Any path that bills itself as the one true path for everyone is bound to lead to judgement. Naturally the path will be better suited to some people than to others, and — if it’s what everyone is supposed to be doing — that leads to the conclusion that those who do it well are simply better people; more righteous, more worthy, of better character, etc.
In the case of Mormonism, everyone is supposed to marry heterosexually and reproduce. There is no other path that is equal or greater. Those who fail are pitied, tolerated, given platitudes and excuses — but not respected on the same level as those who follow the path of biological reproduction.
Additionally, if you’re attractive, financially successful, good at public speaking, and generally have the kind of social skills that would put you in the popular clique in Jr. High/High School, then you’ll make a good Mormon. Bonus points if you have musical talents, a low (but not absent) sex drive, and if you’d rather conform than rebel. Ideally your family gets along reasonably well without any major hidden abuse or dysfunction simmering under the surface. It goes without saying that it’s better to have right-leaning political views and to be white. (Double bonus points if you’re related to “Mormon royalty.”)
If that’s you, then boy-oh-boy does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want you! And the church will be right there to constantly pat you on the back for how superior you are as a person than people who fail on any of the points above. If you don’t meet the above description, then — as far as the CoJCoL-dS is concerned — you’re the problem. You’re just not as righteous. (See Donna’s recent article for an example of how this plays out.)
A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of how Mormonism trains people to be successful, and the CoJCoL-dS is indeed good at training people to have modern success skills. But they also increase the proportion of the beautiful people among their ranks by creating an environment that is so miserable and odious for those who don’t fit the Mormon ideal that they often just leave.
This is where the polarization dynamic comes into play. The CoJCoL-dS broadcasts the message: “It’s not the church, it’s you. You didn’t pay, pray, and obey enough. You didn’t try hard enough. You weren’t righteous enough.” This message pushes people toward the two poles.
At the one pole we have people whose problems (and not-inherently-problematic differences from the Mormon ideal) simply can’t be prayed away. These folks are further battered by the message that it’s their fault if they couldn’t make an unworkable solution work. If this insult upon injury makes them angry as they leave, then that simply reinforces the church’s narrative: “Their hearts are full of contention; they have turned their backs on righteousness.”
At the other pole we have the people who are winning at Mormoning, and who are encouraged to believe that their success is due to their righteousness — that success with respect to the Mormon measuring rod is an objective measure of virtue. The bonus for the CoJCoL-dS is that the winners’ commitment to Mormonism is reinforced and integrated into their very identity.
I don’t claim that any person or committee within the CoJCoL-dS intentionally developed this strategy of polarization. I think it’s more likely that it’s a cultural strategy that developed over time because it has been effective at maintaining a successful, attractive, and highly-committed core of members. But there have been a number of actions from the Church Office Building that make it look like they’re doing it on purpose. Specifically: spreading lies and slander about those who leave the faith — which serves to make the leavers angrier which, in turn, proves how bitter and angry they are. See, for example, the Thomas B. Marsh and the milk & strippings story.
An example that made a strong impression on me was when the CoJCoL-dS released statements through its newsroom that misrepresented the actions of the Ordain Women movement (see my link roundups here and here). Those who participated in the actions found them positive and uplifting — and they felt they’d made a good connection with the church leaders there at the time. Then for the CoJCoL-dS to turn around and lump them with protesters shouting that Mormonism is of the devil hurt quite a bit. Maybe the folks in the Church Office Building were only thinking of their more orthodox audience when they crafted the statement (that has since been deleted), but maybe they wanted the women of Ordain Women to see the CoJCoL-dS as an institution that will lie about them for the purpose of hurting them. If they’re going to stand up to the CoJCoL-dS and its policies, then maybe the church reasoned it’s better that they leave, and leave angry.
A similar case was the infamous November Policy. A Mormon apostle stated that the CoJCoL-dS’s policy to bar children of gay parents from membership was parallel to their policy of barring children of polygamists from membership. If you don’t fit, they don’t want you to try to squeeze yourself in — and bend the CoJCoL-dS in the process.
I think it would be nice if the success and happiness of those of us who have left weren’t seen as a threat to the worldview of our friends and family who remain in the faith. It would be great if there were a neutral middle ground. But I don’t foresee any changes in the CoJCoL-dS’s polarization policy.
Other posts in this series: