Here I Stand

This essay was originally published in three parts on March 12th,  March 13th, and June 22nd of 2012. Although the essay was not aimed at Mormon Stories or John Delhin, John responded to the essays by banning me from the Mormon Stories groups and canceling my donations. John and I have since been able to achieve a cordial and supportive relationship, but the essay does highlight differences in thinking between the “New Order” Mormon philosophy and my own thinking. For this republished essay, I have made typo and grammar corrections and a few minor edits for clarity.

Here I Stand

My relationship with Mormonism is complex. I have served as a commentator, critic, researcher, occasional defender, and a former member of the Church. I have been in the shoes of the skeptic and the believer; I have lived on both sides of the fence. My views on Mormonism represent a natural growth and progression—one that I think has been healthy and productive although it has proceeded through many patches of personal suffering. Real growth often entails pain and moving from one stage of life to another and is usually not easy.

My progression out of Mormonism began early in my childhood. Seeds of doubt were planted very young that took a long time to germinate and grow. I was never in a hurry to get out of the Church and never really wanted to do so. Mormonism was not just my faith it was also my place in the world. It represented who I was and how I interacted with the world and was a large part of our family and cultural identity. Following my faithful mission and my return to BYU, I sought ways to make the faith work even though the gulf between the Church and reality increasingly was demonstrably wide. The world view that was perpetuated by the Church and the reality that was supported by reason, observation, and science were irreconcilable when given more than a surface treatment. I believe there was always within me uneasiness—a general sense that something was just not right which grew over time to the point of being unbearable. Of course, during this phase I usually bought into the party line perpetuated by the Church which suggested that any problems were not with the system, but were with me.

Around 2003 I concluded that there were far too many factual and historical problems with the Church to be taken as literally, but the metaphor of my religion was sound and that it was a good influence in people’s lives. Of course, to accept this position you must reject the position the Church itself holds about its own state of being. Having arrived at this conclusion, I became more attune to seeing how the religion really did impact people’s lives in a negative manner. Not buying what the Church was saying prima facie allowed me to open my eyes a little wider and see what was going on around me. I found that the data just didn’t match the theory, not just in terms of historical practice but how the religion was supposed to play out in member’s lives. It was now much easier to see the pain and torment in individual lives that was caused directly by backwards practices and beliefs.

Further research and reflection on my religion followed until I attended my last meeting in late 2005. This was my point of resignation from the Church. I no longer believed and I no longer wished to fellowship with the Mormons. However, much of my Mormon identity remained intact. I sought to find and help others who had followed the same path that I had. Since then, I have been heavily involved with organizations such as Community After Leaving Mormonism, Post-Mormon, Sunstone, and of course Mormon Expression.

I haven’t rejected my Mormon past, I have just grown beyond it. Mormonism is no longer an influence in that I no longer think as a Mormon. The institution doesn’t hold any sway on my world view. To me the Mormon Corporate Church is just like any other profit driven company such as Pepsi Co. The Mormon history is a subset of American history. The Mormon doctrine is just as any other belief system like Norse Mythology. And the Mormon people are another group of fundamentalist believers.

However, Mormonism has increasingly become an outside “other”, and I now emotionally react to it the same way that I emotionally react to Episcopalianism or Hinduism. I don’t feel like I am part of the system and I don’t think like a Mormon any longer. But this has a negative flip-side; I am now much less empathetic of the strange belief patterns. I am especially less empathetic of those who support the organization in order to preserve individual relationships, especially when that support includes tacit endorsement of ideas that are antithesis to what I consider fundamental issues of right and wrong. Because of this, engaging Mormonism on an empathetic level and trying to tailor my message to not be offensive to liberal believers is becoming increasingly difficult. I do not have a problem with rationally engaging historical Mormonism, it is when I interact in the current practice today that problems are encountered. Interesting, I have not had many problems with authentic believers. It is those who reject significant parts of Mormonism but still desire to engage and promote Mormonism on their own terms where the clashes tend to arise. But this is really a side issue. In my journey, I am no longer part of the tribe and questions on how far a believer is from the central fire-of-orthodoxy are not so interesting to me any longer. There are those who would have me fight against the orthodox believers but give the liberal believers a free pass. But the functional Church is built upon the backs of both types, and liberals are just as much a part of the institution. In fact, their inclusion in the ranks is probably more important in preserving the status power of the Church.

But what now? Where does this leave me? I am still fascinated by Mormonism but purely from an academic viewpoint. But when it comes to individuals, I cannot let me voice be seen as, in any way, endorsing the Church. I now believe everyone should get out of the Church and get out as soon as they can. I have in the past said that people should stay in the Church if it makes them happy. But I can no longer endorse this viewpoint. I believe that one’s person comfort in life does not give that individual a pass in the support of wrongful institutions. Unfortunately this puts me at odds with many individuals who share the same community in which I typically engage. I hold these individuals no ill will. But if you work to preserve the institution through so-called reforms, you and I are working at cross purposes. The institution is irredeemable in my eyes and our moral obligation is to get people out of the Church. I also reject the idea of taking on the trappings of the Church to help people see the follow of the Church. Trying to wrap the message that the Church is false in the language of belief is duplicitous and disingenuous in my eyes. Trying to hide your true beliefs in order to get people to more readily buy your message is a form of deception.

Today, I am a growing dynamic person. I want to keep it that way. Religion forces a static world view that has trouble adjusting to reality. I seek for things that make me happy, that make me satisfied, that stimulate my creativity, that make the world around more pleasant. I seek to build relationships of love, trust, and caring. I want to enjoy myself and create the best life I can. The difference between my present view and the view of fundamentalist religion is stark. The fundamentalist hod that there is one way to be happy and one path to follow. All other paths are forbidden and if you are not happy with the one-size-fits-all approach, then it is you that is defective not the institution. These ideas need to be weeded out and replaced with healthier approaches to life. Authoritarian, dictatorial institutions and this pursuit of satisfaction in life do not co-exist. I feel a stronger need to exit and stop supporting these harmful institutions even through tacit implication.

The Vanguard

There are many terms that get employed as metaphor so often that they begin to lose any real meaning. “The Vanguard” is one of them. In the age of machine guns and smart bombs, the term has lost much of its impact, but it is worth looking at one more time. In ancient battles the vanguard were the first troops to enter battle. The vanguard was responsible for the first wave of attack, and the vanguard always suffered the worst casualties. Battle has always been a nasty affair. It is brutal. And the kinds of battles over religion, family, and belief we are waging today can be equally as brutal psychologically. The scars are not physical, but the emotional scars can run deeper and have a long lasting effect.

Historically speaking, battles were often very short–many times a matter of minutes–and the important actions by a few were often the pivotal points to entire conflicts. The rest of the troops were often there only for defense or support. Even in very large battles the actions of the few brave souls that rushed in first could make all of the difference. The vanguard advances the battle; the vanguard determines what the fronts are; the vanguard determines when and where the war can end.

In all great social movements there is a vanguard that is willing to step out front and take the arrows. Historically, some risked death or physical pain. Fortunately we are not engaged in such a situation and we live in a society where we are free to speak our minds. But that doesn’t mean that speaking our minds will be free from consequence.

Many of us who have left the Church have suffered real consequences. We have been written out of wills. We have lost friendships. We have been disowned. We have divorced. We have been kicked out of school. We have lost children in custody battles. We have lost jobs and sometimes entire careers. But it is not just us. Even innocent bystanders will suffer. Often neighborhood children will refuse to play with our children. Parents won’t let their children into our yards. Parents of their own wayward children will be released from callings or made to feel the blame for their adult children’s action in apostasy.

The cost is so high in many instances, that a great number refuse to bear it. In the last few years I have received literally hundreds of emails, calls, messages and visits from those who struggle with this decision. I have cried with these suffering individuals as they face the Faustian bargain of staying in a Church they don’t believe in–and sometimes despise–or losing that which is of most value: their families. The choice is nearly undecidable and one no one should have to make.

The obvious question then is  why do it? Why leave? Why not just stay in and bear it? All of us have to do things that we don’t fully enjoy or agree with from time to time. How is this any different? It is a great question and one that deserves a thoughtful response.

For me, it was my daughter. She was three years old when I last went to Church. At that time I was struggling as a member of the Church. I had lost all of my belief in the Church and my belief in God. But I didn’t want to disrupt my family. However, I realized that she was about to start a system of indoctrination that would train her that she was a second class citizen and she should always subvert her will to male authority figures. I decided that any effort that I would invest in countering that message within the Church would be lost since I was still supporting the organization. My actions in merely attending Church and tacitly giving my approval therewith would speak louder than my words. I decided that I must bear the pain now so she wouldn’t have to later.

But suppose that people desired to stay and tried to inoculate their family, children, and friends by letting them know where they disagree with the Church. This sounds like a great plan to anyone who hasn’t tried it. The Mormon culture does not tolerate dissent. Dissonance, especially in the form of verbal disagreement with Church authority, is shouted down and snuffed out. Many a mixed faith couple knows the cloud of silence that descends when one’s beliefs about the most core parts of our existence are simply not allowed to be discussed. Most often, the resolution is that the partial or non-believer is not allowed to speak, parent, or love in manners that are not fully approved by the Church.

But even if they didn’t follow this paradigm and spoke, the problem is the Church is effective at dealing those who do not believe. It is skilled at turning spouse against spouse and child against parent. It is the rare parent that can counteract all of the youth programs, temple visits, conference talks, and peer pressure that will come down from the Church. The Church starts from the time children are very young and surrogates the role of the parent. This action continues through the youth programs culminating in the mission experiences in which young adults are not even allowed normal contact with their parents or siblings and are required to subjugate their very identity to the Church.

I have seen many souls without belief who go on and on maintaining their relationship with the Church. There are those who can reject all of the truth claims of the Church and be perfectly happy with membership. These folks I will address below. However, the other half are often living a half life–a sort of zombie Church existence. They are constantly bombarded with a message they disagree with in an avenue that has no place for self expression. They must never express their deepest thoughts to their spouse or children. They are constantly reminded of their living duplicity several times each week. This is soul crushing.

To leave the Church will cause pain and destruction, but for many, the route of remaining involved is also a destructive force. There is always the pain of living a life that you can only partially believe. In these instance the parts of the self begin to battle and the result is often depression or worse. But it is not just the toll it takes on the individual. By remaining in the Church your are pushing the pain down another generation. All of the struggles that a “patient” individual is suffering in silence will wait as traps for the next generation to walk into and the suffering will continue

.Let us return now to the vanguard. “I would leave the Church, but I will suffer for it.” I am amazed at how often words to this effect are repeated in a room full of ex-Mormons. Almost to a person, those who leave the Church as adults suffer tremendous loss for it. These things are usually said without the awareness of their effect on the others in the room–since the individual is thinking about their own dark situation. But to say it is not worth the fight to those who have fought, is in a small sense to trivialize their pain and their action. The person who leaves the Church over moral objection will count the outcome as worth every price paid. To live a life free and true to oneself is precious and it is a freedom that once tasted cannot be overvalued.

One might rightly ask, but “why the frontal assault?” Why not the Fifth Column?” These are those who wish to “change the Church from the inside.” The fifth column is the enemy within, the spies who work behind enemy lines to weaken the front and allow the outsiders to vanquish. But to do this, you must ask yourself who are you fighting against and who are you fighting for? Look around and try to identify which of your actions support your enemies and which support your allies. But the most important question is, how do you know your actions are effective? There are many who attend Church every week, secret with the knowledge that they personally don’t buy any of this bunk. But they serve in callings, provide money, support and help raise the next generation of followers for the the institution to benefit from. How is any change effected at all?

When one looks at the history of conflict, it is very rare for the battle to be won by those who choose to bed with the enemy. It is almost always the force from outside the causes real change. There comes a time in ones life to stand up and be counted. There is a great satisfaction that come from being true to yourself and from having those around you know where you stand. The temptation to not stand up is great, but wars cannot be won without confronting peril and pain. Not everyone is able to taste the desired victory and arrive at peace. But some causes are worth dying for, or at least, suffering some personal losses that others might be free.

Amen and Amen

At the end of every talk and prayer in a Mormon service, the speaker pronounces “amen” which is followed by the audience repeating “amen”. The word roughly means “so be it” and is a way for the respondents to voice their public approval and support for what was said. It takes the private thoughts of one individual and gives them group ownership. But it serves a more subtle and powerful purpose. It demonstrates group acquiescence. It show cohesion of ideas and sets the bounds on what beliefs and norms are tolerated and promoted in the group. Even if only half of the audience verbalizes it, the collective volume will impress on any listener the groups unified approval of the message. Individuals in the group will accept the idea as the normative thinking of the group.

Different organizations and institutions have differing degrees of required cohesion in thought and action. Little is required in a coffee shop other than the desire to purchase coffee. But in other institutions it is required to identify with the community values and give an outward showing of support and group membership. For some groups, such as the LDS church, it is imperative that a solidarity of thought be projected and maintained and little-to-no dissent is allowed to be verbalized or otherwise expressed. Groups benefit from the mass of participants who appear to be in a state of agreement. There is an implied consent involved in any group, but when it is made overt, it becomes even more powerful in managing what adherents believe is acceptable to think, say and do. Not everyone speaks, but it is expected that those who are participating principally agree with the positions of the group–thus the power of the “amen”.

There are also peripheral values that define additional shared values, cultural norms and world views. These values may not be central to the stated purpose, but they define who the group is just as much as the core values. For example, if a person belongs to a bowling league, an observer can rightful determine that this person values bowling. Observing the behaviors and cultural patterns of the league, one can probably determine you attitudes about politics, drinking and other things. If you attend a local sporting event you will be assumed to be a fan by all of the vendors, sponsors, users, and other fans. This is why visiting fans from the opposing team will often wear their  team colors boldly. In fact, the money you spend to buy the ticket will go to the team, the hot dog you purchase in the mezzanine will support the team, and the camera sweeps that show you sitting in the audience will support the team. So even if you do not support the team mentally, there is no way around the fact that you are supporting your team materially and in every way that ultimately matters. And the rest of the world has no idea you aren’t a supporter. They will only see the mass of faces in the crowd. They cease to see the individuals sitting in the seats as individuals. This is the designed intent.

Accepted social norms affect everything we do, whether we like them or not. We tend to internalize the most important ones and we don’t even give them thought. When you go around town, you will see signs that say “No shoes, no shirt, no service”. This does not mean that we live in a society where pant-less people are tolerated. It is just assumed that everyone will wear pants. This social norm is so embraced that it doesn’t even make it into the rules. Everyone knows that someone attending the restaurant will wear pants. One’s participation implies acceptance of the terms and assumptions of participation. In legal terms this is called “implied consent” and it easily extends to the philosophical and cultural ideals and practices of the group. If one were to say, “I want the local hockey team to move out of the city” they would need to follow up that thought with visible action or the idea will not gain any traction. But even worse would be holding this thought while also sitting in the stand with the other fans. This is even worse. Your presence and implied support will nullify your message and turn you into another fan instead.

The Church thrives on the implied participation of its members and frankly the mental state of that member doesn’t matter. The internal questions, dissent and rebellion against the Church are effectively hidden behind a veil of conformity that has been crafted to manufacture consent. Much of what happens at church is shaped to indicate an outward manifestation of an inward state of mind. There is good reason the Church emphasizes uniformity in dress, in speech, in grooming, and in jewelry. What many don’t realize is that by setting the boundaries, the Church also controls the mode of dissent and the very ground on which dissent is possible. One might think they are making a statement by wearing a pastel blue shirt instead of stark white one. But that is only a distinction that would be picked up by an insider and the larger world of observers will not be able to tell the difference between “accepted” rebellion and total conformity–think about subtitles like drinking Coke. The outsider will still see the uniformity even in “acceptable” rebellion. Cultural norms and enforced practices set the boundaries and give an illusion of freedom while preserving the core values of the organization. This is why these controlling organizations tend to be focused on seemingly petty behaviors–it moves the debate away from what truly matters to the organization. It provides fencing that keeps individuals from every really showing questioning behaviors in ways that matter. Rebellion then, is defined and tightly controlled and there is no avenue for expressing meaningful dissent.

The Church has a long history of dealing with dissent and its well practiced methods on this front have become precisely honed. Through the years the Church has learned to deal with voices that would advocate change forcefully at times but usually in a subtle manor that is nearly invisible to the masses. Members have been trained to shun even the appearance of non-conformity and the expression of individual thought will be eschewed and disregard. The organizational genius of this is that the majority of the congregation might have non-conforming ideas, and they may even be in agreement with one another, but they will all have the appearance of agreement with the authorized position and they will be completely invisible to one another. 

My last calling in the Church was the adult Sunday school teacher. I was struggling with my faith but trying as hard as I could. As I studied to prepare each lesson, I became acutely aware of how well crafted the lesson books were. They were strategically designed to avoid any discussion that might raise questions in regard to the core standards of the Church. Lesson questions were designed to not inspire any real though or reflection but instead to channel the discussion into reinforcement of basic ideas the closed down critical thinking. Often the lesson plan focused on the minutia to avoid things that might not be as clear cut as the Church would have its membership belief. The media propagandizing is very sophisticated and generally cannot be recognized by all but the most dedicated and patient viewers. Any pointing out discrepancy or falsehood in the manuals would be met with scorn and discipline “even if true.”

The non-conforming member, even of the most casual strip, is left with a dilemma. Mere participation reinforces the security and entrenchment of the Church and its teachings. The dissenter is left with a “Sophie’s Choice” between tacit participation and approval or social suicide through rejection of family members and friends. This is due to the decision of supporting ritual through participation in such things as child baptisms or temple marriages or the appearance of shunning family members at their life’s events. Because of the structure of these events, implied consent will be noted by all in the room. This is exactly how the Church wants it.

The only real way to change the system is to reject it in its entirety. This of course has huge social cost, which many have had to bear. But those cultural costs will lessen with each individual who chooses to publicly refuse to support the organization. And this break with the institution, to get through the structures of silence, has to be loud and pronounced. It has to come in the form of willful, explicit non-participation in events and formal statements of position that are clearly understood as such. But this brashness is not due to the heretics being louts, it is necessary because the system makes it necessary, it is the only way to get out of the trench and make the message heard.

And what of the Fifth Column? What of those who choose to covertly operate within the Church to achieve reform? One must first argue that the Church is worthy of reform. Some practices and institutions are better to be discarded and start over. Every good builder needs to know the difference between a home that has “good bones” and can be remodeled and one that is simply a tear down. The Church is a tear down plain and simple. But beyond that, to willfully misrepresent oneself in the interest of clandestine sabotage is an act of moral deception. One must be willing to live a lie to accomplish an end. But what end is that? What change can be made to the Church in secret? Certainly dissent that is hidden has no impact as a form of protest. No, as outlined above the avenues of dissent are effectively stopped and silenced. There is no way for all but a handful of people to make any real dent in the culture. And those who try are often overtly silenced, released from their calling, excommunicated and often shunned. At the very least, they are looked upon with derision by their peers which again takes away the effectiveness of their inside protest.

It is imperative that those who know and understand take the position of moral leadership by abandoning the support of an abusive and unhealthy organization.