Mormon culture, boundaries and family

Three posts have gotten me thinking about a couple of themes that come up all the time round the DAMU, and perhaps somewhat less regularly around the bloggernacle. This post at FMH is about orthopraxis and the time-honoured discussion of whether there can be such a thing as a cultural but non-practicing Mormon. This post at Times & Seasons makes a case for a bona fide Mormon culture, complete with unique identity markers. And this thread at FLAK, and a few recent ones that are similar, cover the longstanding problems, in the Mormon world, of what happens when one spouse has a drastic change in beliefs while the other spouse maintains more traditional LDS beliefs. Readers are welcome to click those links and read the entire threads that got me thinking, but I’m not going to cover the content here in depth. I’m just thinking about this whole religious thing that unites and divides us so thoroughly.

The old questions of why there can be Jews who do very little that would be considered “Jewish” in the religious sense, nonetheless consider themselves Jews, as do most other people (except perhaps very orthodox groups, who might consider them Jewish traitors rather than non-Jews); and why there can be barely or non-practicing Catholics who are still Catholic; so why can’t there be a non-practicing Mormon? Well, really, of course there are loads of non-practicing Mormons, but they often have tendencies to not self-identify as Mormon (though plenty still do) and/or they are often identified as outsiders or traitors to their people, in a sense, by even the most mainstream of practicing, active Mormons. As a young religion, there is still a fairly bright practical line between who’s in and who’s out. If Mormonism survives and grows long enough to become an old religion, it will doubtless have people all across the orthodoxy/orthopraxis continuum who are nonetheless all “Mormons.”

But for now, the “who’s in” part of this equation seems to be defined nearly as much by who they are not as who they are. A Real Mormon doesn’t drink coffee, doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t skip church on Sundays with any regularity, doesn’t have non-marital sex, doesn’t wear sleeveless tops, etc. So those who do the non-Mormon behaviours become identified as non-Mormons pretty easily. At the cultural level this is understandable and, from a sociological perspective, even predictable. I think where the problems arise, from my perspective, is how this plays out in the lives of individuals and their family members. The process of changing beliefs from traditional Mormon to more post-Mormon, of all varieties, together with the worry of “coming out” to family and loved ones as having different beliefs, are emblematic of the feelings people experience as they move from Inside to Outside, and rethink their entire personal identity and beliefs.

The most poignant and difficult of these processes, from my viewpoint, seem to happen at the level of individual couples. Two people who were Mormon, who often married in the Temple (Real Mormons don’t get married anywhere else!), who continued to have individual identities as Mormons and then began building a shared identity as a Forever Family of Mormons, based largely on the church and its individual and shared requirements for them. When one of these individuals has a fundamental shift in beliefs, the other individual often is devastated and the couple go through a sometimes protracted period of turmoil and major emotional upheaval, sometimes leading to divorce — if the Forever part of the equation is gone, perhaps the Family itself is not worth saving from a religious perspective? There are many who say, and perhaps are usually at least partially correct in doing so, that the marriage had other problems and that religion just became the catalyst. However, I think there are also a number of otherwise good marriages that are broken up by the conflict in religious beliefs. And how many marriages don’t have a few problem areas that might crack along those faultlines if borne down on with unbearable pressure?

The part that is difficult is the roles the couple are expected to play after the belief changes. For whatever reason, it seems that the believing spouse is often the one who defines what is okay, what is allowed. Because the religion itself has so much doctrine AND cultural baggage about “apostasy,” when you’re In and when you’re Out, the believing Mormon has a very hard time seeing their spouse’s change in beliefs as anything other than “bad” at least and possibly sinful, prideful and probably the result of bacchanalian, all-night orgies of anti-Mormon literature wallowing. And as a result of guilt for having these “bad” changes — which, let’s face it, even “cultural Mormons” have been indoctrinated with from birth — the nonbeliever spends months, years, a lifetime playing the game of life by someone else’s rules. Granted, I’ve also seen post-Mormons who are completely intolerant of their spouse’s belief in Mormonism and work very hard to get them to change their beliefs, or make the same divorce ultimatums even (exlicitly and implicitly), as the Mormon spouse does. I must admit, however, that the latter (in *my* experience) is much less frequent a scenario. It’s usually the “apostate” who still goes along with the Mormon way to some extent, or else ends up losing their marriage and family.

The poignance of these choices is hard for me to fathom. If your beliefs change in such a way that you no longer believe in “god” or in “eternal life,” what you do now, in “this life,” matters — and very much so. For the Mormon spouse, the thought of losing their Forever Family is often more than they can bear. For the post-Mormon spouse, the idea of spending their one brief life faking religious beliefs and behaviours for a god they don’t believe in is also exquisitely painful. And, as has also been seen many times, once both spouses experience a change in belief, sometimes the marriage doesn’t survive that either.

At the very least, it’s one more indication that Mormonism is a religion that ingrains roads so deep and broad through your soul that, for true believers, losing it changes *everything*. That is not a cultural religion, at least not anytime soon.

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71 Responses

  1. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    IOW, the Value of being ‘true’ is NOT in the being, it is in the application.
    If it’s mis-applied, mis-stated, or if anyone in official channels uses it for their own personal benefit, ‘the coin’ has been debased.
    a coin can be pretty to look at, feel good to hold; but to be of true value, its primary value is a medium of exchange….
    Just as a flag should be of little intrinsic value (rather a symbol).

  2. Ice Cream says:

    So, as a parent, any time I break my own rule, make a mistake, or even change the rules, my standing as a parent to my children is of no value?

    Do you expect such constant perfection in all things? I know the church purports to be true. I know that we can personally atain a perfect knowledge. I know Christ is perfect. But I’ve never ever heard anyone of authority claim the church to be perfect. Where did you read that, or who gave you that expectation? Anything in this life, on this earth, required to stand to that rigid expectation is going to fail. Even Christ failed in the eyes of the pharises for not meeting their requirement of ideal or “perfect” but it does not make Him less so.

  3. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    what I am saying is that by ‘application’ I mean it is ‘where the rubber meets the road’.
    No Rubber… the road gets pretty Harsh, doesn’t it?

    anyone can get my email addy from a few posts back (# 45), I have an example I would like to share with anyone interested.
    IC: I’m NOT in a Mo community. I’ve only lived in utah for a short time, Never as a married guy.
    Besides, I’m referring to the way the CHURCH handles things, Not the gov’t.

  4. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    IC: what if the church goes 180 degrees from what is taught from pulpit & scriptures?
    What if they DO (and THEY DID!) ratify-endorse-condone-excuse wrongful conduct against another?
    Remember: Paul taught in at least 3 different places that we must not return evil for evil… ‘vengeance is MINE saith the Lord’, etc.
    As I said before, when you’re identified as
    an enemy’ … they’re Ruthless. Instead of reigning this in, tscc endorsed it.. in an Active sense.
    (I’m going to resist the temptation to be more specific; contact me directly for details)

  5. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    (sorry for the long post(S)
    Ice Cream: what about the ‘Tolstoy version’ of Love: “there is no more or less love” and
    “when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be” (both from AnnA Karenina)?

    is that level of love – commitment dead/gone/buried in our ‘culture’?

  6. mormonzero says:

    I believe that nobody is perfect; I am also of the mind that the church is not true but the gospel is. The gospel is to provide us with the leadership while the church organization provides the management.

    With the amount of rules existing in the church and different GA’s and local leaders all having different experiences with each–we tend to hear about what helped them personally. Therefore with all of the rules it is inevitable that someone within the organization will do a “180” from that which is said at the pulpit–even other leaders.

    It would be of great benefit to the church if we could shrink the focus. I see the doctrine being like Jupiter; it is big, large, deep, profound, and in itself can be quite interesting but is filled with nauseous gases. However, if we shrink the doctrine down to earth-size I believe the life and doctrine will flourish much more effectively; will it be for everyone? No. But it will be more efficient.

    I think a GA i recently heard speak hit it square on the peg, “How do you identify a true disciple of Christ? It is by the way he or she treats others.”

    This should be the focus, however, with this definition one has to accept the fact that a “true disciple of Christ” can therefore also be a non-member.

  7. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    mz: I couldn’t agree more with what you said above. However, most TBMs depend 100% on what church leaders say for their info., and there’s plenty of ambiguity, even about key parts.
    For example, the doctrine of (tho we don’t like to call it this) ‘infalability’ of the prophet/president. Is it ‘real’ or is it not? Sayings down thru the years differ, don’t they?
    Mormonism is stuck between (what I call) the Core Essentials that are universal, and the distinctive aspects of Mormonism (no one knows this better than Mitt Romney).
    I say the distinct parts have risen to the point of being * at least acting as* a distraction away from basics (and, I hope that comment fits into the thought / question posed by w.c. at the top)
    ‘On the Ground’ the distinct parts of Mormonism have contributed to separation of families; a ‘TBM’ wife exacted that with a Hateful vengeance in my case.

  8. Ice Cream says:

    Guy Noir,
    Yes, I think that level of love still exists, though rare. But love does not have to exist in the bonds of marriage. My in-laws loved each other very much but were ruining each other. They divorced but never stopped loving each other. There are many forms, levels, and types of love and it is important that when you marry that you and your spouse understand the kind of love you are both bringing into the marriage. If my husband’s love for me had been one of comfort and convenience our marriage would not have lasted. His was like mine, a love that wants to grow and become more than it started out as, a love that improves those who share it, a love that strives to be celestial in all aspects, a love of joy.

    Your “TBM”s may seem to follow leaders 100% but what is usually happening is that they are picking and choosing what they want to follow. They can give you quotes that back up what they are doing but if you read enough you can find just as many quotes that would say that another way is the “right” way. But see, there is no ONE way to be righteous, other than following Christ. So, though it may seem to you that your “TBM”s are following all the leaders 100% they aren’t and the church shouldn’t be blamed for one individual’s actions, or even a hand full of people’s actions. And you can’t even say that what you see in Utah, or any other single locality is indicative of the church, because then you are basing the church on local culture. I’ve been around and trust me you just can’t do that and be right.

  9. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    William Shatner: Marriage is a reflection of your life in general: how you treat people, how you argue, how secure you are in your own thoughts. How vehemently do you argue your point of view? With what disdain do you view the other’s point of view? (February, 2006 Esquire)

  10. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    IC: Mormons/TBMs take a Temple Recommend as an endorsement of whatever their choices are. DOM said that ‘only Honest, ‘true’ Christians would get TRs’. In my case, I had shown my former’s False statements to the Bp… He gave her a TR anyway; other TBMs have told me that it was OK ‘because Divorce Court is “liars court”.
    As I said: the details of Mormonism are distractions from Christian Living; earrings-tattoos/(not) drinking tea / white shirts…. Just won’t cut it; nohow, noway.

  11. Ice Cream says:

    “Mormons/TBMs take a Temple Recommend as an endorsement of whatever their choices are.”

    Ok, this statement makes me think of the funny stories I hear of people putting their temple recommends on their resumes. I have no clue who in my ward has a current temple reccomend (unless I see them in the temple) because that is none of my business. It isn’t an endorsement.

    Yes, there are people who get TR’s without being worthy but that is between them and God. At the end of the interview the interviewer asks, “Do you feel worthy?” At that point if the person lies it is to their own detrement. You cannot ask a bishop to revoke someone’s recommend (no matter what you’ve seen), you can only ask that of your own recommend. I mean, you can inform a bishop about a person (especially if there is child abuse or something) to let him know, but you can’t deny a person the right to lie their way into the temple. Choice and Accountability.

  12. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    the very idea of telling lies, hiding the truth is to circumvent responsibility/accountability. No Church should countenance such an idea, let alone like conduct (unless, of course, the church is little more than a social club).

  13. Seth R. says:

    It’s OK for social clubs to lie and avoid responsibility?

    That’s news to me.

  14. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    o.k., Seth; How do you feel regarding the First phrase of the sentence?

  15. Ice Cream says:

    Guy Noir,
    How do you keep people from lying? For all your bishop knows YOU were lying about your wife (I’m sure you weren’t). In that case I could just go tell on anyone I didn’t like in church to get their recommend revoked.

    Of course the church doesn’t countenance lying and deceit, but the church also heeds the rule of choice and accountability. They have to let us be bad if we want (to a point and then they just kick us out). They have to let people make covenants and break them. That is between and individual and God. My brother in law lied his way through a temple sealing. Sure I tried to warn my sister, sure the bishop was told, but he went through anyway. I don’t blame the church for that. I just pity the poor guy when he meets his Maker.

  16. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Her lies were IN WRITING; I showed her sworn statements to the Bp.
    Bp said: “Maybe her attorney told her to say that” (but, it was wife’s signature on the papers…)
    the comparison was between her statement and the wage statements from her employer…BIG DIFFERENCE!
    “Those who go to the temple will go with recommends that they are true Christians; that they are true members of the Church of Christ; that they are honest with their fellow men; that they live in accordance with the ideals of the gospel of Christ” from Teachings of Presidents of the Church David O. McKay © 2003, page 130

  17. mermaid says:

    Yeah, my ex lied to the whole ward and told them I was schizophrenic. That went over well for awhile, then eventually nobody really cared, life went on, etc., I guess it hurt at the time (mostly it hurt the kids), but it all came to nuthin’ in the end. He probly still thinks I’ve got schizophrenic – but who cares? Nobody in the ward even remembers it.

  18. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    I would like to read others’ opinions on this:
    Are the gospel answers & instructions… such as Repentance & Forgiveness, Mercy & Compassion… are those to key to resolving differences & problems? Let’s start out with a temple married couple, children, no adultery or abuse. Our hypothetical couple have been married *let’s say* ‘a long time’; 25 + years. IOW do books like ‘Miracle of Forgiveness’ hold the answers (I would say it had a STRONG suggestion of that), -or- are ppl who believe & act on it ‘naive’?

  19. Ice Cream says:

    Guy Noir,
    Forgiveness and repentance are only guaranteed to solve personal problems within one’s self. Often they solve outside problems but not always.

    It sounds to me like you haven’t forgiven your wife or others involved in your divorce.

    I’m sorry for the lot you’ve been given in life, it seems to really be hurting you. I am going to leave this conversation as I feel you are happy with your ideas and I am happy with mine and this conversation will simply go around in circles, never meeting.

    It’s been nice talking. Goodbye.

  20. Guy Noir Private Eye says:


    I guess it hasn’t occurred to church leaders that uneven application (Gasp, enforcement) of (the basics of) Christian principles, ‘church doctrine’, GA talks/sayings… (whatever) discredits the Whole Thing!
    Woe be it for a church leader to pick & choose when NOT to punish (or ever reprimand) one spouse for major offenses, while raking other spouse for minor infractions….
    But hey, life’s sure not fair, is it?

    Gotta ‘Keep up appearances’, Don’t they?

  21. IronStiffRod says:

    Interesting conversation. I’m bothered by this statement from IC, “My brother in law lied his way through a temple sealing. Sure I tried to warn my sister, sure the bishop was told, but he went through anyway.”

    What was IC privy to that the rest weren’t? Did she/he sleep with the guy or something? A bad business deal maybe? Did you present evidence to support your claim that he lied his way through a temple sealing? Why were you ignored? Sounds like IC was trying to sabotage the marriage before it even happened.

    IC said, “For all your bishop knows YOU were lying about your wife.”
    For all your sister knows YOU were lying about your future BIL. At least GNPE had written evidence that was ignored by the bishop. My experiences have taught me church leaders treat those they consider apostate much differently than those (TBMs) still on the team. Seems like rotten fruit, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Sounds like GNPE had to live through some rotten fruit, indeed.

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