Thoughts on the Affirmation Conference

Two weeks ago I attended the annual Affirmation Conference in Salt Lake. It was well attended and overall a great success. Kudos to the Affirmation leaders who put it together. For specifics on the conference I’ll just refer you to Affirmation’s website. There really isn’t much point in me going over things that are already online there.

These conferences are wonderful in helping gay people realize that God loves them just as they are, and have great value in “harm reduction” for gay youth. Caitlan Ryan, one of the presenters and a professor at San Francisco State, is a hero who has done much research on helping people of faith to be less rejecting of their LGBT family members thus greatly reducing risks for suicide, drug abuse etc. I have tremendous admiration for her and her work. Getting young LGBT people to adulthood emotionally unscathed and healthy is a very worthy goal.

Having said that, I must concede some misgivings. Affirmation at times seems too focused on helping gay Mormons maintain their faith in, and ties to the Mormon Church. It was pointed out that Affirmation is for everyone regardless of where one is on the Mormon spectrum, but the conference failed to adequately address the feelings of those of us who no longer believe in the Church and feel that Mormonism is still, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a toxic place for gay people. Even if “loved,” we are very much second class. I say we need to get young people to adulthood in one healthy piece, but self-loathing gay adults are also a problem. I understand the need for a “big tent” and really believe we need to love and accept each other even if we have conflicting world views. Affirmation simply needs to address more world views.

As I’ve said before, you can take a person out of Mormonism but you can’t take Mormonism out of the person. At least not completely. Mormonism is such an all encompassing way of life that it’ll always be a part of us. Some of us non-believers want to maintain some ties to our Mormon past but have no desire to ever again be a part of the Church. Affirmation needs us, and needs to address our concerns too.

Married to my Religion

As I’ve stated in my comment on Open thread for faithful Mormons!, I’m a 2nd time convert to the CoJCoL-ds. My wife is a Mormon. I promised her that I would support her goals to bring the kids up in the Church, but didn’t promise that I would convert. Then I had the missionary discussions and ended up converting anyway. I was drawn to the “family first” culture and the additions to the gospel, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about my savior.

However, I’ve always been what I consider a ‘truth seeker’, so I haven’t been resting on the laurels of the “One True Church”. In my opinion, if a church, or organization, or any idea for that matter, claims to be True, then it should have no problems under scrutiny. If it is to be True, then I should be able to investigate every aspect of it and after I’m done, it should come out unscathed.

Over the past couple years, I have gone through each of the phases of Mormonism that I know of (nazi, orthodox, conservative, liberal, and genuine, see: Robert Kirby’s classification of Mormons). I slowly started to learn that the what really happened may not have been what the Church put out as what it would prefer that you believe (official doctrine).

More recently, I’ve been hanging out at MSP and Mormonthink. It is at Mormonthink where I discovered a lot of the truth. The information there is enough to send all but the most devoted (close minded?) followers into a tailspin of faith. Many have left the church, and some have dropped all of their faith entirely. I can certainly see how people have labeled the church a cult.

Even with all that, I am not ready to leave. You can call me a NOM, or you might even call me stupid or delusional, but I believe that there are truths that have been revealed, and even though from now on, while in church, I may cringe inwardly whenever someone makes a reference to the some things, I will just grin and bear it. Why?

It could have something to do with not wanting to create waves in my family. It could have something to do with not wanting the disowning that I’ve heard about from the entire Ward. I think that it is a feeling that I get that the church is where I should be. I’m not the kind of person to give in to fear, especially when it means that I would have to pretend to be someone that I’m not in order to give in to that fear.

My relationship with the Church is my like my marriage. My wife has done things in her past that she isn’t proud of, but that isn’t what I married her for. She often does things that drive me completely crazy, but I will always love her beyond my ability to express it. So even though I’ve found that there are more holes in the CoJCoL-ds story than a sieve, I will continue to attend, and even enjoy the services. As long as my local Ward or Stake doesn’t have some political or business “call to arms”, I will continue to be a part of my Ward family.

“The Rescue”

Many of you have probably already come across this Reuters special report about Mormonism’s membership troubles in this internet age, as reported by outgoing church historian Marlin Jensen.

Apparently, President Monson’s signature campaign is called “the Rescue”: referring to rescuing the church’s membership from “rapidly declining,” as some reports have spun it.

I’m assuming the expensive Mormon.org campaign is part of the Rescue. Another part is curriculum being developed for youth and adults to address tough historical issues (like polygamy or the ban on black ordination or the [lack of] evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, etc) so that the Church doesn’t seem like it’s hiding stuff (and consequently losing its members’ trust). The way I see it, the Rescue is basically about how to get control of discourse about Mormonism for the purposes of maintenance and growth.

One thing that’s unclear to me is whether the effects of Mormon.org are included when Jensen speaks of continued search engine optimization problems for the Church. I would like to analyze this “problem” for a moment.

On Google, Mormon.org often appears as an “ad” when searching for various LDS phrases and themes. For example, if you search for “Joseph Smith,” Mormon.org appears at the very top of the list as an advertisement. Currently, Mormon.org also pops up 6th on the list, meaning people are going to the site to learn about Joseph Smith (probably as a result of the ad campaign). The 1st listing is josephsmith.net, a site owned by Intellectual Reserve that gives an LDS-biased view of the guy, never mentioning polygamy once.

2nd on the list is Wikipedia’s entry, which of course mentions polygamy and talks about the man from a more multivocal, detailed point-of-view than anything church sites offer. (For example, Mormon.org is “multivocal,” but all the Mormons are saying the same things, which seems, *ahem*, “cultish.”)

4th on the list is a no-nonsense wivesofjosephsmith.org whose “mission and purpose” is to “acknowledge and remember these largely forgotten women.”

It seems to me that when it comes to search engine optimization, the Church is forgetting that it’s not about what single site the searcher ultimately clicks. It’s about “rhizomatics” and how the searcher apprehends bits and pieces from multiple sources. It is impossible for the Church to control the discourse that is outside itself.

Jensen mentions how his own daughter asked him why he never told her about Joseph Smith being a polygamist, and Jensen responded that he “hadn’t thought” to tell her about it. I can only imagine how she came upon the knowledge herself: perhaps as a taunt from a non-Mormon peer at school: “Your church was started by a polygamist!” as per a quick search on Google.

Armed with this new Rescue curriculum coming out soon, his daughter might respond: “He didn’t want to do it, but it was the Lord’s commandment.”

And the peer might go home that night, do a bit of quick reading, and respond the next day: “Well, Emma Smith didn’t want it, but there’s supposed to be a rule that it could only happen if the first wife accepted it. So I think Joseph did want it, enough to give a ‘commandment’ to Emma to accept it.”

And the daughter will be like, “WHAT??!!!”

I think it would be hard to tell the actual facts about Mormon history without causing defection. My understanding is that the whole reason facts are left out is to prevent defection. Sure, some things get lost to time, but the Church relates to certain personages within its own history in a way that puts itself in a corner. You never hear of modern-day Presbyterians leaving their church because of things clergy said or did in the 1800s. But Mormons uphold Joseph Smith and every president after him to be “prophets,” so there’s an expectation of a kind of ahistorical ethical behavior. This is complex when overlaying onto the flow of information in the internet age. Basically, what I think it boils down to is that the Church is going to have to get used to non-Mormons potentially knowing more on Mormon topics than Mormons themselves due to historiographical barriers built into the Church to maintain itself. The more the Church tries to control public discourse about Mormonism, the more it will have to adapt to that discourse and face its albatrosses.

Suffice it to say, I don’t see this as a “problem” but as a favor the world is granting the Church.

“We do not need more members who question every detail.”

Spending too much time on Facebook, as usual, and a friend shared this link from the page LDS General Conference, a quote from M. Russell Ballard from October 1995 General Conference:

We do not need more members who question every detail; we need members who have felt with their hearts, who live close to the Spirit, and who follow its promptings joyfully. We need seeking hearts and minds that welcome gospel truths without argument or complaint and without requiring miraculous manifestation. Oh, how we are blessed when members respond joyfully to counsel from their bishops, stake presidents, quorum or auxiliary leaders, some of whom might be younger than they and less experienced. What great blessings we receive when we follow “that which is right” joyfully and not grudgingly.

The quote alone was enough to get my dander up. I had to quit reading the comments after three or four because it wasn’t good for my blood pressure. Fortunately there are some commenters on the thread saying, “Hey, wait a minute, let’s not throw our minds out the window,” and this post yesterday from Mike S. at Wheat and Tares about wanting to make “I believe” as valid a statement of faith as “I know” was encouraging.

Sometimes it gets hard to keep a tally on all the ways my experience with the Church was harmful, but this attitude that, “If what you think is different from what we think, we are right and you are wrong,” is definitely near the top of the list. As I’ve written on my own blog:

I think we all have an instinctive inner voice that can guide us toward a fulfilling life. The religion I grew up in taught me to override this voice if it conflicted with external authority….The underlying message: God (as represented by his appointed mouthpieces on earth) knows what’s best for you; you don’t. So just bequiet nice anddo what you’re told follow our loving counsel.

If something doesn’t feel right, you’re the problem. You need to pray harder and be more humble, and keep praying until the answer you get matches up with doctrine/your bishop/etc. My post goes through examples of questions I had about racism in the Book of Mormon, gender roles and gay marriage, and how I suppressed all these concerns to protect my testimony. The most vivid instance when I recall coming up against this “don’t question” attitude was when when I was 19 or 20 and told my bishop I wasn’t really sure godhood was for me. I couldn’t see the appeal in exaltation, didn’t understand why I was supposed to want that. His response: If I were more righteous, my desires would fall into line with what my Heavenly Father had planned for me.

I go through rather large stretches where I don’t feel any sort of hostility toward the Church, and feel I can just live and let live, sometimes even feel a bit of affection for the quirkiness of Mormonism. Then something like this crosses my radar. Yes, this talk is from 16 years ago, but it’s from an apostle during Conference, which I believe qualifies it as scripture, and it’s being shared and revered by many of the faithful today. Part of me wants to get in there and point out the fallacies, but the larger part of me knows it will be useless. So I just thank whatever deity may be out there for the fact that I’m not part of it anymore, and for the peace passing all understanding that I’ve found since relearning to trust myself.

 

Leah blogs at The Whore of All the Earth.

We’ve got their attention!

LDS, Inc. is hemorrhaging members, particularly young people, and they are trying to adjust their organizational structure to stem the tide. The recent change in ward structures in Salt Lake is a direct response to the mass exodus of young people out of LDS, Inc.

When I saw the initial announcement about the reorganization, my initial thought was, “Young people are leaving and they are trying to get them to marry to reduce the exiting.” Statistically, married people are more likely to remain religious than are singles. Ergo, set up LDS “meat markets” for young single adults and get them all married and you’ll slow the flow out of the religion.

With no humility whatsoever and a great deal of bravado, I’m going to assert that sites like MSP have played a role in this exodus. We don’t tout our numbers that often, but over the last year we have averaged about 16,000 unique visitors a month here and over 100,000 hits. If you assume we have, at most, 100 regular commenters, that’s over 15,000 other people stopping by who don’t say much.

I’d say the DAMU and Outer Blogness has got the Church’s attention… More specifically, I think we’ve got the attention of young Mormons. And, that’s a good thing. Let’s get the young Mormons thinking. They don’t have to leave the religion to make a difference; they may very well be the generation that introduces real reform in the religion: equal participation rights for women and LGBTQs, real, open discussions about decisions and beliefs, actual voting for leaders and church directions, financial openness, etc. If we can make that happen, I’ll call it a success.

the Big Exit Letter (BEL)

Thanks to chanson’s weekly round up, I read this post about Carson N. leaving. It reminded me of my own experience. My wife and I didn’t send emails, we sent letters in the mail. But the anticipation of the response from family was pretty intense. And one family member’s response was exactly what we feared – my mother called after receiving our letter and yelled at me for about 30 minutes, saying all sorts of horrible things, then hung up on me. We’ve never really talked about that phone call, but we’re on better terms now. And, in the years following that incident, my mother did say at one point that she would have rather that we had simply stopped attending and not told anyone, including her, than send out a missive telling everyone our intentions.

In hindsight, I question whether our approach was the best approach. In one sense, it probably was – for us. We were able to make a clean break from the religion. We were out; everyone knew we were out; and we had no commitments we had to break (for the most part).

But as far as impact on family goes, I wonder if this was the best approach. I don’t think it would have been as much of a shocker to my family if we just slowly drifted out and didn’t make a big deal out of it. Our reasoning at the time was that we had to be honest with everyone involved, particularly ourselves. But honesty “isn’t always the best policy” (I see that now). I’m sure our parents would have eventually figured out that we were not going to church and were not interested in Mormonism during our visits home, and I’m sure it would have led to some awkward conversations when we indicated that we didn’t want to say prayers or attend services with them. But our very loud rejection of their religion was probably a lot for them to handle all at once. If we had eased them into it, would things be different? Or, better reflecting my actual thoughts, “If we had eased them into our disaffection, would our exit have gone SMOOTHER?”

The other reason I think about how we left and whether it was the best approach is because the “big exiting letter” approach is so Mormon and so “cult-ish”. When a Catholic or Episcopalian drifts away from their religion, they simply drift away. I’ve spent the last year interviewing people who are “Nones” (no religious identification). A couple were Mormons (recruited through my friendship networks), but most were not. For some, when they finally told their parents that they didn’t want to attend services anymore, the parents were disappointed, and some were even a bit hateful (former Southern Baptists have had the hardest time with this), but most had a frank conversation and then it was basically not much of an issue after that.

That Mormons feel obligated to write a letter (1) saying that they are leaving and, (2) defending that they are leaving, says some interesting things about the Mormon mindset and the Mormon religion. First, it suggest to me that Mormons give a lot more power and authority to their religion than do lots of other religious people. To Mormons, the Church is a big fracking deal! You can’t just ignore it. You can’t just walk away when you realize how offensive it is. You can’t just disappear from the Church’s radar.

You have to freak out! You flip it the bird, tell it off, and warn it to never come back! That suggests to me that the Mormon Church functions more like a bully than just some annoying friend. You don’t ignore bullies. You beat the crap out of them in order to get them to leave you alone, a la Casey Heynes:

But it also suggests something about those trying to leave. They are locked into a mindset in which the religion has power over them. They have to reject that power, and that requires an actual act of rejection, like writing the “big exit letter.”

Now, not all Mormons leave that way. There is a great deal of speculation as to how many people are leaving the religion every year, and my guess is that, of the many who do, most do just drift away. But many of those are recent converts who never did give the religion the kind of power that it has in the lives of those raised in it. Yes, the Church tries to “bully” these people back by tracking them down and periodically sending someone to get them to come back, which reflects the authoritarian attitude of the religion – “we are in control here,” “you leave under our terms,” “it is our church, not yours.” But most of those who drift out don’t buy into it and simply continue ignoring a pesky religion they dabbled with for a short while. But for those of us who really bought it, who really believed it, and who gave our power to the Church, what do we do?

So here’s my big question: Is the “Big Exit Letter” (BEL) necessary for victims of LDS, Inc.? Or should we just drift away?

Survival of the Fittest: Mormon Style!

In the comments here and here we were reminded that — while Mormonism doesn’t work for a lot of people — there are some people that Mormonism really does work for. There are particular skills and personality traits that will help you thrive in Mormonism, and even if these traits have nothing in particular to do with good character, Mormon culture makes you feel good about yourself if you have them, and leaves you feeling inferior (or less righteous) if your strengths aren’t the preferred ones. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the story Bordeaux Mission.)

Because of the totally top-down control of CoJCoL-dS, a particular Mormon franchise (ward) can’t change to suit the needs of its particular set of members. So you either happen to fit the Mormon mold, or you bend yourself to fit, or if you can’t bend that far, you leave. Those who fit into Mormonism are, hence, more likely to stay Mormon long enough to pass Mormonism on to the next generation. There’s been some discussion of how the Mormon political climate has changed as liberals leave and conservatives stay. But is survival of the fittest also at play in the case of the astonishingly boring meetings?

Consider this typical description of the problem (from a comment in the Mormon Expression podcast on boring meetings): Continue reading “Survival of the Fittest: Mormon Style!”

Knowledge, Community, and Relationships

Over at the faithful Mormon blog Faith-Promoting Rumor is a discussion enticingly titled “Do Relationships Make the Church True and False?

This post is a short enough one that you should just go over there and read it, but I guess I will still highlight some points here…when I was reading it, I will say that one idea I was apprehensive about finding was the idea of trying to bottle ex-Mormons as those people who leave because “they’ve been offended.” Or maybe “the church is true but the people aren’t.”

I personally think that my apprehensions were unfounded…I didn’t get that vibe from reading the article. Instead, I got a much different vibe.

(First of all, I think that the paper about exit narratives to which TT refers is Seth Payne’s; it can be found here. The Mormon Expression podcast [to which you all should listen!] interviewed Seth over his study here.)

Continue reading “Knowledge, Community, and Relationships”

Are you a Mormon?

We recently discussed the various names we use to refer to ourselves (liberal Mormon, NOM, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon, etc.) depending on how we each perceive our relationship with Mormonism. I’m interested in much more direct question, which I’m never quite sure how to answer. Are you a Mormon?

It seems like a straightforward question, but I find it surprisingly tricky because it’s not always clear what is meant by “Mormon”. If it means a member of the CoJCoLdS, then my answer should be yes, because I am still on the records as a member of that church. If it means someone who has ever had the experience of being a Mormon, then my answer is also yes. If it means a person who considers oneself a part of the Mormon culture or believes Mormon doctrine, then my answer should be no, because I am neither. For others, the situation may be reversed; you might not be a member of the church anymore, but still consider yourself part of the Mormon culture. So are you a Mormon?

In my own mind, I’ve pretty much moved on from Mormonism, but to answer either yes or no without further explanation seems strange. I tend to give a different answer depending on the context. If a stranger asks, I’ll usually just say no unless I’m interested in having a conversation about Mormonism. If I actually feel like talking about it and they seem interested, I might start with something like, “Technically I am a Mormon, but…” I’ve heard of others using the phrase “I was raised Mormon,” which I would love to use, except that I was an adult convert. Do the details really matter? Maybe the phrase “I used to be a Mormon” is an acceptable substitute.

However, there is one situation in which I always say yes: whenever I run into LDS missionaries. I’m not interested in arguing with them, and I’m not interested in their attempts to convert me, either. So I just say yes, I’m a Mormon; no, I don’t have any referrals; good luck, elders, and have a nice day.

When I sat down to consider this question, I was surprised to discover that my answer depends mostly on whether I feel like getting into a discussion. In a way, my approach feels a little shady, but I think I’m okay with it. How about you? How do you answer the question? Are you a Mormon?

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Truth and Consequences Edition!

The big news this week is John Remy‘s excommunication for apostasy!! And he’s not the only one who’s feeling the heat this week for disbelieving and/or criticizing the LDS church. The crap has hit the fan and set off a whirlwind of drama, accusations, and letters of condemnation from Hypatia’s mother. Daniel is also responding to a loved one who can’t accept his non-acceptance of God. The documentary “In the Shadow of the Temple” got banned in Hillsboro. And, in also-ran, M’s bishop mistook his apostasy for homosexuality.

But the apostate who really stole the show this week is this guy: Continue reading “Sunday in Outer Blogness: Truth and Consequences Edition!”