How I came to sympathize with the Mormons…

Step one was to finish my degree at BYU and go somewhere else. When you’re at BYU (or you’re a kid in a Mormon household), Mormonism seems huge and powerful (in a bad way, since LDS Inc. aspires to be kind of a mini taliban). As soon as I was far away from it, though, Mormonism started to look tiny and insignificant. (I described this a bit in the beginning of Temple Wedding.) And once the church was no longer pestering me on a daily basis, I realized that — deep down — I didn’t hate it.

Step two was the reactions I got to my LDS background. Normally one can leave Mormonism kind of invisibly, but not if you’ve just entered grad school, having come from BYU. The first question after “What’s your name?” is “Where’d you get your undergraduate degree?” In the Math department (at Rutgers), they posted a list of all the new grad students along with the name of the university each came from. So I was obliged to explain to everybody. “Yes, I went to BYU. No, I didn’t want to go there. Yes, I was raised Mormon. No, I don’t believe in it.”

It actually ended up being a good ice-breaker and an entertaining topic:

random person: Do Mormons really wear magic underwear?
me: Yep, they sure do!
random person: I heard they believe that God was once a man and that people can become Gods.
me: That’s right! Cool, huh? [This was back in the early ’90s, before that doctrine stopped being “emphasized”.]
random person: And they really can’t drink coffee or tea or alcohol?
me: Yes, amazing but true! And not only that, they have to pay a full ten percent of their income in order to go to their temple, and the church won’t even tell them where the money goes or disclose any information on church finances! And the church has enormous wealth in secular real estate and corporate holdings.

That worked great until I got around to using this shtick on my roommate, who was a Christian pastor. (She was one of those lady pastors that the Southern Baptists don’t like.)

She told me that it was a tragedy that I was raised by that cult, and then proceeded to explain how all that is totally unlike Christianity, which is all about love, and everybody loves everyone else, and they don’t have those bad problems like the Mormons have, and yadda, yadda, yadda…

Her reaction surprised me, and, frankly, made me angry. Then I was surprised that I was angry about it, but when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. My discussion of Mormonism was basically an admission: “Okay, so my family is wacky and maybe a little dysfunctional. But at least they’re not boring! :D” (see my family history) The correct response is not “Too bad for you, my family is nothing but wonderful and not dysfunctional at all,” when I can see that you’ve got your own crazy aunt locked up in the attic or whatever (figuratively speaking). My feeling was “I’m being frank with you (about something that is, ultimately, personal) and you’re not being frank with me.”

So I guess this story is another tip along the lines of my earlier how not to invite Mormons to your church posts. I think a lot of former Mormons have this same experience at some point, and it’s not exactly inviting…

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

34 thoughts on “How I came to sympathize with the Mormons…

  1. Great post, Chanson. Evangelical attacks on Mormonism irritate me to no end (especially when self-righteous ‘ministers’ manipulate our religiosity to get their hands on our money).

    It’s like the one eyed criticizing the blind, except it’s probably the other way around. Compared to the Christianist fundies, Mormonism is a pretty rational culture.

  2. I think the analogy between Mormonism and one’s wacky relations is a perfect one. I remember in my History of American Religion class when we discussed Mormonism and all my classmates were going on and on about how obviously ridiculous the tenets of Mormonism, I was so annoyed. I thought to myself that I also think most of this is ridiculous, but it’s somehow terribly annoying coming from people who don’t fully understand the religion, and whose religions are equally illogical (when you think about it the idea that some guy died and came back to life therefore you are absolved from all your sins as long as you regularly consume his flesh and blood is pretty wacky). My professor actually pointed out that all religions are based logically wacky sounding ideas, which was fairly effective in bringing a more civil tone to discussion. I have often thought my relationship to criticism of the church is a sort of “no one can beat up my baby brother but me” kind of a thing.

  3. no one can beat up my baby brother but me

    lol, it’s kind of like that. But it’s also true that exmos are less likely than outsiders to have an attitude of “Ha ha, aren’t Mormons stupid? How could anyone be so stupid?” ‘Cause we’ve been there and know there’s more to it than that…

  4. Good post. When I was growing up in an evangelical Christian household, I wasn’t taught anything about Mormonism, except that the Mormons had a really good choir. When I attended an evangelical Christian college, I quickly learned that Mormonism was a cult, a belief that I held for a long time (apologies to you and your readers). I don’t believe any of those fantasies now, but it’s interesting to compare your accounts of growing up Mormon with my experiences of evangelical Christianity. The beliefs differ, but a lot of the methods of propagation are common to all religious sects.

  5. Seth — Exactly. 😉

    Chaplain — That’s one of the main reasons I like writing (and blogging): to compare and contrast experiences. Even religions (and cultures) that seem very different from one another are still made of humans. 😉

  6. Well, as we’ve talked about before, I found it worthwhile to understand what was behind some of the “mormons aren’t christian” argument. It seemed inane to me, growing up, the BOM was another testament of Christ, Christ was a big part of church (from my perspective).

    Some of the apparent differences (the liturgy, the calendar) I wouldn’t necessarily argue either way. Is a religion Christian only if it celebrates Advent? But I think it’s worth noting some of the advantages that religions with paid clergy and a liturgical calendar have. A paid clergy, in particular, usually is trained in counseling, identifying and dealing with abuse (in general). For many bishops and SPs, they only have a handbook to go from, and personal revelation from God. Sadly, personal revelation doesn’t always protect families who really need professional help in such situations. Not always of course.

    Okay – so those are the obvious differences. And it’s difficult (IMO) to argue that advent or easter are straight from the bible and or Christ. Another thing, from my perspective that’s important to understand is salvation through grace.

    Again – I’m not necessarily agreeing with these arguments. I’m just saying that it can be useful to understand where the opposition is coming from. Just as your roommate chanson had misinformation, I’m not sure that I had all the information either.

    The salvation through grace concept that many christian churches believe in is that you don’t have to do anything to be saved. You just have to accept christ. You don’t have to go to church, go to the temple, etc. etc. Of course, there are lots of arguments to get christians to continue to participate in church and pay tithe themselves.

    This comment is getting way too long, again – not saying that I agree with the salvation through grace concept. Just the study of various religions has been very interesting for me. Comparing and contrasting mormonism with other faiths has also been very interesting. I hear what you’re saying chanson about the mormons being your dysfunctional family.

    I think there are some people who do really know more about mormonism than some active mormons would give them credit for (not evangelical christians). What I’m saying is, growing up, I was always given the impression that non mormons just didn’t get it (or, obviously, they would be mormon). But really, I think some non mormons DO understand.

    Maybe they are more familiar with their own religious traditions. Maybe they are uncomfortable with the position of women in leadership. Maybe they are uncomfortable with the treatment of gays and non traditional families. I think that the sharing of information, the evaluation of information is very important in this process – from all sides. As well as a basic respect for mormons and non mormons.

  7. “Sadly, personal revelation doesn’t always protect families who really need professional help in such situations.”

    I think standard Bishop’s operating procedure in such cases is to pass the people along to professionals who are trained to help.

  8. Aerin — I’m not saying there are no objective differences. I’m just saying that the “Thank heavens Jesus rescued you from that cult!” reaction (that exmos sometimes get from Christians) has nothing to do with objectively weighing the evidence.

  9. I wish it were so, Seth. I have served many years in bishoprics and branch presidencies and have never seen anyone passed on to professionals.

    Sometimes, bad advice by priesthood leaders has consequences. I have seen beaten women staying with their abusers because bishops told them that marriage is sacred.

    It is always difficult for abused women to leave. The last thing they need is an ignoramus who invokes divine authority and inspiration.

    Kip Eliason even committed suicide when his physician acted on Mormon folklore about masturbation rather than giving the child professional advice. The doctor considered his priesthood obligations more important with deadly consequences.

    Privileging feelings over reason often turns out to be alright but on average it will result in suboptimal outcomes.

    Anyways, it’s been a while since I read the handbook. May be, the last edition includes better instructions for bishops.

  10. I think Wikileaks published it, and got a prompt stern letter from the Church legal department.

    But not before I downloaded it. I think I’ve got it tucked away here somewhere….

  11. I admire your ability to sympathize with and be more accepting of Mormons. I suspect the difficulty for me is that I still live in Utah. It so permeates nearly everything here that my family is affected by and reminded of it on nearly a daily basis.

  12. Well, this may be something where we have to agree to disagree. But when a bishop/sp is taught to rely on the “power of the priesthood”, and personal revelation – I believe these are factors in the counseling that they might give their “flock”. It sounds like the handbook is up to date for accusations of abuse, etc. (btw, I believe it should be public to all members, but that’s another story). I’m just not sure how individual bishops and sp’s respond to the “guidelines” in the handbook and their own take on what needs to be done. And just like any manager in a for profit company, I’m sure 95% of the time they give the right options to those families.

    I’ll give an example. A friend of mine teaches massage therapy at a local college. She teaches an actual class where they discuss personal boundaries and how much they want to reveal. For example, if your client starts talking strong religious or political views, it’s important to keep your professional distance, not get involved, etc. I’m sure she talks about why that professional separation is important.

    Again – most bishops and sp’s probably have this down. What I’m concerned about is that small percentage that isn’t trained in some of that stuff (confidentiality, reporting of abuse, counseling about certain se_x_ual issues, addiction, etc.) I believe that power can be misused. I think I need to start my own post on this topic – it’s not really related to the differences between evangelical christianity and mormonism….

  13. It’s funny. For somebody who seems to be trying to distance himself from mormonism, you spend a lot of time focusing on it. I don’t want anything to do with the Catholic church, and if you check my blog, it isn’t filled with posts about that church. Odd how that works, isn’t it. You sound like a giant douche to me.

  14. I suppose at some level that’s a fair point, Nigel. I don’t understand, however, why you need to resort to name calling. It just diminishes you and your argument.

  15. Nigel — When did I say I was trying to “distance [my]self form Mormonism”? When was that?

    Oh yeah, never. Not once.

    Why are you calling me a douche for writing about a subject that interests me? Personally, I think my hobby is a whole lot more interesting than posting random, senseless insults on other people’s blogs. But that’s just me, maybe this is thrilling for you. Happy trolling!!! 😉

    p.s. To Hellmut: this is not a “fair point.” I realize you wrote that in your rush to be the polite moderator (as per our usual policy here at MSP), but seriously, don’t feed the trolls. 😉

  16. Just for the record, Chanson, I was thinking more about myself than about you. Egocentric as it may be, I have no problem admitting that at some level I am obsessed with Mormonism.

    That’s only natural if you have invested decades of your life into a cause.

  17. Ah, I get it.

    For me, this has never been a cause. I hope that through my stories, I’ve helped people make peace with their past, their heritage, and their families. But really I’m just doing this because I like swapping stories with people… 😉

  18. This is how it seems to me; you define yourself as a “former mormon” or a “raised mormon, but don’t believe.” You say in your post that you would break the ice with people by finding some common ground about how you both disagree with mormonism. It just seems weird to me, because I define myself as what I do like, or what I do believe, or what I currently am. I definitely don’t identify myself by what I am not, or what I don’t believe, or who I disagree with. That just seems like a great idea to create inner conflict and live your entire life bitter and confused.
    If you don’t believe in a religion, GREAT. Nobody will be offended at that (or care). My point is that you don’t go around pointing out with a majority of posts that you disagree with the occult, or with 7th day adventists, or judaism, or any of the other thousands of religions. You are obsessed with mormonism, and it is a weird obsession, because it revolves around you distancing yourself from the religion and insulting it, but then continually talking about it. That is what makes you a giant douche.

  19. Nigel — I’m not writing about what I’m not. I’m writing about what I am. I’m a “cultural Mormon”: my family is Mormon, my heritage is Mormon.

    I’m interested in writing about my family, my past, and heritage. Why do you have a problem with that? I don’t go to your blog and complain about how you’re writing about your youth or college years or whatever.

  20. Nigel, you probably don’t realize that Mormonism is as much an ethnicity as a religion. You don’t need to agree with Mormon orthodoxy to be a Mormon.

  21. The correct response is not “Too bad for you, my family is nothing but wonderful and not dysfunctional at all,” when I can see that you’ve got your own crazy aunt locked up in the attic or whatever (figuratively speaking). My feeling was “I’m being frank with you (about something that is, ultimately, personal) and you’re not being frank with me.”

    Oh, lordy, I have had that response too. My oh my is it condescending and insulting–as if our ability to recognize that our own unbringing was full of shit doesn’t help us figure out when OTHER people are full of shit as well.

    And you’re completely right, Chanson, about your absolutely legitimate desire to explore your own past and heritage. Nigel’s reaction is the secular counterpart to the “why can’t you leave it alone after you left the church?” business we hear from members who can’t bear to accept that someone who spent decades in a church might actually have valid criticisms to make of it. But what would you expect from someone so lacking in self-awareness that he would write, without seeing the contradictions inherent in his statement, “What you do is wrong, because it’s not what I do. I definitely don’t identify myself by what I am not, or what I don’t believe, or who I disagree with. Because you’re not like me, you’re a giant douche, and I’m not.”

    Find a mirror, Nigel, and the courage to look at yourself honestly. People who don’t define themselves in opposition to what they don’t agree with DO NOT troll the blogosphere and start arguments, or go around calling people giant douches.

  22. Mormons are wacky. I’m not going to pretend like I don’t have fun regaling my friends with stories of polygamy and secret underwear. I do.

    I think I have a problem with people who talk about how sacrilegious or ridiculous Mormonism is, when they believe that God created the earth in seven days, populated it with Adam and a rib-woman, flooded the whole earth, got a virgin pregnant without deflowering her, had himself/his son killed, then became a zombie, and now we’re supposed to go to church every Sunday and eat him. ALL RELIGIONS believe ridiculous things!

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