those people whose belief in Mormonism falls along a broad spectrum, from totality to non-existent, and who find themselves in the pews. Along with my own frustrations and disapproval of specific things in Mormonism there is a deep-seated fondness. It’s my hope that others who are in pain or who are struggling can find a measure of their own fondness, and, absent that, the peace to move on.
John Hatch is the acquisitions editor for Signature Books. He is the editor of Danish Apostle: The Diaries of Anthon H. Lund and the author of several articles on Mormonism and Mormon history. He is currently writing a biography of LDS President Lorenzo Snow